Pauline Curnier Jardin is a storyteller, her projects most often take the form of installations, combining video, sculpture, performance, and painting. Like Ulysses’ use of metis [cunning], Pauline Curnier Jardin slips into other people’s skins in order to present metamorphoses and constitute grotesque worlds that always wind up resembling ours a little. An interview with an artist with a thousand tricks up her sleeve who likes to “sow discord within archetypes”.
Marie Bechetoille —» In your installations and films, a set of multi-faceted grotesque characters are brought together. How do they appear and who are they really?
Pauline Curnier Jardin —» When you’re looking for gold: you dig, you put sand in the sieve, and everything that’s filtered falls into the pan. All you have left are the smallest grains. Then you spin it, the grains disappear and the heaviest stuff like gold stays at the bottom of the pan. It’s a very long procedure. In the beginning, when I’m writing a film, I’m swamped in historical research, and gradually, characters emerge. They endorse a certain number of concepts and ideas that are essential to me for discussing my concerns. My first film was a performed film, a form of expanded cinema and that was Ah! Jeanne (2006- 2008), an essay on the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc interested me because she contains a lot of historical, political and pictorial issues. I said to myself: “I’m going to paint the portrait of a character who it is impossible to summarise, since she evokes too many things, but who is also an over-represented subject.” By choosing subjects who are “too many things” then filtering them, what matters to me the most becomes a character. For instance, in Cœurs de Silex (2012), the character who is summed up in the credits as “The Witch” is not only this shamanic character that makes connections between nature and humans. She is also “the contemporary bitch” who takes over construction sites on vast plots of land. In a world described in the film as post- or pre-apocalyptic, where there is nothing left to eat, she has this brilliant idea to sell land by the kilo, the only alternative the residents have to feed themselves. She is also the mother of a hybrid child that she is purported to have conceived with both “the Occupier” and “the Ally”. I like to play with archetypes, because they contain their own popular knowledge, to which I add my research and fantasies. Other characters in Cœurs de Silex take on several roles. “The German” is “the Occupier”, he represents the enemy who occupies the land, but who, in my story, after years of occupation, becomes the “integrated-immigrant” who does not understand that people don’t accept him like “everyone else”, beyond his culture. “The Ally” is an American who cries for the people that he symbolically killed in Noisy-Le-Sec. This alludes to a commando of allied forces that, in 1942, while trying to rid the city of the Nazi enemy, heavily bombed and literally destroyed the place. He performs rituals and lays his hands on any kind of concrete debris lying around, because he would like to revive the ruins, reincarnate them. The actor, Eric Abrougoua, knows the American and Ivorian realities, he also cites a history of wars in which black people become cannon fodder. He combines everything. I use confusion because I want to sow discord within archetypes. This obsession with archetypes shows my Pop side!
M.B. —» As archetypes, your characters each present concepts, a word that originally signifies “to contain, hold together”. They bring together human and non-human, figuration and abstraction, and history on a large and small scale.
P.C.J. —» Yes, I don’t really distinguish between human and non-human. I refuse the notion of “cliques” and I absolutely defend polytheism. I think that monotheism is one of the most dangerous of human inventions. Thinking about humanity as a multitude is in my view the only way of not hating each other and of living together. Once you think of individuals, objects, and nature, in a “mono” way, it’s dangerous. You have to embrace everything. This is the idea with soup: you don’t really see what’s in it and the flavour comes from all of it… I don’t like it when things are too clear.
M.B.—» Why do you use figures such as Bernadette Soubirou or Joan of Arc connected to a Judeo-Christian and Western “clique”, rather than heroines of freedom of identity, particularly post-colonial and/or feminist figures?
P.C.J. —» This is a very interesting remark because it poses the question of the subject. It's complicated, for me, to reincarnate and represent subjects that are on the side of “rightful thinking”, because that means that I situate myself directly on their side, on the “good” side (laughs). What I mean is that representing a subject for me is akin to an amulet. If I represent Louise Michel or Rosa Luxembourg, for example, although I admire them and they are sublime, there will be my name next to them and it’s strange for me to “absorb” theorists in this way. Well, it didn’t stop me from doing a portrait of Emily Dickinson, but she is a poet and does not have the power of a philosopher; she’s not a “political woman”.
M.B. —» It’s all a question of interpretation. I’m thinking of Joan of Arc, who is both a figure of resistance and an icon of the Front National. “Your” Bernadette Soubirou in Grotta Profunda, les humeurs du gouffre (2011) is naive, curious and above all, libidinous! In your work, there is this presence of femininity, eroticism, and sexuality…
P.C.J. —» Yes, because in reality, Bernadette is really quite disgusting (sic)! (laughs). Finding models and embodying these heroines are very important things for me, and History did not retain many of them. Women fascinate me in general. Whether you like it or not, it’s about sexuality.
M.B. —» It would appear that through these multiple figures you present your own character, like a shadow portrait, and that this is intensified by your recurrent use of the same actors…
P.C.J. —» In my works, I’m the omniscient voice. I am always there. However, I think that the function and the inherent qualities of the actor can be a starting point for talking about my approach. I really had to ask myself if I wanted to be an actor or not. I have a great fascination for this idea that humans can transform themselves and become someone else, just like camouflage in animals, or the multi-functionality of objects. The multiplicity of human individuals is visible thanks to the actor, although people are that way without making a career out of it. This goes back to what you were saying about the portrait. Someone told me recently: “Ah, Pauline, it’s amazing because every day you’re a different character!” And it’s true that depending on my clothes, I’m a character with a performance on offer. If I only dressed myself in clothes from the usual shops, I would only be performing the “girl of today” offered by the current economy and I would only be wearing contemporary thought. But with second-hand clothing, I can travel through different periods, different types of femininity, different body shapes, different icons, different women-seen-as-objects...
M.B. —» Mythologies and their narratives are very present in your works. I’m thinking of the figure of Demeter, for instance, in Viola Melon, Baiser Melocoton (2013).
P.C.J. —» I’m passionate about all cosmologies. In Greek mythology, for instance, the god Hermes is the god of travellers, the god of birds, the god of commerce... And there’s no need to explain that. It’s a bit like the language of dreams, which is open to unprecedented possibilities. In my work, I’m very interested in psychoanalysis and multi-interpretation. As with archaeology, it’s a matter of fossicking through rubbish bins, through the dregs. Everything that stinks and disturbs. In Cœurs de Silex, the idea of scratching in the dirt is very present, a symbol of the origins of the civilised and non-civilised world, and of stirring up the shit. Cities are built on piles of shit and blood. Very often I write stories and I realise that the kind of mythology I’m inventing already exists in an Indian epic tale or an African story.
M.B. —» What do you think about science-fiction stories that show the world through the prism of narrative distance?
P.C.J. —» I still haven’t managed to become interested in science-fiction, because I feel as though there’s always a question of a dominant power that governs everything in a supernatural world. But the idea that a single mind dominates everything is the very thing I’m fighting against. I focus more on things that exist than on things that don’t exist. I don’t believe in the supernatural, since I refuse the idea of the natural. I look at bodies and movements, desires. I believe in physical strength and I know that there are places and people that overwhelm me. Some sites are charged with human stories as much as with telluric, biological, or geological stories. They give me an impetus; these are the stories that give me the desire to create. In Sicily, there is an active volcano, I can feel it and say that it’s the voyage of Ulysses, the kingdom of the Cyclops and of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, and that Africans, Normans, and Byzantines all passed through there, and still pass through there. You feel forces there that make you think differently.
M.B. —» I had invited you to join the collective exhibition “Les Innommables grotesques”1 because for me your work provokes, just as myths do, an experience of vertigo, by presenting a deformed image of the contemporary world.
P.C.J. —» There’s another word that I’m starting to use, inseparable from the grotesque, and that is satire. It took me a long time to use it and to think that this genre defines my work. For me, the grotesque is basically a scientific adjective that enables the question of good or bad taste, beautiful or ugly, to be connected from a historical point of view. But if we talk about ugliness while blaspheming the beautiful, who are we addressing? And who is speaking? Things that are only beautiful are profoundly dull and dangerous because they exclude the rest. Beauty profoundly excludes ugliness and you could say that ugliness excludes beauty, but that doesn’t really matter given that power will always align itself on the side of beauty... But it is false from a strictly aesthetic point of view, because if you take the current figures of power, we can’t say that they are the guarantors of beauty (laughs)! Yet money circulates on the side of what is called “beautiful”...
M.B. —» Your work is political in the broad sense, since it evokes a critique of power, which runs alongside it, and presents the stories of various communities. In Hearts of Flint, we really feel your political view of a place and a context through the script, music, costumes, and editing...
P.C.J. —» It’s a matter of being political in the sense of being queer... Of allowing room for otherness. This leaves a massive range of possibilities so that you don’t categorise yourself within one form. I wrote and directed Cœurs de Silex just before the presidential elections, at a time when I was returning to France after spending four years abroad. I found myself in residency in the suburb of Noisy-le-Sec. At the time, Sarkozy spoke of “cleaning up scum with a high-pressure hose”. One day, I discovered in the city library that there was a “Banlieue” section. Later, the students of the professional high school in which I was working explained to me that the “film de banlieue” [film on the projects or the suburbs] was a film genre for them, a kind of contemporary blaxploitation... that talks about the lives of the second and third generations of immigrants. However, Cœurs de Silex brings together several styles, it’s not a “film de banlieue”. When I think back, I tell myself that I would like to use the same creative process again, that is, an improvisation with the place and climate. Plus, I was talking about something I know well: France.
M.B. —» For your films, you work with performers rather than with actors. What is your perception of performance as a medium and how do you use it?
P.C.J. —» I’m above all inspired by theatrical forms. By all those who perform on stage: musicians, actors, dancers, comedians, etc. When I talk about performance, I’m talking about the on-stage professions I’m a product of. I love the theatre, actors and acting. And this is also my problem, and the reason that I encounter problems when I perform alone, because I have to transform myself into an actress. Although my standards are high, I don’t work with many professionals. I’m looking for some kind of “beyond-the-self”. Even Viviana (Moin) for instance, who is a professional, and an extraordinary performer, is more comfortable improvising, with urgency and pace. Maybe one day I’ll try to use highly technical actors, but generally I like people who put themselves in extreme states; I find borderlines completely fascinating (laughs).
M.B. —» As a director, your role is that of omniscience and control but you ask the actors to position themselves “beyond-the-self”... One of your publications is entitled: The Other One Is Me2. This double play of otherness is truly central to your practice.
P.C.J. —» I trust others more than myself. That’s what I mean by “The Other is Me”3. It’s when I’m accompanied that I’m able to go for it and I become a leader. I love to push others into cold water when I know they like that! In my films, there are people who are not actors at all. Anne (Chaniolleau) in Blutbad Parade for example. I devised the character for her according to the way she performs in her life. Or like Chris (Imler), a circus director, a wonderful musician that I met in 2007. I immediately wanted to film him. His “persona” was just what I needed for this role. He was terrified at first and I kept the first fragile scenes in the final cut. There was this way of hesitating that was wonderful. In the end, that’s how I write the stories and how my characters emerge.
M.B. —» This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Cabaret Voltaire and for this occasion I invited you to participate in the collective exhibition, “The House Is Looking For An Admiral To Rent"4. What does Dada represent for you?
P.C.J. —» Dada is a state of mind, a way of not tracing the contours of things, of not defining them. Dada can’t be typified by a medium, Dada takes all forms. But above all, Dada is poetry. Dada is connected to cabaret, a structure offering a multiplicity of definitions of what a show is: a sequence of acts. Each one presents a world. As in the circus, all worlds and all bodies are admitted. It is a demonstration of what potential access to freedom might be like.
- “Les Innommables grotesques”, L MD galerie, Paris, 2011.
- Pauline Curnier Jardin, The Other One Is Me (L'Autre c'est moi) , Berlin, Argobooks, 2010.
- Title used by Isabelle Alfonsi in the text of the “Dynasty” catalogue published in 2010 on the work of Pauline Curnier Jardin.
- “The House Is Looking For An Admiral To Rent”, curator Marie Bechetoille, National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Bucharest, Romania, 20 April -
9 October 2016.