How would you define your work?
My work can be defined as the work of a prospector, continuously exploring different layers of our reality, analysing them and redefining our superficial perception of the visual sensations around us.
What kind of process do you use to develop this analysis? How do you work?
The processes I use to form and define my work have always included the element of collaboration. By engaging in far-reaching discussions with philosophers, sociologists, architects, musicians and art historians, but also, for instance, workers and craftsman in my work “You Welded the Ornament of the Times”, , ideas around my work start to emerge, evolving from the specific points of view each of us has. The discussion forms a basic foundation for shaping my view. Placing several models of thinking into a connected grid, combined with my own perception of our reality, gives rise to a point of departure for my own specific form of visual language.
The question of gravity seems central within your work. How do you consider its reality and how do you try to turn it around?
Gravity is the basic principle of our existence in this world, defining what and how are we doing in our lives, how we look, how we move, how the river flows, how nature is constructed, how materials are formed into shapes and meanings. All this is an unconscious process, one which I’m trying to emphasise through visual interpretation.
Everything we do is conditioned by physical laws of nature, which are the source of our communication; we talk through our environment, through our perception of it.
If these inherent laws were different, what we are would completely shift. The average step of a man walking on Earth is 63 centimetres long; on the Moon, it is suddenly a few meters long. Thinking about how this initially simple fact shapes our being brings me to projects like Outside Itself or You Welded the Ornament of the Times.
Because gravity exists no matter what we do, I’m using this principle as a form of language that contradicts our technical development. I’m interested in conditions under which technology, as our extended arm, is no more, conditions in which we can’t rely on our inventions and have to use only the most rudimentary tools. The catenary system is one of them, using gravity and the simple principle of an arch as a basic architectural element that one can find throughout nature, in caves or in any other pre-architectural structures.
Why did you choose to reactivate Belvedere to present your work?
Belvedere used to be a place of great inspiration back in the 90s, when huge exhibitions of artists like James Turrell where shown there. That, of course, formed my artistic thinking. Equally important is the way in which this High Renaissance architecture talks to its visitors, through the language of symmetry but also through the ideas of Humanism, through its relation to our physical presence. What I’m really interested in now is the era of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, who built Belvedere to promulgate the concept that the sovereign symbolises the social body over which he rules. This particular era also brings up the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, who were trying to sabotage the final stages of construction of Belvedere. As iconoclasts, they were trying to destroy or at least damage certain motifs , including nudity, which stemmed from an interest in antiquity during the Renaissance period. I am also using this motif in the show.
What kind of role has Prague’s Belvedere (Queen Anne’s Summer Palace) played in the development of contemporary art since the 90s? Several important contemporary artists have exhibited there; what about the Czech art scene?
At the beginning of the 90s, Prague Castle was performing very a special social role. It was the seat of the first democratically elected president after the fall of communism, Václav Havel. Prague Castle thus served as a cultural hub. In this period it was as far as possible from the idea of The Castle as known from Franz Kafka’s novel; it was the opposite of a bureaucratic unreachable fortress – it was open and inviting. Many venues on the Castle grounds were transformed into exhibition spaces; some no longer serve this purpose. Belvedere has hosted the solo shows of Joseph Kosuth, James Turrell, Jannis Kounellis and Christian Boltanski. Also talking about the Czech art scene, important shows by Magdalena Jetelová and Jiří Beránek were held there. Besides contemporary art, Belvedere occasionally hosted time historical exhibitions, such as one of 18th and 19th century historical maps from Tuscany from the archives of Habsburg family and an exhibition about Emperor Rudolph II. Basically, Belvedere presented a broader cultural range of exceptional art. .
Do you consider this exhibition, which is displaying works from 2004 to the present, to be more of a retrospective or an introspective?
I prefer the term prospective, which could be described as a dynamic exchange and enrichment by the passage of time in ones work. Getting back to the origins of my artistic oeuvre while presenting new visions for the future, the present moment is just a passing glimpse, constantly reformed and challenged by intersections of the past and future.
This exhibition develops one aspect of your work, which is the studio as a laboratory. What do you think?
This is quite connected with the idea of prospective, of showing the dynamics of the creative process, which is always on the move not just from one point to the other, but from many different situations to other ones. The laboratory is this space of continuous exchange throughout the process of analysis, the re-evaluation and development of new meanings in the presented work.
Your work deals with movements. You create shapes from your study of sounds, sensations, languages, lights and movements generated by people, etc. Do you think that movement is a permanent generator of something, ideas, things…?
The basic definitions of life throughout the centuries have always bonded with the idea of movement. We move, thus we live. The question of what this particular movement looks like is what interests me. If you live under a dictatorship, your movement is different than when you move through the streets of cities in democratic countries. But it’s not just about politics; it’s more connected with your present context: walking through a forest makes you move differently than through a contemporary art show. This may seem like a tiny detail, but from my point of view movement could be considered a universal language on a scale of thousands of years. Men in the Baroque era will understand it the same way as men living in the year 3010. Analysing how we move brings a definition of man himself.
Movement is part of the world in which we live. On the one hand we keep moving with the Sun and the Earth, but at the same time we are entering an era marked by accelerated speed. Everybody runs, everybody is chasing something. Is this something your work addresses?
I think it was 1994 when I acquired my first mobile phone, at the time a quite unusual gadget. I came home and my girlfriend literally burst into tears, telling me I had just voluntarily lost my independence and I would be out of balance with the natural rhythm of life. Back then, as nowadays, I was always able to find an equilibrium between what technology allows, how it changes order in your life, and how you can behave as a human, as a part of nature. With one exception, in my work Sakura, I have never been sceptical about our ability to control ourselves surrounded by technology. I’m not Hito Steyerl and I will never get into the trap of being exploited by technological progress; I don’t feel it this way and thus I don’t have any urge to warn contemporary society about the dangers emanating from our material development. You have to be aware of the dangers yourself. You have to control your tools and not get them get over your head. I’m really happy that I was allowed to witness the emergence of mobile phones, the internet and social media from their infancy to the current state. As I said before, there is no difference between the invention of the printing press, the typewriter or the iPad. It’s just about the way you use it and how you’re able to make the best of it.
What is your relation to kinetic and optical art?
My relationship to kinetic and optical art has always been visible in my work, with influences from ZERO art group, Julio Le Parc, Jesús Rafael Soto, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Hans Haacke, as well as from the early Czech avant-garde artist Zdeněk Pešánek, whose concepts were quite revolutionary for his time. An important role for me is also played by František Malina, a not very well-known artist because his main line of work lay in the field of science, but his kinetic objects are among the most amazing ones I’ve ever seen. But this is just one of many layers of influence from art history on my work.
Zdeněk Pešánek was a pioneer of abstract art in the 1920s: he was one of the first artists to introduce a neon tube into an art context. Since this period, the neon tube has been a nearly constant material throughout art until now. You also mentioned another Czech artist, František Malina. In this sense, beyond the kinetic and op-art tendencies developed by these artists, how do feel belonging to a kind of Czech artistic heritage?
Jerome, I have to say that I just can’t differentiate nationalistic aspects in streams of creation. Back then, when Czech avant-garde was at its peak, it was strongly connected to other avant-garde movements in France and Russia. Nowadays we live in the context of a completely globalised art world. No one takes the illusion given to us by the architecture of pavilions in Venice seriously. Especially now, when you can spend your breakfast looking through dozens of pictures on Contemporary Art Daily or anywhere else on the web, national identity officially becomes a pure myth. My influences have always been international.
How do you see the Czech contemporary artistic scene? How has this scene evolved over the last decades?
Besides what I just said, I have to add a bit more about the way I perceive the Czech scene. After the fall of Berlin Wall, the entire society in this country went through a huge shift, which of course also influenced the art scene. Enormous enthusiasm and interest about what was happening in the East brought many interesting people here and opportunities for local artists to exhibit abroad. But after a while, this wave slowly started to wear off. For the generation of artists at the peak of their productive life during the 90s, this was quite disappointing and, in a few cases, discouraging. I was much younger than them. I started to study at the Academy of Fine Arts at the very beginning of the 90s, so this disillusion didn’t really affect me. New connections to the international scene started later, around the turn of the millennium, with Ján Mančuška, the tranzit initiative with Vít Havránek, Jiří Kovanda, and later on with Eva Koťátková, Kateřina Šedá and Dominik Lang. Most of the scene is somehow not that active internationally. We can only wonder why; perhaps it needs more time. But on the other hand, we know from history that on the peripheries or in anomalies one can find the freshest, most authentic information.
Is there a distinctive feature or specificity of the Czech artistic scene in comparison with the West or East? How would you describe it?
If there is a distinctive feature that could be used to describe the scene, then it is an absence of any distinctive feature. When you see the work of Eva Koťátková exhibited at the recent triennial at the New Museum in New York, would you find something really “Czech” in it? You can read multiple layers of influences or distinctive artistic language, but this language is definitely not solely Czech. Parents of young artists today lived under the oppressive totalitarian system, in great isolation. Maybe this is a unifying element, since we can see a lot of introspection, usage of the language of psychoanalysis, the presence of fear and wish to overcome it in contemporary Czech work. Maybe Czech artistic language could be partially described as a will to create in order to overcome inherited frustrations from our specific Eastern European past.
The human body is a central aim in your work. What is your relationship to the body?
Only around 10% of all reality around us can be perceived by the human body and its senses. What we do with technology is improve these unfavourable odds – which is, of course, accompanied by fear. Fear is always present in our endeavours, in crossing the lines of the obvious and known. That’s why I’m so interested in the body and the continuous human wish to overcome its limitations, even though it means digging so deep into our own psychological barriers. Everything we are able to define is just never enough for a courageous mind. You have to move forward to accept your handicaps and get through them further. Overcome them, but still with the same human body.
Your work could be considered an extension of the primary human body and senses. The machine has been an object of fascination for many years, considered a good or a bad thing. How does your work try to show the machine as something close to the human soul?
The urge to create tools and aids has been one of the most natural characteristics of man from prehistoric times till the present day. In this sense there is not much of a difference between a flint and a robot. Tools are evolving together with a basic means of communication. When hunting, gathering and processing food, we should consider tools to be more than a mere extension of our primary abilities; they are an inherent part of us.
If robots and machines are an inherent part of us in our contemporary world, what about artificial intelligence?
What kind of role can AI play within our society? Should we be suspicious of it?
AI has again recently become very present in general thoughts about the next steps in our technological development. You can observe several levels of reflections on this topic in different layers of popular culture, visual art and philosophy. But the fact is that the term itself is still quite an exaggeration. Since we are not able to create independent AI, it’s basically no AI at all. Besides that, its basic forms play an important role in our society already. It is an instrument of groups of experts who works with statistics, specific data which you can program into a computer, which evaluates the data and then produces certain predictions of what this data could mean in the near future. Its role is very important in meteorology, for instance. But in terms of art, you don’t have specific data which you can enter into a machine. There are too many variables involved. You can try to experiment with AI on a superficial level not to create art itself or calculate or predict something, but rather just to add another layer of interpretation.
In your work featuring robots (like Outside Itself, 2011), do you consider these robots a part of the work itself or a medium to create the work?
Using robots may seem like a kind of curiosity, something not really present in general practice. But what does it really mean to use a robot? It’s just a signification of a possibility. Robots are present in different fields of production, manufacturing and science. Appropriating something so technical for art may look like a deliberate attempt to introduce a new layer of spectacular, but actually it is just a step towards a new tool, towards a new potential medium. It is the same as when computer-aided design software was introduced to architecture: old boundaries were overcome and new ones were created. Suddenly we were able to work on a scale impossible for humans to achieve. Robots work in a similar manner. When the robot paints, it can do things humans will never be able to do with their own hands. It could be also compared to the introduction of the medium of video, which completely reshaped the way we perceive the classic medium of film. At some point, robots could then become a part of installation, as was the case with Outside Itself or LacrimAu, because these works were processual and were formed on the spot. But the presence of robots is not necessary in most other works they are used to create; for the most part people don’t see brushes lying right next to paintings.
How do you consider the viewer within your installations and sculptures?
During the 90s, when all these technologies that we today take for granted were more surprising and new, I was involving the viewer as an active participant in my work, as an element physically completing the work. Today the glamour is gone, technology is widespread and democratised, so there’s no need to emphasise it anymore that much. The viewer for me today plays a much more subtle part in the visual language I’m creating, using the technology as a tool in a sense I described before. His or her role is now much more on the level of interpretation then as a basic addition to the full meaning and form of the work itself.
Would you consider your work interactive or immersive?
Interactivity is always going to be a part of my work, but much more important is the immersive level as the entry point to an augmented perception of our reality.
What kind of feeling would you like to produce in the viewer’s mind?
The main goal is to unsettle the audience, disturb their conventional thinking about what they see, hear, smell or feel. It’s quite connected with a fear of the unknown and the process of adapting these new layers of reception. I’m preparing a map of thought that can be accepted and adapted through a broad scale of possible interpretations.
What do you believe is the relationship between science and art?
The artist and scientist occupy the same space of thought, experimental space. Even though the positions of art and science have changed throughout history, one is more utilitarian and perceived more as a craft, and one is considered the pinnacle of human achievement. But the basic element of freedom and experimentation is always present. Far from the basic layer of the production of commodities, far from seriality. Values coming out from both fields are unique, unrepeatable.
What are your artistic and scientific references?
Which contemporary artists do you feel close to?
Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Roxy Paine, Carsten Nicolai, Bill Viola, Sol LeWitt, Alva Noto, Autechre, Kraftwerk, Igor Stravinsky, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Gilles Deleuze.
What is your relationship to mathematics? Do you think we can determine sensations via mathematics?
Mathematics is the most complex language of our world, the most abstract one, but still in its infancy. We are not able yet to describe our sensations through mathematics, so it would be generally understandable and inspiring to the same extent as art. In the future these two fields could merge, but not now.
If mathematics and art cannot merge yet, which fields do you believe have perfectly merged with art?
Basic mathematical principles are, of course, a part of certain ways of creating art. But that doesn’t mean that mathematics merging with art. Art is just using a specific interpretation of mathematics. Fields that have found a much stronger symbiosis with art, evolving for more than a decade now, include archaeology, ethnography, archive work, documentary methodologies and more. But these fields are just skimming the surface of my own realisations. What is more important for me is the impact of music and architecture on art.
Your work deals with the principles of architecture. Some pieces are a reference to the “catenary” models used by Gaudi for the conception of his arches. Why this obsession of the catenary principle and this upside-down figure as a model of construction?
This obsession, as you call it, relates to my long-term thoughts about the point when society is forced to abandon its dependency on our technological advances and must return to the basic principles of nature. This is not a wish for something catastrophic to happen; I’m considering it as a model situation for the study of human behaviour, the restructuring of all our known infrastructures to accommodate a new scenario. It’s quite connected with my ideas about architecture and urbanism itself. By abandoning all our computer-generated protocols of construction points, you go back to the rudimentary givens based on the laws of nature. Which leads us again to gravity and catenary, as I described earlier.
What is your relationship to architecture?
Architecture is a social sculpture, defining our movement, our relationship to the given society, our relationship towards nature. So-called “primitive” cultures surround themselves with as many unobtrusive elements as possible so that their bond with the environment may remain undisturbed. Our contemporary condition is based on the undeniable principle of erecting walls and structures that would get us as far as possible from the uncontrollable nature of environment. You could call this a development, or just a difference in perception of the unknown, or a way of bridging fears. I don’t want to judge these two extreme positions. I’m observing both, trying to analyse the connections between them by observing the behaviour of men living under such conditions, by studying the materials, rules and conventions surrounding it. In this respect I’m much more interested in the theory of architecture than in actual structures.
You blur the difference between reality and fiction. Does it mean that there are no more boundaries between the artificial and the real in our digital world? What does reality today signify in our digital world?
The digitalisation of our world is just another way of creating tools. We are externalising our own memory to the digital space because the vast production of knowledge and experience is no longer sustainable on the analogue level. Without our drives and cloud storage, we would fill this world with materials so quickly and in such a devastating manner that this materialised information would overcome us and leave us without a suitable space to live. Our bodies are so fragile and we can’t hold any precise information for a longer period of time; similarly, our abilities to share data are always shifting meanings. Artificial space is thus just an extension of our living space, our abilities and our communication.
When you were in China, you created a series of ink paintings on rice paper that was produced by robots and machines. Do you want to show the conflict and paradox between old and new technology?
Techniques and technologies are never in contradiction. If something endures for such a long time, like ink painting, it’s obviously still needed; it creates a state of the art within its field. Robots cannot substitute it; they can only add another layer of options for handling this traditional technique. Ink painting is based on the emphasis of the form, the conventionalised form, which allows the artist to contemplate and nurture the mind not necessarily in relation to the content on the primary level as we know from Western tradition; the process of creation plays much more important role. Traditional mastery is thus a way of meditating. Programming robots to be able to recreate my ideas in the form of an ink painting is a similar process, a process of shaping the reality of the painting, adding a mediating tool that can produce unexpected elements to the totality of the medium.
What does it mean to still make painting in the 21st century?
I have never thought about a medium as something bound to a specific time period. Of course we can’t dismiss the long tradition, or rather traditions, of painting, but using it nowadays with a contemporary content is absolutely legitimate and unquestionably just one of many mediums we can use to voice our thoughts.
Since your title “You Welded the Ornament of the Times”, have you considered painting an ornament?
I’m thinking about the ornament in the much broader sense. The painting is just a form into which I incorporate my ideas. Ornament is something much more universal, descriptive, discursive, going from Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament” to my recent projects.
Your work is like a pointer of new perceptions and deals with how to gain new knowledge. Do you think art is a form of science or science is a form of art?
I think I already answered your question about the relationship between science and art. But the idea of creating new ways of perception is really important. I would say that art is a generator of its form, a generator of manifestos dealing radically with our lives and its multiple contexts. Gaining knowledge can’t be a forced process. And art is not forceful. It proposes ideas; it enables you to shift your perception, to see through art to possible augmented realities.
How do you see the future?
The future is connected with the subtle perception of turbulence that is taking place under the surface of things and fusions of human activities and experiences. To gain objective knowledge in this world, it is necessary to constantly stay in a fluid state, passing through layers of existence, and always be on the extreme verge of perception without the influence of dogmatic systems.
When we get stuck in a rigid and monolithic space behind the walls we are erecting, we become ill. Our society is based on a working model of a spectacle, but illusion and entertainment are not meant to cure an unhealthy society. On the contrary, art creates subtle values which can break through those walls.
Curator, art critic, artistic director and director of internationally-acclaimed institutions, Jérôme Sans is renowned worldwide for pioneering new ways to approach and discuss contemporary art. He has worked with Nicolas Bourriaud, the co-founder and co-director of the acclaimed Palais de Tokyo in Paris from 1999 to 2006, where he presented more than 80 solo exhibitions (Tobias Rehberger, Chen Zhen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Kendell Geers, Candice Breitz, Wang Du, Bruno Peinado, Katharina Grosse and more), a number of group exhibitions, and countless events, concerts and performances. During this time he was also a curator at the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee, where he presented the American debut solo exhibitions of the new generation of artists (Maurizio Cattelan, Pierre Huyghe, Erwin Wurm, Kendell Geers, Philippe Parreno, Barthélémy Toguo, Steve McQueen, Kimsooja, Joachim Koester, Annelis Strba, Lars Nilsson, etc.).Then he moved to the UK, where he became director of programs at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. From 2008 to 2012 he was the director of the ground-breaking Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (UCCA). He has also been the creative director and editor-in-chief of the French cultural magazine L’Officiel Art.
Jérôme Sans has curated numerous major exhibitions around the world, including the Taipei Biennial (2000), the Lyon Biennial (2005), and the Nuit Blanche in Paris (2006). He is currently the artistic director of one of the most important urban development projects in Europe, the Rives de Saône-River Movie in Lyon, and has been recently nominated co-artistic director of the Grand Paris Express network. He is also the co-founder of Perfect Crossovers Ltd., a Beijing-based consultancy for cultural projects between China and the rest of the world. He has contributed to various art publications and is the author of several books, including Au Sujet de / About Daniel Buren (Flammarion, 1998); Araki (Taschen, 2001); China Talks (Timezone 8, 2009) and China: The New Generation (Skira, 2014), the latter two compilations of interviews with leading and young Chinese contemporary artists. He has also compiled a series of pocket book interviews: Bright City: Ma Yansong (2012), Smoke Shadows: Jannis Kounellis (2012), and Kendell Geers: Hand Grenades from My Heart (2012), all published by Blue Kingfisher.