Interview François Barré, Vincent Péraro, realised in 2012 at Arboretum center for arts.
FB: I’ll start with your artistic “genealogy” – I’d like for you to tell me about your creative clan, so to speak. Just who are your kinsfolk in art – all those far and near (and I imagine there are not so many of them) with whom you have artistic affinities?
VP: It’s true there aren’t all that many. Especially in sculpture, because sculpture is a case apart in the art field - at least, the artists I’m interested in. Among those of my generation, there are Peter Buggenhout, Oscar Tuazon, and Monika Sosnowska. I keep up with developments on their works. Then there is Paul Wallach, whose work I admire.
FB: You of course are familiar with Klein’s experiments with invisible architecture. How do you relate to that?
VP: Yes, like all of Klein’s works, it has to do with what is absolute and immaterial, all these questions about visibility and the void. I definitely relate to that.
FB: And how about an artist like Absalon?
VP: Absalon’s entire oeuvre covers a very short period, and when I discovered his work a long time ago, I was very interested – though at the time it was fairly difficult to see any of it. It has to do with things like space, architecture, inhabitable sculpture, the body, and the difficulties of living in one’s body. His work on inhabitable cells was also a way for him to exist in time, to resist both in his work and in his life. I saw some of it not long ago in Deadline, an exhibit at the Paris Museum of Modern Art.
FB: You have said of the initial period of your work that the works self-destructed. You have also often emphasized the need for a continuous history. Does the concept of self-destructing works mean that your early works are not part of the historical continuity? Would you consider that there is a continuity, a sort of paternity, a continuous history that is you, starting only with your cement sculptures?
VP: That was during my years as a student and after – you might say the “apprenticeship” years, when one starts out in a field. I think it is very difficult to recognize what one does, to accept it. Today, I know that I don’t know. But back then, because I didn’t know that I didn’t know, I was trying to find something that was never acceptable to me, so it always led to destruction. At the same time, it wasn’t that I created a shape and then said to myself, “that’s not right, this is rubbish, I’m going to smash it”. It was more a kind of obstinacy that made it impossible in the end, and the sculpture just disappeared without ever appearing to me in its form. That was a very difficult period, because creating something requires enormous commitment and determination. You need to see, and see yourself, through what you are doing.
FB: I read that you don’t do any drawings or models, but move directly from a conceptual gestation phase to the actual creation.
VP: I’ve always worked like that. I don’t do any preliminary sketches, even though there is a lot of drawing in sculptures in the form of three-dimensional outlines. I don’t start out my sculptures with a model; that doesn’t interest me at all. I’m working on a sculpture for a park in Italy, and when they commissioned it, I made it clear that I wouldn’t do a model. That is a risk for the collector. On the other hand, once the sculpture is defined and created at full scale, I do create a small study so the person ordering it can get an idea of what it will look like with the specific materials used. But doing it the other way around just isn’t possible for me.
FB: That is quite unusual. The history of sculpture is paved with remarkable drawings that are kind of like sonograms of a developing body. The entire history of architecture consists of preliminary sketches, design plans and models. So how do you develop your works, through note-taking, a long period of reflection, or a sudden outpouring ? When do you know that you have achieved what you want?
VP: It is a complex relationship between the space I have in my studio and my own body. Initially, I am motivated to action by the desire for a presence designed for the space and for myself… a sort of shift, a sliding, or inclination, maybe. I start out in a way that is, well, I was going to say “tactile”.
FB: Tactile without anything?
VP: Yes, tactile without anything – tactile, but with the eyes. You know how Walter Benjamin spoke of tactile reception, with respect to movies, as being habit forming and he saw this as a distracting phenomenon. For me, it is the opposite – I place a few MDF panels in space and I watch and wait. They always wind up falling down, and so I start over again. When I feel that a door is opening, I stick my foot in and try to stabilize things a little.
FB: But is there a scale, a dimension? All this is a mental and conceptual presupposition…
VP: Yes, there is a scale from the start, which slowly comes into focus. It’s not easy to occupy space and know how to situate one’s body in front of, beside, against or behind what one is building.
FB: To speak of “touching with the eyes” and “surface touch” is also part of the language of painting, isn’t it?
VP: It’s true that painters use depth and barriers, but that comes into play from a cerebral point of view, beyond a real space. When I speak of depth and span of vision, it is real. My sculptures are translucid, i.e. light passes through them, yet you can’t see through them. The eye is sensitive to light variations in space, to movement, so the eye seeks, sweeps, touches, tries to see in. It comes up against a barrier when it can’t focus on the objective reality of the material.
FB: According to Cezanne, we should speak of modulation instead of modelling when it comes to color, for both tone and depth. How does color contribute to a sculpture ?
VP: I’m going to give you an ambiguous answer. On one hand, I’d like to say that color isn’t very important; on the other, I did color tests on more than 100 kilograms of material for my Partita sculpture. But if I were to cut off a small piece of Partita and show it to you under light, you’d see hardly any color. In fact, it is the density of the volumes created by the arrangement of surfaces that gives the color. I remember that there were four laminated layers with one cubic centimeter of blue per kilo and a single laminated layer with two drops of red per kilogram. That’s very little.
In the end, it’s complicated.
FB: In the black sculpture, black is a color which creates a sort of barrier, since there is less translucidity, and sometimes none at all.
VP: Yes, it is different for La litre, because there is no color added. The black is due to the basalt felt material, which creates the density. There is also translucidity in the sculpture and when a ray of sunlight falls on it, you don’t get the impression that the light goes through it, but that the sculpture itself glows. Black lighting up….
FB: In music, a rest indicates an absence of sound in the musical phrase. This silence is inhabited by a lull, a moment of time. Light and time pass and change as the day goes by. They build the work in movement. Gunther Ludwig described Partita as an echo chamber. In it, you find air, light, time and sound. For you, is there a connection with music?
VP: With sound, there certainly is. At the Artboretum, each sculpture has its own “note” and together, they make up something that resonates like a set of chimes, with different tones. Each note has more than one color, light and density, and these also vary as the day goes by. Time works in two ways here, and there is something very important for me in that.
(retour à la ligne)
To answer your question about music, it is the way in which the density, weight and light of a sculpture change as time goes by. It is especially the density which changes, more so than the color. Also, a sculpture “carries” the time it took to create it, and that constitutes its history.
A curious thing about these resin sculptures is that the work’s reality completely changes as a function of the temperature of the light. So you can add the heat/cold issue, but it is always a question of light and color.
FB: Compared with cements and other traditional materials, you explain that resins are uncontrollable materials which we don’t entirely know how to handle.
VP: I mean that the resin itself is an ordinary glue. Its only characteristic, besides of course its mechanical properties, is that it is hyper-sensitive to its environment. When I say uncontrollable, I mean that they are highly sophisticated and technical industrial systems that are not meant for uses without protocol. I use them in my own way, and I am always amazed in the end.
(retour à la ligne)
I’ll add that the potential for composite materials is so great that we are probably only in the prehistorical stages of their development.
FB: Do you know their resistance to weather, and whether they stay translucid or not? I’d like for you to talk about how they age.
VP: Composite materials are now among the strongest materials in terms of resistance to extreme conditions – think of aerospace and satellites. The molds I have used have an effect, and it also depends on the storage conditions. And then there is the work of the art restorers…
FB: Where do you place these works in relation to nature? It seems to me that they are artifacts that produce natural effects.
VP: Here, we are in a gallery, which is a closed space. Out in nature, light plays on the surfaces like on a screen, enabling the brain to register dynamic phenomena that it would not otherwise be aware of.
FB: I was thinking of something else. If I look at a natural object, I can’t predetermine with any accuracy its shape or how it will change over time or age. If you look at a flower or a tree there is both evidence of its already being there, and therefore familiar, but always changing and therefore strange. That means that the passing of time and the changing light make the natural object different from one day to the next. In your works made from composite materials, there is the same play of light and passing of time. Are your works there for eternity, do they have an ideal, permanent durability, or do they risk (or want to) self destruct? You have already spoken of the works from your student days that self-destructed; will your œuvre as an established artist self-destruct?
VP: No, because the works will defend their space – they are both closed in on themselves and open, and they will defend their private preserve, i.e. their shape. Sculptures that self- destruct have no shape to defend.
FB: When you begin a work, for example Partita, do you know where you are going to end up?
VP: No, I can’t say where I will end up, and that is the interesting part. With Partita, I did know there would be this passage, this corridor. Since it is a large sculpture, I made studies, not models, that helped to open up a bit more the possibilities within the frame formed by the passage, and when I started the full-scale sculpture, everything was of course different. So, from the beginning, the passage, and I knew there would be volumes within – although these aren’t so much volumes as surfaces that form volumes.
FB: So when it comes to volumes, you speak rather of surfaces and lines. The air, voids and space all come into play. What makes the sculpture, the space or the tangible structure of a shape? How does that work?
VP: It works in both ways, and involves spaces that are traversed, gaps, enclosures, divisions of space. There are the skin surfaces, the shaped surfaces that are surrounded, fixed, edged, and which form screens. And then there is the translucidity which creates a second screen, but a mental one, meaning that it is impossible to interpret a surface in its true definition, to know for example if such-and-such a surface is concave or convex. Everything you can’t see but which contributes to perception, I would say in spite of oneself. It is the space traversing the sculpture and at the same time, a sculpture that takes up a space and defines a place, which it shares. We’re talking about traversing spaces, setting into motion, convergences.
FB: Is there any “trap” for the eye?
VP: There is a living aspect in the sense that there are things that can’t be interpreted without learning to read them first.
FB: Your first works had compactness, opaqueness, volume and mass, they might be described as finished, closed works. Your current ones are open, in a constant state of incompletion or completion. They can be described differently at different moments. There is something in your work that approaches the aesthetics of the variability of what is visible and of the tactile eye. Are you in control of all this movement and uncertainty?
VP: There are hours and days and weeks when I’m closing in on it; I know that I’m not at the heart of the sculpture, but just on the threshold. It is really like working and waiting while blindfolded. Then the moment comes when something reveals itself and everything becomes clear.
FB: The movement towards or away makes the body experience the work differently. And it would be different again if you come an hour later. There is a duration, as with a movie theater, but it is never the same movie.
VP: That’s true – for example, with Partita, you’re with a sculpture that in a way transcends its visible shape. I mean that when you are on one side of the opening, you can get an idea of its definition even if you can’t interpret the inner surfaces in their objectivity, and then when you are on the other side, you know that there is something beyond, without being able to define it. So from one side to the other, you don’t find the solution to the object. This is even more true with the A380° project, which we’ll talk about, perhaps.
FB: Walter Benjamin analyzed the reproducibility issue. Could your works be produced in series?
VP: Technically speaking, they could.
FB: So it is a question of production means and conditions. Walter Benjamin defined the aura as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance no matter how close it can be”. When you say your sculpture transcends its dimensions, its enclosure, that is closely akin to Benjamin’s analysis even as it shifts the emphasis of it. Your reproducible works produce an aura. This is clear, and rare. It makes me think of the gradually disappearing outline of the moon. Serra’s work has that aura, in its height and sheer mass. But the lightness of your work has an almost immaterial, climatic quality to it, although it remains firmly anchored. How do you explain for its complexity, this ethereal extension of your sculptures beyond their material enclosure?
VP: That is something that I am looking for and striving for; I think it is in this movement, this feeling of strangeness, that I am myself. It is certainly what motivates my work. Movement is the basis of my work, and in all of the sculptures there is a horizon, or “float line” that opens or closes the spaces, folds or twists them. I imagine a completely open space where a three-meter-high sculpture, for example, is seen from afar as a three-centimeter-high sculpture. You have to move towards, it across the distance, discovering other levels of perspective as you go. The movement of visitors sets the spaces in motion, and in going around the sculpture, they traverse it and change the interior of the enclosure.
FB: Does that mean that a space like a gallery would restrict the relationship with the work?
FB: I’d like to come back to the term “enclosure” that you often use and with respect to your sculptures, to the reversible relationship between outside and inside, the interior of the sculpture being both inside and outside. For Heidegger, the enclosure was next to and contained the entire space at the same time.
VP: The sculptures make their print in space…
FB: Let me read you something by Heidegger: “A building, a Greek temple, portrays nothing. It simply stands there in the middle of the rock-cleft valley. The building encloses the figure of the god, and in this concealment lets it stand out into the holy precinct through the open portico. […..] Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. [….] The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air.”
VP: That is beautiful… it makes me think of the Parthenon, because of those empty amphorae outlining spaces between the columns and there is also the exchange between the interior and exterior, the traversed spaces and intersecting with the gaze. And then that moment of architectural perfection, with the use of the right angle and the construction by the shadows: “appearances are a sight of the unseen”.
FB: The space of the Parthenon is a holy precinct, a sculpture, perhaps. You recently told me that sculpture always had something to do with the sacred.
VP: I think because it occupies space and has a weight, sculpture carries its burden of being in the world, and that is how it pertains to the sacred. It inhabits its solitude in the world. Genet had interesting things to say about that. It seems to me that sculpture has always carried that.
FB: Are you sure?
VP: Ever since prehistorical times and up to the minimalists (they for sure wouldn’t like to hear that!), I think. But of course sacred doesn’t mean consecrated.
FB: “If one does not depict things, room for the divine remains” was what Mondrian thought. I really believe in the spiritual presence of that which is not depicted. Architecture manages to create the sense of a presence that crosses time. I know your taste for confrontation. What does sculpture find in the meeting with heritage?
VP: I think a sculpture can be confronted with all types of space, it’s just that there are spaces that will allow different experiences. I’d love to see a little Giacometti sculpture under the nave of the Grand Palais, for example! I’m sure that it would take up all the space. It’s a bit the same with Phidias’ thought that a sculpture should be able to tumble down a mountain because anyway, the smallest fragment contains the entire work and is enough to rebuild it. Art is one of the rare human activities that is exempt of the notion of progress, so there is a dialogue between the works and the heritage.
For me, the enigma of sculpture is – how to put this – you’re always working with your eyes in your back. The subject you think you’re working on is behind you. It took me years to realize that. You go behind, and it is on the other side again. In other words, it means working with your back to the sculpture or next to it; I’ve always worked next to it. It’s never there where my attention is concentrated that things are happening. You just need to know that to understand where you are.
FB: If I were asked to describe a sculpture by Rodin or Arp, in words as simply as possible (an almost foolish wager), I might just succeed. But describe one by Péraro, I wouldn’t know how to do it. There is a greater sense of the inexpressible and of unceasing movement. And again, an invisible scale. Everything is at the right scale and at the same time carries a potential for monumentality. The works could be much larger than what they contain, in the literal sense of the term. They are inhabitable, with a capacity to be traversed, and therefore to connect with architecture. Let’s talk about that: in the A380° project, you set up a sort of alphabet for partition, movement, the play of light and materials, to give rise to an architecture that instead of being formalistic, is purely plastic. Adolf Loos makes a distinction between architecture and art. Architecture, he writes, should please everyone, while art can please no one. A380° is an architecture that could be its own ideal, at the same time art and architecture.
VP: The A380° project strongly crystallizes a number of preoccupations. It is a project constructed on the design for a scarf-joint type of structural connection. So that is a conceptual starting point, and what really appeals to me is that it proposes a partition – I’d say total – of space that goes beyond a topology based on the points of a compass (North/South/East/West), because what is supposed to hold the assembly together physically is a central elevated space that is never formally defined for the visitor, and whose nature of materiality can only be defined as the project proceeds. A project is not once and for all the sonogram of a sculpture. This is also a large-scale project based on very specific materials that unfortunately are very expensive, so it is difficult to get the project going.
FB: In architecture that doesn’t play a functional role, there is inevitably something sacred, or rather, spiritual. There is a beautiful text by Nietzsche in The Gay Science where he calls for an architecture for reflection, unrelated to religion but offering broad spaces where we can think our own thoughts and take walks within our own selves. There is something like that in A380°, very far from the monumentality of celebration; an open place you can stroll through, a space/volume without mission.
VP: What I like a lot with the “basins” that were shown at the Artboretum in 2007 is that from afar, they appear full, and when you approach them, you discover that the void itself creates a space that spills the space out of the basin. The line or edge is never inscribed on the surface of my work, it is just there where the surface stops.
FB: I spoke earlier of the play of light and the passage. There can be a dual aspect to the play, at the same time “I’m playing with you” and that there is play among the things themselves. The lines with their juxtaposition, the horizons, windows, and partitions, all oppose a completed definition. There is always a breakaway, something that escapes or lets go.
VP: At first, there is the desire to establish a relationship in space. I’ve always been hopeless at perspective and geometry. I think – like in mathematics – you can invent a space as long as there are no contradictions and that it can work. That’s what I do, I try to make sense of it. I’ve learned a lot about the degree of definition of the surfaces needed to interpret the space. The work goes off in all directions and you have to progress slowly until an obvious definition stands out. After that, it’s simple. Each sculpture has a double history, one of its own existence and one of its relationship to previous sculptures.
FB: There is also a play, a relationship between translucidity and structuring. The elements that divide the space function as walls, screens, passages for light and the gaze, all at the same time. This hybrid presence causes a floating sensation; something that supports but doesn’t reveal the usual support structures.
VP: Yes, I don’t know if it’s floating or more like a fixed trembling. On one hand, it is important that the sculpture be constructed, often using a contrasted geometry; on the other, the tensions in it have to be in harmony both intellectually and physically. The tension issues are also important from a technical viewpoint, because resins tend to shrink, which can cause lines to move in relation to the original plaster. So sometimes you have to rework the part after molding and “tune” it up to have the right tension again like for an instrument, say the skin of a drum.
FB: Is randomness an integral part of your work?
VP: No, like I said, there can be technical setbacks, but since you can always correct those, there is no randomness.
FB: But there is uncertainty?
VP: There is uncertainty, because there are a lot of problems with layering the surfaces. Starting from the flat, bright whiteness of plaster to achieve translucid surfaces of different densities that shimmer with light over time can never be predictable! There is especially uncertainty when you take a sculpture element out of the mold, because even when the original plaster – same scale, same shape – is right there beside it, discovering the resin sculpture is always a huge, complete surprise! It’s a bit as if you had a dirigible, a Zeppelin, and you cut the rope that holds it to the ground. The rope is the plaster.
FB: Gamblers like risk. Without drawings or models, and with the surprise that you say is huge when the parts “emerge”, there really is a kind of jeopardy involved, a daunting game.
VP: Yes, because the sculpture has to be at the limit. The sculpture’s place is at the limit, a place without dimensions. When you see Serra’s most beautiful sculptures, they exist at the limit. Look at Promenade, how it is physically heavy but how it takes flight, and all that it reveals…
FB: When you speak of movement, progression, distance: does your sculpture have a place in the city, or could it?
VP: The city is also a space for movement.
FB: In the public space there are solidity requirements, like for a lamppost or a park bench.
VP: That is why I’ve switched to the vacuum infusion process, since it allows creating large-scale parts that are extremely sturdy.
FB: You mentioned the continuity of an oeuvre, the fact that what comes forth emerges out of what has been. Do you have an idea today of what will emerge tomorrow?
VP: Of course not. On the other hand, there are things that I haven’t managed to create, and some of these move on. Some of the ideas from the A380° project are going to be incorporated into the sculpture for Italy. But I’d really like to finish that big project one of these days. So, as far as one’s œuvre goes, it progresses in life with ramifications, influences and opportunities, shifts, and questions…. Just like our interview, as a matter of fact!