Interview: Olivier Blanckart

Olivier Blanckart’s works are fashioned using every day materials, such as construction paper, cardboard and tape. These non-confrontational, nostalgic, children’s craft oriented materials, alongside the humorous quality of the works, are effective tools of seduction. Once Blanckart reels the viewer in, with his jovial aesthetic, it becomes clear that a darker, disturbed political commentary underlies, canonizing and raising up figures for inspection and in many cases, subversion. It is this two-pronged attack– drawing in with the a unique pop sensibility, then attacking with sharp-witted critique– that makes Blanckart’s works truly compelling. 

SL: Can you describe your artistic process- from the inception of an idea, to the actual fabrication of the work itself? 

 

OB: There are two processes that start the work: one is playing with words, and the other is playing with pictures that catch my eye where I suspect there is problem in terms of ideology, politics, or whatever. 

 

SL: I read that you are a self-taught artist- can you describe how you first began to create your works, and what your evolution as an artist was like? What do you think about standard, institutional arts educations—how do you think it affects artistic production, if at all?

 

OB: I started to do photography when I was 15 in secondary school, while working in factories as a plumber, etc. When I was 35, I started to make sculptures with tape and cardboard and realized I was a natural born sculptor which I did not know! Then I used my artistic sensibility developed by my interest in photography to fuel my pop sensibility in my sculptures. In the early 1990’s I was doing home care for people with AIDS and at night I started making body parts – mouths, penises, teeth – so working with real suffering, dying bodies, was how I started. I think institutional education in art is very efficient for integrating a person into the system. Of course it affects the production because now the question for art is the same as movies or mainstream culture: “how do you preserve creativity despite such a powerful system that integrates with the market”? 

 

SL: You choose to use mundane, inexpensive materials commonly found in any school construction project to craft your works, such as construction paper, cardboard, tape. Why did you choose to use these materials? How do you think it affects the content & meaning of your works? 

 

OB: I specifically use packaging material. I do not use mundane materials in general, I use what people throw away first: packaging. As it happens quite often in the history of modern art, you take the rubbish of the system you want to criticize to make your art. Like Dada, Arman, Chamberlain, you take the junk and make the gold. 

SL: Many of your works mine the glut of pop culture information and symbols, ranging from Hitler, to Madonna to historical occurrences and beyond. Where do you derive your inspiration from– do you avidly research newspaper, tabloid magazines, history books etc? How do you decipher & narrow down the wealth of information available? 

 

OB: I do not avidly research, totally on the contrary. What I do is collect the floating wood on the river and when an image interests me I file it away, and the ones that survive come to the surface. 

 

SL: Humor plays an integral role in disarming and revealing the absurdities of these pop cultural icons and instances you lampoon. How did this strategy develop? What are your thoughts a far as the technique of using humor in such politically charged narratives? 

 

OB: I do very little to create humor; it is just a neurotic condition for me and I just take advantage of it. My anarchistic mind makes me have no respect for god, monuments, or for self proclaimed institutions. I more and more consider the work of Daumier as something very misunderstood – there is a ferocity that we should not only leave to comic cartoonists, comics, or the puppet show. 

 

SL: The work “MoMA Don’t Preach” is a clever double entendre, implying Madonna’s hit single and directly referencing the institution of all art institutions, the Museum of Modern Art. Can you describe why you decided to link these two powerhouses; Madonna, arguably the most iconic and lasting figures from the annals of pop culture, and the Museum of Modern Art, the rigid and stuffy authority on the modern art historical canon? 

 

OB: The “MOMA Don’t Preach” sculpture started as one of my favorite mind farts. I was looking at a giant video of Madonna performing during the Africa Aids Unplugged Concert at Wembley, England and I saw the great artist she was with no artifice; and I then made the connection with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” which I had just seen at MOMA that day. This painting is considered a cornerstone of the MOMA collection, which is nothing more than a painting of prostitutes in a brothel, and I remembered that Picasso was a friend of prostitutes and Madonna was a friend of Basquiat. So, I am exploring inspiration. It is amazing to compare the two figures and say neither one is superior. Museums are tending to be more part of the global entertainment system which is quite new. You pay $20 to get into MOMA; something is weird about that. The dream of institutions and biennales is to attract the popularity of the entertainment industries: Apple is opening a store in the Louvre. To me Madonna is a real pop artist and the museums seek show business success. There is no doubt that pop stars are pop stars but it is unclear that art institutions are trying to be pop stars themselves… 

SL: In the work “Now Art Seemingly Deserves a Quotation,” you highlight he direct relationship with art as commodity and the economic marketplace within which it is situated. Indeed, art is one of the most elitist and coveted products available on the market today- with gallerists and dealers serving functions not unike Wall Street brokers. What’s your opinion about art as commodity in contemporary society, and what role your own works play or don’t play in this world? 

 

OB: This is a misconception. Let me explain. In fact, I am just pointing out the coincidence between what conceptual art was and what is has become now, from the margins to the mainstream and what the NASDAQ index was – an economy in the margins that went in the same movement toward the center. The photo that was a source for the sculpture was taken in 1968 by Seth Siegelaub and the NASDAQ index was founded in 1971, so to me, it is not just by chance, it is an objective coincidence that the era of dematerialized art and economy coincide. Of course, I parody the Kosuth tautological statement with the neon inscription “It is only Art & Art” by having the R and R blink and say “It is Only R&R,” a hidden rock and roll anthem. What was supposed to be a pure example of conceptual virtue for Kosuth has become clownish baroquism and now Lawrence Weiner makes pornography. 

 

SL: In a similar fashion, you depict Hitler as “curator” and a one eyed old woman labeled “critic,”—what are your thoughts about the figureheads who create meaning & shape the art world? Why did you choose to depict them as such? 

 

OB: This is a misunderstanding. The sculpture is just a re-interpretation of a photo by August Sander in the 1920s, part of a series “persons who knocked at my door”. The photo I used is called “The Peddler”. I just replaced the tickets he was selling with some badges with the names and faces of prominent international curators. The point is that the peddler is traveling door to door and the critic today goes from art center to art center – both selling their wares and their livelihoods depend on this. In Cologne, in the 1920s, the short mustache was a popular style, so this is not Hitler. It is an easy mistake to make but it would be a bit too easy. 

 

SL: I read that you are also a son of a political prisoner who refused to participate in the French-Algerian War of Independence. This thematic thread crops up in some of your earlier works, such as in your “Femme déviolée” works, depicting Algerian women forced to unveil by French military- in some ways it seems to have informed your more radical and transgressive political stance- often you depict war and injustice, as in your images of people holding photographs from the Vietnam War or Abu Ghraib. Can you define your view on politics within your work and what role it plays? 

 

OB: I have no pretentions to add my personal point of view on war, death, or misery. But as an artist, a sculptor and photographer, I am always interested in how some images of some political events become iconic or how this icon can turn in weird or twisted ways. For example, the woman who holds the famous photo from Vietnam of a little girl running from Napalm (Kim Phuk) is actually Kim Phuk herself, who now raises money for a foundation. She uses the photo and actually a stylized image of herself running, so I am pointing to the deep nature of how this can happen, how a logo of yourself running in fear becomes part of the charity business. This is part of the post production of reality, like bonus DVD tracks; you can’t just have the film anymore. What was terrible or strong in the original photo is that you didn’t see the scars on her back, it is not about her, it is just now everyone has to show everything. If everything is explained, people will be more moved, but as an artist I think a certain distance remains necessary to construct a symbolic dimension. 

 

SL: The work “The Remix Babylon” is also an amazing spectacle, I’m assuming in reference to the ancient city of Mesopotamia that now is situated within Iraq—and the current war that is unfolding, and damaging relics such as the Ishtar Gate and other antiquities from this historical period. Of course, you have inserted another subversive, counter-cultural narrative, that of Bob Marley, encriching the term “Babylon” to connote the Rastafarian term, referring to human government and or the politicians who have been oppressing the black race for centuries through economic and physical slavery. What led to the impetus of this work? Why did you choose to align these unique sets of symbols? 

 

OB: This piece is about confusion. To me, Babylon is the most important symbol of confusion in the human story. It was originally in the bible a place of confusion of tongues and has remained historically as a confusing symbol of outrageous power, perversion, and evil. If you read carefully Psalm 137, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” it is one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible. It is amazing to see how this religious song turned into a reggae tune, and then a disco tune by Boney M with naked girls on the album cover, crawling like slaves. It is not much more surprising that both Bush and Saddam Hussein and uneducated soldiers went to war in Iraq with the conviction that they were part of this great Babylonian struggle. The piece for me is a remix of the visual statements of the fallen soldier of Robert Capa, Bob Marley, Boney M, and Malcolm Morley’s painting entitled “At a First Aid Center in Vietnam”, and Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. 

 

SL: Where else can we see your work in the coming months? 

 

OB: I am working on a project of a piece called “We are the Champions/We the Peep-hole” that will represent an Olympic podium, with three naked famous female celebrities that have appeared recently in the press or internet nude. It is not my fantasy – it is as they were published. At the top we have Simone de Beauvoir, number two Olympic swimmer Laure Manaudou posing for her boyfriend’s cell phone camera opening her crotch, and number three Cara Bruni Sarkozy’s naked portraits that recently quoted $91,000 at Christies. My French dealer is pissing in his pants at the idea of showing this…… 

 

For more work by Olivier Blanckart, visit blanckart.aeroplastics.net

Image Credits: 

MoMA Don’t Preach , 2008 
adhesive tapes, cardboard, kraft paper, trampoline, ink jet print 
figure life size 

AlinSallal Abu Ghraib 
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint 

Limitated Degas (after Ricard Avedon ), 2007 
adhesive tapes, cardboard and kraft paper 
figure life size 

The A-Men, Installation View 2008 

Andy (after R. Avedon)
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint 

Now Art Seemingly Deserves A Quotation (N.A.S.D.A.Q) (after Seth Sieglaub 1969) , 2007 
adhesive tapes, cardboard, kraft paper and neon 
figures life size 

Critic Standing 
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint 

The Remix Babylon, 2008 
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint 

The Citizen (after A. Sander ) 
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint 

The Curator 
PVC tape, craft paper, polyurethane coated custom silkscreen paint


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