Negotiating with Life, Chaos & Humanity – Q+A with Artist Baptiste Debombourg
Paris-based artist Baptiste Debombourg has built a strong and recognizable body of work since his first solo exhibition dating back to 1999. After studying sculpture at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, and post-graduating from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Debombourg has received numerous awards and is now recognized by many as one of the most respected French artists of his generation.
Exploring the relationship between construction and deconstruction, he started experimenting with shattered materials at an early stage in his career. Today, the artist partly describes his work as follows: “All my projects are somehow related to aspects of human relationships: our mistakes, our doubts and desires, as well as perceptions we each have of our own realities. My work explores the nature of our psychological relationships with objects, looking for the potential space between reality and the ideal model we aspire to achieve.”
Cover image: Burnout — Courtesy Krupic Kersting Gallery, Cologne
BD: Baptiste Debombourg
NR: Nela Riessova
NR: Becoming an artist, was it a plan or an accident?
BD: I never asked myself that question. To tell the truth, I have always had a lot of trouble with authority and the constraints imposed, especially during my general studies. I have always distanced myself from these limits to build a space of freedom, indispensable, and vital. Therefore, I had to make an effort to access an art school that was partly deliverance but not really.
BD: Indeed, I think that being an artist is a dream for everyone. Some imagine the artist according to the cliché and all fantasies that accompany it. But being an artist also means accepting a great deal of uncertainty, having to take risks continuously, constantly questioning oneself, investing all personal energy in one's practice and sometimes receiving very little recognition for this investment... not to mention the struggle at the economic level. This freedom has a price that you have to accept, few people talk about it... but the pleasure of this freedom and the fulfilment it represents cannot be compared with any other activity.
So it's not an accident, I even rejected the word "artist" which I find is too caricatural, too cliché, but in the end, I accepted it because there isn't another term in society. So I try to redefine its meaning according to my principles and then the most important thing is to believe in one's dreams, artistic or not because without dreams, there is no life!
NR: What does it mean to be an artist?
BD: In my opinion, the artist is a researcher, just like a scientific researcher, a person useful to society, able to offer his skills, I would talk about sensitivity on different levels, according to the specialties of each. To act for the common good. This is also the reason why I am interested in art in the public space, architecture, and it is also for this reason that I am an art teacher in an architecture school and not in an art school.
BD: I have an "artistic" activity structured in society, my studio, in which I do artistic research and teaching through which I pass on my experience... these two activities for me are complementary, they nurture each other.
NR: The majority of your work focuses on shattered glass and plays the opposition between construction and deconstruction. Do you think that deconstruction is necessary for growth in life? Why?
BD: Since 2004, I have been working on pieces that explore the idea of "constructing from chaos," which is a paradox in itself. Violence, what comes after it, and what relates to the human, capable of the worst and the best.
BD: I'm exploring these questions from a new dimension; the destruction is interpreted as a transformation. I see the material as a witness, a mirror of our actions.
BD: "Turbo" was one of my first installations dealing with the idea of "broken." It is a site-specific installation in laminated wood that I create in a gallery or a museum. It deals with the symbolism of a "scar," the capacity to overcome things, survival, and resilience. But it also integrates the idea that came from reflection on the "turbo wave" of the '80s, which left its mark on Western Europe's industry and culture. It became a model for behavior, having a "turbo" in your own car was giving you a feeling of superiority over others that had ordinary vehicles. It meant that you were more powerful than others. The sound effect gave the sensation of real physical power. My work rather expresses the energy invested in going beyond limits, then dealing with destruction, even though there is a relationship between the two.
BD: The process of deconstruction is a recurring theme in my work. An essential part of this is the gesture itself, destruction like construction is a human expression, and although we are all equally capable of both, displaying our destructive nature breaks a conventional taboo. Usually, when we've used an item we throw it away, in reaction to this after breaking things down, I often use it as a starting point to rebuild an object. By often destroying otherwise unremarkable objects, the construction and function of those objects are indirectly reappraised and by restoring them, the objects naturally become imperfect and in some ways more faithful to humanity. All of my projects are somehow linked to humanity; our mistakes, doubts, desires, and perceptions of reality. My work explores psychology in connection with objects, looking for induction between reality and the “ideal.”
NR: How did glass become a recurring material of your creation?
BD: The first time I worked with glass, I was interested in people's reaction towards the government - the destroying of urban objects, furniture, glass... These 'acts of protest' made me think about projects like Crystal Palace, various projects I realized with windscreens, then 'Raging Dreams'... It made me discover laminated glass, which is a fascinating material because it preserves the impact, the "gesture" of destruction. The same applies to windscreens.
BD: I am fascinated by the duality of the glass; it is beautiful and dangerous at the same time. And then the history of it and how specific this material is for our times. The laminated glass became a norm in civil architecture because of the terrorist act in Oklahoma City in 1995, the US Government then decided to extend this type of glass to every public architecture, because the glass killed a lot more people than the actual destruction of the building.
BD: I think this material is an excellent representation of our time, regarding the acts of terrorism as well…
NR: What about the space around your artwork? Do you consider the surroundings?
BD: All my projects are somehow related to aspects of human relationships: our mistakes, our doubts, and desires, as well as perceptions we each have of our own realities. My work explores the nature of our psychological relationships with objects, looking for the potential space between reality and the ideal model we aspire to achieve.
BD: I like to work close to reality. I often present my artistic approach as contextual, that is to say, taking into account space, architecture but also the lives of people who shape a place, its history. The context, unlike "in situ," also includes people related to space, which makes all the difference in my view.
BD: I consider my artistic oeuvre as a conveyor of encounters, an opportunity to link sectors and areas that usually ignore each other (ex: the so-called "noble" and "popular" cultures). I believe it is also a way to examine the position and the function of what we define as contemporary art.
BD: I am today, like you, a witness of the climate change with catastrophic consequences coming; I believe that we must all act at our level and scale, first as citizens but also as professionals, especially as artists. To be an artist is also to be responsible, to pollute the least possible, to recycle, to develop positive actions for the environment, the society, and to help young generations. My engagement today is very much about educating young generations through my job as a teacher in the "École d'architecture de Paris La Villette" in Paris (one of the most relevant architecture school in France, and very engaged) and help the young generation to understand our world and develop tools to interact with it.
NR: Many contemporary artists prefer to externalize their artistic production. Do you work on your own?
BD: The myth of success in the art world is to be behind a production apparatus like an assembly line, and you sit behind your desk counting the profits ... this myth works only for a minority of artists and does not apply to reality.
BD: I would say that everything depends on the means, I happened to have to surround myself with a team for large scale projects like the installations Stalker in Miami at Maison Martin Margiela, or Aérial at L'abaye Brauweiler... I could not do it by myself; it would be impossible to meet the deadlines. Some elements needed to be made by craftsmen, like the master glassmakers who worked some crystal elements for me.
But in general, I do as much as possible by myself, because I have trouble to delegate, I am very demanding in the result. So everything depends on the specificity of the project, but the most important thing is to be able to transmit the spirit of the project to the team that helps to realize it; it also requires the work that goes into motivating the people and gathering around the project, so everyone does their best.
BD: In my opinion, art must be driven by the ambition of a project in which members of a society can recognize themselves.
NR: Do you work with your own hands? If so, do you often get cut by the glass?
BD: Yes, I work with my hands, these are my most valuable tools. I cut myself many times but never too bad. It doesn't have so much to do with the material but rather with the concentration.
NR: You collaborated with luxury fashion brands such as Maison Martin Margiela or Nouvelle Affaire. How different is it to work with fashion? How did you approach these projects?
BD: As always, one project leads to another, and I was invited by Maison Martin Margiela to participate in a contemporary fashion & art project with the Parcours Saint Germain in Paris during the FIAC in 2013. As they were satisfied with this first collaboration, I've been commissioned to do a second project in Miami for art Basel.
BD: For Nouvelle affaire, it is the artist Marianne Maric with whom I already collaborated who introduced me to Nouvelle affaire, and it turns out that Pascal Humbert had seen my project at Martin Margiela... From there, a plan for Hyères fashion festival developed and a new adventure has begun.
BD: My personal interest was to meet the challenge, to bring contemporary art out of the protected areas, without falling into a logic of design or banal decoration. Of course, the risk is always to be instrumentalized, but I would say that as a rule, it is an exciting confrontation that can lead to positive results. It is also the responsibility of the artist to know how to say no, to negotiate his space of freedom and also impose limits.
BD: We are always in a logic of keeping the balance, we must know how to take risks. In my case Maison Martin Margiela was very brave and gave me a lot of freedom, the challenge was not easy because everything was made on the spot with an American team who took time to gain confidence in the project, but in the end, it was a success. I think artists have to take risks more often. Our work needs to confront challenges of all kinds; in this sense, I have developed my practice by collaborating with companies, curators, places - not necessarily artistic - they are collaborations that enrich our work and often make us progress.
NR: Nowadays, we are flooded with creativity. When do you really create? What is the critical point of creation?
BD: Yes, today, there are many creations, but many, from my point of view, are totally useless, or just advertising or "communication." I think we need to be more demanding about the quality, and especially to come back to something that makes sense today...
BD: We must go back to fundamentals, things, and work that makes sense and open our future to sustainability and absolute respect for life in all forms and shapes in our world.
BD: I always ask myself the question about the need to create, and I do something only when I really feel it is worth it, and not to relieve an ego, or a personal need, because I hate this logic. Today, anticipating the end of capitalism, an organ of totalitarian speculation that goes straight into a wall, and climate change can be viewed as a new opportunity to redefine the system, create a new one. One needs to return to an existential act of art and out of an impoverishing and destructive individualistic logic. The future can only be collective, in the face of the challenges ahead. In my work, I try to critically address this system by redefining the nature and function of the elements in resilient energy. From my point of view, art must emancipate itself from a commercial logic and make relations and interactions within society.
All images by Studio Baptiste Debombourg