Interview with Pierre Labat on the exhibition in the MMCA of Thessaloniki

Stela Anastasaki, 2015

What does a bonsai tree represent to you ?

I am not a specialist in bonsai. For the sculpture where I use a bonsai tree (balancing on a piece of metal), the point is that it is a living thing, but with very slow growth. Over all I like the idea of a model of nature. But it is also a type of plant that portrays two important aspects of our society : first, the desire to control nature (which is only temporary and ultimately false), second the idea of a certain mystique, not in an object but in a living thing. I don’t think we really understand what bonsai is to Japanese society. Another very interesting thing is the “Suiseki” (from what I know, it is the art of making socles from stone in Japan). In both, bonsai and suiseki, we put a lot of attention into making and afterwards admiring a very simple object. Finally, like in art.

What is the connection between the living form of a miniature plant (the bonsai tree) and the abstract space or the emptiness that balances the “equation” of Atlas (bonsai in Thessaloniki) ?

It is strange, with your question, you make a very good synopsis of the work. The emptiness is the equivalent of the object, but invisible : words, time, space, … It is like in Joseph Kosuth’s early works. Putting the definition of the word hat next to the picture of a hat next to a hat. An object is never what we see. The empty space on the balance is to be felt by the visitors.

Another aspect is the equilibrium in the work. Michel de Montaigne said “Le monde est une branloire pérenne” (which we can translate as : “the world is a perennial swing”). That is also a good definition of an exhibition, that presents eternal objects, in a temporary time.

How is the relationship of Contemporary Art with space, public or private, shaped ? Could you mention some examples of works of art, forms of expression, or artists that represent this relationship ?

I think there is no public space, and no private place. I would prefer to say that public space is most of the time private, and private spaces could easily be public. Galleries and museums are some public spaces. Buses, trams, and airports are private places. Facebook is a private place ; because it belongs to a private company. At the same time, you can easily ask a collector to visit his place, and see his works of art.

Art is public in the object and its vision, and private in our relationship with it. This raises questions, like where does the work of art begin (in its physicality, in its reproduction, in its exhibition). And where begins the work of an artist (I mean as employment). And then comes the idea of the political in art. For me politic is to speak, to act, to vote. And we’ll do that in the workshop.

In your work, architecture and the treatment of the exhibition space appear to play central roles. The works are thoughtfully positioned in relation to each other while the architecture is manipulated in a very effective way, activating the space by transforming its scale, its form, its character. What are the challenges in adjusting your works specifically to the MMCA’s exhibition space ?

My first experience with a space is one sort of “definition” : ceiling height, ground, distance, measurement, walls,… The second definition is where the place is. In Thessaloniki, in 2015. Which means everything and nothing. For me, the purpose is always to give a view of the place. MMCA, galleries, art centres, are places of possibility, and renewal. To sum up, the important thing is to find the good distances : distances in the works, between the works, between each work and the space (and so with the spectator), and the distances between the “objects”, intellectual distances between wood, metal, curves, balance, stability, …

What factors dictated the selection of these four works for this year’s Inspire Arts Festival Exhibition ?

Even if my works are deeply connected to the place, it is not the place that, stricto sensu, elicits the works. This is always a simultaneous occurrence that occurs in the exhibition. Chance is the meeting of good preparation and an opportunity. Art is chance. Works of art “dress” the place, so they take the shape of the place, like clothing. It is true that I think of the works together, not in a body, but for all the works to be dialoguing at intervals. One work can change the whole exhibition, like a table leg changes the whole table. To be a little bit more precise to your question, all of the works have a relationship with the idea of scale, with very simple materials, but archetypal or more than this, primitive.

How do you perceive the relationship of your work with minimalism ?

It is for me a strange question, an interesting question, a hard question. But a question I never ask to myself. Sometimes I have heard about “post” minimalist. In the scale of humanity, I am minimalist, not post minimalist. There are so many differences in terms of time in our society : our religion is 2,000 years old, our economic system 200 years old, our taste in music 2 years old, in fashion six months… So I really don’t know if I am after or in minimalism. Our relationship with minimalism is for sure different than it was before, in particular because we use some minimalist objects (the shape of an iPad or the Lack shelf).

For me, there are a lot of similarities between minimalism and arte povera (that I also like a lot). An artist who combines it very well is Pedro Cabrita Reis, invoking the poesy of both interrogations. Both minimalism and arte povera touch on the mystical. And I think minimalism has never been clearly defined. I could sum it up by writing without lying that minimal art is poor, and arte povera is minimal.

Through your work it seems as though you are trying to create an experience of sculpture within space, drawing the viewer to explore their relationship with what they see and feel, urging them to question their position not only in relation to your work but also to everything that surrounds them. How do you perceive the relationship between the viewer and your work within the exhibition space ?

First, I try to spend as much time as possible in the exhibition space, and the long and necessary set up helps this. I walk around the space, I sweep it. Then I observe people in the space, such as the people working in the museum. I have to find the path (made by walking), more than the road (made by tracing). All of this is very empirical.

Afterwards, one of the most educational moments is to observe people in the exhibition (me looking at the spectators, but also one spectator looking at another who is looking at the exhibition). When I visit big exhibitions, with a lot of people like Venice Biennale, I observe visitors.

Could you share with us a challenging idea that concerns your work at this point ?

As time goes by, I realize that I work on few forms and topics. The curve, as a piece of a circle, the surface, as a place of reflection. I met a friend a few years ago who told me that one of my works marked for him a shift in my path, the work was called Les Circonstances. It is a twisted shelf, with a carafe of water in the middle, where the shelf is horizontal. For him, this carafe marked the arrival of reality in my preoccupations. I don’t know if his reaction changes my way of thinking, but since then, I have tried to work on some objects (we could call it sculpture) that speak about space, maybe infinite space, but on a pretty small scale. It is all about micro and macro. If the curve of the route a planet takes around a star shares the same form as a single hair, that means something, and also for our conditions, and our relationships. But the changing of an artist’s work depends on so many thing : the changing of studio, their relations with galleries, relocation, meeting with people…

This year’s Inspire Arts Festival focuses on the notion of « Effective spaces » : exploring the intense presence in space through art. How do you interpret this constant transformation of space, and how do you appropriate this concept in your work ?

As a technician, I have worked a lot in exhibition spaces, installing works of art. During these moments, we have a strange experience which no visitors can have ; we see the space empty. And most of the time, it was a really deep experience (like a monochrome painting, but in architecture). Making a work of art is one thing, placing it is another, sometimes just as important as creation.

Paul Valéry would have said that Le peintre « apporte son corps »au monde (the painter give his body to the world). I think all artists give their body to the world. We, artists, make new objects ; new in terms of history, but also in the sense that, after a production, an object, which was not extant before, now is. Some empty space is filled by a production. We birth objects.

During the period I wrote about before, while installing an exhibition, we painted all the walls, swept all the floor ; so we went everywhere, we knew all the space. There is no single place which is more important than another in an exhibition place (like in every place). Everything is important, the street outside, the ceiling, the plinths, the furniture, … And overall all the people working in an exhibition space. Usually, the biggest mediators of an exhibition are the guardians and the cashiers.

And finally, about this idea of space, we are living in space. We walked through the exhibition. Walking is very important for me, to see and understand a work of art. Like for the Peripatetics.

Do you feel that people are connected with the space that they inhabit nowadays ?

This is very hard to answer ; because we have so many different spaces. I am right now sitting at a table, writing. I am at the right side of the table, which is already a space and a position. I am in the suburbs of Paris, which is a situation in a space too. Beyond this, I am in France, in Europe, in a world where, as borders change, spaces change. We have to deal with all these identities.

A strange thing is that even if all the spaces look different from the outside, inside, everything starts to look the same (same computer, same furniture, because of Apple and Ikea). Furniture design is now something for the rich, which was not always the case. I think that is one of the big issues of our time : to truly inhabit our spaces ; with relationships with those people around, our own forms and colors, instead of the one from H&M or Leroy Merlin.

Another space of our period is the internet. Now, it is even a country. Though ultimately, it is always a screen, no more no less.

I have been deeply impressed during my residency in Japan, by the interest in space and its arrangement. For me, it can come from the fact of the ratio between the amount of people living with the space available. You can understand a lot about a country by looking at its spaces. When I have been in Georgia, in the USA, I understood the relationship Americans had with the car and also ecology.

How do you plan to approach the different aspects of the transformation of space during the workshop and to guide the participating young artists through the production process ?

Workshops are always a time of experience, and so also discoveries, for all (I mean myself firstly). I brought with me a research protocol. Even if it is a subject with which I experiment, even if we worked on some specific topics, it had been an unknown exploration. Art is discovery {note}1.First of all, It was a meeting, with a group, with a great variety of subjectivities. The hardest is to talk to everybody and each one, in the same time (it is also the purpose of the work of art). I think we succeed in it. A workshop is also a time to start things (like new approaches, new techniques or relations with new people). It also worked pretty perfectly.


Stela Anastasaki is art historian at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art Thessaloniki ; she worked previously at the Telloglion Arts Foundation of AUTH Thessaloniki. She graduated in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

1I recently titled work “Amerigo Vespucci”, because at the end of the production of the work, I had a feeling I could compare to that of the historical explorers.

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