Portrait Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Installation view
"Temporama", MAM Rio, 2015
Photo: Paulo Jabur

Since the mid-1980s, the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has created films, photographs, installations and environments that often involve viewers in uncanny, oneiric scenarios from the past and future. Most recently, she has been working on a series of performances where she assumes the roles of people such as King Ludwig II, Bob Dylan, Vera Nabokov and Fitzcarraldo. In advance of the opening of her retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, she talked to Oliver Basciano about mixing up different times, meeting ghosts, and why she works against the theatre.

The emotional, sensual experience of encountering a work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster work is hard to describe. I remember feeling a shiver in the Brazilian summer heat amid the gardens of Inhotim, the sculpture park set within the forests of Minas Gerais, when I found a sandy, scrubby patch of land with four concrete structures that look very much like bus shelters. In fact they are bus shelters, and in this most lush of landscapes, their prosaic, urban, appearance felt alien and out-of-sorts, as if they’d slipped through a wormhole from another time, another place.

The artist, who divides her time between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, rose to prominence amongst the generation of French artists who were at the forefront of relational aesthetics. Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe are friends and allies. Like them, Gonzalez-Foerster pursues a type of art that requires more from their viewer than just viewing. Instead, we are to play an active role.

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For her space-filling installation TH.2058, shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2008, works that had previously been on view in the space (by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, and Maurizio Cattelan) were set among rows of bunk beds laid out like a communal dormitory in a time of disaster, along with copies of books that take apocalyptical scenarios as their subject matter. We were to galvanise the work through both our physical presence (we became the refugees fleeing a present or future disaster), and through our memories, as the works by Gonzalez-Foerster’s colleagues became ghosts in the gallery. The unsettling nature of this environment can be traced back to the Chambres series from the 1990s, for which she created fictional domestic settings washed in a disturbing, variously coloured, light. Entering these minimal, suggestive spaces, you felt like an intruder, inexplicably thrust into another reality to which you didn’t yet know the rules.

More recently, in Splendide Hotel (2014), which occupied the Palacio de Cristal in the Parque del Retiro in Madrid, the nineteenth-century glass exhibition centre, completed in 1887, was dotted with Thonet rocking chairs, hats and boots from the era the building was built. Such works do not hint at the kind of time travel we know from sci-fi as much as they operate in their own discrete time. The impulses for this come in part from European philosophy, but it also plugs into the history of the Brazilian avant-garde and the atemporality of some still older Amerindian worldviews. To borrow from the legendary Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s description of his own methodology, Gonzalez-Foerster includes “time in the structural genesis of the work” and her viewer is “promoted to act in order to reach a pluro-dimensional perception of the work”. What particular hurdles, then, for an artist to whom time is all important, does a retrospective present?

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Your forthcoming show at the Pompidou claims to be a retrospective of your work but spans the impossible dates of 1887 through 2058. This, presumably, is a reference to two of your projects, Splendide Hotel and TH.2058. Will these works be present in this new show, and what form will they take?

Yes. The two dates, 1887 and 2058, are a way to expand the idea of retrospective, a concept which I otherwise find very difficult, sad and restrictive. So it’s an expanded prospective retrospective in a way, and it’s very much based on the inner time of the works rather than the moment they were realized or presented. It’s a notion that is more usual in literature. You talk about chronotopes, a piece of writing that has its own time, but stretching time is not such a well-known device within the visual arts. I looked back and forwards as far as possible in relation to the periods I researched. So on one side is the Splendide Hotel. Of course the Pompidou will only be an annex of the hotel, as the way it was in the Retiro in Madrid was very unique – it is a crystal palace, but you know the Pompidou is another type of crystal palace.

TH.2058 will also appear as a fragment on one terrace, where there is already a preexisting sculpture by Alexander Calder, part of the Pompidou’s collection. TH.2058 won’t be the scale that it was shown in London, but again I refer to the structure of a book – this will be the second chapter to that work. From this timeline there is a kind of entrance, a kind of time door, which refers directly to the opening of the Pompidou in 1977, so it will be called Espace 77, also in reference to its inaugural exhibition of Marcel Duchamp – 1977 was the moment I encountered both the Pompidou and Duchamp. It’s the starting point to my relationship with this building and acts a bit like a central point between 1887 and 2058.

It sounds like this retrospective will be site-specific or space-specific, as lot of your work is to some extent – which is also counter to retrospectives, because they are about an period of time or the span of a career as opposed to the space the exhibition is staged in, which is usually of secondary importance.

For me, the relation with the Pompidou in this show is as important as it was with the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid or the Turbine Hall. It’s about building a dialogue, not only with this architecture, but with what it contains, the palimpsest of exhibitions. There is the encounter with Duchamp, of course, but there have been many different moments of encounter with the building. I’m thinking of Philippe Parreno’s exhibition, of Pierre Huyghe, of Gabriel Orozco. It’s ghostly.

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In regards to the conflation and inflation of time in your work, are there any particular philosophers who are important references?

Immediately I think of Bergson. I like Bergson, I read him very early, as a teenager, and I would have to read him again. Paul Ricoeur’s thinking on time and narrative is something I think about, and then of course Deleuze, which I know is something of a cliché, but still, in relation to time, he developed really great representations of figures. And then I like Jacques Rancière, and I like to read Stanley Cavell very much.

The curator Daniel Birnbaum has described your works as always being filmic, even those in which no moving image per se is present. Is this how you see it too?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of Nicole Brenez. She is a specialist in experimental cinema and wrote a text for me recently which is about the presence of cinema in my work; you could look at almost all my work as expanded cinema or expanded literature. It’s like an impossible novel that can’t be contained in a book but contains lots of books.

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It’s interesting that we’re talking about literature and cinema, because over the last few years a lot of it has been in some way performative or involved performance. I’m thinking about the series “M.2062” – an “opera under construction” – in which you deliver a performative lecture as a historical or fictional persona: you played Ludwig II (as he appears in the 1972 Visconti film) for a version staged at the Stedelijk Museum in 2013 for example, and Edgar Allan Poe at the Palais de Tokyo the same year. The obvious reference here then would be to theatre.

I work against theatre, I am completely against theatre, I like the idea of mise-en-scène, I like the idea of the stage, but the idea of theatre …. I see very little theatre. I really have trouble with actors, although now I am starting to understand them a bit better.

If it’s in any way an analogy to theatre, then as a viewer, especially if we think about your Chambres series, then I feel my role in this side of your work is more like an actor, as opposed to an audience member.

That’s exactly the position I wanted to give to the viewer. I don’t want there to be another presence. It’s almost like giving over to the viewer the possibility of developing their own inner monologue through the work.

Let’s talk a bit more about the Chambres series. When I see them I think of Hélio Oiticica’s “Penetrables”, but I don’t know whether this is a lazy analogy?

I think I first saw his work in the mid-1990s. So it wasn’t an influence, but when I found them it was a very strong feeling of connection, familiarity, and more than that, it’s also part of my now long relation with Brazil. But this idea that you enter the Penetrables, and that you can be inside a work, that you are surrounded and become part of it, this is an important idea for me, and a very Oiticica one.

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It’s interesting how your work almost seems a link between the very European lineage of relational aesthetics and the kind of earlier Brazilian avant-garde, which was also about relationships, about activating an artwork and not letting it just be an object stuck in a room.

This is one of the reasons why I feel very good in Brazil and very connected to its culture, because there is this whole history of works, Lygia Clark and many others, that I feel so close to. And you’re right, this is pre-relational aesthetics. A continuity, let’s say.

It seems quite apt for your own work that the reference was found retrospectively. Doing things in the wrong chronological order, that seems a good thing for you!

It was a big revelation to find a kind of genealogy. Before, besides feeling an affinity with Duchamp and some artists from the New York scene in the mid-1980s – Louise Lawler for example – I had real trouble connecting with the autonomous art object, whether painting or sculpture. Later I discovered Frederick Kiesler, and for me he is the proof that you can have a much more open practice. I think anyway art history simplifies things, and individual practices are more complex, but yes, it took me time to find all my attachments. I had much more confidence with literature and cinema in that sense.

With this idea of expanding time beyond the constraints of the present, or not limiting experience to within the timeframe of one’s own lifetime, your exhibition this past May at 303 Gallery in New York was perhaps a bit of a departure. You exhibited dozens of items from your own wardrobe. It seems to have had a more introspective tone than perhaps you’ve shown before?

This work will be reconstructed at the Pompidou very precisely. It was an amazing thing to think about and build up – it serves as a chronology in textile form. Clothes are an interface. I think they are language, they are an architecture, they are indicators, they play many parts. I have started fictionalising them retrospectively, with appropriate characters, and the outfits are becoming costumes. It wasn’t just introspective – the clothes were connected by lines of string crisscrossing the gallery, and – have you seen the film Spider by David Cronenberg? The show somehow replicated the room in that film, but also the exhibition on surrealism that Duchamp designed [First Papers of Surrealism, 1942], where he also had all this string entangling the works.

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So while the clothes were hung chronologically, the string made connections that had nothing to do with time. For the show you did in June, “Temporama” at MAM in Rio de Janeiro, you recreated very early works – a decision which seems to link to what we’ve been talking about, perhaps?

You know the museum in Rio? The amazing thing is that on one side it looks out onto Sugarloaf Mountain and a garden designed by Roberto Burle Marx, and on the other it looks onto the city. I covered the windows with a red filter on one side and a blue one on the other side – alluding to 3D glasses and 3D vision, so you have the feeling it’s like a bad science fiction film from the 1970s – it brings the outside in, and the museum interior becomes part of the landscape. You are right to say they were early works – works made in art college, even – but what I showed were more archetypes of works or references to works. They appear in this landscape rather like the architectural elements that seemingly materialised in the park in Kassel for my documenta 11 project, or the out-of-context pavilions in Desert Park at Inhotim. But then there were also some of my most recent works, and the filters suggest that the museum has become an optical machine to look back and then again forwards. Rio had the very beginning and the very end, and the Pompidou will have everything in between.

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Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, born 1965 in Strasbourg. Lives in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.

Exhibitions: 1887-2058, Centre Pompidou, Paris (solo); Temporama, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (solo); Mobile M+: Moving Images, Midtown POP, Hong Kong (2015); Gwang ju Biennale; Manifesta 10, St. Petersburg; euqinimod & costumes, 303 Gallery, New York (solo); Splendide Hotel, Palacio de Cristal, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid (solo) (2014); M.2062 (Scarlett), The Museum of Kyoto (solo); T.451, Stockholm konst and Tensta Konsthall, (with Ari Benjamin Meyers), Stockholm; The Insides are on the Outside, Casa de Vidro Lina Bo Bardi, São Paulo (2013).

Represented by Esther Schipper, Berlin; 303 Gallery, New York; Jan Mot, Brussels / Mexico City; Corvi-Mora, London, Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo 

Oliver Basciano is a writer and critic based in London.

This text was published in the print issue Spike Art Quarterly #45 which can be ordered in our online shop.