Self-proclaimed “painter, sculptor, performer, who is constantly anxious yet fascinated by being ‘there’ without any understanding…” Olivier de Sagazan is a philosophical artist who takes his inspiration from Africa, where he was born, staging performances of terrifying dances which reflect his constant preoccupation with the meaning of life. AMA spoke to him and delved into the worrying world of this astonishing artist.
Can you present your career to us briefly?
After my MA in biology, I had the chance to go to Cameroon for two years. These years really saved me, allowing me to take a step back and return to my roots: Africa, where I was born. Just before I left, I discovered, by looking at a Rembrandt painting, another amazing way of questioning life. Coming back, I spent a year locked up working on a comic strip, Ipsul ou la rupture du cercle, and then I immersed myself in painting and sculpture. Performance was something I worked on later, as a realisation of the desire that I always felt while painting, to leave my body’s mark on the canvas. Then came the moment when I decided to go ‘underneath’ my painting. To become a living canvas. It’s this journey that inspired me to start performing, at first just in private, in my workshop, and then in public.
In the performance Transfiguration, we can see several influences: Tribal art, shamanism, as if you were searching for an ‘original’ form of communication…
Yes, I’m very influenced by Tribal art, by the relationship between the earth and the elements, in the way that they both go beyond langage, and that they are both a sort of ‘bodily creation’.
In Transfiguration, a performance based on a skull which was modelled over in earth and mud, there was the idea of giving back ‘speech’ to the hands, by covering the face. This work, which I did without using my vision, links to numerous initiation rituals in which the shaman puts someone in a trance, when they become a almost blind, an unconscious entity, a medium through which the living and spirit world can communicate.
This ‘blind’ work allows room for chance and improvisation, which is key to getting off the beaten track and specifically for this piece, to creating never-seen-before masks.
Would you say you enter into a trance-like state in your performances?
It’s a mix; there’s a madness which increases with pressure, but there’s always a sense of my conscience being in control. Two or three years ago, I punched something really hard during a performance and broke a few bones. It expressed a certain level of excitement, but I don’t know if it was a trance. Perhaps it was more of a fury to wanting to discover something about myself. I was bewitched by this existential question which pushed me to try and understand who I am, what my body is, etc. I told myself that I had to shake things up, make the machine, my body, talk at any cost.
You often say you aim to “disrupt the familiarity of life”, can you explain this?
Braque said that we must break the mould. Having studied biology, I understand to what extent we are controlled by our genes and all these urges which push us towards survival and the maintenance of our species. How do we avoid falling into the same behavioural pattern, to not keep painting the same thing? ‘Blind’ painting set something free within me. Before I was too involved in this idea of the artist who slaves away to make a pretty picture. But what counts isn’t beauty in the classical sense, but what we can call the question of a presence. Transfiguration is, in short, the transformation of the Holy Face into the ‘Meat head’, of the verb into the unspeakable.
Is there an ‘educational’ dimension to your work? Do you want to give your viewers a wake-up call?
The presence of an audience is fundamental, for the validation or non-validation of the work, and a founding element of the trance. In this particular performance I lost my sight and the audience became my eyes. Coming back to my masks, I do hope that these astonishing sights open up some new parts of the spectator’s brains.
In a very fleeting way, we all have moments in our life which Freud calls ‘oceanic movements’ — such as the death of someone close to us— where suddenly, we become aware of the terrible and magnificent nature of life. However very quickly, we fall back into the banality of daily life.
My daily practice, my studio, my performances, are only ways of reminding me of this unreality and the simple fact that I am alive. I don’t know how else to word it, but it seems the people feel the same feeling through my performance even if they can’t express it through words.
You seem to embrace anxiety in your work, whilst most people try and escape this feeling through illusion…
It’s through this anxiety that I saw a way of bringing myself back to life. I was very religious until I was about 20, and then after studying biology and philosophy, it all kind of fell apart. After a year suffering from depression, I had a thought that saved me: yes, life is meaningless, but I’m going to make my life a quest for meaning. From that moment onwards, I transformed what was causing me so much despair into pure, independent source of energy. Anxiety about life became an infinite source of possibility, and something to celebrate. Unlike religion, which tries to ‘catchetise’ life, and which reveals itself to be profoundly a-metaphysical.
Your work seems to be guided by three main things: Africa, where you were born and have lived, biology, and philosophy.
Yes, those are my three main inspirations, to which you could also add dance. In Transfiguration, my hands dance over my face, as they dance over than canvas. Recently, I’ve been trying to make my body dance, but in a much more ‘discreet’ way, as I’m not a trained dancer.
And you also did a video with Mylène Farmer?
Yes, it was an interesting experience, especially because Mylène Farmer agreed to cover herself in mud as part of the project. With Laurent Boutonnat [the video’s producer], we had a really skilled eye and a high-performance technique filming us.
Would you say that this ‘hyper-production’ brought something new to your work?
I don’t think so, as the showbiz world and that of performance art are quite separate.
You’re putting on a new performance, Lenfermoi, in which you run in a wheel shouting out words. What new elements does this introduce, with Transfiguration in mind?
It’s all about destabilising what constitutes an individual’s identity, questioning your presence, your identity; all in all, about selfhood. In Transfiguration, in fact, It looks like I’m not my face, but that I am actually far beyond that. In Lenfermoi, if I am what I say, then I am not my own source, since the words that I’m saying in the performance are ones which are coming to me completely improvised. They’re words and sentences that I’m discovering at the same time as the audience.
I want to try and unveil the way in which our identity is constructed. In these works that the self who says “I” is like the needle of a record player.
The brain and its millions of neurones are constantly active, even if we don’t ask them to be. You see how an idea can stick in your head like a piece of music, and you can’t be free of it. Who is talking when the idea is talking?
Are you working on any new projects?
I really threw myself into Transfiguration, dressing as a woman. A pregnant woman giving birth, opening her stomach, and becoming both surgeon and patient. I had to choreograph all of that.
Apart from that, in a week I’m going to Los Angeles to take part in a film as both an artist and actor. It’s the story of a dead person who wants to be alive again, but so they can take human form and eat other people. At the beginning of the film, I’m a being, a sort of monster, but then through taking other peoples lives I return to human form; it’s a bit like Transfiguration in reverse. But I won’t tell you any more…