The artist lives and works in Paris but it is in Venice that he welcomes us today. At the heart of the French Pavilion, where he is representing his country at the 2017 Biennale. A Venetian interview…
Xavier Veilhan was born in 1963 in Lyon. He studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, then the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. Since the end of the 1980s, he has developed a multidisciplinary practice composed of sculptures, paintings, installations, but also videos and performances, in which music plays a key role. His work is also a reflection on modernity – its history and forms – and the very definition of an exhibition space. His work Studio Venezia is representing France at the 57th International Art Biennale of Venice.
Studio Venezia is an immersive experience that picks up on the essence of your work through its relationship to music, but also sculpture, with constructivist forms and a link with Italian futurism. Does this project synthesize many years of work?
Yes, of course, but at the same time, I see it more pragmatically. It’s as if I brought together preassembled elements or the pieces of a puzzle. As if the project were there to conceptually serve scattered experiences that had perhaps been a little overlooked, like one-off performances that the public didn’t so much see as being the core of my work. Even if I went about these projects rather discreetly, I’ve realised that they’ve fed my work a great deal, intellectually, but also through the meetings and discoveries that they’ve triggered. This has enabled me to join different networks, as with the films that have travelled to festivals. Live performance opens up doors I didn’t know existed and leads to certain things coming round again, in the way that Pedro Gadanho, the former curator of architecture at the MoMA, wrote a text on Studio Venezia, during Architectones, which would help it to travel around.
You also pay homage to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. Is this a reference you’ve previously called on and why have you developed it now?
It’s a homage to installation in general, and at the same time, it’s almost 100 years since Merzbau was created and since installation art has evolved a great deal. I found that the idea was interesting, not only in relationship to the history of art, but also to the exhibition as an object in its own right, which is a core subject for artists from my generation in particular. This idea of creating situations through exhibitions and trying to generate a form of “packaging” that is global, total, physical, where we’re more in the mode of immersion than mere observation. It’s a bit like the experience of a nightclub, for example, where we don’t just listen to music.
You’ve often referred to Italian futurism that promoted movement and speed. It seems that you extend this through the universe of sound…
I explore a general relationship to modernity and interest in the recording studio is also linked to the electrification of music and the possibility – fairly new in history – of storing it. Before, we could only score music or learn it by heart, and ultimately, what remains of Haydn or Mozart today is only a tiny part of what we could have had if we saw them playing during their era. Electricity, electronics and recording studios have changed this relationship as they allow the moment of musical creation to be frozen and managed track by track. At this pavilion, there’s also an application that captures sounds, which offers the possibility of moving about in this abstract space and approaching sources of sounds to listen to what’s happening. It’s a type of live radio.
So this is really a creation space for you, a work in progress, carried out with the musicians as well as the spectators?
Yes, and given this general relationship with music considered as a consumption product, we try to show, upstream, how it’s created. The reference sound was the moment in concerts, often classical, when an orchestra tunes up, and when we’re struck by the quality of the sound which is different from what we can hear on the radio, on mp3 or a telephone. At the same time, before the music is fixed, it is still in a state of weightlessness and is not yet determined. This is what interests me in the studio, the moment when music emerges and is to be captured, sorted, edited, put together. It’s more moving even if it’s uncertain. The idea is to bring music through a stolen door – because we face a visual-arts public at the Biennale – into this architecturally striking space.
Yes, because you present sculptures and very striking forms, with ridges, dynamics, vanishing lines, almost a recreation of perspectives…
I’ve recreated what I call a metaphorical space, a polycube rather than a white cube, which isn’t even really a cube as it depends on the building’s geometry. I have fun putting visitors in the middle of a space in which they’re immerged, and at the same time, a little uncomfortable, as there are stairs, angled walls, protruding shapes. This ridged cladding is contradicted by the use of a soft material, and we’ve also worked a great deal on acoustics. When spectators enter the pavilion, they find themselves in a type of entrance area, completely isolated, where the sound generated is lost. This compression effect, a little bit like when a train goes through a tunnel, prepares the spectator in a type of antechamber which will allow sound to become more penetrating.
You’re inviting around a hundred international musicians who’ll be present over 173 days. How did you select them?
I decided, with Christian Marclay, one of the two curators along with Lionel Bovier, to delegate this selection to local programmers. Christian Marclay notably steered me towards Enrico Bettinello, who I asked to programme musicians working with experimental jazz or other musical fields I don’t know much about. We also met someone younger, Victor Nebbiolo di Castri, who is very familiar with the local electronic scene. Then Olivier Lexa, a specialist in baroque but also contemporary music. Things fell in place locally and naturally, and opened up our programme. We’re trying to explore very different fields with musicians who share the same curiosity for fields other than their own, who are interested in sound as a matter, instruments, or work on sound.
Was the idea for the public to see them playing in your initial project?
Yes, but even more so, like when musicians are in a studio, seeing them tune their instruments and looking for sounds… Christian Marclay made a pertinent comment during the press conference: this opens up space for boring moments because we’re not in a performance logic where something has to be happening all the time. Generally speaking, what interests me is to find release from the musical contract that imposes the production of something on the stage, where invited bands have to play their repertoire and nothing else… Here, we’re in the upstream when the musical moment isn’t yet determined.
Is this also an implicit criticism of the way that the Biennale has sometimes shown things that are a bit too classical and static?
Not at first, because I develop a dimension linked to pleasure in this project, but with the news events in recent years, music has become a little bit political. Gathering a public in a place where we listen to music, whether by association with the attacks in Orlando or the Bataclan, or with the attack on the comic artists, or else creating art, has become almost a form of “resistance”. Ultimately, this has taken on a political connotation: the action stays the same as before, but current affairs have transformed its meaning. In this project, we’re also representing a country, and I feel this responsibility of representing the French people, who want to be proud of what the artist is doing. Even if the national idea is far from our preoccupations and this peristyle marked “Francia” is a bit dated… The project’s aim is to be international, through what the choice of music induces. Because when we listen to Mozart, we don’t listen to an Austrian. We look for something else in music – even if knowing about the culture and country is interesting for understanding Shostakovich or Debussy, it goes beyond them. When we look at our own disc collections, we don’t look at a map with locations, we approach them with a feeling that pleasure or taste surpasses the notion of a nation.
What I also find interesting is that you work with many collaborators, developing an idea of community. This makes me think of the 17th and 18th century studios…
Yes, and it’s also true that in art history, the Romantic era when the artist was isolated is quite rare, compared with rock paintings, pyramid constructions, or the Renaissance, which were all collective moments. I feel like I’m setting myself in line with a great tradition, which was only interrupted by the Romantic era of the lonely artist. It makes me think of the shooting of a film, with a team where everyone plays a role, even if in my situation, everyone is multidisciplinary. I work a lot not by taking into account everyone’s opinions but by positioning myself thanks to each person’s opinion. It’s a type of triangulation, that allows me to identify my own position.
Will the Venice project further develop?
I’m not sure that it will develop, but we’ve left the use of the music that is going to be produced here entirely open, and we place it in the hands of each of the participating musicians. They’ll all leave with a hard disk as owners of their own creation. I’m keeping a bit of a distance from this, in continuation of my idea of release from the musical contract. Music can spread thanks to digital technology, which is a very good relay for this project. Similarly, instead of publishing photos in a magazine, I’m going to let people take photographs and put them on social networks, like a cloud, far wider and ampler than contemporary art. Music is also there to act as a diffuser, and it may open up access to the Venice Biennale to some people without them even being there or knowing it. For example, the studio is being loaned by Nigel Godrich, the producer of Radiohead, and this has an enormous impact on the way the project is being seen from the outside: all Radiohead fans have heard about it!
At the same time, aren’t you afraid that some people will say that there isn’t enough to see?
No, because the space is very present through this highly sculptural architectural form. In this object interwoven with music, I think that we can understand that the materials have been used for acoustic reasons, but also that they’ve been manipulated by someone with a very artistic and sculptural idea in mind… If you’d asked me the question two months ago, I’d perhaps have had doubts but now that I’m here and see the reactions of the public… without being presumptuous, I think that it’s working well. In relation to the issue of exhibition, we can no longer say where the studio ends and the showing starts. These are two objects that are so intermingled that the boundary is no longer clear…
“Studio Venezia”, Xavier Veilhan. Until 26 November, French Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition of Venice.
Xavier Veilhan is represented by Andréhn-Schiptjenko (Stockholm), Galerie Perrotin (New York, Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul), Galeria Nara Roesler (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, New York) and 313 Art Project (Seoul).