He’s a “chemical-reaction manager” who explores scientific protocols. Through his revisited Land Art, Hicham Berrada mingles with living things, but often on a molecular scale. An artist with a yen for chemistry, he reinvents a number of natural processes to create highly original landscapes. Situated somewhere between nature and artifice…
Have you ever seen a field of dandelions releasing white haloes in the middle of the night? Or a blue cloud forming in a matter of seconds, like a turbulent sky painted by eighteenth-century French artist François Boucher? Or else timeless landscapes materialising from fragile aquatic gardens, or abstract galaxies being born before your eyes? What, you might ask, is the key to this magic? Yet Hicham Berrada is not a magician but a virtuoso in physics experiments. An alchemist-artist, he orchestrates chemical combinations in the way that a painter will play with the colours on his palette. In his studio, there are no canvases but little boxes stacked up on top of one another. Waiting to be activated to express their magic and to unfurl dreamlike landscapes.
I discovered your work in 2013 at a collective exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. How has your practice evolved since?
In 2013, I spent a year at the Villa Medici. This is where I started off a number of research projects. The experience allowed me to go on to produce Mesk-Ellil (2015), and Masse et martyr (2017), artificial bronze creations that I presented at the Abbaye de Maubuisson until April. Creation is often a very long process. The time factor is a key component of my work. These objects evolve, I have to keep them in my studio for one or even two years before I can show them.
Do you mean that you don’t know the visual outcome of your works in advance?
No, I don’t know the results of this time-space combination. No one does, not even scientists. For example, how long can a piece of salt last in an oversaturated environment?
What role do you play in the creative process that emerges from these physical phenomena?
My artistic role is to select the conditions, namely of the boxes, whether they be aquariums or terrariums, so that the form can be born by itself. The main idea being that I don’t touch the objects. It’s a matter of staging these bits of nature. None of the images I produce represents a vision. They are real elements, reflected by the series’ names such as Présage, containing the idea of experimentation, of portents, suggesting what oceans might look like in this ecosystem in a few million years. With no more life as we know it, but other forms, namely mineral ones. To achieve this, I set up protocols, recipes in the scientific sense of the term. They are very precise and need to guarantee the perfect reproducibility of the experiment, as many times as necessary.
What role does chance play in your work?
Chance is present in the studio. I allow myself to consciously carry out unmeasured trials. I leave room for intuition. But in museums, in my performances, I apply recipes that have been tested 30, sometimes 50 times in the studio. For example, when I was at the Villa Medici, I carried out trials with dandelions dissolved in acid, which gradually made up a galaxy. I tried this out hundreds of times, but never managed to reproduce the same effect.
I even asked scientist friends to help me… There’s no doubt that there was a parameter that eluded me. This is where the unforeseen comes in. So I content myself with showing the video that captures the first trial.
Is performance your main means of expression?
Not necessarily. Photography is also very present. I often use it at the end of a performance. For example, in the work called Un serpent dans le ciel, photography features in the performance’s final sequence. Meanwhile, my videos show actions carried out without a public, that end up on photographs. Ultimately, what remains of action is a narrated story. Videos and photos are tools for recording reality. I never fiddle with photos, colours or duration. It’s extremely important for me to remain grounded in reality, but through images that don’t resemble it. What comes out through this is a bit like the hallucinatory mechanism: seeing the unexpected emerge in a real space.
Unlike the tools that fix them in time, aquariums are landscapes that constantly evolve…
What actually happens is that they follow an evolutionary curve before settling. For certain compositions, I manage to get evolutions that last up to six months. Next, they reach a state of equilibrium: all reactions are completed and the landscape remains relatively unchanged. But I see them more like a music score that we play over and over again. For when the works become part of an institution or collection, it’s the protocol that is sold. In reality, they’re paintings with a time factor. So it’s important for me not to leave them more than six or 12 months as they are. I like the idea of being able to reactivate them at different times and seeing the landscapes evolve all the time, like a fragment of real landscape. However, with the bronze landscapes, the temporalities are longer. In this case, they could continue to exist until the bronze itself vanishes. According to corrosion experts, this would take 15,000 years in air, 5-6,000 years in water.
Why have you made chemistry the base of your artistic work?
At first, I was fascinated by morphogenesis. All special natural forms such as crystals, plants, sea grass beds and the principles governing them. This is the repertoire of forms that primarily interests me. Namely those forms with far greater complexity than stone and which have the power to regenerate. These are forms that don’t undergo erosion. They’re inalterable, unlike living things. In my performances, Rapport de lois universelles (2012) and Fleurs (2015), I examine the movement of iron nanoparticles. One is exposed to a magnetic field produced by two poles that each tries to draw the highest number of nanoparticles; the other is exposed to a single pole, attacked by a high-pressure air jet. I was fascinated by this form that can re-form identically. I also like the idea of finding metaphors for human feelings in real-life phenomena. This notion existing between abstraction and reality, where we have nothing to hold onto except for our own feelings.
Why don’t you work more with plants?
They’re infinitely more complex to manage whereas I’m driven by the desire to control matter. Living things are always more complicated; chemistry and minerals are more stable. I carried out trials with dandelions during the Bloom project in 2012. This is not a chemical but a physical procedure: photonasty – the fact that certain plants respond to light stimuli, both by day or by night. If we provide enough light, the plant can even bloom in the middle of the night. Obviously, this is quite difficult to control because we’re dependent on seasons and flowering cycles.
Do your test results live up to your expectations?
Generally, I’m neither disappointed nor amazed by them. I approach things more as an observer, so in the end I don’t really judge them. I don’t necessarily have expectations about the outcomes of experiments. What’s important is for there to be a visible outcome.
Do you sometimes work with scientists?
Some pieces are works created by teaming up with scientists. This is the case of the work called Galvaniser, at the École Nationale Supérieur des Ingénieurs en Arts Chimiques et Technologiques (ENSIACET) in Toulouse. For this project, I worked with a corrosion expert. The work is made up of columns that house different metals together. When they’re placed in contact with one another, an electrical potential is created and the less noble metal oxidises more quickly. Together, we gathered these metals with aesthetics in mind, but also their electrical potential. The goal was to end up with a work that can last for 400 years while also evolving. In concrete terms, the columns shrink and can lose up to one millimetre per year, while others may disappear.
You describe yourself as an “energy manager”. Is there a spiritual dimension to this term?
The answer is much colder; it’s in terms of physics. Heat, cold, electricity, pressure and physical forces… If we take the example of Présage, this is a video recorded during performances, inside a jar that I see as a blank canvas, where I try to activate different chemical reactions so that their cohabitation leads to the creation of a landscape in a matter of minutes. Here we touch on the idea of an ecosystem. But I find it interesting that we can see things this way, that the experiments can be understood as being mystical.
In your current or future research, are there discoveries that you anticipate and are yet to reach?
Yes, absolutely. I’m always searching, I base myself a great deal on my intuition. At the moment, I’d like to try to work with large quantities of water. There are some reactions that only come about under the pressure of one metre of water. From July onwards, I’ll be in Lens, in the Pinault Collection residence. I’ll be able to think about the issue over there because the studio there is higher-performance than this one. I’ll be able to work with larger aquariums, which will allow new forms to appear. A new writing repertoire of sorts.
Hicham Berrada is represented by the Galerie Kamel Mennour in Paris, the Wentrup Gallery in Berlin and CulturesInterface in Casablanca.