Posted: February 2nd, 2016 -
INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST FABIENNE VERDIER
Coming from France and then living in China, their aesthetic styles and the histories of their aesthetic traditions are very different, and yet you have managed to combine them together seamlessly. How hard was that for you to take something from both sides and be able to bring it together?
Fabienne Verdier: Yes, it took a lifetime in fact. When I came to China I thought perhaps it would just be for one month, but then I had to stay for ten years – because I think if I had just stayed for a few moments, I could not have completely changed my approach to everything. So my thought was, if I stay in China and if I want to learn the aesthetic philosophy, I should stay a long time and speak Chinese, and think with Chinese thoughts and dream with Chinese dreams… So one part of me really tried to immerse myself very deeply, and after that, your perception of reality and your relationship with human beings – everything changes. My view of art also changed completely. But you know, when I left China, I couldn’t even speak French anymore. Because it’s so far away, the perception of life is totally different; the humour is completely different, and so it took a long time to reinvent a French language to talk about those things. So when I want to say something, the complexity of what I want to say cannot be found in the French words. I know how to talk about the emotions in my work with Chinese words but I cannot translate into French. My husband asks me ‘why do you use such simple words to describe your work?’ but in fact a simple word, as you said, in Chinese thought it’s a complete conceptual thing.
The philosophy is completely different.
Yes, completely different! When you talk about, for example, the void: the void is just a void in France or in Europe, but a void is full of energy in China. All the words and the concepts are completely different, so it took a long time for me to reinvent a French language to talk about emotion. And it took maybe 30 years now to combine and to return to occidental tradition. Because I have received a commission from a collector, and they invited me to create some big monumental work alongside Elsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly, de Kooning, etc. So I have to revisit all the abstract minimal American art.
Did you find it easier to do that with the added knowledge that you gained in China? Or did that make it harder?
Well when you compare what I saw in China to the artists I studied in Paris, such as Matisse, Monet etc, the way they demonstrate the beauty of reality is totally different. So it took a lifetime in fact to recognise that Cezanne arrived at the end of his life with abstract painting, and Turner with his watercolours, just drawing a few brushstrokes, the light of the sun and the reflection on the sea; they were creating art in a very spontaneous way. So all my life I have tried to find this ability to create spontaneously, to catch the voice, to hear the experience of the inner human being, and this is universal I am sure.
In terms of labels, do you think geography is important? Is it important to identify an artist by where they come from, or where they studied? Would you consider yourself a French artist or a Chinese artist? Or would you just not answer the question?
[laughs] I have suffered a lot with that, you are right, because when I am in France they say ‘oh, she is the Chinese one’ but in China they say ‘yes, she is the French one’. I think it’s pointless to argue about territory or where you are. I really want to suspend boundaries around being human, because we construct such strong boundaries around all our elements of culture, but in fact the human soul has an inner meditative state and a universal perception and I think we should see it as universal and use it to exchange ideas – I think it’s fantastic. Ultimately we are all the same.
But it’s very hard to view all artists on an equal platform in the art world – when you have art fairs, galleries, and even books on art where there are often these divisions between ‘Western art’, ‘Asian art’ or divisions by country?
Yes, I think it’s a way that they try to form their own identity by using a location as their theme. But art is free from this kind of identity – we have the universe, and each person is part of the universe, and nature, and we should be able to meditate and look beyond a specific place.
When people view your work, do you wish that it were in a sense anonymous – so that people could experience it with a freshness and completely on its own terms? Or would you rather that they are aware of your artistic background?
I love it when people view my work without knowing anything about me, because my act of painting is spontaneous – so I hope that when they look at my work, they also experience the same spontaneous joy or emotional reaction that I had when I created it. Let me tell you a beautiful story. A museum director tried to pitch my work to an old Japanese collector, because he wanted to organise an exhibition for me in Japan. He warned me it would be very difficult because I am French, and I am a woman. So he showed some of my paintings to this old man – a great collector, who knew nothing about me, and the collector saw the brush strokes and was very excited about the spontaneous joy, the colours, the movement and energy. And then the director of the museum mentioned that I was a French woman, and suddenly a boundary arrived and changed the perspective on the work for the collector. It’s such a pity that the people do not approach art with such a spontaneous intuition, because I think we have clever thoughts, but we often think too much and analyse too much over things, whereas the most important thing is our intuition and from our heart.
Can I ask why you haven’t been back to China since the ten years you spent there in the 1980s?
It was very difficult when I left – all the great masters are dead now, and China doesn’t really recognise the tragedy of their lost history. Another point is that I have had have to spend many long years striving to reach a certain kind of maturity and change – as you know, the Chinese thought and culture is very strong, so to be free when faced with that kind of culture took a long time for me. So it took these many years for me to follow my own way and to mature.
Will you ever go back?
Oh sure, sure! During my time in Singapore I have met a lot of people from China, and I’m very moved every time I meet them because of their response when I am able to speak Chinese. Immediately we are like family! And the Japanese people I have met have also given me a great response, especially when I explain to them my invention with the brushstroke, and how I transformed the traditional brush and invented a new process, and then they are very happy. They really respect the traditions, but they also dream about revolution and the new. It’s very hard to combine the traditional Asian techniques with modern Occidental thought.
Yes – and I think it’s interesting how a ‘Western’ artist rather than a Chinese one has started that fusion process.
Exactly! Many Chinese come and study in European and North American institutions, so they have access to Western art and art history. But for a Westerner to gain access to a set of Asian cultural values and aesthetic traditions is very tough. Just look at France – the people there are generally not curious about other cultures, they are not so receptive to learning new things. I admire the Asiatic people here for being so open to a different culture, and they already know a lot about our great masters and our art history. Even my taxi driver this morning, he knew all about the great European masters and had learnt about art and art history enough to have an intelligent conversation with me about it!
What about in the future? Do you have new ideas and plans?
Yes, a lot. I am continuing with all my research, and as a result my work is often in transformation. I love the risk, I am not afraid to forget all I have done and to reinvent something incessantly. I love that now.
When you’re painting, are you able to do other hobbies at the same time? Or is it an all-encompassing process?
My hobby is to have a great conversation with the koi carp.
Talking to the fish – they are good listeners!
Yes! And with the birds – there are lots of different varieties of birds, and I have created a special place in the garden front of my kitchen so that I can watch them. I learn a lot from them and their spontaneous way of life. I also have a squirrel in my garden, he is so sweet, and I play with him. My life is to be connected with nature, so that every morning I learn something from the trees and the plants.
Do you think you could still create the same works if you were to live in a city?
No, no, I would die. If every morning, I could not hear the birds sing their songs and I could not smell the scent of the flowers…. No, it’s impossible for me. Early morning when you hear the birds sing, so naturally, so happily – I hope one day I can paint like that, you know? The sublime and natural expression of nature.