re:future Lab featuring
Valérie Favre (b. 1959) is a Swiss visual artist living and working in Berlin. Her work has been honored in international collections and exhibitions, including the Heydt Kunsthalle Wuppertal (2016/2017), Musée d'art moderne et contemporain in Strassburg (2016), K21 Düsseldorf (2010/2011), Kunstmuseum Luzern (2009/2010), Carré d'Art Nîmes (2009), Centre Pompidou (2009) and Haus am Waldsee (2006). Favre was awarded the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp in France (2012). Since 2006 she is professor for painting at the University of Arts in Berlin.
Painting, a world theatre
Ghost (After Witches' Flight by Goya), 37 x 58 cm, oil on canvas, 2014-2015, Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie Barbara Thumm Berlin
In her own words, Valérie Favre once defined herself as a storyteller. For many years now, she has been building up an immense work of paintings, drawings and objects, in which little by little everything is linked together in a great narrative. For the composition of her complex work series, she draws from the vast repertoire of art history and philosophy as well as from theatre and film. French Nouvelle Vague auteur cinema influenced her early on, and the impact of science fiction film can be directly felt and experienced in many of her works. She often submits herself to certain rules in order to explore total freedom within these rules: whether it is the self-determined restriction of the colour palette or the submission to random results of her "Poullinaire", a kind of wheel of fortune she developped, which throws out certain guidelines and sets a direction into the work.
As an attentive observer of her time, she deals with individual, social and geopolitical issues. To tell her stories, she arranges a whole troupe of protagonists of a world theatre that has gone off the rails: human archetypes, the death, suicides, cockroaches, witches and mythical creatures of mysterious shadow worlds. She places her characters on the theatrical stage of her paintings and thus arranges her own contemporary plays. There they live their own lives, sometimes disappearing in the fog and then reappearing from it. And then Valérie goes one step further: in her large-scale series such as Balls and Tunnels, Fragments or her most recent Cosmos cycle, all that remains for us as spectators is the memory of the play. Here the storytelling has been completely freed from the characters. But: Really?
This interview was conducted on occasion of the group show "Actually, the dead are not dead. Politics of Life" at Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart (28.02.2020 to 23.08.2020), where part of her suicide cycle is taking a central part. The exhibition examines the question of how our interactions with those who are no longer or not yet present can be re-defined: in terms of responsibility for past and future lives.
Earlier this year I came to Stuttgart to participate in an artist conversation with Valérie Favre at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart as part of this current group exhibition. Before that of course I had visited the exhibition. Her suicide series plays a central role in the presentation there. So I entered the space that was specially created for her work and I was automatically drawn to a certain picture. It was like an elucidation - I instantly saw a connection between this and other paintings from other series of her oeuvre. Maybe she didn't intend this, but a connection between the directions of movement in her pictures immediately came to my mind. And the direction even seems to have changed over the years! I wanted to get to the bottom of my discovery and asked her for an interview.
Von der Brücke gestürzt, Jump off the Bridge, 24 × 18 cm, oil on canvas, 2007-2008, Courtesy Galerie Barbara Thumm Berlin
The picture in front of which I came to a halt in the exhibition was 'Von der Brücke gestürzt/ jumped off the bridge' (2007-2008). It shows a figure in free fall from the bridge. The bridge has been moved very far to the upper edge of the picture. In the center of the picture a falling figure is flying against the background of the dark sky, surrounded by a mystical yellow mist. Are we witnessing here the moment before the fatal crash?
In her series 'Ghost'(after 'Witches' Flight by Goya)', which was created some years later, the direction of flight has changed. Here Favre shows again flying figures. This time, it is assumed that they are already dead and are carried to heaven by two or more other figures. Especially one picture of this series came to my mind, which was painted in 2014-2015. It is composed in a very similar way to the picture in the suicide exhibition. Here, too, the figures are surrounded by a mysterious fog. The turquoise-blue area in the lower part of this picture could indicate the river under the bridge of the suicide picture, and in the vertical elements in the right part of the picture we could even suspect the bridge pillars. So if we intentionally wanted to make a connection between the two images juxtaposed for this consideration, we could assume that the desperate scene of the bridge's fall has now, some years later, turned into something hopeful. Favre is referring to Goyas Witches' Flight, which once has been interpreted as a symbolic ascent from earthly darkness into the light of the Enlightenment.
I would now like to add a third of Favre's works to this reflective play: 'Fragment 0'. Here we are standing in front of a huge light nebula, the surface in the foreground could resemble a desolated scree desert. When Favre calls this series 'Fragments', does she mean this in the sense of cut pieces of her theatrical narrative - or does she even evoke galactic footage? Her characters have disappeared into the great unknown. I ask myself: Which point in time and space does Valérie Favre depict here? Are we facing the total destruction of the world as we know it? Is this, in other words, the moment just after the end of mankind, which has extinguished itself? Are we looking into a quasi Big Bang situation, into the genesis of new galaxies? Might it be that Favre's figures have pulverized - or that they now are invisible to us, perhaps heading further into the sky to discover new universes?
Poetry, a matter of hope
Fragment 0, 220 × 200 cm, ink and oil on canvas, Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchmann Zürich
Dear Valerie, I have been following your work with great interest for many years now and I can say that the exchange with you as artist and as a friend is always a huge pleasure. Thank you very much for accepting this interview spontaneously! Speaking of the new universes in your work, which I mentioned earlier, to what extent does the principle of hope play a role in your work? Do you think we can be so keen to daring to hope for a better world in the face of self-made disasters?
What I think very sincerely is that the world has never been beautiful and pleasant, especially for us women. I am a realistic pessimist. What we are currently experiencing is perhaps nothing compared to the catastrophe as silent as this virus, that climate change and the collapse of biodiversity will cause as upheavals, viruses are, will be, will be part of the series of future catastrophes if we do not drastically change the models of community of life on this small planet. The consequences that this will have in all the different societies will increase even more, for example the difference between rich and poor, and will undoubtedly lead to multiple regressions in terms of acquired rights, for example for women, who will also be the first great victims... The problem is that humans have great difficulty in anticipating the consequences of their actions, and unfortunately capitalist society only aims at short-term objectives. Perhaps one hope is that this virus could allow us to avoid the drifts... without having to account for it quickly.
In your opinion, what is the mission of contemporary art and what is the role of artists in our society? Could artists be catalysts in a process of transformation?
I don't know if artists can do anything. In my opinion artists have lost a lot of their status as well as politicians and economists etc. Nobody is really listened to anymore, except dictators and puppets - and besides how to hear something in all this hubbub? I don't think contemporary art has a mission to accomplish. Art should be free and transgressive, it show parallel paths... But I don't see many paths. And the role of the artist: I personally ask myself the same question. Starting out from a status of "outside" visionaries, we have developed a kind of industrialization of art, where we produce artists like employees in companies ... but where is the poet's place? It would be precisely this subtle and abstract place of poetry that is in demand today! Poetry should be given more space than it ever had... and here, paradoxically, I have a lot of hope.
You are perceived as an excellent storyteller. What role does storytelling play in times of crisis and great upheaval?
Storytelling has always been super important; from the stories we tell children to put them to sleep to the stories of all the cultural traditions of all our civilizations past and present. I think we can't do without 'storytelling'; it keeps us alive.
Among other subjects, you are intensively involved in politics, philosophy, film and theatre. What other disciplines do you imagine creating an interesting dialogue with art? What could such a dialogue look like? What new ideas could this dialogue create?
I am thinking, for example, of the association 'Les nouveaux commanditaires' which brings art projects to places that do not necessarily have art as a framework, and which operates in villages and in various places. This is a great initiative. It's like a kind of folk theatre that once had a good reputation. So it is undoubtedly in the multidisciplinary, in the diagonal of the weird, where probably new forms of artistic experience are made. On the other hand, nothing can replace the time you have to devote to the work, which is one of the few positive aspects of the current confinement.
If a better world could be reborn from the ruins of the old world, what would it look like to you? What do you wish for a better future?
A paradigm’s shift. For example, in the art world, perhaps rethinking all this multiplication of art fairs and biennials? Where you shall have been (everywhere), have seen (everything) or should have participated in. At the university where I teach, and in the gallery that represents me in Berlin, we are looking for other possibilities, whether it be in the field of production and distribution, for example in virtual space.
Of course, it's absolutely different from reality, for example with a piece in situ. The virtual is the work itself. This opens up new perspectives. It reminds me of a laboratory in which the entire imagination of the world is flattened on screens, as if one were in the brain of an author, and connects to one of his synapses, perhaps all synapses at once, until he becomes one of his synapses to have a live virtual experience... I'm kidding.
It is often said that the strength of art lies in daring to make a new start, again and again, boldly and fearlessly, tirelessly recreating on a blank sheet of paper. What are your personal strategies for finding your way in a new work? For example, do you use certain rituals or techniques?
I have certainly translated consciously and unconsciously a lot of events from my life into my work. In this current moment of confinement and transformations that we all are going through, I notice that nothing replaces time, that we can finally, though perhaps only for some of us privileged ones, have the time in front of us to set up our achievements underway. Even if it's not exactly a strategy...
And one last question: Who else do you think should be featured in the re:future Lab interview series? Who else should we present?
To explore the causalities of what is happening to us, I would suggest meeting the philosopher Hartmut Rosa. And anyway to read his book "Unverfügbarkeit". I also would suggest meeting poets and writers, all those, who are able to handle the space of emotions without noise, in silence.
Dear Valerie, thank you very much for this conversation and your personal insights. As always, it was extremely enriching to listen to your thoughts - it has been a privilege starting this talk series with you!
Text and interview: Madeleine Schwinge
Translation from French: Cécile Nebbot
The interview was conducted in April 2020.
It has been edited for clearness.