Contemporary photographic family album

Interview by Christophe Cartier /

During Paris Photo month last October, part of your series Mother and Daughter II was thrust into the limelight. It was at the centre of a controversy, which focused on one of the images in the series, and ignored almost twenty years of your work on the theme of family. We won’t revisit the incident, but instead look back some of your other works from the past two decades.

Your parents are both artists. How influential were they on the development of your own work?

I like to think of it as something they gave me, from very early on I had access to their library as well as artistic exchanges with them. I learnt the techniques of photography and practised in the laboratory, developing in black and white. Discovering painting and the history of art gave me the desire to become an artist.

The flue - 2002

Why did you choose to work on the family as a theme?

The subject came naturally seeing as I had an abundance of models at home – my father, my mother, my brother even pets. Because of their own position, they naturally became my models thanks to their availability and their understanding. My work has nothing to do with the torments of everyday family life and the relational or biological links which arise from them. That said it is even less about a biographical reality. What I explore in my work is the notion of passing on the practice of art – a common language integrated into everyday life, experimenting, constructing a viewpoint and a dialogue between different forms (painting, photography and drawing etc). These elements are what interested me in the family rather than another subject.

Voyage sur l'Île de B. M.Ducruet - 1998

You’re saying it’s a work with your family?

It’s not a documentary. It’s a project with them. I was painted by my mother, photographed by my father, as a child and as an adult. So naturally I asked them to be part of my work. There was an interconnectivity running through all our works, which created new ideas, like a Russian doll. There were discussions such as how to represent a child or a father. My father dressed-up, pulled faces, took self-portraits, and that inspired me to do a series of self-portraits, but with a completely different goal.

There is more than just the simple representation of the father or the mother, but gradually we established a genealogy between our respective works – still lifes or other subjects which didn’t appear to have anything to do with the family.

Between us, we had a way of discussing and exchanging over our work which was often tumultuous. Our relationships weren’t those between parent and child. I was often told that I was lucky to have artists for parents who brought me up to be an artist as well, but this was an idealised image.

In reality it was very difficult, because each of us worked for ourselves. The interaction, the daily exchange about our work was only ever a discussion among artists.  And this came with all the pride and selfishness that you can imagine. I’ll say it again, it was very difficult.

Your first photograph is a self-portrait taken in a mirror.  You are 13 or 14 years old with half a baguette in your mouth. How close would you say that your work is to the idiocy described in Jean-Yves Jouannais’s book (l’Idiotie)? Both the book and your work Idioties were published in 2003.

In my 1984 portrait there is a direct link with Jouannais’s notion of the idiot.

“Idiocy relates to a sort of philosophy of understanding which is attentive to immediate experience – driven by experimentation.”

Selfportrait - 1984

From this picture came the series Performances of the ordinary and in particular the black and white self-portrait from 2000 with the sausage. I like the idea of playing out the same situation at different periods. This image might come back again in ten or thirty years.

Today the most pertinent link with the Idioties, as well as with the Performances of the ordinary, is the Femen movement. A female torso, breasts which are experimenting something other than a sexuality or eroticism. The body has become political object. I often put myself in front of the camera and wait to see what happens – like a daily exercise for my eyes. This helps me learn how to look at the body of a woman and to try to understand its use in society as it ages and goes through the various stages of life. The question of eroticism and sexuality do not really interest me.

Performances of the Ordinary - 2000

One of the images of your latest work Mother and Daughter II – or rather several because it was quadryptich depicting a kind of hybrid creature – was removed from a collective exhibition as part of the official selection of Paris Photo Month. Is there a link between what you say about Idioties, Performances of the ordinary and Mother and Daughter II?

Yes, of course. It is all part of the same thinking. As I said earlier, there is something quite playful here which is not a response to the eternal desire to see a female body necessarily through male (therefore eroticised) eyes. The series is a desire to distort the representation à la Pietà or other idealised maternal images which dominate the majority of the history of art.

The framing of your images in Mother and Daughter and in Family Rest reminds me of John Coplans and how he framed aspects of his own body.

The Rest - 2011

I knew his self-portraits and, after producing Mother and Daughter, discovered his book Body Parts published in 2003. He perfectly encapsulates the notion of grotesque (1) which structures the motifs in Mother and Daughter II. You can compare the images in Body Parts and Mother and Daughter if you are talking about form, but in reality the two works are completely different. In Coplans’s work there is an emphasis on the masculine body – strong, muscular, hairy and sexualised. It is about the moment, the erection, a vision guided by the masculine sexuality of the ‘tough guy’. This is reflected and multiplied. We are in “one time”, the time of his body.

Mother and Daughter II is about two juxtaposed bodies which unfold in space, one with the other. Some images are duplicated, others are not. There are no rules, no binarity. There is the idea that the panels can be rearranged at random, experimenting to obtain a new form. You could say that it is like a portrait of the ‘becoming-child’ concept of Deleuze – possibilities of construction which are deployed in time and space.

The images were essentially received as the oppression of the mother’s body on her daughter.

But for me it was more about becoming my daughter and imagining what she sees when confronted by this maternal figure. Here we are looking through the eyes of the child, and what the child sees has little in common with our idealised image of the breastfeeding infant and its mother.

Mother and Daugher I - 2001

Like I said for the 1984 portrait, there is the desire in all my work to replay images at different points in time. As you can see in Mother and Daughter I (2001), my project is not about producing a series which is older or newer, or less interesting or much better – but about allowing the works to interact with each other. The experiment is the subject of the works over time. The idea of technique is set aside.

Each series or individual image can be combined with another – this is where the hybridisation is situated.  The Lion from Mother and Daughter II reminds us of the lion tamer in Mother and Daughter I and so forth. My grotesque becomes the oeuvre over time…

[1] The word grotesque, originally a noun (1560s), from Italian grottesco (through Middle French), literally “of a cave,” from Italian grotta (see grotto).[1] The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome at the end of the 15th century. The word first was used of paintings found on the walls of basements of Roman ruins that were called at that time Le Grotte (The Grottoes) due to their appearance. Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English), grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such asHalloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, however, grotesque may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as sympathetic pity. More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras. (Wikipedia)

Test translated from french by Matthew Douglas Kay