An Interview of Zazie by Mohsen Elbelasy From somnium digitale 2
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1 – How long have you been considering yourself a surrealist ?
Like many surrealists, I think, I would tend to say that I was born like this. Another way of saying that I’ve been a surrealist since I was able to think, except of course, at first I didn’t know I was. I became a conscious surrealist – if such a thing may be said – when my high school art teacher told us about surrealism. I must have been 15 at that time if I remember correctly.
2 – During the 1990s and early 2000s, you made a technical breakthrough in the field of digital art. In your opinion, has the conservative view of certain surrealist groups towards digital art and the link between surrealism and technology now changed?
My opinion is that digital art doesn’t exist. There is Art or there is not, that’s all. An artist, especially if he is a surrealist as well, uses whatever means he wants. Between the artist and the tools with which he lives and creates, a dialogue develops. And just as we have the right to dialogue and associate with whoever we want, there is no need to lay down rules regarding techniques and tools, neither in Art, nor in life. No one thinks of talking about turpentine art or acrylic art or of airbrush art. All these references to the materials and tools used by artists are obsolete residues from a period when Art was still mired in craftsmanship. Dada and surrealism – and especially Duchamp – have put a definitive end to these divisions between artistic disciplines. Artist or poet is one and the same, they speak to the mind, although the approaches may differ here and there.
Very few surrealists and, when more widely considered, quite a few artists – with the exception of illustrators – seized on computer tools as they appeared in the beginnings of the WWW. When we went to the International Surrealist Exhibition in Prague in 1999, Pierre Petiot and I distributed 3 texts on the theme of Surrealism and Machines in a general indifference. With the very notable exception however of Martin Stejskal who rushed over to us and said “I co-sign”. We didn’t know Martin at the time, but when seeing his works we quickly understood what was the value and quality of his “I Co-Sign”. Martin’s interest in digital tools had been sparked by Andrew Lass who, though American, happened to be the oldest member of the Prague Surrealist group at the time. When we went to Martin Stejskal’s studio in Prague, there was a pile of books a good meter high lying on the floor near his computer. When I asked him what it was, he said it was the tutorials for Maya – a well known 3D software tool. I must say that I greatly admired his courage and patience. For my part, I take software tools just as they come to me and I very rarely read manuals and tutorials. You could say that in this matter I have an automatic approach – in the sense of automatic writing.
Bogartte had long ago experimented with the surreal possibilities of photocopiers and he started using computer tools as soon as he was able to access them. Bernard Dumaine who is extremely talented as regards drawing, and who worked in illustration, had also started experimenting, and we fraternized with him on this basis from the start. Samuel (Ribitch) Martin had done the same. But we must also mention Roberto Matta, who, aged over 90, had nevertheless begun to familiarize himself with 3D tools, although these tools remained rather difficult handle at the time. I also remember the almost physical reaction of Jean Benoît when I showed him my images. His reaction was partly coming from the traditional techno-phobic attitude of post-war surrealists, but something else was also mingled with it, something almost violent, stemming from the great rage for life that he had… Something like the observation that being 20 or 30 years younger, he would have seized these tools too.
Some time was required for Pierre and me to understand that the “conservatism” of many surrealists was not at all based on surrealist ideological purity, but more simply on some kind of intellectual laziness, some lack of will to experiment or learn, and in some cases even, on the rather surprising idea than in the particular case of digital art, the tool and not the artist would make the Art. This suggests is a winning recipe and one that should be much more disseminated: pick up brushes, colors and canvases and lock them in the same room, go on vacation, and when you come home you have masterpieces.
But whether within or beyond the surrealist milieu itself, other experiments performed by other actors were underway. I must cite here “The Surrealism Server” (1994-1999), probably the very first surrealist experience on the World Wide Web I believe, traces of which can still be found on the web. I also have to mention William Dubin, Barrett J. Erickson who was very active at the time and especially Stuart Inman who was probably the first to connect surrealists via the Internet by means of various e-mail lists — the only collective discussion medium available at that time. Henri Guegen too, who lived in Yves Tanguy’s house of in Locronan (Brittany) should be cited too because of his e-mail list (Liste Yves Tanguy) around which some researchers in computer science and telecommunications such as Olivier Zablocki and Olivier Auber, had gathered, both of them quite aware of artistic issues.
It is clear that even today, a large part of surrealists remain resolutely conservative and techno-phobic essentially for the reasons I indicated above. A century after Max Ernst’s famous phrase “While the feather makes the plumage, the glue does not make the collage” we will still find surrealists who consider that a collage may only be a real collage if it was made with scissors and genuine office glue and ceases to be a collage as soon as the artist uses computer glue. Is that not a strange and “surrealist” situation ? – in the journalist meaning of the word of course.
3 – Why don’t we currently see organized surrealist groups in Austria and Germany? What do you think is the reason?
I don’t really know. Historically speaking, it seems to me that the Austrian and German surrealists often went to France, as was the case for Max Ernst.
On the other hand, there are spontaneous or individual surrealists in Germany and Austria, but they do not refer to the term “surrealism” even though they are actually surrealists. The monochrom group in Austria for example could and even should be considered as surrealist, but since they don’t use the term surrealism, no one seems to consider them to be. As for surrealism, it would be necessary to judge on acts, on actual orientations and manifestations rather than on labels that each one uses as he wants, often in a purely “artistic” sense , which is debatable.
4 – You practice visual poetry through your photos and your works. Overall, what is your conception of poetry, whether written or visual and embodied in your visual universes?
In fact, the genesis of each image is different each time. Sometimes it’s a dream that I capture as an image, instead of writing it down verbatim. This is for example the case with Entrevue which corresponds to a nightmare, where I was at the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, in the open air, on a platform whose floor was made of glass and where I had to move forward without being able to grasp anything to feel – and be – safe.
In other cases, images find their source in my state of mind at the time, whether it is sadness as in Sans Issue (2016) or Fallen Angel, or anger as in Frauen an die Macht or Late Revenge.
These are what I call Mindscapes, mental landscapes ,. I realized recently that it was quite close to an idea created by Matta with his Inscapes.
Sometimes my images are simply daydreams like in Au Bord de L’Abysse, or romantic images that I construct from my photos of sculptures of women, often made in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris or in other Parisian cemeteries.
Images are my favorite medium. Other people write, but I prefer pictures. They are more subtle. You can understand me through my images as long as you observe them long enough and up close.
Unlike some artists, I hardly ever repeat myself, except when I’m doing series to explore an idea or technique, but even then, the images are all different.
In short, I don’t have any personal style because styles make me bored and I’m not a robot.
5 – I will mention the names of some people and you will tell me what they mean to you: Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Matta, Jean Benoît, J. Karl Bogartte, Ribitch, Blue Feathers, Pierre Petiot.
I was fortunate enough to have a somewhat special connection with the work of Max Ernst, because Günther Metken, the uncle of one of my closest friends, was one of Max Ernst’s German biographers. Metken had known Ernst well and they were friends. So I often heard Günther Metken tell anecdotes about Ernst.
Duchamp… Duchamp fascinates me as he fascinates almost everyone else. Contemporary Art drew a lot from Duchamp’s work, without really understanding what the real issues were, most of the time. This has led to an art form which now fulfills the same function as the 19th century Art Pompier. Except regarding the innocence. Duchamp didn’t deserve this and he had done everything to avoid that.
Matta fascinates me too. He was one of the re-inventors of surrealism in the late 1930s in a time when Dali’s political opinions were no bearable and and when Dali did not contribute much any longer theoretically speaking anyway. Matta has always been interested in science and in many ways, with a little attention, we realize that he often happened to be a visionary. He has always been quite sensitive to the movements which, in the second half, of the 20th century tried to prolong or go beyond “classical” surrealism. He worked with Asger Jorn for example.
Matta was originally an architect and so am I. His ideas about perspective and his special sense of space appeal to me in his work. There is always depth in Matta’s canvases, in every sense of the word depth. He is basically a pupil of Duchamp. Perhaps even the only real pupil that Duchamp ever had. He attempted to push Duchamp’s perspectivist ideas further than Duchamp himself, and to some extent he may be considered to have succeeded in that. Matta like Duchamp is sensitive to the temporal dimension of the world – the 4th dimension, that is Time which manifests and unfolds in the movement.
Jean Benoît... It’s a friendship, a personal relationship. We liked each other a lot. I went to see him in his studio every time I came to Paris, that is to say about every 3 months. But we rarely discussed surrealism, nor did he exert any artistic influence on me. He was delicate, humorous, excessive in many things, and of a remarkable intellectual honesty. Visiting him was like the sun was rising
J. Karl Bogartte? Yes. He’s a longtime friend. I love the imaginary world that he constantly creates and develops, the very special atmosphere that emanates from his images and even more from his texts, which are truly enchanting. We have often worked together. I like his humor too. He says that I am his “sister in alchemy”.
I really liked Ribitch for his work, for his kindness and his humor. What was remarkable and even impressive about him was his ability to constantly learn new things and experiment in all directions, without being the least bit fixed on any style. His latest works, especially digital ones, are remarkable. He also contributed a lot to the surrealist movement, among others, by working on the two volumes of Hydrolith with Eric Bragg and by various texts in several books. He would also say, “It’s weird, but every time I give a lecture on surrealism in a school there is some kind of riot not long after”.
Blue Feathers and La Belle Inutile were created around the same time. These are quite old groups with a small number of members. Over the years, I have developed a special relationship with Dale Houstman whose humor and certain subtle and always unexpected aspects of his work, both visual and textual, I love.
I met Pierre Petiot on the Internet in this Yves Tanguy email list I spoke of above (around the end of 1997). We never cease to work together since this time. He is more a poet and a theoricist, but he also happens to have visual insights and ideas, athough sometimes somewhat abstract.
6 – What do you think of the collective activities and cooperation within the current international surrealist movement, in terms of negative and positive points?
To tell the truth, I have some difficulty in identifying collective activities and cooperation within the current international surrealist movement. Sometimes, although quite rarely, a group proposes a game or an inquiry and most often people from the movement respond. Likewise, when surrealism is attacked, people unite and react as a collective. This is also the case when a group offers an exhibition, people then send works. We can therefore speak of co-operation in the sense that, in effect, people operate together.
But yet I am not sure that this is enough to allow speaking of surrealist collective activities, in the sense that this expression happened to have had at certain times in the history of surrealism, that is to say in the sense of an adventurous work carried out collectively and passionately, in the context of a common research or exploration. Bernard Dumaine has been making visual exquisite corpses with artists from everywhere world wide. He even made quite a big exhibition of these Cadavres Exquis in California some year ago. As regards the collective works, that we call « collaborations », of which that I spoke above and which are in fact more of the order of games, they are generally set up on basis of a theme, and it seems to me that we are — there as well – perhaps a little closer to what could be called collective surrealist activity. But it also seems to me that we are still far from it, because a theme is not enough to produce the level of integration of minds required for allowing to speak of a really surrealist collective activity.
I will try to clarify things a little with an example … There was a period in the past, when surrealist exhibitions were constructed as what the Situationists later called “situations to be lived”. That is to say that it was not a case of a hanging, or a display of artworks, nor of a collection of works gathered around a given theme, nor even of a staging of these works.
Rather than a staging, it was in fact a putting into action of surrealism itself, where the works intervened only as components, and whose real goal was to make visitors feel almost physically the point that had been reached by surrealist thought and action, or to put it better, by the surrealist adventure, at this precise moment in History. It seems to me that the realization of this type of exhibition cannot be achieved without a common reflection, a common thought, and a really surrealist collective activity.
It would be quite possible to achieve similar things on the WWW today by hybridizing both what has come to be called “reality” and what journalists have decided to call “virtual”. Some artists did quite convincing things in this direction in the early days of the WWW. It requires people to learn a few technical skills, which takes a bit of time and a bit of effort. But above all, it requires that people stop believing in the basically journalistic and therefore false and ridiculous concept of “the virtual”. It has been suggested, and to some extent proven, that some artworks on the walls of prehistoric caves were designed to come alive when a torch passes by. A sort of cinema equivalent, already. The “virtual” of the cave age.
7 – What is permeating Zazie’s imagination these days? Will we see it in your next works? What would you like to express in the near future?
As you can imagine, it is impossible for me to answer such a question. Everything is always completely unpredictable.
8 – Why did you choose to include in this book poems and texts by: Pierre Petiot, J Karl Bogartte, Dale Houstman and Alice Massenat? Are their poems and texts the closest to your work? Or is it related to presenting some kind of collective work with the members of “La Belle Inutile” the group to which you belong?
It is essentially a matter of friendships and poetic affinities. I feel good in their artistic company. Neither Alice Massénat nor Dale Houstman belong to La Belle Inutile which has always been a fairly informal group anyway. Dale is a member of Blue Feathers.