A conversation with Farah Khelil on her exhibition “Graines de pensée”

05 November 2018

© Copyright 2018 James Scarborough | What The Butler Saw 


Farah Khelil was born in Carthage, Tunisia. She graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Tunis. She holds a PhD in Art and Art Sciences from Paris/Pantheon – Sorbonne. She lives and works in Paris.

Graines de pensée is her first solo exhibition at the Selma Feriani Gallery, Tunis, Tunisia. Her work in the show includes installations made from documents, objects, refuse and plant elements. There is also a slide show, collages, and a new take on wallpaper. The show is based on Boudhour, a text by her grandfather, Bachir Majdoub, in which he ruminates on his experience with Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.


JS
: Pieces like LignesHistoire en flottaison, and Effet de surface present magically sophisticated if not alchemical transmutations of text into image into object. In so doing, you subvert the physical objects themselves, their content, their original meaning and, by extension, the respective processes by which we view each object. Why the subversion and what is its source?

FK: After my studies at the Fine Arts in Tunis (Tunisia), I went to Paris (France) to pursue a Ph.D. It was an opportunity for me to see for the first time the works exhibited in museums in Europe. I realized that I had a background in art without having seen any work live, but only through the medias, the documents and the texts. My practice has turned towards the relationship between distance and real, towards a critique of the notions of history and tradition, trying to measure the impact of this distance on the personal and collective consciousness.

JS: How did your grandfather Bachir Majdoub’s experience of Rodin’s The Thinker contribute to the work in this show?

FK: Bachir Majdoub is the elder brother of my grandfather Abdelaziz Majdoub. “Graine de pensée” is completely written with the text of Bachir Majdoub. Moreover the title refers to the title of the collection of Majdoub: Boudhour, that means “seeds” in Arabic. I found myself in this poetic text of the author’s encounter with sculpture. The Rodin Thinker is the “iconic” image of the thinker in his private solitude. And it is in a way the mirror of Majdoub, because it reflects an image of thought, it puts forward thought as gesture, a thought that touches that of the other by the image. This cycle of the reception of art highlights the movement, like an arrow, of the thought that Rodin immortalized and that Majdoub translated into his words and later I projected it into space.

JS: In a prior interview, you cited Marcel Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête, a collection of poems the text of some of which he obscured with colored paper cuts outs. Later, he turns them into sculpture by encasing them in plaster. It’s as if he translates the medium of poems into the medium of sculpture. Is that what you do, translate from one medium to another in order to unveil, examine, and explore different points of view?

FK: Exactly … but mostly because I think there is no border between the techniques and the media. I like all media equal, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the series called Point d’étape.

JSSolitude peuplée is a fascinating piece. At first it seems to be about solitude. It quickly becomes something else. You reproduce a copper etching by Claude-Auguste Berey in which the Princess of Soubise, a French noblewoman, plays peg solitaire. (A game we play by ourselves.) To the bottom left corner, you attache a postcard of Rodin’s The Thinker. (A man lost in thought.) You complicate the piece when you attach the beads with which one would play the game in real life. Beside adding collage-like verisimilitude to the piece, it also creates a dynamic tension between the static work and the ever-changing audience who looks at it. The beads are reflective. (With them, the piece reminds me of a contemporary update of Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait.) In real time, the artist, the viewer, the photographer – anyone – can see themselves reflected, albeit in a distorted manner, in real time. The piece recreates itself each time one looks at it. Can you walk us through its genesis, what informed it, and what it means to you personally?

FKSolitude peuplée is a bird’s eye view of a set of reprographed documents as well as a set of solitaire game balls. On the whole, the central element remains the loneliness of the thinker and the player. But indeed, this solitude returns to the loneliness of the photographer and that of the spectator to the model. There is a mise en abyme found in the reflection of the marbles, where you can see me in the studio taking a picture of the scene. Through Solitude peuplée, I wanted to highlight the optical, technical and organic device that generates the image. But also, that the private solitude of the artist as of the spectator, can only be populated by the things that exist equally and separately in the world, without any value or hierarchy.

JS: How does the work in this show continue and extend what you’ve done before? Are there recurring themes?

FK: This exhibition extends two books made in 2008 and 2009 : Technique mixte and Un livre aveugle, in which my relationship to the history of art and the distancing of reality took shape while questioning my personal painting practice. Today I can say that since ten years, I developed a polymorphic process that allows me today to understand my relationship to art and painting in particular.

JS: Impressionism and, especially, Postimpressionism required the viewer to literally connect the dots of each painting to grasp the subject matter. Do you make the similar albeit more intellectual demands of the viewer in a work like Solitude peuplée?

FK: Indeed, with Solitude peuplée it is a question of thinking, in a flat aesthetic, the relations between the things that inhabit the world equally. But also in all Graine de pensée exhibition. We can consider the exhibition as a single work, the relationships between each piece is a face of the same stone. unlike the modernist system of art, here it is not the content of the work that is questioned but its mode of exposure, display, setting space and its relationship to the viewer. The work is not accompanied by its information document, but carries its own reading in relation to the other.

JS: Where does inspiration come from? How long is the gestation period? Do you have a working process?

FK: It is a process that has started a long time ago. The workshop work for this exhibition in particular lasted two years. But it extends a process, that’s why I work in series, exhibitions are like notes on a document more than finished objects … My approach is guided in particular by philosophical readings and personal anecdotes. This often answers metaphysical questions.

JS: If your work can be characterized as a combination of research and experimentation, then how would you describe the finished product?

FK: A waypoint. A landmark in thought.

JS: Do you work with a conscious plan or do you just go where an initial impetus takes you?

FK: An initial impulse is powered by intuition, chance and necessity. I try to express the gesture through something from the pre-language order.

JS: When did you know you wanted to be an artist? What resources were available in Tunisia? Who gave you your most significant encouragement?

FK: My father is a painter, but for me art has always been accompanied by theory beyond his practice. In the Fine Arts school some teachers induced in me the critical sense, which I later extended in my own relation to the world. In Tunisia, resources have always existed, but mediations were missing. fortunately today some platforms and internet facilitate this access.

JS: Who’s your one most significant artistic influence?

FK: There was not one. But it can be said that I learned art with Cezanne and his method, Broudthaers and his critical sense and Pierre Huyghe and his mode of exposure.

JS: How would you characterize the Tunisian art world? Its infrastructure: museums, galleries, critical apparatus, its auctions, if any, its collectors. How does it compare to the art world you know in Paris?

FK: The difference lies mainly in the structuring of the art market, different from that which exists in Europe. Tunisia is facing economic and social difficulties but exciting prospects are emerging for the world of culture. I am thinking of the creation of museums, the recent enhancement of heritage and the growing artistic and cultural initiatives.

JS: Consciously or not, does your work reflect or otherwise embody politics or the social order? If yes, how? If not, then what role do you think can play in politics?

FK: I do not think about politics explicitly in my work. I try to understand my relationship to the world and by extension our relationship to the world. To promote a singular artistic practice can contribute to accept diversity in a society questioning the role and place of individualities.

JS: What impact, if any, did the 2011 Arab Spring have on Tunisian culture? Is it a seismic shift?

FK: The revolts have embodied the culmination of a process of liberalization of thought at work for several decades. I remember that already in the 2000s the artistic projects stimulated students despite the lack of means and a certain bureaucratic lock. This revolt is above all economic and social and it has liberated society in its democratic demands.

JS: What are you working on now?

FK: I try to paint. I also question the place of the painting gesture in the light of its history in a multimedia and technological world.