I wanted to start with Gustave Courbet. Thinking about the two works on show in The Hugh Lane, La Fontaine du Réalisme and Le Fantôme du Réalisme, could you talk through what interests you in him as a figure, as an artist, and talk through the thought process of …
…getting to the piece?
From Courbet to the fountain.
I can’t remember the name of the book I was reading – on art and social practice – and he comes up early on as one of these artists that you could fit into this kind of category due to his interaction with the revolution in Paris and how he participated in that and used his own practice or skills or whatever you want to call it within that area. (1) I was reading about his Manifesto in this particular book and that was the starting point. I was interested in the Manifesto in that it talks about defining your own time and making work you want to make for yourself that represents the time that you are in and that can transfer or translate into any period of time. That’s what interests me about it.
We’re probably talking four or five years ago when I came to that and even then in the process of putting forward a proposal to the Centre Culturel Irlandais [CCI] based on Courbet and the Manifesto I would have changed the way I was thinking about it a lot. That was the starting point and I used it as a proposal to the Centre Culturel Irlandais to do a three month residency there. The proposal I put forward was to research the temporary pavilion that he built. Courbet put in 14 paintings to the 1855 Universal Exhibition; 11 were chosen and three weren’t. He was put out by that so he took all of them and he built a temporary pavilion right next to the main pavilion and he exhibited his work and that’s when he produced this pamphlet – the Manifesto – that would act as a kind of catalogue to the work. (2)
So the pavilion is an act of protest? The provision of an alternative space?
Absolutely. Building his own space to exhibit his work the way he wanted because to him the paintings are all seen or they’re not seen; do you know what I mean? What I was originally interested in was the temporary space because it fits into what I’ve been doing – building temporary structures, in Georgia, in museum grounds, in St Anne’s Park. So I was interested in that aspect of it. When I went out to Paris I was toying with the idea of making a film and I was going to all these different locations and reading… and along the way kept coming up with all this information about fountains and how fountains were used at these expositions as markers for the event. They were very spectacular markers for the event, to show off technology, new designs and new materials, which again would be something I would be very interested in and caught my attention. You’ll see fountains in most cities but in Paris in particular you can’t go down a street without seeing a fountain; it might not be working but you’ll see the remains of the fountain. So you have the architectural aspect to it and obviously on the social level these fountains were being produced to bring clean water to the city, to stop disease, so it’s about the development of the city as well and looking after your citizens. That’s what really interested me.
So I was going out and documenting these fountains, the few that remained from these expositions – some had been put out in parks and things like that – and it just wasn’t working for me. This film that I was trying to make just seemed really staid and dry; then I starting playing around with the idea of actually building a fountain. Because it relates very much to the site that I was in, which is something that is important to me. You have this beautiful courtyard in the CCI that is nearly begging for this sculptural piece of work. So after thinking about it and researching it I got to that point I talked to Nora [Hickey M’Sichili] who’s the Director and put forward the proposal to do this particular piece of work for their courtyard, which she was happy to do.
And the fountain [La Fontaine du Réalisme] was made from items you found locally, items from the centre and items you purchased or found. Going back to the idea of Courbet making paintings of his time, this is a fountain that is unmistakably from now as opposed to a nineteenth century fountain.
Very much so.
Some of the materials you use – like the paddling pools – they degrade or they burst. When you think of public fountains they can be hugely elaborate permanent structures, however, your fountain was only installed as a temporary structure. I was thinking about time in relation to your work and it seems to percolate through it, and with this work you have the phantom, the ghost of the sculpture installed in the gallery space [Le Fantôme du Réalisme]; there’s this relationship between the original construction of the fountain and the way it is shown in the exhibition.
It’s all of those things – moving it forward or moving it sideways – I don’t know what you want to call it. It’s trying to build upon in some way but it also relates back to that notion of the maintenance of historical statues. I was talking to you before about how they wrap statues in these gardens and that really interests me. It’s hard to describe; it is a ghost in some ways. It’s just a remnant of something and yet it has this kind of presence. Again the materials are really important because in some ways they’re really cheap disposable materials but on an environmental level they’re not very disposable.
Again in your work DemocraCity (3) there is a waste disposal site and there is a reference to time, almost beyond a human sense of time.
Or a slippage between history and the future and where we find ourselves in that conversation. Obviously I draw on history to produce works that I think in some way reflect where I am or where we are.
Speaking of history is the fountain a kind of monument to Courbet?
I don’t know if it’s a monument to Courbet. I think it’s more a monument to monuments or a monument to civilisation. The development of civilisation is something that really interests me. Even in that notion of discussing environmental issues, it’s the development of civilisation that has brought us to that kind of conversation.
And certain processes or products that we think of as very civilised are actually very destructive?
Well there’s slippage on that always. Technology has done so much for us but it has also put us in this situation where we’re uncertain about our climate. But we also went to the moon and we have exciting adventures based on this drive that we have. So that notion of technology is very simplistic in that sense but it’s that drive by humans to advance constantly which I think is really, really interesting. Obviously we’re living in a time where that advancement is so rapid, even from when I was a kid ‘til now. I’m kind of in awe of that and yet I pick these materials that are throwaway. I build really throwaway, disposable objects and materials even though they might have quite monumental aspects to them. Whereas in Cliona’s piece where she’s really using today’s technology to create work, I’m not. (4) I’m kind of toying and dabbling and pretending, which is fine as well. And that I guess is theatrical and in some ways – not magical but illusionary. Again with the piece in the CCI the use of the theatre lights represents an aspect of that environment, because they were there.
And it’s installed in The Hugh Lane in a theatrical manner.
To try and enhance it… and what starts as one object, a three dimensional sculpture, is exhibited here first of all as a photographic work, which I don’t consider documentation; I consider that a piece of work. Then we have this sculptural piece which was built for here, for this show. That again somehow relates back to the two earlier works but moves it somewhere else.
And you’re going to remake the fountain in Paris. So it almost comes full circle? (5)
It’s a funny one in that sense. I don’t have a problem doing it because it’s part of an exhibition of a body of work and because it was built there it’s fine. In some ways I’d like to build it in a totally different environment to see to how…
How it translates?
If it does or it doesn’t. I think very much that the courtyard at the CCI gives it a presence as well. Maybe that’s in my own head… It’s in an incredible area; the Sorbonne… this site built for the development of knowledge, when it was what we would consider barbaric, yet that part of the city is all about that.
In putting together the Phoenix Rising exhibition, and maybe it’s not explicit, one of the things I was thinking about in relation to cities was how ideas translate between different places or don’t, and also how they translate across time historically. Working in an art museum you are aware of the shifts in the reception of certain artworks. This is maybe something in the other works you’ve made around monuments – the way that objects can embody certain values but then those values are degraded – or the opposite.
And you throw a different material into that kind of conversation – like using plastic instead of bronze. I guess that’s what I’m very interested in: that notion of history but trying to make it contemporary it in some way as in how that ideology got us to this point and how you represent that in some way. I’m not saying I do that but that’s part of the process for me.
And the audience for your work – is that part of the process?
Absolutely, when you stick something into a courtyard, particularly a place that has a library and students who are studying law or accountancy or whatever, you have a very different audience going through that building than something that’s exhibited in a gallery space that’s defined in a particular way. So that’s important. And again how that translates into different environments I find really interesting.
(1) The painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) played an active role in the Paris Commune of 1871.
(2) The works rejected by the jury of the Universal Exposition included Courbet’s major works, A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) and The Artist’s Studio (1854-5). His own exhibition building was constructed on the Avenue Montaigne. The introduction to the catalogue of this solo exhibition is usually known as the “Realist Manifesto”.
(3) DemocraCity (2011), single channel animation, 7.35mins.
(4) La Fontaine du Réalisme is included in the exhibition, Mark Clare : Que sais-je ? at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris from 13 March to 16 April 2015.
(5) Cliona Harmey’s installation, Fixed Elsewhere (2014) is also included in Phoenix Rising.
See www.markclare.com for further information on the artist’s work.