Benjamin Renoux is having his first solo show in the United States at the Baert Gallery in Los Angeles. His introspective work questions the relationships between identity and representations of the Real, expressed in a variety of mediums. He shares with us his Los Angeles experience, the process of making this new show and his collaboration with the Baert Gallery. Benjamin studied Cinema and History of Art in San Francisco and Paris before receiving a Master’s degree in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins.
By starting with a large amount of experimentations, Benjamin’s process is never linear, always following complex steps, until very considered final results emerge; his experimentations are crucial as they feed on the development of the work. Merging Studies, a series of prints made from 3D-modeling portraits based on 3D scans of the artist, illustrate the genesis and process leading to the ultimate form of the sculptures, Falling Caryatids, which suggest statues in relaxed but momentarily-held positions, as if they are tired of fulfilling their task as the foundations of a building – inspired by 3D-modeling software, where non-physical objects can be merged with others effortlessly.
“I feel despair and anxiety in the world we live in today. These caryatids are tired, taking a break from this world they do not recognize themselves in.”
After casting his model, Renoux asks him to dance and play with the cast of his own head to create a series of painted photographs entitled Self-Portraits. The model’s body is blurred in order to emphasize the transience of time, while the facial features of the cast head remain in focus. Then, with his hands and body, Renoux adds abstractions in black oil paint on top of the photograph. In the artist’s words, “The physical contact with the printed photograph creates a dialogue with the photographed double-representation of the model and goes through an act of appropriation, turning the image(s) of someone else into a self-portrait, questioning the notion of how identity can be represented.”
In the new series of moving images, The Gaze of Medusa, Renoux purposefully takes photography’s unique dilemma to its extreme conclusion, presenting us with a series of videos shot from photographic images, an act of image-making where the achievement of perfect focus becomes an impossible act, by considering the photographer’s never-ending pursuit of perfect focus – to reveal something of the photographic practice and the veracity of the photographic image. Alluding to his own previous explorations regarding the mythology of Medusa as an illustration of [the psychoanalyst Jacques] Lacan’s mirror stage, the artist implicates the photographer and the viewer in her power, turning into stone anyone who would look her in the eyes. While the fleeting act of photography is itself stretched to infinity, the characters we observe appear to be brought to the present, to the time of the viewer, as well as frozen in time. This multiplication flattens the time of the work, of the reflection, and of the viewer, calling into question which representation is the most alive, the closest to reality.
In a world where constant evolutions shape human perception itself, Benjamin’s work continues a back and forth dialogue between traditional practices and new technologies, expressing a contemplative quest for identity of our time, with a strong awareness of where we come from.
You told me that you are experiencing a unique moment in LA. What is happening there right now?
I have been to Los Angeles many times and I really feel the city has changed a lot in the past four years. Downtown LA, among other districts, is becoming a place where all kinds of talented people are meeting, exchanging ideas. It is a very interesting dynamic cultural place to experience right now. A lot of artists (from fine art to fashion designers, to young movie directors) are moving here from all around the world. Rents are still affordable compared to New York, London or Paris, there is a lot of space available. Also, there is no doubt that the weather is making a huge difference as well.
How was the process for this first show outside Europe? How did you develop this body of work?
I always need to see the space where I am going to exhibit, then ideas come to me. I created all the works at the same time, as I always do, for almost a year. Each series feeds each other and this way I can end up with artworks of different materials and medium, but with a coherent continuity.
You previously lived in Paris, a city that is specially known for having many caryatids in buildings. What was your first interest in the caryatids? Why are they tired?
First, I wanted to present an updated vision of caryatids. This new series of sculptures come from studies on paper (Merging Studies) where I merged 3D scans of myself with geometrical shapes. What I like in 3D scans, is that the virtual shape is never completely closed, and the computer automatically closes the empty parts. This results is a virtual sculpture that looks like an ancient broken statue. The 3D scans become virtual ruins. On the other hand, we live in a world where virtuality and reality are getting more and more mixed together, and limits get more and more blurry between these two worlds. By making my new series of sculptures (Falling Caryatids), I wanted to re-interpret the caryatids the same way that I worked on my studies on the computer, like if virtuality was becoming real. Then a caryatid has a strong symbolic because of mythology, but also because it is used in architecture. It is a theme that has inspired artists and architects in the past. Victor Hugo was interpreting the caryatids of Paris like the symbol of the people on which the rich society feeds itself. Therefore, these series can also be seen as a political statement. I feel despair and anxiety in the world we live in today. These caryatids are tired, taking a break from this world they do not recognize themselves in. I create physical objects in concrete, where the imperfections of the casting process are retained as part of the reality of representation, allowing the paradox between the roughness of the material, the fragility of the human body and identity to be explored. Finally, in the context of my work and research on identity, I wanted to use a man model in this project, while caryatids are always women.
Merging is an important action for this body of work. Your background in History of Art and Cinema brings you many different influences and techniques. Tell me about the influences for this show and in your interest in merging things?
Like the caryatids, merging the representation of a body with a geometrical shape is like including human in a piece of architecture, whether it’s virtual like in the studies on paper, or real like in the sculptures. It is also a way to fade the human body into a structure with no soul and bring an interesting contract between two entities that are not meant to be merged together. This project can also be seen as a proposition on plinth. Plinths have always been use to support and enhance statues. Here, the statue is on the ground, entirely part of the plinth that remains the highest part of the sculpture. I think that the fact that I have studied cinema brought me a strong awareness of images and analysis of movement. It made me step back from the world we live in that is surrounded by images. I like to work with series as if each still image was take out of a film.
The merging studies are your experiments for your sculptures, initially you use your image, but for the sculptures you use a model?
It made sense for me to use a model and not myself, because I was interested in the process an artist has to go through to create the reproduction of a human body. It can be through photography, but in these sculptures it was through casting. I wanted to use one anonymous model in order to talk about representation in general, and not the representation of a particular human being.
Your body is imprinted in the sculptures, through the physical making and in the canvas when you paint with your hands. You have a constant obsession with working on top of printed surface
I actually do. And I started to work by painting on top of photographs. It is an act of appropriation of the image of someone else or of something else. It questions identity and how it can be represented. I have a physical interaction with the image, and when I paint on top of a photograph, I imagine the model is in front of me, in real. It’s like believing the unreal is real and I start from that.
“What fascinates me is the relationship between the image we all have of body, and how impossible it is to reproduce the reality of human body.”
When you asked a dancer to dance with his own head, what were you looking for?
I am interested in how people can react with the representations of their own body. We are used to seeing images of ourselves through photography, or through our reflection in a mirror. But most people discover their body in new way once they see a 3D scan of themselves, or a cast of their face or body. I wanted to capture this new discovery the model was experimenting, and wanted to let him express himself through dance improvisation. Like Joseph Kosuth’s work on the chairs, there was the real body, and the representation of the body through casting. I captured this through photography, adding another layer of representation. Once the photographs where printed on canvas, I painted on top of it with my hands and body. I was performing an act of appropriation and called them Self-portrait (Valentin); Valentin being the name of the model.
Why is black such an important colour in your work?
Black is for me the most neutral colour to start with. The most important is the shape of the trace that I make with black oil paint on the photograph. My movements, my body prints, the violence or the softness, more than the colour itself. However, black has had all kind of symbolic meanings through history and civilisations. Black is the colour of the night, of the shadow, of sleep, but also the colour of the ink to write. During the Antiquity, romans thought that the human body was containing black blood that was the origin of melancholia. It’s called the spleen.
It is interesting that you are using very sophisticated technology and a variety of techniques. What medium do you prefer to work with?
There is no medium I prefer. All that I want is to make works that follow my thoughts, my researches, and my analysis of the world around me, no matter if it ends up as a drawing or a video or a sculpture, or a painted photograph or anything else.
What fascinates you in the reproduction of the human body?
What fascinates me is the relationship between the image we all have of body, and how impossible it is to reproduce the reality of human body, through photography, or 3D scanning, or casting, or any other way or “copying” reality, like a mirror, for example. The “mirror stage” theory developed by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is one of the genesis of my practice. Lacan says that we start building our identity from the moment we recognize our body in the reflection of a mirror, which is between 6 and 18 month old. From that stage, the baby will be aware of his body and that he is an entire entity. Nonetheless, the image we get in a mirror is, also, an incomplete copy of reality. It is an illusion of the Real, it is just a reflection copying in two dimensions our reality that has many dimensions. That would suggest that our identity is based on an illusion, on something that is not true reality. And we carry this through all our existence. Reproducing the human body through all kinds of techniques that I use is like a way to make more accurate the image we have of ourselves, even though a true reproduction is impossible to make. What would happen if a young child would recognize himself for the first time in a 3D scan, or a photography, or a statue of himself?
The myth of the Medusa plays a continuous research point in your work. What is your continuous fascination?
Medusa is a fascinating myth for me, because it has been used as a metaphor of psychoanalysis theories as well as in theory of photography. For example, Medusa, while seeing her face for the first time, reflected into the shiny shield of Athena (who commissioned Perseus to go cut Medusa’s head), experiences the mirror stage. This is why she is always represented with a horrified face because she realizes for the first time how ugly and scary she is. On the other hand, she has the power to turn into stone every living being that looks at her in her eyes. This has been used as a metaphor for photography. When a photograph captures a scene, everything gets frozen for eternity, just like whoever looks at Medusa in the eyes becomes a statue of stone. On top of that, this myth interestingly reproduces the concept of photography. Indeed, after Perseus cuts Medusa’s head, her horrified face stays like printed in the shield, and this is why Athena is always represented with the horrified face of Medusa on her shield. This is like a photograph in a myth that appeared way before photography was invented. By the way, Medusa’s terrible power to turn people into stone remained with her image after her death, and this is a good metaphor questioning reproduction of reality. This image remaining in the shield has something a bit more magical than photography.
Finally, there is the notion of time that is similar to the act of photography. First, it takes less than a second for Medusa to freeze you to stone, just like the photographer freezes a scene by pushing the button. Second, Perseus had to cut the head of Medusa and bring it to Athena. But Medusa immediately turned herself into stone while seeing her reflection in the shield. Then how to cut the head of a statue with a sword? Perseus had to find this accurate time while Medusa was between flesh and stone. A bit before, or a bit later, it would not work. This is very similar to what the photographer experiences while capturing the right moment in time.
“There are billions of new images created everyday. What does it say about the world we live in?”
What does your work say about the world around you?
I follow the news very carefully and I research and observe a lot. Thanks to my previous studies, I have a strong knowledge of History and History of Art. People have always struggled with identity (often related to religions) but the world we live in is split between reality and virtuality. Through the new technologies, there is a confusion, diffusion and affirmations of identities of all kinds, as well as a rise of egos and affirmation of the self. This can be applied to each of us individually, but also to nations or groups of people who are fighting for what they strongly believe their identity and community is. New technologies, Internet and social media, have literally changed the geopolitics of today, as well as how each individual sees and understands themselves. My work questions all these new pages of History, in relationship with the past. There are billions of new images created everyday. What does it say about the world we live in?
Words Antonio Carvalho e Castro Images Courtesy of Benjamin Renoux