Sâadane Afif (*1970, Vendôme), one of the most prominent French artists in the international art scene, adapts commission as his key artistic strategy in producing, mediating and expanding art. A postmodern wanderlust in search of quotations, assemblages, interpretations, mutative objects, he departs from the most diverse range of materials to arrive at the most distilled form of objects (or works of art in modernist term ), await yet another metamorphosis; because for him, possibilities in plural noun is the governing word.
The interview was conducted in Sâadane’s home / studio in Berlin in July 2010. Here, the artist talks about his modus operadi of commissioning authors to write songs and lyrics inspired from his works and his own creative process as a “hijacking” of the music production process into the visual arts field.
Selina Ting, Sept 2010
On Commission as a Production Method
Selina Ting [ST]: How did you start producing art in this particular method of artistic collaboration or delegation? Can one say that your 2004 solo show [Melancholic Beat, Museum Folkwang, Essen (Germany)] was a watershed in your method of art production?
Sâadane Afif [SA]: Yes, you are right. It’s a small show in Essen, and I wasn’t given a proper space or a proper budget. So I decided to show four existing pieces but I was a bit frustrated since I usually show new work in my exhibitions. Then I had in mind the idea of asking someone to write lyrics related to my work. I asked the artist Lili Renyaud-Dewar and she gave me four songs. That’s how I started.
ST: Technically, how does the collaboration work?
SA: The first thing is that you have to be very clear with your collaborators and with the statue of the piece. So, I wrote a commission statement which explains to the authors.
ST: You use the word “statement”, not “instruction”?
©Saadane Afif. Left: Montana Blues (detail), 2005, neon light, black adhesive letters, white translucent Plexiglas, light-gray light box, electronic dimmer, and transformer (in two parts). Installation view, Moscow Biennial, 2005. Right: View of “58:22 and Some Words,” Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, 2007. All images with courtesy of the artist et la courtesy de la Galerie Michel Rein.
SA: It’s kind of instruction as well, because I didn’t say come with whatever you want. First I will write the statement about the work that I am showing, something between naïve writings and factual information. The commissioned texts must be in the form of songs, lyrics or poems and each text has to be related to one piece of the work, so they have to keep the same title and they will be shown on the wall together with the work, in a kind of imitation of the information panels you can find in the museums.
ST: Have you had any copyright issue with these commissioned works so far?
SA: I made a contract with the artists and the contract states my rights of representation, reproduction, publication of the text. At the same time, I stated clearly their rights to publish the texts, to use the text whenever, wherever, in whatever manner they want, etc. If they don’t disturb the space of my work, they can do whatever they want with the texts.
ST: How did you choose your collaborators? Do their writings have to have an affinity to your art?
SA: I work with people I know but not necessarily having an affinity. Lili is a good friend of mine, an amazingly all-rounded artist, writer, art critic. And since all these ideas and collaborations started in private moments in private studios, so the artists are my friends and I have to trust them, because as soon as the commission is agreed, I would never made an intervention, correction, etc.
ST: They have absolute freedom in the creative process as well.
SA: Yes. There is a lot of space for them to create something. For me, the texts are not explanations of the work but expansions of the meaning through the imagination of someone else.
ST: How do you relate to your own art then?
SA: One of the first big, simple question is: What are we doing personally, alone, when we are confronting a piece of art? We would integrate this object inside our own culture, our own world, imagination, mental construction. This is the very basis of my relation to art. That’s why I hate the questions: Why you are making art? What is your subject? Can you explain me your work? I have nothing to explain. These are very open questions. It depends on the person who’s looking at the pieces to answer the questions himself. And the texts are kind of demonstration of that.
ST: They always go beyond the idea.
SA: Yes. And they can get something else. For example, once I asked 10 authors to write on one object. There is something vibrating in the 10 texts along one single object. They could almost amount to the beginning of an explanation but what you get is in fact an ever more abstract idea of the object. It’s like the proper imagination of the writer leads you faraway with a thin thread always referring back to the object.
ST: Are they the exemplar audience for your work? Are you testing how far the imagination, association can go from your work? Because it’s the starting point, and your work triggers the imagination in other’s mind.
SA: They are in a sense the first audience of my work. But I am not asking them if they like my work. But yes, it’s a starting point for the writers, a blank page for something to start. It’s also important that very often this process takes place at the same time as the construction of the pieces. So, these pieces haven’t existed yet when they were writing. The first time the objects and the texts come together is at the exhibition.
ST: And you sign all the works in your exhibition?
SA: Yes. I sign as the author of my work for a very simple reason. I am signing the title, part of the content of the work, but I am also signing the fact that the work would not have existed if I haven’t decided to delegate. In other words, I am signing all the process, the form, the texts on the wall. It’s clear and I am doing this inside my exhibition. Outside my exhibition, they can do what they want with the texts. Also, their names are included in the posters, wall texts, etc, because I consider the names of the people I am working with as a motif of my work. They mixed with the place that I can build inside my process, where we can share something.
ST: Back to the very beginning, why did you choose text as the form of commission?
SA: The very first idea when I decided to commission writers to write was that, I was very fed up with the phenomenon of the commentary. Basically you have 3 big kinds of texts, the commercial texts for promotional purpose, the pedagogical texts produced by the museums, the fashionable type for the magazines. But serious and interesting writings are scarce. At that time, I had been working for 6 years and there were press releases, promotional materials written about my work. But I am not interested in this kind of texts. I know that most artists are interested in producing their own commentaries. So I thought that by this kind of commission, I could manage my own commentaries. I am not writing myself, but I can organize the way I want the audience to look at my pieces and I organize these texts as the commentaries. But then, I discovered immediately that by choosing a poetic form, the texts are no longer commentaries, they become less about the object but something else, independent.
ST: Because they are references?
SA: Because, you know, all poetic forms have a resistance to direct meaning. They don’t keep the thing in real but resort to metaphor. They suggest idea to you but you can’t really explain what and why. From there, you start developing the meaning of the thing. It’s more like a feeling, a sensibility closer to music.
ST: That’s why you set songs / lyrics as the written form….
SA: Because I am very interested in conceptual art, process art…
Everybody knows that behind the lyrics, there is always a subject. So the process of music, from the subject, the lyrics, to the music, the performance, etc. is almost like a process art, though in very simple sequences. Such as Joseph Kosuth’s chair [One and Three Chairs, 1965], it’s a very simple process – the image, the chair and the definition of chair. So for me, it’s very easy to speak of conceptual art, process art through the music process. Also, it’s very narrative, elliptical but narrative, a format which I like. So I can develop things through this easily.
ST: How can one understand the process? Are you integrating the music process into your work?
SA: It’s a more a question of representation of music production, like in Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, of course, he’s saying that “I am representing a pipe, but I am not making a pipe”. I have exactly the same idea. By imitating this production process of music, I am more in the representation and in the field of art than in the field of music.
ST: But the presence of music in the exhibition space did create a certain atmosphere to the presentation of your work.
SA: You know as an artist today, we have the chance of using a lot of things, elements. What I am trying to do is not to make art with every kind of possible means. I am trying to organize a limit, a border to my work by doing such a thing, even it’s a bit paradoxical. It’s not the idea of using the fields of art to make a total art, but to structure the process and the organization of my work by sometimes imitating other kind of production process.
ST: There is also an organic, infinite development that goes within the process of artwork – text – song – music – exhibition – book – CD – radio – concert, etc.
SA: Lots of artists work by reading books, making quotations from books as the starting point of their work. For me, I can make quotations about what the authors say about my work, inside my work, and develop something else without becoming dry. So, I can restart doing something else. For example, I produced some CD, and the atmosphere from the CD stimulated my imagination for the décor; and the text inspired me a sculpture for this imaginary décor, then I imagined the radio broadcast, then a performance in a gallery with the real songs, etc. There are lots of possibilities, it’s quite infinite. Basically the idea is that, artists don’t have so many subjects, you may have an obsession with 3 or 5 main topics. Me too, after 10 years of work, I can find the big lines of my works. Through these texts, I can reconsider the way I look at what I did through something from outside and being stimulated to restart.
ST: As you said, the exhibition is the first moment of encounter for the objects and the texts; it’s also a moment you shared with your writers. Does this sharing extend to the audience?
SA: No, because it’s not coming from me. I consider exhibitions as my media. It’s an artist’s reflection about the position of the audience inside the exhibition, and of course, I am taking a lot of care about that. But as you can see, I don’t have a big studio. I am focusing on the parameters of the projects, such as the context of the exhibition, which country or city I am showing, what kind of budget, production, and what kind of audience. I start with all these elements and I consider this as the white page where I start to work. But my goal is the exhibition. It was the moment I was organizing… for example, the opening is very important because I can use it. Other elements such as the time of exhibition, the place of the audience, the way the audience can look through the show, the circulation, everything in an exhibition is important.
ST: Do you think an exhibition is the prerequisite context to understand your work?
SA: Just now you said it’s very organic, infinite, but there is something scary as well, because when you face this art piece alone out of its original context from museum, for example, part of the magic of the piece disappeared, and it become a little statue. What I am trying to do is to put the audience in a delicate, unstable position of facing something which is already not here. You feel that there is a dimension of something else can happen immediately after. For example, when you look at an exhibition of one object and one song, you may have the idea that 2 or 3 people can write very different songs or even something else. Of course, an exhibition is a finishing moment. But inside the exhibition, you are facing something with its meaning / idea is somewhere else. You are not facing something solid, but the idea of inachivé [unfinished] in French.
ST: What about the saying that an audience spends an average of 10 seconds in front of a work?
SA: All the questions with time are very interesting. For example, I put the texts on the wall next to the work. It takes 2 minutes to read the text then to figure out what’s happening. When I make an exhibition, I consider the opening a special moment because it’s the moment we are setting the exhibition, and often through performance. But I consider the exhibition after the performance, without the performance, as the finished exhibition. I use the term finishing moment.
ST: But the majority of the audience are not invited to the opening.
SA: Yes. Most of the time, when I think of an exhibition, I imagine someone walking alone, I am not thinking about the crowd. But now, I start caring a lot about the opening as a special event with its crowd. Sometimes they stay 3 hours in the opening. So, I am thinking how I can manipulate this crowd as something at a special event. At the other moments, the exhibition is not empty but with less people, alone and yes, they may stay 10 seconds in front a work. I am thinking about this as well when I plan an exhibition.
On the Centre Pompidou Exhibition
ST: Can you tell me something about your coming show in the Centre Pompidou?
SA: Yes. Have your heard of the funeral in Ghana?
SA: It’s a tradition of only 50 years. And they made these fantastic coffins in the forms of everything. It came from the rebirth of the traditions of animism in Ghana after its independence in 1957. There was an African revival movement in the post-colonial period. Even they were colonized by the Christians and the Muslims, they keep a very deep animist relationship in their life and spirit. So, the rural part of the country still believes in the idea of gods reside in trees, rivers, mountains, animals, etc. That’s how they started to make the coffins in animal forms, trees, fruits, etc. It became a huge success and very popular, now you can find coffins in all kind of objects, mobile phones, coca cola bottle, etc.
ST: The normal coffins are very scary, and now this is almost like a carnival. So, you are going to show this in Centre Pompidou?
SA: When I face the museum, I have a lot of questions in my head. I discovered art in Centre Pompidou when I was a teenager. I didn’t live in Paris at that time but I came to visit my aunt in Paris. So it’s very tricky for me. Firstly, it was 25 years ago and now I have to reconsider my life, what I became since that moment. Secondly, I knew by heart the collection in the Centre after 4 to 5 years of visits.
ST: Was it the beginning of your art education?
SA: At that time I didn’t know that I would become an artist one day. I was about 15 years old. And it was the years of terrorism in Paris. The museum by Rogers & Piano, the Forum in particular, was built as an extension of the public space, so there were a lot of functions, and you could just go inside the Forum without the intention of visiting the museum. I remember a lot of people eating, smoking, passing by. It was very bizarre. Also, I think about the 1920s avant-garde artists who announced the death of everything, of painting, beauty, specificity, then of artists and museums, etc. I knew this tradition from all the visits back 25 years ago. I do remember that. So, I found this book about the funeral tradition in Ghana written by Regula Tschumi [The Buried Treasures of the Ga, Benteli Verlag, 2008] and I went to Ghana with my friend Andre Magnin, who is an art critic and a specialist of contemporary African art, and I ordered a coffin for the show in Centre Pompidou. The coffin is 2-meter long and it would be the centre piece of the show. And the form of the coffin – the building of the Centre Pompidou!
ST: Really!! What’s the title of the piece?
SA: L’humour noir, and the title of the show is Anthologie de l’Humour Noir [Anthology of Black Humour], borrowed from the famous book by André Breton. His book was credited for coining the term black humour as what we understand today, which is kind of ironic joke, a bit morbid, but often underscores the senselessness of life.
ST: OK! That’s tricky! Because the coffins in the Ghana are really funny, like coca cola bottles, cigarette, shoes, etc., but then it’s all about death. It’s like taking the saddest and most terrible and mysterious issue of life in a light-hearted, even hilarious way. This can be morbid as well.
SA: Yes and these coffins are from West Africa. In Ghana, we met Regula Tschumi’s assistant who introduced us to the carpenter Kudjoe Affutu. We were also invited to attend an animist ceremony where people were singing, dancing, killing beasts. It was really crazy.
ST: Was it a funeral in fact?
SA: Yes, it was a funeral. Then, I notice one thing very important that, years ago, a coffin was shown in the famous exhibition, Les Magiciens de la Terre [1989, Centre Pompidou], in the section the Wizard of the House, in La Villete. So, my idea belongs to the museum culture but with my own critique. At the beginning I wanted to show the coffin with existing songs to make a connection between this kind of retrospective, self-irony, the death of my work and the songs around the works. But then, when I found the title, Anthologie de l’Humour Noir, which is very interesting for me, I decided to commission 15 songs to authors around the coffin and the idea of black humour.
I also remember in the1980s, there were speakers’ corners in the Piazza where ordinary people, philosophers, politicians, refugees, etc., jumped on the stands to speak to the public. You know, these stands are all around the building to block cars from parking. And people just improvised, jumped onto it and spoke to the audience. It disappeared now, but I was fascinated by it. So I have this idea and I made five aluminum castings of these stands and will put them around the coffin. During the opening, two actors will come. They will mix with the audience and will jump on the stands and say one of the texts on the wall. And you know, the funeral ceremony in Ghana is in fact very close – people gave speech, saying good things and memories about the deceased. So, all these things will turn around the idea of black humor.
ST: But after almost 100 years of the death premonition, today we know that they would never die.
SA: No, they never die. But there is this idea that when we put a piece out of its context of existence, something died in it. Something of the reality of the piece died, it’s no longer seen the same. Only Marcel Duchamp succeeded to make the work moving, mutating, even every time you look at it from different contexts.
About the Artist
Sâadane Afif was born in 1970. He lives and works in Berlin.
He is the winner of the Prix Marcel Duchamp 2009.
His recent major solo exhibitions includes 2009 – Feedback, EACC Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castello, Valencia, Spain. 2008 – Technical Specifications, Witte de With, Rotterdam, the Netherlands; One, Frac Basse-Normandie, Caen, France. 2005 – Lyrics, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (cat.). 2004 – Melancholic Beat, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany (cat.). He also participated in Documenta XII (2007), Kassel, Germany; Expats & Clandestines, WIELS Centre d’Art Contemporain, Brussels, Belgium; Airs de Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, etc.
Sâadane Afif is represented by Galerie Michel Rein (Paris), Galerie Mehdi Chouakri (Berlin), Xavier Hufkens (Brussels), Galleria Maze (Turin), Galeria Elba Benitez (Madrid).