ALICE MOTARD In May 2011 you presented an installation at a show called Un’Espressione Geografica, held at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.1 Your installation, Du cinématique (On the cinematic), was composed of casts of architectural features and spray paintings. This piece embodied a synthesis of the conceptual and formal concerns operating within your work. It was the first time you were led to react so directly to a context—a geopolitical context, at that. How did you respond to the invitation to go to Apulia, and how did you use the experience to produce new works? In short, how did you proceed in the context of this “commission”?
ISABELLE CORNARO I decided to reflect upon certain aspects of the region’s dominant baroque aesthetic—namely, the importance of staging, the highly constructed perspective, and the propensity of static elements to evoke movement—all the while seeking to maintain a certain degree of abstraction with respect to the context. So whereas the casts of architectural fragments refer directly to the facade of the basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce,2 the spray paintings were based on images from an already existing film, Floues et colorées (Blurry and Colored, 2010).
ALICE MOTARD The monumental and authoritarian impression made by the installation is quickly mitigated by the beholder who, in order to take in the full measure of the piece, has to wander among the various elements and become immersed in the experience. A kind of back-and-forth circuit then arises between the abstract marks on the paintings and the mimetic, stylized ornamentation of the sculptures, which the beholder experiences and tries to make sense of. It’s ultimately the beholder who creates the “montage.”
ISABELLE CORNARO These different types of marks struck me as simultaneously mimetic and abstract, even though each maintains a different relation to the object of reference, which is more recognizable in the casts than in the paintings. They were staged in the same way as the elements of the works Paysage avec poussin (Landscape with Chick), proposing a non-linear reading similar to cinematic montage. The spray paintings, based on a film about the various stages of the composition of a painting, also entailed a film-like temporal sequence, here deployed in space. The identical casts of architectural features, however, are more closely related to photography—the molds were handled like carefully composed shots, cropped from a larger ensemble, and are potentially reproducible on a mass scale.
ALICE MOTARD There is also the optical effect of the disappearance and reappearance of paintings and sculpted panels as the beholder adopts different viewpoints on the work. This game of hide-and-seek reminds me of Richard Serra’s in-situ work for the Grand Palais in Paris in 2008.3 Does the use of this type of illusionistic procedure also relate to baroque art?
ISABELLE CORNARO The spatial arrangement of the individual elements mimics an idealized perspective, because the gaps between them diminish as a function of their physical distance across the room. In this respect, the work alludes to the construction of viewpoints, which has baroque connotations, as does the immersive aspect of the whole installation.
I tried to dissociate the volumes from the surfaces by placing the casts in the center and relegating the paintings to the surrounding walls. The texture of the paintings—that “powdery” mixture of black and white— plus their lack of color and the fact that they slide to the floor, makes them seem like layers of dust, evoking the worn stone at Lecce.
ALICE MOTARD If we look at it literally, doesn’t this work represent your attempt to remedy the phenomenon of erosion that you’ve just mentioned and, more metaphorically, your struggle to stave off a certain depletion of forms and imagery? It seems to me that what you’re creating with this somewhat funereal installation is like a freeze-frame, to stick with the movie analogy.
ISABELLE CORNARO The hieratic nature of the casts, combined with the paintings that decompose a cinematic sequence, certainly have something of the quality of a freeze-frame—or maybe a clumsy memorial—about them. The decomposition is not just a way to multiply the images, but also functions like slow-motion and close-up shots of the original sequence.
ALICE MOTARD Notions of reproduction or reproducibility—whether artisanal (hand-crafted) or industrial (mechanical)—are central to your work, where the distinction between original and copy is constantly called into question. The Homonymes (Homonyms), for example, are copies—done by hand, but using the mechanical process of casting—taken from originals that don’t survive the process of reproduction. So the copies paradoxically become unique—their silicon molds have to be destroyed in order to remove each of the four casts, preventing multiple copies.
Meanwhile, the series Moulage sur le vif (Vide-poches) (Life Casts [Catch All]) is the product of “cuts” made in the matrices of life-size scans of random compositions of objects. Each print represents a new “cut” from the matrix, hence is de facto unique. Were you trying to invalidate the notion of the original the better to invalidate the notion of reality?
ISABELLE CORNARO I never really thought about it in those terms. The ambiguity of the status of the “original,” treated mainly as a referent, results from a process of successive transformations—copying, re-using— that is a constituent part of my work. The question of the status not only of objects but also of the context in which they are perceived interests me, but the nature of the specific status—original work or copy—ultimately matters little. Instead, I wonder where the “original act” resides. For the series Moulage sur le vif the composition was done through framing, not through the placing of the objects, which I either arranged without thinking or delegated to someone else. The absence of subjective involvement at the moment of placement was reinforced by the mechanical reproduction of the “scanner,” because these are casts of “images.”
ALICE MOTARD The analogy with a film editor, who works from images shot by someone else, is telling here. Your production process is characterized by a balance between what I’d called “letting go” (a rejection of subjectivity that is apparent when you allow a system, or chance, or someone else to take over) and “terrific control” over the final act (whether it deals with choice of medium, choice of framing, or display— or, usually, all of them together). At the Collège des Bernardins you placed an entire series of readymade objects—taken from Western commercial culture—on colorful surfaces in display cases set in the former sacristy. How did you conceive the spatial organization and arrangement of the objects? These objects, which you describe as “emotionally charged” or “symbolically meaningful,” can be seen in many of your works, so anyone familiar with your oeuvre will recognize them. Does “putting them under glass” in a hallowed setting constitute a halt to the constant circulation you had previously imparted to them?
ISABELLE CORNARO The installation functions on the tension between an initial perception of the work from a distance—an overall vision—and a complementary or contradictory view of the objects close up. The idea of the overall design of the display cases was to produce a geometric shape that occupied the space in a dynamic way, which explains the diagonal angles and the use of large colored surfaces. The arrangement of objects was based on balanced relationships of mass (full versus empty) and varied visual approaches (organized and controlled versus heaped and piled), borrowed from existing works.
ALICE MOTARD So was the collective impact of the objects—their group dynamic—more important than their use value, exchange value, or symbolic value?
ISABELLE CORNARO The objects were arranged according to categories (decorative motifs, naturalist figures, etc.) that were then violated through shifts from one area or display case to another. I wanted to test the impact of these objects from the standpoint of their direct use, so they were less distanced than the ones in Paysage avec poussin and Moulage sur le vif. The “glass cases” were a technical requirement—they contributed an additional connotation that I had to incorporate, but the work could have existed without them.
ALICE MOTARD In contrast, Du cinématique is completely free of these fetishes of civilization. Should the two installations be seen in tandem?
ISABELLE CORNARO In a way. Even though the elements in Du cinématique are much more abstract and linked more to architecture than to everyday objects and furnishings, the use of heterogeneous cultural components (from the baroque, the history of painterly abstraction, photography) and the “montage” operation that the beholder has to perform are pretty similar.
ALICE MOTARD The elements which make up Du cinématique—which one can basically describe as paintings of films and sculptures of architecture— result in a transfer of themes from one medium to another.4
ISABELLE CORNARO These transpositions make me think of the term “homonym,” meaning words with the same visual appearance but different meanings. The decision to use the same motifs across different media, and consequently to dissociate the motif from its mode of representation, underscores the autonomy—that is so say, the intrinsic significance—of the medium. This decision also raises issues of resemblance and referent, which might be an object or an idea, or both at once. For example, the sculptures called Homonymes function on two levels of resemblance: to objects (casts of everyday objects) and also to artistic categories (naturalism, stylization, abstraction). I think the structural re-casting of a form or literary style, as analyzed by Alain Robbe-Grillet in Pour un nouveau roman (For a New Novel, 1963), is linked to a quest for realism. Experimenting with different modes of representation means constantly asking the same question: how can you approach the polysemy and polymorphy of things?
ALICE MOTARD I understand that one of the bas-reliefs of the facade of the Basilica Santa Croce in Lecce that you have reproduced and serialized, is a stylized representation of the voluminous sleeves which were fashionable in Renaissance Italy. Can representation be endlessly selfreferential without going around in circles?5
ISABELLE CORNARO I don’t think so. Neither in my own work, nor in general. I use certain models and certain items (notably “tautological” objects) because they are codified and loaded with an additional symbolic or emotional meaning. The pitfall would be to empty them of meaning, to completely neutralize images. I prefer to see it as the continuous introduction of additional formal, poetic, and discursive propositions. It’s the idea of “and”: being one thing and another thing and yet another thing. One of the issues in this whole process that intrigues me involves hierarchy, that is to say processes of demoting and re-promoting under a different system, which I think are essential to the creation of works of art.
ALICE MOTARD Was the fact that Gerhard Richter began to use painting as a “photographic medium” in the 1960s, thereby reinvigorating painting, of any significance to you when you were envisaging your own artistic path?
ISABELLE CORNARO I haven’t particularly thought about it, but I’ve always appreciated Richter’s multiplicity of forms, which can be antagonistic without being contradictory. And the way in which each composition is simultaneously a form (including everything about form that is irreducible to language) and a problematized reflection on that form. Which also applies to Bruce Nauman and his way of getting a distance on individuality and a certain expressiveness of the body through the use of written texts, and to Marcel Broodthaers’ use of transpositions (painting, film, text) to analyze the structures of the field in which he worked.
ALICE MOTARD These artists developed a reflection on nature and the role of the artistic act and, more broadly, on the relationship of the individual to society through a constant questioning of the structures that govern social, political, artistic, or architectural recognition—which goes far beyond what some people call “institutional critique.” Is the way they staged things, in a kind of theatricalization, also something that interested you?
ISABELLE CORNARO That’s right, in so far as these contrived systems create contexts for experimentation—physical, emotional, intellectual—that don’t deliver up their codes (apart from a few keys to decipherment). And thus they don’t impose a codified use or meaning.
ALICE MOTARD Do you already know what your future works will look like?
ISABELLE CORNARO Just now I’m thinking about incorporating elements that have a certain “pathos,” combined with witty or absurd things that would create a distance from that pathos. For the moment it’s all highly speculative. They’re just ideas in the air, yet it’s almost always the collision of several apparently unrelated ideas, along with a few half-formed images, that wind up outlining something new.