Olivier de Sagazan / The body under layers of clay

French artist Olivier de Sagazan in conversation with Maria Abramenko about his artistic expression.

What is your educational background?

I did study biology and those studies inspire all my work as an artist. I did not go to any Fine Art schools.

What is the main concept of your performances? Where did “Transfiguration” come from?

For me painting or sculpting are life experiences, tools to try to recreate the living form. A painting or a sculpture is a “charged” (meaningful) object, as in ancient societies we could speak of a magic “charge” (special meaning) for a mask or a statuette. And this concept of “charge” is fascinating because I don’t believe in magic or in a metaphysical ideal world; and as a biologist I think that a successful work of art creates something which acts on your unconsciousness like ‘a virus’ which diverts the mind of the spectator towards feelings specific to the artist.
That is why I consider that art is a way of communicating from brain-to-brain. Artists act like viruses. This is obvious when you listen to music: all of a sudden the musician takes you and throws you away from your comfort zone. But to make a “fetish active” as Leiris said, the concept is extremely complex and more often than not doomed to failure. And it is because of those repetitive failures, that in June 1998 I told myself that if I could not give life to my sculptures, that may be “by throwing my body into battle” (Raimund Hoghe), meaning by putting my body under layers of clay, I would be guaranteed to create life in this unusual object. I had no idea what was going to be created but the result went far beyond my expectations.
Covering yourself with clay involves working blindly and this is fundamental because this process brings into play only proprioception and internal feelings, and at no time judgment appears on what is produced. When you paint constantly, you keep on stepping back from the easel and judge your work with your head/reason, and this transformation is what happened between your doodles that you drew at 4 years old and those at 7 years old where suddenly reason reorganizes the chaos of your sensitivity. Every artist has to go back to this state of childish foolishness, otherwise he remains a maker, a craftsman or someone who follows fashion.

Chance in art is like in life itself: the product of a happy accident, a favorable mutation to leave a species to create a new one. This phenomenon of speciation has an equivalent in art, this is what is called style when suddenly an artist comes out of the classic movement of his time to present through his work, what is singular/different/idiosyncratic in him. For me, I discovered that work on face disfigurement was a way of taking a distance from the norm of our biological species, and that these new disfigured faces awakened in our brain the fantastic character of a human face that our reason erased/wiped out. The disfigurement in art, what I call the passage from the Holy Face to the Meat Head, is like a stimulus for the brain which confirms and reaffirms our strangeness of being in the world.

Please tell us about your collaboration with Nick Knight.

Gareth Pugh contacted me because he was fascinated by the faces I created in my performance “Transfiguration with clay”. For him, this covering with clay was like a form of primitive dress, something that obsessed this young London fashion designer. With Nick Knight they decided that I would come to London to introduce Gareth to this type of work and that we would do a performance together. Filmed by Nick, it would be the opening of Fashion Week.

What are you working on at the moment?

I developed choreography with 6 dancers: “So Be me”. The first performance took place a few days before confinement, the other dates have been canceled. Will there be a sequel? I am also working on a collaboration with David Wahl for the “Vive du Sujet” in Avignon postponed to 2021, and on another project with the choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, scheduled for the end of October. Let’s hope that the world “after Covid-19” will still allow us to create living works of art. What is upsetting about this pandemic is that there is one more argument for a society which aims towards dematerialization, decorporation/ physical and social isolation, and towards an increased value given to thought, when for me, it is obvious: a world without touch is a world of corpses, a dead world. You can think of the loved ones who are dead, but what you miss the most is that you can no longer touch them. Touch is the foundation of the soul, as Aristotle puts it so well in his famous book “Traité de l’Ame”.

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