Hermès’ exhibition space La Verrière, situated at the back of its Brussels boutique, plays host to a meeting of minds by two Brussels-based artists, Erwan Maheo and Douglas Eynon, who’ve astutely taken over the venue with a show that references both the reality that exists around us, and the fiction that emanates from it. Shaped by a narrative whose central premise is the idea of territory, and how two artists’ different perspectives join at its crossroads, Novelty Ltd. promises a fantastical vision of what is, and what could be. In a lengthy interview, both artists reveal the approach taken in constructing the exhibition, and how working together revealed newfound similarities in their respective practices.
The idea of playing on the dichotomy between fiction and reality is a prevalent component of the exhibition. Can you expand on this?
Erwan Maheo: The relationship between fiction and reality is indeed a central input in the general concept of the exhibition. As much as it is in both our practices. It may also be a way to create a bridge between two approaches which are, on some others levels, different. In my case it starts with the will to “explain” reality, to try to map it, to see it from a distance. By pushing the explanation to a certain point the reality becomes unreadable. What looks at first glance like furniture or a tool or a map becomes something else, something which keeps within itself the outlines of the reality but is twisted by the language.
Douglas Eynon: Throughout the planning stages of the exhibition there were a lot of discussions with Guillaume (Désanges, the exhibition’s curator) around the idea of the fantastic, the jump into the rabbit hole and the fringe between these two states. For the title we decided to use the word Novelty, contrasting it with this idea of a limited company referring to this Dichotomy and also the theme of poesie/Ballistique. We didn’t want to define the work as either the poetry or the ballistic, either the fiction or reality but rather confuse the two with aesthetically contrasting practices. Erwan used floor plans, registering them as concrete ideas. However the plans changed, converting the archive into that of a memory of propositions distorting the factuality of his curtain. At the same time I was referring back to a large collection of drawings I had amassed over the last year. A mix of installation/sculpture ideas set within that of fictional landscapes or fragments of actual memories, their origins started to distort and motifs started to appear. For example the light bulb dripping with water, it was something I once witnessed years ago that over time developed itself in the memory as a recurring incident within my drawings, the moment it started to become an idea for an installation within the technical drawings it became part of a landscape that was neither clearly based on actual memory nor total fictional.
We didn’t want to define the work as either the poetry or the ballistic, either the fiction or reality but rather confuse the two with aesthetically contrasting practices
Can you discuss the approach you both took on preparing for this collaborative exhibition? How did your practices meet in a way which resulted in the show?
Erwan Maheo: In this exhibition we started with the idea of transforming the space of La Verrière. This went through many different stages (which one can see on the big curtain). We finally decided to split the space into two (one for each of us) and to create a pathway between them (the corridor). From that structure we could then work on weaving links between our works and propositions. For instance cutting out a small “window” in the curtain creates a frame which focuses on Doug’s big candle, deciding not to double the curtain on Doug’s side let the memory of it being part of his space and installation, having some tin plates entering in my space underneath the curtain blurs the border between the two spaces, having the little “broken stairs” in my space has the same effect. Also this late decision of Douglas to draw my portrait on his wall brings confusion on who is where…
Douglas Eynon: We decided to impose an architectural structure upon the show, which would create different zones within which certain atmospheres could be contained. We finally decided to split the space in two. Coincidentally the curtain was the only work that was consistent throughout all of the preliminary stages and presented itself as a nice way to split the space up without any imposing walls, as we felt there was enough of them going up elsewhere. Each of us then concentrated on our spaces and we kept what was one of the original ideas in the corridor coming out of the curtain as a sort of in-between place merging the two practices. This division allowed us to focus individually on each installation though collaboratively working on ways to disrupt the boundary between the two.
The concept of territory – and the impact Brussels as a multi-faceted and multi-layered city has on both your practices as artists – are overriding factors in the way you played with La Verrière’s space. The corridor that links both installations has a symbolism that I’d like you both to expand upon.
Erwan Maheo: The corridor is a pathway. It “brainwashes” the visitor’s mind while visiting the show. It is a fake border which turns out to be a space in itself. It could be seen as a neuronal connection, a switch or a secret path. On another hand the way this corridor is made reminds us of an office space. This could be a piece of Brussels’ administrative side but it could also refer to the path Dante goes through between hell and the purgatory, or a custom border, or a gap into space and time… this is up to the passenger.
Douglas Eynon: Well the corridor became a sort of relic that remained after all of the propositions we came up with for distorting the space and how the spectator should circulate, it disguises itself as a solution. At one point it was in the middle of the space, at another there were stairs leading up it, allowing it to serve as a vantage point, at another it was attached to a wall etc. Finally we decided to leave it completed against the wall and draw the curtain across it. If the curtain is pulled back the corridor presents itself in its absurdity, yet it is still the passage the visitor is presented with to experience the space on the other side of the curtain. There is a window at the end of the corridor and it serves symbolically as the neutral ground between the two situations, its the back and forth.
The way this corridor is made reminds us of an office space. This could be a piece of Brussels’ administrative side but it could also refer to the path Dante goes through between hell and the purgatory.
The curtain that separates both works also carries heavy symbolism throughout the show’s narrative. You both referred to its interchangeability as a powerful force to be taken into account when navigating the exhibition. Is this something that was extensively thought off beforehand, or did it just happen during the setting-up phase?
Erwan Maheo: The curtain has been a central element from the very beginning for two main reasons. One is due to its monumental size, which turns it into an architectural element which is able to shape the space. The other is due to the fact that it maps the whole exhibition. As a geographic element it can be seen as the mirror of the project. A mirror which doesn’t only refer to what is on view in the show but also to many others stages of the process of it.
Douglas Eynon: Erwan had the idea for a curtain that would stretch the width of the space presenting itself as a sort of informative patchwork, with some objects in perspective floating amidst what could be compared to a map or bulletin board full of fragments gathered and realized throughout the length of the show’s preparation. The curtain is present on both of its sides, it is what divides the space in two, the maps and geometrical patterns are combined with certain openings with which the viewer can pass though it or have a glimpse into what is on the other side. 2D plans are superimposed creating an obscure overview of the process.
You have both already collaborated on previous exhibitions. How did this one reveal newfound narratives in your work? What did you discover about each other’s practice that you might not have known beforehand?
Erwan Maheo: We’ve known each other quite well for some years now and we’ve always shared ideas and points of view about our work but we never really collaborated in such a close way in the past. That was a first. And I guess we got to know each other further more with this project but I would say that there’s one thing important on top of it all that we share: the energy. For me this is very important and I think that this is something that anyone can see in this exhibition just like it was in the show that we presented last year at the Brussels Artistic District together with our fellow friends Nicolas Bourthoumieux, Gijs Milius and Sebastien Reuzé.
Douglas Eynon: As Erwan says, we have worked together loosely before but never in such a direct collaboration, even if the two spaces seem separate, both sides of them was something we worked on together. It was important for us to stay open during the process as more than half of the exhibition was made in-situ which demanded a certain energy and flexibility of ideas and a faculty to adapt to accidents and situations allowing them to morph as part of the whole work.
I don’t see painting or embroidery as old technics just like I don’t see the use of the internet or the 3D printing as new technics.
I’d like to explore the link between the picturesque and the punk that seems to be an overriding factor throughout the exhibition. The use of age-old techniques (embroidery for Erwan, painting for Douglas) with very contemporary narratives lends the exhibition a mix of both old and new that is both refreshing and somewhat unexpected. Could you expand on this notion?
Erwan Maheo: I don’t see painting or embroidery as old technics just like I don’t see the use of the internet or the 3D printing as new technics. We are both interested in the notion of landscape and we often talk about music. It is true that we share a huge love for English music, but there again for personal reasons which may not be the same. And at the end of the day what is it to be a punk today? The so-called irreverence which seems to have been so important during the past 20 years has become a classical posture. Maybe the loyalty and the respect can be considered a punk attitude in today’s world?
Douglas Eynon: I referenced painting a lot in regards to composing my installation for the space. I wanted to create a landscape that could first be seen from certain angles (the opening of the corridor or the candle through the curtain) these situations that the viewer first discovers as one whole entity or composition has strong links to painting, after that the viewer enters and they become sculpturally part of the landscape itself, invited to sit on the bench or walk around. The act of painting itself is also present in the large painting of the sky made in-situ. I wanted to place an emphasis on the preliminary layers and sketches in composing or mapping out a painting. The first paint that soaked through the canvas is what leaves its trace on the wall, the actual painting itself is drying up high on the heaters. I wanted to create a sort of shadow of the sky in the way it is installed and a memory of the painting in the traces left on the wall – it becomes a sort of pattern or wall paper.
I wanted to create a sort of shadow of the sky in the way it is installed and a memory of the painting in the traces left on the wall.
Douglas, your installation particularly speaks to the fantastical, reading like somewhat of an anti-chambre, whilst Erwan you play on the perceptions of everyday life and routine. Would you agree with this and, if so, could you expand a little more?
Erwan Maheo: Guillaume Desanges quoted a sentence by Oscar Wilde in the text he gave us as an introduction to his project “Poésie balistique”: it said something like “the real mystery of the world is to be found in the visible and not in the invisible.” To which I could add the sentence by Sol Lewitt: “conceptual artists are mystical rather than rationalist”. Meaning that things are not always what they seem. My “everyday life” may be fantastic as much as Douglas’ “fantastical atmosphere” may find its roots in everyday life.
Douglas Eynon: I think routine, poetry and ballistics are present on both sides of the curtain. I wanted to treat my installation like an island, where everything is enveloped in one continuous mass. The whole landscape is welded together and plugged into the wall, there is a link between the fantastic and the domestic, like how would you arrange your things or rationalize your thoughts in a fantasy place…… what would be the routine? Domestic objects such as the light bulb are distorted into dripping fountains with the cable bringing current to it and running the whole space, as is Erwan’s sea/blind a distortion on an everyday household object.
During the exhibition’s opening, its curator Guillaume Désanges repeatedly referred to the future being in the present making the idea of the future somewhat obsolete. Do you agree with the statement, and in its ability to encapsulate the exhibition?
Erwan Maheo: I do agree with this statement. Today’s world is very much based on the marketing idea of fantasy: what you have now is nothing compared to what is coming next. Philosophers like Armen Avanessian or Bernard Stiegler notice that projection into a “better” future is no longer happening in the way our societies are working. We don’t “dream” of the future anymore, algorithms do it for us. I don’t know if those notions are directly at work in the concept of the exhibition Novelty Ltd but it is for sure that artists are affected by those questions and that they keep on traveling into time, techniques, fantasies in their relation to the world.
There is a sort of calm in the chaos of the city here.
A great part of the exhibition’s success lies in its intuitive essence. How much of the exhibition was prepared beforehand, and how much of it came together during the installation phase?
Erwan Maheo: Most of it was discussed all along the preparation of the project, we knew what we wanted to show. But, as always, what you expect to be and what you are planning to do bump into the reality of the space once you start building up the show. So many things moved slightly during the last weeks and some others appeared in the very last moments: placing the small “broken stair” next to the “noeud gordien” piece was unexpected; the same goes for the portrait on the wall or the candle facing the hole in the curtain. This is where the finest links are drawn, in the very last moments, when we hang around the space with Guillaume and the people working with us.
Douglas Eynon: The work was made in-situ which requires a great deal of intuition as the space changes around you and there are lots of moments when you might need to adapt or perhaps change if something isn’t quite working out. I mostly always work in this way – there is always a clear initial idea which I allow myself to deviate from once in the space and seeing the things first hand. The concept is there but it is something that can float around coming in and out of focus during the build up of the piece. I think sometimes you have to go through with making something to realize what it was that was troubling you about it.
I don’t think the two works are that drastically different. They have many similarities, not in their form but in their will to create an entire world.
You are both based in Brussels, and you both mentioned the impact the city has had on your practices. Can you talk to me a bit more about your relationship to the city, your perceptions of it and how it informs your work?
Erwan Maheo: “Brussels is the new Berlin” as a journalist from the New York Times said not long ago. The city gathers many artists (and non-artists) from all around the world, which creates a very dynamic situation. And, on another hand, it remains a quite small city where you can run into a friend by chance. I think the city provides a feeling of energy without stress. There’s not much competition between artists, every one of them works on his project and likes to share it with others. That makes Brussels an inspiring place.
Douglas Eynon: Brussels is a place where I am very comfortable making my work. Sometimes it seems like the city is secretly trying to tell you something, like there is some kind of code made up in the backwards traffic lights, missing signs and distorted logic. I am not saying that it is unique however it is the environment in which I am in and it is the mass I am constantly bouncing off. There is a sort of calm in the chaos of the city here.
At its core, what would you say the exhibition is about and how would you want the viewer to perceive its two drastically different works?
Erwan Maheo: Once again I don’t think the two works are that drastically different. They have many similarities, not in their form but in their will to create an entire world. Douglas and I are very much interested in working in the space and with the context. This is probably why the show looks like a whole thing and why the two different “worlds” seem to be connected in such a natural way. I would like the viewer to experiment something while wandering in the space, I would like him to be disconnected from the world and to dive into a certain level of consciousness. By that I don’t mean a “fantasy world” or a somehow better or worse world. The exhibition is a dialogue or a play. The title “Novelty Ltd” comes from the chess world: since every game is recorded, every move is recorded and so are every situations within the game. When one makes a move, the “machine” tells him that this move has been made x times in the past, and, as the game goes on, the amount of times the moves have been made gets lower. At one point the situation on the pad is settled for the first time in the history of chess. This is called “Novelty” and this happens everyday.
Douglas Eynon: I agree with Erwan that there are much more links between the works than perhaps first impressions give off. The curtain is the membrane for the two spaces that floats on a rail with the potential to be pulled back. They are however two very different atmospheres that meet and touch one another in certain places. I would like the viewer to take the time to explore the landscape, sit on the bench and treat it like a park of some sorts. It’s nice to pass back from one space to the other as the maps and plans change on second view, like the exhibition is trying to reveal itself to you.
The curtain is the membrane for the two spaces that floats on a rail with the potential to be pulled back.
Douglas Eynon & Erwan Maheo La Verrière
50 Boulevard de Waterloolaan (1000)
Runs until 25th March