Highway hero Xavier Mary

The work of Liège-born, Brussels-based contemporary artist Xavier Mary (1982) oscillates between post-industrial sculpture and post- apocalyptic realism, his smart and street-savvy installations existing as powerful poetry for the motorised age. Underpinned by a fascination with all things car-related, his practice celebrates the country’s automotive obsession in all its glory, repurposing disused and disregarded highway stalwarts to create a damning discourse of the modern and motorised civilisation.

Your work often reveals a passion for all things automotive. Where does this emanate from?

I had a near death-experience a er a car crash when I was 12 years old. I don’t know if it comes from that, but I kept a somewhat autistic relation to objects from it. Driving a car is the most typical modern way of crossing through space. You are stocked in a metal box with no other option than going straight on, turning left or turning right. Most of my ideas come to me when I’m driving. I think that I naturally came to a post-Fordist aesthetic because it was, and still is, emblematic of today’s existence.

Highway Rotor 2008, Highway lamp, aluminium, DMX controller. 300 x 270 cm

Highway Rotor 2008, Highway lamp, aluminium, DMX controller. 300 x 270 cm

Much was made of Belgium’s illuminated highways. Why was it important for you to immortalise their infamous lamps in your work Highway Ravers?

I’ve been fascinated by highways ever since my childhood. I see it as some sort of an “anti-space”, one where you can’t stay but just pass through as quickly as possible. Looking out from the car window as a kid, it was like a dream landscape you couldn’t reach. Shaping lines without a beginning or an end. Belgium’s highway lamps are the network of highways’ psyche. Yesteryear sodium low pressure tubes create a deep and dense lo-fi atmosphere. Repetitive fluorescent ashes trap you in unavoidable hypnotics effects. I wanted to appropriate these contexts to specific objects, to give them freedom and autonomy, and let them play for themselves like a rotor.

Most of my ideas come to me when I’m driving.

As a transit country that is, essentially, a gateway to other European countries, Belgium’s highway heritage is considerable. Do you see yourself as some kind of archiver for a bygone era when cars were cool and highways ruled?

My work is not that much concerned with history and geography. It’s more about amnesia and space without time.

Highway Ring, 2008. GSA profil traffic barriers, steel profiles. 230 x 220 cm.

Highway Ring, 2008. GSA profil traffic barriers, steel profiles. 230 x 220 cm.

Bande à part, 2014. Exhibition view.

Bande à part, 2014. Exhibition view.

Practically, how were you able to source the highway lamps and acoustic panels used in Highway Ravers and OverDrive specifically?

It’s always challenging. 10 years ago, I got in touch with the factory that produces highway lamps. They got a bunch of outdated ones, located at the end of a dusty warehouse and let me use them. For OverDrive, my series with anti-noise panels, I tried to get in touch with the company in charge of the acoustic panels. After hundreds of calls I finally got the director of MICE. We agreed they’d stop the production of the panels before the coating phase and give them some handmade metal surface finish. For me, these unlikely and unexpected collaborations between artist and industry add to the thrill.

Overdrive, 2014. Exhibition view.

Overdrive, 2014. Exhibition view.

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You recently took over a disused petrol station on the outskirts of Liège and turned it into a project space, which somewhat keeps you within the automotive realm. Can you talk to us about this project, how it came about, its significance within your wider body of work and what you’re seeking to do with it?

The gas station we’re now occupying has fascinated me for years. I used to pass in front of it every time I came to my mother’s workplace at Liège’s CHU hospital. It’s basically been boarded up for the past 17 years and, somehow, seemed to become creepier with every passing year. As a symbol of the petrol age, now invaded by plants and wildlife, the space became somewhat of a post-nature environment. Between the utopia of a “low carbon future” and other “catastrophism theory”. Together with curator Noémie Merca, we try to give the space to artists that are able to reveal and exploit this post-apocalyptic environment. To me, it possesses something of a shamanic initiation feel to it, probably because of the snakes, broken windows and police arrests.

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Das beste oder nichts, 2014. Welded steel. 150 x 90 cm.

*highway star*, 2014. Guardrail corner pieces in galvanised steel. 275 x 289 cm

*highway star*, 2014. Guardrail corner pieces in galvanised steel. 275 x 289 cm

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? How much of your work is based on research? How much of it is based on production and execution?

I’m especially interested in the idea that “objects exist independently of human perception.” I think I have always been captivated by this autistic dream driven by the reality of a world in which objects exist for themselves. But I’m not a theorist at all, I enjoy engaging with the experience of it all. And making and producing sculpture is a testimony of that process: just trying to lead human experience in the middle of a post-industrial world. Going from one industrial zone to another.

Tree of woe, 2014. Steel, wheel, mufflers. 195 x 113 cm.

Tree of woe, 2014. Steel, wheel, mufflers. 195 x 113 cm.

Wheel of pain, 2014. Tire, metallic textured powder coating. 221 x 100 cm

Wheel of pain, 2014. Tire, metallic textured powder coating. 221 x 100 cm

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your work?

I came from a more or less academic background. I studied sculpture at ERG in Brussels and was fascinated by modernist paradigms and the myth of the avant-garde. I was also really impressed by 80s artists and all that ‘simulationism’ movement with the idea of dealing with “a world made of effects” which is still, to this day, a main aspect of my work.

What are you up to in the months to come?

I have just finished a one-night event project at M HKA in Antwerp titled “The Emotional Junkie and the Cyborg Love” and which consisted in two rooms of installations in which I invited video and music artists. We are now working on the documentation of it. Other projects are at brainstorm phase for September and October.

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