The practice of Brussels and Luxembourg-based artist Aline Bouvy is steeped in unreserved and unabashed criticism of the conspicuous consumption-led society we live in, her work forcing upon the viewer relentless questioning of the world as we think we know it. With an oeuvre that challenges the status-quo, hers is a world in which nothing is accepted and everything is up for grabs, from age-old male imagery to the abuse of power. Humour, too, forms the basis for her artistic narrative, as does the impact contemporary human condition has on her, a fact no more evident than in the explicit titles she bestows upon both her work and exhibitions. Put simply, this is a body of work, shaped by her everyday, that takes no prisoners and continuously battles repression and retention, reinventing imagery in a way that offers new codes and understandings. Ask us, the world needs more Aline Bouvy’s.
At its core, how would you define your work?
I use a variety of different mediums to reflect on how I am affected by today’s human condition, translating it into specific objects, narratives, loose thoughts and emotions.
Male nudes are a recurrent theme in your work, often appearing as absurd parodies of themselves. Where does this focus on masculine imagery, and your need to twist and turn its meaning, emanate from?
I have always held a fascination for erotic photography and collect books on male nude photography. Last year, for my solo show Urine Mate at Albert Baronian, I decided to give it a try and it was a fabulous experience. I was lucky enough to have worked with models that were very open and trusted me. I just focused on their penis, testicles and butts, giving instructions like: “take your penis in your hand and present it to me.”
There is a desire to strip bare the childish, over-maternalistic and machist construction around masculinity.
There are no faces and I kept the body slightly out of focus, in the background. The plants that I collected from different wastelands around Brussels were in the foreground and in focus. Compared to female nudes, male nudes are rare in art, cinema and everyday visual narratives. You have to look for them in specialised niches.
Is it because the penis appears too aggressive? Or does it make the male look too vulnerable?
I personally believe that years and centuries of moral discourse have shaped what a man was and is supposed to be, to represent. I’m a friend of men, I’m not interested in any sort of ironic claim towards them. On the contrary, there is a desire to strip bare the childish, over-maternalistic and machist construction around masculinity.
Staunch feminist independence and, in its most extreme, somewhat comic rants seem to shape your narrative as an artist. Titles such as Heavy Fuckry / I don’t need you to feed me speak both of the female representation in contemporary culture and the impact this might have on the viewer’s perception of it. Can you delve into this idea a little more for us?
The title Heavy Fuckry isn’t at all gendered, it just means something like heavy crap. Apparently it’s Jamaican slang. I first came across the word Fuckry in a Manni Dee track, Abundant Fuckry. I thought that, combined to the sentence I don’t need you to feed me, it was clearly making a statement against consumption strategies.
The sexual references in your work are visible for all to see. Anuses, phallic shapes are recurrent themes, as are explicit, even harsh and frontal titles. There seems to be a willingness to shock maybe. Would you agree with this?
I don’t see the use of sexual references as being something provocative. I am much more shocked by other things than sex really. I don’t even think that I refer to the sexual as such. If I use the motive of the anus, I’m referring to anal retention which is a notion that helps me grasp society’s dysfunctions. Titles are very important to me, I just can’t let a work walk out with Untitled, although I don’t mind others doing it. Besides, I love thinking about titles. Is Urine Mate shocking? It’s a title I borrowed from a song by the Sleaford Mods. I liked it because it also sounded like urine made. I was doing sculptures for the show that were made out of plaster mixed with my urine. I used to pee in bottles during the first months when I had my new studio, when there were still no toilets. At some stage, I decided to do something with all this accumulated urine, so I did plaster sculptures. I think that a lot of my titles are very tender and affectionate, whilst others tend to be more loaded, and whenever the exhibition situation calls for it, they certainly will be more blunt or outspoken, it all depends on the context really.
Would it be a fair assumption to define your work as being based on protest?
If you mean protest as a reaction against a given situation, I would say that I prefer the notion of reflection that seems to me more nuanced. No, it’s not based on protest, it’s a totally subjective approach that involves affective negotiations with the abuse of power.
You recently collaborated with curatorial platform Artlead for its Billboard series. Can you take us through your thinking process for the making of the piece that was shown, and the accompanying edition (pipi, kaka, geld) that resulted from it?
The Billboard Series is a 50 m2 billboard space in what used to be Ghent’s industrial zone where artists get invited on a carte blanche basis. Thomas Caron, one of the project’s initiator, had something totally different in mind when he invited me for the project. I was working on large- scale linoleum mosaics with integrated three dimensional elements in jesmonite and a possible example for the billboard could have been an adaptation of these works. At least that’s what I thought, until I visited the site. Opposite the street, a former factory has been converted into a huge shopping mall, in front of the billboard there’s a parking lot, the busy ring of Ghent runs on one side of it and on the other, you have the former docks. Just next to the billboard you have another smaller, functional rotating billboard with commercial ads. I really didn’t see any sense for a variation of one of these linoleums I was working on. I thought if you are given 50 square meters for a work in a public space where thousands of cars pass by everyday, you better take the opportunity to do something else. I had made these wooden cars for a project at Maison Grégoire-Observatoire gallery for a duo-show with Simon Davenport that got postponed to spring 2017. These toy-like cars were supposed to serve as backdrops for a series of drawings but the omnipresence of cars on the Billboard Series’ site, made me want to do something with them, but differently. I’ve wanted, for a while now, to shoot a series of photographs with men in the typical art-historical pose of Cain. So I installed the cars in a photography studio, worked on some additional elements like these bread pieces that I wanted to look like rib cages or bones, asked two friends to come along, chose very simple clothes and made them pose on top of the cars in this cainesque, fœtal position. Obviously, this work is about the relation of men and their cars but I hope it goes further than that to also take in the relation to goods, values, behaviour, well- being and infantilisation. Once I selected the final image, I send it to a friend who does all the photoshop work for big commercial campaigns and asked him to work on the image as if it was for an ad. I was pretty sure by then that the image needed something more but I was still hesitating so we printed the poster and once the poster was up on the site, I took a brush and black ink, went on the roof of the building and wrote the three words on the poster with my head upside down: Pipi, Kaka, Geld. Each artist taking part in the Billboard series is asked to make an edition in order to financially sustain the next project and I did a bas-relief of a man lying on a car, (pictured opposite page, top) embracing it compassionately, like a last farewell with a speech-bubble with the same three words I had scrawled on the billboard. I was worried the editions wouldn’t sell well and there was a bit of pressure knowing that the next project needed the financial support of the previous one but it turned out the edition was sold out in two weeks.
There’s somewhat of a “nana, made you look” feel to some of your work. Catching the viewer’s attention, and maybe even the wider public’s, seems central. Would you consider yourself a prankster?
It was a necessity for me in the context of the Billboard Series that it had to catch the attention at least as much as the commercial ad next to it. Then and only then is its disruptiveness activated. Some people didn’t recognise it as an artwork at all but rather another commercial ‘coup’, but for what? It’s that kind of somehow scary void that suddenly takes place in one’s perception that I’m interested in. If people laugh it’s a good thing, and of course I hope there is a humorous undertone to it, as opposed to an ironical one. I hate irony.
I don’t do stuff just for the sake of it.
How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene? Can you talk to us about “your scene”?
I believe that as an artist it is important to construct your own scene, to make your own context. With Xavier Mary we organised two shows with artists we were fond of but who rarely have had the chance to show in Brussels. Around Komplot and Sonia Dermience, there is a concentration of a lot of fluidity, generosity and exchange. She makes us travel a lot and she makes artists from abroad travel to Brussels allowing the possibility of a broader network. I’m happy to be close to young alternative scenes as much as more established ones. When I started to work on my own, I was truly moved by the support and confidence of a lot of colleagues. Some say the art world is a bitchy world, but I don’t want to think that way. I’ve lived many great things and met many great people through my work. I like to feel as a free electron, at ease wherever my work brings me.
What moment would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic narrative?
I started to work on my own end of 2013 after a 14 year long collaborative practice that had started during my post-academic residency at the Jan van Eyck Academie. I needed to rethink it all, set other standards. There was one very important work by the Berlin-based artist Kitty Kraus, her Lidl bar which consists of a Lidl shopping cart handle bar rotating at high speed in the space, that if you come too close to it, would slam you violently in the face. I was impressed by the radicalism, the simplicity and the violence of this work, how it points out to the violence of the everyday and how she succeeded to deal with that violence, leaving space, for instance, for that handle bar to go crazy.
To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in modern society?
Exactly as explained above, a total demystification of the alienating and prevailing power structures. Another important event at the very beginning of my solo practice was when I followed a two- day seminar with French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux at the Facultés Universitaires Saint- Louis. We were hardly 15 people sitting around one of the main thinkers of the Speculative Realism movement – only in Brussels does this happen. I even did a book about it, a facsimile of my notebook with my notes, Forme et langage de l’empathie. There’s one thing I try to keep in mind as much as I can, when speaking about contingency and necessity, and it is something that he insisted on so dramatically during the seminar, the idea that NO, there is NO reason for things to be as they are. And art is about that very kind of freedom, and if people think that I’m looking for shock or use rude words, well I hope it’s the freedom I take for myself when I do my art that appears as a provocation to them rather than anything else, because yes, freedom is provocative. And therefore, art should occupy as much space as possible.
Some things are better accepted when they are wrapped in innocence.
As an artist, what does success look like to you?
I guess it’s the best way to become totally bored with yourself.
The theme of this edition is The Warriors Edition. Does this inspire you in any way, and would you qualify yourself as something of a warrior in the wider art world?
I’m not at war with the art world, I don’t see myself as a warrior when I’m doing my thing, on the contrary, if I’m working it means I’m OK, focused and full of energy. I can sometimes feel driven by a strong will of wanting to kick it hard, carelessly, but not like in a warrior mode, at least I don’t think so. I might actually be more at war with myself than anything else, fighting my natural penchant for all sorts of excesses, my idleness and negative thoughts.
On a more personal note, how would you say your everyday informs your practice?
My everyday forms the core my practice. I don’t fetch far, I work with what I have within eye, ear and hand reach, in the most non-hierarchical way possible. Would it be fair to say that you have somewhat of a fraught relationship to your work, and your practice as an artist? It doesn’t seem to come easily… I don’t do stuff just for the sake of it. I work within a frame that I set up for myself, in which of course spontaneous and accidental manipulations or objects or thoughts can come into play. I try to be as concentrated as I can in order to be open and acknowledge the still unknown ways in which an idea will find its manifestation.
Despite its charged meaning, there’s a simplicity in the production process of your work that makes it tender, soft even. Less-is-more kind of thing. Would you agree with this observation and, if so, why do you feel the need to soften your narrative through minimalistic production values?
It’s an economy of means. And besides this, some things are better accepted when they are wrapped in innocence, when they seem harmless. It’s a bit perverse maybe. It’s the art of the fable but stripped bare from any morality.
Take a step forward and look into the future. If you had to write your own obituary, how would you want to be remembered?
As a sex symbol.Aline’s work will be on show in March at Maison Grégoire-Observatoire Galerie, in April at Art Brussels (Galeri Nosbaum Reding in a duo show with Michael Debatty) and in June at CIAP, Hasselt. alinebouvy.info