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Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Résistance: Alain Kirili’s Monument in Grenoble

Alain Kirili in his studio, New York, 2011.  Photo: Ariane Lopez-Huici
Alain Kirili in his studio, New York, 2011. Photo: Ariane Lopez-Huici

ADA ACKERMAN:  With Résistance, which will be inaugurated in Grenoble on May 14, you pay homage to the resistance efforts of men and women of the Grenoble-area during World War II.  Résistance is a monumental abstract sculpture composed of fourteen blocks weighing about thirty tons each. What is your approach to the question of monumentality, which you have been exploring for several years at this point?

ALAIN KIRILI: Monumentality seems to me the noblest destiny a sculptor can aspire to. It allows the sculptor to confront political and urban considerations whose scope extends far beyond the protection of privileged spaces such as museums, or even sculpture gardens. In today’s world, a monumental sculpture is no longer obliged to be narrative or commemorative. A monumental sculpture may be abstract—the direction of my work—and what I call an incarnate, or embodied abstraction. I see monumental art as, essentially, a vertical erection that extends beyond the dimensions of the body and the gaze. In this sense it belongs to the art of statuary, which derives from the Latin “stare,” meaning that which stands or supports, and around which we may turn or move.  Thus, in an urban milieu, I very forcefully reintroduce people to an ancient, ritual, archaic dimension of experience, which consists in circumambulating an object, looking at it, and touching it. I translate this into my work as a simplicity—as (and I insist on this point) an “organic simplicity” that is resolutely post-minimalist, that re-introduces tactility and pleasure, that is first of all a tactile and sensual experience

In a striking and original way, your sculpture acts as a human, warm, accessible monument that does not crush the viewer. In this manner, you avoid the kinds of pitfalls that have littered the history of monumentality, whether in the form of the industrial statue-mania of the 19th Century, or the statuary of totalitarian regimes.

To my way of thinking, the figurative sculpture of Fascism was not incarnate. “Incarnate” means a living flesh. In its return to the body, Fascist sculpture in a sense emptied the body of its blood, emptied it of its trembling and its frisson, and therefore emptied it of life. And thus it produced a deathly, morbid body, so to speak. For me, “incarnation” is a very beautiful word, a word of great importance, connected with what is alive, with flesh and blood.

Another new aspect of your work, of considerable significance: with this approach to monumentality, your sculpture accords an important role to improvisation—which might initially seem paradoxical.

I think that what you witnessed, during the installation of Résistance, is what I would refer to as the power of the moment. This is a very particular and singular state that is not explicable and not part of the rational, an incredible splitting and a disposition that I can characterize as genuinely ecstatic. This is what leads to this monumental gushing [jaillissement] or “dripping” of several hundred tons, because the arm of the crane prolongs my own arm and allows me, even in a monumental sculpture on this scale, to be in the fa presto, in this privileged moment that I have always sought in my work and that pleases me in the work of others. What I find surprising is that I can accomplish it in public. I’m not a performance artist! I have observed these moments of fa presto in contemporary music, and especially in free jazz and among dancers; moments that, let’s say, approach ecstasy. My sculpture for Grenoble is truly a sculpted ecstasy, a body in jouissance, opposed to the negativity that surrounds us and to the dominant ideology of disenchantment.

On this subject, I must insist on a coincidence that is highly significant for me: I find it deeply moving that the inauguration of my largest monumental sculpture, which employs this gushing, should coincide with the centennial of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which was published in 1911. This is the text in which Kandinsky formulates, for the first time in the West, the relation between a work and what he refers to as “an inner necessity,” and this relation occurs through improvisation. This is exactly what I have honored in this sculpture that Michel Destot, the mayor, commissioned me to create for the city of Grenoble. Moreover, I must also say that I am delighted and very proud to have this opportunity to relate my work to that of Calder, whose sculpture greets us at the Gare de Grenoble as we leave the station. Alexander Calder is one of the greatest sculptors of abstract and exultant monumentality, so I consider it an enormous privilege to be able to respond to him, in the same city.

Résistance is not your first monumental work. How does it relate to your previous monumental sculptures, Hommage à Charlie Parker (2007) and Improvisation Tellem (2000).

As we can see in the exhibition of my drawings in the Musée de Grenoble, thanks to the very judicious selection made by Guy Tosatto, Résistance refers back to a project undertaken thirty years ago with Commandement I (1980), which is at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. That work proceeds in terms of a multiplication of signs. With the Commandements that I created for the Tuileries Garden (1986), a group that was initially conceived for an interior now turns toward the exterior, the city. Tellem (1999) and Hommage à Charlie Parker (2007) subsequently represent the monumental equivalents of this principle of a series intended for public space. Relative to these two sculptures, Résistance moves toward greater expansiveness, toward a greater deployment in horizontality. In this sense, it represents the culmination of this serial and urban logic, in a resolutely monumental dimension.

Beyond the material that they all share, these three works also express my interest in a three-dimensional, incarnate, and affirmative calligraphy. With them I have created a singular sculptural alphabet, an ensemble of signs that translates the beat of primordial and fundamental human drives. In this manner one can embody an originary rhythm.  The origins of writing, in fact, were in carved stone, and I like to develop references to this sculptural scripturality. And lest we forget, initially, the sculpture for Grenoble was to be entitled Alphabet.

You evoke the birth of writing, you evoke flesh-signs giving voice to our primordial rhythms. What I find striking about Résistance is, in fact, a certain dimension of the archaic. On the one hand, your sculpture represents “memorial stones” that celebrate an episode that is quite well defined in time and history, the Resistance. But on the other, their scope is far vaster, far more immemorial. Your sculpture radiates an energy of life, an energy I would call millenarian, that in a certain sense evokes Stonehenge. It seems to me that your sculpture has an element of Dionysian ritual about it, of ancient ritual.

Absolutely; in fact I can only thank you for bringing this up. I would simply add that this mystery is related to a particular and indeed profoundly sculptural gesture that I carry out, and that is piling-up [empilement].  This is an archaic gesture; a primordial gesture which is very ancient, like stone itself. In truth, and I’ll risk a paradox here, what really interests me is the timeless aspect of modernity.  Not letting oneself be seduced by modernist tics, discovering and rediscovering the modernity hidden in millenary traditions: this is a challenge that I embrace. Carving stone, forging metal, and modeling in clay are entirely up-to-date, modern, contemporary activities and I think it is imperative to affirm and perpetuate them in the 21st century.

Résistance by Alain Kirili, Grenoble, France.  Photo by Lucile Genoulaz
Résistance by Alain Kirili, Grenoble, France. Photo by Lucile Genoulaz

You emphasize that your monumental works share a common feature, in that they have all been created with the same material: the pink limestone known as Rose de Bourgogne. You are particularly fond of this stone because you find that it is a very empathic material. Can you tell us more about this?

Because of its famous honey-golden and flesh-like pink coloring, this stone is especially well-suited to arouse empathy in the viewer.  And this is an effect that I strive for: I am not aiming for a relation of defiance or confrontation with the public—quite the contrary. This stone reassures, it wants to be touched and to touch.  Something that I have learned, and that has surprised me very agreeably, is this:  neither of the previous monumental sculptures, neither the one in Paris nor the one in Dijon, has ever been vandalized.  Which means that a material can be both monumental and a source of empathy, just so long as it is embodied and incarnate.

With this stone, I propose a dialectic between the smooth and the rough, a relation that belongs to life itself, that will relate unconsciously to essential dimensions such as sexuality, voluptuousness, or sensuality. During my encounter with your students, with mayor Michel Destot, and with two celebrated figures of the Resistance—Mimi Mingat (whose nom de guerre was “Juste de l’Isère” [Righteous in Isère]) and Gabrielle Giffard (nom de guerre “Ariel”)—I was very moved when Giffard, without being any sort of art historian, perceived that the installation of my work involves a sort of gushing [jaillissement]—she actually used this magic word. This was absolutely astonishing, quite marvelous. What more beautiful word could one use? That says it all. This is what such a woman, with her unshakeable optimism, said to your students, who are between 19 and 22 years old, or in other words the same age she was when she took part in the Resistance. She completely understood the spontaneous, living, improvised, unpremeditated nature of the sculpture’s installation [pose].

Another point that is very important for me: I have only recently realized, and this touches me powerfully, how much the Rose de Bourgogne stones used in Résistance remind me of Cézanne’s late-period paintings, from the time when he set up an easel and worked in the Bibémus Quarries. His extended period of contact with the reddish stones there encouraged him in his path toward a radical abstraction. Those monumental blocks with their smooth and rough ridges had a direct influence on cubism. Those works very probably played an unconscious role for me—and here I’m thinking particularly of the painting, “Le Rocher Rouge” [The Red Rock], from 1897, at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Almost twenty years ago, when I found myself for the first time in a quarry at Prémeaux, near Nuits Saint George, the quarry’s proprietor Pascal Loichet said to me: “Alain, this quarry is your studio.”

What an equation! A painter of blocks of stone in Provence—a sculptor of blocks of stone in Burgundy. I have replied to Cézanne’s serial paintings, with all their warmth and sensuality, with my sculptures in Rose de Bourgogne, which are filled with my desire for intense sensual pleasure [volupté] thanks to the gorgeous vibrations of this Burgundy stone and the flavor of its mineral specificity, which is the “climate” for the wine. These stones give my work a monumental lightness and inebriation.

And in fact, speaking of this “climate for the wine,” the particular flesh-like coloration of the Rose de Bourgogne, which is so specific to this stone, results from a meeting of the mineral and the vegetable. I think this is an essential point for you.

First of all, I wanted to recall the final passage of Roland Barthes’ inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. I don’t recall the exact formulation, but basically he says: “You know, I’m now at a stage in my life where what really interests me is unlearning, in order to taste sapienza, a form of knowledge that we experience above all in terms of flavor.” * Thus Barthes’ final word links sensibility and intelligence to flavor, understood as something he wants to pursue. I find this an astonishing conclusion, and it’s something I felt a kinship with and that has stuck with me all through my life. This is because I cannot conceive of culture without flavor and without accepting what I would call the war of taste. Creativity doesn’t occur in the midst of pleasantness and consensus, but in a relation that, we have to admit, is full of collisions and conflict. The war of taste is, especially, the war against the simulacrum, cheapness, against what we call kitsch. One of the struggles that occupies me today is against puritanism, or in other words against the dominant, Anglo-Saxon vision which consists in conceptualizing everything, in crowding out sensations, jouissance, pleasure, the pleasure in excess, since only in excess is there real pleasure, and only in excess does intelligence begin, much like creation itself. Excess is therefore the most basic referent. My vision is a vision of excess. Living in an Anglo-Saxon country, in a country marked by the Reformation and puritanism, I have perhaps been in a good position to understand that what we, in France, take to be simply natural, is in fact completely cultural. I take pride in being extremely lucid about what is specific to French culture, and therefore I realize my good fortune [bonheur]—and I use this word intentionally—in having had the privilege of working in Burgundy. For Burgundy is an essential region in the history of sculpture. This is the region of the “Pleurants” or Mourners—I’m referring to that masterpiece in the world history of sculpture, The Mourners by Sluter—and this is the region of the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy, the sculpture of Auxerre, of Vézelay, etc.; as well as a work that I truly love, Rude’s Napoléon qui s’éveille à l’immortalité (Napoléon Awaking to Immortality); this is the region of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music, with its surprisingly modern dissonances. With all this, we’re in set of very incarnate conjunctions. And the experience that accompanies this is that of the flavors and tastes related to religion and spirituality, which the monks of Citeaux developed with their cheeses and in creating Clos-Vougeot, one of the world’s greatest wines. What moves me, and what I adopt with pride, is this relationship of the mineral and stone with the wine. For me, Bacchus, Dionysus, wine, is a vehicle towards greater intelligence, greater sensibility. When this element of nature, the vine, is compelled and constrained by both the stone and the humans who tend it, this engenders wines that are truly extraordinary, and which, moreover, often bear the names of stones. Le Corton is the name of a kind of stone.  So I take a certain pride in opposing myself to the country of tea ceremonies, since the tea ceremony represents puritanism in opposition to the inebriation of wine, which flows through our civilization and marks Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, in the ceremony of the mass, in which wine represents the blood of Christ. Thus there exists a culture and a millenary symbolism that makes a central space for wine, for taste, where intelligence mixes with creation, where Dionysus—I must insist and repeat—is an integral element of intelligence and creation. If I have to choose between a Zen garden and its tea ceremony and a vineyard like Romanée-Conti, I spontaneously opt for the earth and vineyards of Romanée-Conti. Additionally, I will also note that, with my sculpture for Grenoble, I became aware not only that Rose de Bourgogne is carnal or flesh-like, but also that it gives the taste of its minerals to the wine. This terroir, the special characteristics of this soil, which in Burgundy is called a “climate,” allow me to say that I drink the wine of the stone of my sculpture. This formula is obviously quite phenomenal and well worth defending, permanently and at any cost!

Résistance by Alain Kirili, Grenoble, France.  Photo by Lucile Genoulaz
Résistance by Alain Kirili, Grenoble, France. Photo by Lucile Genoulaz

You propose an opposition between the inebriation of wine, which is tied to Résistance in a truly bodily manner, and the tea ceremony. In this light, I wonder whether your installation for Grenoble does not harbor a duality, or at least a tension, between your sculpture—which invites the spectator to relate to it directly, to walk around it—and the covered shelter created by Alexander Chémétoff, which, it seems to me, encourages a more contemplative relation, since one is supposed to sit and look at the sculpture. How do you see the relation between Alexander Chémétoff’s covered shelter and your sculpture, and how do you want the spectator’s body to be mobilized and invested in your sculpture?

Thank you for this question. One has to understand that in this case we’re dealing with opposite of the usual situation, and I think this is one of the secrets of the success of the entire situated ensemble. In this case we haven’t installed a sculpture to fit an architecture; it’s the reverse. First there was my sculpture and my proposition to an architect-landscape artist to create a setting for this sculpture. It was a matter of constructing a privileged space for a work of art, in the manner of the chapel specially conceived so that Matisse would create something inside it; of the circular space so dear to Monet; or of the polygonal chapel intended for Rothko’s paintings. My sculpture is therefore not conceived as an outside element being added to an architectural structure after the fact, but as the take-off point for a collaboration with an immensely talented architect-landscape designer, of whom I think very highly, Alexandre Chémétoff. I asked him if he would be willing to work around a sculptural multiplication of signs like Résistance, and he was. And with extraordinary modesty, he decided, on the basis of suggestions I made to him, to erect a covered shelter, a small shelter that would lend itself to meditation. Not a Shinto or Zen meditation, but a meditation that I would characterize as frankly oriented to pleasure [jouissive], a meditation that is incarnate and not metaphysical. So yes, Alexandre’s installation does indeed invite us to contemplation, but to an incarnate contemplation, totally grounded in the body, which in turn calls for an exceptional state of physical contact with the sculpture.

This place and this ensemble function as “an abstract sculpted meditation” directly descended from the Brancusi at Târgu Jiu in Romania: his Endless Column is an abstract commemorative work situated in a space entirely conceived by the artist.

This question of incarnation, it seems to me, allows us to perceive the continuity between your monumental projects and a far more private and intimate practice, your work in terra cotta. I see a truly carnal, fleshly link between this beautiful Rose de Bourgogne stone and terra cotta.

It seems to be that clay was invented to express flesh. And indeed this is why, in the 1970s, I called one of my sculptures Adam, which in Hebrew signifies “earth.” Earth and flesh are very closely related notions. Working with earth, one is engaged in tactility, in expenditure, in an impetuous and inebriated gesture that reveals the feminine, that strips it naked. This is quite extraordinary, and I discovered it in an entirely empirical manner. As paradoxical and unexpected as it may seem, it turns out that this is possible with stone as well. This is what I demonstrated before your eyes and the eyes of your students: that monumentality may be treated fa presto. It involves the urgency of a choice made in the instant, in a split second; it involves a veritable act of defiance, echoing that of the male and female members of the Resistance, who made their decisions suddenly, some as early as the autumn of 1940, to join the Resistance, making ultra-rapid, sharp and clear choices that completely upset the courses of their lives. I share this ethic in my creative work, completely and absolutely. It’s about taking risks.

* The English translation (by Richard Howard) of this passage in Barthes’ text reads: “Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable changes which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapienta: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (“Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France,” in Barthes: Selected Writings [1982], 478).

Translation from the French by Philip Barnard

Résistance by Alain Kirili, Grenoble, France.  Photo by Lucile Genoulaz
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Alain Kirili working on the installation of Résistance in Grenoble, France.  Photo by Alain Chaudetto by Lucile Genoulaz
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