“Sweet Idol” questions the relationships of power among artists, curators and the public: who dominates whom? Interview with French Artist Violaine Lochu

May 8, 2020

Who is this “Sweet Idol” exactly? Well, it’s Violaine’s one of the most entertaining, bright & cheerful pieces of performances for Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2019, though it relates with the political context, but it also entertains the audience at the same time. Violaine Lochu is a well-established performance and installation artist based in Paris, who continues to present her art pieces at major art centers of Europe. Violaine presents her artworks in the form of performances, sound installations and videos. She takes the audience to an entirely different world through use of her powerful voice and body. Her voice and body tried to challenge her career since the very beginning, but she made her way out successfully by connecting with them deeply and made them the strongest medium to present her art even in severe medical conditions. Violaine Lochu is also a graduate of National School of Art of Paris Cergy (ENSAPC) and holds a Masters in plastic arts research from Rennes 2 University. She has spent time in Lapland, Sweden during artist residency, for which she thanks the CNAP, the French National Center of Art grant. Let us know more about her art.

Violaine, which all fields of fine art have you explored so far? How do you balance and relate them with one another?

So far, I have explored different forms of art, like performances, sound pieces, videos and drawings. All these art forms are unique yet connected with each other through transcription, translation and notation. In the ‘Memory Palace’ project for example, the drawings are the graphic transcriptions of a performance, in which I use the prism of my voice and a sound piece itself is composed of recordings from 200 people. In this project, starting from an initial material the language and sound, then performance, and finally graphs. Since 2012, around fifteen editions have been produced in collaboration with graphic designer Christophe Hamery. I would say that exhibitions help me balance and relate them with one another in a single space. Another example would probably be the exhibition Signal Movement presented in September 2019 at Atelier Vortex in Dijon, which invited the audience to dive into sensorial multiplicity, where sound, physical vibrations, video and graphic scores referred to the different physiological modalities of voice. At the moment, I am planning about how publishing and exhibition could be articulated through a project of "performed catalog".

 

You often describe the concept of your artworks based on human sciences, metamorphosis and political context. How do you plan your concepts?

It is true that my projects are based on particularly the human sciences, anthropology and sociology; for example, I worked with the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, who was himself interested in the relationships between science, art and politics.

But upstream of these references, each of my projects has its source in my obsessions, voice and metamorphosis, which I constantly question and experience, trying to constantly renew this questioning. From the initial impulse, I indeed borrowed from the human sciences the scientific field method, which I deploy in a transposed form and take it towards an artistic approach. I always develop my projects according to their context based on some questions; What are my motivations? What does it imply? What are the economic conditions or symbolic recognition? Who are the different actors of the project? What is everybody’s role including mine? How do we express it? What languages and codes are to be used? The project is for whom? and Where will it be presented. Another important question is about what kind of effect it is going to have on the audience has to be thought before executing the idea? How to use teamwork in a particular situation? How would the project act on its scale?

 

How do you describe your artwork Unchorus, which is based on political context, a sound and light installation created for the Contemporary Art Museum of Lyon - Mac Lyon in 2019?

Unchorus was created during the 2019 European elections, when we collectively questioned the meaning and the future of the European project, which today seems largely weakened by Brexit, rise of nationalist parties, etc. In addition, disparate protest movements like the Yellow Vest movement in France and The Sardines movement in Italy were beginning to emerge - without however leading to profound changes. The sound and light installation “Unchorus” seeks to give an account of this complex period, dominated by doubt, worry, and the difficulty of making a common voice. It questions the notions of choir and revolution, which makes our time hollow, difficult and suffer a lot. Talking about the process of creation of this installation, first, I've asked a dozen people of European origin such as English, Lithuanian, Swedish, Romanian, Czech, Polish, Italian, Spanish and German to give me a revolutionary song in their mother tongue.

Along with the spatial arrangement of the twelve voices of the installation, Unchorus explores the notions of plurality and singularity inherent in a choir. At various moments in the sound work, one voice or another stands out, in its own time and key, from the collective sound. Sometimes the voices come together in a kind of stammering choir. In the middle of the installation, there is a bare bulb emitting a light that varies from near darkness to blinding strobe effects, reflecting the sudden violence of a rebellion coming up against the harsh reality. The spectator is left feeling ill at ease and has difficulty moving around in the space, not knowing whether or not they are invited to sit around the bulb and risk being blinded by its light.

 

 

Your most talked performance art “Meat Me”, for Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019. A really bold, strong and thoughtful piece of art. Would you like to share your personal thoughts about it? How did you plan to execute the whole idea?

The Festival of Living Literature Extra! invited me to create a performance within the context of the Bacon Book Club at the Pompidou Centre, during the exhibition Bacon en Toutes Lettres, on the links between the works of the painter and literature. I proposed a performance based on Bacon’s quote: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” – seeking to make bodies looking at Bacon’s paintings resound with the sensation produced by these works.

For this I relied on Bacon’s recurring formal themes: contradiction, dilation, blur, prosthetic, animality and meat as analyzed by Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation.

 The performance takes place on a transparent chair. I start the performance from the back, and finish it in the same position. Between the two, I make a revolution on myself, sitting or crouching on the chair. A single gesture unfolds, stretches slowly for 30 minutes. This minimal choreography is a waking dream, an almost motionless journey, as if a Bacon figure came to life.

My experience as a living model served me a lot for this performance: thinking of the body as an image, playing with its reliefs, shortcuts, poses and pauses, its particularities and its accidents. At the time of the performance, my body had an androgynous appearance, due to the weight loss due to an illness. I play with this ambiguity, especially in back breaks, where my chest (which identifies me as a woman) cannot be seen. Wearing a man's underpants - in reference to the recurring models of Bacon - further accentuated this ambiguity. I tried to question not only the gender identity, but the very humanity of this representation, by bringing it to the side of meat, of animality. As does Bacon, in whom the painting is also like a butcher's stall.

The use of voice in this performance contributes to this intention: the first cry is terrifying and indefinable. Is it a human or animal cry? As the performance unfolds, the sound is structured, articulated first rhythmically, the arrival of the consonants imperceptibly moves it towards an outline of language; at the beginning, these seem to escape, "to hole the mouth".

At the end of the performance, the phrase "If you can talk about it, why paint it?" emerges from this slow progression towards articulated language. The First World War and its broken mouths - so present in Bacon's paintings - mark our minds as something monstrous, on the edge of humanity. In the performance, I deform my face with my hands, these frightening grimaces affect the voice because certain gestures distort the mouth, block the nostrils and strike the cheeks. I also play transparent plastic on the back of the chair, put my face on it; nose, cheeks and lips to deform it like Bacon.

 

 

“Babel Babel” has been the most known amongst the themes of metamorphosis as your solo and collective performance, 2019. It feels like there is your personal style and feelings, along with the voices of a three months born baby. What are these ideas which make it look like a Violaine’s piece of art? Is there something more you are trying to convey through these voices?

Babel Babel is a performance composed using recordings of children’s babbling made in a few nurseries since 2016. From the age of three months, a child begins to babble: in a purely physical and perceptive game, they explore the possibilities of their vocal apparatus. The sounds that they emit are not necessarily addressed to anyone, nor attempts to convey any particular meaning. In 2016, as part of the project Vocal Abecedarium, the sound piece B - Babble was composed from baby voice recordings whose height and speed I had reduced, so that they approach characteristics of an adult voice. This created a disturbance as to the nature of the sound produced, more disturbing than charming as a babble can be. This transposition and displacement game was, as in many of my projects, a way of questioning and making the voice heard differently. Behind the apparently "harmless" dimension of childish language is a network of powerful effects. In 2019, at the invitation of the DRAC Ile-de-France to carry out a project in a different departmental nursery, I wanted to push this idea further, by presenting a performance where I take up the children's baboons myself. For this I again made recordings, during which I could observe the attitude and the face of the babies when they express themselves. The babble is one of their modes of vocal expression, with shouting and crying. All of these manifestations are very emotionally charged. The voice transmits vital information like hunger, thirst, fatigue and need of comfort which of course cannot be articulated in the language at this stage of their development; the baby's voice "compensates'' for this impossibility with its expressive power. In Babel Babel I do not try to imitate the language of babies, but to rediscover the need and the pleasure of saying so powerful feelings in early childhood. I rework, displace and loop this sonic material to reveal the richness of the different sonic states of babbling, this forerunner of language that brings to mind imaginary and distant idioms, and even non-human expressions of the pure pleasure of speech, close to poetry.

 

 

 

One of your very entertaining, bright & cheerful pieces is Sweet Idol, performance for Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2019, though it relates with the political context, but it also entertains the audience at the same time. How did you come up with this concept? And how do you explain it?

“Sweet Idol” was performed at the Palais de Tokyo on the occasion of a banquet. The performance was presented as appetizers. I've made fun of the situation by making use of the expressions on different faces and used it as a value. Scheduled for dessert, I became an enjoyable sweet, my face covered in pomegranate seeds, dressed like a wedding cake with a special device hidden up my sleeve that allowed me to distribute whipped cream at will. My hybrid, jester-like figure was a Clown, a Cyborg and a Drag Queen all at once, such as one may find among the characters of Fellini and Rabelais, playing on the ambiguity between what is appetizing and what is disturbing. Dressed in a tight pair of shorts and perched on frightfully high heels, Sweet Idol is a decadent spouse, a birthday strip-teaser, a monster with a shaved head and red-scaly skin. I've strolled about amidst the guests, uttering sounds between Italian operatic lyric singing and animal sounds. I've thrown fruits which indirectly relate to grenades that exploded among the guests, and I've covered the faces of several spectators with whipped cream, in a gesture that is quite similar to pie attacks. This spectacular performance seemed to float constantly between entertainment – the roar laughter of people joining in, expressing acceptance, embarrassment, mockery and unease – and the satirical, derisory attack. The weapons were inoffensive here, like jokes and hoaxes. Inoffensive? That remains to be seen, because satire always represents danger for the court jester. Sweet Idol questions the ambiguous complexity of this type of context and situation for artists: their fear of being reduced to entertaining objects may degenerate into anger, or rejection by the institution they depend on, nevertheless, symbolically and economically. Sweet Idol questions the relationships of power among artists, curators and the public. By using whipped cream on the faces of the guests and use of fruits and dressed in attire of a dessert, Sweet Idol enacts a hierarchical shift, and behind the game of appearances, poses a political question: who dominates whom?

 

 A moment of the performance. Courtesy of the artist

 

Talking about “Hybird”, your solo performance from bird singing, 2017, which is also based on metamorphosis. What is the aim of this artwork?

Hybird is a performance for voice and accordion, composed from research on bird singing in France and in Swedish Lapland. Barn owl, Bohemian waxwing, wood grouse, great bittern, wood pigeon, Siberian jay, tree finch and willow grouse. I question, in an exercise of hybridization; much more than imitation, that engages not only my voice but also my body the bird-woman figure, perhaps an echo of the mythological sirens. This metamorphosis is accompanied by an accordion which is played, beaten, scraped, scratched and struck. My performances are born from an immersion in specific human and non-human environments; I then try to give a vocal rendering of the interactions that took place, looking for a "third voice", which would be a possible meeting point between my own voice and that of the other. In this sense my work is an exercise in transformation and mutation, much more than imitation. In Hybird, I therefore do not seek to "adapt" the human voice to the song of the birds, but rather a zone of porosity, a range of hybridization which would seek to escape the classic dualism: nature, culture, human and animal. By necessity, functional human language cuts and separates. It is in some way improper to account for the continuity that exists between the elements of the world. Faced with the current ecological situation, we can no longer think of man at the center and above everything. Without being a literal and direct criticism of anthropocentrism, Hybird would be a poetic zone of experimentation, displacement and invention of a new imagination on these questions

Hybird,  2017 partition, ink on paper

 

 

 A moment of the performance. Courtesy of the artist

 

Would you like to share a story from your past experiences in life which has been a driving force to motivate and inspire you to choose all these kinds of artworks that you create?

All my artworks have a deep connection with the events and happenings in my personal life. My major interest in the voice is fueled by my own experience. As a child I had language disorders; for years I had to go to a speech therapist to learn to speak, to enter the "common language". Around 20-25 years of age my voice became the theme of my research and my working tool as I suffered from chronic crises of aphonia. This strong experience felt lack and difficulty. My current practices extend and displace these experiences. More recently, other personal experiences have directly influenced my practice. The solo show Hinterland at the Dohyang Lee gallery in Paris, presented pieces  that were produced during and after cancer. Some works had a cathartic value, allowing me to go beyond a medical discourse often associated with symbolic violence, a summons. In the video triptych C'est la peau, where I presented the image of my own body by blindly browsing every inch of my skin with a go pro camera, revealing a dreamlike, almost abstract landscape. In this immersive installation Organ Opera, playing on unusual vocal modes, I've tried to make reachable the way I represent my physical and organic interiority. Biographies are drawings inspired by microscopic cellular views. I wrote the diary of recent months, where I interlace and respond to immediate experiences, memories and thoughts.

 

What are your upcoming projects? Also, you have been planning to show up in the international art market as well. How has been the response of the audience internationally?

I am currently working on three exhibitions and performance projects. One of them is a solo exhibition, which might happen in June in Paris at the La Pop barge, a place of live performances and every year it invites an artist to create a sound installation inside the boat. I will present the sound installation Orpheus Collective built from children's voice recordings. Here the concept of "prophetic voice" is explored. In certain moments of crisis, the role of the child prophet, which here echoes that of Orpheus, has the role of warning men of future disasters. The voices of children has been collected during a Skype interview carried out during the confinement period due to the Covid 19 - then transforming it into the sound installation will also pose the question of our collective future. Another exhibition on which I am working on is a form of a duo show with the Portuguese choreographer Joao Fiadero, at the National Contemporary Art Center Villa Arson in Nice. Then there is another solo show that I am currently working on, will be held at the Contemporary Art Center La Traverse in the Paris suburbs in September. The project is based on interviews with my relatives during confinement, and will focus on a fictitious community.

I have been able to establish myself as an artist across Europe, I feel it’s important to explore new audiences. So, I plan to explore the possibilities beyond and wish to share the content, ideas and emotions of my art pieces with the international audience around the world. The three months spent in Lapland in 2017 were very important from this point of view, and allowed me to open up new avenues of research. If the evolution of Covid 19 allows, a residency followed by a collective exhibition is planned this summer in Africa, in Benin. I would love to spend time in New York, as it has always been one of the most active and important centers of contemporary art in the world.

 

 

According to Tate; performance has been understood as a way of engaging directly with social reality, the specifics of space and the politics of identity. The theorist Jonah Westerman calls performance art as “a set of questions and concerns about how art relates to people and the wider social world”. Well that’s easily relatable after knowing the artworks of Violaine Lochu.

 

 

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