The End of the Comet? (Interview with René Blouin)

A passionate lover of the visual arts, René Blouin has been part of the art scene since the 1970’s. As a gallery owner, he is also a big wheel in the “cultural industry.” He hates the expression, but being realistic knows that he is involved in it. A contradiction? Galerie René Blouin earned its stripes in the Belgo building on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. The space was a pioneer along with Galerie Chantal Boulanger in what is now an essential address for the visual arts. A new chapter: René Blouin has just moved house, sculptures and paintings to King Street in Old Montreal after a short time at the Arsenal. He begins anew, excited about his new collaboration with young Sarah Pépin, a kind of sister spirit and spiritual daughter. He has promoted the work of Betty Goodwin, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak, Rober Racine and Chris Kline among many others. The man has experience: he was part of the artist-run centre Véhicule, worked at the Canada Council for the Arts, was a curator for Aurora Boréalis and, briefly, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. An interview with an art dealer who still prefers an almost silent, intimate contact with works of art.


 

Do you think the visual arts are yielding to the temptation of spectacle?

René Blouin: The visual art world must deal with the demands of entertainment and the production of spectacle, as must every creative field. The path was laid out when bureaucrats started using the perverse term, “cultural industry.” I first felt the pressure around the beginning of 1980; there would be no further generous investment in culture, and the margins were beginning to be whittled away. Programmes like Explorations, which enabled artists to explore other disciplines or to intervene at the social or community levels, began to disappear.

 

Other examples?

I stormed out of the Musée d’art contemporain because they held a fashion show in my exhibition without warning me… More recently, there is the Quartier des spectacles. Although conceived by a good architect, it is the most hideous and insidious thing to be created in Montreal in the last 30 years. We are emptying out a neighbourhood. Junk food and low-end retail outlets are becoming the only businesses that can survive, to the benefit of festivals and big events. The poor Musée d’art contemporain is overshadowed, lost in the plethora of festivals held on its site six months of the year. I went to an opening during one of these festivals, which had installed fifteen portable toilets in a line in front of the museum’s entrance. A lovely welcome. This says a lot about our priorities.

 

In your opinion, what must one do today to make a place in the art world?

One needs a huge audience and endless media exposure, without this one is nothing. So, artists having a commercial success, like Corno, pass through the period and one hears that the Quebec delegate in  New York, a big fan, asks why her works aren’t in the museums. This is one effect of the society of the spectacle — this confusion with media success. It’s perfectly all right that Corno makes what she makes, but one can’t claim that it’s cutting edge art. In other respects, some artists having a solid art practice, with great conceptual strength, are perverse enough to play with media codes. I’m thinking of Michel de Broin, or Christian Marklay with the film The Clock. The codes of the spectacle blend easily in cinema. In visual art, it’s rougher, but still very possible for those who work with moving images.

 

Media impact has become essential, but the place of visual art in the media, especially mass media is shrinking.

The production of spectacle is everywhere: in politics, in social issues and in the media as well. It’s tough to show up on Catherine Perrin’s TV show and explain what contemporary art is in 10 minutes. A while back, there were people like Marcel Brisebois, Nicolas Mavrikakis when he was on radio, Gilles Daigneault, an extraordinary storyteller, who could narrate an exhibition for you. But since Radio-Canada has become an imitation of TVA, those programs have disappeared. The media no longer wants to ask questions that take time to formulate. Visual art isn’t fast. It shows up with its slow images, that we want and will look at for years, which are cumulative. We need to build little bridges so people can reach artists. It takes narration.

 

Narration? Isn’t that already a kind of staging? As an art dealer, isn’t it your job to, literally, puff up the artwork?

There is, in fact, an aspect where one necessarily “shows off” the creation. How can one avoid entertainment for entertainment’s sake? Good question. I have very few openings. In the gallery, I never explain the works. I put them in context, I don’t attempt a staging and I don’t try to seduce. My role is to create a space where the work can be viewed in the best possible conditions. I tell little anecdotes about the work or the artist.

 

With anecdotes and talk about the artist, doesn’t one risk feeding a cult of personality?

No. For me, art is the artist. The work is cartography of his or her thought. And perhaps one day, something will stand out, become iconic and speak to a vast range of people. Geneviève Cadieux, for example: she was tough at 18; her brother committed suicide, her parents were distraught, there were psychiatric interventions… Her very, very tough work, always right at the limit, for me, it’s an integral part of who she is. Take Van Gogh or Giacometti, who made masterpieces. When we read their biographies, we cry. It gives us goose bumps and it happens every time we see the works.

 

What solution do you see that might let us to escape from this wave of spectacle production?

Young people. Emerging artists. We’re in a period now that reminds me a great deal of the end of the 1950’s, with the right and a reactionary wing that are sometimes quite violent. I believe we are on the tail of the comet and that we will soon, as before, toss a lot of things aside. I see young people unable to tolerate the situation. They’ve recognized that they don’t need to violently take apart what others have made. They’ve created the Eastern Bloc, informal things, undergrounds, new kinds of galleries. Because we haven’t made space for them, they’re producing new structures and networks. And that’s wonderful.

Translated by Peter Dubé

 

Catherine Lalonde is a journalist, who writes on culture, dance and literature for the daily newspaper Le Devoir. She is also a poet and has published, among other works, Corps Étranger (Québec Amérique / La Passe du vent).