The space that remains : an interview with Guillaume La Brie
Guillaume La Brie lives and works in Montreal. Since holding his first solo exhibition in 2003 at Skol an artist-run centre in Montreal, he has presented his work in many other artist-run centres and museums across Quebec. He has also participated in a number of intervention projects, exhibitions and international residencies, including Studio du Québec in Barcelona and a residency at Les Perles in Barjols, France. In addition, La Brie has completed several works in the public sphere in the context of the policy for integrating art into architecture.
In a previous interview you presented your practice as being about sculpture; yet, in your most recent exhibition titled L’espace qui reste1 (The space that remains) in the gallery’s main space, the viewer is surprised to see the framework of three walls with an accumulation of frames on one of them, symbolizing the back of painters’ canvasses. How is the viewer placed before a sculptural work in this exhibition?
Guillaume La Brie : To properly understand the relationship of this work to sculpture, one has to define the medium in its simplest terms. A bare-bones definition, perhaps one that is far too simple, but in my view, it can help us grasp the medium’s essence. In a pragmatic way, nothing could be simpler than saying sculpture is about an object placed in a space. I would add: where it’s seen by someone, but for the time being, let’s forget this last element and concentrate instead on the relation of the place and of the object. If there’s no object, there’s nothing and it’s physically impossible to have no space. These two elements therefore make up a sort of indivisible foundation of sculpture. Afterwards, each one has an infinite number of characteristics that make the medium more complex: the object necessarily defines a volume that is situated in a site, and the place, at the very least, delimits a space that interferes with this volume. My work focuses on this relation, which always is established between the space and the object. I try to intervene between these two entities to create different dynamics in their interaction. In L’espace qui reste, even though it’s about paintings on a wall, my work is still focused on the sculptural aspect, regarding the object in relation to the space. One is placed before five paintings that, hypothetically, represent what would ordinarily have been exhibited on the three gallery walls.
However, since there’s no wall surface, except for a small amount of drywall plaster, the paintings are all gathered together here. They are all exhibited in the same place and at the same time, thus they become a pile of paintings assembled like a sculpture. The initial material is of a pictorial order, but the gesture of grouping together these paintings is sculptural. It’s for this reason that the canvas is blank; the idea behind this is to retain the painting for its quality as an object and not as a surface. The exhibition space is also treated like a sculpture, since I used the place’s architectural shell, removing layers of material like a direct carving, to create a fictional context. Once the drywall was stripped from the walls, only the bare framework remained and this left no surface for the paintings. Hence they were obliged to occupy the same space.
You speak of canvasses that immediately refer us back to painting. Moreover, since the beginning your work has maintained close ties to architecture—I am thinking especially about the exhibitions Les envahisseurs de l’espace I & II2—with which sculpture is often associated, having similar elements. There is a sort of reversal here that gives priority to sculptural practice, perhaps notably due to architecture. In short, what link do you make between your practice and architecture?
Whether it’s a matter of sculpture or painting, in my view, these two mediums are necessarily linked to architecture because they both become the content during an exhibition. Actually, the gallery’s architectural shell, or that of any other interior exhibition space, delimits the space within which the work is experienced. In my work I try to de-compartmentalize this relation between the content and container, which is an inherent property of any work that’s viewed in an interior space. The architecture thus becomes a fundamental parameter in the development of my works and is likely to become a component in its own right. Sometimes, the interlinking between my work and a site is embodied by the way the sculpture is positioned in relation to the space.
In other cases, architecture is used as a source material, from which I take pieces of drywall to create the works. The architectural configuration of the gallery may also be transformed to produce a physical confrontation with the object inside it, such as in Les envahisseurs de l’espace or Champion des poids neutres. In this case, in a way, the work involved the creation of two works: One that acts on the architecture by transforming it, and the other that consists in creating objects that yield to the previously created restrictions. This works directly on and with architecture, but the reflection behind this work points to the reality of presenting something and the impact of this presentation. Since the object and the architecture are an integral part of the work, they both occupy an important place in this process. Nevertheless, the architecture is used more in terms of space and material than as architecture as such. So, to answer the question regarding the link between my practice and architecture, I would say that architecture is a material for me rather than a discipline.
In your L’espace qui reste exhibition, you hung a series of works on a wall that recalls your practice of carving out a silhouette of a form that is easily recognizable—for instance in the exhibition Les oeuvres qui n’étaient pas là.3 This process was also used in the works you presented in the context of the policy initiative to integrate public artworks into architecture. These works in the negative, these ghosts of works, speak to us of what is not. Is this your way of rethinking sculpture?
To represent something through the negative of its form remains a perfectly sculptural gesture, in this sense it’s more a way of rethinking the interrelation between an object and its surroundings than rethinking sculpture itself. In fact, the absence of the work becomes a way of affirming its presence by other means, all the while questioning its relation to the space. Usually, a sculpture is comprised of material and forms a volume, occupying a place in an exhibition site. In the case of a negative hollowed-out representation, the material instead points to the spectre of sculpture and it’s what’s missing that occupies the space. This nevertheless makes up a volume resembling that of a real object, which could, hypothetically, have occupied the space, though this volume is a void rather than a mass. The represented object no longer occupies space; since it’s empty, it’s the space that occupies the object. In this regard, the work emphasizes both the idea of the object and the environment that surrounds it.
Of course, as you say, there is something nevertheless. It’s impossible there’s nothing. There must be a support that makes it possible to view this emptiness in contrast with the fullness. This support necessarily delimits a work that is very much there, but the presence of which only serves to show what’s missing. Therefore it is purely incidental. In some cases, in order to make a support, I chose to hollow out my sculptures from blocks of material. In other cases, such as in Les oeuvres qui n’étaient pas là, I used furniture. I consider furniture to represent the starting point of something, which occupies space, in the sense that it’s a moveable element in an unmovable site. Afterwards, I represented two sculptures linked to art history in order to evacuate subjectivity from their form; I only focused on reproducing them. The important thing was to make them appear in their absence. In L’espace qui reste, it’s a little different, since here I wanted to experiment with this concept differently, i.e. by flattening the form and retaining only its flat silhouette. This endowed the piece with a pictorial quality that aestheticizes the form, but the notion of the essence of an absent object’s presence remains.
The history of sculpture is often associated with the monument, with the glorification of certain historical moments and the commemoration of them. In staging “the essence of an absent object’s presence,” your work seems be doing an about-face, regarding this vibrant presence of work that perpetuates a permanence and leaves a tangible trace of what has been. Of course this about-face is not new in the history of contemporary art. Do you have affinities with artists who, in one way or another, have visually presented the absence of the work?
It’s evident that many artists have worked with this idea of the absence of the work, but, just off the top of my head, I’m thinking of an exhibition I saw during a trip in 2002, which had a strong influence on me. This was Daniel Buren’s Le musée qui n’existait pas. The title alone was a great inspiration; in my view it announced the utopia of creating something that doesn’t exist, a thing that isn’t there. The exhibition transformed a complete floor of the Pompidou Centre. The space was cut up by 70 small square pieces all of which were glued together to form a sort of labyrinth in which each piece led to the next three by way of an opening in their corners. At each junction this formed a sort of spatial painting in which the configuration depended on this unique viewpoint. After having seen this exhibition, I became very interested in Buren’s work. I was particularly struck by a work he made in 1975, which was about the presence of the work of art made evident through its absence. The work in question was À partir de là. In this work, Buren covered several rooms of the Städtisches Museum with coloured and striped cloth, as he has frequently done in his work. What really interested me in this exhibition was the fact that he left rectangular blank spaces on the striped walls. These spaces were determined by the paintings hanging in the previous exhibition. There where there had been a work, Buren marked its presence by leaving the ghost of the space it occupied. Buren’s striped walls hence served to create a contrast between the space that was left blank and the rest of the wall, which is similar to the way in which my material forms are used to make the thing that isn’t there visible.
Then, there is Michael Asher’s work in which he moved a statue of George Washington from the outside to the inside of the Art Institute of Chicago. On the one hand, the exterior work disappeared, and on the other it took on another meaning inside the museum among other objects. Its aesthetic was completely transformed through this simple move. In my view, this clearly showed the importance of an object’s positioning in relation to the site it’s in, and this theme is always present in my work. In attempting to create things that aren’t there, it’s this notion of the object’s positioning that I’m interested in. The object occupies a volume even if it doesn’t really exist. It’s for this reason that I chose to represent a figure of Georges Washington in Les oeuvres qui n’existaient pas. I took this sculpture, which had been moved, as a starting point and I made it occupy another site through its absence.
Translated by Bernard Schütze
1. L’espace qui reste was presented at Galerie Lilian Rodriguez (Montreal) from April 26 to May 31, 2014.
2. The exhibitions Les envahisseurs de l’espace I and Les envahisseurs de l’espace II were presented respectively at AXE-N.o 7 (Gatineau) in the winter and at Galerie de l’UQAM in the fall of 2007.
3. Les oeuvres qui n’étaient pas là was presented at Fonderie Darling (Montreal) in June 2012.