Valérie Favre and Annette Tietz in conversation

Annette Tietz: You are a painter. In your work you deal with themes like the aura of the artist in society or the attribution of traditional gender roles. In the process, you seize upon individual paintings or groups of motifs from art history in ever new groups of works, query them anew and subject them to a painterly process that you also refer to as “redescription” or restaging. What potential do these images from art history have for you and why do you revisit them?

Valérie Favre: The “redescription” of paintings or photographs that already exist is a category of my work method. I use them as a kind of platform of developments because they already contain everything: the story, the symbolism, the archetypes. All of this is already inhabited, and I use the frameworks to construct a new production from them, to restage them to some extent.

The references to art history and serial works have very much to do with a kind of constellation, as they are found in the universe. For me it is like a schema, like structures in which I can find myself. Sometimes I also move like in a universe without oxygen …

A.T.: In a text in one of your catalogues, the author Thomas Hirsch[1] writes about archetypes in art and especially in literature, which, according to Carl Gustav Jung, live within us and re-emerge again and again in various contexts, for example, the Kaspar, the grandmother and many more – I found this to be a lovely and very appropriate image. We are not alone in the world, but are instead a reservoir, not only of energy, but also of stories about and interpretations of our world, about us and the world – and that this re-emerges again and again for you, also has, I suspect, something to do with a strong unconscious, as you would otherwise not be able to evoke these figures.

V.F.: This is linked with many experiences and much reading. You mention Carl Gustav Jung, who I feel close to and who is especially important to me, like psychoanalysis generally, as well as the literature.

A.T.: The disparate of the world in our perception, our life situation, still persists to the present day – I see this a little bit as a principle and as the structure of your work method: thus not to create the only or ultimately formulated image as a statement, but instead allowing this disparate, the juxtaposition, the historical, one’s own positioning in the image to stand as it is or even to find an image for it.

V.F.: Precisely that is thus the construction behind it, which is why I absolutely need the cycle, because a single image does not suffice there …

A.T.: … which is why the work in cycles is also very characteristic for you.

A.T.: Your work method in cycles consists of various themes, different structures. You do not only work pictorially, but instead also in the form of a project, as now, in the case of our exhibition, which is unusual for you.

V.F.: Yes, it is unusual! Thank you for this invitation. It is fantastic that I could simply come with such an unusual idea, like presenting an exhibition without paintings, or nearly without paintings, for the first time! Your invitation came at the right time and I thought from the start about using the gallery rooms as an empty apartment and not as walls for paintings. I very quickly arrived at the theme of exile, because I am often confronted with it, due to my native language, due to language … 

A.T.:  The theme of exile has assumed great importance in the public and in political discussions – not least following the last big waves of refugees. For this exhibition, you have invited artists who, like yourself, were born in and grew up in other cultures, who now live in Germany and are very much in exile. However, they have not faced such existential experiences as flight, forced migration or violence. 

V.F.: Leaving aside the causes of war and persecution, the freely chosen exile of artists is different from that of global refugees and those fleeing. The artists who move from country to country without pressure are surely privileged. I would not actually describe this as exile. However, we will look at this more closely in the discussions in the gallery. The title is “Exile”, but with it I meant more of a “golden” exile. I want to discuss exile in its diverse aspects and manifestations in a dialogue with the invited artists as a universal phenomenon, as a moment of the ephemeral, as a problem closely linked with language, as a personal-individual question, as an extreme case of ‘rootlessness’.

A.T.: What do you understand under the term Heimat (homeland), or where is your Heimat?

V.F.: My Heimat is my native language. That means French – it can be a place where French is spoken. I do not know which it will be yet. However, I think I will fly through the universe again and land in a different place.

A.T.: Your artistic career began in theatre and film. Even today, the performative defines all your artistic work to a great extent. The scenery in your paintings often has a stage-like structure. You use strategies of the theatre and of film, like editing and montage, deceleration of the action or off-stage narration. You have said that you use painting because you are a secret director. Is the present project in the Galerie Pankow also linked with performative structures?

V.F.: Seen this way, yes. The stage is now no longer only the painting, the initially white canvas …

A.T.: You also use the gallery as a stage. Various actions, activities and events take place in the individual rooms.

V.F.: That was also the idea of the project: a development, a transformation from A to Z. Something will always be happening during the exhibition. The theme of time is thereby extremely important to me – not with reference to its passing, to ageing, but instead in the sense of Kairos.

A.T.:  And you are now attempting with this project to make time, the passage of time and a development visible. I find this interesting, which is why I immediately agreed. The classic course of an exhibition does not exist here. With your project, we have a completely different situation: nothing is there for the opening. And what will then develop?

V.F.: One can follow the origination and the development of an idea from one moment to the next. Time is here like the water one tries to hold in one’s hands, while it flows between the fingers. Disappointment can surely be anticipated in the initial moment of the opening.

A.T.: Let us allow ourselves to be surprised [laughs]. We are looking forward to that moment.

I find that wonderful. That is what a communal location is for, for daring such an experiment, for making something visible that is perhaps not so apparent, but which also distinguishes art quite eminently.

You pick up on the moment of the ephemeral quite strongly and have also found a beautiful form for this, which is how we can now first approach La Poulinière. With La Poulinière, you refer to Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, especially to his 3 Stoppages étalon (1913–14) and their constituting action. Duchamp determined the length of a standard metre by letting three ropes of this length fall, which remain lying in waves on the floor. Duchamp is synonymous with the beginnings of the avant garde in art. What links you with Duchamp? Why have you adopted his readymades? Is it about the act of beginning for you, or does it have more to do with the incalculable, the coincidence inherent to all creative work? How do you utilise the Poulinière in the exhibition? The theme has played a role in your artistic work since the 1980s. You have developed several objects of the Poulinière over time – the Original Poulinière from 1989, the Travel Poulinière, and now a Poulinière with variable discs produced specifically for the exhibition. Here one also finds continuity in the non-simultaneity. What reference do you see to your artistic oeuvre as a whole? Is there a counterpart in your painting or is it a separate branch of action in your art? Perhaps you can explain the idea behind it more precisely.

V.F.: This is an important theme for me and a core of the exhibition. The third Poulinière is an important figure for this staging. My first originated in Paris back then and has something to do with my entire development. This object appears like a star, like a metaphor for the entire time of the exhibition. 

At that time in Paris, when I began to occupy myself with the Poulinière, I often visited the Collège international de philosophie. It was a challenge for me, because I wanted to learn more about mathematics, logic, art history and art theory, and this college was open to all. I was there for two hours each Wednesday evening, and the discussions often continued with beer or wine afterwards – those were lovely intellectual moments for me, which gave me an awful lot, including many ideas. One member of this Collège was Thierry de Duve. I was especially impressed by his lectures on Marcel Duchamp, as well as by a book he had written about him. This agitated me greatly, in a positive sense. Of course, Duchamp is an icon for all of art history, for all artists today, for the Dada movement, etc. I found all his works very quiet, very clever, very beautiful, and yet I had the feeling that something is missing. Not that I felt myself to be something better, but there is something missing. At the same time, I wanted to create a homage to Marcel Duchamp with a reference to his work 3 Stoppages étalon[2]. I thought, I will place the mare adjacent to it, round, with the same movement and with the time reference. This originated in the first Poulinière with the hourglass, which displays a duration of three minutes. This cannot be viewed in Pankow.

A.T.: It has something very playful – which Poulinière of how many is that now, actually? The first is from 1989 – the Original Poulinière, then the Travel Poulinière, and now the Poulinière for our exhibition.

V.F.: Exactly, it is the third. The first became a sculpture. I no longer use it. I work with the Travel Poulinière when I am travelling over a longer period. It can also be seen in the exhibition with a short explanation. And the third was built especially for Pankow, for an exchange with artists, for the chalk drawings, for the entire project. However, after this I will let it rest. Its role and its activity in these six exhibition weeks will then be documented and it becomes an object.

A.T.: The Poulinière is then also something like a random generator?

V.F.: Rules and coincidence also encounter one another with the Pankow Poulinière. It is used, for example, for the invitations to the artists. In the gallery, not only my works are shown, but also one work from each of them respectively, which they bring with them to the exhibition from their studio. The Poulinière then defines how long the work may be presented. Not you, not I, but instead the Poulinière as a generator, as curator. I also see that as an important aspect of its role, as a possibility for us to abandon the curatorial and to hand over the decision to it as a kind of coincidence …

A.T.: Not only the curatorial, but also the rational is thus abandoned, in order to once again provide the immaterial with a little more space. However, you use the Poulinière in the framework of the exhibition yourself …

V.F.: Yes, for the chalkboard, for example: here I let myself be assigned three or four tasks by the Poulinière – it is then decided, in keeping with the rules I have set up, what will be drawn and what not. It is a kind of wheel of fortune. There are different wheels, which can be exchanged, and a few of them note various units of time. The Poulinière also decides how long the various drawings remain on the chalkboard. I in this way wish to lend expression to the idea of the ephemeral and the transitory.

A.T.: The Bureau des Suicides, which you founded, will open in the context of the exhibition. Since 2000, you as an artist have dedicated yourself to the theme of suicide and have developed a series of paintings[3] specifically addressing this theme. You now want to expand the previously purely artistic perspective on the theme and illuminate it from completely different perspectives: sociological, historical, poetic and philosophical. The Bureau des Suicides becomes a kind of art lab in which the theme can be discussed at various levels. What is the occasion for you to occupy yourself with the theme, to bring it to public attention, primarily in this form, and to make it the theme of an artistic examination?

V.F.: Following this cycle, this theme remained highly active, the series was concluded. The political spectrum had begun to occupy itself with this theme, but suicide has not been addressed all that often in painting. I attempted this with the brush, paint and surface, processed the theme in painting, but it subsequently continued simmering, it wanted to be further developed, but how? I did not want to make a sculpture or write a text. I then had the idea that one might perhaps initiate an exchange about this with others. Today, one speaks more about this theme than in the 1990s. It is more current, there is more literature about it in various areas, not only in those of psychology and medicine, but also in sociology, of philosophy. Many philosophers, such as Albert Camus, for example, have occupied themselves with this intensively. I thought about this and arrived at the idea to open an office. I like the aspect of the office: “Bureau de l’attitude”, etc. I do not see the office entirely positively, but instead more like an absurdity of our society. So, the idea of the office was there, but how to realise it? I initially produced this postcard. Your agreement was then something like an electrical shock. Then I thought that an office first needs a sign on the door. The office is thus brought into the Galerie Pankow like into a different office …

A.T.: … into a government office.

V.F.: I didn’t want to hear any lectures, but instead wanted to enter into the discussion myself, in the form of an exchange with questions and answers from those that are familiar with the theme, and then link this with questions of art, because I come from there. Nothing biographical should be appended to it, but it should instead illuminate how the theme has developed in art. I therefore invited the philosopher and cultural scientist Thomas Macho, who has dealt comprehensively with suicide. It was a wonderful coincidence that Thomas Macho, as was immediately made clear in our first preliminary discussion, has also occupied himself with and written about Hugo Ball.

I arrived at the art historian Geraldine Spiekermann because her thesis that a form of dissolution of boundaries of the body that is special for modern art takes place in the flow of tears also touches upon the question of suicide, if from a different perspective. In her dissertation thesis, she conceives of the flow of tears as an act of self-dissolution, as a decomposition of the physical.

A.T.: Suicide is still a taboo theme, which sometimes arises when a prominent person takes their life This is followed by a brief public debate, and it then very quickly disappears from the daily agenda, like the theme of death itself. Death and mourning are existential moments, which have always played a big role in art, where art in turn once again also plays a role in processing death and mourning. Insofar, I also see it as something artistic, how you approach this theme and make it a self-explanatory part of our life.

V.F.: Art is a place where it is possible to live again. I wanted to emphasise the freedom of the individual. I find that particularly important. We cannot say that we are free, and yet that someone who is seriously ill is not assured this freedom of self-determination. There is this “Exit” organisation in Switzerland, and I made a small painting of this. ”Exit” is an office where one can say the following when one is seriously ill: “I don’t want to go on.”

A.T.: In the process, I also think immediately about the theme of euthanasia … I co-initiated the Denkzeichen[4] in Berlin-Buch and ensured that the project was realised. I was quite involved with this. It was and remains presumptuous to decide over the lives of others, even if they are perhaps restricted in their capability to do this themselves, for whatever reasons. Life stands for itself; these are ethical principles. However, you do not simply see the Bureau des Suicides as existing under the category of suicide, but also of assisted suicide?

V.F.: Yes, this too, of course. It is principally like the Poulinière – it is a rule that is defined in advance. As a citizen forced to observe the laws defined in the constitution, we are, like in all democracies, also constantly subject to rules.

A.T.: However, I am also interested in learning what you ultimately understand under the term suicide. For me there are two things. First, suicide, the killing of the self, as a result of everyday life or a depression, world-weariness. Second, active assisted suicide for those who are truly ill.

V.F.: “Exit” in Zurich is in this sense not a form of assistance, it is really an act of will. You must autonomously swallow a pill, of course. Assisted suicide is another topic. I would not comprehend this as suicide. I am interested in the freedom of the individual, about their being able to decide over their life until the end. This is because one is not free in society in this sense, actually. We were also not asked whether we wished to enter this world. Everything is subjected to ritualisation, and I would like to create a platform for examination. The Bureau des Suicides should be understood as a platform, and not, like “Exit”, as a setting for assisted suicide. It is more about a discourse at an intellectual level that can also allow political, even quite disturbing thoughts, that guides discussions beyond these boundaries of freedom, and considers examples from the art world. Think of the many successful artists who have killed themselves.

A.T.: I see intervening with this theme under the motto of the “freedom of the individual” in opposition with the rights of society and making it a theme to be an important aspect. – A room of the gallery is defined by the painting Kosmos (cosmos), or Universum (universe), which you painted specifically for the exhibition, which completely fills the wall and thus dominates the entire room. What was your intention here?

V.F.: I also wanted to contribute something on the theme of exile, where I hope to invite the other artists to participate with one work. I wanted to refer to our general fragility and show that we are on this earth and at the same time lost in eternity. In 2012, I began a cycle with the title Fragments. These involve excerpts of the universe, thus a process like that for the present Kosmos. We also find ourselves in a kind of exile at the centre of the universe.

A.T.: One can in a sense submerge into it, also feel like a small part of this gigantic universe, so to speak, and perhaps also sense the insignificance of the individual in contrast with the larger whole.

V.F.: Yes, it should suggest the infinite, on the wall, without a frame, without an end or a beginning, as an excerpt …

A.T.: It is a mural that dominates the entire room, thus not a panel painting in the classic sense – it is a spatial installation. In one room of the gallery, you also show a display case with drawings and sketchbooks that originated in advance of the exhibition and show the process of approaching and examining the theme. Are these notations or do you also see an autonomous value of the drawings in this work?

V.F.: No, they are only “witnesses”, because the concept of the exhibition aims to a great extent at the development of a process that extends from the initial idea to its realisation. In this sense, this display case construct should provide a kind of introduction to the story of the Poulinière and explain why it is not a coincidental element of the exhibition, but instead its central actor …

A.T.: These are thus additional items of information that make the process even clearer. However, irrespective of the display case, what role does the drawing play in your work?

V.F.: An especially important role. With exceptions, where the drawings form a work, for example, with Le petit théâtre de la vie [5], my drawings are notes for my own use, they are freer. However, I want to be as free in my painting as I am in my sketches.

The discussion took place on 23 April 2020 in the studio of Valérie Favre in Berlin-Wedding.

[1] Thomas Hirsch: “Von Anfang an. Auktoriale Schöpfung und Partizipation bei Valérie Favre” (From the beginning. Authorial creation and participation with Valérie Favre), in: Valérie Favre, exhibition cat. Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle, Wuppertal-Barmen, 28.8.2016–08.01.2017, Dortmund, 2016, p. 119–127.

[2] Ètalon: French: stallion.

[3] Suicide Series, 2003–2013, oil on canvas, 129 parts, each 24 x 18 cm.

[4] “Denkzeichen in Berlin-Buch für die Opfer der national­sozialistischen Zwangssterilisationen und ‘Euthanasie’–Morde” (Memorials in Berlin-Buch for the victims of National Socialist  forced sterilisation and euthanasia murders) by Patricia Pisani, 2013.

[5] Le petits théâtre de la vie – a series of drawings that have been in progress since 2012.