I met with the contemporary artist Gabrielle Gobeaud Bianco in her Parisien atelier this February. We had a conversation about her recent work, intuition and her connection to natural materials. I know Gabrielle for 10 years and I have been able to see her work evolve from photography and video to a more personal multidisciplinary practice. By publishing this conversation I would like to introduce you to her beautiful and sensible work.
Irina Afanasieva: When we meet you were working mostly with photography & video whilst today your work is more manual. How did this change develop?
Gabrielle Gobeaud Bianco: Actually, it is more of a return to the material. When I was a child growing up, I was living in an old mill, a river was running under our house and I remember playing with clay and wooden sticks that I found there. A few years ago, I spent my last summer at the mill, it was then I started to work with clay again. Knowing it was the last time I would spend there I wanted to create pieces from the soil, grass, wood and other materials that I found in order to bring a piece of the land with me. The first pieces I created were containers as if they contained the memories of the place.
IA: So, the change did not come through an artistic project, it was more intuitive, almost like a therapy?
GGB: Exactly it was part of a concept, I needed to do it. Like in all my work I talk about a cycle, about transformation. The earth containers are very fragile because they are made in the most primitive way. The fact that they degrade over time is not a problem, sometimes they become more beautiful and if they were to be reduced to dust it is only a return to their original state. What I also found interesting in this process was the use of all four natural elements; the clay made from the soil that I got out of the water, the drying made in the open air and finally in a wood fire.
IA: So, this work is a return to childhood but also a return to primitive techniques.
GGB: It is amazing to have done this work initiative while forgetting all references from the history of art. These forms came to me by themselves and later I found similar ones in primitive art museums. Right now, I force myself to work only with materials I find in situ, I work as much as possible with my hands and I produce each piece by myself using primitive techniques.
When I made weapons using wood, shells and hair resembling prehistoric ones, it was a way of saying that “I am armed and protected”, I can defend myself. In reality, however, the weapons were harmless.
IA: Speaking about references, when I look at your work I can’t help to be reminded of the work of Giuseppe Penone and Joseph Beuys, do their work speak to you? In Joseph Beuys work, for example, we find many examples of healing and therapy.
GGB: Indeed, they make up a part of my references. Working with the felt I once again became interested in the work of Joseph Beuys, it is hard not to associate felt with his work.
IA: Can you tell me a bit about your creative process for making the felt you mentioned?
GGB: I always had an almost fetishist attraction to hair. When I was younger I cut my own hair, in school I also cut the hair of my friends and kept it after. Two or three years ago I started to make floral compositions using this hair but I needed more material, it was at that time I meet Moussa Cheniquel who is the founder of Espace MOSS in Brussels and we decided to make a collaboration. I set up in his space producing the pieces using piles of hair he kept from his customers.
IA: Beuys work also had a therapeutic side of it. He developed one of it as a result of a plane crash in South America, native tribes saved him and he was cared for with honey and felt wraps.
GGB: In addition to soap and essential oils I also used honey for healing and purifying. The hair mass was loaded with energy that I had to clean before starting to work with it. The honey being sticky also helped me binding the hairs together. I am used to be in contact with human hair but did not anticipate the amount of energy found in the bigger quantity.
IA: Do you think you would have felt the same with wool.
GGB: People reacted in two ways that illustrate that we do not have a neutral relationship with human hair. Some people were attracted, curious and intrigued by the felt and wanted to touch the material. Others because it is made with human material had difficulties even looking at it. Yes, we dress in leather, wool, fur and we ear animals. I think the most disturbing for people is that it reminds them if their animal condition and also about death.
IA: As your process is manual, the making of an art piece becomes a performance itself, can you tell us a little bit more about this? Is it something that you planned and wanted or did you just follow your instinct?
GGB: In my work, the ritual of making a piece has as much importance as the creation itself. When I started to film myself while working it was because I wanted to keep track and share the process. When I film myself, it gives me the impression of not being alone, as if I have an audience. It also helps me to detach myself emotionally from the work and to become more aware of the process. My gestures almost turn into a choreography.
IA: My theory when I created Effets Personnels was that the objects that are essential to us in our life are those with utility value and the ones that inspire you, sentimental value. What objects do you keep and surround yourself with and why?
GGB: I keep very few objects, I gave away almost everything I owned and I bought new ones to replace them. For example, I gave away my bed and sheets and replaced it with a sleeping bag. I choose it with the greatest case, colour, shape and material had to be perfect. It is very hard to get rid of objects, in our society to get rid of things and put in order is associated with preparing for death. It was interesting to see how getting rid of material things opened up new ways and thoughts. The objects I owned were very loaded symbolically, attached to people and periods for my past. By getting rid of them it freed a lot of mental space for me.
IA: I would like to talk about some of the pieces you have chosen to show here, apart from the felt, there are the potteries and also the diaries. Are all these pieces connected to each other?
GGB: I would like to say something about the masks that are made out of the same clay we spoke about in the beginning. The masks are born out of a feeling that the clay would one day be exhausted, I felt the need to cover myself with it. I ended up covering my face which created a cast, like moulds that I then filled with plaster. That is how these gargoyles were born.
IA: It also recalls of a Mortuary masks.
GGB: These pieces were also born out of intuition, a need. I did not film the process but it was physically very strong. The beginning of it was burying myself, I was in apnoea, I had dirt in my ears, eyes, nose, it isolated all my senses. Then when I scraped the hardened plaster it was like digging up a new face.
IA: Can you tell us some about the diaries?
GGB: When I got rid of most of my belongings I choose to keep only a bowl, a thermos and some other very basic equipment, then there were these diaries. I started writing at the age of 12 so there were a lot of notebooks. I wanted to get rid of them since they tied me to the pass but it was hard to make a decision how. I had to find the correct ritual to handle the mourning. I could not bring myself to burn them since it felt too violent. I decided to bathe them, like a baptism. As for the felts, I used essential oils for purification, I let the ink and paper dissolve all night. Then by putting the paper paste on a large metal place covered with a sheet I dried it and once again created a blank page. It is better like this but however much we want to make a clean sweep and forget the past there are still indelible traces.
IA: Do you consider this piece as finished or would you like to do something else with the blank page?
GGB: My pieces are fragile and can degrade with time, evolve and be transformed, it does not bother me that people touch my pieces. I work focused on the material so if you cannot touch them you lose much of the meaning. It also would not make sense to put these pieces under glass, they speak to all senses, odours from the materials are part of the piece, like oils, honey, hair, rust and earth.
IA: Going back to the felt, did you make some research before you started on how to actually make the felt?
GGB: I brought back a felt blanket back from a trip to Mongolia that I carried with me for a long time. The wool and tones in this blanket made me think of and want to create a felt surface. Before starting I did some research of traditional felt making in Mongolia. It is very beautiful; the felt is made with yak hair and water that are rolled together in the open nature. The roll is then attached to a camel that drags it for miles on the step and the friction towards the ground creates the felt. Obviously, I did not have a camel but I tried to reproduce the process by hand and to twist the cloth with the force of my hands to get rid of the water, it was very physical.
This was also the first time I worked in front of an audience, these people originally came for a haircut not to see the performance, I used their hair which they left almost like an offering.
IA: What were the reactions of the spectators?
GGB: If they come to get a haircut at Espace MOSS they are already relatively open-minded. Moussa often organize performances and exhibitions, people expect to might see something unconventional going there. Also, when entering the space, the customer agrees to be filmed, there were two cameras filming the part where the clients had their hair cut and another one filming me from the front working. The video was live-streamed on the website of the space so when someone took an appointment online they saw the video. Many were also happy that the hair came to use since its normally destined to end up in the trash.
IA: Why did you choose to work with such a range of mediums, videos, photos, sculptures, painting, etc?
GGB: At first my work was only manual by default, I was in an art boarding school where there was no computer equipment. We had nothing apart from the beautiful location where the school was, in the middle of the forest and all our recreational time was spent there. After I started at the Arts Deco in Paris where I studied photo and video without any technical training, I was forced to develop my own visual language. Both these periods helped me create the way I am working now.
IA: For you is there any barrier between the different artistic disciplines, do you do not define yourself as a sculptor or photographer?
GGB: No, when someone asks me what I am doing in life I answer that I am an artist. That is what defines me the best without labelling what I do and my way of life. My work integrates more and more performance while I never thought to do it. Everything is done in an organic and intuitive way.
IA: Finally tell us about some of your other obsessions and what they represent?
GGB: The knife because it is an object of survival, when I was younger I went on a trip with my father who offered us knives. It is an object that allows you to eat and to create things, it is a primitive tool, a development of the flint. The broom because it cleans and I find it interesting that it is associated with witches. The rope even if it’s not an object, I love rope. I often have some with me, it can be used to carry things, fix and repair but there is also a magic side of it.
Gabrielle in her atelier in Gent, 2016.
Do you miss home? 2016, terracotta, variable dimensions.
Masque (series 6), 2016 moulding, plaster, clay, hair 12x17x12.
Do you miss home ?, 2016, installation, (house) STRUCT collection by Eva Raffaella Menga.
Notebooks reset, 2001-2018, 2018, recycled paper (made with personal notebooks), steel, rope 118x84x10.
Felt pieces produced during the residence We are never alone at Espace Moss, Brussels, 2018.