Stephan Breuer’s artistic approach is rather groundbreaking. He rejects the rules as well as the dynamics of the market. He’s constantly projecting himself in the future and working with different digital mediums, and yet he finds inspiration in the past and in the classics, whether is art, culture or architecture. But time is not really relevant for Breuer: he follows the flow, while drifting through an organized chaos of ideas and stimuli that he combines in trans-media projects and directs like a concertmaster. This oxymoronic personality, who swapped painbrushes for electronic devices and made of the “immaterial” his own canvas, has been expressing a new way of making and understanding art through a selected series of powerful artworks and interventions. Radical to the root, he has chosen to be based and work in Paris, and fight against the conservatism as well as France’s sweet steadiness. We visited Stephan Breuer’s studio, an eclectic Hausmannian space where phones, computers and digital screens meet beacon lights, images, books and souvenirs, and sat down with him to talk about his perspectives towards art and what means going against the grain in 2017 . Our conversation took place in presence of Biggie the Beagle, aka Mr. Breuer’s favorite partner in crime.
Your sculptural works are mainly site specific. How do the setting, its architectural features and historical connotations influence the making of an art piece?
I need to be overtaken and overwhelmed by an idea and by a specific space. The power of the void brings out something very savage. Each work is a mental experience that aims to push the boundaries of reality; i’m always in the middle of a complex equation with multiple initial unknown factors that are seemingly impossible to solve and to combine. This is why architecture is very important to me as it helps me to go through this process, it gives me structure and power. But my relationship with monuments goes way beyond that; It is a sort of telepathy and it is hard to explain with words.
What are your main artistic tools?
I have been working on big scale projects but I chose to limit myself to the most minimal tools, a computer, a phone, a printer and I only use Keynote for my initial diagrams. I wish to structure the immaterial and there are no physical tools for that, nothing works better than your own mind and your soul.
As a French artist, what does it mean to be based and working in Paris?
There’s a certain duality in this. I love the city more than anything, its timelessness, its royal and imperial history, and its mysteries… There is a sense of perspective and harmony here like nowhere else and a dialogue that seamlessly goes from Ancient Egypt till today giving a sense of eternity. Yet there is a lot of inertia and the art scene is a bit steady. There is a big lack of risk taking, it’s like a little dollhouse, people are quite conventional, everything is beautiful but after a while it can become slightly too familiar and repetitive, this is why I feel the need to put everything in movement and bring out something as primal as rage! The country needs to wake up and make a leap towards the new century, it’s the middle age of technology here. We need a new renaissance. As you see, working in France is a challenge on its own.
The size of the city it’s perfect though, I walk almost everywhere. It is a city that breathes, the skyline is open, and the streets are punctuated with sublime monuments, le Musée du Louvre, Le Grand Palais, la Place De la Concorde etc. I love the sense of history and to observe each details. We are used to say that Paris doesn’t change and that’s kind of true but the environment is so rich that even if it doesn’t change it has an impact on you everyday as you always see or learn something new about it. Therefore it is a huge inspiration and the rhythm is neither too slow or too fast, it is just the perfect pace to daydream while being in motion from one state of mind to the other.
One of the main problems of contemporary conceptual art is that it is often disconnected from the community who is supposed to experience it, and it only speaks to the art-world elites. Do you deal with social and political issues in your works? If yes how do you refer to the “big public”?
Working within a public space doesn’t mean that I work towards the big, small or elite public. I aim to deliver a universal message but I see the public as an ensemble of singularities with their own sense of aesthetic and idea of the sublime. Of course I wish to connect and I believe that everything that leads to the realization of the work will transcend in it’s physical experience but at the same time my view is quite paradoxical: I love the idea of an artwork floating in an empty space, even unseen. Let’s put this way: I love people but I don’t like crowds.
Among your studies you mentioned acting. Did your passion for cinema and your background inspired the project “One Minute in Art” (OMIA)?
I used to be passionate with cinema but not anymore and I stopped going to the movies. I was in search of a new way to experience video art and its links with cinema were obvious. Mostly I wanted to bring a new aesthetic to disrupt the cinema space and the popcorn lethargy. I started working with the iconic cinema La Pagode and then the project has been extended to many other independent cinemas over Paris. We screen a one-minute length art video before each movie right at the end of the advertisings. With OMIA the audience goes like but what am I looking at! My two partners and co-founders Charles de Meaux and Lea Marchetti and I had a blast listening to people’s reactions, it may be the most humorous aspect of the project. Also it was great to being able to show the work of the artists we selected and admire in another context, far from the usual spaces such as galleries and museums. Video Art is an important medium that hasn’t yet been fully understood or theorized yet, and it is not easy to collect. I see it as a new form of painting and I hope it will be seen like that in the future and certainly the evolution of technology, paper screens etc. will change its perception. It is the medium of the future; we won’t be bringing a Richard Serra to Mars… but probably more some weightless video art…
Technology and history are always present throughout your entire artistic production. What is your relationship with tradition and innovation?
Traditions used to be innovative and what is classic today was avant-garde yesterday. It’s all a matter of time. I am not driven to technology for the sake of innovation. I don’t believe in the progress mythology. I am trying to talk about our contemporary world but with a sense of eternity. It all depends on where you position yourself in time and from which perspective you look at reality. I look at the world from today’s point of view and project myself in the future as much as I do look back at it from a past perspective. I am in constant motion between these two points of views, time travelling back and forth while looking for a sense of unity from both points in time.
Time and the absence of it, movement and stillness, chaos and rigor… how do you investigate those contrasts through art?
I have a very strong relationship to chaos and to rigor as well but I don’t feel time. They are extremely important in my process and I am not afraid to face neither one nor the other. The universe is a chaotic system with increasing entropy… I look for equilibrium between ultimate control and letting everything go. I’m able to go through chaos while keeping a very rigorous approach. Falling in love is when I really start to loose it totally… I’m actually going through that shit at the moment.
Apart from that I am fearless and I feel I can go through all kinds of hell. I’ve learned to be in control even in the worst moments, keeping my mind clear and focused. The key is to stay extremely light.
In the era of mechanical reproduction, social networks and virtual reality, is art still able to vehicle the sublime?
It’s a funny question as I constantly ask myself if enlightenment is possible online. I collect thousands of images, texts, videos etc. and publish some of them. I play a lot on the networks by confronting images, sentences, specific papers etc. just like a DJ does with music. And even though I participate with my own sense of aesthetic and necessity to express beauty, I am more an observer of the dynamics of this territory. The sublime can be intensified and fed from any sorts of external stimuli and use all kind of vehicles but in the end it is to be found within each of us.
Your artistic approach somehow puts you outside the commercial dynamics of the art-world, how do you deal with the art market without compromising your ethos and values?
The art market is absurd; it is none of my concern and shouldn’t be of any artist’s concerns. When I look at an artwork I never ever think or ask how much it costs… This is such a stupid way to enter in a relationship with art and I can’t stand the new index of auction results! I don’t give a damn. Some artists that I think are major have such a ridiculous financial value that it just looses my interest for this dimension of reality. I believe though that time puts everyone in his right place.
When you walk through the Louvre, when you look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or when you listen to the Mozart Requiem you don’t ask yourself how much it’s worth… This question may be relevant when you go to a fashion store and you look at the tag but not with art, or maybe the art world is kind of turning into a fashion store now.
In any case I think that the role of the artist is to challenge each generation in the understanding of the work while making the collecting act harder. Therefore it has to be incompatible with the market of its time (I hope my mother won’t read this).
Another paradox is when people look at a work of art they want an immediate satisfaction and they can’t deal with the initial sense of revulsion that a new aesthetic might bring, although this is where it might actually have something new to say.
I also think that the perception and idea of money as it is conceptualized today will disappear.
Do you feel connected to any artistic movement in the history of contemporary art? If yes which one and why?
Of course very much. All of them but mainly American, conceptual, minimal and land art. We could speak about it for hours but in a nutshell I believe that aiming for minimalism is important today again, even though the movement is now over, as we are constantly bombarded with images everywhere and all the time. Therefore I feel a need to come back to this radical language in a more contemporary manner mixing it with technology and immaterial principles. It’s all about being able to translate new ideas while reducing them to their essential, showing or saying almost nothing but connecting on another level. Land Art is to me the noblest, hard-core and savage movement in the quest of space and it celebrates total freedom from the market, the gallery and museums by connecting the works to extreme environments.
You are currently working on a very ambitious installation project due to take place in the iconic Palais Royal. Can you tell us more about “Ultra-Light”, its inception and meaning?
Initially it was meant for a red desert with a Martian quality. When I decided to install it in Paris I was looking for a desert within the city. While I was looking for sand, volumes, and geometry, flying above Paris with a satellite software I saw the Jardins du Palais Royal from the virtual sky and decided that it should be there. I drew the sculptures to see how they would integrate in the space and life course took care of the rest. This project is one of the most extreme adventures I have ever lived. It’s been a three year process of sleepless nights, satisfactions and deceptions and requires so much energy and focus that it goes beyond rationality… The work itself is a network of beacon lights taking the shape of two airport runways inserted directly within the grounds of the garden. I have collaborated with highly specialized airport engineers, architects, and civil engineers and worked hand in hand with the French institutions in order to obtain the most impossible authorizations for its implantation in this very protected and historical space.
Finally, what is your aim as an artist and how are you planning to reach it?
Art is creating a connection with higher dimensions and projects are my way to relate to the world. I am interested in creating a unique dialogue between multiple disciplines, worlds and human beings. It is a pretext to live a more intense life and a way of giving; it is an experience of pure freedom and a love quest. I want to push the limits to go beyond everything that is labeled as impossible and bring people’s attention to the transcending ideas that exist before the work is made. I feel close to the Lucy Lippard concept of Ultra Conceptual Art where the thinking process was the most important aspect and the work became almost obsolete. I want to push this idea towards monumental works in order to make their final materiality look even more irrelevant.