ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Ernest Pignon-Ernest, "Le dessin affirme la pensée et la main, il affirme l’humain"
by Maurice Ulrich, interview
Translated Sunday 2 March 2014, by
The Prison Saint-Paul in Lyon is the site of the most recent intervention of the artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest upon walls that have witnessed, have contained, suffering. We travel back along the path of this singular artist whose in situ interventions have always been remarkable, whether on the rue de Charonne, on the walls of Naples, or in his "Mystic Extasies" on the occasion of an exhibition of his drawings and photos at Galerie Lelong in Paris.
Huma: Ernest Pignon- Ernest, your drawings are well known, but you are not strictly speaking a draftsman.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: The drawings are essential to my work, but they are like a tool. If we may speak of an artistic work, the work itself is what causes the insertion of the drawing into the reality. When I choose the walls of the prison Saint -Paul Lyon, the stairs of Montmartre or the Charonne metro, my product is a sort of ready-made in the sense that Duchamp invented, rather than "making a picture". It is the place and moment that I propose; the drawing is somehow to reveal the reality of the lieu. It is the fruit of a reflection that wants to take into account everything that is not seen there at the outset, but is there, the space, the light, texture of the wall. It is, at the same time, everything that belongs to history, to memory, to traces. With photos, it would not work. Sometimes people say it’s academic drawing, but that is not the question. The drawing must meet the constraints implied by this relationship with reality. I must have enough real effects. From the strict point of view of drawing, I prefer a drawing by Francis Bacon to a realistic drawing, but if I stick a drawing by Bacon on a wall ...
Huma: Yes, it will be a drawing …
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: A drawing exhibited in the street. I do not exhibit drawings in the street, I bring something into the street. Besides, it really annoys me when I am told that I exhibit drawings in the street.
Huma: I understand that it is annoying. But despite all, why did you make that initial choice of drawing?
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Because there is only drawing that can make all this possible, and particularly so, in present day. We are invaded, our visual field is invaded by images of all kinds, moving, colorful, changing every three seconds, which are not reliable, which are somehow visual scams. I told someone the other day that, basically, drawing is an ethical choice. Indeed, I believe that the drawing affirms the thought and the hand somehow affirms what is human. Think of the imprints of hands in the prehistoric grottos. When I intervene in a place, I inscribe there a sign of humanity. It’s a bit theoretical said like that, but in the work itself, it is only in drawing that I can produce enough real effects, so that they come into relationship once again with the place.
Huma: But, to be precise, is there not in your work, say, during the past thirty years, a change in this relationship with the "place". If we take for example the Rimbaud you did at a time, it seems to me it was that was more to reintroduce Rimbaud to the city, to let him wander there, rather than to reveal the city.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: At the same time, he made us look at the place differently.
Huma: It’s true …
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Where I pasted him, there was each time a little something. A slogan on the wall, a trace, yet another human sign loaded with meaning and which made reference in passing to the brilliance of Rimbaud, the image of youth, the very fragility of Rimbaud. One day I said to someone, what is most "Rimbaud" in my Rimbaud, is that it is paper and it will disappear.
Huma: What’s more, I used to have one, and it has disappeared!
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: I think there an artist in Minimalist Art, Arte Povera, Anselmo Palermo, who made this rather well-known sculpture with a fresh salad placed on a block of marble. Here, I draw this, a hand, all fragile, printed on newsprint, which therefore we know will not last. They are good, those images, which I glued by the dozens in Naples, in streets where the paving stones are made with slabs of lava from Vesuvius, and which lie there for three centuries already. I know I’ll paste it there, and in front, there are 30 square meters of lava that also refer to the story, to death ...
Huma: So, it is not at all far from the concept of work in situ by Daniel Buren, for example, with respect to whom you may seem to be at antipodes.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Absolutely. For me, that is exactly to what I am closest. It may seem surprising, but once we were both invited, convinced we were going to meet head-on. Not at all. Me, I intervene in a place, plastically, as he did with his scratches, but the difference, because there really is one, is that I also work with the history of the place.
Huma: And even more broadly, your work is also involved in social and political space …
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Yes, as is the case for Maurice Audin on the walls of Algiers.
Huma: This is less true with Ecstasies, where you, in a way, staged the great mystical figures of St. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena …
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Yes, but every time I chose the place. I always installed them, as in Saint -Denis or Lille, in places charged with spirituality. Basically, with Extases, it is even clearer. For example, if we return to the idea of the readymade, I take this stool and I put it in a museum. This is both the stool and the sign of the stool. Me, I take a picture and I put it in a place. The place now resembles a represented place. The presence of my image in the place also becomes a sign of the place. It is the presence of my image that is the equivalent of passage in a museum. This is a somewhat schematic, but it is understood that what I propose is not my self; what I propose is indeed the place and its memory.
Huma: What is it that triggers, at a given moment, your desire to do this or that, such as with St. Paul, since that is what you have done most recently?
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: I visited that prison when there were still prisoners inside, whereas now it is abandoned. There was a workshop in drawing and painting, and some of those who had seen my work had asked if they could invite me. So I already had a small link with the prison when it was emptied, and one of the animators who made the link with the inmates told me : "Don’t you want to do something here before it is destroyed?" So I wandered into the prison. First, when you’re there, you feel the burden of tragedy and suffering which is written in the walls. I walk and there I see a plate on the floor with four names and the words "Fallen under Nazi bullets." I note the four names, and then I look for and I find the niece of one of these men. By the name of Bertrand. We see, we talk and after a while she said: "But you know, they did not fall under Nazi bullets, they were executed here by the French justice of the time. We wrote this after the Liberation, and fight to restore the truth. "After that we talked about Max Barel, and I told her that I had worked at the Patriote in Nice, which she also knew well. In short, it was Mireille Bertrand who was in the political bureau of the Communist Party ... But in fact, starting from that, among other things, I told myself that memory is really fading, and I started to think about everything that could have happened within those walls, with political people such as Marc Bloch or Berty Albrecht, who were subsequently beheaded with an ax, along with common law prisoners. It is a prison where there were a lot of suicides. Then, thinking of all these objects, rags, plastic hanging on the barbed wire, these strange settings that can only be found in prisons, that are like so many messages of pain or farewell, I parted with the idea of bodies covered by shrouds ... In my work, and this is also true for Maurice Audin, Mahmoud Darwish, I always do my drawings with a kind of neutrality because I want them to be like imprints. I would like to say that it was there, but it is no longer there. The imprint is both the presence and absence, as with Audin, and with Darwish throughout Palestine. For me, the imprint is also like Veronica with the face of Christ or the Shroud of Turin. But beware, I do not want to make "trompe-l’oeil". I ’m in black and white. I say it is an image. There must be enough distance, as in the theater, so we say it is only a picture, but it must also produce a realistic effect. This is on a fine wire.
Huma: Yes, if you pass up a hyper-real image done well, it would be trivialized. It is not at all the same .
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: In fact what I glue is a sign. I would say that it is the image of an image.
Huma: You say that a bit like Picasso would have. Your drawings are signs, not a representation …
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: In an interview, I said, paraphrasing Klee somewhat, I do not seek to represent, I try to render present. It is true that my approach has often been misunderstood. In fact, it is contextual and conceptual.
Huma: You allow yourself to have your cake and eat it too, being completely in modernity, we might say, being so conceptual, but still keeping the fun of drawing, because is it not a pleasure, work and pleasure... This is not the case for many contemporary artists.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Among them, there are some that I know well, who are friends, people of minimal art, media - surfaces ... The reflections were often interesting and passionate, but they do the same square all their life, to take an extreme example we know. This is not for me, I would say that I find it a bit stupid. I’m not talking about the trick of Buren; with him, it is something else and we have talked about it. In fact, it is rather Boltanski to whom I am close in a certain sense, with what he had done at the Grand Palais with his piles of clothes, which were also signs of wear and seemed to designate places, to be there too.
Huma: That said, one of the paradoxes of your work is that when you exhibit in a gallery, people really buy drawings as drawings.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: Yes, but I always enclose a photo of the place. I know there are some who throw the photo away or store it in a closet, to keep only the drawing. There are those to whom I say "rather buy a book on my work instead of a drawing, you will be closer to what I do".
Huma: In fact, your work always has a political and philosophical dimension. It is the human that is in question.
Ernest Pignon- Ernest: In fact, I do not see how you can make art without that. From this point of view, there are many things in contemporary art about which I say "but why did he do it"? At the same time, I subscribe completely against a reductive political reading of my work. I do not create slogans, I do not carry a speech. A little at the beginning, when I was invited to show my work in Jeune Peinture after my work on the Commune. At that time, many painters in the coup were militants, often Maoists. When I told them I was in the Communist Party, they even thought it was a joke. The theme of the show was "work", so they painted workers with red flags and everything. We had the Grand Palais for twelve days. Me, I said twelve days ... I put on the walls life-size drawings of many guys who would die at work in those twelve days. I have always worked life-size because I think bigger is Stalinist or advertising. And each day that passed, I crossed off some bodies. In fact, it is as if I had introduced time into the work, or in any case, I consciously made time the subject. It was not a representation of workers. The proposal was not in the drawing, but since the show was short, I was able to use the short time scale to make visible the extent of the massacre. I hold onto this story because it is at the base of my work.
Recent Ernest Pignon -Ernest works are visible Galerie Lelong, 13 rue de Teheran to Paris (8th) until March 30, and the Maison des Arts de Malakoff (Hauts -de- Seine ) until 30 March also.
The artist’s own web site provides images from many periods of prior and present work. A search on YouTube leads to a number of excellent videos concerning the work of Ernest Pignon-Ernest. For instance, a series on urban painting by Artskris, part 1 and part 2, a view of the process of installation in Naples, an interview (in French) about the work in Naples, and a view of the recent exposition Extases.
Make the stones speak.
"But where to find at present the almost-erased traces of the old crime?," wrote, quoting Sophocles, director and writer Gérard Mordillat about last intervention, to date, of Ernest Pignon-Ernest in the prison Saint-Paul in Lyon. These words could be applied, in essence, to almost all his work since its debut in 1970, with few exceptions, of making walls and cities talk. In Nice, which in 1974 celebrated its twinning with Cape Town, when South Africa was still under apartheid, Pignon-Ernest undertook, on his own, to paste up in the city posters showing a black family behind barbed wire; on stairs of Montmartre or Charonne Metro in 1971, he had already pasted effigies of the Commune and the demonstration of February 1962. Born in 1942 in Nice, Ernest Pignon- Ernest, he rejects any simplistic vision of an activist art, makes no secret of his choice of communism, which has never affected his openness to dialogue and to thought in movement. He succeeded Edmonde Charles-Roux as president of the Society of Friends of l’Humanité.