Purple Magazine
— The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

daniel buren

daniel buren

interview by JÉRÔME SANS
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM

a french artist who changed
the face of the city and who still
has a real influence on culture
— fighting for contemporary art
and always supporting younger generations

JÉRÔME SANS — Your biography notes that “Daniel Buren lives and works in situ.” You have always been nomadic, traveling from one country to the next, at the whim of your exhibition projects, and living in the places where you go to work only briefly. Nevertheless, you’ve always had a tie to Paris.
DANIEL BUREN — I was born in Paris. Eventually, I began to feel at home in other cities, though this is certainly the one I know best, where I did all my studies and made important things in my life. Starting in 1960, I was invited abroad frequently. From 1955 to 1959, I had already been traveling a great deal, including two three-month trips to Mexico to learn about the Mexican muralists. Then I went back to shoot a 16mm film. By the end of 1967, I was invited abroad very often, and so I was traveling a great deal, spending no more than three consecutive weeks in the same place, Paris included. Why no more than three weeks in the same place, you will ask? Because that was the amount of time I needed to install an exhibition — for instance, the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2002, or at the Guggenheim in New York in 2005, or Monumenta at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2012, to cite only a few. And other than that, I’ve been making thousands of trips, ranging from going back and forth in a single day to a two-week trip, for the past 60 years.

JÉRÔME SANS — What does Paris mean to you today?
DANIEL BUREN — As is the case with any place you know well, you could say that Paris has become much less viable than it was even 10 years ago, and for this reason, less likable. People there are nervous and more and more discourteous. It’s a very large city, which is spilling out of the city limits. It’s congested and drawing closer to a certain kind of anarchy. This is a very current, hypersensitive impression, but it’s a reality that seems to amplify inexplicably with all the construction everywhere, streets changing orientation overnight without any rhyme or reason or noticeable improvement. All this creates a kind of perpetual frustration that extends from pedestrians to drivers. Paris, like many major cities, fills up and empties out of people every morning and evening. The fact that all public transportation outside of Paris has been neglected explains at least in part the ambient bad mood. Nevertheless, Paris remains a beautiful city, very attractive and lively when it comes to going to the theater, to concerts, or to exhibitions. Compared to other big cities I know or work in, Paris has nothing to be ashamed of in regard to the quality of its cultural offerings, which are today some of the most significant and constant. On a formal level, we might also ask ourselves how certain large construction projects, which are absolutely mediocre and indefensible — like the recent renovation of the neighborhood around Les Halles in the heart of Paris — are allowed to occur. You might recall that what we have before us today was chosen by the city in lieu of one of the other two projects in the competition — propositions by Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas. If they had been chosen, they would have created an impressive dynamism in the heart of this part of old Paris! A completely wasted opportunity. Mediocrity and banality won out over two other excellent and highly original projects. This suggests that our own city councilors aren’t up to the task of preserving the extraordinary heritage that they have been entrusted with. Yet, they should be working to preserve the city’s boldness and beauty whenever an architectural change, be it significant or modest, is proposed. We’re a far cry from this today! This sort of decision has more to do with a certain lack of culture around the given subject than an evident intention to harm — but it’s no less disastrous for Paris’s image.

JÉRÔME SANS — Paris has become more of a draw with the opening of numerous foundations. How do you perceive the dynamic in the capital with regard to contemporary art?
DANIEL BUREN — With the rise of prominent private foundations, which put on their own exhibitions, large exhibitions in national, regional, and city museums have become difficult to do, given limited budgets. These foundations have long been the patrons of public French institutions. They were a financial godsend, which public museums had access to (starting with the Paris Museum of Modern Art), but which they can no longer rely on. All the investments made to operate these private foundations represent a loss of income for national, city, and regional museums, especially as they no longer receive the money they were previously receiving. Unfortunately, this leads to an enormous impoverishment, which is likely to escalate in the coming years. We are facing a phenomenon of “communicating vessels.” The situation isn’t favorable to public institutions, to say the least! In fact, I’m afraid the dynamic you speak of is nothing but a ploy.

JÉRÔME SANS — Have you noticed any developments in institutions in Paris over the past 20 years, with regard to ways of working, programming, and operating?
DANIEL BUREN — The fact that there are more and more cultural institutions leads to a development, a real change, and not only in Paris or in France. Sure, there is competition today, but there is also a much greater spirit of openness than back in the day, when the artistic scene in Paris comprised only two competing institutions — the Paris Museum of Modern Art, a city museum,  and the Georges Pompidou Center, a national museum. This was already an improvement on what came before. Recently, the arrival of the Palais de Tokyo, the Monnaie de Paris, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton has literally transformed the artistic landscape of Paris, not to mention the forthcoming opening of the Bourse de Commerce/Collection Pinault and other spaces, as well. This incredible proliferation of venues for contemporary art has increased possibilities, as well as positive competition, with each institution needing to pay greater attention to their programming to distinguish themselves from the others — and to avoid repeating what has already been done. This emulation has a positive effect. Today, an institution that doesn’t pay attention, or that fails to do this research properly, won’t last long. It’s become so difficult to get funding that an institution has to be recognized and make a difference in order to sustain itself. Many national or city museums in France are hanging in the balance. Soon, only the largest French institutions and the very small ones, with flexible formats and small operating budgets, will be able to resist. All the other in-between structures, I think, will disappear.

JÉRÔME SANS — Isn’t this also the case for galleries? Emerging galleries survive, and international galleries continue to develop in a competitive environment so that they can work with their artists on the global market.
DANIEL BUREN — This has to do with another important problem: the unprecedented influx of money in the visual arts, which happened rather abruptly, over the past 15 years. This seems very nefarious to me, in the sense that this had an impact on artistic production. Today, a young artist has to face a system and an artistic milieu that are very difficult to penetrate. When I was 20 years old, there was an advantage — which, despite its difficulties, was an advantage nonetheless. When I started to be interested in art and threw myself into the Parisian milieu, it could, more accurately than anywhere else at the time, be described as a “desert.” There were almost no cultural offerings of any kind, no institutional venues, no museums that exhibited young artists. Galleries were still very “closed off” — they defended their own group or a specific artistic movement. There were, in fact, few of these groups, but they were all already represented by galleries. It was almost impossible for a young artist to enter into these places, except perhaps by pledging total allegiance to those galleries and adopting their style. Only a kinetic artist or geometric artist could be represented by the Galerie Denise René, for example. Otherwise, there was a kind of abstract art coming out of the School of Paris. If a young artist expressed an interest in these tendencies and tried to work in that movement, he had a slim chance of being noticed. There was this idea that every gallery was defined by its own philosophy. But if a young artist decided that he didn’t like any of it, and that this system was dysfunctional, then there was really nowhere for him to go. It was very arduous and difficult to survive in these conditions, but the situation was far more exciting than the system artists are confronted with today. It condemns them even as they approach it. They can go as they please without even perceiving the contradictions of the spaces in which they operate. Today, a young artist can get lost in the diversity of possibilities and propositions. Galleries generally do not have a declared philosophy of their own. It’s the most unbridled eclecticism. For a young artist, this generalized eclecticism makes choices more difficult, if not impossible. Because people are less attentive, anything goes. I might be exaggerating, but I find this situation very difficult. And yet, in the midst of this plethora of money, there are many interesting young artists, facing an incredibly hard time and unable to make a living off of their work. This isn’t the only paradoxical aspect of the situation. The air of money, in which any exhibition by an emerging artist is accompanied by extremely high production costs, is absurd. The other paradoxical thing is that despite the multitude of spaces, sources of funding, and people interested in art, there is a limited field of possibility. Everything is flattened, interchangeable. We also need to recognize that this influx of money, and I mean absolutely astronomical amounts you hear about in the papers (which, by the way, seem interested only in this area of the arts!) — if it is in fact real, it only really applies to something like 1% of all of the market. An overwhelming majority of living artists, young and not so young, and including some of the most innovative artists, do not feel any of the effects of this rise in market value. This is leading to a truly detrimental situation.

JÉRÔME SANS — What do you think about the young generation of French artists or artists living in France?
DANIEL BUREN — Well, things are always shifting, but few young artists seem to be truly innovative and successful in their propositions. Some are too preoccupied by the system we were just discussing. How do you introduce novelty in such a climate and also hope to live off the profits from your art? This seems intractable to me. For over 25 years, the milieu of contemporary art has been completely obsessed and transfixed by the allure of money. In fact, bourgeois families hold out for one of their children to become an artist. It’s completely crazy. I can’t imagine it will persist this way for much longer. If a financial crash were to occur, which will likely happen, then I fear that the art world such as we know it today, defined as it is by this financialization, would immediately disappear. Maybe this would be the change we need, but unfortunately I do not see young artists today bringing this about. Few of them seem to still be fighting against this system or mounting any kind of resistance to it. If artists had a designated role, it would always be to act as critics of the society in which they live in order to incite change and shake up old patterns. And this would have to begin, of course, with artists themselves, a critique — in and through art — of the system of art in which artists work. To change the order of things. Today, more than ever, the challenge is to effect a deep questioning and critique not only of the art world, but also of the society in which we live. I don’t perceive these aspirations anywhere today. Perhaps they have become completely obsolete questions for most of today’s players.

JÉRÔME SANS — What kind of art today could change society?
DANIEL BUREN — None. Not because nothing can be done, but because it is fundamentally impossible. In fact, I always thought that art wouldn’t be the thing to change society, but that it would be the reverse, for better or for worse. We have arrived at a kind of full circle, in which everything is impossible, and paradoxically so — because everything is possible, nothing can be done. “Contemporary art” is always the same, and it manages everything that is done today. “Contemporary” art — or what is defined as such — is, at first glance, valuable and interesting. Those are the magic words. So-called contemporary art changes constantly from day to day, but at the same time, it flattens everything out. This so-called category of contemporary art yields the most tragic conditions (for art that is being produced) invented by the dominant society (which we might easily lump together with the consumer society) to deliver the final blow to art. Back when there were avant-gardes, there was always a form of questioning of the status of art. There was an active and often aggressive reaction on the part of the dominant society, even though, within it, the enlightened bourgeoisie took note of, supported, and ultimately saved many artists. This is not the case anymore. Today, this same society has invented an extraordinary shield to protect itself from critique or anything with which it could potentially be at odds. Everything is admitted a priori. Artists didn’t see this coming, and they are very pleased with the extreme freedom they are granted — yet they forget that they can do anything they want, but only within the box that confines them. Facing artists’ freedom of infinite choices, society responds with indifference. This goes hand in hand with a new and growing form of intolerance in our societies (another paradox). Nevertheless, Western European society, this democratic and liberal society, can still tolerate many things, even though it is shrinking at the same time as the possibilities are becoming endless. How to move in this society when you’re a young, dynamic, determined artist, full of energy? There aren’t many solutions, I’m afraid! Society has developed an incredible defense mechanism by rendering artistic contestation merely inoffensive or ambivalent. New propositions barely have an effect on the societies in which they are born because they are ephemeral — which is to say that they are immediately packaged, accepted, and consumed with such nonresistance that the artist will exhaust himself trying to outrun this process.

JÉRÔME SANS — Have you detected the influence of your work on new generations of artists?
DANIEL BUREN — I began making work in the street when no one would go there. I was the first (in the visual arts) to use the term “work in situ” to describe my works from 1968 on. Today, this has become one of the categories at the Beaux-Arts. It is used by anyone and everyone, and often in nonsensical ways. So, in this sense, I have noticed a certain influence. I can often see or detect my influence, though distorted, without necessarily knowing the artists in question. It’s also clear that there is a distinction to be made between those who have been influenced by images of my work seen here or there, and others who know and have been inspired in a more intelligent manner by it.

JÉRÔME SANS — When discussing the works you’ve made or executed in Paris, it’s hard not to think of Les Deux Plateaux [The Two Levels] you made in the Palais Royal courtyard. On the other hand, you’ve proposed new interventions, like the architectural sails on Frank Gehry’s design at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Do you have a history with the city of Paris and its monuments?
DANIEL BUREN — I started working in Paris by pasting up my posters in urban spaces. This was extremely instructive for the rest of my work. At the time that I was flyposting, I didn’t have the slightest clue of what would happen next in my work or where it would lead. The oldest work I made in a city was in Paris. It’s actually not so far removed from some of my recent propositions. The context has evolved, and there are works I can no longer make, but there is still a close relationship between some of my current works and those I made in 1967-1968, like the first electrical fiber-optic pieces. They are almost twins of the 1965 works. The technique has changed both materially and visually, and these works are different, but they are nonetheless operating in the same way. A stretched canvas from the Saint-Pierre market, with painted bands, isn’t so different from a more recent one I made, a 6.5 x 6.5-foot fiber-optic fabric work. The two overlap. Yet in my new work, I don’t hesitate to sometimes contradict what I have done in the past because I work with a great degree of freedom. And this can be explained in two ways: my temperament (which pushes me to experiment with other things) and the fact that I am regularly invited to create a large number of projects, far beyond what I have the capacity to do. Since 1968, I’ve produced close to 55 exhibitions per year, including group exhibitions, in different places and cities. My practice involves going to visit a site ahead of time in order to propose a project in situ, and then later going back for its realization. It’s a very different approach from that of artists who work in the studio and send off their works to be exhibited. Many artists I am close to, and others I am not, some even very well known, paradoxically have few or less offers to exhibit, to the point that when they are invited to show their work, they are panicked at the prospect of what to show. It’s understandable. What will they be able to present? Perhaps they haven’t exhibited in two years, perhaps even longer, and they won’t be able to show something they made a while ago. It is difficult, even paralyzing, to make this choice. This means that they are not as free as we think. They are faced with this dilemma, even though they are receiving support. How many works should they show in this space and from which series? From which time period? Often, an artist thinks that the work he made just yesterday is the best. And he could be completely wrong. Conversely, I have the privilege of this constant flow of invitations to exhibit and work in situ, so I regard each of my exhibitions as though it were the first. The question, then, isn’t to decide between works made over the past two or three years, but rather to do the best I can within each new architectural context, to figure out what I can get out of it — possibly even a new kind of work I have never made before. There could be a real risk in experimenting, in coming up against something I do not master, for example. That’s where the possibility — or, I should say, the privilege — of often being invited allows me to take every risk because I know that, in the worst case, a week or 10 days later, I will be able to make it right. I always start off with a certain freedom mixed with anxiety. This can lead to more or less satisfactory propositions, though they are sometimes surprising, in that no one could have imagined, myself included, that I would have made that work before actually having the opportunity to produce it for a given exhibition or experiment. With fewer invitations, you become more timid, or you don’t allow yourself so much latitude, I think. What an artist does in the privacy of their own studio, to test out ideas and experiment, I do in front of an audience, thanks to the succession of individual exhibitions I produce, one after the other. The privilege of being solicited so often allows me great freedom of action, which forces me to take a maximum of risks, without timidity.

JÉRÔME SANS — What do you think is Paris’s place on the international art scene today? Has it evolved over the years?
DANIEL BUREN — Since the 1980s, there has been a change in the French artistic scene, in part because of the arrival of a new generation of artists that burst out of the bubble confining the Parisian, Franco-French scene since the 1960s. These artists developed more or less well, and some were completely forgotten — a typical occurrence in the history of art. On the other hand, the French situation has significantly evolved on a political level since the arrival of François Mitterrand and the opening of all the FRACs [regional collections of contemporary art] and art centers in important cities, in which one could never have imagined exhibiting as an artist were it not for this second wind. All of a sudden, from north to south, east to west, all over the French territory, a plethora of centers — some of them extremely interesting — emerged. When I was invited to show my work in these spaces, I said to myself, “Finally, I can breathe.” In Italy, Belgium, and Germany, art centers had already existed in many cities for a long time. Finally, this phenomenon was beginning to arrive in France. Since then, France’s general position has been dynamic, or at least “normal,” as far as the rest of Europe and the West are concerned. The United States has experienced a real effervescence with fantastic artists, but this phenomenon does not exist there. American institutions, which are for the most part private, are quite behind the times and often very nationalistic, if not xenophobic. French institutions are constantly inviting international artists. The reactionaries gaining traction today are especially displeased with this diversity. But despite it all, the fact that the French scene is particularly open to being international places it among the best artistic scenes in the world. It was low on the echelon for a long time, but today, it has nothing to be ashamed of, even though budgetary limitations give us something to worry about for the future. If I have critiqued France, its malfunctions are not merely French but really worldwide — they are linked to politics.

JÉRÔME SANS — Does Paris still embody a horizon of possibility for young artists today? Many international artists feel the need to come work in Paris.
DANIEL BUREN — If you take the example of another large capital, Berlin has long had the wind in its sails. For geographic reasons, it was never a center. Most artists could find large spaces there for very little money and could work and sustain themselves there. Today, however, Berlin no longer incites young artists to move there because it has recently become as expensive as London or Paris. For these reasons, it is no longer as attractive to young artists as it was even 10 years ago. Today, even though Paris remains a difficult city to live in, it is cheaper than other capitals because the suburbs and adjacent cities offer artists space and real possibilities for working. For example, Ivry and Alfortville have attracted a large number of Chinese artists with limited means, who have found spaces in which to expand by investing in incredible old factories or warehouses. There are still many possibilities like this. It’s not surprising that international artists who can no longer work in their own countries have picked up on this vibrant context, which is open to encounters. It’s certainly more invigorating, intellectually speaking, to be in Paris than to be in the middle of Florida or Texas! All the crossroad cities have always been important centers, even at a time when the world was decentralized. Today, there are perhaps five or six cities that are, or can be, very attractive — namely, Mexico City; New York, still, for many people; and, despite the language barrier, Beijing or Shanghai. But there are also magnificent centers in Barcelona or Madrid in Spain, Lisbon in Portugal, and of course I’m forgetting some, like Turin, which was one of the most active and favorable cities for contemporary art production in Europe. These are very attractive places, with lots going on, which stimulates artists and other people. Today, there are many possible places, like Paris. It is no longer the lost, romantic city that Americans caricaturized when they tried to demean it so that they could in fact dominate it, which is to say, replace it, by treating it like a “tourist city.” On the other hand, what struck me at the end of the 1960s and for most of the 1970s, when I was making countless trips to the United States and to New York in particular, was the atmosphere in Manhattan. The area in which artists worked, met, exhibited, and hung out together at the time was relatively small and was downtown, between 23rd Street and Canal Street, spreading east to Park Avenue and west more or less to Greenwich Avenue. Every night, there were three or four go-to bars in SoHo, and the famous Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue, places where everyone would go and talk all night. Around the tables, people talked, yelled, laughed. You might see an argument between Robert Smithson and Carl Andre, or Richard Serra and Mel Bochner, Lawrence Weiner and Ian Wilson, Sol LeWitt, Keith Sonnier, and Fred Sandback. There were Homeric debates to which some European artists, in town for a few days, would add their voices. Certain New York gallerists — like John Weber — didn’t hesitate to cross words with this vociferating, occasionally violent crowd. I couldn’t help but think that what was naturally occurring in the heart of Manhattan during this period must have been like the atmosphere in Parisian cafés, near Montparnasse, before World War II. Paris was then the most important center in the “visual art world,” just like New York was during the period I am describing. And New York at that moment, just like Paris in its own time, copied its predecessor’s defects, which is to say an excessive centralization, the madness of thinking itself the center of the world, the rejection of those who didn’t live there. In this capacity, New York seemed to me quite a provincial city, oddly closed in on itself. Americans in New York at that time were far more provincial than Parisians. New York has always been more provincial than Paris. But during these great years, it excluded not only those who weren’t from New York, but also all those who didn’t pledge allegiance to the city by settling there for good! A few rare exceptions like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Bruce Nauman, all in California, could afford to show often in New York without being ostracized or living there year-round. As for the Europeans, besides those who moved there, whom my friend Carl Andre ironically called the “tourist-artists,” the least you could say is that they weren’t popular! Local scenes were rather important in the United States at the time, and still are — for instance, with the Chicago school, and on the West Coast, especially Los Angeles. But artists, and good ones at that, worked in almost complete obscurity to anyone outside of the United States. You had to be on the spot in Los Angeles, for instance, to meet the Ron Coopers, the DeWain Valentines, the Morgan Fishers, the Michael Ashers, the John Knights, and so many more. New York chauvinism wasn’t aimed only at Europeans!



[Table of contents]

The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

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