interview with EMMANUEL PICAULT by OLIVIER ZAHM
translation by CHARLES PENWARDEN
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you end up in Mexico?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — I arrived in Mexico City via three encounters. The first time was when I was eight or nine years old. I used to read everything I could find about Mexico. When my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I told them I wanted to be a Mexican. I was born in a ninth-century Viking village in Normandy, but all I could think about was the Mayas and the Aztecs, the pyramids. This wasn’t a history thing for me. I had the impression that this was something that was completely alive — and so very different!
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the second encounter with Mexico?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — When I was about 17, I did what just about everybody does — I scammed my parents and asked them to give me all my weekly pocket money for the year in one go. I worked in a gourmet restaurant, and then I came to Mexico all on my own for three months. And it just got me, in my guts. It was definitive, as if it was the opening, the beginning, of something. Olfactive, animal and physical — there was nothing intellectual about this encounter with Mexico. Very strangely, during this trip, I almost unlearned everything. But I also converted it into reality. I went to see the places I’d been studying and exploring ever since I was a child in books and documentaries. And everything was much more astonishing than I’d imagined. I have never dreamed of Mexico; I have always desired Mexico. And I don’t think that this country is a territory of dreams; it’s an arrangement of desire. It’s a country that stokes the desire machine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What defines this Mexican sensuality for you? Is it nature, the two oceans? The architecture? The plants? The heat? The humidity?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — All those things, but most of all, it’s the people. And maybe that’s what’s so disorienting when you come from a little village in Lower Normandy, with a certain kind of Catholic or Cartesian education. The most powerful thing is the people, their attentiveness, their kindness, their gentleness, and their pride. And yet Mexican society is very structured, depending on the different territories and cultures that exist in this huge country — four-and-a-half times the size of France. There are different cultures. It’s extremely varied. There are 120 million inhabitants, including 20 million who still don’t speak Spanish. Mexico is a magma of emotions that run deep. Everything here moves. The earth moves. Earthquakes. Everything comes down during the dry season, and everything goes up during the rainy season. It’s the same landscape, and yet the light in the streets changes all the time. There are no seasons here. Even in the course of a single day, the temperature changes; it goes from sun to rain. Mexico develops our animal senses. The cold, the heat, the rain, the dryness, the desert, the violence that is part of it all. That is the weave of this open, varied, and changing territory.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the violence takes many forms, from the drug cartels to Hernán Cortés and the Spanish massacres. The violence of rituals…
EMMANUEL PICAULT — Yes, there is a historical violence, you’re right. And it’s still really there. Even four centuries after the Conquista, it’s still in the heads of the wounded indigenous population. And maybe the tension and violence we are seeing today are still points of resurgence and resonance. This violence is deeply etched into the Mexican territory.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it can burst out at any moment.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — Hence why, of all the five senses, the one you most need to develop in Mexico is smell. Have a nose for situations. Here, I’m going to change streets. This I am not going to put in my mouth. And when it smells good, then you can throw yourself into the first sublime river, eat an unknown leaf, peyote. Everything becomes possible. In relation to this violence, you learn to develop — or rather, you learn or relearn — the animal sense that you had kind of forgotten, unlearned, for reasons of education and hygiene, of control.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the third phase?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — The third phase is now, after 23 years living here. After a detour via Los Angeles, I came back to Mexico and opened Chic by Accident in 2001. So, 20 years ago.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your idea then was to discover the country’s objects, design, and architecture?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — I saw something that the Mexicans themselves didn’t seem to want to see or appreciate. People often told me that Mexican design in the 20th century didn’t exist. So, I thought to myself, “If they don’t see it and yet I’m mad about it, then someone has to talk about it and celebrate its uniqueness.” I opened a 40-square-meter [430.5-square-foot] micro gallery, a kind of garage, but one that I made very chic and that I called Chic by Accident. And there I showed my gleaned objects, the pieces I’d discovered here and there “by accident.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain the fact that Mexico was so slow to recognize its contributions to design?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexico looked to Europe and to France, to the Louis XVI or Napoleonic style. Then, in the 1950s, it was all about the US. You could show something Mexican, and nobody was interested. And yet there is a clientele here with very good taste. There always has been. What people didn’t like was Mexican art. Except when it was furniture made by very great architects like Luis Barragán, who designed houses but also, sometimes, furniture. In 1980, Barragán was awarded the Pritzker Prize. He was the first and the only Mexican to gain that kind of recognition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Olympic Games in 1968 also put Mexico in the international spotlight.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — That was undeniably a big moment for Mexico. In terms of fashion and design, it was wild.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And for that event, they also made sculptures around the city, right?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — La Ruta de la Amistad! Friendship Road, they call it. It’s totally crazy! Each country sent a sculptor, and over an area of 18 kilometers [11.2 miles] — every kilometer or every 500 meters, sometimes in groups — you have sculptures along the side of what is now a high-way exiting the city to the south. They have done a rather good job of restoring them over the last five years, tending toward the original colors, kind of respectful. Then there’s the Camino Real hotel chain, which was created in 1968 to house the presidents of the official delegations. Not to mention the creation of the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you make of Mexico’s political history in relation to style and art?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — The craziest moment was in 1910, with the Mexican Revolution and the redistribution of land. The country underwent an extremely powerful social transformation. All the Bolsheviks who tried to get into New York were thrown out and went to Mexico. That created a real can of worms of Communists, revolutionaries, and leftist intellectuals. They had been making revolution for seven years and were still in it. It’s really incredible! That’s when all the things we can see now happened. Diego Rivera, muralism… Later, the Surrealists also started turning up, which is really quite astonishing. André Breton, who didn’t understand a thing when he arrived here and thought it was the land of Alice in Wonderland. The people were incredible, they were nice, they had just made a revolution. Intellectuals were in power. Artists had a direct connection to society, socially and politically as much as artistically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A model of freedom.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — A model of action, which was very important in those times of revolution and social transformation. And Mexico has kept that political mentality. It is not a banana republic. It is a country of great corruption — a mind-boggling level of corruption — and at the same time, there is a real love of the fatherland. An ideal of liberty. These are marvelous paradoxes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The corruption is always present.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — It reaches everywhere. It’s profound, terrible. It’s systemic and is part and parcel of the organization of power. It is very deeply rooted, and everyone is involved. So, you have to be careful here about your manner — not the vocabulary, but the tone you use, in the sense of vocal range. If you speak just a shade too high, all doors will close. We French all have great vocabulary, real education, and correctness, but here they’re the world champions. You put flowers at the end of each word, to make the liaisons. A little bouquet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We have talked about the relation to Europe — to Spain, of course, but what about the US? Because isn’t this also a country that has constructed itself against the States?
EMMANUEL PICAULT — It’s very complex. Originally, Mexico was a gigantic state, before part of it was absorbed on its northern frontier by the US. It stretched as far as Florida, all the way to Northern California, and included Texas, New Mexico, Nevada. Today’s Sun Belt was Mexican. But in daily life, all that stuff is finished. The Mexicans couldn’t give a damn. What is harder now is the real 20th-century frontier with catastrophic emigration and men, women, and children dying every day in the desert. It’s very hard, all those decades of emigration, of whole families of Mexicans settling mainly in the Southern states, but also in New York and Chicago. And then families become binational, divided between two countries. Always with the hope of going to live in the US. Of a reunion with a brother or another member of the family living there. The last few years, with the Trump administration, the trauma has been even deeper.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about architecture. You went from an interest in objects, in interior forms, to the exterior.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — I didn’t go to architecture school. I never studied anything. I started looking at furniture and after about 10 years, I was thinking, “It really is like a house.” Ever since I was 17, I had been looking at temples and thinking: “Right, well, there is the bedroom. Here is the kids’ room, clearly separate from the parents’ room” — and yet I was in a Maya temple. As a child, I always thought of all these historical sites, even castles in France, as houses. I never looked at these volumes, these edifices as historical, dead things, but as private places, as dwelling places.
OLIVIER ZAHM — More recently, over the last 10 years or so, there has also been a contemporary art scene.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — Yes, and that is new. In the last 10 years, Mexico City, which was no longer really cosmopolitan, has recovered some of that cosmopolitan blend that made it so rich from the 1910s until the Second World War. There was a tremendous amount of exchange, of course, with the intellectuals and artists fleeing Europe who didn’t want to go the US and often settled in Mexico. After that, there was a fallow period. And now, in the last decade, Mexico has become attractive again: new galleries, restaurants, places, people from all over passing through, but also settling here. It’s really amazing. This is an incredibly open country. It didn’t close during the Covid period, and what impresses me most is the Americans coming to Mexico. They are all coming, from New York, from Los Angeles, from Houston. It’s the country that is just over the border, three hours by plane. Most of them know nothing about it. And they discover its stupefying beauty, its immense culture. What the fuck? It’s a real shock for them. They are starting to invest, too — they are starting to buy houses. And before, well, Mexico was a place of transit. You didn’t come to Mexico. You arrived in Mexico City to switch flights, and you went on to the Pacific or the Caribbean. Now, you spend a week in Mexico City.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s also the food, a culinary revolution.
EMMANUEL PICAULT — An incredible revolution, with chefs who are reinventing popular tradition. And the tacos in the street are still just as good, for less than a dollar. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get a coffee in Mexico. The coffee was exported. There were no sidewalk tables! The sidewalk meant eating in the street, and the people who ate in the street were the poor. So, the concept of the terrace… I mean, the weather is good six months a year, every day! And there were no terraces, no good restaurants. Here, the good restaurant was Maxim’s Paris in a luxury hotel. And now you’re seeing chefs, like Elena Reygadas of Rosetta, who are Mexicans, who have lived in London and are coming back to Mexico and opening restaurants. And there are 10 or 15 of them. Big galleries are opening, too, and are putting money into it. And then, of course, that stimulates the desire of artists, musicians, writers. There’s a real Mexican renaissance going on. Sometimes it takes a form you don’t like, but that’s not serious. What is important is that creative people really are attracted and are becoming a part of this Mexican fabric. It’s great to see personal initiatives in such territory — which, after all, is not easy.
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