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Interview with Chloé Desjardins (theme # 13)

Dernière mise à jour : 26 juin 2020

Theme of the month: art and architecture

As soon as I started working at Musée d'art de Joliette in 2017, I was asked to think about ways to occupy the common spaces of the museum: the corridors, the lounge area, the lobby, the fully-windowed room at the front of the building, the outdoor grounds, the terraces. There are many such spaces in the Museum, which is part of a desire to make it a place where visitors feel at ease, where they can sit, take their time, read the available documentation, etc. The Museum has many of these spaces. The numerous glass walls provide a great deal of light to these spaces, which, in terms of conservation, makes it more difficult to display works of art since most of them are light sensitive.

With this parameter in mind, I proposed several exhibition strategies for these spaces: the presentation of short video works, in collaboration with Vidéographe (fall 2017), the continuation of exhibitions that took place in the ground floor galleries (Jacynthe Carrier, winter 2018; Jin-me Yoon, summer 2019), the realization of outdoor projects (Kapwani Kiwanga, summer 2018) or the transposition of performative explorations, in line with our residencies (Adam Kinner, winter 2019). Educational projects (Je suis chantier, winter 2019; a project by Marie-Soleil Roy, summer 2019) or community projects (De la rue au Musée, fall 2018) also took place in the hallways and lounge area.

The winter of 2021 will be dedicated to showcasing our collections, which will be revisited by artists Martin Désilets, Spring Hurlbut and Chloé Desjardins. I have invited the latter to develop a project specifically in response to these spaces and their function. A challenge that she met brilliantly by developing a proposal in line with the issues that are currently driving her artistic practice.

Chloé Desjardins, a Montreal-based sculptor, has been part of the city's artistic scene since 2011. Before moving to Montreal, Chloé grew up in Gatineau, where we went to elementary school together. I still remember our drawing sessions in the schoolyard. We wanted to become fashion designers! I've kept these sketchbooks throughout my many moves. We lost track of each other as we headed to different high schools, and it wasn't until 2011, when she was finishing her master's degree at UQAM, that I found her again, thanks to a friend we now have in common. We had both put fashion aside to focus on visual arts, she pursuing her career as an artist, and I, after studying visual arts, branching off to study art history. Echoing this week's theme of art and architecture, I suggested that she talk to us about her approach, her recent interest in buildings, and the project she will be presenting at the MAJ. She kindly accepted my invitation and I thank her for it!


Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre: Your interest in materials, techniques and craftsmanship is a constant in your work. Your works are not, however, devoid of conceptual discourse. What fuels your desire to create in the first place: the gesture or the idea?

Chloé Desjardins: It's really a “chicken or the egg” question. For me, the two are inseparable. If we go back to the basics, my desire to create begins with the questions I ask myself. There are a lot of questions, so it's difficult to summarize here, but I think the first question would be: “What is a work of art?” Nowadays, everything can be a work of art, so I ask myself: “What makes something a work of art?” On a more personal level, as an artist, among all the possibilities (of subjects, techniques, styles), I also ask myself “How to choose what to say and what to do?” These questions speak of my interest in art history and my curious personality, but also of my ambivalence towards the act of creation. I am insecure, sometimes I find it a little absurd, to try to create new things, new forms, so my solution is to place these questions—essential to all artistic practices—at the very centre of my work.

When I start a project, when I create an artwork, I start from these questions and those that arise from them, but I am also a very manual person. I feel accomplished when I make things with my hands. I am interested in traditional and craft techniques. I am very attracted by materials, tools, and mechanisms. All my project ideas have a very tangible form or presence in space. I find that sculpture and materiality appeal to the senses in a special way.

To answer your question, sometimes I start from an idea and find the best way to make it come true. Sometimes it is the technique that gives me the idea, or rather that contains the concept. In a more global vision of my practice, one can conclude that the two approaches fuel each other. The back and forth between the two allows me to create works that not only pique the curiosity, but also push the observer to make use of his sensitivity and critical sense.

AMSJA: Casting is your favourite technique. What attracts you to this technique?

CD: Casting is the act of taking an impression of an object to serve as a mould. The mould is a negative space to be filled with a fluid material in order to produce a positive volume again. The reproduction process is the result of direct contact that takes place inside the mould, out of sight and out of control. The object that comes out of the mould cannot differ from the original, neither in shape nor in volume. However, a very wide range of materials (flexible, coloured, metallic, transparent, etc.) is available, allowing to play with “figures of speech” such as mimicry, opposition or reference. This is a paradoxical process because it allows the creation of both same and different. The use of casting necessarily underlies a reflection on the concepts of origin and originality.

The place of casting in history is particularly interesting in this respect. Present from the very beginnings of civilization in the arts (funerary masks), as well as in the production of everyday objects (weapons and metal tools), it flourished during the Renaissance. Incredibly complex and detailed bronze sculptures were made during this period (fountains and equestrian scenes). But the Renaissance was also the age of pure ideas, when art wanted to emancipate itself from the status of craftsmanship. It was then that casting and other skills became a necessary evil that had to remain invisible in the final result.

Much later, with industrialization, casting became the main means of production of our consumer goods. The majority of the objects we use today are produced using (injection) moulding techniques. So even today, when questions of originality are no longer as important, the use of this technique can be controversial. If you present an object coming out of a mould, this can raise doubts about its status as a work of art, since its value is often based on the criterion of uniqueness.

AMSJA: The first series that gained exposure in 2012 are casts of artwork packaging, bubble wrap, styrofoam beads, gloves, or blocks of raw material waiting to be invested by the sculptor. You are interested in the ways in which the works are presented, the exhibition devices—vitrines, plinths—become central, rather than showcase what they should support or protect. By making supports the subjects of your sculptures, you enhance what would otherwise be destroyed. By casting other peripheral materials in porcelain, plaster, and bronze, you elevate them to the status of artwork. What led you in this direction?

CD: My answers to the two previous questions already give a good idea of what interests me in objects such as packaging, tools, materials used in artistic creation, and, more recently, elements related to architecture (scaffolding, columns). In a way, I seek to make visible the external structures and mechanisms of the conceptualization, production, and reception of works of art. In other words, by making the context explicit, I invite the viewer to revisit certain preconceived ideas about the artworks, the spaces they inhabit, and the systems that support them.

In addition, I combine seemingly incompatible or opposed elements to provoke reflection on our preconceptions. Composed of elements that are not always what they appear to be at first glance, my works present themselves as enigmas to be solved. By transforming packaging objects into works of art, or by making support posts out of plaster, for example, I try to provoke an almost instinctive reaction in the viewer (wanting to touch, trying to position oneself in space, feeling doubt). It is a way for me to spark conversation. This is also an important aspect of my practice.

AMSJA: Chef d'œuvre [Masterpiece], created in 2015, marks a turning point in your practice, as you abandon the scale of the object to focus on the scale of the building. You first tackled scaffolding, reproduced it in a noble material by using woodworking techniques. You then turned your attention to arches for an exhibition at Plein Sud in 2015, and to temporary support posts for a project presented at the Maison des arts de Laval in 2018. Why this change of focus from the art world to architecture and construction?

CD: For me, it's a whole and a logical continuation. It's only the scale of magnitude that has changed. My more recent projects are more about installation. They are deployed throughout the gallery to further highlight the relationship to space, body, and context.

Thus, with the project entitled Chef d'œuvre, presented at the FOFA gallery in 2015, I once again wanted to evoke what is absent (the “ideal” work of art) by building wooden scaffolding from scratch using traditional techniques (mortise and tenon joints). Indeed, scaffolding is a device used for the construction of buildings—or monumental sculptures—except that here is nothing to erect. The centre is left empty. The structure becomes in a way the matrix, the mould, of a potential work. The work has been carefully crafted and finished, moving from a temporary to a permanent status, amplifying the doubt about what is being shown. Normally used to accommodate workers, the scaffolding directly challenges the viewer's body: the structure made of ladders suggests a concrete purpose, but remains inaccessible, thus creating a frustrated desire.

With the project entitled Échafaudages [Scaffolding], presented at the Maison des Arts de Laval in 2018, I explored the formal and conceptual potential of scaffolding in order to question the interdependence between artwork and art institution. The installation presented adjustable support posts made of plaster—the industrial structural elements were handcrafted from a fragile material—through which visitors were invited to wander. The artwork combined multiple references to architecture, the column as object, and the history of sculpture (traditional or minimalist). The installation depended on the architectural structure of the gallery to unfold in space, to be erected and supported. On the other hand, it seemed to support the gallery in turn (even if it was a precarious support).

Finally, perhaps to answer the question a little more directly, having first observed the conflicting relationship of Renaissance artists to craftmanship, my gaze has more recently shifted to certain ideals associated with architecture.

I am particularly interested in the historical turning point of modern architecture and the International Style. More precisely, what catches my attention is the astonishing, but fruitful association between a functionalist intention (where form is dictated by function, where the truth of materials is maintained) and fundamentally utopian precepts, i.e. a new architectural form allowing the creation of a more egalitarian and transparent society (for example, the Usonia, Maison Dom-Ino, Weißenhofsiedlung projects). The International Style has spread widely worldwide. Intentions were noble, but history has also recorded the failure to implement them (Marseille’s Cité radieuse or the Bijlmermeer district in the Netherlands are striking examples).

I am therefore interested in the tension created between ideas and their materialization. I am also interested in the generating potential of utopian ideas. How can a creation respond to a function without compromising its integrity or betraying the ideals to which it aspires? And, how can innovation emerge within this exchange?

AMSJA: It is in this logical continuation of your work that the Musée d'art de Joliette invited you to develop a work in situ, i.e. one that is especially adapted to its presentation context. You made several site visits and consulted the plans for our spaces before proposing a project that would fit in with the museum's architecture. Can you tell us a little about what you plan to do? Has this project led you to think about your work differently, because of its in situ component?

CD: Inaugurated in 1976, the Musée d'art de Joliette building was built from a model designed by its founder, Father Wilfrid Corbeil, inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and the pure forms of the International Style. Father Wilfrid Corbeil had a real desire to democratize art, which certainly explains his interest in modernism (pretty original at the time for a museum of Canadian and liturgical art).

In 2015, major renovations gave the building a more open and inviting appearance by integrating large glass façades. The architects chose to enhance the original structure by removing the plaster-covered surfaces, leaving the structural concrete visible (with its imperfections and formwork marks). I too would like to take this position by proposing works made of steel, glass and concrete. Sometimes taking the appearance of scaffolding, formwork or structural elements, my interventions will seem both to support the architecture and to be an integral part of it. They will be carried out in such a way as to reveal the design of the building and to raise the question of craftsmanship by putting in tension craft and industrial manufacturing methods. The ensemble will seek to underline the openness (unfinished state) of the very notion of museum through the metaphor of the construction site: the museum as a space "under construction" of meaning, significance, critical thinking, etc.

I based myself on the available archives and on my visits to think about this project. I adopted an approach close to that of public art, which is adapted to the context and use of the place where the work is located. The works will be installed outside the gallery, in spaces designed for function (displacement, transition, direction). This is part of my reflection. I also want to pay particular attention to the history of the site, the past and present architecture, and the mandate of the museum (presence of liturgical art, conservation, and education).

AMSJA: What did you find most stimulating in this invitation?

CD: What motivated me most about this project was what I discovered about the museum through my research and the idea of being able to create custom-made artworks in common areas. It allowed me to ask myself new questions and find new answers to prior questions.

Chloé Desjardins, Quelque chose (dérobé au regard), 2012, wood, bronze, paint, Plexiglas, 26 x 26 x 136 cm (detail), photo credit: Guy L'Heureux and David Bishop-Noriega

Chloé Desjardins, Quelque chose (de dissimulé), 2012, wood, paint, Plexiglas, porcelain, 26 x 36 x 136 cm (detail), photo credit: Guy L'Heureux and David Bishop-Noriega

Chloé Desjardins, Quelque chose, 2012, exhibition view, Galerie B-312, photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

Chloé Desjardins, Chef d’oeuvre, 2015, exhibition view, FOFA Gallery, photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

Chloé Desjardins, Échafaudages, 2018, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

👉Chloé Desjardins' exhibition will be presented at the Musée d'art de Joliette in the winter of 2021.

This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.

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