Monday, December 06, 2004

My Interview with Dominique Blain


Back in August I conducted an interview with Dominique Blain, she is a Québecois artist who at the time had most recently had an exhibition at the Musée d'Art Contemporain here in town. I've finally been able to get it transcribed, edited, checked and double checked. Hence it being posted here, now, in place of the previously aborted post.

I'd like to express and emphasize my appreciation and special thanks to James Boddie and Luciana Mastropasqua for all their help with this interview.

ZEKE: Let's jump right in to one of my major concerns. There's a big difference between white cube and not white cube, academia and general public, high art and low art. When you're working, are you aiming for one or the other?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I'd say that it all comes from an urge to create. It doesn't matter one way or the other. I just want to create. The two things that motivate me most are a need for freedom and a need for meaning.

ZEKE: But, do you find that there's a difference between white cube, high art, academia, versus low art, general public?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I don't really care where it is. I just want to see art.

ZEKE: I get the impression that you don't see a difference between them.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Of course there is a difference. I was one of the co-founders of Articule. We were a bunch of students, when we started it. When I think about it now, I realize it was and still is an amazing place because it really is there to give artists a chance who don't have any other place to exhibit. I believed that was important then and I still believe it is important now. But, you can never forget that places like that are also part of a larger system.

ZEKE: Yes, and that's what I'm talking about. The difference between recognizing that it is a codified system, and then deciding, "no, I don't want to have any part of that." That's why I'm focusing on these differences. But to get back to your art; I recognize that you don't see as much of a difference and that…

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I think that all of it is necessary to make art, to make this world.

ZEKE: From my perspective, by having a separation, there is something intrinsically limiting.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: That's only because you see it as a separation. I don't see it as a separation. I see it as different links on a larger chain. What's most important for an artist, at any age, at any time, is to be authentic, whether it's a show in a gallery, or a show on the street. If the system were to influence an artist that's where I'd have a problem. But, I have nothing against the fact that there are spaces that show young people's work and that they don't want to be that pristine. To me, both are necessary. I started Articule, I exhibited there, at the same time I was also deciding who was going to show there. I remember Marie Chouinard performing there. Can you imagine that? Today she's known all over the world. She would have made her way regardless of where she started. But still… Articule exists, and it is part of something larger. Actually, it is very similar to any system that exists in our life. Where I do have a problem is when things become elitist. I'm in agreement with you on that point, I can't stand elitism. Elitism is a conversation between just a few people, which is hermetic, and doesn't let anybody in. So I agree with you, there. But this is not the type of art that I do.

ZEKE: How do you join the two? Is it like putting on blinders and ignoring the rest of the world or is it the opposite? Or is it something different?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I've chosen not to be a part of it. It's just the way I am. I too have been pushed away in some cases. People would see my art and think that I'm a man. When they realized that I was a woman, it became a problem. When they realized that I was French Canadian, it became a problem. When they realized that I wasn't like them or didn't have the same discourse - that I was not part of the same club. I got pushed away. It didn't stop me. I'm still working with the high and lows of... But my motivation to work stems from my need for freedom, from the rage I have inside, from living in the world that we live in and in this world I can not stay silent. But, I cannot ignore the fact that I am a woman; that I am French Canadian; that I am in a privileged part of the world. I have a voice. This is what I have chosen to do with it.

ZEKE: Ok, let's focus on your art. How do you create?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Do you mean what inspires me? It can be something I've read in a newspaper, or it can be a photograph, or it can be an object, or it can be as simple as meeting someone. That then becomes the catalyst. As you can see from the pieces that I've made, they are things that evoke large and strong emotions in me. With such strong emotions there is something inside of me that makes me want to share those emotions with other people. If we return to my need for freedom; I very deliberately don't use the same medium all the time. I did a sound piece two years ago. Now I'm using moving pictures. I'm thinking of... That is another aspect of my need to be free. Am I a sculptor? Am I a multimedia artist? You tell me. I don't know. Labels that people use are of no interest to me.

ZEKE: You're an artist. Period.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Labels aren't really important. What Art Historians/Art Critics decided to do was to label me a "political artist." Because at the time, "political art" was the "in thing." Then it wasn't and something else became the "in thing." I realized at my show at the Musée d'Art Contemporain this year, that people were discovering me like I was a "new" artist, only because I had not exhibited in Montreal for a very long time, I had not been the "in thing" for a while. But I've been doing the same thing, "in" or "out," for over 20 years and I'll probably be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. But that doesn't answer your question, does it? So to go back to the making of a piece... As I said, I start with an idea, an emotion. I then write or draw that idea or emotion on newsprint, not good paper. I cannot write or draw on "good" paper. I have piles and piles of these notes or sketches. I'm writing or drawing ideas constantly. Then, there are times when I go back over my notes. Sometimes I come in to the studio, and my head is completely empty I start looking through my notes. When this happens, there are times that I notice I had an idea, say yesterday, which I thought was totally new, but in fact was something I had written down three times over the last ten years. But, I had forgotten all about that specific idea. When I go through my notes, the idea comes back. If I notice that the same idea is coming back again and again, that's when I say to myself, "OK, it is time to produce this idea." As you can see, the creation of a specific piece can take many years. I've learned over time to be patient. I've learned that it is better if my ideas have time to breathe, before they I give them physical forms.

ZEKE: Nothing before its time...

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Also, with technology, things change so fast. I've had ideas that I've had to put aside because I didn't have the right tools. Then all of a sudden there are tools like Photoshop, and I can put images together in ways that were previously impossible. I drew a mountain of garbage that I was able to transform into a picture of a beautiful ball gown. Then, a couple of years later I was able to convert the idea into an actual ball gown. But the initial idea was from a long time before then. Sometimes the catalyst for an idea comes from being invited to exhibit some place specific. Then, you can't forget about the costs of a work. That's sometimes the reason an idea gets set aside. When I talk to students I say, "Don't tell me you can't afford it. A piece of paper and a pencil is all it takes, or you could make models." That's how I did my first show. I made models. From those models, I was invited to do two different exhibitions, and those exhibitions gave me the money to produce the work.

ZEKE: So if I got it right: first there's the idea, then you let it percolate, then once it is complete, done with its percolation, you come back and say "Oh, I see it now" then the idea is fully formed in your head and then you go out and create.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Take the piece "Village." It started with all these articles that I was reading everyday in various newspapers talking about the war in what used to be Yugoslavia. I couldn't get rid of them, it would have been like throwing away the tragedy of the people living through that war. I was also reacting to apathy on the part of the people in the west towards what was going on there. So I started to draw little papier-mâché houses made out of these articles. Houses without a roof, houses without windows or doors, empty houses, houses on tables, houses on the ground, houses pretty much everywhere. I had drawn an awful lot of houses. Then last summer I drew a tower made with these houses. I realized I could light it and project the light out. There were a lot of surprises with that piece, but I can feel it when things are right. That part is intuitive. If I decide that I'm going to make 800 paper maché houses, I have to be committed.

ZEKE: Dedicated...

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Yes, dedicated. When the idea is a good one, and I trust my intuition, most of the time it ends up working. And I think "Village" worked especially well.

ZEKE: Then there's the thing that precludes having an incomplete or unfinished piece because until everything fits together you're not going to call it complete.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Yeah. And don't forget, I knew I was working on a piece specifically for the exhibit at the Musée d'Art Contemporain. Sometimes the idea comes from thinking about a specific space. My blank sheet of paper can become representative of the space where I'm going to exhibit. For my first show at Christiane Chassay I built a model of the space. I always do that. In the case of "Village," because I knew in advance exactly where I wanted it to go. I decided to build a wall in the museum. People would come into the exhibit, but then they would be forced a certain distance away so as to gain a perspective before seeing "Village." And it worked. Everyone went straight to the first piece. "Japan Apologizes," and only then did they turn around. But at that point they were about 15 meters away. That's exactly what I wanted. They saw a beautiful tower and since they were far away, they thought it was made out of metal. They didn't realize what it really was made out of. That was also part of my idea. I wanted to entice them first, with the aesthetics of the piece. Then they would ask, "What is that?" Then they would approach for a second and closer look. Now that this exhibit will start to travel to other places, "Village" will be adapted for other spaces, but the first space where I create a work can play a big role in determining its final form.

ZEKE: Which then leads vaguely into this one: Do you create for one person, a type of person, or a group.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I first create for a specific space, whether it was a space I chose or a space that was presented to me by someone else, Do you remember the Montreal Telegraph Building? That's where I first showed "the Blue Ball gown." It is a beautiful space in Old Montreal. It is the type of space that has a ballroom kind of architecture, you know? It was a perfect place to exhibit the dress. It was then shown in a gallery in Arizona and that was interesting, too, because it was in a store front window. On opening night it was lit in such a way, that everyone thought that the piece was haute couture, which given the subject matter of the piece (a gown made of used blue workers pants) made it work even better. Sometimes I'm lucky and a piece, whether it was created for a specific place or not, will be able to continue to live and have other kinds of effects and/or reactions in other places. Seeing my pieces in other spaces is very interesting.

ZEKE: Given that you're site specific for the idea of your pieces, that means that there are certain things that either get ignored or that become impossible.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Je ne comprends pas, est-ce que tu peux être plus précis?

ZEKE: Je m'excuse, let me try it this way. If you're working on a piece for a specific space, because of that space it is going to come out one way. But, if it was a different space, the piece would work out in a completely different way.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Let me give you an example. I had a show in England, Ireland, and Scotland. You couldn't believe how different all the spaces were. The first space was the Arnolfini in Bristol. You could say it was a white cube type of space with the means that goes that. From there, I went to gallery in Cambridge which had this funky space, not quite the same budget to spend on details. But each time I had the floor plan of the space in advance, and I would make adjustments in the show, because it was the same show that was going from gallery to gallery to gallery. Depending on the space, one of the pieces would always become the focal point, but it was never the same piece, I was able to readjust things so that the show would work in each, very different, space. So it's not a problem. I adapt. The art adapts. If a piece really isn't appropriate to a space, I won't put it in that space.

ZEKE: There is more than just taking pieces and adapting them to something. I mean that if you had created your show for another museum, "Village" would have been entirely different.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: You have to understand that "Village" is part of a group of pieces that I specifically chose to make up an exhibit. For a museum show, there's always one big piece that you start with. It's the focal point, the centerpiece, and then the exhibition gets built around it. You also have to take into account the choice of works. There can be a narrative aspect to an exhibition, as you go from one piece to another. Which I think is important - how one piece will reference another and by extension me. From the beginning, my first show, I built walls because I knew I wanted the public to move and see things in a certain way. To look at the art and then be physically moved to a new place so that they would see a piece that they saw in the beginning of the show in a very different way. To me when I'm planning exhibits, everything is important. It's not making a piece and putting it wherever. You know when I did "Chorus," I chose this place next to a discotheque in front of Musique Plus. It was in an old army surplus store, and because of Musique Plus and the discotheque it was very loud there. "Chorus" is a sound piece incorporating lullabies being sung. All I had put in front of the space was a picture of a baby's hand holding a man's ear. But when you came in, it was dark, and there were a bunch of hammocks hanging from the ceiling. In each hammock, there was a speaker, and in each speaker I had a voice of a mother or a father singing a lullaby. Lullabies from everywhere, Chinese lullabies, African lullabies, South American lullabies, from everywhere. And the space was supposed to be lit by candles in barrels, but the insurance company would not allow it. In order to make it have as much of an impact as I wanted I needed it to be in a funky space, hence the abandoned store front. "Chorus" was in complete contrast to the street where it was installed. The contrast was stunning, a small sanctuary within the general urban cacophony. I did not want to do that piece in a white cube, and I still won't exhibit it in a white cube. It wouldn't work. To me that piece has to be done in a place that has a certain mystery about it. I showed "Chorus" in England, it was in the oldest warehouse in England. I had this huge space. You could smell the history. Imagine all the hammocks and the voices. And it looked like a boat - the inside of a boat. It was quite moving and beautiful and it was so loaded with all of the history behind it, so I think that it added another layer to the experience of the installation.

ZEKE: Given that your art tends toward the political, one thing that I think is that your art is like preaching to the choir. One of the problems I have with political art - I recognize that the title is charged for you - is that the better thing might be to try and convert people - to make people aware of stuff.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I think that's what happened in my last exhibition. I just read something beautiful that went along the lines of "in order to touch someone's conscience, you have to make them go through an experience," It seems evident but lots of people don't want to go there. I do believe that in order to change something a person needs to feel. It's more visceral than intellectual. I've had to confront that very issue. I am an artist in a very militarized world. Besides the art world and the general public my work is very specifically addressed to the people who are in power - those people who are on museum committees or who run foundations. What made me especially happy was that as a result of having the exhibition at the museum, a local columnist for a Montreal newspaper - she doesn't write for art magazines - well, she decided to write about my show. She's very controversial. People either love her or hate her but nobody is indifferent. She is opinionated, and I was like "Why does she want to write about my show? She's a columnist. We met at the museum and I asked her, "Why are you interviewing me?" She explained to me, "We never write about art in newspapers." As it turned out the article was extremely positive about the exhibit, and she triggered something, because a lot of other journalists came afterwards. Then the public came, and it ended bringing a lot of people into the Musée d'Art Contemporain that normally never step foot into any type of museum. I was amazed. Kids from 5 years old... At the beginning, I said, "Montreal in the winter, nobody's going to come with the snow, the storms, etc." I found the attendance amazing. I remember that when I was that age I saw some things at Expo '67 that really opened my eyes to contemporary art. To me, it's so important to be exposed to things. I have a friend, who is a painter. Do you know what triggered her? When she was seven years old, she saw a poster of a Van Gogh painting. And she was completely mesmerized by it. She said, "That's what I want to do." Things like that happen, when you're young...

ZEKE: I don't think it has to be "young."

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: No, it can be any time.

ZEKE: I can remember my reaction to a Jonathan Borofsky show I saw 20 years ago.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Me, too. Where did you see it?

ZEKE: At the Whitney.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: He was there, talking about his work, when I went there.

ZEKE: He wasn't there when I saw it.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: He was very open when he lived in LA, I was living there at the same time. I used to see him. But it's funny that we had similar experiences. Like I say in the film The Messengers, "I recognize that I have a tool and I think that by using it I can try to get people to think." I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything. I don't do propaganda.

ZEKE: I realize that. However I have certain preconceptions, such as, there are wealthy individuals that support the Musée d'Art Contemporain. But it doesn't strike me as a conservative institution just by its nature and its name. That's where I was coming from. If you're already open to a contemporary art museum, then you're going to be open to their ideas. Then again, there are other reasons for having an exhibition.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: There are. I was more nervous about doing a show here than anywhere else in the world. I'm always extremely thankful when anyone is interested in my work. When that happens, it is a huge gift. I got a call from a curator in Cambridge, he had seen my work in Sydney, and he asked if it would be possible to get together. He then organized a show that went to six different places over there. I gave lectures at Aberdeen, Cambridge and other universities. Giving a lecture at a British University was nerve wracking, but I was even more anxious about my exhibition here.

ZEKE: But, as you've mentioned, your show from the Musée d'Art Contemporain is going to be touring, say it goes to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, that's going to be a way more conservative place.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: The reaction to the show in other places will be totally different. The show will probably go to Calgary, it will be interesting to see what the reaction is elsewhere.

ZEKE: I realize that I've been focusing in on specific things that I find interesting or have some question about but then, through discussion with you, I end up taking a step back and realizing that I'm focusing on one facet when there are 360 degrees of everything. Since your first show, have you been an artist full-time?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: Almost. I started working full-time as an artist in 1986. Even now, I do work on the conception of other things when I run low on cash. I had a problem when I was working fulltime. I thought, "I have to choose." I had this preconceived idea I could do one thing at a time. Then I realized that what I learned at my job, and in life, was really extremely useful to my art - to understanding the type of language that I was using in my art. So instead of fighting against it and trying to keep things entirely separate, I went with it and things are much better. I could say the same thing about myself, personally. I try to focus all the various streams of energy around and within me into creating something so that people will understand what I am saying.

ZEKE: It's much easier to go with the stream than against the stream.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: It's also my concept of what being an artist is. If someone says that they want to be an artist, there's something wrong. However if they want to create, then there's hope. Do you see the difference? There's a fantasy about what it is to be an artist. But it's no fantasy.

ZEKE: It's like saying, "I want to be a basketball player or an astronaut." There's the label and then there's an awful lot of stuff to get there.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I'm interested in that process. And, it is a long process, too. Maybe I've been lucky because when I was a child, I never thought, "I want to be an artist." What I wanted was to draw. It just happened.

ZEKE: If you hadn't become an artist, what do you think you would have become?

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I probably would have done something creative. When I was in CEGEP, I studied fine art but I was mainly interested in architecture and urbanism. They are also very important fields - the impact of how decisions about a city affect the people in the city. I was very interested in that except that I would have had to study science and I hated the sciences.

ZEKE: What do you have in the future.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I've been invited to propose an installation for an exhibition called "The Religious Experience" which will be held in Paris. It's very much a Grand Public thing, because it's going to be at the City Hall. I am also having an exhibition in Arizona.

ZEKE: Because they are at a distance they do not have the same preconceived notions of who you are or what you do as do people locally. Because there is not the same social network, it's much more a meeting of equals. You talked about how having a show here was the scariest thing around. Here there is all that built-up history of stuff that you can't control. Once you go over there, you're a bit more under control and it's always on one level, it's not a multi-level thing.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I left Montreal in 1988 because I was fed up with the scene here and I went to LA. That was one of the reasons - I thought it was like a tiny village here. It was like, "Get me out of here!" Now I doesn't matter as much anymore. That's one of the beauties of getting older. I learned to continue doing what I do and things will work out in the end. You just keep working and certain things become less important. What I find interesting is that the same people who wouldn't talk to me earlier, all of a sudden now want to talk to me. I find that very amusing. If you do what you have to do and you do it honestly, what can happen to you? I used to worry much more when I was younger about all kinds of things. There truly are advantages to getting older.

ZEKE: Is there anything I have not asked that you think I should.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: I am extremely grateful that my work and by extension myself, have had the opportunity to speak to many different people. I have always had dreams of being able to speak as many languages as possible. It's a little late now to learn as many as I would like. But, I'm lucky that I do speak more than one. And, it seems to come through in my work, too. You can show my work in any place. It's very rare that a piece won't translate. Also, I like that people react to my work, whether they like it or not, people react, they are never indifferent, and that's what matters to me.

ZEKE: I think that we can wrap this up, thank you very much.

DOMINIQUE BLAIN: You're welcome.

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