Interviewed by Ann Dingli
French Idea[L] curator, Olivier Plique
Olivier Plique curates The French Idea[L], Valletta Contemporary (VC)’s latest collective exhibition featuring the work of three reputable French artists – Dominique de Beir, Christian Jaccard, and Denis Pondruel. The show will celebrate a national thirst for a collective ideal, as well as for freedom of the people of France, contextualised by the current socio-dynamic politics of expression and repression under spotlight with the movement of yellow vests. After retiring from a robust career in the pharmaceutical industry, Plique immersed himself into educational publishing and contemporary art, creating a specialised department within his self-launched company, Help Art, through which he developed numerous volunteer projects with artists. After sharing his professional and personal life between France (Paris) and Gozo (Għarb), Plique settled definitively in Malta at the end of 2018 after launching The Snop House, a boutique guest house in Senglea (Isla), in mid-2018. Here he
discusses the intersections between French and Maltese identity, and why the promotion of a French ‘ideal’ is important at this moment in time.
Ann Dingli (AD): Before discussing the themes of French Idea[L], can you talk about your own duality of experience in terms of living between Malta and France. How has your decision to settle definitively in Malta re-shaped the way you define your French identity, if it has at all?
Olivier Plique (OP): France, where I come from, is a spatial system of power relations subject to internal and external tensions, riddled with contradictions, and which – by its capacity to both maintain and renew itself – makes it one of the most strongly identified territories among contemporary states. Local identities express themselves with great freedom and repeatedly demand margins of self-determination that undermine a certain conception of national cohesion. I had the good fortune of exercising my passion for the endeavour for nearly 30 years, thus nourishing myself with a particularly diversified cultural effervescence. Malta, on the other hand, has mastered the art of marrying opposites and no domain escapes it: you have to choose your clan! You are either white or red, right or left! That’s bipartisanship, you have to be binary in your choices.
Certainly, due to its besieged atavism linked to its strategic position in the centre of the Mediterranean and which led it repeatedly to protect its survival, Malta was already forming in the 16th century with the eight hostels of the Order of Saint John – a reduced model of the European ideal! Diverse by its history, but also by its diaspora that has spread to the four corners of the world, it is indeed Malta’s openness to the world that has largely contributed to my decision to settle here in freedom without requiring me to reshape my identity; even to be forced, because of my ‘alien’ status, to choose my clan!
Christian Jaccard, creating his artwork through combustion
(AD): The three artists showcasing their work in French Idea[L] at Valletta Contemporary are quite diverse in their practice. What motivated you to bring their work together for this show?
(OP): What matters to me is the dynamics of thought and action. Welcoming works in a space has to be an emotional decision – art is a visual operation method, a dynamic that is constantly on the alert, and a network of references that is constantly expanded. It’s a passion. It’s exciting. My choices are mainly directed towards vigorous graphic signs in the context of a space where emptiness contributes to the balance of the composition. To have the opportunity to exhibit is to bring to life the artworks that have marked my life, that have nourished my visual imagination and, in return, to give visibility to their creators.
In love with the same freedom aimed at challenging the very status of the piece of art, and following the same narrative thread (thread is fil in French, as in FIL: The French Idea [L]), each artist has created his/her own marker tools with a unique signature of a French-style artistic ideal.
Dominique de Beir, by perforating and digging all kinds of ‘humble’ surfaces with the help of singular instruments that she creates, challenges the vocabulary of painting by the randomness of gesture and trace. Christian Jaccard, by using combustion as an artistic material, frees his works from the tyranny of their support (free canvas), or questions the ephemeral character of his burning wall. Denis Pondruel, depicting forms of fantasy or chaotic architectures that are rarely functional, tirelessly explores the relationship between thought and matter.
(AD): Can you talk about the importance of representing the “thirst for ideal and for freedom of the people of France” at this specific socio-political moment in history? Do you think such an exercise has relevance in Malta – is there need for a redefinition, or re-crystallization of the
islands’ own ideals?
(OP): Revolution is a round-the-clock affair in France, and the recent news of the yellow vests reminded us that this concept of revolution is often associated with discontent, or a need to move the lines or advance ideas in search of an ideal. Revolution is not always violent, it can be
silent or non-violent, and it can be expressed in different forms such as art.
Environmental awareness, which now occupies the bulk of public debate in France and Malta, is a major factor to be considered in all decisions concerning the relation of men to their living space. These tensions and interactions that must be considered, particularly in regard to the search for a Maltese ideal.
(AD): Jaccard, de Beir, and Pondruel engage with identity through different mediums and subjects. Can you talk about how each of these three artists bring to light new perspectives of French identity through their work, and how – in turn – these perspectives reinforce each other’s meaning.
(OP): French identity and culture are a river of many confluents. Everyone can choose what they want to hear. The ‘French Ideal’ idea has to be diverse, but not political – it can be multicultural or obsessive on the identity level, often leading to a confrontation between ‘narrowing communitarianism’ and ‘simplistic nationalism’.
As Christian Jaccard says, “the weight of history and its heritage, with its ups and downs, the mixing of the Celtic, Latin, Oriental, African and Asian populations has generated creative ideals. Let’s hope it lasts!”. And even if the medium used by each of the artists is different (fire and
combustion, hole and alteration, architecture and literature), what brings them together is this same freedom in the choice of tools and in their imagination, but also the dynamic of gesture and thought common to the three artists. Their harmonious cohabitation within the space of the
VC gallery illustrates the French ideal derived from diversity.
Dominique de Beir's studio in Picardy
(AD): With de Beir’s work for the VC show, we see a collaboration with Maltese students. What will this collaboration bring to the show in terms of both the formal manifestation of the work, and the implications on its theme? Does it also comment on duality in identity?
(OP): Dominique enjoys alternating between solitary work in the workshop and engaging in projects where she can place a great deal of emphasis both on the space in which she will exhibit and in the geographical context. It is an opportunity for her to experience a new artistic
adventure, but also a human one. For many, the energy is not the same when you work alone as when you work in a group, teams tend to engage into something more performative where the body and the sound rhythm unfold differently.
Dominique De Beir is not against the idea of comparing her work to a ritual in which the body and the sacred are intertwined in an exaggerated way that could even be seen as a choreography, also evoking her admiration for Pina Bausch as an inspiration. By inviting young
Maltese schoolchildren to contribute to her installation project, this idea of dual identity has to be overcome, and this participation shall be seen as a sharing of sensibilities or influences on a multiple or diverse project rather than a multicultural project, which is a term that supposed the superposition of hermetic communities, thus often fermenting communitarianism.
(AD): The notion of French ideals, and indeed its very nationhood, was earlier this year thrust onto a public stage with a cultural episode having no similar precedent – at least in our lifetime.
Do you think the works in this exhibition have been influenced by the fire at Notre Dame, either implicitly or explicitly? How strong do you think has its bearing been on French identity, and subsequently, the image of France as perceived by the rest of the world?
(OP): The French Idea[L] exhibition was initiated prior to the unfortunate fire at Notre Dame, which showed that no one can remain insensitive to what is called the soul of a monument and the genius of a place. With the case of Notre Dame, everyone was able to find there one of the most striking rendezvous of the beautiful and the sublime, in the alliance of the graceful and the grotesque, the well-seated and the slender, the harmonious and the vertiginous. One could certainly make a daring analogy, both spiritual and mechanical, between this exhibition and the various emotional shocks felt throughout this scandalously photogenic fire, through certain similarities – fire and combustion, destruction and alterations (holes in the vaults, lights), architecture and the underworld.
But beyond the objective reasons that stem from the religious, historical, artistic and aesthetic value, the excitement that has aroused from Notre Dame both in Paris, and in France, and throughout the world (as a monument to Christendom, especially in an environment that is
increasingly de-spiritualised) the incident may have actually put the spotlight on this particular image of the French idea.
Artwork by Denis Pondruel