“Once upon a time, there were the artist and the story, of the artist…”
On the occasion of his new exhibition entitled 'les artistes et l'écriture' ('artists and writing') at Wien Lukatsch in Berlin, along with his participation in the 'Bois Sacré' exhibition at the Dak'Art OFF, our author Elsa Guily talks to the artist George Adéagbo.
George Adéagbo: The extent of a human being is in time, not in a moment. There was the moment when I met Barbara Wien in 2004. She observed that I worked with objects such as books, which is why she invited me to create an installation at her space, the Wien Lukatsch Gallery and Bookshop. The exhibition you are seeing today took me three months to create. And not only here in Berlin, we also did a lot of work in Cotonou [Benin] with Barbara. At the courtyard of my studio, I placed and removed objects every day, looking for the sculpture, the object that was needed in the right location. In the act of placing an object, I realize whether or not it fits in the arrangement. An artist who has created a work of art is an artist who writes while displaying his writing through the work he created. What exactly does the artist mean to express through his artwork, which is his writing? It’s crucial to be able to return to the work, which is why it’s up to the artist to provide the key to his writing. On that basis, I chose “Les artistes et l’écriture” as the title of the show.
EG: Your installation has a reference to that image of a key, both in the writing and in the figurative work. You hung a bike lock with its key. Hence the quote that you placed alongside it: “The artist who has the key to his work that he has created, but does not want to give the key to his work that he has created, how can one talk about the artist and about his work in order to make it understandable…?” Is that the show’s point of departure?
GA: Everything has a key. The space is empty, but it is guarded by someone who is there yet goes unseen. To begin with, you need to search for the spirit of the space. That is also the question mark that compels us to search and that makes a successful discovery; without the key, you cannot enter it.
EG: The project began, and you had your idea about writing. What exactly did you write within this space?
GA: I work in the field of archeology. Archeology is the science that deals with searching and discovering who rules a country, the mysteries that rule a person. Today we speak of war, but war has a source. That is why, starting in the first room of the installation, I made reference to the origins of war, just as I did on like the signs that I had my painting assistants create in my studio in Benin. You can’t find solutions to the problems you encounter by just standing there with your arms crossed. You have to go out and look for the solution. That’s what the artist represents through his work, someone searching for the origins of things who, by searching, finds them and gives shape to them.
EG: Inside one of the boxes in your installation, there is a text in which you speak of the origins of writing, or rather the discovery of writing. You refer to the Rosetta Stone discovered by Jean-François Champollion and cite the beginnings of writing in Egypt and the Atlas Mountains of Africa. In doing so, you invite the spectators to reflect on the origins of things, to understand where things come from and what continuity that can produce. For example, you wrote the following on one of the pinned-up pages:
“Once upon a time, there was Africa and the history of writing… The African’s writing from Africa to Europe viewed from Africa under France possession… Too often do we forget that Africa has borne so much.”
GA: For me, art is a way to tell the truth to your neighbor, to stay his friend and not become his enemy. There are sayings for people to speak with one another. Instead of declaring war on someone because you are making progress and he does not want to make progress, it’s better to approach the person and ask them why, or tell them the reason for what’s happening. Everyone has a turn to make progress. With writing, you can approach me and ask me why I did that. In my view, artists are writers. In other words, there are people who produce symbols to make a mark on time. If you write, there will also be a person who is created to read what you have written and someone who will be ready for what you have written, and that is how it becomes a book that people can use to read and teach. Every painting deals with writing.
Georges Adéagbo, exhibition view “Les artistes et l’écriture”..!, Galerie Wien Lukatsch, Berlin 2014. Courtesy: Galerie Wien Lukatsch, Berlin. Photo: Nick Ash
EG: In these installations, you give pride of placement to writing, as usual, with notes/quottions placed between two objects. This time you also have these large signs, created by your studio assistants in Cotonou, which pair representational paintings with texts that you have authored. What role do these writings play among this collage of objects?
GA: Today, the people who write are the people who speak. Through your writing, light becomes visible. A light that you can use to illuminate yourself. That’s what it means to have writing. I also added some notes from Barbaba Wien that cite other artists she has worked with and their relationships to writing. It is by writing that you have the written work which others may observe, and you can become a writer, which is where this text in the installation comes from:
“writing and always writing, it’s a person who came to see, to read what you have written, to say that you have writing and can be a writer. George Adéagbo, who was mad to have madness, who was ill to have illness, is an artist. The writing that makes the book is the book!”
EG: Your installations are polymorphic. There are LPs, newspapers, sculptures, masks, items of clothing… What is your relationship to these objects? Do they have symbolic value for you?
GA: What each of us does has been done by others. This way, when they reach their limit, their contribution is transmitted onward, whether spiritually or through messages, signals. That is how I find myself among objects that speak to me. When you invite me to give an exhibition, you draw my attention to you. After that point, there are objects that present themselves to me. I observe them, and then I start to speak to each object and find out what it has to say. People also entrust me with their sculptures and masks. Then I associate them with both objects found in nature and others, such as records from singers that invoke a particular atmosphere to me. By living, look at how I worked on the life that I’ve lived! Seeing you live, not knowing your story, your work is how I discover you. Work is how life reveals itself and how we are able to live. Writing is one way to go about it. A person may be in need, but the way you choose to make them the offer determines whether they will receive it constructively. Whether I choose textiles, records or books, each item has a very precise placement in order to communicate with the next.
EG: There is a duality in your work between writing itself and the spoken word. The objects seem to be whispering to us, but we cannot understand what they are saying. We can only view them and read them. Do you feel like you are re-endowing objects with the gift of speech?
GA: I give life back to the objects because they are objects that people had used in another time. They were part of an everyday life and had specific uses. Now that those people no longer exist, or perhaps these people no longer want what they had with this object, the object has left them. When we are miserable, we have no friends; by the same token, happiness brings popularity. If a person has helped you achieve success, you need to respect the time you need to be with that person and not regret the past. Time lives in duration. When a man and a woman sleep together, they don’t say to each other the very next morning: “My girlfriend… My sweetheart? That night we’ve spent together, I think something has happened.” It’s not the same day that you go to the hospital to give birth. You have to wait nine months, and that’s human destiny. By following that rule, you are able to write. Everything starts with a point that defines a path of writing, and when you follow that path, writing achieves its meaning.
EG: To what extent do the commonly used objects you exhibit serve to point at the reflection between collective and individual memory?
GA: When people tell me, “You make installations, you are an artist!” I respond, “Yes, I make installations, but they are about the history of art.” There is no art without history, but it’s art that makes history. And that is why I make art about (art) history. Skin is clothing. What’s important is the blood that gives life to the body, and that’s the same blood that flows through all humanity. The problem that arises is that we do not have the same cultures. Since we don’t have the same culture, when we talk about culture there is a question mark. Mutual understanding is what brings common ground and allows things to be set in motion. There is no comprehension without explanation. When you encounter the other, you must do everything you can to build your exchange on common ground and understanding.
EG: Why did you add those boxes a while ago, the ones that are attached to the wall in the middle of your installation?
GA: In life, when you do something, you should never think you are eternal. You have to do something and only then allow what you have made to be transmitted to other people. That’s a way for me to compose my archive and write my story. I created those boxes because I have the key to this work and I know the book that is telling the story, which is writing, dealing with the paintings that are presented. Those boxes are like paintings. They demonstrate the idea I have in an installation.
EG: Through your arrangements of objects, you allow your spectators to create new connections between the different elements, and to go beyond their own spheres of perception, their own lived experiences, their own cultural borders. Would you be an intermediary between cultures?
GA: In order to write, there’s no need to place yourself above others. You have to place yourself exactly halfway. With my installations, I point out a path. What I see is what I tell you, and that’s how I can transmit it to you. In the course of searching, we realize our true work, our path. Tinkering is how we succeed at reaching our goals.
EG: Is that why you say you don’t consider yourself an artist in the professional sense?
GA: To be a painter, you need a paint maker! We accompany each other through life. It’s about recognizing the roles we play for one another. There’s a saying that goes:
“The weaver is the history of the tailor, the dressmaker. The weaver is the one who wove the fabric, who produced the fabric and the cloth in order to allow the dressmaker to exercise the craft of dressmaking. As long as the tailor is aware of the service provided by the weaver, a tailor he remains… But the day he is unaware of the weaver, when the weaver no longer produces cloth, can he still exercise the tailor’s craft? The weaver is the history of the tailor. The tailor does not come before the weaver. The weaver comes before the tailor.”
EG: So that is your way of calling into question our relationships to objects, as a frame for relationships between individuals. Underlying that is the concept of the creative act, in other words, the act of recognizing someone. Nonetheless, that’s linked to a specific cultural environment, isn’t it?
GA: Art is in nature. It’s art that makes the artist. The artist is a missionary who achieves the mission that is in nature. When you’re in the same swamp together, that doesn’t bring as many doubts. But when you’re not in the same swamp, that’s what makes things difficult. The tailor cannot live without the weaver. There is no painter without a paint maker. We complete each other. But if we are not interested in one another, that’s what creates envy and then conflicts arise between people. In my work with Stephan Köhler, for example, we each have a role to play. My way of observing and arranging objects amongst themselves is what lets Stephan Köhler take the photo to send to the exhibition project and lets him do the task of communicating with the people who invited us. That’s what it means to be companions, and by complementing each other, life takes shape. In the past, everyone thought I was crazy with my installations, and today everyone is all around me. From now on, in this teamwork, everyone finds their place and I have my freedom.
EG: There is a sentence that recurs several times in your installation: “Once upon a time, there was Africa and the history of writing… the African artist from Africa and the written word in Africa!” It is followed by “How does one begin to write about an artist…” You refer to writing about the history of African art on one of the sections of the wall. Your work has frequently been placed in the context of “contemporary African art.” How do you respond to that? Is that a category you would like to be associated with?
GA: Contemporary African art. Whenever I hear that I wonder what exactly it means, for what is contemporary art ultimately? It’s a way of expressing creation. When it comes to my work, I would rather people didn’t call it contemporary African art, even though I explore the question of art in Africa by choosing certain books. What I offer and present only makes references to African cultures because they are part of my everyday life. So yes, I am African, but I don’t use the term African art. How to view contemporary African art and contemporary European art is a good question, certainly, but what’s crucial is for contemporary art to invoke the act of creation.
EG: To be a bit grandiose, we could imagine you, George Adéagbo, at one of the next editions of the Monumenta in Paris, creating a giant installation at the Grand Palais with the authority to incorporate the collections of the Quai Branly and the Louvre. Is the prospect of that kind of playing field and creating a “monumental” work something that interests you?
GA: That would be like Documenta 11 in Kassel! When I was at Documenta, they gave us a key to the archives with all of the documents about the artists who’ve participated since the event began. Essentially, a different person chooses the theme, there’s a different location, but basically they’re more or less the same. Monumenta is Documenta! Monumenta is like “les artistes et l’écriture.” When people refer to something as monumental, what are they saying? Quai Branly is Jacques Chirac’s Monumenta. Arguably, every president has demonstrated his part in the nation’s viability. When I went to the Kleinplastik Triennial, I had already seen it at the Dakar Biennale in 1996 and I’ll see it the next time around at some quadrennial, and so forth. The art world is full of these word games. Those are tactics for writing history. Monumenta/Documenta. The art world is a big business!
Elsa Guily studies art history and is an independent critic living in Berlin. Specializing in the relationship between art and policy, she is currently writing her thesis on the concept of how history is rewritten in contemporary art through the reappropriation of archives.