"My Country Is Art": A Q&A With Conceptual Artist Mircea Cantor, Winner of the 2011 Duchamp Prize

This year’s Marcel Duchamp Prize — which is presented at the FIAC art fair every year to an artist working in France — has been awarded to Mircea Cantor, whose work is startling, mysterious, and intense, using symbol-objects with strong personalities to construct a completely new language. His installations have an immediate power to release a strong emotional charge, as if echoing the world, while still avoiding any definitive reading. Gallerist Yvon Lambert brought Cantor’s “Fishing Flies” to FIAC — a strange mobile of miniature planes made of soda can, suspended with golden hooks on a fishing net. Despite an almost cheerful appearance, the world’s violence is visible here, condensed in these dozens of sharp, colorful objects, both prey and predator. Cantor also has solo shows at Crédac (the Ivry Contemporary Art Center outside Paris) and at the Kunstverein in Salzburg. Recently, ARTINFO France spoke to the artist about the Marcel Duchamp Prize, the significance of fishing, and why he doesn’t like being called a Romanian artist.

What does winning the Marcel Duchamp Prize mean to you? Critics have sometimes compared your art to that of Duchamp.

I don’t know why people associate us. Maybe it’s the job of critics, people who give grades. For me, the Marcel Duchamp Prize is an important award — it’s the biggest prize in France for contemporary art. It’s an honor to receive it, and it required a concentration, a focus on my work, which is not insignificant in my artistic development. I also won the Ricard Prize in 2004, which also highlights an artist’s body of work, starting at its beginnings.

How is the piece “Fishing Flies,” which you showed at FIAC, related to “Fishing Fly” in your solo show at Crédac?

The entire installation at FIAC takes up the theme of fishing, which is part of my current concerns and artistic process. Clearly, I am presenting it on a different scale. Right now there’s another installation that I’m presenting at the Kunstverein in Salzburg, which takes up this idea of fishing, with a fishing pole and text in neon that reads “Phishing for other people’s money, gods, time, love, life.” But all this is written in Chinese. Fishing is a central theme in my current work, related to what it implies in our life, in our vocabularies. Fishing evokes the image of the fish. In English, the word “hooker” is used for prostitutes, the equivalent of French “maquereau” [which means “pimp” and also “mackerel”]. On the Internet, we talk about people “phishing” email addresses. All these questions are found in the work I’m showing at Crédac, in the work that won the Marcel Duchamp Prize, and in this show in Austria. These are questions connected to lying in general, but also in very intimate terms, in the relationship to the other. These different formats — planes made of oil drums or soda cans — are part of a group of tools to talk about that subject.

Still, there is a clear political dimension to these pieces. The imagery of the war plane is quite strong, as is that of the oil barrel or the soda can. The viewer might think of the relations between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, or the excesses of consumer society.

Maybe, but I don’t latch on to those connotations. I’m not criticizing consumer society. These objects are work tools. For me, the planes are primarily war planes, which show a reality that we’re confronted with every day. In the piece at Crédac, the fact that there is this oil barrel raises doubts about the legitimacy of violence. Very literally, this violence is that of war — but it’s also the violence that exists in the relations between the self and the other.

Why did you show the video “Vertical Attempt” alongside the fishing installation?

“Vertical Attempt” is a very strong piece that I made about the idea of courage. What interests me is this idea of crazy courage, as seen in a child trying to cut a stream of water. It’s an image that is almost iconic for me. It speaks of what we are trying to do as artists: to attempt the impossible. This video shows the crazy courage that we should all have, in everything. Taking this image in the form of a video was very important. It’s an intuition, a necessity that establishes itself in relation to the question: “What message should I transmit, with which medium?” It’s as if the idea cried out: “I want this form!”

Your works have often been called visual haikus. Your pieces are very poetic and also direct. The signs that you use are very evident, although they can escape interpretation. Is there an important place in your art for losing one’s bearings, for ambiguity?

On the contrary, I am there to indicate one’s bearings, not to make them get lost. In the haiku, there is also this idea of instantaneity, which synchronizes today with this society that’s about “quick, on to the next one.” People must always be on the verge of noticing something — they can’t miss anything. This synchronization, with this form of expression, is incredible — why not use it? For “Vertical Attempt,” for example, in the middle of a thousand images, a thousand ads, a thousand bits of information, all of a sudden you see this boy who is trying to cut the stream of water. That’s what makes things so disturbing, and so powerful. It enters an imaginary world which begins to haunt you. This image remains quite objective. Stripped of all its interpretations, it remains the image of the boy who cuts the stream of water, and that can’t be associated with anything else.

Critics sometimes highlight the fact that you grew up in Romania. Does your cultural heritage have particular resonance in your work? For example, in the piece “Like Birds on a High Voltage Wire,” you used traditional Romanian wooden spoons.

It’s already hard enough to accept oneself as an artist. As an artist, period. According to René Daumal, art is the accomplishment of knowledge in action. In that sense, really doing art is a great responsibility. So whether this art is political, Romanian, French, British, etc. — for me it doesn’t make any sense. On my c.v., I say that I live and work on Earth, to show the generosity that the world offers us today, to be able to travel, meet people of all nationalities, religions, or social class. Libération wrote about me as a “French artist of Romanian origin.” That’s OK with me, but I would like them to look closer at my work. Take the example of the great Picasso, who worked intensely on African masks. What was the connection between Picasso and the African mask? What cultural content can you look for that he used? And the avant-garde artists inspired by antiquity, are you going to call them Greek? This indicates a certain superficiality of the media in relation to the artwork.

Concerning “Like Birds on a High Voltage Wire,” no one said that the other spoons, the silver ones, had all been purchased at the Zurich flea market. We know who we are, so why not go deeper? Let’s stand for something other than our nationality. Instead of talking about a Romanian artist, let’s try to see what this artist has to say to us. The cultural heritage is there, I’m very proud of it. But I’ve lived in France for 12 years. I can’t reject my past. I come from somewhere and there are things that influence me, but the question is: how am I going to take this accumulation: being from Romania and living in France? What do I want to do with this? It’s like my “Double Heads Matches,” for example, which I made in 2002-2003. It develops in the most private things, not by standing on a soapbox, putting your hand on your heart and saying, “I am Romanian.” I don’t do art for the pleasure of making exotic art. I use things that come from Romania, and I can also use cans that come from Senegal for one piece and cans that were transformed in the streets of Paris for another piece, as well as working with English and French craftspeople — these objects speak of the great openness in which we can live today, beyond national categories. My country is art.

What are you currently working on?

I have plans through 2013 or 2014. My next show will be at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Then I’ll show my work at the MACRO in Rome. Afterwards there will be a solo show in Wales, and then the Pompidou Center in fall 2012. I don’t know yet what I’ll show there. For the moment, I’m catching my breath.