Rising French Art Star Loris Greaud on His Pace Gallery Debut and Playing Hip-Hop for Fish

An installation view of Loris Gréaud's "A World of Absolute Relativity," 2012
(Greaud Studio and Yvon Lambert, Paris)

In 2008, at the ripe old age of 29, Gallic phenomenon Loris Gréaud became the first artist ever invited to take over the full 13,000 square feet of the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. “Cellar Door,” his sprawling exhibition, featured a complex series of architectonic installations that probed notions of the artist’s studio and in situ creation. The project also involved (in no particular order) an opera, flavorless sweets, black champagne, and a forest of charred trees coated in gunpowder. It continued to evolve over three years, mutating as it toured Europe from London to St. Gallen, Switzerland—establishing Gréaud in the process as of one of the most, if not the most successful artist to come out of France in the post-relational aesthetics years. Now Gréaud has his eye on America. “The Unplayed Notes,” his first major show in the U.S., opens May 5 at the Pace Gallery at 534 West 25th Street in New York. Coline Milliard met with the artist in London to talk about Roland Barthes, the challenge of recording Lee Ranaldo’s silence, and the thrill of commissioning hip-hop for deep-sea creatures.

Where does this idea of unplayed notes come from?

I can’t remember where the story I’m going to tell you comes from, and I don’t want to research it. It was at a concert by Karlheinz Stockhausen. A friend of his comes by after the show and tells him: “Well, there were lots of arias, lots of sounds.” And Stockhausen answers: “You have to listen to the unplayed notes, to everything I didn’t play.” If you know the real story, don’t tell me—if it was actually John Cage, I don’t give a shit. I want it to be distorted, like it is in my mind. That made lots of sense to me, this idea of listening to the unplayed notes. What is not said is sometimes more important than what is said. It also reveals another aspect that is important to me: the chain of thoughts, or the missing gap between two works, or between two movements. I wanted to think about the show as a kind of cloud with many stories, different kinds of stories, and try to make physical links of the unplayed notes, the missing gaps between each of the works I displayed.

Without being too simplistic, it seems as if you might be looking at what could be a visual equivalent to the pause in music. But is it the silence between notes that interests you or the notes that could have been played?

I think it’s both. Roland Barthes talks about three levels of meaning: one is communicative, one is informative, and one is more heretic and resistant—that’s the sens obtuse (“the obtuse meaning”). “The Unplayed Notes” is also about this. It touches on the gap that the viewer has to fill with his own thoughts. In the show, there’s a film called One Thousand Ways to Enter (2008-11). It’s smoke under water, shot with a high-speed camera. You see the smoke slowly distorting in a really precise way. In postproduction, we mirrored the movie to produce a Rorschach form, a constantly moving inkblot test. When you look at the film, you can’t help projecting images onto it. It’s automatic. For the soundtrack, I asked Lee Ranaldo, the guitar player from Sonic Youth, to travel to Paris without a guitar and go to IRCAM’s [an institute for science and music at the Centre Pompidou] anechoic chamber—the chamber without any sound immortalized by John Cage. In the anechoic chamber, with two really precise microphones, we recorded him thinking really loud about the most beautiful guitar riff he could imagine.

You recorded it, but obviously there was no sound at all?

No, it was the very precise silence of Lee Ranaldo thinking. It contains the idea for real, and the soundtrack is really on the film. What you hear is white noise produced by the speakers themselves. This illustrates quite well the idea of the unplayed notes. Maybe a bit too well.

Can you tell me about the Pace show?

When you enter, you go through a “galactic corridor.” The space is almost empty, there is black carpet on the floor. The walls and the ceiling are matte black, and you have two prototypes of lamps, “spider lamps,” their arms moving slowly. Floating behind the spiders, there are kinds of rocks or eggs made out of charcoal produced by burning previous works of art and artist’s proofs—so there’s this idea of destruction and production. On the back wall, there are LED lights, like a constellation. Sometimes, the wall is vibrating to a specific frequency from an experiment I’ve done: I thought about some works of art while a neurologist took an encephalogram that we then transposed into vibrations.

The main room is going to be like an empty cinema, with the 35mm projector for the film in the center of the room. It will also include a constantly updated olfactory piece, Spirit (2005–12). I’ve made this experiment with the French historian Pascal Rousseau. We created an archive of all the descriptions we found of the potential smell of the planet Mars—in scientific research, real travel to Mars, sci-fi books (I hate science fiction), and poetry. We gave these to a nez [a perfume-maker] and he made a synthesis of this perfume. It’s like an image of a smell. Sometimes, during the projection, you’ll have the image of the smell of Mars.

What does it smell like?

This year, it’s a bit of lemon and sulfur—I’ll send you a sample.

Okay, I’ll wear it at a party.

For other works [abstract black-and-white pictures included in the exhibition], we found a photosensitive material, a liquid that records light just like in simple photography. We created panels that we installed in front of particular paintings at the Louvre. Most of these deal with chiaroscuro, others touch on magnetism. We left the panels there for two days. They recorded the light, but just like the recording of Lee Ranaldo in the anechoic chamber, they also had the potential of recording the aura of the paintings. After that, we fixed the product, and when we developed the images, it created these beautiful chemical panels.

In most of your works, you integrate other disciplines: music, literature, science. Why is it important for you to go beyond the visual art field?

I’m obsessed with a lot of questions I need to answer. And to answer these questions, I need the right people. It always starts with lots of things to resolve. I’m not fascinated by science at all. It’s just that most of the time, this scientist guy could answer, or try to answer with me, one simple obsession.

What Mars smells like, for example.

Yes, or rather how could we reproduce Mars’s smell? As an artist, you can have a position that is not defined at all. When I’m talking to an architect or a scientist or a musician, we start from the field of art and from the field of architecture, and sometimes, we both go into another field, which is not the field of art and produces some beautiful things. I’m really playing the game of the aesthetic adventurer. Each project has to be an experiment. I’m not the guy who is going to show the video that everybody likes. That’s why I’m so tired. I’m 33 and I’m fucked-up tired.

Do you think you’ve been too successful too quickly?

No, but I’m not saving myself, I’m not saving my ideas. It’s a constant combustion. I’ve been doing this for 11 years, I feel like I’m 60, but I still have a lot of questions and obsessions.

What’s your latest obsession?

The movie I’ll be launching in June: The Snorks, A Concert for Creatures. I’ve been working on this project for the last three years. I’ve been traveling all around the world, meeting deep-sea specialists. I commissioned the hip-hop band Anti-Pop Consortium to do a specific concert for deep-sea creatures, and we played it from a submarine so that fish could respond with bioluminescence. When I received the first images of bioluminescence, they looked like underwater fireworks. So I thought I should do a real firework that looked like this. We produced one that was fired in Abu Dhabi. Never do fireworks in Abu Dhabi. In fact, never do fireworks. Fireworks are a bad idea, but doing them in Abu Dhabi is the worst idea you can have. For four days, I had a guy following me with an Uzi. Anyway, we shot the fireworks, and after that, I continued my discussions with scientists. They told me that the fish’s bioluminescence is the most common way of communicating on earth. So I thought I had to find the most important point of communication on earth and show the fireworks there. We broadcast a film of the fireworks in Times Square during Performa 2009. The Snorks, A Concert for Creatures is an important statement for me, because I produced it all on my own. I didn’t depend on galleries or institutions or a deadline or format. I didn’t even know it was going to be a movie when I started. It’s good that everything happened so fast. You know, when you say, “Well, I’m an artist, I do what I have to do..." Now, I’m not doing what I have to do, I’m doing what I want to do.

Click on the slide show to see works by Loris Gréaud.

This article appeared in the May issue of Modern Painters magazine.