"I Don't Like the Term Installation": Daniel Buren on His Grand Palais-Filling Monumenta Show

Daniel Buren at the Grand Palais
(© Daniel Buren, ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Didier Plowy)

PARIS — Daniel Buren's exhibition "Excentrique(s), travail in situ" for Monumenta, has been very well received by the public — and ARTINFO — and newly elected French president François Hollande even dropped by to see the exhibition the day it opened. Since then, Buren has made a slight change to the exhibition, allowing visitors to go onto the balcony to see his work from above. ARTINFO France recently sat down with Buren to talk about how this exhibition is different from all his others, his gripes with gallerists, and his unconventional ideas about the autonomy of art.

What effect has Monumenta had on you this year?

By definition — and it should be like this for quite a long time — each invited artist will feel the weight of the others. I have four that I have to deal with. If it lasts 100 years, it will surely become very heavy over time!

Is your work for Monumenta a departure for you?

It's a very curious mix because in almost all the details, however important they may be — if you take the filters, the arrangement, the idea of cabins, the use of the glassy surface — I've tried out just about all of it before. But together, in this space, it creates an exhibition that isn't like any other that I've previously done. More often, from one exhibition to another, there is a more direct line, visually speaking. But here it's more extravagant because these are all things that I know because I have already used them.

To take a significant example, when I did the Palais Royal [a site-specific artwork consisting of striped columns of different heights], I had never used cement, or marble, or asphalt — these were completely new ingredients. And the piece was new and at the same time visually close to what I had been doing. But here, I don't see where in my work there would be something that looks like this... but it's certainly by me!

Why didn't you choose a curator for Monumenta?

For solo shows I don't see what good a curator can do, unless it's to serve coffee. But for group shows, of course, the curator is indispensable, though you can debate his or her exact role.

What is your standing on the international stage as a French artist?

Even if you make the effort, it's very hard to see your own situation. But I think that it's important to know it. I realized that some images of me had become very negative. I realized that I had created an image and an impression of my work that I find completely false. But you can't control everything.

How would you define your situation as an artist today compared to early on in your career?

Most of what I've been able to do since 1968-1969 came from invitations. So my option is either to accept or refuse. Today, there are even so many invitations that I have very little time left for other things. When I started, I could do other things, but it's physically impossible today.

I'm a Parisian, and I've done lots of things in Paris. In the 1960s, I started doing things more or less officially in exhibitions, and generally those turned into a no man's land — few people were interested. In the beginning the invitations all came from abroad. Very quickly I was able to survive thanks to that. Nothing was happening for me in France and this lasted for 15 years.

However, I did have a gallery, Yvon Lambert, where I could show work every two years. It was only in 1983 that I had my first museum show at ARC [the contemporary art department of the Paris's Musée d'Art Moderne]. I had already had over 30 shows abroad! I was in all the international events, where there were only rarely a few French artists. At that time, I was active internationally, but I had never been promoted or presented by France. When I was invited to represent France in 1986 at the Venice Biennale, I had already been invited by the Italians to all the Biennales since 1970. I could have been invited to Venice 12 years before!

Today you are represented by Galerie Kamel Mennour. What has your relationship to galleries been like?

I've always liked to maintain a lot of freedom. I've worked with a gallery for 25 years, but at the same time a gallery can't decide for me where I show my work. With Yvon Lambert, from 1969 to 1972 we worked well together. But he started to work with [the group of French artists] Supports/Surfaces, and I disagreed with them so much that I didn't belong there anymore. Afterwards, I don't know why, he kicked them all out. So I came back. Then, once again, I didn't like the path being taken there so much, but it was a less violent reaction than before.

I didn't have a gallery for a while. Then I worked with Marian Goodman, but she didn't even do the minimum amount of work necessary, especially for a show in New York that was endlessly postponed, so I left. That's how I met Kamel Mennour. Things have been good since I've been there. Unlike most galleries that are very focused on business, Kamel Mennour is able to show artists who don't only make pieces that are relatively easy to sell. Galleries like that are hard to come by these days.

Is there an intuitive component to your work?

The intuitive part is almost the dominant one. It is sometimes reduced or controlled by the side that is more... I don't like the word theoretical, but... by the conscious side of the idea that I can have about how a piece should look. Very often — maybe even all the time — the thing that makes me start working on a project is an intuition instead of a very concrete or geometric concept. Monumenta is a very good example of that.

Do you consider art autonomous?

It's very clear: What I do is not autonomous, these are not autonomous objects. If an object is considered autonomous, that would mean, if we take it further, that every artwork produced throughout art history is autonomous. I've thought about this a lot. Obviously I think that even something that is a manipulable object, despite its appearance, is not autonomous. From my beginnings, this opened the door onto a radical critique of the discourse that claims that art is autonomous. Because as soon as you look a bit closer, you notice that it's not autonomous in relation to society, or in relation to the wall, etc. But for a long time now I haven't wanted to get into this debate anymore. In any case, I assert the fact that my art is not autonomous.

Is that why you don't like the term "installation"?

That's part of it, yes. I don't like the term installation because it means that you are installing yourself, settling in. And insofar as not all, but a large part of my work is ephemeral, it never installs itself. It's installed precisely, for a certain time, and after that it disappears.

Is what you have called a "visual tool" something for revealing and reflecting?

The idea of the visual tool is what I found to define most precisely the alternating white and tinted stripes. It's very specific to the usage of something that in the beginning was used absolutely repetitively, and almost violently, and which is still used, like a sign that allows something to be read, something between this sign and another sign. And if this tool changes all the time, it ceases to function as a reference point, and it doesn't work anymore.

So it's color as pure thought?

I am convinced that it is the main element of a thing that is shown. You cannot define it with words. It speaks and it speaks in an absolutely specific way in which words are powerless. The principal thing that is not transferable into any other medium, neither literature nor music, for example, is what color means in a visual object.

What do you think of the young generation of artists?

I've had a lot of experience as a teacher, especially in workshops. At the École des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques [School for Advanced Study in Visual Arts], Pontus Hulten and I gave two- or three-week workshops with students. We paid them for the session and it was very stimulating. Most of the artists who are talked about today were with us: Xavier Veilhan, Philippe Parreno, Gonzales Foerster, and many foreign artists.

What are your next projects?

I'm working with a team of architects, designers, sound engineers, and historians to build a streetcar line in the city of Tours. As you know, in a medium-sized city, setting up a streetcar changes the entire city. It's really very interesting and I have a lot of responsibilities — responsibilities on a city-wide scale.

What do you think about contemporary architecture?

Sometimes I am more interested in architecture than in certain ideas in art. There are great architects such as [Peter] Zumthor, [Renzo] Piano, and Jean Nouvel, whom I've known for a long time. In 1972, I often spoke with Frank Gehry in Los Angeles before he became the star he is today. But there is some architecture that I don't like at all. I have to say that architects have a considerable responsibility and they aren't all geniuses. An artist can have a personal responsibility, but in reality, artists don't have the same responsibility as architects.

To see images of "Excentrique(s), travail in situ," Daniel Buren's "Monumenta" project for Paris's Grand Palais, click on the slide show.

A version of this article appeared on ARTINFO France.