Always on the lookout for shock and novelty, self-taught French artist Ben Vautier has been overturning the rules of contemporary art for the past six decades through his insightful and provocative painted writings. I sit down with him to discuss the origins and meaning of his art.
Last year, the Departmental Domain of Chamarande, a chateau located 45 minutes away from Paris, held a retrospective of your work entitled Etre Libre (Being Free). What does freedom mean to you?
I think you are not free today. There is less and less freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of speech. I can’t go into a lift with a nice girl and say, “You’re pretty.” I’d finish up in prison. We’re in a world where freedom is in danger. An artist should want to be free and should look for freedom because he must think, “I must do something new that others haven’t done before.” So he will do something new and he will feel free, but that’s a compressed freedom. I like the phrase “etre libre”, but I think it’s very unrealistic. There are more and more restrictions.
How did the idea come to you to make written paintings or painted writings in 1958, using words to enter into the art world and establishing writing as contemporary art?
I was interested in abstract painting, so I thought Viseux does this, Poliakoff does this, Soulages does this, Malevich did this, Mondrian did this, and I said, “What can I find that they did not do?” I discovered the form of the banana, and I said I’m going to be the first to do bananas, so I did very simple bananas. Yves Klein told me that bananas were finished because a monochrome is stronger than a banana. A monochrome is like if you have four aces and a banana is only full house. It’s good but it’s not strong enough. So I gave up bananas and I went to a show where the other artists had put their paintings up. I thought maybe I should just write, “Look at me, that’s enough.” I put that up and everybody looked at it and laughed, and I was very pleased. Then I said I would become the specialist of truth and I would write esthetic truths: this weighs 20 grams, this weighs 15 grams. And then I will write subjective truths like “I am jealous of Boltanski” or “I am jealous of this, I am jealous of that”. And it worked. It had my personality. I became “Mr. Writing”.
Are you always searching for meaning and truth through your work?
Yes, always. When I do something, I doubt. I’m never sure of anything. Truth and doubt go together. I’m a bit ashamed of myself because I repeat myself. I wrote once, “If an artist repeats himself, it’s just as if he copies another.” So I must not repeat myself, but I repeat myself. That’s not good, but it’s difficult to be somebody else every day. It’s impossible. You can’t reinvent yourself each day.
You were one of the first in Europe to bring art directly into the streets with your performances entitled Gestes in the ’60s. What were you trying to achieve?
Yes, that is true, but at the same time, it was not intentional. We had no galleries in Nice and I decided to write on the walls. There was a very beautiful white wall somewhere and I went at night and I wrote wall “mur” (wall) on it and ran away. Then I wrote “maman” (mother) and “papa” (father) on the other walls. That was interesting for me, but I didn’t do it thinking of street art. I did it naturally and, to tell you the truth, when street art came, I liked it, but not too much. I met Henry Flynt in New York, a very important man. He took me to The Bronx, where he showed me street art, which I did not like so much, but I bought two pieces. He told me he was taking photos of somebody who used to write sentences on the walls of New York, and then he discovered that this man was Basquiat, who signed by another name, Samo. I was interested in street art and in Basquiat, but I was not interested in the subway. Everything was hidden, but it didn’t bring anything new. It comes back to the same thing: whatever your style, you must do something new.
You are a keen observer and analyst of society, and your provocative and insightful words question, challenge us, shake up our reality and our habits. How do your artworks continue to remain relevant to this day?
I don’t see that I’m developing so much. I’m more curious. I look at something and I think can that be art or not, did anybody do it before? If nobody did it before, how could I present it? My big theory is ego. Today, I’m a philosopher in ego. I’ve a book called La Théorie de l’Ego (The Theory of the Ego).
You have always said that there is no art without ego…
No art without ego, but I have become a much bigger philosopher because I think there’s nothing alive that is alive without ego. My cat is an egoist and this plant is an egoist because everything wants to survive. If you look at the new films on nature, you find out that nature is full of fighting. They spend their time fighting and eating each other.
Why is the ego so important to being an artist?
The ego is there even if you’re not an artist. The ego is when everything is alive, but an artist, to find something new, must look at what was done before and say what can he do that was not done before. An entrepreneur, a factory worker, a financier, a journalist – all have to have ego. I’m interested in ego. It’s trying to explain the beginning of the universe because I accepted the idea that all artists are egoists, all mankind are egoists, all animals are egoists, all microbes are egoists. So where does ego stop? Must it be alive? I thought that maybe at the beginning of the universe, thousands of millions of years ago, they must have been in a kind of boring situation and ego started. That is my personal theory. I wanted to present it to Hawking, but Hawking died. It’s a kind of an extrapolation, but it could work if I can get ego into matter. Coral or animals are full of ego because everything that reproduces itself is ego, but the world itself, the volcanoes are not full of ego. I haven’t got the proof, but I’m going to get the proof. I must find a theory in which I can prove that ego comes from the beginning of the universe, but that’s complicated. My latest work is on that.