You studied Philosophy of Religion at the Sorbonne, but what drew you to sculpture?
I actually discovered both at the same time. When I was seventeen, my room had philosophy books from the floor to the ceiling as well as clay sketches everywhere. When it came time to choose a University, the natural choice would have been the Academy of Fine Art - but it didn't interest me to draw well and have nothing to say in my art. So I went to study philosophy and left the arts and literally read books for seven years. I felt it was a necessity to understand the world before you want to represent it. And this is true today more than ever in the history of man. In the past, the artist had a culture to which he was taking inspiration from. 2000 years of Christianity, for example, has generated 2000 years of amazing art from Altar pieces to painted Ceilings where you see man trying to represent the afterworld. Or you can take the example of hundreds of years of art of the Roman Empire and you have a very realist esthetique that represents the world and not the afterworld because they didn't have the concept of resurrection. Each time you look at art you see a civilization behind it and the effort of this civilization to answer the riddle of existence.
Today we don t know what our civilization is! So more than ever, the artist must be a philosopher in order to stitch the centuries together and slowly arrive to a believable understanding of the present. From philosophy to sculpture there is a very strong link - this link is man. Sculpture is three-dimensional philosophy because you apply to a physical body what you perceive about the essence of man. It is actually rather fascinating that the more I read philosophy, the more my sculpture comes alive, but of course it is the same thing. Sculpture is a three-dimensional anthropology. You can understand that in reverse, when we try to understand a civilization, it is through unearthing their sculpture that you know what they believed, who they were and what their position was regarding the universe. Today if someone wants to be an artist he has no other choice than to become an archeologist of the present. So yes, philosophy of religion - but it could be also philosophy of atheism - but this science doesn't exist yet. However, as a sculptor I need any definition of man I can get.
How did you get into sculpture, did you study or pick it up independently?
When I was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, I was walking down the streets after the courses towards the old building of the Academy of Fine Arts of Paris near the river. There was this old amphitheater in wood were Richer, the great anatomist of the nineteen century, was teaching in 1900. Behind it was this vast collection of crocodile skeletons and elephant skulls and there was an anatomy lesson every tuesday and thursday, which I attended every time I could. I was trying to reconstruct the human figure bone by bone and muscle by muscle, but doing so independently. I studied philosophy and anatomy separately until I realized years later that philosophy is the bones of Art. Also, an enormous amount of time spent at the Rodin Museum helped. I was an emotional sculptor not a technical one. It is only when I studied with Robert Bodem that my technique skyrocketed. This man gave me a treasure that will make me rich for the rest of my life, he gave me the nineteenth century sculpture technique of the 'four profiles.' Based on my emotional self-trained sculpting, I had important commissions of sculpture in Paris and Los-Angeles before I got technical training. Immediately after it's creation, the first statue I did ended up in five private collections and won the selection at the annual show of the National Arts Club in New-York. My goal, as a sculptor, before my technical training was to emphasize on the meaning of a piece and not only on the form...
How specifically does religion and philosophy feature in your work?
It is very specific indeed. Through the years I built an entire philosophy called Sacred Nihilism. Basically, it is a philosophical system that I invented that explores the positive side of nihilism. I realized though my feelings as a human being that there could be a sacred dimension of atheism. It therefore became very important for me to say, through my sculpture, that atheism is the negation of God but not the negation of the sacred. I started believing that if we investigate enough we could restore a Sacred without God.
I realized that by listening to Wagner at a young age and reading Feuerbach. Few people know, but Wagner locked himself up and stop composing just to read Feuerbach and then composed The Twilight of the Gods. But Feuerbach, Wagner and Nietzsche failed to replace the Sacred, and this failure led civilization towards the identification of nihilism and pessimism. I started where their research left off and I tried to expand it saying that the absence of God is, on the contrary, offers the possibility of a new sacred that would entirely belong to man! I started being quite passionate about the concept of Atheology. We had, for 2000 years, a theology that explained the situation of man with God. In the 21st century it is time to have a new science that explains the situation of man without God. We tend to believe that atheism is a fact. In my opinion atheism is an enigma. Something 'Sacred' lives in atheism, and that must be discovered. It will probably take three centuries to put together, if we succeed in recognizing who We are.
So this philosophy affects my work directly. If you look at the sculpture called the Essence of Atheism you have everything said above within this sculpture. Or if you take the portrait I did called the Head of Ecstasy, you have the intuition of a man under the influence of the godless sacred. There is however a confusion with the word Atheology, philosophers use this word to attack religions and that is not interesting. Nietzsche did it enough. The way I use this word on the contrary, is to find the religion of atheism. So religion and philosophy impact my art considerably to the point that if it doesn't go through this channel I would stop sculpting. Sculpting or painting today - just to show the excellence of your skill - is irrelevant. As said Feuerbach, what does remain of a civilization? Paper and stone. So I would add - may our papers and stones show who we are.
One of the materials you use frequently is bronze. Why? What do you look for in the materials you use?
Yes, I did a lot of bronzes both in foundries in Los-Angeles and Paris. I started having foundry memories that are rather funny. I remember in Los-Angeles as I was bringing my sculptures to be cast I saw on the shelf the bust of Frankenstein. I asked what it was and they told me that the daughter of the actor who played Frankie in the forties cast the face of her father and never took it back. To answer your question, bronze has a lot of presence. I would almost say, a human presence, and it is also very solid. I look for these two elements when I use bronze. However, I also use a lot of marble. I have been trained in the Carrara mountains where Michel-Angelo used to extract his marble. What I look for in the marble is it's sense of light. Bronze reflects external light and marble radiates internal light. That is the difference between the two mediums and I cherish both very much. Each time I use marble I choose a different kind of marble to develop a knowledge of the stone and a knowledge of the sentiment of the marble. I call sentiment of the marble the emotion that it provokes on the viewer. I also want to explore granite, especially the Egyptian granite that built ancient Egypt. I like it's sense of hieratic mutism.
What role does figurative sculpture play in the art world today?
Interesting question, I think it will play a role only through its philosophy. We talked earlier about sculpture being a three-dimensional anthropology in the sense that the human figure in sculpture is the essence of man, made corporeal.To speak in Peladan's mystical vocabulary the sculpture is the ''terrestrialisation'' of the idea. The role of sculpture today isn't a small one. It is to decipher this definition of man that we are looking for. What do I mean by definition of man? We are not in the scholastics of the middle-age where man had only one essence and eternal. We know now that the essence of man is temporal, it belongs to a segment of history and then disappears to evolve into another definition of man - perhaps each time more interesting and more complex. When I speak of man you can interchange it with the word sculpture. The role of the sculptor today is the same as yesterday except we won't unveil the same reality.
Today it is important to recognize that we don't know what Art is anymore! I feel there are two major movements. The Contemporary movement that wants to be new without connecting with the history of humanity and the Realist movement, that wants to be old without connecting with the future. Both of these movements are not Art in my opinion. Art is something where 2500 years of evolution and self-development of civilisation rolls slowly and patiently into the shore of the present. So we have to find this elegant thread of the centuries and not repeat the past or adore a spineless present. In the portrait I did called 'In Search of Art Lost,' I play with the Proustian idea that art is not there anymore - you have to find it. If you enter in a category you fall out of Art. To fall in one of these categories is like someone going to a supermarket with a bow and arrow and shooting arrows at the meat section and thinking he is a great hunter, which is very comical. We must not fall immediately in a category, we must think about Art for twenty years at least and we might find a treasure.
Being an artist today is like creating the world where you are going to walk in and make sure that the world you create interconnects with the world that preceded yours. The power of Art comes from the evolution of the ages. The problem today is that there are as many artist as there are art forms. The biggest vice of the 20th century is to have confused individuality with individualism. Art is not about individualism, it is about "us." In a way, there is not much difference today between the urinal of Duchamp and a perfect realist painting. They both avoid the question of the essence of man. Now if you were to see a perfect realist painting today that would tackle this question, then you would have an instant masterpiece. The artist would have understood that Art is no longer about the evolution of form but instead it is about the evolution of content. That is where the revolution is today.
Which artists do you most draw your inspiration from?
I think there are three artists that played a great inspiration in my life. The first is Rodin, the second is Rodin and the third is Rodin. When I was a teenager growing in Paris and I had a bad week, I would take the subway on a saturday night and stop at the Museum station and I would climb the fence and look at the statues of Rodin sleeping in the moonlight. I don't know how to explain it to you, but this would give me a sentiment of peace. Looking back, it was probably because I could see an image of man that made sense in relation to his existence - or maybe it was a sort of philosophical honesty I suppose, made of bronze. It is no coincidence that today I am the Founder of Post-Contemporary Sculpture - an organization that seeks to expand the heritage of Rodin in the 21st century. When he died in 1917, nobody successfully picked up his heritage. Only one man attempted, his name was Jules Desbois, but he was not enough. Through my organization, I am regrouping some of the best sculptors in the world who follow this vein. Rodin opened a door for Art and didn't close one - this magnificent door he opened for civilization was certainly not closed by a stupid urinal.
A forth artist that is very important for me is actually an art critic. I love him so much that I am currently carving a self-portrait where I am on one side of the marble and he is on the other - back to back. His name is Josephin Peladan. He wrote a book in 1909 called The Mystical and Idealist Art, of which I have an original edition signed by his hand. For me he gave the most beautiful definition of Art ever written from a human hand: ''Art should provoke a transcendental spasm." If you ever wonder what Art is, enter a Museum -old or new- with this definition written on a piece of paper and stretch your arm putting the paper between the work of Art and you. You will quickly know if what you are looking is Art or not Art. I personally recommend to start the exercise with Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, you will see it is pretty efficient.
I also have a great admiration for Francis Bacon. In his work, he shows the essence of man in his own time. I find his painting perfectly honest and revolutionary as well as very sculptural. Actually, in one of his last interviews, he said he wanted to go towards sculpture. The thing about Francis Bacon is that he is beyond genre, he is a realist and not a realist, but his figures are in unity with temporality and that makes him a great artist. The problem today is that we have legions of realist artists who proclaim themselves realist artists just because they represent reality. I ask - how can you represent reality if you don t know what reality is? To be a realist artist is not a revolution, but to find the essence of reality in time is certainly one. To represent THAT is what we should concern ourselves with and Bacon did that very successfully.
Could you talk a little about the bronze door for the 15th century manor in Normandy? How did you come to do this work and what inspired it?
Sure with pleasure! That was a commission I had 8 years ago in France. A french collector had bought one of my bronze a year before that commission. He had just bought this incredible manor from the fifteen century and while they were restoring it they realized they didn't have a door. The collector called and asked me to fill this space. It was a great engineering project. I arrived in France and lived in the foundry for one month. The foundry, at the time, had the monopoly of the estate of Rodin. I will always remember when I was working on my door, I started walking in the foundry in the middle fo the night smoking a cigarette surrounded by statues in the making and I step in this huge room and there was the Gate of Hell of Rodin in real size (19 feet x 13 feet or 6 meters by 4) suspended by chains in the mist of the studio. I later realized that they did two editions of the gate, one for Stanford and one for Tokyo.
What inspired my door was two things, first I was reading the Book of the Dead - the ancient Egyptian scrolls - at the time and all the Egyptian civilization was organized into the passage between the physical space and the spiritual space. I tried to symbolize that with a door that either denies or open the access between the physical and the spiritual. They used to have what they called the ceremony of the weighing of the hearts. They would weigh your heart to see if it was light as a feather - so in the door, it translates into the hand in bronze coming towards you. Above this hand there is a man with one eye closed and one eye opened. This is the physical space and the spiritual space, the visual and the internal. Then you have this head above, he is the one who sees what your heart is beyond your words. This one will decide in which space you are entering. Underneath is a figure in bronze that denies the access. Then there is the vortex in bronze. This is not Egyptian but syncretic. In many old civilizations, one of the first representations of the sacred was the vortex. The example in neolithic England and Ireland is even older than the Egyptian. This sign is one of the first attempt of man to try to understand the transcendental. With this in mind, I included the vortex in the middle of the composition as a swirling bridge, if you may, between the real and the meta-real. There is actually an electrical system inside the door. You type a secret code and 1500 pounds starts moving and the door slowly opens.
I worked on this 8 years ago and today I am back working on the monumental size again. A Tryptique that cloisters my vision of the sacred in the contemporary world. The Tryptique is called The Religion of Atheism. There are two life-size sculptures completed so far with one to go. Some of these statues will be featured in a documentary movie on me by the film director Dirk Van Den Eynden who has represented his country at the Biennal of Venice as well as completing more than 300 movies on artists. The movie has just been finished so stay tuned...
Levitation number 71 by Marc Vinciguerra 2015