Where did your passion for paper come from?
It developed in many stages: I started my professional life as a tailor, then I became a textile designer. In this way I worked with paper and colours for many years. I made hundreds of drawings and I became increasingly interested in the interaction between light and the surface of paper. This is what drove me to make objects and lights with this material. For that I searched everywhere in Europe, but among the hundreds of papers that I saw before my eyes, very few lived up to my expectations. And then I obtained a grant from La Villa Medicis that allowed me to travel to Japan. There I discovered papers, each one more extraordinary than the last, each very different from any other, and, like a work of calligraphy, each bearing the stamp of the individual craftsman who had made it: a sort of soul was emanating from them. In Japan I understood what paper was, paper alone, its true reality.
What relationship do you have with paper in your work?
It always starts with the great respect that I have for the material I receive. From then on, it is the sheets of paper that I have found and chosen that decide on the work that I will do. I subject myself to what is there and I try to make the material created by the paper-makers shine, for it is this that demands a certain type of behaviour and a certain type of treatment, of implementation. My work rests on a constant dialogue between the paper and me.
How do you approach this very ‘charged’ paper?
It is indeed ‘charged’ and care must thus be taken to be as understated as possible. Superfluity is completely forbidden – it is not even conceivable. I focus on what it emanates, I try to capture it, to guide it, to shape it. I read the paper and this reading creates a sort of text, a novel, a demand, a table of principles that influences the way I work. The works of art are a description of the material that I receive.
You talk of description and not of echo…
There is always a bit of both, within the paper, within my practice. Certain works are more cerebral, working with the mind like the series I have just completed, and others more emotional, like those that I have just started. Between the description and the echo this fluctuates according to the nature of the paper and what I do with it.
Your method of working assumes discretion, humility, a form of minimalism in action….
Absolutely, otherwise I would be ashamed. In the moment we must dissolve, we must disappear in order to see what is before us. To dissolve before the paper is the most important step, it is this that allows one to be nothing more than an attentive listener, and therefore present, receptive, since the brain can work at the same time. But we no longer exist as ourselves and at that moment we are effectively the echo that emanates from the material.
Would you describe this as a ritual?
Absolutely. This would not be possible otherwise.
What is it about time that makes it an essential dimension in your approach?
Timing is very important because there are numerous stages. First one must find the paper, which involves travelling a lot, going to meet the paper-makers, getting to know them. In this way I can review hundreds of samples that I study carefully, and, little by little, chance brings me towards something, towards someone, a material, a person. Already, this is a very long path. From there one must start to envisage working, letting the material of paper flow, constructing a frame within the formats required, since there is evidently no standard format when using these types of papers.
Thinking about this framing, working it, moving on to the first stages of completely basic execution of the material in order to be able to approach it well is essential. All this time spent little by little puts me in a state of mind that allows me to be entirely free on the day of starting. What is more, as these papers are always precious and rare, it is best to be fully present and at the height of one's powers at that moment. So there is a very slow process before even the start of the work itself, which in comparison can prove to be incredibly short. This comes close to calligraphy, which sometimes can express a large slice of life, for which we focus, we spend a long time preparing the ink before the final act of painting that is accomplished quite rapidly. But once the artwork is done, another moment intervenes: I must in effect put myself to the test to make sure that I really got to the bottom of things, that my motivation was right, that I have been able to go even further this time. This is the reason why I often feel the need to write about my artwork, to be very aware of what I do.
How do you unite the material of the paper and the light? Is there a priority of one over the other, is one the consequence of the other?
Obviously we cannot separate one from the other. I cannot envisage the material without light and to see the light without the material is impossible. From a certain angle, one can see that the material comprises volume, surface, depth, and that light represents time, since it fluctuates incessantly with the working hour, with its different sources, and the photons reflected by the work of art are never the same. Light always acts in connected waves, without end, one after the other. Certain papers capture the light and make it travel, others less. It all depends of the nature of the fibres – some are flat, others are hollowed or wavy, and because of that we will have a greater reflective effect, either like that of a mirror or conversely more shadow. This changes immensely from one work to another, and sometimes even inside the same work. That said, if I must give it a chronology, it is generally the material that decides, because this is what is infused with and what absorbs light, since under the layers of paper, the background of the picture is black, the most complete black, like an abyss. But I have to simultaneously take into account the reverberation of the light rays, the manner in which they are directed. Here, some small notions of physics are important – we must understand certain phenomena, and trust in them. In the past, in making some objects that used rotation, tension, weight, I exploited the availability of these forces. It is enough to spot them and to understand them a little. If didn't have this baggage, this experience, I would not arrive at the same result.
Is there an Oriental aspect to your works?
If there is one there, it comes from my incapacity to respond in a pragmatic or polemic way to some questions. I always prefer to feel things first, to look at what they could mean and to comment on the feelings they provoke. The way in which I proceed does have an Oriental side in the notion of taking one’s time, of waiting, of searching for the path through intuition. These different aspects, which have been an impediment for me in Europe but which are an asset and a quality in Asia, have served me well there. But it's only in that respect, as my work itself has nothing Oriental about it. I use Japanese papers and I have learnt how to approach them, but the technique that I have developed is my own. I have always been careful not to fall into a register of imitating the Oriental and to stay true to what I am, otherwise this would certainly come through in my works.
If someone who has never seen your work asks you what you do, how do you respond to them?
In seeing one of my exhibitions someone told me one day: ‘I see some white paintings on some white walls in an art gallery. What are you exhibiting exactly?’ I looked at him and said: ‘I show light.’ Then he lit up and said to me: ‘I understand, light belongs to all of us.’
Interview by Henri-François Debailleux