D44 Claire Paugam: Attempting the Embrace n°31 – processing the unknown

Claire Paugam is the 44’th artist to exhibit in Reykjavík Art Museum’s series, happening in the D-gallery. An ongoing program that has been going on since 2007, it holds the focus of inviting emerging artists, who are considered to be an important impact on the Icelandic art scene, to develop a project within the walls of room D.

Claire Paugam is a multidisciplinary French artist (b. 1991) based in Reykjavík. After graduating from the Iceland University of the Arts’ MFA program in 2016, Claire has exhibited in various art institutions in Iceland and abroad such as the 5th Biennale for Young Art (Moscow, 2016) and the Icelandic Photography Festival at Gerðarsafn Art Museum (2018). While primarily focusing on her own art practice, she forms an artist duo with new media artist Raphaël Alexandre, together they create installations and stage designs. The artist is also involved in curatorial projects such as Vestur í bláinn (2020) with Julius Pollux Rothlaender. She is the recipient of the Motivational Art Prize 2020 delivered by the Icelandic Art Prize and board member of The Living Art Museum.

Photo: Claire Paugam

The following interview is taken in Claire’s studio on Seljavegur, by her working desk, facing the ocean.

A: Where does the sound come from, that plays in the background of the installation?

C:The sound is not fixed with the light, it is independent. A natural sound that is recorded and then distorted. I do not wish to reveal what it is, rather I choose to play with the idea that the sound is unidentified. So I keep it a secret, even the curator doesn’t know where the recording comes from. This is one of the elements I work with, to let the viewer free to interpret many things. I let specific elements be hidden to hold on to this possibility of having everything open for the viewer to interpret. There’s a tendency now in the art world that the viewer is provided with so much information, scientific backup and various texts by philosophers that are interwoven within the exhibitions. In this installation, I choose to play with the unknown within it instead of letting the exhibition be loaded with too much content. The senses are what is utilized at its utmost rather than to have the purpose of an intellectual approach.

A: What was the build up towards this piece and how has it developed?

C: I applied to the open call with sketches, the core idea in Attempting the Embrace n°31 remained throughout the process. The application was about being in tune with the world and what that means, are
we as humans meant to dominate the landscape? Or are we meant to just be a part of it, to be absorbed by it almost? The thing is that our world is constantly changing, activated by scattered forces all around. Life is based on uncertainty and entropy. With this installation, I wanted to question our position within the landscape as humans, but also express that everything is ever-changing in many unpredictable ways.

The title is similar to many art pieces of mine, it is kind of a series of works and they are all called Attempting the embrace, with a number following. This is the 31st, in the latest outcome of the series. First, it was a lot about connecting the outside and the inside of the body. Then about visual analogy, to think of minerals and organics being alike. Visual analogy is connecting images with meaning. Asking questions like, what is alive and what is not alive? Are stones dead? What about minerals? Are they alive? In this project, I am researching the landscape as a whole and our relationship with it.

In this context, it’s interesting to think about a specific painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818. It’s so majestic and beautiful. There are different interpretations of this painting. To me it’s a man who went very far to see this beautiful landscape which is yet dangerous, he’s on a rock and he could fall. He’s high up, it’s windy and the sea is violent and sublime, but yet this feeling is portrayed within the work that the man is dominating the landscape and that he is above it. This is quite a common point of view in our western culture. That we dominate our environment and that it has to be tamed and utilized almost to please us. In Iceland and some other volcanic territories, we know very well that the landscape is stronger than us. The earth is living and expanding in various ways, some that we don’t have any control over.

The viewer is positioned in front of a great landscape, which could be anywhere. The viewer is then free to project themselves into the landscape. The bench is an invitation to sit and contemplate. I chose this specific photograph because it could be anywhere in the world, apart from Iceland. Within the installation you are faced with the grand landscape, the image leaning on the wall, so it is obvious it’s not real. Rather it is an object. Then the substance surrounds it, an undefined substance, which expresses this feeling that we don’t know how the landscape will evolve. This slimy looking texture is on the floor. It looks very much like the inside of a body. 

Photo: Claire Paugam

The unknown substance surrounding the image is crawling towards the viewer, when you bend over it, it becomes a little landscape. Here, body and landscape become very close beings to me. The sculpture is coming from behind the photograph, it is in my opinion the force that pushes the photograph off the wall and tilts it. When I look at the sculpture, I don’t see a specific object. I wanted it to be completely shapeless, to escape any direct reference. It had to look slimy, as if touching it you would change its shape. It is the disruptive element of the installation.

The light is constantly changing in the room. When the light changes, it indicates that time passes by; you could also imagine that a cloud is hiding the sun. The colours change and this movement gives life to the piece.

The cloud passes and you get the sun again, I wanted to create all these little changes to create this organic feeling within the installation. Sometimes the lights start to flicker fast which is not something that happens with the sun. It is to let the viewer know that it’s an artificial surrounding. To create this question within the experience if it’s a malfunction or not, to play with the natural and the odd. The lights and the sculpture are some kind of a disturbance, something that maybe wasn’t supposed to be there.

Perhaps that’s why in the miniature, the sculpture takes over most of the space, to the point of overflowing. Because it has this strong urge to exist. Maybe to show how the landscape does take over and that it actually is the one that is dominating us.

Photo: Vigfús Birgisson

A: What were you hoping for the viewers to experience within the installation?

C: The bench is there to invite the viewers to sit on it, to resemble the experience of going to a park or a specific viewpoint. To create this impression of being at a scenery. It’s an invitation to stop and enjoy what’s in front of you in a contemplative state. Also, to hopefully help the viewers to be visually immersed in the image. When you sit you don’t have the same relationship with what you are looking at, it’s a different experience from standing in a museum – of course, you can still stay and contemplate but you somehow are reminded that you are a visitor.

When you are sitting in front of this massive image, I am hoping you forget that you are in a museum. My wish is that you can feel fully immersed in the art piece. In this state, as the viewer, you are probably more open to noticing how the light changes, to experience the various effects within the installation as you slow down. Maybe the lights will change, and the sound will come on – in that position you are most likely in a better state to experience what was meant to be experienced. I think a lot about how the viewer approaches
the installation. In this installation, the viewer is free to sit on the floor, stand still, walk around and/or sit on the bench.

To enter the space, you have to go through white curtains, they lead you to a white space, a breathing point. This in-between space is also the way out. It is to enhance the feeling of how this installation is a world of its own, with its own rules and laws, unlike the rest of the museum. That’s why you must go through the in-between space to shift to another reality. It can create the effect of being in a strange dreamlike place.

Photo: Claire Paugam

A: Can you explain the strange and unknown within your practice, to elaborate further on how it is connected to your new installation and threads of thinking?

C: It comes from a fascination for the insides of our bodies, as they are out of reach. Entering our bodies to see how we are inside goes against our primary instinct of self-preservation. A landscape that lives in darkness and lives by its own rules. We don’t decide at what rate our heart is beating, we are living in symbiosis but yet it’s an unattainable force living by its own rules. I love to think about the textures of our bodies as they currently are, trapped in darkness, to wonder how it would be to become a small explorer to go within and enter these worlds. Also I wonder how this resembles the insides of the earth or some other specific kinds of landscapes, which we can relate this to.
For me, this is a part of the unknown, to think and dream about these different realms. Thinking about the inside and the outside of something, how one inside can be the outside of something else. Just depends on how you position yourself within these ideas. It is also interesting to connect these ideas with the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and such potentials. That is often the narration within sci-fi as well, to ponder this question of what is outside of us. There’s a play of proportions as there is always something that is beyond us, no matter how much we study our environment.

This is very much related to my fascination with the landscape of my own body, the landscape of my environment that is so big and huge, and then all this potential landscape that is outside of earth. Again, always thinking about the inside and outside of something. Nothing of what we know is set in stone, it’s all bound to have its own rhythm and change. Also as our definitions are constantly being reformed, like what we define life as. The way we define our environment is a fluctuating concept. There’s a lot of unknown still within what we know.
I also work a lot with the idea of shapelessness, so a shape that has no shape. That’s a very paradoxical word since everything has a shape. But yet there are some concepts and forms that we consider as a society to be shapeless, like a spit, or a cloud, or our intestines. This concept for me is a door to open, to get into the unknown. Some objects are hard for our brains to fully grasp. Like the concept of a balloon is really easy to understand, but others require something a lot different. Because it’s mysterious and unclear the structures of these things. They are certain attempts to express the unknown. I have been so deeply obsessed with these ideas, like how to create certain textures and such. It is quite hard to put these things and feelings into words since it’s so much about visual and sensory experiencing.

Andrea Ágústa Aðalsteinsdóttir


Featured image, photo by: Hildur Inga Björnsdóttir

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