Olivier Kosta-Théfaine

Olivier Kosta-Théfaine in Dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Amongst the first works of yours that I encountered are the lighter graffiti ceiling works; I saw these and they reminded me of the ceilings in dive bars, night club toilets and the burn marks found in the entrances to apartment blocks. For me, these works of yours were spectacular as you used the lighter flame to create somewhat contradictory messages and designs on the ceilings of gallery spaces. For instance, writing the names of flowers, or creating elaborate ornamental roof decorations that are reminiscent of traditional house cornicing. Let’s begin by discussing this series of works and how you feel this series reflects your interest in using lowbrow materials and the city itself as an endless source of inspiration.

Oliver Kosta-Théfaine: Since I was a kid, I used to live in the Parisian suburbs. Coming from a concrete block, my main inspiration for my art was my environment. My environment was also full of graffiti, especially graffiti made with the flame of a lighter in the entrance hall of every concrete block where people used to live. Young cats would just hang out all day and make this kind of ‘lighter graffiti’. The first time I used this cheap act of vandalism was in 2005, after I found on the Internet a list of the « 172 most dangerous concrete blocks in France », edited by the French Ministry of Interior. In this list most of those concrete blocks had poetic names, which is common in France. In the 1970’s the government decided to build big concrete buildings called HLM, they were supposed to be a social revolution for the people giving those big space, water, electricity and shops for everybody. It was supposed to be a kind of new Eden. They gave poetics names for these big complexes build in the suburbs, and it’s common to find names of vegetals and flowers. These places were supposed to help people live better. When I found this list of the "172 blocks prohibited in France", I was stuck by the poetics names that ironically evoked sweetness. Coming from these places I know that there is an antinomy, names did not describe one place, and a place cannot be reduced to a name.

I already had the idea of using the flame of the lighter for a piece of art, but I was looking for the perfect combination, and this list was perfect for that! It was instantly clear! After picking the vegetal names from this list, my idea was to then use them by creating a ‘herbarium’ by writing those names with the flame of a lighter on the gallery ceiling. This provoked a strange feeling to the viewers: the poetic names of flowers written in a hard way, full of unexpected connotations. When you use the term ‘herbarium’ it gives also a poetic feeling to the spectator: automatically you have in mind the idea of young people going to the countryside, collecting flowers and plants in order to put them in a book for their own beautiful collection. My herbarium had strong political connotations: by writing with a lighter the names of the plants that coincide with the names of rough ghettos, people can directly understand that those ghettos are tough and that living there is not easy even if they are named after flowers. This piece was the first of a lighter flame series. I would re-create the Rosetta mold that you can see in every bourgeois flat in Paris by using the flame of the lighter; the idea was to say that the flame of the lighter is the decorative material for the pleb. Then I used to burn again and again, it was something crazy to do, but what were crazier were the reactions from the audience. Burning conscientiously a whole gallery ceiling with the flame of a lighter can be seen as a masterpiece, but by the same people it is shitty vandalism when they see it in the entrance hall of a building.

SC: I find it interesting that the concrete blocks are named after flowers and plants, though does the idea come from the cities hope to literally ‘cultivate’ these blocks in the same way one would sow seeds? ‘Planting’ a friendly name in the rough ghettos in hope that those who live there would move away or change their attitude?

OKT: Not really, those names where chosen at the same time they built these buildings, not after. Nowadays, they still continue giving fancy names, maybe because most of the architects think that they provide "paradise" for people. In fact these concrete blocks were built in the 1970's. At this time, it was considered a social revolution.  Between 1960 & 70, France decided to enter in the era of the "Futur radieux" (the "bright future"). A big construction program was planned to try to resolve the lack of descent places to live, at this time we still had "bidonvilles" (Shanty towns) in France (around 400 in 1970), where poor people, and immigrants were living. The government started to launch a series of competitions to build faster and cheaper. It was the primary access to a real flat, with water, electricity and indoor toilets. For the people of the bidonvilles, and for the government it was a social development, a social revolution, and maybe because it was seen as a kind of paradise (big buildings with all commodities, including shops downstairs), they choose these romantics names.  Built in the periphery, far from the centers, with no real social diversity, these places quickly became ghettos. Ghettos with names of flowers.

SC: In relation to the lighter graffiti works, I am interested to learn a little more about how your environment shapes your approach to making artwork. I understand that you were not formally trained, so what specifically made you begin exploring ways to communicate your ideas and thoughts?

OKT: I'm a self taught artist with a graffiti background, a kind of suburban sport that gave me the chance to look at the city in a different way, to observe it in detail. This is the basis of my work, the details, the ultra neglected, things that other people do not see or are not interested in.

For years, the city was the only place I knew. My artistic practice is definitely linked to my own environment and the places where I used to live and where I came from. I was a kid from the Parisian suburbs and in my daily life concrete was definitely more present than flower fields.

SC: Your publication ‘Flore de Compagnie’ is a collection of imagery that can be translated as the way you view the world around you. The images come from your travels around different cities, and focus on the urban environment. Can you tell me about this publication and also discuss how regularly you document your daily travels? Do you regularly carry a camera?

OKT: Flore de Compagnie, edited by Bunk Edition, works as a book of flowers. In a way, it reveals how I perceive the urban landscape; I am focused on details from my own environment. This publication is linked with the diversity of flowers that you can see in the streets. The name "Flore de Compagnie" refers to an article that I read some years ago, about Berlin and the wild vegetal growing in the city, the idea of the city council was to consider this wild vegetal as a natural and inseparable part of the city, and that the best scenario would to not erase it, but in fact live with it, but it is also a document and a key to understand how I act when I "create" pieces for exhibitions.

My primary source of investigation is my own environment, it could be the urban landscape, but it works with everywhere I go, here in the suburbs or abroad. Every work or series is created in the same conditions. Most of the time it comes from details seen in a close environment, that I archive and forget for most of the time. Then it reappears at some point, either in my studio, my computer, or next to another detail. When they match and create a new meaning and tell a new story together, it becomes an option for a future work. My work is always connected to this idea of drifting, and by extension, to fortuity.

In fact my camera is my telephone. All my days are similar; I start "working" when I leave the house to go outside. It could be for a business appointment, or just meeting a friend. Going from point A to point B, and trying to not travel the same route or direction as the day before, and maybe making a good "discovery". In a city that I don’t know, what I love is to get lost in the streets and the goal is that I maybe make this “beautiful discovery”. A trace on a wall, a found object, or whatever, something that gives me the envy of creating something, or an idea of a new piece. Sometimes I find something, most of the time, not. I m not looking for something special, and I don't necessarily need to come back home with a new pic in my cell, but if it happened its means that I have maybe a new piece of art that could evolve into a painting or sculpture of whatever.

SC: In a recent interview with Manor Grunewald, I learnt of the exhibition you curated (Idéale) Géographie that involved artists such as Simon Laureyns, Nicholas Pilato, SKKI, Clement Pascal, Samuel Francois, Manor Grunewald and yourself. Can you tell me about this exhibition, and of course the title (Idéale) Géographie?

OKT: (Idéale) Géographie is a series of group exhibitions that deal with my work, and linked with my reflection in general. It’s a parallel project to my artistic practice. It deals with a certain idea of fragmented geography. I used to say that I am a "peintre de paysage", a painter of the landscape; of course it’s not so romantic. I am interested in my environment, and by extension, the landscape. With (Idéale) Géographie, the idea is to bring together a bunch of artists, mostly friends, from my own network, and to choose from them some pieces that give a certain idea of this fragmented landscape, because of stories behind the pieces, or because of the use of certain mediums, or just because it gives me a great emotion and reminds me of a place or the image of a forgotten location. Of course, it’s only based on my own judgment, it is a partial choice, and I have the last word. It is also an egoist pleasure of mixing pieces that I love together with works from artists that I like, all the pieces are ideals to my eyes and criteria, that I would love to create myself. The idea is also to bring people from different generations, practices and primary work. (Ideale) Géographie is also this transversal project that makes me place my head out of the water, sometimes you need to create your own opportunities instead of waiting for something from others, (Idéale) Géographie is definitely far from any competition and independent. Next editions are still in my mind for 2016.

SC: Your DAL series consists of positive and negative shapes being either cut out or applied onto the surface of a grid using liquid resin. When viewing these works, it seems that you are destroying the idea of what is a canvas by using non-conventional materials in a non-conventional manner. When did these works begin, how did they evolve and what are you primarily exploring through these works?

OKT: I’m not a painter, even if sometimes I use to paint in a classical way. My last solo exhibition at Jeanroch Dard in Paris, called "En Flânant…", was composed of different series of pieces bringing this idea of a landscape that you can discover when drifting. The show was a composition of 3 series of pieces mixed together, found objects picked from the city, reactivation of metallic sculptures observed outside, and some "classical" paintings. To me these paintings were not really paintings, but mostly "objects", which added to another "object" that could create a story, and encourage a dialogue between each piece. These paintings were based on some details of walls seen in periphery, and after being reinterpreted become conventional abstract paintings. The audience was great and people loved these pieces, and asked for more and more. But I could not reduce my practice only to these paintings, and I didn’t want to. This DAL series and the other pieces in the same style have been created after that episode.

During a stay somewhere in the center of France, I found this abandoned house from the beginning of the century. The garden fence was ornamented with these strange cut shapes, I like to think that it was made by an artisan maybe a hundred years ago. Through the cut shapes it was easy to see the wild grass moving with the wind. It was beautiful and I reacted to it as a kind of moving painting. I took pictures of every shape and decided that this could be the basis of some new paintings. In a way, it was a reaction to these "classical" paintings from my last show. I wanted to create new paintings by ‘leaving’ instead of applying, the idea was to transcribe what I observed of this house on classical canvas by cutting the linen, without anything else, no frame, no color, only the cutting would figure the pattern of a painting. For a year, these paintings were everywhere in my studio, or at home, dealing with the other elements from my environment. A cut linen canvas leant on another non-cut canvas, or a cut canvas leant on a black and white stripped cutting mat. All these elements together gave opportunities to new combinations. In fact, it’s just another way of painting; it deals with these ideas of observation, what you see, or what you miss, fortuity and details. These forgotten details are the basis of my work; it’s not necessarily about big stories, or exotic destinations, but mostly about poetry of my everyday life.

SC: Is the grid structure present in your Paysage/Fragments works a literal reference to regular cutting mats? For I would assume the grid structure itself relates not only to the physical action of cutting, but simultaneously references the history of grid painting itself.

OKT: The grid refers to the history of painting, it is a pattern that you can easily understand, and it reminds you of something that you already know. It’s also a clear reference to the urban landscape, like a structure of a map for example. It is also an element that I just meet by fortuity, through these cutting matts; simple beautiful white lines on black background, most of the work was already done.

SC: Works such as Untitled (Poznan), 2013 and Untitled (Sartrouville), 2013 remind me of both protective gates commonly found on ground floor windows, as well as garden trellises for ivy or roses. I interpret these as being works that similarly explore this contradiction of hard/soft and organic/industrial. I could imagine these works supporting natural plant life and simultaneously protect the windows of one’s house from burglary…

OKT: These metallic pieces are reactivations of details seen in the street, in France or abroad. Outside they play the role of anti intruders elements, they are fences usually associated with windows. They have a protective role; in a way these elements are in the city to protect the ones that use them. They are not seen as beautiful or decorative, but mostly as protective elements from the roughness of the city. They are not art pieces, they are just objects used to keep one safe inside, from the outside. In fact even if the piece itself is beautiful, it’s related with something that could be rough or dangerous in a way. By sliding the piece from the outside to the inside, and by erasing the "figurative" elements related to this protective role (windows, wall etc.), and by extension to the roughness of the city, the piece become a painting or a sculpture when displayed in a white cube. These pieces work exactly as most of my production, there is what you see, and what it is.

SC: Can you tell me what you have upcoming in 2016?

OKT: I have different opportunities including group exhibitions and solo exhibitions, here in Paris and abroad, but in fact this is not only about an exhibition list, it’s more about my desires. After 6 months of pause time, I took time to see what was good and what was not, and I realized that I needed to reorganize my way of working and, definitely to go back to my basics.


(Ideale) Geographie

All images courtesy of Olivier Kosta-ThefaineJeanrochdard, Galerie Derouillon