CONSTRUCTING A SELF THROUGH ART. Jimmy Robert is a visual artist who places the question of the body, racialised, queer, at the centre of his work. Born in 1975 in Guadeloupe, he grew up in France before studying at Goldsmiths College in London and the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. He currently lives and works in Berlin, teaching at the UdK, Universität der Künste. His photographs, videos, sculptures, texts and works on paper are usually presented in the form of installations that interweave these various media. He is also known for his performances, with which he questions the visibility of Afro-descendants in art history.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Can you tell me more about your recent exhibition at the Thomas Dane Gallery in Napoli?
It was titled Frammenti (Fragmented) because I was very much interested in how fragments of antique cultures remain and keep their colours or how, through time, the colours have disappeared. We have accepted the myth that the statues of ancient Greece and Rome were white, but in fact they were coloured. I went to the Archeological Museum of Napoli to look at sculptures which have remained coloured, mainly either black or in black marble, in particular two pieces called The Barbarians. Antique sculptures in Greece were coloured; the lips were coloured, the hair was coloured. We accepted them as white and the notion of purity and innocence emanated from the concept of whiteness of classical sculpture. At Pompeii I saw remnants of sculptures that still had lips and nails that were red. I was attracted to these images and wanted to interact with these sculptures somehow, by creating new images, new sculptures. At the moment I am looking at how images are becoming sculptures, and how in turn, through their apparent fragility, we end up creating other strong images or objects that seem fragile but have a certain weight despite the fact that they’re made of paper. How paper can become sculptural.
You use many different media in your art, and especially your body. Why do you use your body so much, and mix the performance with photography, installations, films, colours?
For me there’s always this question of representation. I’m always thinking that the art of representing is a failure, and how do I bridge the gap between this sense of failure that I think exists in representation and the making of objects, the making of films, the making of art. Another question is what my body is doing there when I bring my body in an institution or in an art gallery. Is it performing? What is it representing? What is it standing for? I’m using my body language because I’m also interested in movement and dance generally. How do we go from a text to an image, from an image to an object, from an object to a performance piece? There are various ways of translating an object into an image or an instruction becoming a series of movement. I’m interested in the various stages of translations and how things become what they are, through maybe also transformation.
“The notion of visibility goes beyond a representation or just some image, it is also an actual act of citizenship or of participation in society on different levels.“
Cruising, 2019 (still)
digital video, sound
Commissioned on the occasion of the exhibition Displacement and Togetherness (2019), organised by Salonul de proiecte, Bucharest, and presented at the Strombeek Cultural Center in the framework of the Europalia Festival 2019
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton.
A gallery or a theatre is a construct, so why not use the home of a famous architect and investigate this space, where normally you would not be allowed to touch anything because it’s a museum. Then, what happens if suddenly, as a performer, you’re allowed to touch the furniture and interact with it, and enter a different form of conversation with that space and the history of black bodies within that space or their invisibility? Performance within that space is like a chamber play, the audience is at the same level as the performers so they enter this very intimate relation. As performers we were initially playing the role of and dressed as security men, which is a bit of a stereotype, and then gradually we move from security men to intruders with hoodies circling around the property. I end up saying a text about Jimmie Daniels, the lover of Philip Johnson during the Harlem Renaissance time when it was fashionable to have an Afro-American lover. Knowing the history of Philip Johnson and his flirtation with Nazism, quickly things become quite complicated in terms of understanding such a complex character and his home. It is fascinating to think of this notion of intimacy when one knows that he was a gay man living openly in a glass house, having a private life that was actually quite public. For me, revealing this level of intimacy was what bringing the body into a different space means.
Why is the idea of to see and be seen part of your philosophy of art?
It comes back to the idea of representation, who is representing whom, and when someone is represented are they seen? Are they made visible because they’re appearing in a painting or depicted in a photograph? If they are visible in this context, does it mean they are also existing somehow? If one is visible, if one is seen and existing and is represented in society, can they vote, can they have a voice? This notion of visibility goes beyond a representation or just some image, it is also an actual act of citizenship or of participation in society on different levels. If I see myself represented in the world of art and film, and I am part of that world, and therefore I have a voice in it and may influence it and make it change.
You say that one of your mentors, one of your godmothers who inspire you, is the French feminist writer Marguerite Duras. What does your art have to do with feminism?
I have said that my art is influenced by some feminist practice. I don’t call myself a feminist, but Marguerite Duras distanced herself from feminism and was associated with it. I’m careful about these labels. Margaret Duras influenced me when I was at Goldsmiths art school in the nineties. I was drawn to dance and film making and a friend told me, “Oh, have you seen this film from Marguerite Duras, called India Song?” because I had made a video which formally was very similar in terms of the voice over the imagery and out of its time somehow. I was instantly drawn to her films, and then I started reading all her books and the texts around the books and all the other literary criticism and psychoanalysis. It was that moment in my life where I needed to be inspired, and for me what was happening in her writing was that she was constantly repeating the same story of love and trauma, but also her relation to her mother and to French colonial Indochine, now Vietnam. Coming from the French Caribbean I made some analogies. I was also intrigued with the relationship she had with Yann Andréa, a young gay man who was fascinated by her writing and developed himself a writing that was very similar.
You have had many exhibitions all over the world. How do you put together a work of art to exhibit in a gallery or museum?
It’s always a bit of research, bringing things together that I think are connected in one way or another. Sometimes I see it a bit like cooking, or like there’s something that is about the senses and intuitive, and there is also something that is research and more book based. I like to have books around that would inform me about whichever subject I am interested in at the time, then I start collecting information, images, references. Then it’s very much about also the intuitive feel to a space. How does that space feel when walking into it? How do I relate to it from a purely sensual, physical way, beside the more intellectual research? How do these things come together, or not, or resist? There is always a surprise, because if you only see a space through images and you don’t see it physically there’s a lot of information that ends up changing once you’re in that space, and you have to be adaptable. Having lived in many different countries also helps for this question of adaptation. How do you fit into a different culture, a different language around you, and find new ways? That question of adaptability is important.
“Who am I in this world, and what am I thinking, what are my senses, how am I relating to what I am seeing, and what is my position in relation to what I am seeing as an individual?”
How can one buy your work, this mixture of body and objects and film, and put it in a house or museum?
Maybe that’s more a question for the galleries to think about. I’m much more excited by ideas than products or how things can be commodified. What drives me is an idea. I hear something upsetting in the news, or something I feel I need to react to. Sometimes it takes a year or two to process this reaction, not to be too emotional about it. The last project I did on the Greek island of Anafi was to do with emotions that I had felt around the migration crisis around 2014/15 and the work only just happened in 2022. Very often latent ideas, concepts or questions are suspended and I feel that I cannot answer them on the spot, it takes time to process them. That’s also what I’m trying to tell my students. Sometimes they’re in a hurry of doing and making things, but the idea of process and time to reflect is very important to make things. The product is a reflection on some idea that has been lingering and that takes its final form in different ways; as an image, as a performance, as an object, as a film, a publication.
Do you build everything around the performance, the movement, the acting, the scene, the meaning?
There are some words sometimes, but in the context of the Glass House it was very much thinking of how the house itself becomes a cinematic frame for images. I was trying to find different textures and sensitivities to it as a way of entering it from a different perspective.
How would you position yourself in today’s art world?
This idea of positioning is a very personal experience, a subjective one that one has or has to ask oneself, questioning one’s own position while looking at and experiencing the world. Am I standing? Am I bending? Am I looking at this artwork from a physical perspective, but also from a performative one? If I’m facing the performer is the image accessible? Is it framed or unframed? Is it coming out of the frame? How is it reaching out into the physical world? So it’s not a positioning in terms of a contemporary movement, whatever that means, it’s more a personal positioning. Who am I in this world, and what am I thinking, what are my senses, how am I relating to what I am seeing, and what is my position in relation to what I am seeing as an individual? Every work for me is asking that question. It’s not necessarily answering it but it’s an attempt at trying to answer the question of belonging, having also been in different countries. I lived and studied in London for ten years, lived in Amsterdam, Brussels, Bucharest, for three years now Berlin, and am going back to Paris this July.
My partner got a job here so we moved from Brussels to Berlin, and I have some artist friends here. Berlin was a city of artists, at some point it was an easier place for us to move to, but it was past that wave already when I moved here. I don’t think trying to fit anywhere is a good idea either, but more constantly asking oneself the question, what do I want to belong to? And is that important? Does this matter?
Who are you, a displaced person?
I don’t know (laughs).
Any artist and their art is a reflection of who they are?
One has the liberty to construct the self, to build that up based on references or influences that one admires and is connected to. The question is how to build up this spiritual family of influences, other artists, other writers, other musicians. I’m a person who is busy finding myself, and that question will not be answered in a couple of sentences. I am who I am trying to construct as a self through the art that I make.
Jimmy Robert Imitation of Lives, 2017
Performance at Performa 17 – The Glass House, New Canaan CT, 3–5 November 2017 Performers: NIC Kay, Quentin Stuckey, and Jimmy Robert
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Performa, The Glass House, New Canaan, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Michael Biondo.
Jimmy Robert Installation view, Frammenti, Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples, 14 June–5 August 2022
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Roberto Salomone
Jimmy Robert Installation view, Tobacco Flower, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, 11 June–5 September 2021
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Patrick Jameson.
Jimmy Robert portrait
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Roberto Salomone.
Jimmy Robert Installation view, Plié, Leopold-Hoesch-Museum Düren 8 March–6 September 2020
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Peter Hinschläger
Jimmy Robert Water binds me to your name, 2022
Commissioned by Kerenidis Pepe Collection
‘Phenomenon 4’, Anafi, Greece. 27 June–11 July 2022
© Jimmy Robert. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photography: Alexandra Masmanidi
“We need to work together towards some goals or ideas, because there are many others that want to separate us and we should focus on what brings us together rather than what’s dividing us.”
Does the memory of the cultural landscape of the French territory of Guadeloupe where you were born remain in your roots and influence your work?
I left at four or five. I’ve only just started thinking about that consciously. In Glasgow I did an exhibition titled Tobacco Flower that was reflecting on the triangular slave trade and how Scotland got rich through this triangular trade of bodies. I asked my mother to read a poem and play some drums as a way to reach out and collaborate with her and think a little bit more directly about this heritage, because it’s there but I didn’t always tap into it or think of it actively through the art that I was making. Maybe because when I was younger there was more sense of resistance and wanting to not be directly or only associated with the Caribbean, speaking my own vocabulary rather than the vocabulary that was imposed on to me because I come from this island. Talking about Marguerite Duras, with distance now that’s a reason why I was interested in her work, because she was dealing with certain forms of displacement within it, or alienation if you take the words of Jacques Lacan. That question of who are you brings me back to this area of belonging, and having lived in London from the age of 19, being at Goldsmiths in the 90s, was as influential as being born in the Caribbean, because that was also a very important defining moment, Stuart Hall and being around this university atmosphere and discourse, seeing artists like Steve McQueen being represented, emerging. To think, okay, I can also do that, that’s possible. I could see it exactly. Who I am is made of all these different places, not just one place.
Is your art a patchwork?
It is in some ways. The only work I made in Bucharest after living there for three years brought some local elements because it was filmed in front of the parliament and the new orthodox church that’s being built there. I brought all these queer bodies that I was hanging out with there, people who were activist, organising gay pride, etc.. This film would not have been possible without all these previous experiences and contexts. Like I said before, something always takes time and the process is very important. Experience of some situations made me perhaps stronger, believe in some of my ideas, more confident and empowered me, just like Trio A The Mind is a Muscle from Yvonne Rainer allowed me to think of and create my own dance movements because hers are so idiosyncratic.
The way you move and use your hands when you speak is striking. Is the movement of the body one of your main ways of communicating?
Definitely. When I talk about the representation failing it is how maybe an image can never balance out. Like what is missing in a gesture, or compensate for what is missing in a gesture, or in a touch. The warmth – an image has no warmth, objects are cold, and to bridge the gap between representation, image making, object meeting and the human body, it’s hard to get that warmth again. Maybe that’s through movement, through bodies interacting with the subjects.
As an artist what do you want to say?
That changes with time, it’s not always the same. Maybe it’s a redefining point. It is not a denouncing point. It could be perceived as a critical point, but it’s more how to bring people together and make them realise that we are all here in this world together, and that’s the end. We need to work together towards some goals or ideas, because there are many others that want to separate us and we should focus on what brings us together rather than what’s dividing us.
Is your experience and your work a metaphor to explain that people should be together?
Artists should work together to make sure not to divide themselves, because there’s so many ways of politically now to be divided. It’s very dangerous, because who is then profiting or benefiting from this division? Through our differences, what is uniting us? The Caribbean has a melting pot of people from everywhere, from China, from India, White people, black people, people from Africa, the maroons who mixed with the native Indians who disappeared completely. That’s the new world of the mixed city.
To end in a light tone you mentioned your work is like cooking. If your cooking is a mixture of Creole, French, international cooking, does it form a kind of Nouvelle cuisine?
(laughs) Nouvelle cuisine! Yes, you could say that. Bringing Caribbean influences, French influences, but Northern European mostly because that’s where I am most of the time: Brussels, London, Amsterdam. Yes! It could be said.
You brought a little bit of spice with all that?
Exactly. That’s why we’re moving back to Paris in July. (laughs)
Thank you Jimmy Robert. Nice to meet you.
Jimmy Robert Portrait, Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Stigter van Doesburg and Tanya Leighton. Photo: Roman Goebel.
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