Victoire, how did you feel about leaving New York City in order to get away from the effects of the corona virus?
At first I did not want to leave. I wanted to stay in a city that I love, near the people that I love. But day by the day, the tension was becoming more and more pressing and the simplest things, like buying groceries or going to the pharmacy, felt dangerous so we did not leave the house. I was worried that New York would go in total lockdown like other cities in Europe. I had the opportunity to go to Maine, to stay with family there. When I left New York City at the end of March, there was nobody on the road. There were just many Amazon and Wholefood trucks coming into the city. Now it’s an absolute nightmare, the city has been hit very badly, we were so unprepared. When I read the news it’s impossible not to cry. There are refrigerated trucks parked outside of hospitals serving as morgues. It’s horrible.
You had just opened your first solo exhibition, ‘Stream of Consciousness’ at the Yoshii Gallery. Had it been well received?
The opening on February 26 was a big success. There were all my friends and many people from the art world. It feels like it was a world away. Now the reality is so different. I look at photos of the opening on my phone and it doesn’t even look real. I think of my show, in this beautiful gallery and no one can go see it. I may have a real show in a real space but visitors can only go in imagination. I feel very sad about it.
How would you describe your exhibition?
‘The Glass River’ is a river bed, made of over 100 stones that I sculpted in glass. Each one I sculpt in the hot shop with an assistant, and the glass is molten, liquid, malleable, and I give it different shapes, make each rock, pebble and stone one by one. The transparent glass river is bathed in sunlight, the glass chain is casting a soft shadow… And now no one can witness it.
“I may have a real show in a real space but visitors can only go in imagination.”
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Ice Blocks, 2019 (in the artist’s studio)
Victoire, how do you feel about the city not being prepared for this pandemia?
The USA could have invested a billion or two in medical research, rather than spending trillions trying to bail out this economy. Maybe one reason it hasn’t been done is because people couldn’t believe it. It sounded like a horror movie, like a sci-fi movie. Now it’s our reality. Millions of people have lost their jobs.
Even the Pope said it came as something unpredictable.
Yes, of course. But the reason we have governments is to organize public life and it can’t just be unpredictable.
As you are forced to stay in quarantine in Maine, what are you doing?
People are telling me to make something beautiful, and I honestly don’t even know where to begin because it’s so dark. I left New York in a hurry. It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to make work, but I’ll get back into it. The good thing is I can draw anywhere and I’m teaching drawing online. At first I thought it was impossible, but actually it’s working pretty well. I have a lot of resistance against online teaching. It can never replace in person teaching. But at the moment, it’s all we have. I’ve written a syllabus for drawing in a time of confinement and each week I’m giving my students a specific subject and task.
How is the mood of your students?
They’re very worried. It’s a situation that no one has ever seen before. Some of them are alone, others went back home and have to take care of their younger siblings when the parents are working from home. Some of them have been sick. Some of them have had sick family members. They’re scared, but most of them see drawing as a sort of meditative activity, something they can do for a few hours that gives them a little bit of solace.
How will you start to make work again, even if the world is collapsing around you?
I’ll start where I can and that will be with simple things. As an artist, when there is such a large looming crisis surrounding you, you start with what’s closest to you. You start with your interior life and then the immediacy; the immediate objects, the immediate nature, the immediate people around you. As an example, I love the work of Giorgio Morandi. I’m very drawn to his very careful observation of simple objects. There is a humility, a modesty there, as he is doing the same task over and over again and turning them into these almost abstract shapes with his amazing palette.
Can you also concentrate on reading at the moment?
A little bit, yes. I love reading, and I’ve always had a very visual relationship to reading. I create worlds in my mind of the characters, how they would look or what the landscapes would be like. War and Peace is my favourite book. I was just reading the passage where the Napoleonic armies are invading Moscow and families are leaving Moscow, and Moscow is an empty city and then it’s ravaged, devastated by a fire. I was reading that when I was in New York, right before I had to leave, and suddenly it took on another meaning for me. Works of art do that when you’re in times of crisis. I’ve been reading some poems by Anne Carson and Adrienne Rich, they take on a new life right now.
Victoire, your father Christian Bourgois was a famous publisher. Did you meet some very prominent writers?
I had a wonderful relationship with Toni Morrison, we were like family. The last time I saw her, she told me: “You need to get a haircut and have babies.” I met many famous writers as a child, but I had no idea what famous meant, who they were and what their work was. I just encountered them as people. My parents published Susan Sontag, she was very kind to me and would ask me what I was reading and we talked about children’s books. I remember Antonio Tabucchi, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Martin Suter, and people like Linda Lé, Hanif Kureishi, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Kirsty Gunn. Kirsty’s novel ‘Rain’ is the first adult book I read, I must have been 10 years old. It’s a very sad book, about loss, but it’s a really beautiful book and I read it in one sitting. We were very lucky that my parents published Alfred Brendel, the pianist who is also in his own right a poet. I became very close to him. He played his last concert in Paris in honour of my father’s memory.
Do you remember anything particular of the writers that you met?
My brother has always been very close to Jim Harrison. The two of them are bons vivants and like sharing good meals. I had a great meal with Jim in Lyons when I was studying there and he came to the film festival. We went for lunch at Aux Trois Maries, a typical Lyonnaise restaurant. He would always sing. I remember being in a taxi with Jim in Paris and him singing Moon River.
Why didn’t you work in publishing with your parents?
My father passed away when I was twenty. His are very big shoes to fill, and my calling was different. As I told you, I love books and I love writers and I love spending time with them, but I needed to find a way for myself to be creative and to have my own creative voice. It took me a few years to find what that would be.
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Glass River, 2018 – 2020
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Glass River (detail)
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Glass River, 2018 – 2020
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Rain Chain, 2019
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Rain Chain (detail)
VICTOIRE BOURGOIS: Bird’s Nest, 2020
“I just miss home.”
Victoire Bourgois, you have lived in Paris, Oxford and London. Why did you choose New York?
New York is the most creative place one can dream to be in, there is this amazing energy that is only in New York. There are so many artists and young galleries and very established galleries, great museums, and there’s so much to see and learn. New York in itself is an art school.
How do you feel now that you cannot be there?
It’s a very strange time to be so cut off. But as an artist, you spend a lot of time alone in your studio and you have to initiate all your ideas, there’s no one who is telling you what to do. It has to come from you. And so artists should be prepared for this time of isolation. But the fear is too much. The anxiety is too much, so we need to process that.
In this time of confinement do you watch movies?
For the first three weeks, I was too nervous to watch movies, but then I watched Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. It’s such a brilliant adaptation, the actors are terrific, the costumes are beautiful. The scene where Saoirse Ronan and Thimothée Chalamet dance on the porch is the first thing that made me smile in weeks.
Do you miss Europe and Paris, your hometown?
Very much so. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go to Paris again. The first thing I want to do when this is over is to go find my mother in Paris. Yes. I miss Paris, I miss everywhere. I miss New York just as I miss Paris. I just miss home. I don’t know when I will go back to New York. As soon as possible. As soon as it’s OK to go back.
Many people say things can never be the same again. What do you think?
I think of what my Jewish grandparents went through during the war, and then in the 1950s they got married, they had children and they worked so hard at cancelling what had happened to them, not talking about it, and obviously still feeling and thinking about it at every moment. They managed to make a life that was as normal as possible. If they could do it, we can do it.
Photos courtesy of the Yoshii Gallery and Victoire Bourgois.
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