The reason for using a material is the subject, but the reverse is also true.
Daniel Dewar (British) and Grégory Gicquel (French) met in 1997 at the Fine Arts School in Rennes and ever since then they have been developing a joint approach based on personal experimentation (often pushed to the extreme) with traditional sculpture and craft materials, applied to various themes reflecting their interests of the moment. They work with a small group of favorite techniques: tapestry, ceramics, direct carving in unfired clay, painting on silk and animated GIFs (digital photography).
The pair have won the 2012 Marcel Duchamp prize. Established in 2000 by the ADIAF (Association pour la Diffusion Internationale de l’Art Français) in partnership with the Centre Pompidou and FIAC, the Prix Marcel Duchamp is intended “to promote the international recognition of artists working in France, in the domain of visual and fine arts.” It’s broadly equivalent to the Turner Prize in the UK, with the winners receiving €35,000 and funding for an exhibition of their work at the Centre Pompidou.
Émilie Renard, in an excerpt from TEXT(E)S, writes of the dynamic duo (their exhibition schedule is daunting and physically ambitious) that they approach work with an evident simplicity, at least stylistically:
“Dewar & Gicquel practice an offshore style of figurative sculpture that may be more or less easy to identify, but whose relation to an external referent is beyond doubt. Looked at individually, their motifs seem precise and meaningful, in that they reference cultural niches or specialist activities. But when considered globally, on the scale of their work as a whole, the sheer length of the list prevents the formation of any kind of identity kit or narrative association.
“[They] try out various techniques in a pure amateur spirit, working with materials, usually in their raw form, to bring out regional (or even cantonal) sources of inspiration in sculptures that are essentially ex-situ. This hand-made, the traditional refuge of self-expression, is also a space for improvised slippage, with moments of exaltation giving free rein to a kind of heroic endurance and to the arbitrary detours of an untrammeled imagination…Their sculptures, fusing almost readymade images and almost unforeseen forms, are thus the very concrete synthesis of a position that straddles two options: an expressionist subjectivism based on an authentically Pop imaginary and a distanced figurative conceptualism.”
For the Orange Juice exhibition they chose to hand-sculpt industrial forms like sinks and toilets with a brutish clumsiness, emphasizing the hand to the point of parody. The works were fired in a wood kiln to bring the scalding presence of fire more evidently to the surface. This is departure from the same subject in a 2011 exhibition at Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris when they used the same forms in the assembley Sans Titre, but they employed actual industrial products fused together in the fire. Writing of these works in July 2011 in Artnews.org, Lili Reynaud-Dewar noted:
“Industrially produced ceramics, initially developed for the mass market, are violently re-fired in a kiln built for the experiment. Their mangled accumulation tells the reversed narrative of the transformation of clay and glaze through heat. Facing the entropic principles behind these abstract pieces, a series of rustic stoneware soup tureens, reminds us of the domestic use of ceramics. What if the future of these stoneware pots was for them to be fired again, dislocated, or even destroyed?”
The works in Orange Juice give her the answer, but their ceramic work can also be quite complex technically. Also, as the Palais de Tokyo newsletter points out, the conceptual references for the ceramic pieces are myriad:
“The motifs they use borrow as much from medieval recumbent effigies as from a form of abstraction developed by certain artists in the latter half of the 20th century. Accordingly, the series Mixed Ceramics (2011) bears resemblances to some of Arman’s archeological sculptures: In both cases, the texture of the found objects indicates a common interest in forms of sedimentation, thus producing a collusion of temporalities.”
Their clay work is made for their animated GIFs, short sequences showing the clay pieces being made and altered in outdoor setting. The work is never fired, but it is “fixed” at some point by camera, much as a kiln would do. The Palais described this clay-to-image process as basic animation with resemblances to pre-cinema photographic techniques:
“Following a binary rhythm, these GIFs animés [Animated GIFs] have opened up sculpture to a new temporal dimension; a throwback to the rudiments and malleability of the material, they can create movement, like the dance steps of a minuet. More than just videos, these animations are something like the mutation of a unsophisticated image into a sculpture.”
In a 2012 interview with Celine Piettre in ARTINFO France, Dewar and Gicquel discussed this body of work:
You made a series of very imposing clay statues in 2012. Can you tell us more about them?
They are large-scale clay models that we make outdoors and whose positions we change to produce animated GIF images in loops of one or two seconds. The subjects are put into motion. A steer, for example, an orgiastic scene, or a ballet movement.
Why do you like this interaction with the natural environment?
Gregory and I looked at photographs produced by the British Land Art movement in the 1980s. We want to produce this kind of document, these engaging images. It’s interesting to photograph sculptures because it’s a very reductive process.
You work not just with raw clay, but also with raw wood, ceramic, and granite. What is your interest in all these different materials?
We use clay because it’s easy to handle. You can find it everywhere. We use it the way other artists draw. The forms appear at very different speeds according to the material. So varying them often is especially interesting.
You use photography and video, but you are essentially sculptors. Why do you choose this medium more than any other?
For us, it’s not a medium in particular that makes it sculpture, but its involvement in a reality.
At the end of the day I look at their clay works, mainly bodies, somewhere between being born of clay and the opposite, returning to mother earth. This raises the specter of death as much as life as figures dry, crack, crumble and become common earth again.
One could argue that what they have created on Spike Island is their own version of the body farm, a forensic research facility where cadavers are “planted” to better understand the process of decomposition and decay. And when the artists change the position of a figure it’s difficult to shake the idea that a homicide detective would look at it as though the body was being posed by the killer.
Whether the comparison is helpful or macabrely misguided, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel have, in the process, imbued clay sculpture with a disturbingly primal power that has the musk of creation and its consequences.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above: Installation view from Orange Juice: Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (February 27 – May 20, 2013).