Why the Caribbean Triggers Julien Creuzet’s Imagination

Ahead of his first UK institutional exhibition at Camden Art Centre in London, the artist speaks with curator Cédric Fauq about how returning to Martinique after a decade made him rethink anti-colonial approaches.

A report by Cédric Fauq and Julien Creuzet for Frieze.

Cédric Fauq Last year, you were nominated for the Marcel Duchamp Prize, started teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, won the BMW Art Journey award, and prepared several exhibitions. 

Julien Creuzet Spending much of the year in lockdown meant I could take my time in the studio. It’s not very often that you have more than six months to focus purely on ideas. It was an opportunity to experience a slower pace – something I know other artists also crave – which made me wonder why we don’t have better working conditions and why we usually have fewer than three months to put a show together. 

CF What about your teaching experiences? 

JC Teaching is something I never thought I wanted to do, but I changed my mind when I went back to Martinique in July as part of the BMW Art Journey. I hadn’t been to the island in ten years and I had the opportunity to spend two days at the Beaux-Arts de Fort-de-France (Campus Caraïbéen des Arts). Working with these young people, I felt for the first time that I wanted to pass down what I had learned and to share my experiences.

One question, in particular, dominates the thinking of these young artists: should Martinique – which belongs to the French state – look to France culturally and artistically, which is thousands of kilometres away, or to the English and Spanish speaking Caribbean? This question is rooted in geography rather than the region’s history and government. With its potential for both isolation and dialogue,
I find Martinique fascinating in this regard.

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Julien Creuzet, ‘Backup, Blackness or Négritude …’, 2021, exhibition view, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

CF It’s interesting to think that, despite the language barrier, the people of the French Caribbean could be closer culturally to someone in Mexico City or Bogotá. How did you feel returning to Martinique after such a long time?

JC Going back reaffirmed the sense that my history – with a capital H – and my subconscious are rooted in that place. Despite it being a decade since I last set foot there, within five minutes I didn’t need to use my GPS to get around. It was interesting to witness how language is evolving there and to see how anti-colonialist women activists challenge the status quo. 

CF In 2020, militants toppled a series of colonial statues in Martinique – including a monument to Empress Joséphine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte I – as a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s vow that France won’t take down statues of colonial-era figures as has happened in some other countries in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

JC It’s a strong gesture to destroy a statue and, while I’m by no means questioning that action, it is also an erasure. I asked someone who worked near to where Joséphine’s statue used to be located whether he knew about its conflicted history, and he replied that he wasn’t aware of it and felt his country’s past had been kept hidden from him. You and I are privileged to have the space to think about these questions: many people have more immediate needs to meet that preclude them reflecting on the presence of a statue or how history is narrated. The co-existence of these different realities is interesting to me. I don’t want to admonish or point fingers: I want to manipulate the various layers of history. An exhibition can never tell the whole truth; it hides secrets that shouldn’t be spoken out loud because they are too provocative or too intimate.

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Julien Creuzet, ‘Dim lights of distant stars LEDs of warning lights indulge …’, 2019, exhibition view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

CF At the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, you’re overseeing the sculpture studio. But your practice isn’t limited to sculpture, even if it is central to your work. For instance, your installation Les Lumières affaiblies des étoiles lointaines les lumières à LED des gyrophares se complaisent … [Dim lights of distant stars LEDs of warning lights indulge, 2019], presented at Palais de Tokyo, comprises sculpture, digital prints and sound.

JC I don’t believe in specialisation, regardless of the craft. I find it hard to understand those who think we should only focus on one medium or define our work as one thing or another: that way of thinking is increasingly obsolete. I believe in the permeation of all disciplines to enable us to expand our repertoire of forms. You can’t revolutionise stone-cutting with just your hands, for instance, but a 3D printer can bring a profound new dimension to sculpture. We can take up an art form and manifest a kind of virtuosity in doing so but, ultimately, we will end up falling within the realm of repetition, displaying a nostalgia for the craft itself, and that doesn’t interest me very much. 

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Julien Creuzet, my carcassed body / it breaks breaks breaks / my body sugar cane …, 2019, video stills.

CF That makes me think of the way you use and play with VR in your work, like for affectionate name, a peptide hormone and neuropeptide [2019]. How did you bring these ideas into the sculpture studio at the École des Beaux-Arts?

JC I think my approach was quite iconoclastic, eschewing an emphasis on technique and materials in favour of an appreciation for the exhibition as a whole, with its potential for articulating depth. This gives me a framework within which to engage with these young artists, to think with them about what they are trying to create. I’m interested in questioning a form and understanding what that boundary-pushing implies and the story it tells.

CF How did you approach your exhibition at London’s Camden Art Centre, which opens this month? 

JC What interests me about showing my work in London is not only my relationship to the city but, more broadly, to the Anglo-Caribbean diaspora. Having grown up close to Saint Lucia and Dominica – islands you can literally see from Martinique, whose people share the same Francophone-Créole language, even though they are also English-speaking – I took my own relationship with that diaspora as the starting point for a new series.

I’m drawn to all these small countries that gained their independence in the 1960s and ’70s but are still part of the Commonwealth. Most of their economies now centre around tourism, whereas Martinique and Guadeloupe benefit from the euro and have a higher living wage. With less of a need to generate an economy from tourism, Martinique is totally independent, enabling its residents to decide how they wish to make a living.

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Julien Creuzet, red Devil, / swinging / imp of the earth / reflection lost in the mirror / you got us …, 2019, metal, plastic, fabric, string, electrical wiring, mesh and worker’s glove, 
280 × 160 × 78 cm.

CF What kinds of connections can be drawn between these regions?

JC These are places that share the same music, the same food. I’m interested in how music is shaped and transformed by the history of the region and how colonialism invented different musical styles. There’s also a nexus of beautiful symbols in the Caribbean that triggers my imagination. In my show at Camden Art Centre, I try to think about how this is drawn out while also asking some very specific questions: what is the history behind the flag? How did an oil barrel become a musical instrument? How did Rastafarianism evolve into a global, counter-cultural movement embraced by young people in one place in time? 

CF I’ve been to your studio several times, most recently ahead of your 2020 show ‘cloud cloudy glory doodles on the leaves pages, memory slowly the story redness sadness bloody redness on the skin’ at Document in Chicago. Being in your studio always gives me the feeling of being in a nest. Maybe because it’s both your workplace and your home. How does that proximity to your work affect you?

JC The studio is always changing. It’s empty right now. When someone comes, I don’t want them to see behind the scenes – the housekeeping – I want things to be neat and tidy. I like to observe how people react and interact and move within the space. My studio is sometimes truly a working space, which creates a more difficult environment, but I still live in it. It’s important for me to be close to my studio but I also want to share my life with others without constantly exposing them to my work and my thought processes.

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Julien Creuzet, People remain asleep during bad dreams (detail), 2020, plastic, wood and wire, dimensions variable. 

CF Because of your ties with the Caribbean, a lot of people view your works as objects that have come from the sea and washed ashore. To me, they are not that easy to define: I tend to think of them as elements that have fallen from space. 

JC People sometimes choose to close off their imaginations: if they only want to see the sea or plastic scraps, they will. For me, the work is very urban: it’s a product of the inner city and the sensations it gives off. Ultimately, I create forms that resist being defined. 

I’m interested in thinking beyond the institutional context in which my art is shown. Artists from the French Black diaspora are often expected to create work that aims to be the perfect synthesis of French universalism. I often think of Frantz Fanon’s words in The Wretched of the Earth [1961]: ‘No sooner have I opened my eyes that colonialism is foisted on me and I’m already drowned in universalism.’ My sculptures aim to create a space where we can ask ourselves why, even when an artist tries to be conceptual, they struggle to break free from the issue of how their identity lives at the heart of their work. 

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Julien Creuzet, my carcassed body / it breaks breaks breaks / my body sugar cane …, 2019, video stills.

CF The trinity of language, poetry and music has been a part of your work for a long time. I remember being very touched by this interplay when attending your event series ‘Les Indes Galantes, toutes nos colonies, un opéra-archipel’ [The Amorous Indies, all our colonies, an archipelago-opera] as part of the group exhibition ‘Scroll Infini’ [Infinite Scroll] at La Galerie in Noisy-Le-Sec back in 2015. In these events, you considered the different components of an opera – libretto, dancing, costumes and staging – and collaborated with a philosopher, a dancer and a sociologist to create performances, films and sculptures.

JC I believe music is the means by which things can slowly start to move away from institutional boundaries to reach a wider audience. Museums, because of what they represent, don’t have access to the type of audience I want to address. For me, it’s not simply a matter of creating art that institutions want to show because, if they are happy to display it, then it most likely already satisfies the criteria of eligibility that, in turn, confirm the work’s appeal and its desirability in terms of the art market.

We also need to be more considerate of an artist’s emotional state during and after an exhibition. How can artists be better supported when galleries and institutions are beholden to the next novelty and to the frenzied pace of the market?

CF You have fostered an extensive creative community through your work. Why is a sense of collaboration important to you?

JC My first solo show, ‘Standard and Poor’s: le Nouveau Monde’ [Standard and Poor’s: The New World] at Galerie Dohyang Lee in Paris in 2013, is a good example. I had the idea to invite five or six artists to collaborate with me on the exhibition but to bill it as a solo show to prove that having multiple creative minds working together doesn’t have to be a hindrance. In general, however, I’m less interested in collaborating with other visual artists than with choreographers, musicians, designers and thinkers to generate an artwork that’s more akin to a film, a play or an album. I find that very enriching.

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