On the occasion of ‘Bestiarium’, an exhibition on view at Almine Rech Brussels from June 9th to July 30th 2022, Barbara de Coninck questioned Johan Creten about his art.
BARBARA DE CONINCK: Dear Johan, thank you for joining us tonight in Brussels. We will do our best to stay lighthearted. Here at Almine Rech, we are truly delighted to discover your new show, especially your sculptural ensemble of 17 animal figures titled ‘Bestiarium’. ‘Bestiarium’ comes to us from the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry, aka the Piscine de Roubaix, where the show was a resounding success. At the Piscine, the display in the contemporary section of the museum was much more compact than here, perhaps creating the slightly more violent impression of a horde of beasts. It so happens that the space hosting your work at Almine Rech Brussels is larger, which leaves more room between the pieces and the viewer. In Brussels, the ‘Bestiarium’ narrative is also slightly different, with the inclusion of mirrors—golden mirrors, silver mirrors—and a variety of Observation Points. Here, the monumentality of your sculptures is even more dazzling. So let’s not be taken too quickly by Charles Baudelaire’s “poor Belgium.” In truth, I feel a little uncomfortable discussing your work with you: discretion is a well-known trait of your personality. You prefer to be silent about the sources of your work and its potential interpretation. You would rather leave it up to us to find our place among your sculptures, and rightly so. Visual artists speak through their work, everything else is mere twitter. We will however try to discuss your forms, because their representation is like a challenge thrown to us. Initially, the contents of the first room are mysterious, almost enigmatic: right away, you nail us to the floor, you place us in front of three mirrors—one small, gilt mirror—freshly produced abstract reliefs. In addition, you surround us with six Observation Points: enamelled glazed stoneware circus stools, three Cirques Hauts and three Cirques Bas. And in the middle of the room sits the first element of the ‘Bestiarium’, The Grasshopper. Why open the ‘Bestiarium’ with The Grasshopper?
JOHAN CRETEN: The exhibition opens with a mirror. The Almine Rech gallery, for those unfamiliar with it, is an extremely strange space: you enter from the street, through a small bookshop, and then climb upstairs. You reach the top and are faced with a wall as you enter. We thought about how to greet the visitor: the first thing you see is a gilt enamelled stoneware piece that functions like a mirror in which you see your reflection, but not necessarily your face. After that comes the first small room, with this creature in the middle. I really don’t want to explain it all. I think you have to feel things. There are these Observation Points reminiscent of the circus, which you can sit on, and in the middle is a grasshopper. That’s the first element. We may find out later why they are there.
BDC: Absolutely. The Observation Points, Cirque Haut and Cirque Bas, mean that we too are on display. That would be my answer. You present these pedestals to us like so many seats and podiums to climb onto. Inescapably, inexorably, we become part of the exhibition; we are turned into stakeholders of the circus, of the bestiary. We are summoned, almost coerced to put ourselves on display. To climb the stool as the clown, the elephant or the monkey would.
JC: Originally, I made the Observation Points you see here for a show in a museum in the South of France called CRAC (the Regional Centre for Contemporary Art in Sète); I noticed that in art galleries, when there is a place to sit, you are much more involved in the show than if you simply walk past, especially now that people consume exhibitions like Instagram posts. They look at our exhibits for just a couple of seconds, want us to explain why a room works in such and such a way, things must go quickly. I realized that when I add an object you can sit on, people spend a lot more time in my shows, and that I could also make a statement by using something other than a chair: an object which, through its form, can tell a story. I won’t go into a full explanation, but the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has just acquired a set of ten Observation Points for their Dufy room: they understand that these pieces are about community, relationships, observation… it’s no different with these new ones.
BDC: If I’m not mistaken, these Cirque Haut and Cirque Bas are a first, at least in Europe?
JC: They were in the Roubaix show, where I confronted them with a piece I made 22 years ago with groups of young people in the Paris suburbs, in Aulnay-sous-Bois, as part of an intervention for the town’s social housing. C’est dans ma nature, as you wrote, was a very complex work: it also expresses a vision of society. Again, it’s too complicated a piece to explain here, but it’s about “do the walls move? Are we stuck where we come from? Because we are from the suburbs? And you: are you a bee or a wasp? Are you a flea or a spider?” The Observation Points were part of that story. It’s a little hard to understand just now, but… now I’ve lost track of the question.
BDC: We were discussing pedestals…
It is a chessboard. In the first room, the viewer becomes a kind of circus animal.
JC: They’re not actually pedestals: they’re reminiscent of pedestals, like pedestals; the Cirques are also like pedestals. Very colorful, very joyful ones. They remind us of objects in classical sculpture, but also of objects in ports—in de haven is dit een meerpaal—a bollard ‘Bitte d’amarrage’. So the Belgian joke about sitting on a mooring bollard, which is a symbol of masculinity and stability, is important to me: when there is only one, you observe; when there are two, you dialogue; when there are three, you invite a stranger; and when there are four, you have a group. In my installation at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, these configurations are always in motion. Suddenly, you shift from an item, between design and sculpture, and fall into a debate about the nature of society. They are also like pawns moving.
BDC: Pawns on a chessboard, in a sense.
JC: It is a chessboard. In the first room, the viewer becomes a kind of circus animal. Aren’t you, all of you, all of us, actually just circus animals? Aren’t we all being manipulated? Aren’t we all part of a circus we place ourselves in? Here, I am a clown: I get up on stage, I put on a show for Instagram. Are we all completely addicted to this machine? How can I express that in the form of a small seat for a show, without saying so much? For me, it’s a bit like that in the first room. And alongside is this big animal: The Grasshopper is a form, there in front of us, which no one dares to describe.
BDC: Except me!
JC: Which is scary!
BDC: I’ll try to tone it down… The Grasshopper is certainly there. Thank you for clarifying, because as I said, you are very discreet. All your work has delightful qualities of discretion, character, an introverted feel, but really invites reflection, meditation; it never yields easy, immediate, or simplistic answers.
JC: It’s a question of freedom. Today’s artists have become hyper-professionals. You used the word produce: I have told gallery assistants a million times that they mustn’t talk about producing an exhibition. I’m not naïve: I never bite the hand that feeds me, I love business, I love doing exhibitions, selling works, but I always strive not to produce a product. It may become a product, but I avoid saying it’s a production. I try to make all of my works unique works of art. You say they are discreet, that they don’t necessarily yield much, that they have multiple layers… they may look a little naive, but underneath there are lots of layers—of discretion, or secrets that are within.
BDC: And the shape of the mirrors, here at Almine Rech, is rounded. They are literally the same shape as the bases of the ‘Bestiarium’’s animal sculptures. I woke up one night with a revelation: I found the rounded shape of these mirrors fascinating—they reminded me of something, but I couldn’t pinpoint what precisely. Unless I’m mistaken, I think there’s a relationship between the base of the bestiary elements and the mirrors shown in Brussels.
JC: Correct: it’s actually all about bases. These are pedestals; the plates are pedestals too, but also tell stories about painting, art history, etc. In a sense, these are coded pieces.
BDC: We’ll come back to that, and the idea of the landscape. But to me, the shape of the mirror, which literally takes on the same shape as some bestiary sculpture bases, expresses a fairly clear message: Bestiarium here, Bestiarium there, Bestiarium everywhere. Bestiarium within. The gold and silver mirrors send back gold and silver reflections. The Observation Points—Cirque Haut and Cirque Bas—flaunt colors that are not just cheerful but extremely cheerful. Pink, saffron yellow, purple, a green reminiscent of the golden age of imagination. Games, childhood… in the first room, the atmosphere is completely non-confrontational. Heavenly. I see The Grasshopper itself as a highly erotic object. Just look at the colors, the double pair of spread legs. I see it as sexual to the extreme.
JC: You see that everywhere, Barbara!
BDC: Yes, perhaps. I see this as a polyamorous work; I feel like I am witnessing an orgy of nature. The Grasshopper might be a Dionysian reminiscence, with the ornamental pattern of branches running along the legs like a distant reminder of Bacchic ivy.
JC: You could say that this sexual grasshopper jumping and moving also expresses the idea of freedom. The freedom it has, in the middle of this room, in itself says a lot. Ultimately, you could say that it is also an image of vitality. You said it was sexual… Like nature. So essentially, you have this massive penis in the middle of the show. Had you noticed yet? Okay. So for me, there is this sense of freedom. Did you not see it as such?
BDC: Oh but yes, I did see it like that. I wrote that to me, The Grasshopper works in two ways: seen one way, you might be facing a phallus; seen from another vantage point, it could be a behind. I was wondering if this sculpture somehow suggests that eroticism and desire are what structure the world? That eroticism makes the world go round?
JC: It’s your decision: is it a stranger within the scene, or is it in opposition? Like when you say this is not a political pamphlet saying “That’s just the way it is”: it’s much more vague. You can also see the grasshopper as expressing death. On the one hand you have sex, and on the other the idea of something fading away, like death. It might also be the actual way the pieces are glazed that says something else. In The Grasshopper, for instance, the enamel is washed out, like a watercolor. And there are other sculptures that look painted, on which the brush strokes are visible. And some where the drawing is formed when the glaze is fired.
On the one hand you have sex, and on the other the idea of something fading away, like death. It might also be the actual way the pieces are glazed that says something else.
BDC: And in the next two rooms, dear Johan, you no longer invite us to show off, but instead to sit on Observation Points that are more neutral than the Cirques Hauts and Cirques Bas, especially with their colors here at Almine Rech Brussels. And that’s what we willingly do. We’re immediately stared at: your animal sculptures observe us, challenge us. The Dead Fly, The Dead Spider, The Hare, The Sheep Called Bedotte are watching. In The Art Newspaper of May 1, 2022, Flora Rosset notes that you observe animality through the prism of politics, humanism, and monumentality. Elsewhere, your work is said to revisit mythological fantasies and the world of La Fontaine’s fables. An exploration of the porous frontiers of animality. Before we engage in an entirely subjective dance around the contents of the two rooms, could you say a little more about the Bestiarium’s sources? Not the classic Bestiarium, not the medieval bestiary as a model, but if I am not mistaken, it’s more from the TV programme Fabeltjeskrant?
JC: There are several answers to this long question: first, I’ve never seen myself as an animalier. I’m not an animal artist: I don’t know if a fly has four or six legs, I don’t have a clue what a dog looks like up close. The name Bestiarium itself comes from Colin Lemoine, a young poet, writer and museum curator who has written extensively about my work: we have published several books together. He also worked on this book, for which he asked eight writers to contribute texts. We were looking at this work I had been doing for three years, in secret, not showing it to anyone. I had promised Almine Rech a full-scale exhibition, but I hadn’t drawn up a programme. Unlike students at the Beaux-Arts, where you have to write a programme about what you intend to do. I just thought I would do things freely. We were in the middle of Covid at the time, in a situation where we felt big changes afoot in the world. So I said “that’s what I’m going to do,” and in our discussions it was Colin Lemoine who suggested the title. The word has a lot of links with history, with literature… you can put a lot into it.
BDC: So the title ‘Bestiarium’ is a curator’s title, so to speak. The titles of the works, however, are artist’s titles.
JC: Yes, and for once they’re quite simple. I often use very poetic, very long titles, almost poems… Why does Strange Fruit always look so sweet? and so on. Here, they are very brief, and I actually think their brevity says a lot. I like the power of short titles—The Dirty Dog, The Dead Dog, The Dead Fly…
JC: About death, The Dead Dog… 25 years ago, there was AIDS: so many young artists around us were dying almost overnight. This really touched me… the Odore di Femmina that people think of as very alluring, very beautiful pieces, deal with death. This series, made in the midst of Covid, also addresses fundamental issues: all of a sudden we were alone in a room, or with 2 or 3 people, not knowing what was going on. Maybe someone 30 years from now will feel this when they look at The Dead Fly. Even my little dog here, who’s like a landscape to me, also says things about all that.
BDC: To me, The Hare also: its muzzle is bound, perhaps with a kind of facemask. This is all highly subjective, of course.
JC: In most of these stories, you may also find elements of religious symbolism and the like. I would call them intricate pieces.
BDC: That’s what makes them truly interesting, aside from their outstanding beauty. The pieces are exquisitely beautiful. I think you have once more outdone yourself with this series.
JC: It’s important to explain that for the past 10 years or so, I have been working with Struktuur 68 in The Hague, with Jacques, Theo, and Rob. Jacques must be 75 or 80 years old, the other two 65, and they say “Johan, with you, we do things we had never done in the 50 years our workshop has existed. You always try to push us.” These men helped me, they deserve a tribute. When I ask Theo for enamel that looks like lava, that explodes and crumbles, he says “but Johan, my glazing has always been perfect, no one has ever asked me for enamel like that.” And so we conduct 50 test runs over 3 months to find the right one, and all of a sudden it happens. For instance, the glaze on the dog’s back looks like seaweed. It’s a mix of help, intuition, my own madness, and a little luck. My 30 years of work with clay have yielded these pieces. It’s true that to me, beauty is essential. That’s why I went into ceramics back in the 80s, because it offered me color and beauty in a different way.
BDC: The colors are truly extraordinary; we could talk about them for ages, but we won’t. Back to The Dead Fly, a masterpiece that is about to enter the collections of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, is it not?
JC: It’s more or less official… touch wood, but normally three large sculptures are to enter the Museum’s collections. They had already acquired an installation of Observation Points for the Dufy room, so it’s super important. I’m also happy because when a piece like this enters a public collection, I know I’ll have the option to drop by and say hello. I also like it when my works go to private collections, but then you only get to see them 20 years later. So this makes me happy, although it’s a French museum: as a Flemish and Belgian artist, I’d like to see my work in Flanders, in a Belgian museum, but since I’m not yet 80, I know it will take a little more patience. The time will come! Anyhow, it’s wonderful to see these works go to museums. That doesn’t mean other pieces aren’t sold to private collections, where I know that people…
BDC: …Will cherish them, live with them every day. I too was really happy with the news about The Dead Fly’s future. For one, because I hope to have access to the piece more easily, and also because it will be described, interpreted, contextualized, and featured in major exhibitions alongside works that perhaps have not even been created yet. It will have a glorious future… it’s an outstanding piece, because at first sight you are under the impression you’re looking at a bronze. I don’t even know how that’s possible…
JC: That’s just the inner workings. When I make large bronze sculptures, I like it when people say “Oh, we loved your ceramics”—but they were all bronzes. And vice versa. I enjoy putting people on the wrong footing. I also like looking at something and realizing six months later that it’s completely different. Enamel creates beauty that can suggest many other things.
BDC: That’s the secret of artists: they possess the beautiful “lie” of imagination. As for Belgium, Johan, you are of course present in many private collections, but let’s not forget the collections of the Flemish community, like Pliny’s Sorrow in front of Antwerp’s Red Star Line museum. And under the church steeple in Mechelen, The Great Vivisector, an absolutely extraordinary bronze which is gradually finding its place in the popular and “borghese” identity of the city and community. If I were a museum curator I would buy everything, that’s all I can say. Let’s go back to The Dead Fly if you don’t mind. It is a strange dead fly with four limbs: as we can see, two of them are clearly human. They look like human legs. And two lavish silver wings spread around its body like a bride’s veil. It takes on the appearance of bronze: are we looking at Johan Creten’s Olympia? Is The Dead Fly a depiction of repose after lovemaking? Who knows? Chi lo dirà? After the prism of politics, mentioned earlier, let’s turn to The Sheep Called Bedotte. The piece is rich in contrasts, with the beast’s snout and shiny base in stark opposition to the matte pink effects and golden touches on the skin. If we were to touch on the politics of religion, just a simple observation: in its title alone, Johan Creten’s sheep departs from Van Eyck’s mystic lamb. Not to mention that Bedotte is Dutch for deceived. So dear Johan, in a conversation with psychoanalyst Guidino Gosselin—eight years ago, admittedly — you talked about religious Flanders. You said that the church and religion had permeated your youth. “Their influence in my work is as crucial as the rejection they otherwise triggered in me. Many of my sculptures feature religious images: the beehive or the fish, the vine or the rooster. In Rome, the imagery of the hive and the bee is pervasive; it gave rise to many works evoking ideas of community, of society. There is also the image of Christ in my work.” In ‘Bestiarium’, not only do we discover a piece reminiscent—albeit remotely—of Van Eyck’s mystic lamb, but we also see a pelican recalling Christ’s gift of self. The female pelican feeds her young with her own flesh; pelican breast, so to speak, is offered to the nestlings. And so it’s the idea of the gift of Christ, the sacrifice of the Lord for the redemption of Christendom. The pelican has a little hole in its breast. I also read that the sheep Bedotte’s skin is reminiscent of social housing. Does The Sheep Called Bedotte suggest anything about society?
JC: That’s why at the museum in Roubaix, I showed ‘C’est dans ma nature’, a piece made 20 years ago in the Paris suburbs. It had a lot of pictures of insects. Remember: what are you, are you a flea? Are you a wasp, a grasshopper, what are you? So indeed, there’s the idea that animals can also evoke societal issues: it’s clearly not trivial to make a sheep whose fleece can become architecture. Again, I think that without going into long explanations—not what we’re here for—we have to think of the works… When I told my mother (I must have been 18) one of the greatest secrets I had ever shared, it was an extremely painful moment. My mother said “but Johan, I’ve been looking at your work for 10 years now, I know every-thing”. The thing is, the works explain things before I’m even ready to talk about them. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? I think a lot of these works say things that I myself don’t know yet. I often experienced that with my earlier pieces, in my own work… I would say to myself “you didn’t even realize the inner battles you were fighting and that you expressed”. It’s a pretty conventional way for artworks to convey things… I don’t know.
BDC: Isn’t it painful for you to see them go? Have you kept one somewhere that we don’t know about, that there’s no trace of in the catalogue?
I think maybe we too, as artists, need to open doors for others, to help others… I’ve seen a lot of offspring from Odore di Femmina, it’s made a lot of babies and that’s fantastic.
JC: No, I’m always confident… anyway I know I won’t be around for long, I know that at some point these works must be taken care of by someone else. It’s good that it’s now gone, that other people are taking care of it. I love that in André Breton’s home, there were these little Eskimo masks with feathers: you can’t help but wonder about such objects, about Eskimo feathers dating from 150 years before André Breton that still exist: what does that mean? It means that for all that time, people loved them enough, respected them enough for them to have survived, to have reached us. That’s because the little mask wasn’t a mere product. If I were to be a bit radical, I’d say it was something owned, containing more than something you just produce to sell, to market. I always try to resist: I try to make something, I know I’m not going to succeed but I try. I can only hope there will be enough people who want to take care of these things, maybe they will survive. Will they survive 5 years, 50 years? Anyhow, I’m happy that The Dead Fly is going to a museum because I would love to see it again. To be honest, collectors are often willing to show me my work when I need it. Take Claude d’Anthenaise, from the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature: a few years ago, he bought one of my small sculptures at auction, a kind of cormorant. I went to look at it in the museum and said “Mr. d’Anthenaise, I sold this piece far too soon! I’m not done with it. Could you loan it to me for one month?” He did, and now you have a 5 metre-high version of it in the port of Antwerp, because it was not the end. There are pieces I do want to meet again, of course, but I don’t bite the hand that feeds me, I eat, I live. They have to find their own place. What is good is that when I started with ceramics in the 80s, it was taboo in Flanders and many other places. Now, I’m aware of many young artists, even in Brussels, who work with ceramics and say that when Johan Creten showed his work at Perrotin or at Almine, he may have opened a door. I think maybe we too, as artists, need to open doors for others, to help others… I’ve seen a lot of offspring from Odore di Femmina, it’s made a lot of babies and that’s fantastic. We need to open doors. You too open doors: you wrote a wonderful text in there, and also in the book about ‘C’est dans ma nature’.
BDC: Let’s open them as wide as possible. And to return to bronze, there is this large bird behind us. We touched on the idea of landscape, and just like the Flamingos, these are landscape works too, as their titles say: one of the flamingos is called Flamingo 3 or The Cave. The Big Bird has its wings spread wide apart from the body, and I was somehow dreaming you would make a bronze out of it in such a way that its wings could embrace us. I imagined this when thinking back to The Great Vivisector in Mechelen, with the ominous figure of the owl. It’s a piece you can literally sit in: that’s an extremely rare and very precious thing, a very generous statement. I think The Big Bird would make an extraordinary bronze.
JC: I’ll ask the collector…
BDC: I would just like to add that Johan is present elsewhere in Brussels, in a very beautiful exhibition of collections at the National Bank with what I wouldn’t call an early work, but certainly a key one, La Langue. There’s another great piece, Le Cheval de Troie, at the ‘Portrait of a Lady’ exhibition at the Empain/Boghossian Foundation. So there are at least three public or semi-public presentations here. Thank you for your wonderful insights and this beautiful exhibition.
JC: And thank you for your vision in the book, Barbara. As I said, it’s also very important to have other people translate for us, open doors for the audience to look at our work, and you’ve done so masterfully. I will think about The Big Bird: how tall would you want it?
BDC: As tall as possible.