A talk between Claire Tabouret and Jean-Philippe Toussaint took place at Almine Rech Paris on October 19, 2021.
JEAN-PHILIPPE TOUSSAINT Thanks to you, I’m in this very beautiful place, with these wonderful artworks, and I must say that I’m very honored that an artist wanted to call her show ‘l’Urgence et la Patience’. It’s true that it’s something I wrote about ten years ago—the book came out in 2012—and it was a way for me to think about my practice. I told myself very early on that even if I was specifically talking about the writer’s work, it could be expanded to other artistic practices, of course, and even to other human practices. It could apply to politics, to other areas... So as a brief introduction, I’d like to say that I'm very happy to be here this evening.
CLAIRE TABOURET Thank you. I’m also thrilled that you accepted my invitation, and I’m also very honored. I’ve been reading your books for a long time, so I’m very touched that we’re here together. We had never met, and this is the first time we’re meeting in real life. We just wrote each other a few times at the beginning of the summer to set up this meeting. I think you made sure it could work: we kind of looked each other up and down for a few moments, in a friendly way, and decided to have this discussion. I remember that we didn’t want to talk too much when we first got in touch, because neither one of us wanted to take on too many important topics: we wanted to do it here, in front of an audience, and it would be hard to do over a second time if it had already taken place. There was just the question of figuring out if it would just be the two of us, or if there would be a third person, a moderator. I’d like to start with that question. Right away I thought: no, it’s better if it’s just the two of us, with no moderator, and that challenged me because in fact this whole book is an observation of how you work. That’s something we share, this urge for self-analysis, and for instance my choice of risk: it’s true that if the two of us had a discussion, and we had a third person here, we might completely defer to this person, who would have prepared questions, who’d be responsible... if there are problems with the rhythm, if we’re bored, or if the discussion’s a flop, we could always tell ourselves it’s the moderator’s fault. So this way, we have a bit more responsibility, and I feel a bit more responsibility, because I came up with the idea. I think that’s why I chose this road: when there are two paths available, I always have the instinct to choose the riskier one. The one without a parachute. It’s like I trust fear, adrenaline, risk, and am very suspicious of comfort. At the same time, I’m getting to a point in my life where I’m very tired, so I’d really like to have faith in the other path, and I wondered what it was like for you: this relationship to comfort and risk—what does it bring up for you?
JPT: It’s true that when we discussed it, I was more in favor of having a moderator. I confess, I was arguing for taking the easy way out. It’s more like walking a tightrope without a net, without anyone. When there’s a moderator, you can rely on them, you just have to respond. Now it’s up to us to construct the conversation. There’s a risk, but even if I argued for the easy way out, I still think that in artistic practice, of course, taking risks seems essential. So, let’s take this risk: so much the better if you chose this arrangement, which is maybe riskier, but in the end perhaps the discussion will be that much richer and more interesting.
CT: Yes, we’ll see. But is this something that happens when you’re writing a novel, an essay, a book— are there trajectories that are riskier than others? Meaning at a given moment, the book takes a more dangerous direction, because you’re moving toward the unknown? I know that when I build an exhibition or a painting, there are many times when there’s a shift, and I always tend to move almost toward destruction...
JPT: The issue of risk is constant. I remember in my very first novel, La Salle de bain, there’s a sentence: “I should take a risk, the risk of compromising the tranquility of my abstract life for...” And I didn’t end the sentence. So there was this idea of risk. My publisher, Jérôme Lindon, even suggested once that I call the book ‘Un Risque’. So this idea of risk, I think it’s really inherent in creativity, as you said yourself. We always think about risk. I’d say that in my practice (and I think you will explain to us afterwards that it’s very similar for you too), in any case in writing, there’s writing and there’s revising. Revising is constant: it’s as much a part of writing as writing is, there’s almost more revising than there is writing. And I think in painting also the first draft can always be changed. One thing I told myself was that in writing, I had to let myself do anything. So there was maximum risk: I had to let myself do anything. But as soon as I started revising, I sort of tended to think that I shouldn’t let anything get by me. So there is this dialectic of risk. It’s possible that you have this in painting, because you can also produce something that you’re not required to keep, I imagine.
CT: Totally. Or that’s not required to leave the studio. I can keep it; I’m not required to show it.
I know that when I build an exhibition or a painting, there are many times when there’s a shift, and I always tend to move almost toward destruction...
So you may ask: do I need to hurry, or should I take my time? Well, that's just it: you must do both.
JPT: So tell us something about all the things we haven’t seen, what we don’t see. That's also interesting: everything that existed, everything that was the medium for something, a stage in something...do you have a way of thinking about this, or examples about what’s not shown?
CT: First, the question is what you tell yourself when you start to work. People sometimes ask me when looking at an exhibition: “When did you start working on this show?” There’s the time when the brush first touched the canvas, but there’s also the time when it really starts. And you don’t see that, because it’s not made visible. It really started a year or six months before the first brushstroke. You live with the desire for the work, with visions, at least I do, and that time is actually very important. So maybe that’s the time of patience, in fact. Strangely enough, it would start with the time of patience, living with a desire until it becomes present enough to enter into movement, into action, and then I start painting, sculpting, etc. With what’s shown here, maybe what’s not visible is all the work on the sculpture, working in bronze. It starts with clay sculptures, and these sculptures will be destroyed in the manufacturing process. But I lived with them a long time—there’s an attachment to that stage, which in fact is temporary and will burn up in the foundry. So what you see, these are traces, remains of a time that was experienced in the studio for several months. That’s what’s left, basically.
JPT: You mentioned patience, and in fact I dealt with this issue in L’Urgence et la Patience. Maybe I’ll talk about it a little bit for those who don’t know it. I identified that in the work of writing—as I said, this could also be other artistic practices or other types of practice—there are always two ideas at work that appear to be contradictory: urgency and patience. I say that you must be very patient, but at the same time you must be urgent. So you may ask: do I need to hurry, or should I take my time? Well, that's just it: you must do both. And I think that’s really the idea. One that I called patience and the other urgency— patience, as you said, is first in advance, at the beginning. Everything starts with patience: it seems to me that you have to let things brew and mature, and you’ve experienced that a lot—I’ve heard some of your interviews, and I’ve read things. Things take time, that brewing exists. In my work, and I think for you too, there’s also patience afterwards: once the work is done, there’s still all the work of polishing. I’m sure you’ll tell us, but in literary work, it’s the task of checking, of making the sentence precise. In sculpture, I can easily imagine there is fine-tuning. In painting, I don’t know. You’ll have to tell us. I can’t really see how to fine-tune it, but there must be something. And in the middle, there’s that urgency which, more generally, for a long time was called inspiration for poets, even if there was something that bothered me in the term inspiration. Inspiration is kind of like a gift from heaven. We’re there waiting for inspiration, and all of a sudden it visits us, in a way. Now, I’ve said before and I believe that this urgency is only the product of great patience. It’s only because we’ve worked a lot, let things mature, let them brew, that at a certain time something will burst forth somehow. The metaphor I use in my essay L’Urgence et la Patience is a metaphor from the world of the abyss, the world of the depths. With this idea that at a certain time you have to dive into yourself, very deeply, and go to a place so deep that the real world is no longer visible, but at that depth you will be able to recreate the world. It’s a metaphor for this urgency, a kind of territory of urgency that you have to reach. And once you’ve reached it, things occur almost naturally. I think… but you’ll tell us…do you also have these times? Or, actually, I'd like you to tell us something about creative blocks. It’s not always smooth sailing.
Strangely enough, it would start with the time of patience, living with a desire until it becomes present enough to enter into movement, into action, and then I start painting, sculpting, etc.
So what you see, these are traces, remains of a time that was experienced in the studio for several months.
CT: Well, just to stay with the underwater idea, a few years ago someone came to my studio for an interview she needed to record, and she was surprised at the noise. My studio is under a highway, a warehouse that vibrates every time a truck goes by, all day long. And my partner is a woodworker, and he works in the area next to me: there are machines and saws, all that humming. So it’s pretty hard to record a clear sound. But most of all she said, “How can you paint with all this?” And I had the same metaphor: in fact, I come to the studio in the morning, and it takes a while, a little over an hour, to get into this state where I descend by a series of stages until I get into a world where this noise becomes almost a kind of abstraction that suits me fine, as if I were a thousand leagues under the sea. And that’s when I can start to be in the right state for working. In kind of the same way, if there were an abrupt interruption that’s not planned, someone who shows up at my studio, it would be like a diver who had to come back up to the surface too quickly, and that’s dangerous because in principle you have to come up in stages. And then, you need to go back down again. So yes, I share this metaphor, it speaks to me a lot. As for blocks, I don’t know. Maybe that’s connected to urgency, in fact. It’s true that I have a very constant rhythm, both my internal rhythm and the rhythm I accept, which comes from outside, with shows, travels, deadlines, etc., which creates a sort of pace that is sometimes just barely livable, and I wonder if I’m afraid of blocks, to be completely honest.
JPT: You avoid them!
CT: Yes, I put myself in such a state of constant trance that I don’t have to face them. Maybe that’s what really intrigued me and attracted me about your book: I have the impression that there’s a shift that happened in your life, which you mention very quickly but which seems not at all trivial to me. You say that at a particular moment, while you were trying to write a book that was very hard to write and painful, you realized that you couldn’t keep on living like that, working like that, and you radically changed your technique instead of imposing these blocks on yourself... You can explain it better than I can...
JPT: No, no, that’s quite accurate.
JPT: Preparing for our interview, I thought of a sentence from Beckett that I love, which is: “How, in such conditions, can I write, to consider only the manual aspect of that bitter folly?” I quote it every time. And I wonder sometimes if it could be turned into “How can I paint?” Would you accept the idea of this bitter folly? It’s very pretty, in any case. And also, before letting you answer the question about the manual or material aspect of writing, just one comment: personally, I’ve always been interested in these so-called mundane subjects, while generally people and critics only assign importance to the work, the book, and don’t care at all how you wrote it or what you wrote it with, or in the case of art, the painting and not how you made it. But I claim that it doesn’t take away anything from the finished work to know how it was made. On the contrary, it’s extremely interesting. Everything about the creative process excites me and fascinates me. I’m very curious to learn how you proceed from a material point of view.
CT: For me, the material aspect is primary in my encounter with painting, in my desire for painting. Afterwards, a learning process came about—how to construct a painting, how to work, all the processes. But at the start, there’s this very strong connection to materiality, to making. And very soon, this idea of addiction. It’s a word that comes to me because one time I painted a series of paintings about gold miners, connected to my travels in California, a piece of land I had bought that had belonged to gold miners, and my archival research on the Gold Rush. Things I didn’t know about, historical facts. For instance, this is the first time when there were psychiatric hospitals, because there were tons of people who lost their heads in this craze of addiction to digging for gold. Reading letters in the archives from gold miners writing to their families in various states, people who had been gone for years—sometimes for 12 to 15 years—and who still hadn’t found anything, but had this belief that they would soon strike gold. “I'm on the right track, I know the next river, the next mountain...” Or some people who had found gold and thought they could find even more. And, in fact, at a particular moment feeling like you’ve lost your grip can be interesting: you forget what you’re looking for, you’re just completely addicted to looking. I drew a parallel with painters, with myself, since I have adopted a very regular practice of making one painting after another and always telling myself the next painting will be better—that kind of thinking, of moving forward. And I’m sure in the first painting I ever made, I must have been looking for something, but I don’t know what it is anymore. I lost the thread so long ago, it’s not even the same question anymore.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. His novels have been translated into over twenty languages. He has directed four feature films. In 2012, he presented the exhibition ‘LIVRE/LOUVRE’ at the Louvre Museum in Paris and wrote the book L’Urgence et la Patience.
Extract from the conversation between Claire Tabouret and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. The video of this conversation is available on our Youtube Channel and our Website.