Johan Creten – How to explain the Sculptures to an Influencer?
Johan Creten is in a dilemma. The Belgian, Paris-based artist, who is widely considered a pioneer of making monumental ceramic sculptures, is struggling how to convey his time-consuming artistic process to the Instagram generation. Consequently, he has titled his new exhibition at Perrotin’s space on Avenue Matignon “How to explain the Sculptures to an Influencer?”
On view in one room, an assembly of small-scale sculptures are displayed on a low plinth. There’s a seemingly pregnant, inanimate fly, a grasshopper making love, a female nude shielding her genitalia with a fish and a seahorse anchoring itself to a cross. From death, sex, chastity and religion, Creten’s animal sculptures take on major themes from life and mythology. They are scaled-down versions of the large-scale pieces that filled Creten’s exhibition “Bestiarium” at La Piscine in Roubaix two years ago. Yet many of his ideas had been stewing long before then.
Born in 1963, Creten graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. After initially studying painting, he turned to making ceramics in clay, believing that this would open up more possibilities. For years, Creten worked peripatetically in various places around the world. Today, his role in elevating ceramics in the world of contemporary art is cemented through him being the guest of honour at the first edition of Ceramic Brussels, held from January 25th-28th, 2024.
«I love ceramics and I can make incredible things but I want to be outside the ghetto.»
You titled your exhibition “How to explain the Sculptures to an Influencer?”. Have you found the answer to your question?
I would have liked to find the answer! If I knew how to explain everything to influencers, that would be fantastic. But I haven’t found the solution yet.
You’re known for making ‘slow art’, which runs counter-current to the speed of technology today. What are your thoughts on this discrepancy?
When one talks about ‘slow art’ in my work, it’s because I need a lot of time to make things. The pieces on show were born 10 or 15 years ago and went through a lot of intermediary stages. I hate it when gallery assistants say to me: “Produce an exhibition.” I like taking the time to make things. For sure, it contrasts with what we need today to make an impact on Instagram and social networks.
You’ve been creating works of animals since the 1980s, sometimes making references to Greek and Roman mythology and religion. What can you tell us about the ambiguity of some of your sculptures, such as La Mouche morte, a dead and seemingly pregnant fly, which grew out of your exhibition Bestiarium at the Piscine de Roubaix?
All the works appear innocent but they’re all time bombs! The idea is that one spends longer than three seconds with them. When one starts to look at them, one wonders whether the fly is pregnant or whether it’s died of fatigue after a torrid night. It represents the end of life, decomposition, the memento mori but also reality. It’s a fly that’s feminine and erotic. When it was shown in a greenhouse in Nantes last summer, it was a metaphor for what we all are and was seen by 80,000 people.
Some pieces talk about fascism, others about odour. For some people, “The Herring”, the sculpture of a woman holding a fish in front of her stomach, is about the history of Christianity, for others, it’s the symbol of a long life or the taboo of smell. Now we’re making a five-metre-high bronze sculpture of it that will be installed on a Belgian beach in between the sea and the sand dunes. The sea will touch the sculpture three or four times a year, the idea being about “la mère, la mer” – the mother, the sea.
I often work from a very small sculpture and it can take five or ten years in between the model and the final artwork. This is why I say “no production”. I make things when I want to and find my own means to do so. There’s no money from the state and hardly ever from the gallery. I don’t make a sketch for someone to produce something.
You began working with clay at the end of the 1980s when ceramics were still regarded unfavourably in the contemporary art world. Why did you want to work with this medium?
When I was studying painting at Ghent’s Fine Arts Academy, there were hundreds of painters. I saw that there was a studio with just old women inside. I touched the clay and thought that I could do something. The earth is wet, dirty, poor – the material of farmers and labourers. And ceramics were decorative, utilitarian objects, a bit like sculpture, but had nothing to do with politics. Discussions around ceramics were always about the temperature of the kiln and enamel, never about meaning.
What inspired you?
When I was seven years old, I went to a Belgian beach on a grey day and picked up some pieces of wood to make a structure that I was proud of. We left the beach and when I went back, the sea had swallowed it up and made it disappear. It was a key moment in my life. All of a sudden, I felt that we were mortal and had to give 200 per cent to anything in order to struggle against this idea of disappearing. For me, it isn’t about education or references but the idea of what are we doing here, how can we change our lives and that of others through what we do?
How was your work in ceramics received when you started out and what obstacles have you encountered?
I still receive invitations from the Belgian culture ministry about decorative and applied arts so they haven’t understood anything! I decided to leave Belgium and for years I lived out of a cardboard suitcase, going from one country to another – America, Italy, etc – to do my work. When you don’t have a car, an apartment, a studio, social security, a pension plan or a job but want to make artworks, you find solutions. Each time, I’d go and work somewhere, try to show what I’d made and then leave. Now we have a space in Montreuil and for the first time in my life, at the age of 60, I have a proper kiln in my studio. Although it was extremely difficult for a very, very long time, I’ve always had very good collectors and gallerists. One day, a journalist called me a “clay gypsy” because I was free in the romantic sense, always on the move.
It’s sometimes said that ceramics began to be more respected after the British artist Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003. What are your thoughts on how the medium’s status has shifted?
I think Grayson Perry made a huge difference in Britain. But Grayson paints on vases, it’s not necessarily sculpture. A lot of artists that one thinks of as pioneers, like Picasso who made lots of things in ceramic, were often making paintings on objects. For me, Lucio Fontana [was important]; I showed with him a long time ago in the “Féminin-Masculin” exhibition [26 October 1995 – 12 February 1996] at the Centre Pompidou where Fontana’s and Johan Creten’s fruits were presented in the same vitrine. It was the first time that people really saw ceramics in Paris.
The big difference with my work is that one is no longer in the ghetto of ceramics but in the art world. So it’s seen by a lot more people. I love ceramics and can make incredible things but I want to be outside the ghetto. I was a trailblazer and an example for a lot of young artists who could make earthen works in the context of art and galleries, talking about something beyond the material. Now I see a lot of little Cretens in ceramic; it’s been fantastic to make something more popular.
You did a residency at the Manufacture de Sèvres from 2004 to 2007. What did you learn?
I learnt that you should be at the coffee machine in the morning because that’s where you talk to everyone. There was a cleaning lady who said to me, “Mr Creten, I heard that you were looking for enamels?” Then we went to one of the annexes, up a staircase, through a hole in the wall and into an attic where we found boxes of nineteenth-century samples. I took some of them with me and made new works combining enamels that had been produced for Marie-Antoinette with my own. I was also able to make a large sculpture in one big piece [of porcelain] at Sèvres, where I asked to live for three years.
What is the role of beauty in your work?
Beauty is a lubricant. For me, the colours on the plinth in my exhibition are beautiful, as is the material and the patina. Beauty also helps to talk about the difficult things in the sculptures. And beauty is why I don’t throw myself under the metro and why we can keep hope.
In which other places do you dream of exhibiting your work?
When I was younger, I used to go to the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre. Now I’ve exhibited in both of them. There are places like that which I feel superstitious about. I’m afraid that if I disclose [my wish to exhibit there], it won’t happen.
The most beautiful experiences can also occur thanks to Instagram, through which I met a gentleman [Peter Lennby] in Sweden. I sent him a catalogue and he invited me to his sculpture park in Pilane [on Tjörn island]. Before exhibiting my bronze sculpture, “De Vleermuis (The Bat)”, in front of the Petit Palais in 2019, it went to Sweden. This gentleman organised a helicopter, onto which the work was attached, and it was taken onto the mountain overlooking the sea. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life although I must have lost a year of my life through the stress of watching the sculpture flying through the sky and being put onto the mountain. I’m always hoping to create other dream moments like that.
You collect art yourself, particularly seventeenth-century bronzes. Could you talk to us about your art collection?
Often when I’m going to a hotel, I take antique works with me because I feel at home when I put an object next to my bed. My collection is vast. What I love is that when one takes an object that somebody made three centuries ago and touches it, if it’s well made it’s as if this person is talking to you. I think that all the pieces in my collection talk. I also love the chase. Chasing after an object that you don’t know opens your mind, makes you reflect, moves you and makes you cry. For me, collecting an artwork is about being in front of something and being touched.
Johan Creten: How to explain the Sculptures to an Influencer?, is at Perrotin, 2 bis Avenue Matignon, 75008 Paris, until March 2nd, 2024.
Interviewed by Anna Sanson
Photos portraits: Jean Picon
Exhibition pictures :Photo Tanguy Beurdeley. ©Johan Creten/ADAGP. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin