Interview with Herve Constant - December 2003

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Ellison, D., 2004. Interview with Herve Constant - December 2003. Body, Space & Technology, 4(1). DOI:


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What is it like to be an artist in the 21st century? What drives a person to dedicate his/her life to the one goal of being creative and producing works of art?

This interview tries to explore the psyche of being an artist and the drive and determination needed to succeed as an artist in this century. This interview does not attempt to discuss the validity of Hervé's art but more to understand the goals and aspirations of the artist himself.

1. Being an artist in the 21st century where materialism is rife must be difficult. What motivates you in keeping focused on your work?
A work of art is a gift, not a commodity….Every modern artist who has chosen to labour with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?
Lewis Hyde, The Gift

A Une Femme, 1999 Encaustic on Panel, 50x50cm private collection, Cologne Germany

HC: I think that as soon you have made a choice, a committed choice in any field it is a point of no return. It becomes just a one way of living. It isn't a separated commitment and dedication; it becomes a prime decision in one's life, a kind of obsession.

Now, to say that materialism is rife in the 21st century is actually pushing it a bit too far, since materialism has been a reflection of any society in any century. Materialism is very much integrated into the fibre of any culture, past and future. My motivation is a reflection of a deep interest, a sense of discovery, which leads every time to new research in different fields.

Obviously, art does not do the same thing, epoch after epoch, merely changing its style; its function varies enormously from one society to another. Art has always interacted with the social environment; it is never neutral. It may reflect, reinforce, transform, or repudiate, but it is always in some kind of necessary relation to the current social structure.

There is always a correlation between society's values, directions, and motives and the art it produces.

Being an artist is like a return to a primary stage, a child like sensation, an excitement. If I didn't have that drive and decided to stop I would simply feel bored and lazy. The drive to create is like a drug where I can immerse myself into art without much explanation or reason. A bizarre impression, a feeling of a spiritual stage. “La Raison d'Etre” to be in this world -placing a stone to humanity, to build and participate in the community.

DE: Do you think art enables the discovery of oneself? And that the discovery can never really end - as the human psyche is always evolving and changing? What has this motivation and drive taught you about yourself?

HC: It is obvious that the main interest of being into the Arts is to undergo self-discovery. This discovery is probably the most enjoyable part of art; knowledge through travel, books, meetings etc..I feel I am very lucky as Art gives me the possibility to travel to some very exotic places such as Havana, Cuba (for the Festival of Digital Art), Seoul, South Korea (Biennial 1997) Exile art in Copenhagen 2000, St Petersburg, Russia (Biennial 2001), Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyvaskyla Finland 1996, and most recently to Vilnius, Lithuania (Artist's Book exhibition and touring 2003). These travels have been a strong part of a self-discovery process. To mix and talk with different nationalities, see different behaviour and values makes one ask many questions. My main interest is to keep that curiosity and questioning alive. Life is full of surprises; it can change your perception of things, attitudes and characters.

Sous le pont, Oil on Canvas, 30x20in, 1979 private collection France

What is so important amongst this discovery is to keep in mind the humanitarian side of life. We are in this world for a short while. Therefore nothing is worth taking too seriously. “Flaner” (stroll) through to our destiny, maybe is the description. Gathering information through our “Pilgrimage”, make the most of it. Becoming better towards our neighbours, more human and kind.

This motivation has taught me to concentrate to the maximum, to live fully in a certain puzzle and structure. Being aware of what is most important to my life, to give time and resources all to a given goal. In return, this leads to a fulfilment, peace of mind, being at peace with myself. Of course, those remarks can and might certainly be interpreted as very selfish and self centred. But, since the end result is our behaviour in a community, a society, I find it very, very important to feel fully satisfied, at peace and fulfilled. If it is not the case, the relationship with the world would be false, bitter and aggressive. The end result of this aggressions can very often be what I notice: a strong will of purchasing and a, vacuum of unhappiness. I am personally convinced that a great interest in a materialistic world is a reflection of a missing satisfaction of a spiritual quest.

2. Self-motivation obviously is a key motivator for your work. What other influences motivate your drive forward as an artist?

Tyre Tracks, digital photo 2003, 20x16in

HC: The more difficult it becomes, the more it challenges me to touch my own limits and potential, to see what point in myself I can reach. The Viennese psychoanalyst Otto Rank once wrote (in 1932) about the artist - “His calling is not a means of livelihood, but life itself…he does not practice his calling, but is it.” Today, however, whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”, and the number of people, especially in the artistic and intellectual professions, who might once have challenged this view has notably decreased. Self-motivation can be generated by the life of some other artists. A certain way of living I respect, an attitude. Their special commitment towards their work.

In a sense, what it all comes down to is that everything depends on the quality of the individual. For we are what we are devoted to, and what we are devoted to motivates our conduct. I do not believe an artist gives meaning to his audience. What he may give is an example of personal commitment to the search for value and for truth. To recognize truth is not a matter of talent but of character. Among the existential modes of truth telling are the solitude of the philosopher and the isolation of the artist: this is what the modern artist understood in maintaining an independent position as an outsider.

I usually work from a theme, which very often leads to produce a new series of work. Therefore, for the last few years it has been a continuous follow up of themes related to communication, poetry especially from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, symbolism of objects and colours, Kabbala.

DE: I think this may sound patronising and condescending to the majority of people. Not becoming self-obsessed and one point focused does it mean you are less a quality of a person?

HC: I don't agree with that comment or rather, I would say to be able to continue that commitment and dedication I need to make abstraction of a certain reality. That reality might not be the outside world reality. If I don't create my own world I would simply find it to hard to keep my path. I need to make a choice. It is obvious that my truth isn't the same as others, if you consider the different background, upbringing, race, education etc..

There doesn't exist such things as right or wrong, winner or loser; it is all relative. We need to pay the price for whatever we do.

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, 1992 Oil on Canvas, 46x38in, Musee Arthur Rimbaud, France

I see the world in fact as a circle. Half of it is immersed in the water. The circle is a book our book. It turns at a different speed throughout our lives. In the end we all get approximately the same amount of experiences, bad or good. The major events in our lives are similar to all the rest of us in the world. Birth and death, unemployment at some stage. We all have in this world some importance. We all are part of a cog of the wheel and are of some use. No small or big men. All are important to humanity.

3.On visiting your website, it seems apparent that a large part of your work has a subject of darkness, death and war rather than happiness and celebration. Are these subjects close to your heart or perhaps you find it easier to work within such powerful topic subjects?

Bones, Charcoal, 2001, 40x30in

HC: From the beginning, I have always liked the drama and the theatrics in visual art. I come from a background of theatre school; 5-6 years in total. I studied at the Conservatoire de Toulon for 4 years before moving to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Dramatiques, rue Blanche. That was for nearly 2 years. Therefore, when I started, my interests were based on such artists like Soutine, Goya, Giacometti etc.

I do like the idea of existentiality in art. Not being totally responsible for things around us. A kind of “Outsider”. We make choices, but they are very often imposed upon us. Also, since I come from a broken family and spent nearly 10 years in an orphanage, I am responding to my first few years in life. The lack of warmth made me more withdrawn from my contemporaries. Reading, walking and travelling alone. I was solitary, wild and difficult, that was very much part of my upbringing.

To study theatre was to search and try to mix more with other people and to become accepted. Apart from the idea of being loved - I wanted to discover poetry and plays and to appear in different stage characters. But the most important was the wish to discover a new world. Being part of a group, whatever the motives, didn't work for me. I was looking for honesty, genuine warmth; I came across insecurity, pretence and much hypocrisy.

Around that time, at the start of my studies in theatre I was very much interested in visual art, cutting photographs. I remember having one De Chirico being used as a cover of a theatre script. Another one used was a painting by Mondrian.

DE: It is said that art can be a form of therapy and I suggest that perhaps you have used it to exorcise the darkness you have experienced in your life. Indeed many psychologists use artwork in which to discover their patients' inner thoughts. Do you think perhaps, that you may begin a self-nurturing phase in the near future, where you deliberately focus on topics more empathetic to the joys of life?

HC: I would say no more than a certain way of dressing could describe a personality. It seems evident that as soon as you put a line on paper or canvas it does reveal part of your person. The subjects, colours, themes are describing your inner thoughts. In the end I don't think we can lie, since a voice, attitude and aspiration all will be revealed. To say, things will change (I mean by that, the start of a self nurturing phase or more empathic topics) I can't say it won't be the case since it would be a mistake to say never.

I believe our first step in life, our first behaviour, is the one to bring us to our last one. We don't change a great deal. It is true that we slightly change through our pilgrimage or “Chemin de croix” but the change isn't of much consequence.

At the Bar, oil on canvas 1979, private collection London

Even though I work more and more with photos and videos, the subjects are still very much similar with the past work. They are constantly referring to the theme of communication or rather non-communication.

Overall my choice of books, films, theatre and visual art is still more or less the same; their subject are still very much similar than before. I like a book, which gives me room for imagination and re-creation, where the mysterious takes place. In visual art, I like space in the work and a surreal feel. I would mention artists such as de Chirico, Magritte, and the work of Giacometti. In books, writers like Marquez, Pessoa, Kafka, Rimbaud, Artaud etc. They all have presence in their writing.

4. From your CV, one notices that you have had 8 years education in the Arts. From your point of view, how important do you think Art education in becoming a successful artist?

HC: Art school education is like being part of a stable. Quite a few of your peers will without any doubt continue within their chosen field. The chance to come across their path is very likely; it is a way to share the good and the difficult times, maybe to support each other and keep the adrenalin going through competition and career.

Because we live in a consumer economy, where the cash value of things has become their primary value, it is difficult for us to imagine another way of life, or mode of thought, other than ours. Looking over the vast range of human achievements makes it quite clear that our values are not the only standards by which art can be understood and judged. In primitive societies, the incentives for making art are chiefly non-economic; they arise from tradition and from religious considerations.

Flight, 2003, Oil on Canvas, 20x16in, private collection, London

There is no art of revolt. It is only in some societies that artists are specialists. Carving a temple gate or making a set of ritual masks in Bali, for instance, is done anonymously, nor can the Balinese social structure be seen as a collection of individuals vying for status and prestige.

The American Indians and the Australian aborigines valued art for its magical powers; and amongst the Kalabari of southern Nigeria or the Maori of New Zealand, sculptures are intended as “houses” for spirits, to achieve some control over them. In China the great painters lived like hermits, in the solitude of nature, from which they drew their inspiration. They avoided the life of the court and gave away their pictures.

Art education is and can most certainly be fundamental in the sense that one has more focus and time to concentrate on diverse problems relating to education and creativity.

I do not agree that having many years of art education is an excellent thing. It can stifle and hinder your creativity. It is strange how it works. We must remember that teachers used to be students and therefore are brought to think and see in a certain way. This teaching can be very rigid since it can reflect and depend on trends/fashion. The same people will teach what they have learnt which can become very sterile and repetitive - a teaching based on fashion and trend rather than something open minded, human, competent and good. Art education is useful if students are led to discover their own potential and inner reason to do it, that is the real creativity. If that isn't the case, it can become just pretentious and pompous.

5. More recently, you have been working with technology such as digital photography and videos. Could you explain this change in direction?

Castle Tuzla, Bosnia, 1998, 40x30in, photo

I have always liked photography. When I started painting and drawing, and later on printing such as lithography, silkscreen and etching, I thought photography was something different, something I couldn't get into; another world.

DE: There has been a lot of criticism of the more mainstream abstract contemporary artists, in that their work is not “really art” and in some instances their work has been vandalised and defaced. They often push boundaries and utilise a number of different mediums. Do you think or can you imagine a point at which “art is not art”?

Open Studio, 2003

HC: It is not new to have a strong reaction to art work which is incomprehensible to the majority of the crowd. Some can take it very personally and behave violently. I think it started around the 19th century, the time of diverse salons from different schools. That led to some violent manifestation. Spitting, tearing and even breaking art work. Most memorable is the time of impressionism, for they were for the most part derided for their art. From a period of depicting oriental symbolism, heroic and pompous subjects; actually they were called “Les Pompiers” (The Pompous” for their choice of theme (myths in many instances).

Only at the start of impressionism, saw painters going out working “Sur le vif” (on the spot) in communion to nature, bringing colours, brushes and easel. Their goal wasn't to render and depict nature in a conventional way but rather to render an impression. That is the source of the name “Impressionism”. Not only nature, but also, very soon still life etc.

Our century is more and more open to a mixture of mediums in art with no shame at all for mixing diverse art form. I think this is a very good thing since I feel it is much more challenging and exciting. The danger of all of that is of course, to lose the focus and precision. That is upsetting the traditionalist and the conventional. This can be understood if you consider the boundaries in our education, upbringing, and family set up etc. Anything, which isn't of our direct understanding, will be dismissed. That seems logical.

Gallery 5a, London exhibition with Felix Baudenbacher October 03

Can I imagine a point at which “Art is not Art”? That is a difficult question since for a long while we have been bombarded under the title of modernism to all kind of art forms. To have a clear-headed view of what is going on is very difficult. I explain what I believe art to be but it is still a very subjective choice. Rather, I can say the type of work I've seen in the last few months and say the ones I liked very much. I would mention artists such as Fontana, Yves Klein, Bill Viola. Again for the same reasons. They are: presence, intriguing, having content in their visual and conception. They talk to me, it makes me love life and question it. Therefore I would call their work "Art" and interpret it as having a strong content, a visual in relation to the content. I noticed it has very often a connotation to a past and takes much inspiration to previous knowledge. A strong mixture of a past and present experience. That is a personal point of view, own experience, travels, and reading.

Children playing, Charcoal drawing, 40x30in 2002

6. You have an impressive list of solo and group exhibitions, which have taken your work to a global level. How do you evaluate your own success as an artist and how do you believe others evaluate of artists in general?

HC: For me, real success is the urge and ability to keep involved in creative research. Of course, having exhibitions, obtaining reviews and prizes can feed the will to continue. That is my way to evaluate personal success. I doubt that is the understanding of success for most people, since success must be define by how much money and material acquisition is garnered and accumulated.

Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius Lithuania 2003

Money and selling is a way to keep the creative process going, to have more free time in the studio, travel and afford more art materials. It isn't about having a bigger kitchen fitted or a very expensive car, but more about a spiritual quest, to keep at peace with oneself. Not a material acquisition or more physical comfort.

Real success is based on a real platform. If that isn't the case, it will create a strong feeling of jealously, envy and hate. Artists like Cezanne, Pollock have been replaced by professionals geared to the organisational imperative, who feel a proper respect for all the advantages that can be gained through official channels and obedience to institutional procedures. Now, very often artists want art to serve their careers rather than seeing themselves as serving art. Creative humility is no longer in style, and it may be worth asking ourselves how such a reversal in our thinking has come about.

What was formerly an ideal has become the very framework of ambition: “making it on sales alone.” The real reason to do anything is to do it for a personal pleasure, for oneself. That is where motivation, commitment appears. A genuine search.

7. In the past 30 years of being an Artist, you have explored many subject matters and mediums. Could you highlight a few of your most favourite projects, explaining your fondness and what you were hoping to achieve?

One of the themes which seems to have come back quite often in the last few years is Communication”. It seems to me the one topic which crops up regularly.. One of my first exhibitions in London was the Centre Space Gallery. It was a mixture of paintings and text seen separately onto the wall. The text didn't have a direct response to the paintings, only a vague parallel. Before then, my work related to colours where paintings were made only from their symbolic values (to describe some of the colours with their meanings).

My earlier paintings focused on the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. They came from the willingness to focus on something particular. I went back to read and listen regularly the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. After a while, the time spent to prepare canvases and to prime the papers, I was listening in the studio to the recording of his poetry quite loud, to get impregnated. For me it was a good way to work since colours were rendered by emotion alone. The paintings were the result of visions, symbolic ideas and sounds. I enjoyed working in that way, very much. The colours were joyful, colourful, using very often primary ones. To work that way lasted a few years.

L'Automne Deja, Oil on Canvas, 46x38in, 1997, private collection, London

I started with the poem the “Drunken Boat”. I did two different versions of it. The first one was bright, colourful and positive. The second, for whatever reason, was darker in appearance and the content like if a different artist could have painted it. The two show different understandings of the poem. At first, I saw the poem as a naïve, a primitive discovering of the world. A cheerful, positive “Cheminement” of the world. All that was due to being a very young poet. The poem was written when Arthur Rimbaud was 15 years old.

For that reason, I assumed the poem was a result of a cheerful encounter with the world. The more I went through all his poetry, listening and making paintings based on some of the other poems - my interpretation changed. I realised that the “ Drunken Boat” was actually, a bitter, disillusioned way of seeing the world. A real drama. The poet says "Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer, l'acre amour m'a gonfle de torpeur ennivrante. Oh que ma quille eclate. Oh que j'aille a la mer".

Plus de Mots, 1992, oil on canvas, 35x27in, Musee Arthur Rimbaud

Tree Sephirotic, Oil on Canvas, 45x45in 1998, Private Collection, England

This interest led to another related topic - the tarot. I was invited to do a large panel on the subject for a castle in Pauline, Southern France, the Foundation “Azazel”. The director of the Institute, Hennie Boshoff is very interested in various poetry, especially by Arthur Rimbaud. When I knew this, he offered me a commission relating to the tarot. I decided to do a whole series on this topic and the depiction of characters through life. The first commission was the “Hierophant”. I considered myself very lucky.

There I was asked to do a commission at the same time. I could develop my strong interest in the theme. I decided to paint the 21 images of the tarot. I went to Pauline, a small town near Carcassonne to install the large panel of the “Hierophant” panel of 2x1m painted in encaustic on wood. That was a very good experience. Shortly after, I was asked to produce another panel of the same size, the “Emperor”. The series of the tarot images were shown later on in a gallery in London.

Next, came paintings based on the Kabala such as a “Tree of life” the use of numbers, the curiosity of a mysterious language, numerology. It was fascinating to realise that, numbers can have their own life and meaning, strength, poetry, softness etc.. Arthur Rimbaud has written a poem called “Vowels”. Okay, not numbers, but the juxtaposition of colours and sound (synesthesia), which was really interesting.

Vowels, 1999 Oil on Canvas, 51x36in, private collection London

One of my most recent trips and series of works was based on travelling to Tuzla in Bosnia. In 1998 I got an award and grant from Balkan Arts Link along with 4 other artists to go there, work and exhibit in Tuzla Museum for a month. I exhibited 10 small paintings (20x20in encaustic on canvas) entitled “Tetraktys”. Since we were travelling across the country; being shown the aftermath of the war, I started to do a long series of photos depicting my feelings against that war. The view of the park we were taken into, with the small coffins of children had their photos on top, the park being turned into a cemetery made me realise all that absurdity. Shocking is the word. I took a lot of photos. On my return to London I went through the lot and decided I did fin a new path, a new strong interest. I got some photographic material and now it is a strong part of my vocation just as painting. My most recent paintings are very often based from the photos I took.

During that time, I had a new passion, a new interest and technique called encaustic. It is a mixture of oil and paint, mixed with wax and dammar varnish. You warm up the whole onto a pan over a fire. It is real chemistry between the smells, which I find very sensuous. It provides an interesting surface and transparency. A very challenging approach, since a part of it is hazardous. Alchemy of the verb; fascinating process, the texture, surface, a certain luminosity.

Hierophant, Encaustic on Panel, 2x1m, 1998, Azazel Institute France

One of my most recent realisations is an artist's book. The book is actually touring from Vilnius, Lithuania going next year in 2004 to such places as Lille, France, Frankfurt, Germany. Other venues are planned for the New Year. The selection chose 116 artists from 269. The subject is the “23 Sins” depicting envy, jealousy, greed, gluttony etc.. I chose “Killing” for the reason that most recently I did a series of paintings and prints, photos using imagery such as toy's gun, coffin, crosses etc. I thought that for the competition I had enough material to have a go for my first artist's book. I was surprised and very pleased to be selected for the touring exhibition. The show is organised by Kestutis Vasiliunas an Lithuanian artist and Curator.

Some of my photos were also selected for a digital Art competition in Havana, Cuba for a Festival of Digital Art. The curator Erika Fraenkel from Rio de Janeiro did recently a selection of digital artists including me.

Jennie's shoes, Digital Photo, 2001

8.Can you tell us what you have planned for the future?

HC: As I mentioned earlier, much of my interest has been recently based on photography and videos. My next exhibition is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Galeria do Poste (26 March - 25 April 2004). The show will comprise of a series of photos and text. It is an installation based on an Artist's Book I made a few months ago. It is called “Killing” and is comprised of 20 pieces.

I have been invited by the Foundation Gugg and Chaim, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to participate in an exhibition of photos and videos during the month of April (Private View, 17th April). The artist and curator Erika Frankel will present the show.

I will also participate in a group show in Cardiff this summer (early July). The show will last 3 weeks and is presented by William Brown (artist and curator). The exhibit is based on the theme of the Maghreb, a mixed-media presentation comprising of North African tapestry.

For the past few months I have been developing a mixture of videos, photos and sounds for a piece entitled “Brouhaha” or “Human tapestry at MB”. The theme is based on communication or rather non-communication. It depicts workers in their booth, in front of computers and microphones. I like the idea of describing the different humours and situations: the abstract human touch, talking to someone we can perceive but can't see – the superficiality of contact behind a screen. I am in the process commencing another project to compliment the Brouhaha, using the same theme and title. The film asks people in their own languages what the word Brouhaha means to them. The concept behind it, since the sounds and voices are of different nationalities, creates an atmosphere and background of brouhaha.

Herve Constant was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1951 and studied acting at the Conservatoire d' Art Dramatique de Toulon 1968-71 and at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts et Techniques du Theatre in Paris 1971-73. He began painting in 1977 and has since explored many mediums to represent his art, and is currently building upon his substantial portfolio of work in new digital media. Herve exhibits both nationally and internationally and is presently living and working in London. His exhibition, “Killing” will be on view from 26th of March 2004 at Galeria do Poste, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Debbie Ellison is an I.T consultant interested in contemporary arts. Interested in what motivates artists in the 21st century, she attempts to explore the psyche of Herve Constant and tries to highlight the differences and similarities of his mindset between himself and his peers.



Debbie Ellison





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