Interview with Giovanni Lista on the work of artist Olivia Descampe, by Antonio Furone.
A. F. : What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you look at the works of Olivia Descampe? In other words, what is your first impression of her work?
Giovanni Lista : In my view, there is first and foremost a historical approach to her work, or at least to her creative practice – in technical terms. The informal practice of collage & decollage was invented at the end of the 1940s, by Jacques Villeglé in France and by Mimmo Rotella in Italy, although other artists practiced it too, such as Raymond Hains or François Dufrêne.
It is important to remember that France and Italy had accepted the Marshall Plan, which introduced the United States’ liberal capitalist and consumerist principles into Europe. Incidentally, the dates match perfectly. The Marshall Plan came into effect in April 1948 and the following year, artworks based on pasting and tearing urban posters appeared. This iconographical process deconstructed the seductive and colorful language of advertising posters, which had begun to prevail in the streets of post-World War II Europe. These posters invited people to participate in this emerging consumerism, therefore their laceration denoted both a gesture of defiance and an underlying form of political sociology.
Jacques Villeglé and Mimmo Rotella would later become members of the Nouveau Réalisme group, founded by art critic Pierre Restany in an attempt to directly reclaim elements of reality into art. Only in 1957 did Roland Barthes’ essay Mythologies publish semiological analyses of these posters, which celebrated consumer society.
A. F. : So you connect her work to the artistic trends of the post-war period. This excludes the historical avant-garde movements of the first half of the 20th century, which used collage extensively – I am referring to German Dadaism in particular…
Giovanni Lista : I think you mean the distinction outlined by Maurizio Calvesi in Italy and reiterated by Peter Bürger in Germany. They differentiated the historical avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century, like Futurism or Expressionism, that had an overall revolutionary and political project, from the avant-gardes of the second half of the century, like Lettrism or New Realism. The latter advocated a formal revolution without ever entering the field of politics. Yes, it is important to distinguish avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes because they speak of two very different eras.
German Dadaism did indeed use collage extensively, but in the form of photomontages oriented towards materials. These highlighted the process of creating images with an apparently structural unity, the artificiality of which actually denounced the hidden truth behind the photographic image. The photomontages made by German Dadaists, like Heartfield or Hausmann, were formidable political weapons. The case of Max Ernst, who exclusively used historical prints, is of a different nature. However, if we refer back to the works produced in the last few years, some of Olivia Descampe’s collages & decollages are reminiscent of the processes implemented by Bauhaus artists and repeated by the Italian Futurists. For instance, Tiny Dancers (2017), and other similar works where she creates visual rhythms by sticking vertical bands of adhesive tape on an image before tearing them off. In this case, the interaction between the resulting material texture and the underlying desecrated image follows a controlled pattern which is constructive in nature – very different from the spontaneous vein of or Informal abstract art. The image is erased, degraded, aged, ravaged, but the result displays measured rhythm, with a repeated regularity that creates a visual pattern, a constructed form. Olivia Descampe asserted that collage as a medium connects the past to the present, while decollage connects the present to the past. In the work I just mentioned, the image of dancers outdoors is not questioned as such. However, the artist’s formal work prevails. And this is a piece related to rhythmic discipline.
Some artists from the German Bauhaus, such as Xanti Schawinsky, used this laminar pattern to deconstruct photographic images. The process was then used again by Italian futurists such as Marcello Nizzoli and ultimately appeared in Victor Vasarely’s 1976 kinetic optic portrait of Georges Pompidou. But the very first example of laminar optical and kinetic decomposition is a portrait of Rudolph II in the St. George’s Cloister in Prague, dating back to the late 16th century, between Mannerism and Baroque. One can always find historical precedents, but I was referring to Descampe’s most recent works in particular, ie. what she is doing now.
A.F. : Nevertheless, it seems to me that Olivia Descampe’s work is very different from that of the Nouveau Réalistes whose approach was based on appropriating reality …
Giovanni Lista : Absolutely, you are right. Above all, I would say that it does not display luxuriance in colors and image fragments… With Villeglé, Hains and Rotella, although the image was torn, fragmented and desecrated, it never ceased to bear witness to the emerging massification which saw urban sociology become the new playground for unbridled consumption, ready to generate a new way of life. The brand new phenomenon of mass consumption, which then signified the desire to forget the horrors of war and the will to live, was reflected in a playful and carefree approach to social rituals and new behavioral patterns in public life. The multiplication of advertising posters on city walls and fences was an invitation to live life to the fullest, while identifying with popular figures from the worlds of luxury, cinema and fashion. Through the collage & decollage process, the diverted and fragmented image lost its individuality and the specificity of its narrative function, while retaining its aura of fascination…
Olivia Descampe’s work is sometimes very close to iconic works by some of the most famous poster-tearers: for example Nothing is real (2018), despite its dominant blue color, or Sweet Dream (2019). But on the whole, her work has a rather different essence, it is true. In other pieces, especially the smaller ones produced between 2018 and 2019, she places herself in the wake of Informal abstract art, with textural effects reminiscent of Dubuffet and Pollock-style all over swirling. In a piece like Breaking up (2018) she seems to exalt the degradation gesture as an end in itself, without any political-sociological implications. But it is interesting to note that at the beginning she had glued colored cards to achieve a kind of abstract geometric composition on which she then exerted her destructive gesture: scratches, ripped or torn fragments, etc.
As a general rule, she is very partial to degraded material effects. As a self-proclaimed “artist of materials and intuition”, she seems to evoke Bergson’s ideas. So, for instance, in the decollage known as Almost fantasy (2019), she inserted a blurry photographic image showing a person among figurative fragments, presumably clothing and resembling childrenswear. As such, she always seeks to induce a psychological connotation from the diminished, desecrated image. Two very significant examples of this are Not the same person (2019) and Who we are (1919) in which the faces on two photographic portraits disappear in an accumulation of non-figurative signs. However, during centuries of Western art history, the face has always been the most immediate reference point for humanist thought, thereby making art into a means of celebrating the Subject and exalting the human figure. Descampe does not erase the image in its entirety, but only the face, which in fact is the only doorway into another person’s interiority, as stated by Emmanuel Levinas. The gesture of erasing or degrading therefore embodies radical defiance, to some extent. But I believe it was due to a drive of rage that was not channelled politically. It is the result of exasperation and, therefore, of protest, rather than of revolutionary defiance.
In other works, torn fragments are expertly mastered so as to remove only the model’s eyes from the photograph. Leonardo da Vinci specifically wrote that the eyes are the window to the soul. And based on this idea, Western art was able to build a long tradition of portraiture and self-portraiture.
A.F. : So you think of her first and foremost as an impulsive artist… Should we then conclude that she does not follow a specific direction in her collages & decollages? In other words, what are the implicit poetics of her work – by that I mean what is her conception of the act of creation or her way of questioning art and its purpose?
Giovanni Lista : Yes, she is first and foremost an impulsive artist, just like Hartung, Mathieu and other painters from the Gestural abstraction and Informal art movements. The instinctive immediacy of gesture helps eliminate the rational mind and the control of reason – in other words, the goal is to cancel the crippling power of reason, which is the basis of academic training. She is therefore part of a family of painters and a tradition of modernity which dates back to the 1960s.
I mentioned the iconic lacerated works of Jacques Villeglé and Mimmo Rotella. But these are exactly the opposite of what Olivia Descampe’s work is about. In fact, she uses the palimpsest-effect as a metaphor for analytical, and perhaps even psychoanalytical work. The end result of her collages & decollages is an abstract, muddled texture akin to a Rorschach test, which the viewer must face in order to get a finer grasp of the more hidden aspects of their own identity. Amidst the multiple lacerations, minute fragments of color photographs reveal partial images that remind us of moments such as vacations, urban scenes, and even scenes from everyday life. These visual fragments are like stepping stones towards a work on our personal memories, as if they were fractured pieces of an identity, a person recomposing themselves, in other words they are iconographic materials opening onto anamnesis.
Her works are universal images that refer to pre-existing signifiers, because they are common to everyone’s life. The behavioral patterns in our life foreshadow each individual life, just as words foreshadow thoughts. In her collages & decollages, she does not use photography as a language or an aesthetic in its own right, since that would amount to denying its evocative force as a simple snapshot of a fleeting moment, or as an absolute image of a lived experience. By offering them in their ontological nudity, the photographic fragments thus emerge like flashes, suddenly emerging in the midst of sedimented material texture that appears decomposed, deconstructed, crushed by a long manual process, which excludes any formal orientation, and even any meaning. The indecipherable and silent images are nevertheless signals. Their visual aspect becomes meaningful, as in a therapy session, as the image’s iconographical character replaces the subtle acoustic imprint of words. In other words, Olivia Descampe’s work successfully transposes the semiotic realm of words, which governs the practices of psychoanalysis, to the visual universe of visual art.
A. F. : According to you, her work is therefore situated somewhere between Bergson and Freud, between psychology and psychoanalysis, or even between experience and the repressed unconscious …
Giovanni Lista : Yes, precisely. Bergson relates to the process of thought drawn from lived experience; Freud has more to do with the realm of the unconscious, although Olivia Descampe is familiar with Jung’s ‘depth-psychology’, ie. the collective unconscious, as well. She even seems to depict it in its social or sociological dimension, as prerequisites to the models of behavior common to the entire tribe, as young would put it, meaning our Western civilization.
As far as her more recent works are concerned, she even introduced the word ‘retroavangarda’, thereby reflecting her wish to use avant-garde collage & decollage, not to seek the creative freedom of the future, as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti or Mircea Eliade would have said, but the evocative force of memory instead, meaning the image as testimony of a bygone era. This is the essence, in my opinion, of these photographic fragments which appear in the intervals of her textures of material.
In doing so, she renews the work created by the 1960s poster artists. Far from producing work that is a more or less political form of sociology, she explores the identity and memories that compose each human being.