In this interview with the French artist Jeanne Susplugas we discussed what inspires her in her work, including the idea of ’ramifications’ she explores via our neurons, the trees, the cosmos. Her installations and photographs reveal the thoughts that haunt us, houses we keep inside us like a sky that can be clear, stormy, or any nuance in between.
When we pause and look at a sky we find beauty in, everything seems to wait for our gaze: tiny variations in color, shifting clouds, faces even…It’s like a magical forest in the air that could connect us to galaxies -the starry sky like a tree, and the constellations perhaps a kind of brain of the universe.
Jeanne Susplugas’ installations and photographs bring us closer to these mysterious areas of our consciousness. As part of her solo show at the Mansart gallery in Paris, you will see a forest of genealogical and therapeutic trees…No more to be said. The exhibition ‘Unreasonable Daily Life’ lasts until July 26.
Art with a capital A
Wind, fire, earth water… If your work or your personality were an element, which would you choose?
If I refer to the theory of Galen, and later Hippocrates,
I would say the air that represents sociability and ideas, thoughts, theories and other speculations!
Is there a work of art or a situation, an individual or a particular place that inspired you to become an artist?
I think it is first of all Art of course, with a capital A.
I experimented a lot in my small workshop and I was also very passionate about History of Art that I studied for several years.
When making a choice, a number of people at the time gave me confidence and encouraged me not to be afraid to go for creativity.
Jeanne Susplugas, Tattoo, 2017, tirage c-print © Jeanne Susplugas
Would you say that you are spiritual? To what extent does spirituality feed your work?
The world is too brutal to face it without spirituality.
It seems to me that every day I seek what’s essential and thereby raise my level of consciousness.
It is this consciousness that allows me to understand, conceive, feel, perceive the world around me and access a form of inner peace.
I don’t think that suffering is a prerequisite for art.
It seems to me that on the contrary,
the more one feels inner peace the more creativity becomes something possible, rich and sincere.
It is this inner peace that generates, among other things, the serenity, benevolence, love and compassion that creation needs.
Jeanne Susplugas on the stairs of the La Patinoire Royale (Brussels), 2017
Tools of Testimony
“The brush is used to get things out of chaos”, said Zhao Wuji. Why do you use ink on paper, and how can this technique express those flashes that might animate our brain? Can you tell us more about this in your personal exhibition at the Mansart gallery.
Ink on paper is one of many “tools” I use because, in my work, it is above all the subject that dictates the medium. I find drawing very intimate, this is why pencil and inks came naturally to me for the series In my brain, which I started in 2017.
I began making these portraits or “neuro-portraits” to look playful and naive and reveal our thoughts, from the most cheerful to the darkest.
I wanted to highlight what constitutes our psyche, the thoughts that haunt our neurons.
To make these portraits, I collect testimonies by asking people to tell me their thoughts, ranging from the most casual, everyday to more obsessive ones.
I transcribe them using easily understandable pictograms in order to create a “universal language”.
In the gallery, the drawing In my brain responds to the installation Literary database, which here takes on a whole new dimension.
From an empty sound library it was transformed into a cabinet of curiosities, a mixture of works from different eras, “residues” from the workshop and other personal items. Aspects of my life ‘path’ like so many thoughts filling up my congested brain.
The title “unreasonable everyday” also refers to the disturbing situation we are in with covid-19. Faced with confinement, art and creativity can be so soothing to the mind… Are writing, music and reading therapeutic for you?
My work talks a lot about confinement.
These days it becomes obvious that life would be impossible without art.
Reading and music are all crutches that help me, that help us through life.
Individual therapies that allow us to face this world.
Jeanne Susplugas, Base de données littéraires, 2014, mixed media © Luc Jennepin
Family trees, toxic plants and magic forests
The Japanese practice of “forest bathing”, “shinrin-yoku”, emphasizes the well-being that trees give us, and the ramifications of their branches are like a parallel to our nervous system. Does the tree appear in certain forms in your creative process and your works?
There are a lot of ramifications in my work.
Arborescences, the tree as a biologic motif, is found in the worlds of macro but also of the pulmonary micro-tree, neurons and veins or synaptic networks … all the way up to galaxies.
For the past few years, I have produced a series of trees called Family Tree.
They come from real testimonies that become fiction and absurdity since people’s names have been replaced with their pathology.
These trees refer to the genogram used in family or individual therapy in order to understand the individual, taking into account generational transmission as well as their current family context.
My trees quickly emancipated themselves from paper to become Wall paintings.
But at the Mansart Gallery, it was the first time I made a forest of family trees, a “magic” forest in the therapeutic sense.
This encourages spectators to get closer, to enter the world of phobias but also nature which invites to reconnect with ourselves. This forest is absurd, made of huge types of vegetation that reflect how species have been altered due to climate change.
In this Wall painting, the photograph of an arm tattooed with a row of neural trees alludes to a fire which sadly resonates with recent devastations of forests worldwide.
The ceramic was freshly made in Portugal and comes from a wallpaper made a few years ago from toxic plants –
a reminder that nature too oscillates between healing and poison.
What attracts you most to Emily Dickinson’s poetry? I am thinking in particular of your exhibition at the under construction gallery, the title “No need for a house to be haunted “ taken from one of her poems
Her poetry is rooted in the intimate.
Emily Dickinson often refers to the “unexplored continent”, this very private place which she lights up with flowers.
But this nature is often adorned with dark and threatening clouds, populated by castles and prisons, corridors and rooms, possible remains of the “self”.
The title I had borrowed from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems refers to the haunted and tortuous brain, like certain architectures.
I feel a certain presence in her writings, the fear of a possible changeover.
That’s what I’m talking about in my work, like her poems, this limit, this sudden shift to madness that’s sweet but delusion, real pathology or any other mysterious and disturbing grey areas.
Jeanne Susplugas, Mass Destruction, 2008 (view of Prendre soin, Tonnerre, 2017) © Jeanne Susplugas
La Maison Malade, your work at arTsenal also uses this metaphor of the house, in the sense of mental space. Can you tell us more about this project, and in what ways does the house integrate into your installations and sculptures – perhaps as a refuge, a base, alienation, confinement …?
The Sick House was presented at the arTsenal art center in Dreux, but it is an installation dating from 1998-1999.
It is an enclosed space, saturated with boxes of medicine, stacked, piled up from floor to ceiling. Each box tells a story and sends us back to our own life, our own evils.
A padded room, inspired by psychiatric hospitals, which is supposed to protect the patients but which encloses them
is like our society, sick of its overproduction, satiated to the point of choking.
Against ailments which we no longer know whether they are the result of discomfort through a hypochondriac delirium, or due to the excessive consumption of chemical substances, or all at the same time …
This installation is the basis of almost all of my thinking
The house is everywhere as a refuge, something modular that adapts itself to where it goes to.
But this house oscillates between protection and alienation because it is not always benevolent and conceals its secrets.
What is really going on behind the door?
Jeanne Susplugas, La maison malade, 1999, mixed media © Jeanne Susplugas
Our house in the middle of the street..
“In my art, I am the murderer […]“ Louise Bourgeois. The murderer, the “woman-house” echoes structures, buildings constructed or imagined. Do you use architecture to express certain emotions, whether violent or not?
I draw from the house that feeds work and vice versa. This space we inhabit makes us, humans, a species apart – the animal shelter becomes habitat.
Home is the extension of our body and the place of all our states of mind.
We identify with the place we live in, the mirror of our emotions and our anxieties.
By the way, in French we use the expression one’s “interior” when we mean ‘feelings’, or inner thoughts.
This identification is expressed through our language: faced with an imminent danger there is “danger in the home”; when confused we no longer know “where we live” …
The limits of the body merge with the spatial limits of one’s home.
A house is a place of protection, confinement, but also alienation, fear, fantasies, representation and power.
Jeanne Susplugas, Stratégie d’enfermement, 2012, mixed media © Jeanne Susplugas
In relation to the confinement situation we are living in, it reminds me of 2012 when I organized a group exhibition at the Maison des arts de Malakoff, Our house in the middle of the street dealt with all these questions.
There’s this song by ‘Madness’, humorous but with a touch of nostalgia, that speaks of a family that lives under the same roof and goes crazy…
In these troubled times, I will conclude on this idea of the house with a funny quote from Pablo Neruda,
Jeanne Susplugas, Light House III, 2013, led, aluminium. © Jeanne Susplugas
I build my house like a toy and play it from morning to night.
Structuring sounds & substances
How do you integrate voice and acoustics in your practice?
Sounds and voices are very present in my work.
In many exhibitions, sound structures the space, it inhabits it, dresses it and fills it up.
I like to create and orchestrate these sounds.
At the Mansart gallery, I deliberately removed the sound from the installation / library because the cabinet of curiosities is already quite busy. But it was originally a library emptied of its physical content to replace it with a recording.
I had excerpts from books, which I have collected for over twenty years, recorded by actors.
These extracts, from Muriel Barbery to Christophe Rioux or Eva Ensler, were combined to craft new stories that were more or less absurd and bittersweet.
The texts that I request from writers, Marie Darrieussecq, Marie-Gabrielle Duc or Basile Panurgias, are different sources of inspiration which in turn become sound pieces, films, performances… I adjust their sounds to the ‘taste’ of my installations by making them exist in different ways.
Voices came out of the cardboard modules at the show All the world’s a stage, held at the Art Center for Milk in Albi; others from the pharmacist’s military fund, Pharmacie Lieutnant, during the A-part festival, which alludes to the Modiodal,
an anti-sleep pill used by the military to keep soldiers operational 24 /7.
Others are used in the form of sound naps which are not always very relaxing.
The very last sound I made, Little helpers, is a mix of extracts from around 200 euphoric, hovering and exciting songs that evoke one or more substances, legal or illicit, which I have assembled without hierarchy. The songs have close links with the use of substances that indicate the specificities of each generation.
Music is also a kind of drug, as when we listen to it, our brain increases its dopamine level which in turn increases the adrenaline.
Let’s imagine you could change anything in the art world … what would be a priority for you?
Gender equality and the visibility of minorities.
It must be implemented today, but also that the history of art be completely revised and taught from an egalitarian point of view, which would put many ideas and theories into perspective.
And last but not least, we are keen to know more about your upcoming projects…
I always work on several projects at the same time.
At the beginning of the week I was in Avignon for a solo show, “I made your house in my skull”, at the Ardénome dedicated to the art of new media, with a special weekend organized with French Tech .
Now, I’m preparing another exhibition at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, in the decorative arts section in the Sabatier d’Espeyran Mansion.
It’s a unique place with remarkable furniture and collections, and the exhibition is focused on the “pharmaceutical” aspect of my work, in connection with the 800th anniversary of the city’s medical school.
I am also in post-production of a puppet film that’s supported by the Villa Seurat Foundation for Contemporary Art.
It will then take on different forms, including performance.
The first will be presented in October at the Generator in Gentilly.
In August I will take part in the exhibition En piste! at the Musée de la Boverie in Liège for which I am doing a wall painting which will be a sort of foreword to the one I will be doing next spring at the Sart Tilman Open Air Museum, also in Liège.
Jeanne Susplugas, Detail, Mind Mapping, 2017, ink on paper. © Jeanne Susplugas
Among other current and future projects, one that is very close to my heart,
to echo the name of your magazine, is my first virtual reality project, “I will sleep when I’m dead”, on which I worked for several months.
It has started to materialize especially thanks to the VR festival residency that I carried out last summer in Arles.
It will be finished at the start of the school year to be presented at the ON festival in Arles and then at the Ardénome – coinciding with the Biennale Chroniques.
Galerie Mansart, Paris
Author: Alexandra Etienne