When the London-based artist Fabrice Le Nézet sent out a press release for his latest work, a number of online commentators and arts websites were justifiably excited. The photos showed four enormous concrete blocks suspended at different heights by tenuous-looking metal bars from the ceiling of Dalston Junction station in north-east London. They seemed to amount to a striking and original piece of public art. In particular, the website ‘It’s Nice That’ hailed the work as ‘ingenious’ and encouraged their readers to head out to take a look at Le Nézet’s sculptures for themselves.
However, as quickly became apparent, it would be impossible for anyone to do so. There were, in fact, no giant concrete sculptures in Dalston Junction. The press release images were created using Photoshop (see above), and the video was nothing more than a convincing use of computer generated imagery. Le Nézet’s work ‘Elasticity’, it turned out, was less a contribution to public art, and more a comment on how we consume art – through screens, through images.
What is interesting about the piece is that it was universally received as a ‘real’ work of art by critics and commentators online – ‘real’ in the sense that it seemed to have a physical presence in the world. At the centre of this has been ‘It’s Nice That’s coverage of Le Nézet’s work. The website interviewed Le Nézet himself, who responded to their questions about his work as if it were corporeally manifest. They also wrote an editorial in which one of their editors celebrated Le Nézet’s work, whilst another wrote angrily about it as a ‘hoax’ and a ‘fake’, and described how he had felt cheated by the artist. Yet they had failed to visit the site of the ‘sculptures’ for themselves, despite Dalston Junction being less than fifteen minutes’ walk from their offices. It has therefore raised significant questions, about the relation of artist to critic, of truth and lying, and of what might constitute a ‘real’ artwork. On behalf of the King’s Review, I spoke to Le Nézet about a number of these themes and about whether or not he felt he had deceived his critics.
Fabrice, your most recent artwork has gained some attention because it does not exist in material form. You say ‘Elasticity’ ‘materializes the idea of tension’ and makes ‘palpable’ the notion of weight, yet it exists only in digital form. What was your intent for ‘Elasticity’? How seriously should we take the notion that abstract ideas can be realized or ‘materialized’ without existing in the physical world?
Fabrice Le Nezet:
Early this year, I started thinking about making some massive sculptures, and I wanted those to stand in a public space, so many people could see them. I found out that Dalston Junction station would be a perfect space to develop a project. It came to me it would take ages to get the authorisation, without being sure this would eventually happen. Once designed, I eventually ended up with the idea of setting up this project in two steps.
The first step was the creation of a viral video that would show the installation as realistically as possible, as if someone had shot it with a phone. I wanted the video to be an experience for the viewer, a proper immersion with the sculptures already in context, not a classic architectural preview. This was also a way to share this idea and a good approach to find out if people would be interested in it.
The second step will now be the making of the sculptures. This involves meeting the right people to get approval and funding, to study the feasibility of the project and the potential safety issues. There is a long way to go but hopefully this video will help me in selling the project.
The project ‘materialized’ the elasticity concept because it gives a visual representation of an abstract concept. Eventually, with this idea of spreading the project without mentioning it doesn’t physically exist, a second concept emerged that goes far beyond the initial project.
At the heart your thinking in this second, conceptual development, you seem to be concerned with a lost intimacy between art and its audience, and with the mediation of images through technology. Are we, like tourists who see the world through their cameras, at risk of losing something ‘real’ in our experience of art? Does this say something about how we interact culturally and socially more generally?
Yes, I do think we are losing some connections with the real world due to the amount of time we spend in front of screens, but I am not here to judge if this is good or bad. While working on this project, it came to me that it was raising some questions and interrogations: What is the credibility of images in a society in which most of the artworks are seen through a screen?
What interests me is the trust people place in pictures. People give a lot of credit to images, it is pretty rare to question their reality. Most of the time, we will look at thousands of pictures of places, events or people that we will never see in our lives. The fact that all those pictures are part of our daily lives makes it part of our own reality. Maybe this is the emergence of a new kind of reality?
Also, nowadays only a few people are able to produce digital photorealistic images, but I think in the near future everyone will be able to do so. For this reason, these questions will become more important, and more frequently asked. I am also curious about how this might affect people’s memories, after some time. Even though they know the project doesn’t exist physically, will they still have sculptures in mind, standing in that train station?
An editor of ‘It’s Nice That’ mentioned that they had interviewed you about the piece. I quote: ‘To carry on lying when someone takes the time to find out more about the project seems like an unfair extension of the original ideas he was exploring.’ How do you feel about the suggestion that your project was an extended lie? And do you feel, as an artist, that you have broken a pact with your audience or perhaps with your critics — treating them ‘unfairly’?
First of all, having spoken to Rob Alderson from ‘It’s Nice That’, I want to say I have a lot of respect for them. Those art and design blogs are doing a great job, and my objective was clearly not to hurt anyone.
Even though I understand the reactions of those people who felt tricked, I think this was necessary to the project. If it hadn’t been part of the work, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. People who have spread the project over the internet were unconscious actors, part of the actual development of the piece.
I think my goal is to surprise people, not to give them what they expect from me. Audience and critics are searching for new subjects with interesting approaches. So, in that spirit, I think my project ‘Elasticity’ is justifiable.
The editors of ‘It’s Nice That’, though, suggest that works like yours might burn a few bridges, reasoning that magazines will be less likely to feature your work if they can’t trust in the validity of it. They write, “Taking the decision to trick people with whom you have an existing relationship also requires a lot of nerve.” Given that your piece existed as a press release, I wonder if you also had in mind, when working on the project, the marketability of artworks?
Well, I completely understand that people can feel destabilized by the nature of the project, but I hope they will eventually think that the approach was interesting. Anyway, even though I am thinking of further exploring some of the questions raised by this project, I have no intention of doing exactly the same thing again. So, next time I publish a project I’ll have to make myself clear as to whether it is a digital or a physical project.
Finally, with the distinction between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’ in mind, I have read a number of comments to the effect of ‘it’s not a sculpture if it was done on a computer’. Do you consider ‘Elasticity’ as a work of sculpture? Do categories like this matter less in our digital age?
Well, conceptually and visually, this project shares a lot with physical sculpture. Those structures have been conceived in three dimensions and are based on real materials. I can’t pretend those are proper sculptures but I would definitely say those are the result of a sculptural work.
I think this also questions the value of the digital: does a sculpture have less value because made digitally?