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Sylvie Fleury,2002


Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury doesn't take anything too seriously. But she is, in fact, quite serious. She brazenly makes art that addresses shopping, extra-terrestrials, and New Age thinking. Sylvie has a sense of humor. She's fearless. In Europe, you regularly see her work in newspapers and magazines. It creates glamorous provocations, like the time she showed a hundred bottles of Egoïste perfume in little Chanel bags on a table at the Cologne Art Fair in 1991. Every one of them was pinched on the very first night. Sylvie's show was stolen.

PETER: You just had a show of your new work at Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris. Did a lot of people come to the opening?
Uff. There were a lot of friends there, because I hadn’t had a show in Paris for a long time. Unfortunately, I don’t quite remember who came, because I had been working on the project non-stop, day and night, before the opening. That evening I was so tired — maybe I drank too much or something. [laughs]

PETER: The first time I saw your work was in New York in 1992, when you showed shopping bags on the floor at Postmasters gallery. I hadn’t met you yet, but when I walked into that space I was blown away.
Someone introduced us and you said, “This is very spooky, what you’re doing.” [laughs] I remember it exactly.

PETER: Well, it was spooky. I mean, formally the pieces had so much presence — and you had made so many interesting decisions about which shopping bags to use. You were one of the first people to look at fashion branding, and how that relates to the art world.
I wouldn’t say I was one of the first. There are many artists who did that — Andy Warhol, for instance. But maybe I happened to capture that feeling for a new generation.

PETER: My idea is that some time in the ’70s, people in international fashion began to look at how artists were treated in the media. People like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Giorgio Armani began, through photography, advertising, and the manipulation of images, to sort of brand themselves as artists. I don’t think Warhol ever addressed that.
No. And you’re right, that was part of my interest. But I was just following my intuition — I could never quite say why I did the shopping bags. I was shopping a lot in those days, and I felt that it was relevant.

PETER: Were you thinking about the idea of the readymade?
Yes, but the readymade had been done so much already. There was no point in just redoing a readymade. I liked the idea that the work could be completely superficial. There was also the idea of seduction, the idea of brands, names, labels, and all this stuff that was very present in the late ’80s. I also liked that the work was abstract, in that when you looked at the shopping bags, their contents were hidden and you couldn’t quite know what was in them.

PETER: Am I correct that inside the shopping bags there were always boxes with things you had bought?
I never got a shopping bag and then put something in it. I would buy something in order to get the shopping bag, and I would leave the piece of clothing in the bag. This is a bit of a secret, but I would try as often as I could to choose an item which quoted or referenced something from art history. For instance, if I found some article of clothing with an Op Art design, I would pick that piece. There has always been a special relationship between art and fashion.

PETER: I’m especially interested in the connection between art and fashion in Paris in the ’20s.
People like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were very close to artists. And there have also been lots of artists who designed pieces of clothing over the years.

PETER: Do you agree that fashion branding sort of changed in the ’80s, and that designers became more conscious of creating an image?
I do. Also, artists really began to wear designer clothes at that time.

PETER: Your next body of work used women’s shoes, usually scattered on the floor. I want to ask you about the piece that you showed at the museum in Esslingen. You took high heeled shoes with a Mondrian design on them and scattered them on the surface of a copper Carl Andre floor piece. It was perfect.
Unfortunately it was a short-lived piece, because Mr. Andre didn’t like it. He had it removed after two days. If you have a catalog with that image in it you should keep it, because afterwards all the catalogs had my page removed!

PETER: Oh, really? Oh my god.
Yeah. That proves you can’t just walk on Carl Andre. [laughs]

PETER: The irony is that his pieces are supposed to be walked on.
Afterwards, I did a video called Walking on Carl Andre, where I had girls wearing those same shoes go to Krefeld, where there was a big retrospective of his work. When the girls arrived at the museum and asked permission to walk on all the beautiful Carl Andres that were on exhibit, of course they were refused authorization. But I wanted to do that project so badly I said, “Let’s just find out which collectors near Geneva own his work. Let’s ask them if we can walk on their floor pieces with high heels.” I think that gave more depth to the video, because you see what a Carl Andre looks like in a private home, and that is also an experience.

PETER: To be honest, I never understood his work until I saw it in a collector’s house. You need to see them in a domestic environment to appreciate their delicacy. But tell me, did you ever talk to Carl Andre directly?

PETER: Why did he have the right to refuse to show his piece in Esslingen? Didn’t the museum own it?
The reason they had to remove it was because the piece had been installed incorrectly, according to his instructions. It was too close to some columns. That’s also why he had the right to remove the image from the catalog — because of course it was photographed in that space.

PETER: You know, in terms of your intentions, the piece has the perfect ending. “The unyielding male artist protests.”
It’s a funny story. Maybe it’s a little sad for Carl Andre, because it shows his lack of humor. The thing is, I didn’t mean to do him wrong, you know? That’s why I was slightly upset — because he thought I was insulting him, which wasn’t the case at all.

PETER: So next, in the mid ’90s, you got interested in cars.
I was always interested in cars, to tell you the truth — even when I was a kid. I got my driver’s license in Switzerland in the late ’70s, during the petrol shortage. Nobody wanted to drive American cars, so they were really cheap. The ’68 Camaro was my first car ever.

PETER: Oh wow. Were you already interested in art at that point too?
I wasn’t especially. Actually, I started out doing little movies with friends when I lived in New York in the early ’80s. I was twenty years old. My parents had sent me to America to be an au pair, and I hated it immediately. So I went to live with some NYU film students in the East Village. At the time, I wanted to be a photographer.

PETER: Really? That makes sense to me.
My friends had no money. So when they were working on a film, they’d say, “Oh, you have a camera. Why don’t you do the production photography for us?” I did that very stupidly, like a sweet au pair girl would do. Then one of them said, “Your photos are great, you should go to photo school.” I tried to get into a real art school like SVA, but they asked for a portfolio and I had no idea what that was. So I went to a regular school where they just taught me how to use the camera, how to process film, and how to print.

PETER: That’s better. Believe me.
[laughs] I don’t know. Then I went back to Geneva and I had a sort of crazy life. I was always going out and organizing parties. I lived in a place that I changed into a kind of doctor’s office. I had a hospital bed and an electroshock machine. I had a dentist’s chair. I lived with all these bottles of medicine.

PETER: What was that about?
I have no idea. I’m very obsessive about things, so when I get into something, I really live it.

PETER: Wow. Was it like a film set, or did you begin to play the role of the doctor?
I didn’t really play doctor. But I was driving a white station wagon with little red crosses on it, as well as collecting objects with red crosses. When I had to find a job, of course I went to work for the Red Cross. That lasted three years. My only goal was to steal as many objects as possible.

PETER: And you haven’t done anything with those objects since then?
No, nothing. I’m not even quite sure where they are. One day I’ll find them.

PETER: So once an obsession ends, it’s really over.
Well, the other day I was in a fancy shop that sells latex clothes. I saw a little white panty and bra set with red crosses on them, and I almost bought them. But I decided not to, because I also like it when my obsession leaves, somehow.

PETER: From ’92 until recently, you accepted all kinds of invitations to do shows around the world. You’ve had exhibitions in Australia, Japan, New York, probably every place in Europe. Sometimes the galleries or museums wouldn’t have any money. Instead of saying no, you always thought of the kind of piece you could do under those circumstances. Clearly, that takes a lot of energy. It’s also really generous.
Actually, it’s energizing. Trying new things generates more energy than closing down and saying, “No, I won’t do anything more for six months or a year.”

PETER: So in the mid ’90s, you started putting classic American cars in art galleries.
I’m still driving the first car I ever exhibited, actually. Nobody bought the piece, and I thought it was so beautiful that I kept it. It’s a 1967 Buick Skylark in a color called Champagne, which is in-between gold and silver, very beautiful, metallic, but very matte because it’s so old.

PETER: When you showed the car, was that the only thing in the gallery?
No, there was a little Chanel compact on the floor which had been crushed by the car. There was “girl group” music coming from the stereo, and a pair of sunglasses and a scarf on the seat.

PETER: I’ve always heard that in the ’60s there were lots of American cars in Switzerland.
Yeah, there used to be quite a few. There’s a plant near Geneva where they used to put GM cars together, which had been shipped in parts from the U.S. In fact, some American collectors especially like the cars that were put together by Swiss people — they say they’re better made. But I think the primary reason we had so many American cars was that Switzerland didn’t manufacture any car brands, so we didn’t have to protect that market.

PETER: Let me mention some of the cars you’ve shown. There’s a white convertible Chevrolet Corvair. There’s a black convertible Corvette. Then there’s a Chrysler Comet where each exterior panel is painted a different pink.
The Comet was funny. I wanted to paint each part of a car in a make-up color. The gallery found that one for me, but it didn’t have an engine. That bothered me slightly, but in the end I thought, “Oh well, it’s fine. Let’s really go for the superficial.”

PETER: And then you began to crush cars.
To tell you the truth, the initial idea was to get a crushed car, and then uncrush it. But nobody wanted to do it for me. [laughs] I became interested in the crushed cars when I started going to junkyards to get parts for my own cars. I’ve always been fascinated by them.

PETER: You like going to junkyards?
SYLVIE: Oh, I love it. There’s something horribly tragic about looking at the cars, because you can’t help thinking, “Maybe someone died in this.” However, you’ve probably noticed that in my work there’s very little space for being sentimental or emotional. I always focus on very pristine things. So I came up with this idea, which was to cover a crushed car with a nail polish color. I used Givenchy.

PETER: At a certain point, you also began to paint the walls of your exhibitions with different colors. You began to put words and phrases on the wall, as well.
The first time I did that was for the Venice Biennale in 1993. I painted the word “EGOISTE” on a black wall, and in front of it there were monitors playing aerobics videos I’d found.

PETER: And then you began to make rocket ships that look almost like cartoons of rockets, very simple. Of course, they’re very phallic, but they’re also painted in all kinds of feminine colors. When I see one of those pieces, it puts me in a good mood, because nothing is being taken too seriously.
They’re like huge vibrators. They have a sound element, which I worked on with Sidney Stucki from Geneva — he’s called DJ Sid. We made a very beautiful soundtrack where you hear weird sounds, and from time to time someone yelling, “Egoiste,” which is a very well-known perfume for men by Chanel.

PETER: Did you have a lot of ideas about the sound, or was Sidney in charge of that?
Most of the time I would come up with the idea for a sound and he’d record it. Then we started playing around. The name of that piece is First Spaceship on Venus, so I guess the soundtrack is almost like when a ship is landing on the moon in a B-movie.

PETER: People often discuss your work in terms of fashion, but I’m thinking that the language of your work is very much the language of film — your installations are like a film experience.
You know, I tried to make a little movie about vampires once. But I realized it was way too much effort for me, because I’m a lazy person. But yeah, I love how old B-movies would reuse sets in order to save money. I love it when I recognize a set from one film in a totally different scene in another movie.

PETER: One thing I love about the rockets is how alien they look in the formal setting of an art museum.
I like that. I also like the idea of life on other planets, in the sense that it recalibrates our own perception of ourselves. Last year I made a couple of UFO landing sites in front of museums and galleries. I was really hoping that aliens would recognize the sign, and that they would land during my openings. Unfortunately, they didn’t. I guess they were shy.

PETER: Do you think there are UFOs?
Of course, I’ve seen some.

PETER: Why would people who were so sophisticated that they could travel from solar system to solar system bother to hide?
Because they want to take over, maybe. Or perhaps they’re not hiding — maybe we know a few.
PETER: Probably. When you read a magazine article about science — about the shape of the universe or something — do you find it all believable?
I think what interests me most is what cannot be proven. If something’s kind of foggy, I’ll go for it and I’ll believe in it — much more than anything that can be proven.

PETER: Wow. That was Kirkegaard’s view of what belief is — that if you can prove it, it’s not belief.
That’s why I kind of dig the New Age stuff too.

PETER: Well that’s what you’re working on now, right? Tell me what you showed in Paris.
Downstairs I showed Aura Portraits. I have this machine which is a digital camera combined with a computer system. You take someone’s photo and then have him put his hand on a sensor, and the machine translates the person’s aura into colors on the screen around the portrait. I discovered it at a fair in New York called “New Life 2000.” I just loved the idea that suddenly there was a way of doing a traditional portrait that would somehow also abstract a person into a color field.

PETER: And what did you show upstairs?
Five huge, over-sized metal pendulums. There were four that hung from the ceiling, and one lying down on the floor. Around the room, there was a neon frieze with words from cosmetic products, like “revive,” “soothe,” “shield,” and “hydrate.”

PETER: This is a new idea for you, the pendulum.
Yeah, I chose very special pendulums that had exciting shapes. They were beautifully made in Switzerland. You know, pendulums are very sculptural objects.

PETER: I know you see all this New Age stuff as a little bit campy or ironic. But are you actually interested in that type of thing too?
Yes, I am.

PETER: So are you becoming more spiritual?
Well I’m influenced. It’s like fashion — you can never say it doesn’t affect you. But to me, that stuff remains superficial, which is an important aspect of my work. I’m always dealing with the superficiality of things, but I try to do it in a deeper way.

PETER: How do you deal with the superficial in a deep way?
Just recontextualizing something that’s very superficial will give it a new depth. And sometimes, just being a woman and showing something — like a pair of shoes, a car, or a Carl Andre — gives it another dimension.
© index magazinegelatin1
Sylvie Fleury by Leeta Harding, 2002
© index magazinetobias
Sylvie Fleury by Leeta Harding, 2002

© index magazinegelatin1
If, Postmasters, New York by Herve Mikaeloff, 1992
© index magazinetobias
Courtesy to Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris, 2002


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