Tania Mouraud’s retrospective at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, curated by Hélène Guenin and Elodie Stroecken, spans features over 70 works of art dating from the late 1960s to today. In June, the show spreads beyond the walls of the museum when nine surrounding locations will host additional works of Mouraud, engaging the entire city as an interlocking exhibition site. Mouraud began working in the 60s as a painter, shifting tacks in the 70s to create a series of immersive meditation rooms. She continued to explore additional mediums thereafter, returning to painting, and using photography, video, performance, and sound. Her body of work is robust and profound, calling out the negative space that occurs in both aesthetic and social conventions.
Tania Mouraud: I just finished the show, Ad Nauseam at MAC/VAL with a huge video about the destruction of books. It was phenomenal, you know. Fifty years later, people suddenly think I am a good artist. Everybody is waiting for this retrospective at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
Caroline Picard: Did you install billboards at MAC/VAL too?
TM: For the Ad Nauseam video installation, there was also a huge tarpaulin in the museum with text. The translated phrase comes from an American philosopher, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and on the façade there was also a text in French: M’aime pas peur. It is something kids say when they are afraid and want to say that they are not afraid to do something.M’aime pas peur: not even afraid to be an artist, a woman artist. Not even afraid to speak about important things. I made 73 additional billboards that said, “I have a dream.”
CP: Where will they be?
TM: I’m installing “I have a dream” billboards in the Paris Metro. They advertise the Metz show but without my name or any other information. There is so much racism and anti-Semitism right now, the phrase seems important. “I have a dream” has become a symbol all over the world.
CP: You first used billboards in the 70s—right? The first one just said “Ni” meaning neither/nor. I read it as a rejection of presented options, as though one could insist on other possibilities.
TM: Yes, that will also be in Metz. In fact the Metz show will be in two parts. The first part is the show in the museum, which is very funny for me.
TM: Because I have never shown in museums! Forty years later and here it is: The Centre Pompidou. What is good is that the second part of the retrospective starts in June, and for that, nine other exhibitions sites in the city of Metz will show my work: huge video installations, huge wall paintings, and also wallpapers. And then 40 billboards with the Ni in the outskirts of Metz, because now the large advertisements are not allowed in city centers.
CP: Oh really?
TM: Yeah, because they have to preserve patrimonial architecture [laughs]. Anyhow, it is good that there is also art in the outskirts.
CP: It’s interesting that your show seems to begin in 1968 with Autodafé, when you burned your paintings and took a picture.
TM: For me that was not an extraordinary thing to do. At that time I was very young—25 or 26—I thought becoming an artist meant being a painter. After I went to Documenta I realized I could be an artist with any medium. The painting I was doing seemed suddenly so poor and uninteresting that I simply burnt it. I did a tabula rasa to begin a new life as an artist.
CP: It’s a nice origin story. Even though you had come so far in one medium, you decided to begin again in a different direction.
TM: Yes, exactly. And all along my life as an artist every three or four years I was symbolically doing the same thing; I’d stop one thing and begin with a new medium.
CP: Like Madonna.
TM: Yes! [laughs] But for me when I have become a craftsman, I have to change. Because it stops involving research and isn’t challenging anymore. Changing the medium I use helps me stay humble, like a researcher going into the field of her research. Whereas if you are always doing the same thing you become, you know, with a potbelly, feeling like you are the only one who knows anything.
CP: The Centre Pompidou-Metz show is organized chronologically, suggesting that after you burned your paintings you started thinking about entire rooms.
TM: I started a white painting which I called Infinite Square (1968). It’s not made with the brush, but out of plastic Formica in the shape of a painting. The advantage of this is that the result is like a mirror except you don’t see your face, just your shadow. After that I made a sculpture, Totemization(1968), which is built with the measurements of the body in Formica. Again it is very shiny. Then I made the first meditation room, which includes a hole that can be a bed or a coffin. After that I did some similar projects, but I not too many. I didn’t want to manufacture 200,000 meditation rooms.
CP: I saw an English translation of one of the meditation room titles and it seemed like of a Virginia Wolf reference —
TM: The critics made that connection, not me. Wolf hadn’t entered the public domain yet; nobody spoke about her. It was a hippie time, you know. I was living on the floor, dreaming, and listening to Ravi Shankar.
CP: It sounds so Romantic, somehow.
TM: I have absolutely no nostalgia for the time of my youth. A lot of pieces have been remade for the retrospective because I didn’t want the original pieces exhibited again in 2015. The original works have become yellow, or sepia-colored. It gives them a nostalgic presence that I didn’t want. So we remade everything new.
CP: What was it like seeing your old art brand new again?
TM: I felt exactly the same as I did forty years before.
CP: The concept of a retrospective seems different if all of the works are re-fabricated at the same time.
TM: The only thing that is not new are the paintings. All the paintings I did—the work where I describe the negative space of letters, or the work of decorative painting from the 80s and 90s—those have not been remade because the medium didn’t change. They don’t look old fashioned.
CP: That makes want to ask about your Black Power Meme(1989/92)?
TM: I did a lot of photography at the time. I was photographing, developing, and printing the film. I stopped doing that when I could look at the negatives and know exactly what its positive print would be. One day when I showed my work to somebody I was tired and I saw the photograph like it was a negative. I got this little kick inside, Yes! I knew I could paint again! I used writing because it left no aesthetical choices. Like what should I put next to a triangle if I painted one, you know, boring aesthetical problems. Using writing gave me a system of predetermined logic, freeing me to play with other things. If you paint the negative space of text, people are so used to looking at what hangs on the wall, they don’t see the wall itself. That’s why I did this double meaning. Perceptual Black Power. I look at the black shapes and I don’t see what is on the wall—that’s something for the art world. But I also wanted to connect to the fight of black communities having the same rights as white communities.
CP: Tell me about Sightseeing (2002), your video about a French concentration camp.
TM: I asked a musician to make a contemporary composition with Klezmer sound. The Armenian musician was in France because her family escaped the Armenian genocide. I asked her to compose something for all genocides and said the piece lasted seven minutes, which wasn’t true. It lasts 6:35. I didn’t want to tell her please make a composition to 6:21 because she would’ve done what we call the cadence and so it will be the end. I wanted to cut in the middle and in fact, at 6:21 suddenly we see the entrance of the concentration camp from afar. I don’t enter the camp.
CP: I found a quote where you say, “Women do not act out of fear, but out of love and knowledge,” but in an interview about Sightseeing you say, “Before I started this piece I had to leave my ego behind; I had to leave my feminism behind for a moment.”
CP: Was leaving your feminism behind particular to this piece, or do you always do that?
TM: The artist’s ego is never present in a good piece. For example, in video I do everything myself. I do the shooting; I do the editing, and the sound. Apart from the clarinet—I had to ask someone else to do that. But I don’t have an assistant. When I’m shooting I want to react. I’m completely merging into the subject. There is no ego when you merge into something else and I think there is no ego in good art. I was thinking suddenly, I don’t know why but I was thinking about Picasso’s Guernica, it is so direct. Or when he is painting his children, you feel the love, it flows directly into you. All the good art is direct—you don’t even think about the artist, but only about ourselves, about our feelings. We merge into those feelings and the artist disappears.