BARBARA SAFRAN DE NIVERVILLE: It seems to be a common notion that the landscape is either lovely and benign or threatening and treacherous. Do you agree with this polarity?
HERMÉNÉGILDE CHIASSON: Yes, especially right now because we have the feeling that the earth, or nature is going to get at us, that it’s going to kill us. I think it creates a false relationship between us and nature. It has always been Mother Nature, a nurturing concept, and nowadays we have the feeling that whether it’s the air or whether it’s the ground that we walk on, something bad is going to come out of it, sort of a new notion of landscape. Maybe this is why we have a very expressionist view of landscape – landscape as poison – like [Edward] Burtynsky the photographer does. But I think we have to rediscover nature, in more of an Andy Goldsworthy kind of approach, like you see in Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time. 1 I’ve looked at that film many times and it’s always a marvel because it shows nature again as being beautiful. I think that’s what we have to draw on, the fact that we still have nature: that it’s still beautiful, that it’s still there, instead of always having an apocalyptic view of landscape. I still believe in beauty; I still believe in the fact that nature will reconcile us with beauty.
BSdeN: Can you speak about landscape’s symbolic significance in your work?
HC: Not so much because, like I said in the little blurb I had for my last exhibition at Galerie 12, the fact of being Acadian means we’ve sort of lost the land and it’s as if we don’t see ourselves as owners of the land. We see ourselves as renters or whatever. So landscape has been absent from not only painting or sculpture or what have you, but literature as well. It’s as if we just don’t want to go there. It’s very strange because if you look at other works that have come out of that relationship, namely Evangeline by Longfellow, there are descriptions of landscape that are absolutely marvellous but, of course, Longfellow is a romantic so it’s part of his persona. Maybe not so much for us!
BSdeN: Griselda Pollock has commented, “Landscape painting is both what is other to the human subject” and “space for projection … a sublimated self-portrait.” 2 Do you see the landscape settings of your work similarly as sublimated self-portraits?
HC: Just lately it’s a notion that I’m starting to experiment with, but I think it probably works better in video or works better in some form of art where you can move in the landscape. If you do painting, it’s more of a fixed view. It’s not the same relationship. And I also tend to see landscape as a metaphor, like in the exhibition I had. What I proposed were three landscapes. One was a very conventional kind of landscape, completed with painting. It was between a photograph and a painting, but the painting was completed with a very bucolic vision of a forest. And then there was a more modern landscape, seeing land-scapes as other people might not have seen them from the air, sort of creating an abstraction. And then a cultural landscape, which is truly a metaphor, because nowadays, you can apply the notion of land-scape to pretty well everything. And so culture in my mind is a landscape. Because you have to nurture it, you can entertain the same relationship as with other views of landscape.
BSdeN: Does the solitude of the forest become a setting for self-realization or self-awareness in your work?
HC: For a long time I thought that the most beautiful landscape was a minimal landscape of the sea because you have blue on top and blue below, and you only had those two lines. It’s very minimal and it’s horizontal as well, while the forest is vertical, so it’s a different view because of the complete notion of the ground. Everything takes place on the ground. It’s horizontal everywhere, but then if you have vertical you sort of match both things. The forest is something I grew up in. When I was a kid in St Simon [nb], there was a dirt road in front of our house and behind us was a forest, in front and everywhere. Nowadays, it’s where I live. It’s pretty well the same thing.
I’m interested in the contrast between the sea and the forest, the two main landscapes I experience. It’s very interesting and where I live now I’m four minutes walk from the sea. I really see the contrast when I’m in the woods. I become much more of a German Expressionist – an ingrown, very moody type. When I get to the sea, it’s sort of a Mediterranean feeling – very open, full of light and colour. Everything becomes so resonant. I really enjoy that.
BSdeN: Hans Ulrich Obrist has written: “The future is built out of frag-ments of the past.” 3 Can it be said that the present is also made of fragments of the past?
HC: Yeah, I think so. I think that I always had a problematic relationship with the past because in Acadia, you know, it’s as if everything goes back to the past. It’s as if we don’t have any present and that has been a very complex situation. I remember in the seventies, with the birth of the Université de Moncton, we started to generate that idea of modernity – saying, yeah, we have a past and it might be very painful, and it might be the cause of a lot of problems that we are going through, but we have control over that and we can change things. This is where we started to, in a way, be kind of aggressive towards the past, but I think right now that whatever you do, you need a memory. Like you say, our memory is always made of fragments. It’s as if it’s a huge puzzle and we’re missing a lot of pieces that could connect it. And I believe that in terms of history, we don’t have a comprehensive history of Acadia. All we have are fragments, nothing that would interconnect everything. Even for important events like the Deportation or the Expulsion, what we have is very – I wouldn’t say impressionistic – but parcellaire [fragmented]. You don’t have a written account. The only written account of the Expulsion is Winslow’s journal. 4 It’s very one-sided.
BSdeN: What is the relationship between recurring motifs in your work and your Acadian heritage? For instance, the profile figures and the dog that appeared recently. How did these personal symbols come about?
HC: For some reason, at some point, I realized that I have two master’s degrees and a diplôme from École Supérieur, one of the major schools in France and a phd and all that and I studied a great deal and everything I was doing was related to the history of art. I would create something and then say, “It looks like Picasso or it looks like Duchamp or Miró.” There was always a relationship in terms of Freud’s scheme of the Superego, the Ego and the Id. Well, there was always a Superego behind me saying, “Why do you do this? It’s been done before and it’s pointless! You gotta stop.” After a while, if you start listening to that it will freeze you. Then I realized, “ I have to go back to something that’s more fundamental, to the concept of beauty, to the aesthetic experience.” When did I realize that something was beautiful? It triggered a reflection and brought me back to St Simon, to the small village, I was talking about a while ago. Our neighbour had done some cutouts in plywood. He had put them in his yard. When you’re a kid, you’re amazed. This came out of nowhere – it came out of his mind, his imagination. Like I often say, for me, he was like Michelangelo and I started to think about that, about the fact that the Acadians had created something that would not be in the history of art, but it was something pertaining to aesthetics. I started to work in two dimensions. If you do a cutout, you can only do something like a profile. That’s how I started to work with profiles and things, that even if they were painted, I could cut them out. The same thing happened with the angels, which were always in profile. It came from my need to reconcile my over-intellectual view of art, which I did with a very mundane and childish approach to art.
BSdeN: Please talk about your personal symbols. Do they reference shared mythologies or do you see them as very individual?
HC: For a long while I would do angels. Now I don’t do them anymore. It was a phase for 20 years. I thought angels were figures that would appear. They were messengers, guides, or protectors. Those were three functions that I thought were important in this troubled age.
At some point what I did was the same thing I do in my writing. I would create an arbitrary subject. So whenever I have an exhibition, I try to determine some kind of constraint I will operate with, like doing a landscape. Then doing that landscape would be stretched like a sentence, so that you execute it as a partition [musical score]. It would relate to music more than anything else. These subjects came out of those constraints.
BSdeN: In your series, Guardian Angels, the angel figures appear sur-rounded by landscapes. What is the relationship between the angels and the suggested landscape?
HC: It’s always a very minimal vocabulary of symbols that would come like trees, and also doing minimal landscapes, but it’s very seldom that I would paint a landscape. There were always a lot of trees.
BSdeN: Text is an important element in your visual artwork. How do you decide which texts to include within the landscapes of your images?
HC: I think that most of the texts I write are used more as texture. In one show, not the most recent, but the one before, I rewrote over the text. I think it could become a story, but I’ve lost what it is, so now it’s just some kind of graffiti that builds on itself to create an impressionistic texture. Also, what I like is the beginnings and endings of sentences. So sometimes I will use the end of a sentence, but it doesn’t really make sense, or some expression – sometimes just words.
I think it would be interesting to work with just words and projection and that’s something that I might try because …bridging writing and the image is something I would like to explore more.
BSdeN: The landscape in some of your recent work seems to represent the speed and fragmentation of contemporary experience. Could you speak about this idea?
HC: Instead of having a regular landscape, I imposed on it, I divided the photograph, and then the painting that would complete and extend the photograph, with lines. This created a sort of barrier. It’s like Jean-Luc Godard when he was doing film. He said, “I always have to remind people that this is a film,” otherwise they will just indulge in some kind of, what he would call, a bourgeois kind of entertainment. So this is maybe the same approach. If you see those lines, you really have the feeling that it’s a painting: it’s an image. This is not a landscape; it’s not a window on the landscape. It goes against the illusion. There were verticals and some were horizontal. The vertical ones, in terms of the forest, would create a kind of rhythm. This relates also to the fact that when you’re in a car – I think it’s Roland Barthes who said that our experience with landscape is looking at it from the window of a car in motion. And that’s something I do, you know. Often I get in the car and I just drive into the landscape, but my experience of the landscape is not really a romantic one. It becomes much more blurry, fragmented, staccato in a way, especially if you go through the forest.
BSdeN: How has your interest in film influenced your paintings and panels?
HC: For one thing, it’s like working in fragments. I’ve noticed that I’m always drawn to making those very, very long things. My master’s thesis at the State University of New York, that’s what it was. In those days, you had the Polaroid 670, so I think it was about four inches high, and I decided that I would incorporate some photographs and I would do a stretch that would go all around the gallery. I think that this came from writing; it was like a sentence. You had to get close to it, since it was only four inches high. I had done the history of art, starting with the Lascaux cave paintings and finishing with video. That long sentence was made of different fragments.
In the last show at the Galerie 12, the paintings were very long, 20 feet or something like that and two feet high. You had to get close to it. Film is the same thing. It’s a very, very thin ribbon and it goes very far. There are some images that I took out of film and transformed them, using that much more as a resonance in a way.
I have always worked in two domains, painting and writing, or visual arts and writing; the others are film and theatre. Film and theatre are sort of collective work, and of course, writing and visual arts are very lonely. For the last five or six years, maybe more, I have only been writing and doing visual arts. I feel that I have to break away from that, because I’ve always been going from the collective to the individual and right now I’m sort of complaire [reveling] in the individual.
Whenever people ask me “what’s your favourite thing that you do?”
I always say it’s visual arts, because first of all it’s the only place where I don’t feel like a dilettante. I have studied it and I have a fair idea of what my position is. Nowadays I’m a much more introspective person.
BSdeN: What projects are you planning or will be working on in the near future?
HC: I just completed that long project of self-portraits [Coffret Autoportrait, 12v. 2014]. I always work on the mini books at the same time, so I don’t have that white page syndrome. I am working on a book about Beaumont. 5 It’s probably the next book that will come out.
BSdeN: Are there certain artists whom you admire for their work in landscape or who have influenced the way you use landscape?
HC: I am not sure if they have influenced me, but I think of someone like Andy Goldsworthy. He’s someone for whom I have a great deal of admiration and and Nils-Udo. They work with nature, but in a very soft way and a very impermanent way. This relates to nature compared to the land art people of the seventies, where they would bring bulldozers and dig trenches in the desert. They Michaelized everything. It’s neurotic!
Whenever I go to London, I always go to the Tate Gallery and I look at the Turners. It’s a very romantic view of nature. But I think we definitely need to draw a new contract between the arts and nature, because we have a tendency to gravitate much more towards cities, and because the landscape that we most often see is streets and things like that, not usually trees. We need to have a new way of looking at it. Maybe we are really far away, remote from that landscape idea. It is something really recent in my view, considering landscape and very few [Acadian] artists have done so.
BSdeN: Is there anything else you would like to add?
HC: I find that this is really a new interest and I’m really curious to see where it’s going to move now. That’s probably because I have been living in Barachois for 20 years now. I remember when I was living in the city I didn’t see the seasons move. All of a sudden it’s summer. I haven’t seen spring! But if you live in the country, you really see the whole thing; the snow going away and then you have the budding leaves. It’s something that’s very hard to work with and to represent. It seems like we’ve seen it in its representation. We need a new way or a new contract or a new approach to landscape.
- Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time. Thomas Riedelsheimer, dir. 1h 32m. Skyline Productions. 2001. Film.
- Griselda Pollock quoted in Dr. Iain Biggs’s symposia presentation “Narrative, Palimpsest, Metaphor? OR: Landscape as a Provocation.” Bristol, UK. 10 Sept. 2007. Web.
- Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews: Volume 2. Charles Arsène-Henry, Shumon Basar and Karen Marta, eds. Milano: Ediziani Charta, 2010.
- The Journal of Colonel John Winslow of the Provincial troops, while Engaged in Removing the Acadian Inhabitants from Grand Pré and the Neighbouring Settlements. Library of the Historical Society of Massachusetts. 1755.
- The Sainte-Anne-de-Beaumont Chapel Provincial Historic Site in the village of Memramcook, nb.