Eric Block

Cyril de Commarque: Artificialis at Saatchi Gallery

The acclaimed French artist Cyril de Commarque has created an ambitious and powerful multimedia installation that invites us to contemplate notions of legacy and transition, now on exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.

The artist’s latest project is the result of a special commission by Saatchi – for its Artist-In-Residency programme – with a brief to respond to the exhibition Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, which will also be displayed at the gallery until May 2020.

De Commarque is no stranger to inventive creations: his landmark work Fluxland launched in London to great acclaim back in 2016. Three years in the making, that work saw de Commarque convert a 1950s Dutch grin barge into a 25-metre-long, interactive artwork, sound piece and space for debate.

Artificialis, the latest fruit of de Commarque’s thought-provoking practice, moves away from previous focuses on migration and the evolution of political and geographical borders to reveal a more overarching meditation on the past, present and – most potently – future of humankind.

Taking as its starting point the Anthropocene era ­– the period when man first had an impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems – Artificialis proceeds to look towards the future, meditating on the effect technology and scientific advancement will have on humankind and the environment. De Commarque invites us to contemplate this new world, starting with the notion that Homo Sapiens will be superceded by a species of its own creation, Homo Artificialis.

Rather than portray this projection in utopian or dystopian terms, de Commarque interrogates his own feelings through a series of sculptural mise-en-scènes, each piece documenting the transition from one age to another. Located on the Gallery’s second floor, the installation includes sculptures placed around a carpet of multi-coloured flakes.

On the eve of Artificialis, I caught up with the artist to discuss in detail the process of bringing this impressive project to fruition, as well as the questions it raises about climate change, technology and the fate of humankind.

Portrait of Cyril de Commarque. Photo: Jean Baptiste Huyn.

Can you tell me a bit about Artificialis?

Artificialis is a moment, the one in which as an artist I perceive the fragility of time and the incredible and unique shifts in human history. This transformation is questioning the process of creation and the basic principle of our ways to exist. It questions our responsibilities and the possible end of a civilisation. 

What can people expect to experience when visiting the installation?

From a very simple sanctuary room with work inspired by the patterns of destruction of the Amazon rainforest acting as a symbol of our acceptation of complete disconnection from the essence of life, to the main gallery where one enters an installation with sound, a full room covered by a sea of recycled plastic flakes on which sits a series of sculptures addressing the end of some myths and the transformation of some symbols: our mutation.

Artificialis raises pertinent questions about the future of mankind. Do you think Homo Sapiens will be replaced – if so, when?

Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens certainly lived for a while at the same time. We are now capable of creating and modifying the parameters of humankind. We will soon be able to upload information to our brain; we are already able to genetically modify humans in the process of procreation. We will medically modify the natural parameters of humans and modify their capacity, their resistance etc. So yes, it will be another kind of species, it is tomorrow…

‘Primitive’, 2019, wood. Courtesy of the artist.

The work also highlights environmental issues, from climate change to de-forestation. Is this concern what led you to use recycled plastics?

I have been working on those issues for more than 20 years. In the early 2000s I travelled around the world at the border of cities to photograph the dramatic consequences of our fast development and our incapacity to include in this process a sense of responsibility. Producers, prices – consumers can’t be blind, the philosophical perception of progress needs to change, and our process need to include the consequences of our production. So, I was very interested to also try to include in the process of my creation the use of a material that symbolises this need. The plastic used comes from agricultural production, it is normally just simply rejected. The black sculptures look like marble, I think they are almost sexy. The material used to produce them is a direct metalanguage of the concept. 

Can you tell us more about the process of creating these works?

As per the material, the choice of process participates to the language and nourish the concept. Computers and robotics are very much part of the process….to a limit in which on each piece 50% of the work is manually executed. So, my studio is a mix of the old and the new, certainly like our societies in transition, with technology taking up more and more space.

‘Lovers of Pompeii’, 2019, HDPE recycled plastic, stainless steel polished mirror, 5 x 5 x 3.5 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Which elements from the Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition inspired this response?

When Philippa Adams (the director of the gallery) invited me, it seemed very obvious to me…Tutankhamun’s Treasures are the most well-known, as his temple was only discovered late and not devastated by robbery, but the hidden fact shows us an incredible culture that simply vanished. It is a good moment to be confronted by this. Our incredible civilisation invented, created the context to possibly disappear.

This is an incredibly ambitious project. What have been the biggest challenges bringing it to fruition?

When you use a material that normally is not made to be used the way we did, you confront yourself with a long phase of experimentation. I never reproduce the same things, I love changing and experimenting, some artist push the same techniques all their life, I work on the same subjects.

‘ORO’ (detail), 2019, HDPE recycled plastic, 0.9 x 0.6 x 0.9 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Alongside the installation, you have devised a series of talks around topics including ecology, artificial intelligence and architecture – can you say more about these?

In partnership with the Saatchi Gallery and the Institut Français, I am inviting different speakers to explore the relationship between our civilisation’s changes and our future. In January 2020, Nicolas Bourriaud, who co-founded the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and was also curator at the Tate, will open the series after his Istanbul Biennial program on the 7th Continent. The relationship art has to this evolution is fundamental to our understanding. We will continue for the Night of the Ideas at the Institut in January with Sophie Hackford discussing the loss of our freedom. We will announce in mid-November the February and March programmes on Ecology a utopia for our cities and the last one Ecosystem a model for our societies (all talks are in English).

Words by Eric Block

Artificialis runs at Saatchi Gallery from 2 November — 1 March 2020 and may be extended.

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