In ConversationPierre Yovanovitch & Daniel Buren
"My work is site specific, so I know that nine times out of ten, it won’t last. It’s not transportable, and it often ends up being destroyed. It differs in many ways from more conventional art, and that’s what I like most about it. If you have a painting, you can just stick it in the basement. When you actually live inside the work, you either have to get used to it, or destroy it."
French conceptual artist Daniel Buren’s work has punctuated cityscapes and gallery spaces — including Paris’s Palais Royal and the Fondation LVMH — the world over for more than 50 years. Working with graphic form, most notably stripes and grids, and bold colour, his in situ interventions simultaneously challenge and enhance their surroundings. Equally concerned with, and adept at the use of colour and form, is French interior architect Pierre Yovanovitch, whose artful vision of contemporary elegance has established him as the ultimate aesthete. They sit down to talk about their creative processes, the legacy of their work, and the pitfalls of being a collector.
How did you meet?
Pierre Yovanovitch: I first met Daniel when I was working on a large house in Paris. I had come up with plans to put a tall, narrow window in the stairwell. I was thinking something more traditional, from an architectural standpoint — something with stained glass, for example — but the client was worried that stained glass would feel too religious, or dated. So I thought it over, and showed them a project of Daniel’s that was part of a temporary exhibition at the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It was an impressive interplay of colour, shadow, and light. I showed it to the client and said: “Let’s forget the stained glass idea and call in Daniel Buren. I think he’d be able to come up with some good ideas.”
Daniel, did you know Pierre’s work before you met him?
Daniel Buren: No. I discovered his work the first time we met, and I really liked what I saw. I still haven’t seen so much of his work in person, though — I’ve seen it mainly through photos in magazines.
How did the collaboration work for the two of you, in a practical sense?
PY: When you’re working with a great artist like Daniel, you can’t even attempt to control everything. You have to be able to let things go, and tell yourself: this is what we came up with, but now it’s up to Daniel to take that idea and run with it. We brainstorm together, of course, but in the end, it’s his heart and soul that’s going to shine through. The ball is in his court.
Your work has to fit within both a physical space and a moment of time. Does the idea that it might not last play on your mind?
DB: In my case, that thought is essential, and it’s what first sparked my career 50 years ago. My work is site specific, so I know that nine times out of ten, it won’t last. It’s not transportable, and it often ends up being destroyed. It differs in many ways from more conventional art, and that’s what I like most about it. I don’t get upset if a piece doesn’t last, or if the customer decides to move out, or gets tired of it. If you have a painting, you can just stick it in the basement. When you actually live inside the work, you either have to get used to it, or destroy it.
PY: In my profession, we take our orders from the clients. When they ask us to build them a house, for example, that’s something that’s meant to last for a long time. A painter, on the other hand, produces works that have a market value. Both those things are completely different from site specific art. Site specific art — regardless of whether it’s permanent or eventually destroyed — has no market value, and I think that’s really important and fascinating. The artwork combines with the surrounding architecture, and comes to life. It’s there for good, or at least for a very long time, so the collector is like a sponsor. They don’t do it because they’re looking to make a speculative investment, but rather because they are passionate about the art. Unfortunately, there are lots of collectors out there today who are more like businesspeople, and who see art solely as an investment. The true collector is in it for the beauty. And that’s what I love about permanent works.
Do the two of you collect anything?
DB: I have some very nice pieces, many of which I’ve acquired through trading works with friends who are artists, but I’m not a collector. Ever since I was little, I’ve always rejected the idea of becoming a collector. If I were a collector, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. It’s sort of like smoking. I don’t smoke, because I know that if I started, I’d never stop. Even when I was 16 years old, I knew better than to start smoking.
PY: Doesn’t it make you want to keep collecting when your artist friends give you works?
DB: No. I know a lot of collectors, and I think some have a real obsession. True collectors can’t stop. If they did, they would go crazy. The more art they see, the greater their desire becomes to obtain that one piece they don’t have.
PY: I think you’re right, and my problem is that I can be like that, too! I’m not like my customers, though — they’re far wealthier than I am. When they see a piece they like, they’ll do anything to have it. We go to big contemporary art shows all over the world — Basel, Miami — and they have to decide, in a span of just a few minutes, whether they’re going to buy a really expensive painting. It’s incredible. I collect vintage furniture and some art too, mostly by young artists. But I completely agree with Daniel: once you start, you’re always looking to acquire something better, and to up the prestige of your collection. It can become an obsession.
DB: And it doesn’t matter what you collect. Heck, it could even be cheese boxes! It’s all the same. Now, I’m not saying that all collectors are neurotic. Collectors in general are obsessive. And that includes the person who collects really ordinary objects, as well as someone on the lookout for an obscure artist. The thing that’s so fascinating is that there’s no end to it. The guy who collects cheese boxes will always find one that he doesn’t have yet.
How much do clients direct your work?
PY: They tell us what they want. And whether it’s a house or an office, or whether we’re building or renovating, we always have constraints. An artist like Daniel, on the other hand, has much more freedom. Aside from site specific projects, he doesn’t receive orders. So he has complete freedom to do what he wants.
DB: That’s true. I like working with constraints, but mine are probably very different from the architect’s. The architect has to deal with all of the construction related constraints …
PY: For site specific projects, even Daniel’s work must fit within a space!
DB: There’s a double constraint, I think, when you’re working on a project that’s part of someone’s home. You don’t want to say to your customer: ‘I’m the artist, so I’m going to do what I want, and it’s the same price whether you like it or not.’ I think it’s more intelligent to listen to the customer — if they have anything to say, that is! Sometimes the customer gives no instructions at all. I don’t like it so much either when they just say: ‘I really like your work, so do whatever you want.’ In that case, I’ll ask the customer questions like: ‘Which room do you spend the most time in?’, or, ‘Is there a work of mine in particular that you like, so that I can try to do something similar?’ It gives me some direction or rules. Without that, it can be extremely complicated. There are a million different things you could do.
PY: I try to be as tactful as possible, because I do guide customers a lot.
DB: I really like it when customers impose things. When it comes to picking colours, I try to make sure that I’m not always using the same scheme, and that I’m not imposing my own taste. So if someone suggests something, and I think it could work, then that’s a way for me to branch out and work with colours that I normally wouldn’t work with. It’s also good to remain open and ask questions, because some people hate certain colours. You have to remember, this is where they’re going to be living. If they say, ‘anything but green’, that’s important to know! You don’t want to make them a living room or bathroom that they won’t enjoy being in. Other customers might want to impose everything! They’ll tell me they want blue here, yellow there, green there. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a decorator, but that’s not what I am. So when that happens, it could create conflict. I’m not necessarily going to say ‘yes’ to everything. I’d have to tell the customer: ‘Sorry, but I can’t do that.’ It’s a very delicate job!
PY: You’re right! It’s a challenge no matter what project you’re working on. Just as you’re not a decorator, I’m not a general contractor. I want to work on projects that I find interesting. There is a balance. You need to have a sort of benevolent authority.