Louis Doulas

Sami Ben Larbi

LD: Fiction, history and reality are constantly being intertwined throughout your work. How do you balance the phantasmic with reality? How do these techniques propel or help understand the history and politics in works like As it might, could, did happen and Was Bourguiba, thenBen Ali, awaiting the next?

SBL: The balance is very vague and I keep it so as long as possible. I want the viewers to find their own balance.

When Bourguiba first came to power, he was hailed as a savior, a liberator of the oppressive French. Images of him where everywhere. He cultivated that cult, just like any other dictator and was able to hold on to power for a long time. The fiction of the liberator was trying to negate the reality of living under his reign.

In my work I ask the viewers to consider what is being presented, to form their own understanding and opinion. In As it might, could, did happen, I recreated a bedroom (with furniture made of cardboard and wood imitation vinyl) in what was a East German Pioneers boarding house. The furniture looked almost authentic, but not quite. It played with the pre-conceptions of how East German furniture looked cheap and homogeneous. But the environment was real. So the balance here between fiction and reality is very flexible.

LD: In one of your project’s statements you describe the struggle with your identity as the following: “I want to be this icon, this Frenchness, while also being who I am a mix breed, neither one nor the other. Arab, but French, but American, but becoming German?”

With this, works like La distinction entre un carthaginois et un hexadecagone, au subjonctifLayered Tense, and Pictures I wish I had are attempts at contextualizing the fragmented identity in all its disparate variations. The dynamic between the placement of the ‘individual’ and the ‘group’ is constantly being challenged in today’s nobody-lives-where-there ancestors-did world. How do you deal with and approach this spectrum?

SBL: This fragmentation is very much at the center of my work. As you mentioned I am a member of various identities, nationalities. I identify, understand, relate with each of these groups. But I am always an outsider, because of these other affiliations and identities.

In my work I exploit and subvert the roles of the maker and the audience. In La distinction entre un carthaginois et un hexadecagone, au subjonctif, I play the role of Antoine Doinel, the lead character, and the viewers are the audience in the scene. But there is no way to enter the rotor, there is a clear separation, a frustration. I try to be this French icon, but I am not and in the installation I am trapped, doomed to repeat the scene over and over. Pictures I wish I had also deal with a certain frustration. The installation is a familiar environment, a living room but the pictures on the walls are blank and the viewers cannot sit on the chairs. So one could almost belong but a barrier exists preventing that.

The fragmentation is recurring. In North by Northwest, Erased and Reshot, the cinematic language of the famous scene from Hitchcock’s film has been restructured. On one side the original scene is stripped of characters, autos and a plane. Stripped of its identity. On the other side the reshot scene is with me as Cary Grant, always looking toward the camera, transforming the viewer into the other protagonists in the scene. As a viewer, to experience the installation is to re-edit the scene and try to make sense of what is happening. Re-creating an identity. Maybe sensing a déjà vu but not quite placing it.

LD: It seems that the autonomy of the art object and the film are never enough for you in your work.  When used, they always exist within a larger constellation of things, as essential ‘props’ to the faithful conveying of a ‘scene’. These large, encompassing installations create a certain cinematic mood: a direct immersive environment for viewers to conceive a narrative.  I’m interested in the way you approach these designed spaces as well as how architecture is considered throughout your body of work. Where do you place these environments in relation to film? Why awake and privilege the senses this way?

SBL: The reality and the fiction come here into play. Transposing time. Placing the viewers in a set and creating an interaction. I want to create an experience. Something, a feeling, a personal understanding between the installations and the viewers. A very early piece, Un der Pres S Ure, had the viewers become actors and only witness the audience to this interaction. It’s a desire to communicate on a very basic level and at first, physical. My work begins with a physical experience, like architecture. The viewers are in a total environment that considers its environment, its architecture and its history. To refer back to the film reference, the viewers step into a set. I consider it live cinema, or real cinema, frozen in a certain time period.

LD: The gallery space is abandoned as a sufficient, pre-requisite space to work within and that this abandonment seems most beneficial to you, as most of your work often alters the entirety of a space.  I’m curious as to what kind of interference, or intervention you’re interested in creating by choosing to present ideas and experiences in such locations as a FDJ boarding room or a deserted military base. What does ‘art’ outside of its gallery context mean for you? How does it lend toward the ‘situational’?

SBL: I am not sure that the gallery has ever been sufficient, it’s a display-space marketed toward sales just like any other product. It’s blank and as such works well for singular objects (painting, sculptures…). I tend to create environments where everything in the space has been considered, the architecture, its history and my alterations / additions.

The FDJ boarding room is a great example of that. One could argue that I could have done the installation anywhere else. However prior to entering my room the viewers experienced stairs with a hand rail at kid height, a long hallway with multiple numbered doors on each side. This set the understanding and mood of the space in a certain direction. It felt authentic, because it was. Upon entering my installation one could believe what one saw. In other word an alternative space (to that of the gallery) lends to more interpretative potential.

But this is also double edged. My artwork exist rarely outside the installations I create, which are time based. They have a relatively short life spam. I rarely recreate the same installations somewhere else.