Interview with Mounir Fatmi

Mounir Fatmi, foto Lo Birgersson

We talked to Mounir Fatmi about his art and his exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall.

Curator Liv Stoltz: You often use anachronistic material in your work; such as old VHS tapes, type-writer machines, copy machines, electric wires, printing machines; and build them into large installations. Two examples of this are your pieces Black Screen, a wall consisting of VHS tapes, and Index of the Machine, which is an old printing machine from the nineteenth century.  Why do you integrate this kind of antiquated technology that is in some way “useless” technology?

Mounir Fatmi: I like the fact that you started this interview by using the word “useless.” What is useful, anyway? Is a work of art useful? And to whom is it really useful? At the very beginning of my career, when I was still living in Morocco, I was always fascinated by those useless materials you listed: antenna cables, VHS tapes, obsolete typewriters. In a way, all these objects reassure me. All these archaic technologies express the end of something, a moment in our history. Most of all, they’re about death. A great deal of my work consists in reanimating them, or rather accompanying their mutation from useful objects to useless ones and ultimately to simple archive documents. An African mask in a Dogon tribe is useful, initially. The same mask thrown in a museum loses its function completely.

Curator Liv Stoltz: You continuously come back to the theme of artists being censured or forced to live in exile. You, yourself, have experienced censorship of art works as well as developed a series of works around Salman Rushdie, including the photo collage Who is Joseph Anton? Considering the political situation in the world today, where freedom of speech and artistic freedom are threatened, then what do you consider to be the artist’s role in the present climate? How do you see these global political tensions influencing your work?

Mounir Fatmi: Unfortunately, over the last few years I’ve been labeled as a “risky artist” in France, where I’ve been censored several times, in Morocco, Cuba, China where several of my works were pulled out before exhibits opened. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I know my work can sometimes upset people. It can even hurt and wound them. I understood that when I saw images of the Muslim protesters in Toulouse. They pressured the municipality and the “Printemps de septembre” festival to withdraw my installation Technologia that was projected onto the ground. Some were crying. Some became violent and even attacked a young woman who had accidentally trod upon the projection that contained religious texts. Finally, some lashed out on social media and emails and threatened me. I know that sometimes I inject images into a system that doesn’t want them, and that has consequences. The entire body of works I have created about censorship is only a response to censorship itself. The series Who is Joseph Anton? is one of those. To me, Salman Rushdie represents the person who suffered from this situation the most. I paid an homage to him in the video Sleep; it’s the least I could do for someone who was condemned for defending our freedom of expression.

Curator Liv Stoltz: The political theorist Hannah Arendt’s quote “There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous” has been important to your work with this exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall. How has this statement influenced this specific exhibition? And, beyond this exhibition, how has Hannah Arendt affected you personally and your work?

Mounir Fatmi: The Hannah Arendt quote pinpoints the very problem of what it is to “Think”. It’s an act of resistance, of revolution even. I wanted the public to have that sentence in mind before they went in to see the exhibit. I wanted them to understand that thinking is a political act, and not a gratuitous and useless act. Many philosophers have inspired my work, not just Hannah Arendt. I could mention Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein… I have always used philosophy to understand the world in which I live. Philosophy to me is like a toolbox: I know there is always a hammer in there for breaking walls.

Curator Liv Stoltz: In 2017 you started to work with this exhibition. What has stood out for you in relation to the chosen works and of the imposing architecture of Göteborgs Konsthall from 1923? Also, during the beginning of this work you mentioned that you see this exhibition as a book. Can you elaborate on this statement?

Mounir Fatmi: Yes, I wanted this exhibition to be like a book. I wanted the public to be able to read in me like from an open book. I think that was a mistake. I can’t ask an audience I don’t know, who hasn’t even met me or touched me, an audience that doesn’t know what perfume I like the most, what medicine I take in the morning, what my phobias are, my sexual preferences, etc. to understand me and my work. It took me a long time to grasp that. Actually, I understood it while I was working on this exhibit. Which is why I changed several of the works we decided to show during our first meeting. This exhibition to me is like a step backwards. It’s the first time I take my courage in both hands and decide to look back. I’m trying to understand what I’ve done these past 30 years.
The architecture of Göteborgs Konsthall is very well suited to what I want to do with this show. I want to really accentuate the uselessness of the art works, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. In spite of the fact I try my best to load my works like I would load a gun with actual bullets, a work of art remains destined to fail in its encounter with the public. Because in general the esthetic language we use to create art is so poor it isn’t even capable of producing the simple feeling of a first kiss. Sure, sometimes people can greatly admire a work of art, but what they see in it, more than anything else, is the superfluous elements that have been added to it such as context, time, value, rarity, etc. The same piece in a different context, for example in a flea market, won’t produce the same effect. Looking at a work of art comes down to being face to face with our own failure as humans. I actually see all my works as constant failures, which is why esthetics has such an important role in everything I do. I always said that my works are nothing but esthetic traps, I never hid that from the public.

Curator Liv Stoltz: You place a particularly high value on words. You integrate words, phrases and Arabic scripts into many of your works as well as other communicators of language; such as flags, VHS tapes, speakers and typewriters. With this in mind, can you tell me about your interest in languages and the written word? From where does this emanate and what does it mean to your practice as an artist?

Mounir Fatmi: Wittgenstein compares the question of language with the question of limits. He says very simply: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I use language in some of my works to accentuate even further this effect of limitation and failure. Just because you look at a picture of a chair with a little sign that says “chair” doesn’t explain anything. Lévi-Strauss went to great lengths to try and understand what “to signify” really means. Unsuccessfully. Language is the first of our illusions of communication, it’s our limit, and I use it specifically for that reason. The last sentence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus says: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Curator Liv Stoltz: Critique of ideology, consumerism and dogmas are all important motifs in your work. Can you tell me of your interest in these topics and how they influence your work?

Mounir Fatmi: Ideologies, dogma, religions, consumerism, etc. are put in place primarily to prevent us from thinking. That’s why thinking is a political act. And what else can we do than criticize them and even look for strategies to deconstruct them? My critical work attacks precisely this trinity architecture, language and machine. These three “concepts” are interrelated in the fact that they serve all the installed power and the dominant thought. What I call “ready to think.” It took me a long time to be accepted as an artist dealing with political, religious or simply social topics. If you do a quick little search, you will find that most artists who declare themselves politicized are a minority and they often come from countries with very serious political problems. I think that my artistic sensibility comes rather from my daily reality, because I am Arab, Muslim, African, third worldist, feminist… that of my studies at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca or the Rijskakademie in Amsterdam. So, I came to this idea that we cannot change the world without changing the concepts that make it work. I do not think we have other choices.

Curator Liv Stoltz: Your work centers on the meeting points as well as the frictions between East and West and the intermingle between ancient traditions and hyper modernity illustrated in your images of machinery. What relationship do you have to history and the interpretation of history in relation to contemporary times?

Mounir Fatmi: To answer your question clearly, my work can be seen and read in many ways. It is because there are frictions between East and West that my work is seen as a meeting point between them. Yes, there is a conflict between ancient traditions and hyper modernity, you can see that in most of my works. I do not stop going back or accelerate in time. It was not easy to integrate Arabic calligraphy for example in contemporary art. When I started using it, it shocked many of my artist friends at first. It’s like I’m no longer contemporary. I’m not interested in our time. What interests me is the history, even though I tried very hard to break free from my history and from history in general. I think that we are prisoners of what we have called contemporary times. Until when will we talk about contemporary times since we live in contemporaneity every instant? Do you think that one day, we’ll wake up, turn on the radio to discover that: “Finally, we have just come out of contemporary times!” More seriously, I believe we all live trapped in a very narrow space-time with a very limited body and intellect. We are here because we don’t know yet how to go anywhere else. And in this prison of “here and now,” there are some who try to find a breach in the wall and escape. And others who have accepted this state of things and begin decorating the walls. And even add more cells.

Curator Liv Stoltz: What experiences and influences has shaped you as an artist?

Mounir Fatmi: As an artist, I consider myself an immigrant worker. Meeting others without prejudice or judgment is what has most deeply influenced my work. I read Giacomo Leopardi’s poems when I was very young, thanks to Paul Bowles and Mohamed Choukri, I discovered the beat generation in Tangiers. I’ve lived in several countries, got married several times, learned languages, had a child. All these experiences have shaped me. When I decided to become an artist and think for myself, I was quickly kicked out of the group. At first it was my family, then my neighborhood, my city and finally my country. My decision to move to France in 1999 was like a breath of fresh air. I didn’t know that nineteen years later, I would be the most censored artist in this country. I can say that I’m an artist with a very ambiguous relation to his times.

Curator Liv Stoltz: The title of the exhibition 180° Behind Me stems from your series Peripheral Vision. It is a series of photographs that expresses that we all – no matter our origin – suffer from limited vision. I understand the work as if you point out that there are different limitations on each of us and interpretation of the world is dependent from which culture one comes. Here Peripheral Vision seems to discuss our limited view on the Other. You have stated that culture and education make us see but they also make us blind. Can you elaborate on this paradox?

Mounir Fatmi: Allow me to rephrase the question. What does it mean to be cultivated and what is education? For Foucault, the education system is very similar to a prison system. I personally think that the education system formats us so that the largest possible number of our fellow human beings accepts this prison we are locked in and continues decorating it. The same system also creates uniformity of thought and casts aside all minorities, all those who dare to think differently. So yes, it’s a system that is designed to blind us more than to enlighten us. When he visited the Amazonian forest of Brazil, the ethnologist Lévi-Strauss discovered tribes that knew more names of trees, flowers and birds than he did. In this context, the smallest child in these tribes was more cultivated than he was. Once again, we are blocked by this impossibility for language to express anything. William Burroughs clearly states in his writings that language is a virus. I think one must be careful not to catch it. Regarding the photography series Peripheral Vision I think you have understood the problem very well. I have already said, unfortunately our human body – where at least how we will use it until now – is very limited. So, it must be made clear that all our judgments are false or half false. Our biggest mistake comes from the fact that we think we are right and that we hold the absolute truth. This is the fault of religion, politics, economics, science. The physical laws are changing and every scientific discovery shows how we have lived in error in the past. So to conclude this reflection I would like to quote the German philosopher Schopenhauer who was much more depressed than me: “Every man believes that the limits of his own field of vision are the limits of the world”.

Curator Liv Stoltz: There are very strong aesthetic dimensions in your work. What does this visual beauty of your work mean to you? Do you feel that there is a risk for the visual impact masking the often strong political aspects of your work? How do you see these dimensions interacting with each other?

Mounir Fatmi: As I have said: my works of art are esthetic traps. Without esthetics, no one would go and see the different levels of my work. I always wanted to control the illusion that is esthetics. I try and create a work within another, a sort of camouflage. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort for the audience to appreciate my work or to understand it I often say there is nothing random in my work. That I control every aspect down to the last millimeter, even when I create an accident. And that the result of that accident is mine: in spite of the fact nothing proves this to me. In the end, in order to continue to create, I hopelessly try to control my disappointment. With time, my visual language, although it’s doomed to fail, attempts to point the public to that idea.