Jérôme Sans

Interior Travel – Interview with Jérôme Sans

Jérôme Sans : You are originally from Tetouan. How did you come to contemporary art?
Younes Rahmoun : Nobody in my family is an artist or has any relationship with that world. However, when I was a kid, in order to convey what I saw, I drew, I made little sculptures and installations, I tried things out and experimented with materials that I found in the street. Whenever I heard the word beautiful in a conversation, I pricked up my ears. Then people started telling me that I would be an artist. After getting my secondary school degree in Fine Arts in Tanger, I registered in the Tetouan School of Fine Arts, where I started teaching. Travels, books and people I met led me to discover new territories. I travelled abroad for the first time in 1997. Up until then, the only contact I’d had with contemporary art came from art books and art magazines. Asides from the craft masters and artist teachers I had in Tanger and in Tetouan, such as Faouzi Laatiris and Hassan Echair, I learnt very much from the exhibitions and art projects in which I participated. The first exhibition I took part in as a professional artist, after having collaborated as an assistant, was called l’Objet Désorienté au Maroc (The Disoriented Object in Morocco). It took place in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, in 1999, within the framework of the Year of Morocco in France. I think that exhibition, which was curated by Jean-Louis Froment, was decisive, as well as meeting the curator Abdellah Karroum, with whom I still work on many projects. Meeting the artist Jean-Paul Thibeau and becoming his assistant also helped me a great deal, in terms of learning about my creative capabilities. That is just a small part of my personal history that summarises in just a few words my development within the world of contemporary art. It is a history of meetings, of working with others and, also, of friendships.

JS : Travel seems to be at the very centre of your work.
YR : Yes. In some of my work I talk about a spiritual journey, which I represent through a ship or through a bundle. When I was a child, I dreamed of being a great traveller, of becoming a seaman, so that I could sail looking for a perfect place, an ideal place, a paradise, somewhere on Earth. Now that I’ve had a chance to travel around the world, I am certain that, if it exists in this life, paradise, or that ideal place, does not lie abroad; it exists at home, in my country, in my town, in my neighbourhood, in my small “ghorfa” room, right here, somewhere within my own heart. It is true that the word “travel ” is part of my vocabulary. The image of the boat that appears in some of my installations, like “Markib” (2005), or the seed that travels through space in my video “Habba” (2008) for me represent the notion of travel. But it is a rather spiritual journey, towards the heart and towards the universe, a constant journey.

I think that travelling is a true gift, whether it is an inner journey or a journey towards the other. I think that, on the one hand, the fact that I focus on the topic of time, and on spirituality as something eternal, puts me among those who produce contemporary art. On the other hand, the freedom and the vast field the world of today offers me, with its means of transport and long-distance communication, allows me to learn more in a short period of time.

JS : Your installations are always conceived so that they look towards Mecca. Why?
YR : My art work is a trace of my spiritual life. In 2001, I asked myself: “Why does my work focus on what is visual, on aesthetics? What is the use of art? What is the use of what I do? Prior to that crucial year, my work leaned towards a very formal research, towards experimenting with the relationships there may be between the materials and space, the context and the cultural references. In 2001 I started turning to my own religion to search for the meaning of things, I realised that it enriches my aesthetic stance. I incorporated different symbols into my work that relate to this idea, such as numbers, the orientation towards Mecca and the use of green light and the colour green. I try to go a little bit further in my spiritual quest and, at the same time, in my art quest. I try to give shape or to visualise invisible things, intangible things like faith, the soul, the spirit, the awakening, etc.

JS : Are you a spiritual being, or is there a need for a comeback of spirituality in art?
YR : I try to be balanced. I think all of us are at the same time material and spiritual beings; we are made of a body and a soul. In my work, I try to express this search for balance, to materialise what I experience and what I feel. Art is my dearest communication tool, it’s what allows me to live more deeply my “here and now”, to learn about myself and about life, so that I can communicate my own vision to my environment, from the most limited to the broadest.

I don’t think of myself as a spiritual being. I focus on my research, whether it is in the realm of spirituality or in the realm of art—for me—it is one and the same. What I do helps me to strengthen my ties with the beyond. What I do, I do it in the first place for myself, in order to better understand myself by sharing my experience with others. Through my artwork I try to engage a dialog with my whole being, both as body and spirit, and with the world around me, by experimenting with different materials and forms of expression. My work facilitates communication with people from different traditions and cultures.

JS : The titles of your works never include a pronoun. Why is that? Is it a way of making them generic?
YR : Yes, indeed. It is to make them more open and to avoid enclosing them into a single reading, a single meaning. The titles of my works are always singular and they never include a pronoun. It’s because there is not just one meaning for the title. There is an objective meaning, but there are also subjective meanings. In other words, I think that when people consider one of my works and its title, they each find their own meaning.

JS : Death is one of the recurrent themes in your work, materialised by a shroud of a very specific measurement, 12.5 metres, which is the size of the shroud used traditionally to wrap the dead. What do you want to imply by this poetic relationship to death?
YR : Indeed, between 2002 and 2005 I insisted on the subject of death. Among other things, I created a series of three pieces (three shrouds of 12.5 metres each), but that was actually in order to address the importance of life. In that series, one of the pieces is presented folded, laying of a wooden board. That piece is called Layssa Lilkafani jouyoub, which translates as “a shroud has no pockets”. It is an Arab proverb which reminds us that we can’t take anything with us when we die.

JS : You usually dress that shroud with light, like a living body corps vivant, a lantern?
YR : For me the shroud represents the physical component, the body. The light that fills up that metaphorical body is the incarnation of the soul. Like in other religions, the Muslim belief is that there is eternal life after death. The light indicates the calm soul, in suspension, ready to awaken.

JS : What is the meaning of the emergence of the colour green in these light installations?
YR : I’ve been asked on several occasions if the colour green for me represents Islam. It doesn’t bother me that people associate that colour to my religion, quite the contrary, but that wasn’t the symbolic meaning I originally intended. For me, that colour is neither hot nor cold; it is a colour of peace and of life. It is related to an inner paradise, to the awakening, and to faith.

JS : Numbers are a recurrent motif in your work, as a kind of deciphering key, particularly the number 99. What is its meaning?
YR : The numbers I use, including the number 99, are all inspired by my religion. In Muslim religion we know 99 different names for God. It is also the number of beads that make up a Muslim prayer string. All the numbers that appear in my work are odd numbers. Even numbers work as couplets: man-woman, black-white. Everything is made of a negative and a positive, like Ying and Yang. But there is only one thing which, in my opinion, that does not resemble either: God. An odd number is an even number plus one. In my work I use odd numbers as a symbol of variety and of plurality, and the number “one” as a metaphor of the Unique

JS : Your formal research within space, the repetition of motifs, have their origin in Islam. How do you adapt these ancestral issues to a contemporary practice?
YR : Repetition is, in fact, an integral part of our daily life, whether it is in the cycle of life, of the days, etc. In an urban setting, it is certainly more difficult to become aware of the repetitive rhythm one can find in a mosque or in a church, with the repetitive chanting. In my case, I learnt from Islam the importance of the repetition of gestures and words, because that leads to a deeper and deeper meditation. It reinforces our ties with the Origin of life. By Origin I mean the Here and Now, a source that never ceases to deliver the new. Creation always involves recreation, in other words, the repetition of the new from the old.

JS : Do you conceive your works as meditation subjects?
YR : Each one of my pieces originates in a form of meditation that takes place before its production, during it, and even after as a receptive experience for the viewer. For me, it is an object of meditation, and I hope that is also the case for the viewer.

JS : Sufi philosophy is at the centre of your research. How do you express it in your pieces? How can the immaterial be made material?
YR : My references are not only Sufi; they also come from Oriental philosophy, for example, Zen. I have always seen each word as a form with its own colour, its own light and matter. This is how I go from the invisible to the visible. With the word “Illumination”, I see a green circle of light that breathes, a non-fixed circle that never goes out. It is a non-blinding light, like the light that can be seen through smoke, through a cloud, through an opaque, diffuse matter.

JS : Do you have references to any particular artists whose work elicits meditation?
YR : I could mention Wolfgang Laïb, Anish Kapoor and James Turell. There is also a German artist that I like very much, Hannsjörg Voth, who has built ephemeral works throughout the world, and who in recent years has made two monumental installations in Morocco, in the region of Errachidia. He has just finished a third one. Each one of his constructions operates as a kind of workshop, a place for meditation, a place for life.

But I am inspired, first of all, by what I live and what I see around me in Tetouan and when I travel around the world. I am inspired by encounters, whether it is encountering places, things or, especially, people. Everything spurs me. What I have learnt from my more or less well-known artist and craftsman teachers is useful to me as a series of points of reference to expand my knowledge and move forward.

JS : In the evocation of death and meditation, the body is at the centre of your work, although it is never depicted; it is only defined in geometrical terms. Why is that?
YR : I would like to explain that, contrary to what many people think, Islam does not forbid the depiction of the human figure. Therefore, the fact that I don’t feel the need to portray the body of animals, or the human body, does not come from there. Not portraying the body is a personal choice. In fact, I find much more freedom and richness in the abstract, in the immaterial, than in representation.

JS : You have made a sculpture in negative of the room you have at your parent’s house, your “ghorfa”. What does it represent for you?
YR : It is a piece that concentrates many different ideas. I believe that everything I have learnt through my artistic and spiritual search can be found in it. Ghorfa means “room” in Arabic. So, it is the reproduction of the small room my mother offered me in 1998, where I reflected, worked and meditated for 7 years. That room in my parents’ house in Tetouan was my refuge, a place whose history is entirely connected to my own history. It is a place for meditation that points towards Mecca. Making it into a 1/1 scale sculpture is a way of encouraging visitors to enter my own history.

The project Al-âna Hunâ (Now Here) is defined as the reproduction that ghorfa, also on a 1/1 scale having the same special orientation, but in different places, made with materials used by nature to transmit a message, a symbolism that sometimes is related to the places of representation.

The first version was shown in L’appartement 22, in Rabat. It was presented in the form of a project based on the outline of the ghorfa on the floor. Then, at the 2006 Singapore Biennale, I was able to make a wooden ghorfa. Later, in 2007, during a residency at Synesthésie, in Saint-Denis, I made and presented an electronic, interactive version.

Right now, I am working on making a new ghorfa—this time using more traditional materials—in my family’s village in Beni-Boufrah, in the Moroccan Rif. This version is extremely important for me, because it is a pretext to address issues that are far from the concerns people from my village have, especially the issue of art and aesthetics. The construction of this ghorfa is, therefore, a vector of instants of sociability and exchanges, because I have to meet many people in order to get the materials. People ask me about the materials, and many of them help me in one way or another in its construction. In that sense, we could even say that it becomes somewhat of a collective piece! Finally, this version of the ghorfa is more important to me as a means of communication than as a work of art. In this ghorfa, what makes the work is actually the meetings and the dialogue. Finally, the plan is to build other versions in 2008-2009, in the Dutch countryside and in the south of Spain, also experimenting with new techniques.

JS : The work you have made on your “ghorfa” (a space for work and meditation) is an attempt to link your intimacy to the Other, to create a contact zone between your spirit and that of the viewers?
YR : What I try to convey is a personal experience. It is a pretext for telling what I have experienced in the Ghorfa. On every occasion, I maintain its original shape, I build it on a scale of 1/1 and I contextualise it by constructing it in each of the sites using local, familiar construction materials. It wouldn’t mean anything to make one with stones in Amsterdam or with stainless steel in the Rif. It is like the childhood house that everyone has inside.

JS : Flowers are a generic motif in your work. Is this an ecology of the vision or a meditation on nature?
YR : Flowers are the most beautiful things that are born, and they take their form in silence. The 77 flowers represent the 77 branches of the faith in Islam, and each of the figures symbolises a different reaction, a different feeling. Removing something from a road that can cause someone an accident, like smiling at someone, are some of he branches of that tree. The red dot represents a seed of the flower, as a metaphor of the heart which, in itself, is the source of every human act.

JS : Have you thought of using the figure of a tree?
YR : In the Habba animation I evoke that tree. A seed that travels through space and finds its place. It develops, in order to create a tree with 7 branches, each one bearing 100 fruits. When they ripen, they will detach from the tree and each one of them will, in turn, look for its own place in space to give rise to its own fruit tree.

Interview between Younes Rahmoun and Jérôme Sans
Paris 2007-2008

Published in a Younes Rahmoun’s Solo exhibition “Zahra” catalogue
Curated by Jérôme Sans
Sala Verónicas – Murcia 2009

Translation : Lambe & Nieto