In conversation with STÉPHANIE NAVA

Published on Polpettas On Paper magazine

Which is the most important thing to know about you?

The most important thing, uh… That’s a difficult question…! Perhaps, in this context, and in order to understand a bit what I do, it might be the fact that I love buildings and walking in cities.

Your works have a strong formal aspect, are well planned and executed, and yet they don’t lose their emotional and evocative aspect. How do you do it?

I’ve never been interested in creating gestural, expressionist artworks, I’ve always tried to show a sort of “contained”, non-demonstrative aspect, especially in my drawings, leaving the overly emotional (le pathos, as we would say in French) aside, to concentrate on the subject and how it can be represented. Yet it doesn’t mean that the result is cold. Someone can be moved by a very clean line. For example, I have always been very moved by Donald Judd’s “shelves”, yet it’s difficult to find a less emphatic work! I also guess the emotional aspect some find in my works comes from the viewers themselves, from what goes on in the spectator’s mind.

To us, your whole work seems to be dealing with three specific words and concepts: relationships, spaces and figures. What’s the relationship between your spaces and your figures?

I’ve always been interested in architecture: cities, buildings, rooms… When I was a child I wanted to be an architect and, before going to art school, I considered working as a scenic designer for theatre. I guess that, what has always really interested me, is how certain situations can take place in certain spaces. To put it in other words, how the organization of a space can allow -or provoke- certain things to happen. I like stories and stories need to be situated, that’s the role of a theatre set: providing dramatic writing a frame. I have always been interested also in language, in the way we humans use verbal, as well as non-verbal language. The non-verbal communication exists through gestures, postures, and has to be located. It is the shape and the organization of this locus what I’m trying to show in my works.

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Drawing is the very foundation of your artistic research, and it’s always present, like a common ground linking different aspects. Your pencil stroke is neat and clean, and doesn’t need anything else to exist. Yet, here and there, a very accurate selection of colors pops up. What meaning do those colors have in your works?

For a long time my work remained monochromatic, I just didn’t need colors to build what I wanted to build. “Drops” of color arrived more significantly with the Luftgebaüde series: at first, the idea was to draw auras, invisible fields of energy around figures or objects. It quickly became a way of embodying invisible links, of making visible a relationship, a feeling, by giving them colored forms. The visible part of the situation is depicted in a black and white drawing and is then inhabited by these color bubbles that will describe what is happening in this particular set.

Among the different media you use, such as installation, photography, video and -of course- drawing, which aspect do you love the most of each of them?

You don’t need much to make a drawing: I love that. A pencil, a sheet of paper, an idea… and there you go, you can make art. It has a sort of immediacy that I cherish. You don’t have to wait, you don’t need funding, complicated tools, assistants or technicians. It’s a very direct medium, you can work nearly everywhere and the procedure has a straight similarity with thinking. Simply from brain to hand.

With objects and installations it’s another matter. I appreciate making things. I’m not much into having other people producing the work for me, I’m very much a hands-on person, as it is a pleasure for me to craft works, use tools and materials. I love it and I’m actually not very good devising a project and having it completely made by someone else, because I need to think about it whilst making it: a sculpture or an installation will always evolve during the course of its making because you keep on thinking with your hands.

Photography is another thing. I take a lot of photographs although I show very few of them. I use photography to capture things that I see, a bit like a sketchbook. I use mostly an old Rolleiflex, a medium format camera that belonged to my late grandfather. I like the fact that it used to be his, and that through using the camera I somehow keep his eyes still open.


What image of our contemporary society can we draw from your works?

Not sure I want to give an image of our contemporary society. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t know how to do it. I guess my work is contemporary because I create it here and now. I hear things, I see things, I read, I travel, I talk to people… So the world that surrounds me gets into my work. Yet I am not trying to depict it in a consciously critical way. I am interested in small things, in specific aspects of situations, stories and things I encounter. I use that in my art, but my work will never be the portraiture of a society. Others might see reflections of our society in my artworks. That is their purpose, to be platforms for ideas or emotions to rise.

Yet, my intention has never been to give an interpretation of the state of the world.

Considering a Plot (Dig for Victory) —your biggest installation so far— is a summary of all that concerns your work. How did you get to that project?

That’s quite a long-term project that started more or less ten years ago. To make a long story short, I went to London in 2004 with a bursary to work on a project about allotments (workers’ gardens), planning to get one myself. I started to devise how I would organize the garden, doing a lot of research mainly about botany and the history of allotments. That is when I encountered archives about the Dig for Victory Program set by the British Ministry of Agriculture during WWII: it exhorted citizens to grow vegetables wherever they could, as an act of resistance, to fight food shortage. That shifted the whole project in various aspects, visually -the program produced a very strong iconography-, conceptually and in its content.

It was going to be a garden “at war”, considering gardening as a form of resistance. It also soon became clear that I didn’t need the real land, but that I could grow the garden out of paper, drawing it entirely, following one of the slogans of the Dig for Victory Program: “Grow Your Own!”

I began then with the long process of making it, drawing all the small and big details, and I’m still on it, adding new parts every time I show it.

It is now an installation that comprises a few hundred drawings and diverse objects and that covers over 400 m2. To me, what is extremely interesting about this project is that it encompasses so many different topics: botany, history, geopolitics, urbanism… As well as questions of representation. It is very rich and there is always something new to add to it. I sometimes get a bit worried about not being able to stop it!

I read in an interview that you admire the work of conceptual artist Jeff Wall. Your work can be considered conceptual too and at the same time it’s really figurative and narrative. How do you combine these two aspects?

Actually, I wouldn’t consider Jeff Wall a conceptual artist. Although his works are extremely elaborated on a conceptual level, he remains a maker who doesn’t only work with concepts and ideas, but is someone who produces images, who puts his ideas into forms. That is what I deeply appreciate in his works, they are amazing images that can be admired on a formal level and have a lot inside them to feed thoughts.

On a more modest level, that is what I try to do with my work. I always give the pieces a strong conceptual content -most of the time it will show up during the creation- that will be held in a figurative or a narrative form.

I like the idea of an accessible “crust”, a story, to give to the viewer. You can look at the artwork on a first level, read the story, and then, if you want, you can dig in the structure of the work and get to its conceptual core.

What comes first in your artistic research, the lucid drawing technique or the message you want to convey?

I never thought of art as a message funnel. Actually, art that sends messages around bores me. I prefer artworks that are opaque, hazy, from which you cannot grasp what the exact meaning is, of which you cannot pinpoint exactly what the artist’s intentions have been.

When I start with a work I never know how it will look like in the end or what ideas or stories it will end up conveying: a lot of things happen in the course of the making, therefore it is very difficult to fill the works with a predetermined message. And I like it this way.

What comes first —the form or the idea— is also quite unpredictable. Sometimes I start with a very elaborate thinking, sometimes with just the desire to make something out of a particular material. It is never a defined path, it’s more like a big mess of a road with dark alleyways and roundabouts. I turn back, move forward and completely change directions in the course of elaboration. And it has always been like this.

One work always leads to another, sometimes years afterwards. I never decide exactly the what, the when or the how, it just happens.

When you have to set up an exhibition, how does the space -of a gallery or a museum- influence your works?

I consider myself a studio artist in a sort of old-fashioned way. The studio is the place where works emerge, where thinking takes place, where all the ideas take form. I have never been the kind of artist who works mainly to fulfill the requirements of an exhibition or a residency.

That said, when it comes to exhibitions, the space always plays a part in what I will show. I like to devise exhibitions, to think of the way the spectator will enter the place, what he will see first, what comes afterwards, etc. We all know that artworks cannot be isolated from their surroundings: the color of a wall will always influence the way we perceive the drawing that is hanging on it, notwithstanding the size of the frame that protects it. So it is important to carefully think about the layout of an exhibition as it can help building its narrative. And it can also be a very pleasant brain teaser, to associate a work with another and thinking of the resulting “story” that can arise from the juxtaposition.

I always try to play with the exhibition spaces, and sometimes they —or the cities they are located in, or the people I will meet when visiting them— can even spark new works. My way of being an artist is to be constantly alert, observing my environment, noticing details that I will store in a corner of my mind or in a sheet in a notebook. There they will settle and, sometimes, will become ingredients for new works, like a sort of food for my mind.

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What makes you feel proud of yourself?

Until recently, I would have said some work achievement. But now, it’s being the mother of my five-month-old son.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

A gardener. Or a philologist.

If you’d have to pack your life to move away and you could only take your most beloved stuff, what would you take with you?

My books. And a couple of artworks from friends.

What do you have on your desk?

Too many things, it’s a mess… Heaps of papers that seem to grow as soon as it is empty!

Your first childhood memory.

Cycling with my sister on our tiny bikes in the corridor of the Cité Radieuse in Marseille… yet, I’m unsure about wether it’s a real memory or a constructed one.

Your favorite material.

At the moment, black smooth PVC liner.

A secret mania.

Taking off labels of shampoo or washing liquid bottles. Not always practical, but it’s so much nicer when they look just bland.

Three adjectives to describe yourself.

Someone else would have to pick them for me. I’m not the best to see myself objectively!

A city to describe yourself.

A mix of Marseille and Vienna.

A song.

Sketch for Dawn by Durutti Column.

Never without.

Shades in sunlight.

Never with.

Shades at night.

The one mistake you would be proud to repeat.

If it’s a mistake, it shouldn’t be repeated. The lesson has to be learned!

A secret wish.

Don’t disclose secret wishes, otherwise they won’t be fulfilled.

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