How matter frames technique | Jean-Baptiste Lagadec
“From the moment I arrived in Japan I was overwhelmed by the number of tools they had. Even in the most basic DIY store, the sheer multiplicity of tools they offered, each with their own specificity, astounded me — it made me feel powerless, you know?”
Jean-Baptiste Lagadec touched down in Tokyo on May 1 with no brushes to hand, no paints in his bag. It was only on the 12 hour flight from London (where the artist has been based for the past six years) that Lagadec realised the size and breadth of the task at hand: a three-month-long art residency exchange program with ‘London/Tokyo Y-AIR.’
Launched in 2013, Y-AIR (artists-in-residencies for Young) aims to support young artists who are actively pursuing their own creative practice following their graduation. The initiative is the product of a unique collaboration between the macro-scale institutions University of the Arts London’s Central Saint Martins and Tokyo University of the Arts; with their closely associated micro-scale residency programs — Acme Studios and Youkobo Art Space. The program cherry picks four young artists (two from London, two from Tokyo) to participate in the innovative exchange — seeing them spend an intensive month and a half at Youkobo in Tokyo, followed by a similar stint at Acme in London.
Though the opportunity to experience creative production in an overseas studio was what first drew the painter and printmaker to Y-AIR, it was the exceptional level of understanding and craftsmanship exhibited at Youkobo, along with the sheer quantity of tools on display that had a huge impact on Lagadec’s stay.
“In my proposal I suggested working closely with craftsmen — to continue working on this idea of ‘technical determinism’, which has shaped my practice for a few years now. The idea that matter shapes techniques and, in return, techniques frame creativity. Considering Japan’s history in craftsmanship, I was excited to collaborate with technicians in the wood and print workshops — to be inspired by the tools and allow them to dictate the material realisation of my work.”
Whilst an understanding of ‘technological determinism’ can take on multiple forms, Lagadec’s derives from that of André Leroi-Gourhan — the French archaeologist, paleontologist, paleoanthropologist, and anthropologist whose work has been cited extensively by French contemporary philosophers Jacques Derrida (Of Grammatology, 1967), Gilles Deleuze (Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1977) and Bernard Stiegler (Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, 1998).
Leroi-Gourhan too spent time in Japan, collecting data on Japanese and Ainu culture between 1937 and 1938 — data he later published in L'homme et la matière (Paris: Albin Michel, 1943) and Milieu et techniques (Paris: Albin Michel, 1945). In L'homme et la matière, Leroi-Gourhan proposed that what separates mankind from other animals is an innate inclination towards technique and the creation of tools. Drawing on some 40,000 entries describing historic/prehistoric tools and technical processes, Leroi-Gourhan’s research culminated in the innovative typology and classification of techniques that reveal a profound correlation between the material used and the tool mankind developed to engage with it — despite the expanses of time and space separating them. Ultimately, Leroi-Gourhan concluded that matter shapes technique; and materials define technology.
“After having a couple of conversations with the head woodwork technician, I quickly realised it was not going to be so easy... Research became impossible. When you have little-to-no knowledge of Japanese and zero practice in the use of characters, even a Google search feels ridiculously difficult. Their level of English, paralleled with the fact that many characters encapsulate and convey complex meanings despite their singularity, meant that translating the use and efficacy of a tool was almost impossible. I ended up giving up — there was no way I was going to be able to develop the skilled use of a tool in six weeks.”
Did this make you think differently about the interaction between a tool and the material it was designed for? Do you think there’s a barrier there — a barrier only overcome through teaching — the transference and translation of skills and techniques?
“Yes it did.. I ended up reconsidered the idea of the tool itself. Until now I had considered the tool to be an object of design. It had to respond to a material of course, but more importantly, the tool had to embrace or “fit” the human body in some way. In my case, it had to fit the hand.
In a sense, the physical tool (the link in between the hand and the material) could have simply disappeared, or been rendered immaterial. The tool, for me, was means of process — a combination of choreography with physical setting (temperature or humidity for instance). Most of the tools I came across in Japan however, were redundant in this sense — some simply provided new ways of applying ink, others different ways to cut! Here it was the technique and methodology that became important.
Fundamentally, the same process is performed — ink is absorbed by a support — however, in order for the final object to be transformed, it takes a new material, along with a new “material logic”, to unite them into something specific and unique to the tool at hand.”
“In the week leading up to the final exhibition at Youkobo, I realised I had forgotten that the first part of the residency was to be an introduction to my work and not the production of the work itself. The foreign setting and disorientation I experienced resulted in a sort of existential crisis.”
A crisis perhaps accentuated by the stifling number of tools on offer and their untranslatability?
“I think I had a huge feeling of failure.”
Has production in art become a goal-orientated endeavour? And do you think there is any longer any room for process, material learning and mistakes?
“I think a part of art has become goal-orientated, there is nothing wrong with that — I certainly won’t be judging! The first time came across this problematic was in the book The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship, by Michael Petry. All I know is that painting definitely allows for both material learning, mistakes and goals! I think it's imperative for an artist to reinvent the wheel of making for themselves — it’s the only way a painter is able to experience what it means “to roll” so-to-speak. ”
“After the crisis, things started to come together. I decided that my work would take on the form of a dispositive — a visual metaphor of this idea of ‘technical determinism’. Once you choose your material, once you choose your technique, you’re forced to engage in a certain way — and in that sense you’ve already limited your creativity. I wanted to investigate this in conjunction with Bonnefoi’s analysis of le tableau [“painting”].”
“It was Christian Bonnefoi, a French abstract painter, who really took the understanding of ‘materiality and the tool’ to a whole new level with respect to le tableau. By destructing the entity of the surface, Bonnefoi introduced the idea of architecture into painting — putting into question the structural organisation of the object itself. In this sense, the history of art was radically redefined by Bonnefoi and came to represent the technical evolution of an object.”
Why does this technical understanding of painting and materiality attract you so much?
“Because it makes painting accessible to everyone. His paintings are universal... just as mine are trying to be. They are based on the enigma of the surface. They lead everyone — from children, to the elderly, to artists — to an investigation of the surface of the painting. For fun!
For me, this is precisely what brings the tableau to life — what keeps a painting alive.”
Jean-Baptiste Lagadec is in the process of completing the Y-AIR residency at Acme Studios in London.