ENTRETIEN WATTEAU / DDB
Dominique De Beir: All the World's Matter
You can hear the noise of tools striking repeatedly, urgently, puncturing and pricking. Here grey cubes with their surfaces eaten away, here rolls installed on metal shelving, over there enormous perforated slabs. Further away, eroded coloured bits and pieces hanging on the wall. The tangible reality of the materials used by Dominique De Beir – paper, cardboard, polystyrene – is laid bare in the process of transformation into narratives that involve the viewer in experiences of physical and conceptual perception. Nestled in a village in Picardy, De Beir's studio looks like a research laboratory, an impression underscored by an oeuvre drawing on all the concrete aspects of archives and ruins. There have to be ruins so one can begin again. Monumental ruins, industrial ruins, postmodern ruins – but these deteriorated fragments offer no echo of post-disaster, post-apocalypse American films. Like found objects, these pieces of embodied time are the outcome of twenty years of unflagging experimentation. In a real world that now resembles a fantasy, the truth of what this artist shows us is open to limitless interpretation. Faced with her figure-free installations, the imagination is unlikely to go on strike: the Dominique De Beir experience involves exile from definitive meaning. In her oeuvre all the world's matter is reactivated to make reality function as fiction.
DW The body is visible in your work process. In the catalogue you show the tools you use. You showed me a blurred photo of yourself as well, and we also see you in action, with your assistants – mostly women, as it happens – making those holes. So why have you eliminated the body as figure from you work?
DDB In fact the body as figure was never there. Before 1996 it was present as a visual companion piece to texts, confronting extracts from scientific books, and definitions: everything I had trouble grasping in scientific terms was compensated for by figurative images, and the overall narrative became totally absurd. In the series Cyclopédies (Cyclopaedias, 1996) I outlined "human relationships" on tracing paper. But an outside factor brought about a change in my investigative method. In 1994 I started learning braille for personal reasons. That's when I began pricking and puncturing sheets of paper with tools I made myself; creating a kind of coded language, an echo of early written forms and hieroglyphs and pictographic writing. Writing that didn't call solely on the eyes. Later I stripped these puncturing operations of their meaning.
Most of all I liked not knowing where I was going. I thought that was what art could be: not intervening, being attentive and receptive to the flux of the materials.
I have the impression that your work is driven by the question of disappearance.
When I'm working I'm not thinking about disappearance, but rather about revelation [laughter]. Showing a fragment or a ruin conjures up all the rest: what's no longer there and is asking only to appear. I never try to close things off or finish them. I leave them in a state of becoming. Showing a fragment seems more real to me than showing the totality. "The ruin is the object plus the memory of the object." Maybe it's also a way in for others.
Lack exists de facto in the fragment, but also in the act of subtraction: when I perforate I remove matter or turn it back on itself. These operations always make me think of Marguerite Duras's The Ravishing of Lol Stein: when Lol sees her lover dancing with another woman everything collapses; a hole appears because she can't put a name to this shock.
You use the word "ruin" a lot. In your work there are examples of physical deterioration: excessive wear and tear caused by one body's contact with another, and exploration of resistance as a material is being worn out.
I recently watched a documentary on Anselm Kiefer. He spends his time making false ruins. And I thought, "I'm doing the same thing." "Creating" ruins – its incredible! A ruin comes about through ageing or ongoing wear and tear. He and I both – on a different scale in his case, obviously – cause or create breakdown and fatigue and pastness. Maybe that brings us to the making of a setting, a representation or evocation of a catastrophe.
For me, though, light remains an essential element: its vibrations and reflections and gleamings. The colours I use function as lights, they work as screens and as mirrors at the same time: they capture the external environment as if taking on its character. According to the ambient light the colours are going to be more or less dull. But the interior has to come back to the surface, too, and reflect the world.
To take my contradictions further, what never changes is that what's behind returns to the fore. I love the word "interiority"; I prefer it to "privacy". To bring as much interiority as you can to the surface of things is to bring forth a heightened sensitivity, to bring what's deep and hidden back to the surface. It's essential, even if I don't think about it at all when I'm working in the studio.
You buy your slabs of polystyrene, which lack piquancy, one might say; but at the same time that grey can be beautiful.
As a rule we speak of beauty regarding natural materials like stone and wood. Wear on wood can be "beautiful". And nowadays we can say the same of mass-produced synthetics. I believe that every material has its own kind of presence – a lump of polystyrene as much as a piece of oak bark.
So you don't like stuff that's inert?
No, the inert is lifeless. With regard to artworks, we find some living, others worn, and others still, lifeless. For me the worst is a lifeless work. Because without life it doesn't exist.
Sometimes you seem to be fashioning reminders of what happens here in Picardy, near the English Channel and the sea, and of what happens beneath the sand. When we see your grey slabs being reworked with heat we have an impression of wind erosion or Louise Bourgeois's bubblings, but on a tiny scale that makes us think of little worms in the sand. These are images that have really affected you.
Yes, absolutely. I need to feel myself immersed in immensity, in vastness, and then linger over a detail. I envision great distance and the very small within it. But not the in-between. That eludes me.
A film that really hit home for me was Woman of the Dunes. A woman is living in a hole on the beach and a teacher mad about entomology comes digging in the sand for insects for his collection. Overtaken by darkness, he finds himself in the hole with the woman, in a house hidden beneath the dune. Unable to escape, and with both of them in danger of being buried, he finds himself condemned to endlessly helping the woman empty sand out of the hole. Their encounter is sensual, but depends also on this ritual of survival. The handling of the notion of movement – in their relationship, but also in the potentially suffocating landscape around them – is magnificent: Teshigahara's filming of the changes of scale between a grain of sand and the infinitely large is masterly. All spatiotemporal bearings are shattered, then suddenly we see a tiny dot. I find that dot in my work. Previously I made holes to open surfaces up. Now I'd speak more of tamperings, piercings and dots.
What's your relationship with surface? Do your surfaces have a connection with skin?
I need to emphasise the tactile and the involvement of the body both in my work as such and for the viewer. In the Macule (Mackle) series dating from 2013 the issue of surface, of the envelope, of sampling the epidermis, tilts the images towards a stripping-away. Stripping back. To go through the envelope is maybe to home in on the essential. The word macule/mackle, meaning a spot or a blurred impression in printing, came to me by chance when I was interested in printing and publishing, and was getting things wrong. And I made the association between mackles and skin problems.
And the question that plagues me now is, is a spot a hole?
You feel the need to give a title, a name. Yet your works could easily be Untitleds. There are stacks of artists who stand out for Untitled.
Every time it's words that bring me back to my subject. And dig deeper into the same furrow. It's through words that I fully discover what I'm making. Sometimes the word comes first and triggers a series. Other times it's the title I decide on that rounds a group off. I need words to validate or cast light on the work in hand.
How would you situate yourself? Who do you feel a kinship with?
I met Pierre Buraglio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1990. A really remarkable encounter. He introduced me to Pierrette Bloch, who I worked with for several years. Her works are still very striking, with their presence and a simplicity that's sometimes almost disconcerting. Her last exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve in Cologne showed this incredible density and a complete dispensing with frills.
Then there's Mary Heilman, still little known in France, whose painting affects me enormously: it's against the grain, almost in a "bad painting" way. And obviously there are lots of artists of my generation or younger who I feel close to, especially those whose work methods leave lots of room for randomness and accident.
You're very attached to the idea of the studio.
I absolutely have to have a studio – I'm not a desk artist, even if I can work anywhere. Here, for example, in my studio and my living space, everything ends up being the studio. It reassures me to say "my studio" because it's the place where I really get myself together.
To try things out?
To get my brain and body settled. To find a kind of focus. And for that you have to have a place! At the same time we know that the big events happen between places – that's for sure [laughter]. Things fall into place elsewhere. You have to stay attentive, then bring everything together in the studio.
How do you actually define yourself? As a sculptor?
I feel that I'm a painter. Profoundly so. I don't feel that I'm a sculptor at all. I don't produce shapes: I function via planes that can produce a volume. The intention is plane and volume at the same time. So that I can engage with a third dimension. Something malleable. Something light. Transportable.
Is it the act that interests you, more than being an artist?
For me being an artist is more a way of being in the world. More an attitude. It's not particularly painters and sculptors who are artists. I find that some of my close friends are more artists than I am. I find myself very ordinary in my relationship with the world. But I feel that I'm a painter in the material sense. In the manual sense, but mentally as well.
Your work is solitary, but at the same time you and five artist friends have a real publishing thing going. Among other things Friville-Editions organises art debates, two series of books, exhibitions and encounters with artists. How do you explain your need for this?
I really enjoy alternating the solitude of the studio with working in a team. Friville Editions is dynamic, creative, a real trigger. We all have different practices. But being part of a group has its problems too: being an artist alongside other artists means enjoying arguing, with all the clashes that can entail. What we've organised is a combination of exhibition and publication that spotlights the project more than the completed work.
So you need this confinement – in the hole, in silence – and you need the group as well.
There's a gradual opening-up happening, but I spend much more time working on my own. I work mostly in the morning and late in the day.
In the studio my sister Anne De Beir has been helping out since 2007; working with her, or sometimes with a student, breaks my solitary rhythm and sets a fresh, shared energy going.
Do you think you're more politically committed than an artist who keeps going on about being committed? And does politics have more than just a formal place in your work?
My various explorations are the outcome of attempts at defusing; they are what they show, plus something else.
I don't think my work deals in politics, but I feel very committed in my own field: there's play, resistance and deliberate exposure to danger. The finished works are not always very likeable; they're mainly outbursts of clumsiness. There's no skill involved. What results happens somewhere else. My work's not tranquil: it's all about our vulnerability and anxiety.
It's in a state of turmoil?
I'd say more tampered with and fragile.
I feel pretty satisfied when what's there takes on presence. My works are devoid of any message, but there's a force at work in my fragments and installations. And this force surely leads the viewer more towards activity than towards contemplation.
Your work is very painstaking, but at the same time it seems totally open to chance.
I'd like it to be "totally". I set up challenges for myself in that regard.
As if your works are found objects – is that it?
Well put – I like that idea. Some of the works could be details of others already made: close-ups, enlargements of a detail of a perforated slab. My most recent series is very disturbing. Usually I buy standard sizes and I don't change them; but now I have bits of different sizes and I still don't know what I'm looking at. I don't know if I'm looking at a detail or a fragment. I still don't get it. At one point I thought I was making samples, and that was a bad sign. When I put a lot of them together on the same wall I had the feeling of creating an inventory.
They could be taken for readymade objects, but that's wrong. They look heavy but they're very light. They look like cinder blocks, but they're not.
The discrepancy between what you see and the actuality of the object. In a sense I neutralise the object's self-evidence and its historical meanings.
When you look at a cinder block wall you feel the weight of its components. In the case of my blocks you feel the overall density, but never crushingly so. There's no substructure. An evenly distributed weight seems to be revealed. It's not ponderous.
What made you want a catalogue?
I think that when you hit fifty you get an urge to record. Here works from a twenty-year period – 1996 to 2016 – are brought together. My most recent series, Altérations (Alterations) became possible after twenty years of explorations, and I could start thinking about taking stock. There was a need to unspool the thread of those years of exploration and put it on display. 1996 was when I started having major exhibitions: a solo show at the Picardy Region Contemporary Art Collection, followed up by another at the Museum Ostwall in Dortmund. A publication helps me analyse the connections between series. The business of photographing the works, together with the studio research, helps you optimise the presentation in the catalogue: I put the accent on different points of view, on details and on matter in its different states.
What do you call your installations?
I think "environments" is the right word. It suits my work very well. But without the made-up narrative. Without the references. My work dispenses with references. I want it to be looked at without much background knowledge. Its presence is all it needs.
The locus for the fomenting of matter in the world of Dominique De Beir promises futurity and contradiction. The role of silence in it forces the reader and the viewer to acknowledge the unknown. And as there are no words equal to this potent urge to create, there is only "an absenceword, a hole-word, whose centre would have been hollowed out into a hole, the kind of hole in which all other words would have been buried. It would have been impossible to utter, but it would have been made to reverberate."  This silence will assuredly reverberate in us.
Conversation with Diane Watteau, February 2016
Diane Watteau is an artist, a lecturer in Visual Arts at the Sorbonne and a member of AICA, the International Association of Art Critics.
 Gérard Wajcman, L'Objet du siècle (Lagrasse: Verdier, 1998).
 Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, trans. Richard Seaver (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
 Hiroshi Teshigahara (dir.), Woman of the Dunes, 1964, b&w, 123 mins., screenplay by Kobo Abe.
 Marguerite Duras, op. cit.