“I Draw Inspiration from My Own Experiences and from the Intimate Stories of the Women I Give a Voice To.” – In Conversation with Clemence Vazard
What is your first memory of harassment? This is the simple, yet difficult question that interdisciplinary artist Clemence Vazard first began asking women in 2016. Although realising the importance of her work through the documentation of their stories, Vazard was unaware of what huge significance this would have. Then in 2017, the world began to wake up and listen to the stories of women that had remained silent for so long. Coinciding with her solo exhibition ‘#monpremierharcelement’ (What is your first memory of harassment?), the power of the #MeToo movement stormed across social media in response to the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal, opening up the conversation on harassment, equality and the female experience.
Photo © Jennifer Moyes for MTArt Agency
The importance of these stories and narratives are still relevant today. Working as part of the feminist art movement, Vazard is concerned with the lack of female representation within history and seeks to give women a voice in an attempt to rebalance our society. To communicate her message, Vazard utilises pliable mediums including, photography, collage, sound or performance to best convey each individual project. Through the participatory nature of her work, we are invited to question, reflect and even re-write the narrative of humanity.
This drive to empower women and address political issues was the call to action that encouraged Vazard to leave her full-time job last year with the support of MTArt Agency, to focus completely on her art practice. Within that time Vazard has exhibited in London and Paris, participated in talks and workshops and completed a residency in Mexico, which motivated the creation of ‘Reflections, Through the Looking-Glass’, a body of work that mirrors the distortion of female voices in society.
Photo © MTArt Agency
Vazard creates with the intention of influencing radical change in gender representation. Upon viewing her work we are encouraged to listen to the stories that she gives a voice to, opening an essential dialogue for change. To learn more, we caught up with Vazard to discuss the importance of narrative and the various mediums within her work, the many feminist artists that have influenced her practice and her ambitions for the year ahead.
Photo © Emma-Jane Browne for MTArt Agency
It has been a year since you made the decision to work full-time on your art practice. Had you always known that you would be an artist and what pushed you to take this step in your career?
I always knew [that] I couldn’t live without making art, but it’s only recently that I decided being an artist would be my career. I grew up with the idea that being an artist is not a ‘real’ job. So I studied and started a career whilst working on my artwork and projects in the evenings and weekends. It was a crazy rhythm but it was impossible for me to put my art on standby. Little by little I started to be solicited to exhibit my work. I was offered a residency to create my installation ‘#monpremierharcelement’ which later attracted the attention of the press and professionals. A year and a half ago MTArt Agency offered to represent me and that was the trigger. From then on, the projects and solicitations increased enormously and it became impossible [to manage] with a full-time job. It made me realize that being an artist could be a profession in itself, and that I had hidden this dream from myself until now. I want to make an impact by empowering women. It can’t be done part-time! I have therefore decided to devote myself entirely to my art and the vision I advocate.
You are an interdisciplinary artist that is also part of the feminist art movement using narratives to address gender representation. What has led you to focus on this subject area and why is it important that we listen to these stories?
I draw inspiration from my own experiences and from the intimate stories of the women I give a voice to. I want those voices to be heard because I feel we are missing half of the history of humanity. My aesthetic research focuses on the creation of plastic semiotics that allow marginalized narratives to emerge. If it is understood today that history concerns the narrative of the male experience, which led to the invisibility of women, then the content of this Universalist history, therefore, deserves a rewriting. So through my art I wish to show women’s voices. I make visible the forgotten, truncated, erased stories of history, through the intervention of an artistic medium.
The opening of ‘#monpremierharcelement’ (What is your first memory of harassment?) coincided with the #MeToo movement. Do you feel that you were part of the zeitgeist at the time?
I couldn’t have been more so! I actually started working on this in the summer of 2016. I put out a call for participation on my social networks and invited women to tell me their first memory of harassment. At the time, I managed to collect the testimonies and portraits of 12 women. This work of meetings, interviews, photographs, creation and scenography lasted more than a year. I was lucky enough to be supported by the Centre d’Animation de La Chapelle through a residency and by the Paris City Council with a grant. I am very grateful for their trust because I received a lot of sceptical, devaluing and even contemptuous feedback on the subject I was dealing with. Some people told me that harassment was not a serious subject and that it only affected a tiny portion of the population. I was already convinced at that time that it affected 100% of 51% of the world’s population, which for me was serious enough. I believed in this project and I fought for it to be born. The first exhibition that closed my residency took place on the weekend of September 30th (2017). On the following Friday, October 5th, the Weinstein affair was revealed. Suddenly, the media woke up and I was widely contacted to give my vision on this event, in view of the testimonies I had collected through my art project. Then 10 days later the #MeToo movement was launched. Since then, ‘#monpremierharcelement’ has been exhibited in several institutions in Paris, Avignon and London and is more relevant than ever 4 years after its creation.
Photo © MTArt Agency
What female artists have inspired or influenced your work? Where else do you find inspiration?
I belong to a lineage of artists who advocate, as Isabelle Alfonsi calls it the “aesthetics of emancipation”. I am constantly inspired by women and queer artists who address political issues by providing new artistic languages, [including] Artemisia Gentileschi, who expressed her experiences of rape and harassment through her paintings by re-appropriating biblical scenes. Also, Ana Mendietta, who set out to explore the notion of the body as a political field, and Claude Cahun, whose work sits on the borderline of photography, collage and performance, taking the body as a material for reflection on representations to propose multiple, non-fixed identities. My mentor, the feminist Mexican artist Monica Mayer, who engages women to speak about their experiences by asking them direct questions and transforming their answers into artworks, has also been an influence on my work.
You are inspired by many feminist artists in your lineage. Are there any particular iconic works that have been influential to your own art practice?
Barbara Kruger’s collages gathering female portraits and statement texts. ‘Your body is a battleground’, for example, is a strong reference in my artwork, which I’ve revisited through sound art. Judy Chicago’s installation ‘The Dinner Party’ is [also] a constant reference for my research on female history, the power of the narratives and the construction of herstory.
You have had many achievements within the last year. You have had shows in Paris, London and Mexico, delivered live performances, participated in talks and workshops and completed a 2-month residency in Mexico. What has been the highlight for you?
Tough question! What a year it was indeed, but to give you an answer, I would say that my 2 months in Mexico, ending with a performance and exhibition has been very beneficial to me in many ways. The knowledge of yourself and the world that comes from a prolonged trip outside of your comfort zone is very empowering and necessary when you are an artist.
‘Reflections, Through the Looking-Glass’ was a project that developed throughout your residency in Mexico. Where did you gain your inspiration and how did you approach your work?
For me, art is a tool of expression and emancipation. During my two-month residency, I asked Mexican women to send me a sentence about an aspect of their lives or experiences that must be kept silent to be accepted (by society, their families, their colleagues, their spouses, their friends, etc.). I received strong, powerful, daring, heart-wrenching, frustrating and upsetting statements. I wanted to transform these intimate words into visual manifestos and create a space for freedom of expression and the dissemination of women’s voices. So, I wrote them in lipstick on mirror paper stretched on a frame. The sentences are backwards, giving the impression that they were written on the other side of the mirror.
Photo © Jennifer Moyes for MTArt Agency
The lipstick and the mirror have become a distinctive feature within your practice. What drew you to these materials and what is their importance within your work?
My canvas is the mirror and my painting is the lipstick. As a self-taught artist, I like to play with the codes of fine arts while appropriating my own mediums. By using them in my art, I transform tools of oppression into tools of expression. These two materials, which represent the diktats of beauty standards imposed on women, are here diverted to express another message. As everyday objects, they also respond to my desire to create an intimacy between the work of art and the spectator. These familiar materials make art more sensitive.
In ‘Reflection, Through the Looking-Glass’, lipstick has been used to write onto the mirrored surface as though written from inside the artwork. What is the significance of the typography used and the way in which the viewer reads the piece?
I wrote the letters of the text in lipstick from right to left, giving the strange impression of having been written by another person on the other side of the mirror. The effect I sought was to question the reality of the world we live in, where reality is distorted by norms of representation that prevent us from expressing ourselves sincerely. This is the truth hidden behind the superficiality that is expressed in my artworks.
The typography, from which I draw my inspiration, indeed has its own meaning and history. ‘Futura Bold Italic’ is the emblematic typography in the works of the feminist artist Barbara Kruger, who first used a white version highlighted in red in 1981. This same version [was used] in 1994 by the Supreme clothing brand to create its logo, it is both a feminist manifesto and marketing image. This visual ambiguity inspires me but is also a tribute to one of the artists of my lineage.
How did the audience engage with the works in ‘Reflection, Through the Looking-Glass’?
My artworks in this series generate interaction with the audience. The mirror sheet stretched over a frame creates a playful and engaging mirror deformation effect, and the text written backwards attracts the attention of the viewer, who participates by deciphering the message. The scenography used in the exhibition, placing real mirrors in front of the works, amplifies interaction. In their reflection, the texts are written in the right direction, [however] when a person takes a selfie photo in front of the work the text is backwards again in the resulting image. Our perception becomes confused in this game of mirrors that makes each viewer an active participant in the exhibition.
Photo © MTArt Agency
‘Sois Belle et Tais toi’ (Be pretty and shut up) is a performance piece in which you use your physical body as part of the artwork. Why have you chosen to perform in front of a live audience and what is their experience of the work? Are they spectators or participants?
To create ‘Sois Belle et Tais-Toi’, I chose to address my subject through performance for the very specific reason of audience engagement. I wanted to push the relationship between artist and spectator as far as possible. But I wanted not only to involve them in the work, but also to touch them physically, and to make them an indispensable part of the work. So during the different stages of the performance, the spectators are observers, then participants, and finally they are an essential element at the end of the performance.
As an interdisciplinary artist you use multiple mediums including photography, sound and performance. Do you have a preferred medium or does this change depending on the topic or narratives that you are working with?
I create my own medium for each new project or series of artworks. In my creative process, I first choose the message I want to deliver and then I look for the most relevant medium to deliver it. From performance, video, photography, collage and sound, I appropriate each plastic language to transform intimate narratives into visual manifestos. The downside is that I have to reinvent new processes for each new project, but the truth is I love it!
On Instagram you have launched the ‘I am…’ project. Have you used Instagram as a tool for participatory projects before? How can people get involved and what do you aim to create?
What I want as an artist is to create inspiring artworks for women to speak their truth. When I work on a project, it comes from me, from my own experience, from my feelings, but each time I feel the need to confront my reality with that of other women. This can be done through face-to-face interviews, as was done for #monpremierharcelement, but I am increasingly using virtual communication to launch my calls for testimony and participation. On one hand, it makes it impossible to remain anonymous for those who wish to do so and on the other hand, it allows me to reach people far away. For ‘I am…’ I want to hear from women in England. It’s a project where the final works will be presented in London at the Boogie Wall Gallery [that] I recently signed with. So, for me, it was important to speak out and expose the voices of women from the same country.
There is still time to participate by visiting my Instagram account. I invite all women living in the UK to share their sentence with me, starting with “I am” and completing it with their personal statement. I will select the sentences that show the greatest diversity of female identities.
Following your residency in Mexico, and your future exhibition in London, where else would you like to go? Do you aim to work with women from other cultures and communities?
I started working on a project in collaboration with an NGO that works with asylum seekers in the camps of Lesvos in Greece. My goal is to deconstruct the stereotypical representations of the migrant women who are in these camps. If possible, I will travel there and meet the NGO staff and asylum seekers in the fall. I am very much looking forward to it.
What else are you currently working on and what do you hope to achieve over the next year?
I am currently working on new artworks for the exhibition at Boogie Wall Gallery. The exhibition is going to be called ‘Beyond Self Reflection’. It’s a very important step in my career to be represented by a gallery and to have this solo show. I’m also creating a new performance in which I want to play with the effects created by the encounter between mirror and light. It will obviously be participatory, but I also want it to be immersive for the audience. I’d [also] like to complete a public art project I recently designed. It’s a luminous and interactive sculpture inspired by ancestral rituals around the cycles of the moon and therefore the cycles of femininity.
Written and interviewed by Georgina Saunders
All other photos © Courtesy of MTArt Agency