Contemporary Art, Culture, and her “Unspoken Truths” exhibition at the Alliance Française Bangkok
French artist Hélène Le Chatelier (www.helenelechatelier.com) dishes about her November 21 – December 17 exhibition, “Unspoken Truths”, quirky cool Singapore life, and wonderful world of contemporary art. Hélène’s recent collaboration with the Alliance Française Bangkok (https://afthailande.org) and Ronewa Art Projects (Berlin/Bangkok) (https://ronewa.com) invites audiences to experience her work which she describes as “snapshots of our soul”. Hélène is best known for her ink body-scape and works on paper, but her repertoire also includes installation, sculpture, video, and photography. She has even written a novel and children’s book.
The Alliance Française Bangkok’s open galleries provide an airy backdrop to contemplate “Unspoken Truths’” themes of space, intimacy, and memory. Hélène’s artwork engages viewers to explore their inner-most landscapes; offering a unique way in which we view our own realities. So, what makes artist Hélène Le Chatelier tick? Hélène provides a playful look into everything from her artistic process to favourite foods to street art. We even receive a few tips about the Singapore art scene.
Can you explain your journey as an expat?
I grew up in central France, just south of Paris near Bourges. After living in Ireland for four years, my family moved to Singapore in 2010. Our fourth child was born in the Lion City. We rescued a bird and hamster who became part of our home. I love good food, wine, and books. When I am not working or sipping tea, I spend time with family and friends. If you add a pinch of travel and a great dose of art, then I am in paradise!
How would you describe your typical day in Singapore?
Ten years living in Singapore has nurtured my lifestyle and my concept of art. My days start early with Earl Grey tea and coffee. After dropping the kids at school, I head to my studio, where I work for most of the day with my hands full of paint or clay. I love my studio’s vibrant silence which allows me to dive into myself. It is my breathing space like a bubble separate from the world. Time passes quickly here. Outside of my studio, I go to appointments that usually include lunch meetings with dumplings, sushi, fried rice, or pomelo salad. I meet artist friends, curators, art dealers, and collectors around town or in my studio. I like to engage with various fields of research. For example, I am currently working on an art and science project with the Mechanobiology Institute Centre and National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) from the National University of Singapore. The researchers and I are exploring the concept of disappearance through the creation of artworks using lab techniques. In the evenings, I attend art openings. I am always curious about other artists’ work. On my way home, I especially enjoy the night noises: toads and insects lost in the dark remind us that nature is never far away. Even if Singapore is a huge megalopolis, it is also a garden city, where nature has its very own place.
What is your personal story as a painter and artist?
I have always wanted to be an artist. When I was five-years-old, a schoolmate asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I proudly answered: “Painter Artist!” I thought those two words sounded super cool. Encouraged by my parents, I started painting at a very young age. I produced paintings which my father still keeps in his home… and believe me, some of them are ugly! I studied Fine Arts & Applied Arts in Paris where I graduated in Fresco painting. I became an artist to express and address matters that are beyond words. When language fails to describe and define the human experience, images can succeed.
How did you become involved with the Alliance Française Bangkok?
I visited Bangkok many times as an artist-in-residence at Thaillywood Contemporary Art Residency in Chonburi, and I shared my studio with two Thai artists who became friends. This residency provided an opportunity to experience new techniques and large size artworks without constraint. This is generally the kind of freedom an art residency can offer. It is a precious time for artists. Some of the paintings that I created during my time at Thaillywood are presented during my exhibit, “Unspoken Truths”, at the Alliance Française. During my frequent trips to Bangkok, I attended exhibitions at the former Alliance Française, which I greatly enjoyed. The Alliance Française maintains a strong, long-term relationship with artists and the art world. They facilitate the exposure of art to a multicultural audience. This means that people who may not regularly experience contemporary art, can do so at the Alliance Française. When visitors come for French language classes or to attend a musical performance, they can also see various artists’ work. I am excited about the opportunity to show my artwork in the new Alliance Française Bangkok.
I am also thrilled about my first collaboration with Ronewa Art Projects (Berlin/Bangkok). I met fellow expat and director of Ronewa Art Projects, Roger Washington, a few years ago. I appreciated his positive energy, endless curiosity about the local art scene, and his strong ability to connect with people wherever he goes. I hope this will be just the beginning of a longer partnership to reach a larger audience.
What were your expectations regarding your “Unspoken Truths” exhibition?
This is my fourth time presenting artworks in Thailand. It makes me very happy. This selection was completed along with a new series created in Singapore that had never been exhibited in Bangkok. I am presenting a total of three different series. One engages in a form of what I call, an “Unreadable Writing”; deploying the idea of energy and the effort we put into inscribing our own lifeline among others’ voices. In the second series entitled, “Internal Landscapes”, I use semi-abstract landscapes as a representation of our inner world. The third series called “Psyche”, presents inner landscapes painted on round canvases of various sizes. By using these round shapes, I play with different scales, referring as much to the idea of microcosm or cellular scale as the idea of the macrocosm or the scale of planets: when you look deeply into yourself, you may discover a universe within itself. It is an endless journey. I hope these pieces provide viewers the opportunity to connect with my art and to dive deeper into it. Collective and individual memory, life path, silent transformation, and inner landscapes are the main themes behind this exhibition, and I hope this subject matter speaks to everyone.
Which materials do use when creating your artwork?
My art practice is quite diverse. Although my favourite medium is Chinese ink, I do see myself more as a painter. However, I can easily move from painting to sculpture to photography and into videos or installations. This diversity allows me to explore subjects from different angles. Of course, you don’t say the same thing when expressing a message through sculpture or with videos. Each medium asks you to reconsider which part of your subject you want to highlight for the viewer.
What is your creative process?
My work is the result of deep reflection. Most of the time, I work in series. This means I develop a concept with several artworks which form a collection. I compare my creative process to a ball of wool on which I pull the string. As I slowly pull the string, I observe what comes out of that ball. One reflection leads me to a new one, and one series leads me to the next one. I see my work as research based upon introspection. It is a reflection based on my own experiences or my own questions about certain subjects. Alternatively, if my art practice takes different forms, then the themes I explore are consistent. I like to question the influence of memory and social context on our intimate space… and suddenly this interview sounds extremely serious! Joking aside, we are living in a world constantly overwhelmed by social media. This leads me to interrogate the place of language, introspection, and our physical selves.
Do you listen to music when you work?
Sometimes I work in silence, other times I listen to music, preferably to some mind-blowing musicians. For instance, I love London Grammar, H.E.R., RY X, Angus & Julia Stone, and M83. I can’t end this list without naming [.gif] (pronounce “dot gif”), a Singaporean duo I love. I even used their music to accompany one of my installations.
What is an important lesson that shaped you as an artist?
I think the most important lesson is to follow my own instinct and interest. This means not working with the goal of selling. I shouldn’t tell you that because every artist needs to sell to survive, but I simply feel that not being driven by the art market is the only way to be totally sincere. This sincerity is one of the things that I value most in art.
What and who inspires you?
Well, everything can be inspiring! The people we meet, things around us, landscapes, nature, and news. It is more about how things resonate within us regarding our own story. In other words, my practice is generally rooted in my childhood and my experiences. Then it expands through questions and matters that our globalised, technological world makes us reflect about. That said, I also find inspiration in books, art, poetry, and sciences (social sciences, biology, psychology, neurosciences etc.). Great artists such as Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Soulages, Sophie Calle, and Zao Wou Ki are the famous ones who are sources of my inspiration.
What are your favourite parts about visiting Thailand?
Thai cuisine is one of my favourite Asian foods! I love eating randomly in the street or with Thai friends who order dishes I even don’t know. I am quite adventurous with food. I love to discover new tastes. Also, Thailand is just a short hop away from Singapore, so it is one of the easiest holiday destinations. It is also one of the first Asian countries that I visited when I was 19-years-old. I am a huge fan of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai because as soon as you arrive, you feel teleported to an ancient, forgotten world. This opens my mind to an extraordinary, imaginary world. I also love Koh Yao Noi, the Phang Nga Bay, the Similans Islands, and the northern landscapes.
How can people connect with art in Singapore?
Singapore has an active art scene featuring festivals, exhibitions, artist talks, and major museum events. I encourage visitors to experience all that the Lion City has to offer, especially when it comes to art. Don’t miss Gillman Barracks, Intersections Gallery, the Substation, and of course, the National Gallery, the Art and Science Museum, and the National Museum which are my favourites. Singapore also invites people to engage with street art – like the one I recently completed in Kampong Glam district, the “Geology of Memory”. The story behind this mural can be summarised through the following sentence: The more you dig into your memory, the more it looks like a mountain to climb. I believe this is something anyone can relate to when it comes to revisiting our own past. I particularly enjoyed installing this artwork outdoors. The street context provides an intuitive and immediate access to the art. This adds another perspective to the work. It also allowed me to play with scale and illusion, which engages audiences and generates interactions. When seen on the street, the reactions of viewers are more spontaneous and immediate than when viewed between the white walls of a gallery. This interaction is exactly the purpose of street art!
What can we expect from your future projects?
There is a lot in the incubator at the moment! I am currently preparing a solo exhibition for the Intersections Gallery (Singapore) in 2020. I plan to finish my art and science collaborative project with the Mechanobiology Institute of Singapore and to find a place to present this work to the public. I am also exploring the idea of returning to Bangkok in 2020 to work on an ephemeral street art project, that will also take place in Singapore at the same time.
Do you have a personal motto or favourite quote?
I would start by quoting artist Louise Bourgeois: “Art is a way of recognising oneself“, because this reflects both the viewer and the artist. It could be followed by: “Life is a sum of all your choices. So, what are you doing today?” by French writer Albert Camus. Finally, I would end with writer Oscar Wilde’s iconic words: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken already“. This might seem simple, but if you think about it carefully, then it is quite demanding. It takes a lot of integrity to be yourself. Food for thought.
Meet the exhibition organisers
Roger Washington (exhibition curated by Roger Washington – Director, Ronewa Art Projects) – Ronewa Art Projects is a catalyst for new ideas, projects, and collaborations to increase the reach of contemporary art from Asia to Europe, and the United States. (Ronewa Art Projects stands for Roger Nelson Washington Projects) The newly built Alliance Française Bangkok is the perfect venue for showcasing art and culture. Its spacious atrium uniquely highlights Hélène’s artworks. Visitors experience the exhibition “Unspoken Truths” in a personal way within one of Bangkok’s leading cultural centres. “Unspoken Truths” brings together over twenty works by Hélène, spanning from 2015 to the present. Hélène also created new works specifically for this exhibition. The idea to collaborate with Hélène began in 2017, when I saw her works on exhibit at a Bangkok gallery. I fell in love with them, and formally introduced Hélène’s work to Pascale Fabre (Director of Alliance Française Bangkok) and Paul Abela (Cultural Director of Alliance Française Bangkok).
Pascale Fabre (Director of Alliance Française Bangkok) – Alliance Française Bangkok is an open space for everyone. We make art accessible to all, from amateurs to novices, from children to teenagers and adults, from Thais to expats who do not speak French to Francophones. Our exhibition spaces are very diverse. On each floor, you can see art work, including outside the building and on the walls. For some visitors, it is the first time they have a chance to see an exhibition. We are also a meeting place. Thanks to our cultural programme (films, concerts, dance, conferences, talks, etc.) we can witness conversations between artists who may not have otherwise met. This stimulates new projects, sometimes interdisciplinary, most of the time international. We present diverse expressions and genres. The artists represent themselves and share the cultural diversity which is at the heart of Alliance Française’s mission.