Conversations with Chris Kenny: Interview with Guillaume Monsaingeon, 2016

Guillaume Monsaingeon : The Hébert Museum is showing several of your "mapworks" as you call them: abstract geometric compositions made from many fragments of maps. You insist on the fact that the maps are a point of departure, not arrival.
Chris Kenny : I'm not a cartographer, I do not make maps. But I'm fascinated by the graphic quality of them. I love that a specific bright red, the thickness of a line, the typography of a name or the colour of the sea, all that was chosen, improved and refined. There are so many qualities, so many stories to discover in any map, particularly when it has been designed with a specific intention. On the other hand, I am not interested in many standard maps. These are often boring with too little contrast, no strong aesthetic values, nobody making a personal decision.

G.M. : So you only work with 'beautiful' maps?
C.K. : No, with maps that have some form of personality. I don't necessarily have to find them beautiful or harmonious. I just have to find some striking detail, a shape, a feature, a word or a colour.

G.M. : You collect an incredible amount of map fragments. What happens when these pieces move from their box to your worktable?
C.K. :  My studio looks very untidy, full of boxes and books awaiting whatever. Actually, it's not so arbitrary, and what looks like chaos is quite organised. Gradually, words and cuttings are filed in boxes: large circles or small triangles, pink shapes or light green ones. There are letters, dots, contours, bits of blue water and so on. 
When I pick a fragment from a box, I am encouraging it to develop a sort of relationship with its neighbours. I don't know if it will work, if they'll match up, if they'll find a life together. I construct by combining, assembling. Colours or shapes work a bit like words assembled into phrases or sentences.

G.M. : Do you remember their origin?
C.K. : Sometimes, yes. For maps, it's usually clear where they're from, and the places represented. If I forget, where they come from it usually does not matter.

G.M. : Are we talking about a "cartography without geography"?
C. K. : Yes. I'm not trying to show a country or a particular region - a "real" world. Nor am I trying to depict an imaginary space such as those in Treasure Island or Lord of the Rings. What interests me is the space I create, not one representing an already existing world. This is where the map is a starting point not a goal. I create the place; I present the world more than I represent it. I am not discussing any specific aspect of the world, to denounce or to glorify it. I make a new space that is resonant of, but free from other worlds.

G.M. : We can find exceptions in your work. For example, you made a Fetish Map of Paris, on show in Grenoble.
C. K.: That's true, but the Fetish Maps refer to another logic: I have not sought to reconstruct a map of Paris, I worked on a vintage map, nothing out of the ordinary.

G.M. : You've savagely assaulted it with hundreds of small pins, like a fetish doll pierced to attract or ward off bad luck!
C. K. : Not exactly! I have pinned it but without all that much aggression on my part: no feeling of vengeance against London or Paris. For me, each pinhole could correspond to a moment of life. Not exactly the usual "you are here", rather more "here something happened." Each life passing by each day without anyone noticing. But I am marking that at a particular place in a particular area, or a particular building, an individual's life took its course; so many lives. The world is full of all these specific existences. London or Paris interested me less for what they are than as an opportunity to focus on anonymous lives. So it is less about actual geographic space. Rather, it is a sensitive cartography addressing emotions: memories, experiences, fears, anxieties ...

G.M. : In the middle of nowhere, is this a title that refers to the idea of landscape?
C. K. : Astronomers endlessly examine the night sky to track stars and other celestial bodies. Artists have similar obsessions. We are all lost in the universe, we can make only a modest impression, if anything at all, but we try to do it with panache. We may be in Shanghai, Lyon or Valparaiso, wherever. We are always "in the middle of nowhere," even in a familiar landscape.

G.M. : "Nothing" and "nowhere" seem to be terms that you hold dear...
C. K. : They play an essential role. I love the corrosive statement of Paul Valéry: "God made everything from nothing. But nothing shows through". It may sound pretentious, but I work as a way of looking at this nothing.
The quip of John Cage, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry" is more than a joke: it is an awareness of our finitude. Nobody is innocent, we will all perish, but art is there to save us! To explore the beauty of the world around us is worthwhile.

G.M. : Nowhere, it seems a bit desperate...
C.K. : It is exactly the opposite! We are at the centre of the world. We can nurture paradise where we find ourselves.
In the middle of nowhere is a fundamentally optimistic title! It is the same for a stranger passing through as for somebody who has lived in a place for eight generations. There can be a link between people who live in a landscape and artists who see it anew...

G.M. : For the exhibition in Grenoble, you have made several works, including Paradise, part of a series of perfect places presented here for the first time in full.
C. K. : Yes, I have already shown the other four in the series: Eden, Utopia, Arcadia, Elysium. The series is now complete, I have made a tour of perfect places. Each one consists of the word with each letter cut out of a small house, built from found paintings on board.

G. M. : Are these landscapes?
C. K. : An essence of landscape, this corresponds to the main idea. In the same way that I am not making maps, I am not painting landscapes myself but working with other people's. This may be surprising coming from an artist but in reality I am only doing in my art what people do everyday.

G.M. : So you are working on a second level: existing landscapes become your material and you construct a landscape of landscapes?
C.K. : I rely on those colloquially called "Sunday painters", anonymous artists who paint for pleasure, without any idea of selling, innovating or making history. Just painting to keep a record of a loved place and maybe a good time spent there; perhaps painting a landscape to portray an inner feeling or find a way to prolong the happiness one has experienced. I have tried to immerse myself in this empathy between man and landscape.

G.M. : You buy these "Sunday paintings" in flea markets. Do you consider them to be bad painting?
C.K. : No, more like orphan pictures. Aside from the artist who painted them, nobody cares for them, and they have ended up in a flea market. I see them and choose them affectionately. These are not masterpieces, some are really bad! But it is touching because, even if not great painting, they may have been important to the painter.

G.M. : who thinks of himself as Renoir?
C. K. : No, he simply believes in the landscape and his picture. Paradise is right there: any landscape is made into a paradise by the one who paints it. No matter whether it's good or bad painting: there is always a remnant of empathy, a sense of happiness and a little bit of beauty, at least. Beauty is sometimes just suggested like a fleeting allusion. These landscapes are the evidence of a desire for that perfect beauty.

G.M. : You are trying to reveal the beauty and the joy contained in these landscapes?
C.K. : I try to make them come to life and be, in a sense, "lovable". I am happy if I make them worthy of some consideration.

G.M. : Most of your work begins with something cut into small pieces. Why this process? Behind the nice Dr Kenny, is there a fanatic Mr Hyde who cuts up everything he comes across?
C.K. : I suppose there is in me an "inner vandal" but it's not out of malice. Clement Greenberg calls the School of Paris "French cooking" and Bonnards are like delicious, appetizing dishes. But in the work I'm making, I like to include a drop of poison.
In English we refer to "the grit in the oyster" to describe the small impurity which produces the pearl. Similarly I'm referencing "paradise" by cutting into paintings, creating a mixture of delight and poison.

G.M. : You have chosen to distil this secret violence?
C. K. : Yes, but everything depends on the way it's done. Humour is a wonderful way to say mean things; collage is part of this tradition. Max Ernst and the Dadaists were artists who worked with cutting and assembling - masterful critics with a ferocious sense of humour.
I have not invented anything. The history of art is full of examples of dazzling beauty born out of ugliness and violence: the Museum in Grenoble has an example with Soutine's incredible 'Flayed Ox'. Think of Picasso's Guernica or Goya's Disasters of War, both horrible and beautiful.
There is no need to cut books or pictures to play with violence...

G.M. : Does it not bother you cutting up these "Sunday paintings"?
C.K. : No, there is no real aggression in my vandalism. I never cut up a work of real quality. I pay great attention to what I am doing. Of those that I used for Paradise, I discarded some because of their size, support, resistance, but also a few that were really ugly or unsuitable, and others I would not harm... once cut, I carefully compose them: the edges must be sharp, clean cuts. I am looking for beauty in the fragments, I pay them respect and attention. In this search for mystery and poetry, I try to imbue the work with a kind of personality, individuality. It is a portrait if you want. The landscape is something of a portrait, it has a unique personality.

G.M. : As well as maps you often use texts, many of which deal with our dreams and our hopes. What is the place of literature in your work? You quote often, and from very different authors: you seem to be a greedy reader, curious about everything, eager to discover.
C.K. : I hesitated between studying Literature and Art History before opting for the latter. But I read a lot, a little of everything: novels, poetry, essays, biographies, interviews... I very rarely read without cutting up simultaneously. This requires me to be a combination of consumer and producer, making a direct link between reading and writing.

G.M. : You construct new texts with phrases that you have gleaned.
C.K. : I am endlessly cutting out phrases that interest me which I assemble to tell a story perhaps. This takes a long time: I try and try, it does not work, I keep changing it, until suddenly, a story appears.
More than cutting, it is the assembling of these texts that is, out of all my cutting and collaging, by far the most time-consuming part. It is a form of writing, if one considers that telling a story with bits borrowed from other writers is still writing. We can go further and consider, in the footsteps of Roland Barthes and his "death of the author", such collage-writing to be the same as any method of writing: "The text as a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture ... " What is our responsibility when writing? Words pass through us and the ideas are sort of "free range."

G. M. : It also occurs to you to reverse the process to make a text.
C.K.: Yes, I did specifically with the story of the Creation in the Garden of Eden from Genesis (The Planting of Eden). There, it was the opposite method: I knew where I was going and I had to find all the pieces of the puzzle, that is to say 1440 letters required for this beautiful text, I deleted all punctuation, except the final full stop. All the letters are cut from maps. An amalgam of 1440 fragments of different places! Again combining the idea of ​​heaven and actual landscape: the primordial garden of the story is all gardens, whether modest or grandiose. Anyone who keeps a garden has a little bit of Eden, as almost every painted landscape is a fragment of Paradise. Basically, I am demonstrating and sharing this quest for paradise...

Interview by Guillaume Monsaingeon
London 2014 - 2016