Studio visit by Caroline Dumalin

Alice De Mont, born in 1985, may be low-profile as of yet, she is in the midst of developing a distinctive body of work that resists short-lived fads and isolated projects. After graduating from Sint-Lukas Brussels in 2008, De Mont pursued a second masters degree from École de Recherche Graphique (ERG), where the appreciation of her promoter Joëlle Tuerlinckx first raised expectations. At the moment, she’s a second year candidate laureate at HISK in Ghent. During the open studios this past May, Caroline Dumalin had a conversation with the artist about her ongoing sympathy for plaster out-casts, the contingency of perception, and how she uses the filmic language to describe a thought process.


1. Badpakman Straatkast


CD Looking around your studio, it seems you have a predilection for simple forms and untreated materials. Many of your sculptures are consistently in plaster and left in their raw colored state. In some cases these small, geometrical objects have long, slender legs, which gives them almost an anthropomorphic character, even if understated. At what point did this muted formal language enter your work?


ADM At Sint-Lukas I was making very different work. Because I didn’t know how to channel my expressivity, I handled my materials quite roughly. The sloppiness of the forms distracted from the ideas behind them. So my teachers insisted that I should strive for a more ‘finished’ presentation of my work. Over and over again. It became a concern of my own.


CD I suppose this explains why your sculptures, in their search for completion, are often portrayed as struggling characters. In order to construct this narrative around the objects you create or invent, you make extensive use of photography and video. I was especially struck by the photo series Les petites images; les moments pétrifiés of 2009 featuring a black square named Badpakman Straatkast. According to the description in your portfolio, Badpakman Straatkast ‘is unable to find his position in the space of the image. He always tries to be a constant form or to be consistent’, but finds himself hindered by furniture-like sculptures that you call ‘disturbing elements’.


ADM From a larger point of view, you can read me into the object, constantly looking for the perfect place in a certain space. Whether it be architecturally or contextually—in every possible sense. I was unsatisfied with the fact that my sculptures changed when I walked around them, but remained static and lifeless as soon as I left the room. So I started capturing them on screen. Not merely to fix a certain perspective of their position, but also to show that they were, in fact, characters. Like Badpakman Straatkast, who is actually a pretty sad figure, never managing to relate to anything around him. I eventually killed him off. In a video that I made later on, he hits a tree and shatters into tiny little pieces.


CD Why did you feel this was necessary?


ADM So I could move on. Also, I didn’t need him anymore. Badpakman Straatkast originated in 2008, during the gap year between Sint-Lukas and ERG. At that time, I was following a teacher-training program and felt somewhat discouraged. I couldn’t deal with the apparent arbitrariness of my proposals, because people always read something completely different in my work, no matter how I presented it. It came to a point where I wanted to make things that represented absolutely nothing anymore.


CD Which resulted in a reduced formal language.


ADM Exactly. I was so absorbed by the question of contingency that I devoted my master thesis to it. When looking at something, I felt like it could mean everything and nothing at the same time. But soon after entering the ERG, I realized that the task I set myself was an impossible one. Also, it doesn’t really matter that people see different things in my work. Making associations between objects and meanings, no matter how self-effacing the form may be, comes naturally.


CD The psychology of perception.


ADM Yes, or simply imagination at work, and imagination is a beautiful thing. My second thesis was very disarming in this way. I concluded that I judged everything to be contingent before, simply because I lacked imagination. This became a new point of departure. Imagination is what gave Badpakman Straatkast such a silly name. By making me realize that, the character completed its purpose. Besides, he was becoming too popular with my fellow students, who even encouraged me to make T-shirts. Then it was time for him to go.


2. Filmsculpturenfilms


CD In spite of your embrace of imagination, in filmsculpturenfilms (2011), the first video series you made involving your sculptures, the pictured relationships between sculpture and human are still full of detachment and conflict. One person holds on to the legs of a quivering sculpture tightly. Another one breaks a sculpture with the movement of his cape.


ADM With filmsculpturenfilms, I wanted to show a general image of humans interacting with space, time and objects. All these elements are featured in the simplest way that I could imagine. Someone who lifts something, looks at something, films something,…. The person wearing a cape is a museumgoer. First you see him staring at a piece of tape on the wall. As he walks backwards to widen his focus, he feels something, turns back and discovers another work. This is a typical museum-situation, where everything is fragile and nothing can be touched. In another clip, the museumgoer fills the pockets of his cape with tiny blocks. Breaking and stealing are two major threats to an exhibition. I find them much more interesting than glorifying sculptures and placing them on a pedestal, for example. If you think about it, it’s quite absurd how people bestow lofty meanings onto certain objects and decide whether or not they are artworks.


CD Each human presence remains faceless. You film all your subjects from the back.


ADM It was very important to reduce any emotions, facial expressions, or acting to a minimum. I didn’t want these human figures to appear as psychological beings.


CD But you do study their movements closely. The camera describes them painstakingly slowly. You let your lens glide over the floor tiles, the cracked walls, the high ceilings, before fixing the camera on the deadpan gestures of your actors.


ADM I see my films as a reflection of a thought. As such, the camera follows the rhythm of my thought process. There is definitely a deconstruction at play. Most clearly in my new film Twaalfpoot (2012). As its name indicates, Twaalfpoot is a table-like object with twelve long legs. It was standing in my studio for ten whole months before I could figure out why I made it. During that time, a number of people commented on how it should look instead. Finally, its problematic existence led me to make a film, structured in three parts, and accompanied for the first time by a narrator. In the beginning you see nothing, you just hear a voice talking…


CD …Talking about how ‘a certain revulsion against the sculptural object arises because it is clumsy and too heavy to move around’. But by taking this revulsion as your subject, no matter how effortlessly you seem to kill off some of your characters, you nevertheless reveal a certain sympathy for them.


ADM However pitiful these figures may be, I accept them as my own. Throughout the film, I first show the heaviness of the sculpture and how it consequently disintegrates, then the camera, and finally me filming the sculpture. I expose the total situation. Not just the degradation of the form, but also how its condition informs my thinking. It’s true that my interest in my objects became more personal.


CD You haven’t referred to any role models or traditions throughout our conversation. As far as I can tell, you manifestly work from a personal vision.


ADM It’s strange how my works just fall into my head, although it often takes me a while to get a grasp on what I’m doing. In the past much more so than now. I spend less and less time thinking about them as I go. Leaving school and the time constraints it imposed behind me, feels very liberating. I didn’t start making things there, I always have. Starting from the moment I could think consciously, when I was three or four years old. It sounds terribly cliché, but to me, it’s a way to understand the world.