Talking shop with the artist who will be representing France at the Venice Biennale, featured on the cover of the forthcoming Cadence Issue
“It’s just work,” says an insouciant Xavier Veilhan, reclining behind a desk in his vast atelier in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. “I turn up at the studio around 9:30AM and people are just arriving. We start to interact. I leaf through my notebook and I draw down some sketches. There’s an ongoing discussion, and from this discussion there is sometimes an object that is to be fitted or created... so it’s work.”
Veilhan has been selected to represent France at this year’s Venice Biennale, and as his country’s artistic chargé d’affaires, he’s somewhat underplaying the significance of the honor. An experienced sculptor, filmmaker, painter, photographer, architect, and installation artist who’s been exhibiting since at least 1990, he somehow manages to make gesamtkunstwerk sound prosaic.
“What is interesting,” Veilhan tells me, “is the type of work the artist is doing, his practice and of course what’s produced at the end. Somehow it is very similar to what people usually do at work. Emailing, interacting on social media, doing little designs—”
Despite the perceived weight of expectation, Veilhan – who looks like a younger, more handsome Harry Shearer – seems remarkably zen about the undertaking. Part of that detachment comes from the fact he’s remote from Venice, which apparently “looks more like a building site than the Biennale right now.”
In Paris, his space is located next to Père Lachaise cemetery. Does he draw inspiration from the greats – such as Delacroix, David, or Géricault – reposing there? The Lyonnais laughs at this suggestion: “As John Cage said in a lecture once, ‘Never use your inspiration. Work.’”
Veilhan has transformed the French pavilion into an enchanting wooden grotto called Studio Venezia, which will play host to a deluxe recording studio for around eighty musicians who’ll come and go over the seven months. Some of them are celebrities, some of them unknowns. Names confirmed thus far include Daft Punk associate Sebastien Tellier, composer Christophe Chassol who worked with Frank Ocean on his Endless visual album last year, sound artist Jonathan Fitoussi, electropop duo Zombie Zombie, and electronic artist Flavien Berger. The “gentleman’s agreement” as Veilhan calls it – although there will be female artists like lauded electronic composer Éliane Radigue and French DJ Jennifer Cardini – is that they arrive at the pavilion with nothing prepared. Artists are free to take their work home with them, and even release the material they record in the pavilion.
Veilhan is not interested in the musical content, which will also be streamed live via the studio-venezia.com web app developed by BETC and Deezer. What he truly hopes to exhibit are the rare moments of artistic inception. As elusive as Higgs Boson particles, Veilhan describes these seminal moments as “very fragile and unique.” Metaphorically speaking, he says he’s less keen on hearing a philharmonic orchestra play, say, Beethoven’s “5th,” than he is in the tuning up before the performance.
So personal inspiration might be interdit, but Veilhan has certainly taken stimulus from other installations, including one by a contemporary and countryman he once took a collaborative boat trip to Antarctica with.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this for quite a while. My friend Pierre Huyghe occupied the French Pavilion at the time we were sharing the same studio and I’ve got to say his project was fantastic.”
Huyghe – featured in Flaunt’s Location Issue – had a 1999 installation, Atari Light, that allowed spectators to activate lighting from a screen, which, although interactive, was quite different to the experiment in ambient sound with a host of renowned musicians Veilhan is proposing. I ask him if he’d been aware of PJ Harvey’s Recording In Progress at London’s Somerset House in 2015 (that became 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project album).
“Sure, but I didn’t know about it when I first came up with the idea. I knew about Doug Aitken’s Station to Station too. I mean there are plenty of different projects involving music and visual arts and I don’t pretend I’m inventing anything. What I’m doing, compared to PJ Harvey, is inviting around 80 people instead of one person in a sculptural environment, and the audience will be able to go around almost anywhere in the pavilion. So my specificity is to organize and facilitate, to create a specific situation.”
Doesn’t it just become a big, logistical, administrative headache?
“It’s a nightmare” he agrees, and points to Leila, one of the ten or so staff working for him. Leila is dealing with the organizational side of things.
“It’s very funny because you have people not answering the email. You have people not interested. You have people who want to be paid. You have people who want to drink. You have some artists that don’t want to be involved unless they can collaborate with this person or that one. But most of the time people are curious and interested, because the Venice Biennale is a wonderful entity. They want to come to Venice, and we have a great studio with great equipment in it and great technicians. So it’s really worth the trip for musicians.”
Veilhan has created some of the instruments for the pavilion, which one presumes will also be transported to Buenos Aires and to Lisbon after the Biennale has concluded. Anyone who’s witnessed “Le Rhinocéros” or his Le Corbusier bust from the Architectones exhibition can expect a visually imposing experience with a typically dashing mise-en-scene, while the instruments themselves promise to have his inimitable imprint on them too. On my arrival, his communications director, Stéphane, says the team have been making cubist guitars, though sadly I don’t see any when I’m shown around the space.
Is this the first time the artist has made musical instruments?
“Yes,” says Veilhan, before correcting himself. “I made one, for a show for [the band] Air.” He built a large koto, a kind of Japanese zither, that was around five meters long and was played on stage by Nicolas Godin. Veilhan says there’ll be a drum kit at the pavilion, a piano, a Cristal baschet – famously utilised by Cliff Martinez on the Drive soundtrack – a Minimoog, a clarinet, and various instruments of the baroque era.
“The idea is not to be interactive but to be more contemplative. Going from one pavilion to another in Venice can be very repetitive, and in a way I want to escape this routine. I would like to offer the possibility to enter a place where you’re unsure of the outcome.”
When I suggest that recording studios in reality are sterile and rather boring places where a morning can be lost tuning a snare, he says he hopes the space will be more like a zen garden (and that it’s not his job to provide entertainment). Artists are free to come and go, to take lunch, or drinks, or sightsee out in the sun. While a lack of activity isn’t ideal, there will be no regimen.
Who else might be lined up? He mentions the possibility of Quincy Jones, and his eyes light up. Veilhan recently did a series of portraits of über producers; Rick Rubin, Tony Visconti, Nigel Godrich, and Timbaland. Though he remains tight-lipped about whether any of those will be dropping by.
“It’s a dream situation for me. I might have guests that are my heroes like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry or, I dunno—”
He trails off. Was that a name he wasn’t supposed to drop? Is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry likely to appear?
“Yeah. We are working on that. He’s difficult to catch.”
Veilhan is represented by Galerie Perrotin, and Emmanuel Perrotin is famously tight with Pharrell Williams. Is there a possibility Pharrell might show up?
“You know I was obviously thinking that we needed big names. And I love Pharrell, especially as a producer with N.E.R.D and the Neptunes. But the more we’ve been working on the project, the more we’ve realized it’s about the sound. We have people on board who are pretty famous but we don’t need the big names.”
One name that stands out is Christian Marclay. The visual artist, best known for his magnificent 24-hour movie montage The Clock (which won the Golden Lion at the 54th Biennale) has come on board as one of the curators. “I was short on time so I called him and he told me on the phone, ‘yeah, I’m in.’ I was very surprised because I thought he would have just politely declined the invitation.”
While he loves Marclay’s work, it’s “his ability to be very radical, very clear and very conceptual,” that attracted him. “Anybody you put in this situation – a kid, an older person, somebody familiar with art or not at all – will see the conceptual structure through the work just by looking at it.”
Representing France also means working with ministers of culture as well as L’institut Francais. Does it feel peculiar embarking on what could be a radical sonic experiment while liaising with heads of government?
“We’ve been working very efficiently together,” he states. “There are different ways to work and I am interested in working with both the private and the institutional. And you can’t really work in art these days if you’re not dealing with both.”
Veilhan will move to Venice for seven months (when he told his friends, they reacted as though he were “going to Alaska with a pair of boots and a tent”).
“It’s 70 bucks to fly on easyJet,” he points out, “and it’s a beautiful city. I wouldn’t do the same project in a boring city.”
“Um, some places in Russia,” he answers reluctantly. “There are no places that are uninteresting but there are places that are less interesting than others.”
Venice is “like a crocodile,” he adds enigmatically. “Even if you’ve never seen a crocodile in your whole life, you still know what it is like.”
We repair to the atelier to try out some of the instruments, with his friend Marc Teissier du Cros – founder of Sebastien Tellier’s label Record Makers – in tow. Marc is another luminary involved in the project in an advisory capacity. Veilhan beckons me over to his turntables and puts on a soul record. He’s a “lousy” DJ he claims, but people will happily “dance if they’re drunk enough.”
Just then, I notice a signed CD from Brian Eno sat on the desk. “He made this record especially for me,” he beams.
Yes, what Veilhan does is just work.
And it’s certainly nice work if you can get it.
Written by Jeremy Allen