Daniel Buren | Problematic Freedom, and the Occasional Landscape Borrowing

Via Issue 192, Gettin' Around

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

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Photo-Souvenir: Daniel Buren, Escala Colorida Para Copacabana Palace, Trabalho In Situ, 2023-2024. Détails. © Db-Adagp, 2024. Photo: Gabriel Tesserolli. Courtesy Of The Artist, Galleria Continua And Belmond.

It’s a warm evening in Rio de Janeiro, and French conceptual artist Daniel Buren and I are tucked away in a poolside booth at the Copacabana Palace. Over the past couple of days we’ve toasted to health, to new friends, to foie gras toro sushi, to the arts, and now, after a rather demanding press junket, and with sparkling water (rather than our customary caipirinhas) in hand, to this being his final interview of the trip. The toasts that preceded this evening’s conversation were to celebrate the inauguration of Buren’s new site-specific work at Copa, pictured here—a towering in-situ work that transforms the front-facing facade of the iconic centenarian hotel into a monumental colored glass piece. The piece is simultaneously intimate for hotel guests—with the work taking up segments of room windows—and grand, when on view in full, from the iconic Brazilian beachfront boulevard.

The catalyst behind Buren’s new artwork, “Escala colorida para Copacabana Palace, trabalho in situ, 2023” is the third edition of MITICO, a curatorial initiative from global luxury lifestyle brand Belmond, alongside Galleria Continua. Fusing heritage and artistic dialogue, this year’s program will remain in place and has unfolded across South Africa, Brazil, Italy, and Spain, with Buren creating site-specific in-situ work at six of Belmond’s most distinguished heritage properties—a slice of the group’s global portfolio of luxury hotels, trains, river cruises, and experiences across 28 countries. In the midst of this global artistic jaunt, our conversation turns to the transformative nature of travel itself, “I started to travel alone when I was very young,” Buren says. “The first time I think I did a big trip by myself, I was 16 years old. For some reason, I was always attracted to travel. I don’t know why. But when you travel, you learn. You learn in a way which can be very deep; you learn about yourself.”

Buren, who this March turned 86, began his career in 60s Paris after graduating from the École nationale supérieure des arts appliqués et de métiers d’art. It was during this decade, which was demarcated by a year-long stay on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, that Buren adopted a new visual language in the form of uniform 8.7cm-wide vertically oriented stripes. A nod to the quotidien French pattern—on view everywhere from store awnings to Armor-Lux shirts—this subtly subversive motif continues to define the artist’s practice as a tool to call attention to, to question, to reframe spaces where he executes his in-situ works. With a bit of a Gallic shrug, Buren explains to me that in the context of Western philosophy, “The work of art is autonomous. So what I’m doing, I don’t even know if it’s a work of art, but it’s never autonomous. It’s always in dialogue and in relation.”

Photo-Souvenir: Daniel Buren, Escala Colorida Para Copacabana Palace, Trabalho In Situ, 2023-2024. Détails. © Db-Adagp, 2024. Photo: Gabriel Tesserolli. Courtesy Of The Artist, Galleria Continua And Belmond.

The night prior, in a public conversation at the Copacabana Palace Theatre, the artist shared two formative stories from early in his career. It’s 1969 and Buren learns that he has not been invited to participate in the exhibition Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern. Slated to be one of the most pivotal group shows of Post-War new art, Buren decided to turn up in Switzerland anyways, during the exhibition’s install. Bern is a small town, and shortly after arriving, he ran into the artist Joseph Bueys. Hearing that Buren hadn’t been asked to show his work, Bueys offered Buren part of his wall space in the gallery, which he politely declined. Instead, the night before the exhibition opened, Buren plastered a series of his unsanctioned “affiches sauvages,” vertical striped posters across the city center to create an open-air gallery, accessible to all. Again, however, Bern is a small town, and before dawn, the police were knocking at his hotel room door.

Several years later, in 1971, and this time with a proper invitation in tow, Buren came to New York for a monumental group show at the Guggenheim. After studying the space, he was unenthused with the spiraling multi-level layout of the museum, and the connotations of hierarchy that works displayed on the museum’s top floors seemed to connote. Buren’s contribution to the exhibition, Peinture-Sculpture, a multi-story striped vertical piece, hung from the ceiling in the center of the museum, effectively blocked the full view of the rotunda, recalibrating one’s perspective of the space itself. After complaints from several artists, the piece was removed, which in turn caused an uproar and petition from many of his fellow exhibitors.

Aside from a few photographs as documentation, the audience found it quite funny that nearly all of Buren’s stories that evening ended with a chuckle, with some variation of his work having been lost, or covered up, or tossed out. In fact, Daniel Buren may be one of the few artists in his strata who’ve had more of their work torn down by city workers than conserved by archivists, while at the same time having created some of the most notable and enduring public art pieces in France and beyond. With that, our conversation turns to the idea of ephemerality and permanence in his work. “I always was interested in a kind of balance between the meaning of work, the facts, and the time,” he continues, “It’s very visible because you have one month or two minutes.”

Diving further into the significance of public art—how it is presented and consumed—is the idea of the setting or context in which it is created. Specifically, the dialogue that can exist either formally or informally, between the artist and the myriad of architects, designers, city planners, shops and community that exists in and around a work. “When I do something directly touching an existing piece of architecture, which is often the case, you have to realize what you are going to do,” Buren explains, continuing with a wry smile, “even if the architect is still alive, knows about [the project] and likes it, I think it’s the same thing as if he’s still alive and dislikes it. What you are doing is a kind of... parasitism. I don’t like to work as a parasite, but I think it’s part of the case.”

Photo-Souvenir: Daniel Buren, 25 Porticoes: The Color And Its Reflections, Permanent Work In Situ, Odaiba, Tokyo, 1996. Detail. © Db-Adagp Paris.

There is something rather provocative and amusing about using a term like parasite when referring to one’s own work, which has been installed or displayed at the likes of the Venice Biennale, The Centre Pompidou, the Grand Palais, and the Guggenheim, amongst many other venues of note. But undoubtedly, it is the connection to the space and context that define Buren’s work. “If you take what I did in the Palais Royal, you cannot make a distinction between where I work and what I did. You cannot take one from the other. The abstraction will be so strong that it makes no sense. It’s difficult to even use the term ‘the work,’ because the majority of the thing is not mine.” He goes on to explain a Japanese phrase which he feels even better explains his interaction with the spaces in which he works. A game of telephone ensues translating this concept from Japanese to French to English, the result of which is something akin to borrowing the landscape.

Returning to our current set and setting in Rio, with a live bossa nova rendition of an Elton John tune in the background, I take a moment to think about how many people stopped and stared, glanced at, or walked right by the hotel over the past couple of days, and how many more will, during its multi-month install. As our conversation comes to a close, Buren is careful not to ascribe superfluous meaning or perspective to his work. “Not to say I do the thing and I don’t care,” he chuckles, “But I think the way the people will interpret these possibilities or what they see, it’s totally their problem. And when I say their problem, it’s totally their freedom.”

And with that, it is perhaps the lack of prescriptive meaning that in fact makes Buren’s work so meaningful. We say goodbye and now it’s dusk, and streaks of colored light begin to emanate from the windows of the Copacabana Palace, shifting and shining in perpetual motion for all to see under the moon, the city lights, the hotel patrons and its passing cars, romantically enveloped into Rio on a Saturday night. 

Photo-Souvenir: Daniel Buren, Excentrique(S), Work In Situ, Monumenta 2012, Grand Palais, Paris, May 2012. Detail. © Db-Adagp Paris.

Written by Bennett DiDonna

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 192, Gettin' Around, Daniel Buren, Bennett DiDonna