Entering an installation by London-based artist Seb Patane (born in Italy in 1970) is agreeing to play an intricate game of references, symbols and signs, which will touch different buttons depending on the viewers’ private contexts. Found images and objects, intervened drawings, sound and performance… Industrial music, Jodorowsky’s work on the Tarot cards, Christiane F and war iconography… Patane works through a wide range of media and references like a hidden alchemist, linking issues that appeared to be unconnected and that, subsequently, cannot be understood the one without the other. He is preoccupied with the physicality of materials, but it is not a concern with textures but, rather, with presence and absence. His installations trap the viewer in a game of rhythms and patterns: chaos, order; noise, silence; image, obliteration. An art practice infatuated with aesthetic nostalgia, sometimes of the very recent past, that explores how forgotten images operate subconsciously in our cultural present.
A New Winter Plan (2009). Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
Your last show at Mauren Paley’s gallery (London) consisted of two different parts: an installation downstairs and a video upstairs “Chariot, Fool, Emperor, Force”, which you re-enacted in a live performance during the private view. What is the relationship between them?
I worked in all the pieces at the same time. When I did the video, I was thinking about ideas of the formation of characters in the relation of narratives and then started meditating on the value of performance to address these particular issues. So I decided to create a situation where there would be four characters, each of them related to one of the songs I was working in. The bench with the red stripe in the video-installation addresses minimally the idea of theatre and set design, which I am also very interested in. And in both parts there is also the obliteration of faces and characters.
Chariot, Fool, Emperor, Force (2009). Installation view. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Why this fixation throughout your work with erasing identities: hiding heads, obliterating faces or eyes, using masks?
I am interested in performance and in performers, but not so concerned with their personalities or in portraying anyone. What is important to my work is the choreography and composition of things. I consider my pieces more abstract than figurative. And when I started working with found images, I guess the natural gesture for me was to obliterate the face, to remove that sense of identity, which makes everything quite confusing for the viewer, who is used to attach a face to a narrative, to a attach to a type of behaviour or personality to a type of face, say physiognomy. So it is like giving something to the viewer and then taking it away, like a game of contradictions. And that just grew and became more complex, more organic. And, finally, I think I am also reacting culturally, and probably unconsciously, against the whole cult of the celebrities, of the ego.
There is clearly a tradition in contemporary art of hiding faces, and we can find a well-known example in the work of John Baldessari. But in your practice I can’t help relating it more to that tradition applied to the music scene, say The Residents, Death in June or more recent examples like Daft Punk, The Knife or Fever Ray. Maybe this is because you not only apply it to your work but also to your own persona, like when you had your show “This song kills fascist” at Tate Britain in 2008 and you chose your hypnotherapist to re-enact your answers for the video interview on the website (watch the video below). And what usually happens with this kind of scheme is that you might distract temporarily people from your identity, but you only make them more eager to find out, to learn more.
Yes, it’s a game. I don’t expect people to not want to find out, there is part of that of which I am very conscious. However, it is not only about not being seen. It also relates with the idea of theatre, of devising a new reality, as it is the case with the Tate interview. It was something playful, even though the answers are completely real. I just felt I could do something a bit more interesting than just sitting down in a chair talking to the camera. And people really liked it. I think they liked it more than the actual show, which was a bit worrying! (laughs). But anyway, it was another piece of work.
You often rescue images from the past and re-introduce them in the present tense, which often charges them with a nostalgic-symbolic element that they lacked when they were originally produced. Why do you think this time warp, taking them out of their context, produces that shift?
I operate in the present, and so do the viewers of my work who are faced with the images I chose with their baggage according to their age, their knowledge of things and their personal understanding of history and culture, whatever level that may be. But we are all inevitably challenged when faced with past, faded imagery; I think it must be because our mind tries to fill the gap between our present life and the one that is depicted in those pictures; this void, and I hope my visual interventions on those pictures, create a blurred feeling of confusion and wonder that I find interesting.
March (2009). Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
So this show is about war, or uses images of the war, rather. And the one at Tate took as a premise the whole idea of protest songs. However, even if these themes are heavily political, you have always justified your interest in them as the product of an aesthetic infatuation, rather than a desire to make a political statement.
Exactly, my work it is not that charged with political meaning, and I don’t pretend that it is. The thing is that, eventually, I will research these issues and learn about them, but I rather use their aesthetics. I am very visual person and that is what I am interested in. I am not saying it is devoid of content, I am saying that it comes with it, eventually. It is impossible not to engage with it. But also I am very interested in the way we look at images and we can detach ourselves from their content.
Carpathian Walk (2009). Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
The video “Chariot, Fool, Emperor, Force” is inspired by the work of Jodorowsky with Tarot cards. Why?
Reading Jodorowsky’s books I have always been struck by his associations of concepts and ideas with a very vivid, complex and sometimes hallucinogenic imagery. This duality is very crucial to me. His tales and explanations of notions of life are packed with the most disparate images; swarms of bees, litres of honey, flying holy men, intricate, colourful rituals. It was this aesthetic, sensory overload that inspired me not only conceptually but also visually; the references to the Tarot cards are also important because I feel like they can retain (also in Jodorowsky’s study of them) at the same time a very specific, but also incredibly free, essence and identity, also since their origins are so ambiguous and never fully appertained.
Chariot, Fool, Emperor, Force (2009). Installation view. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
What is your relationship with the body of work of Jodorowsky in general?
I started reading Jodorowsky when I was in hospital, a few years ago, after a really bad phase. A friend lent me “The Dance of Reality”, his autobiography. It took me ages to get into it, cause in the beginning it was too crazy for me. Then I read “Psychomagic” and then I saw him giving a lecture at the National Film Theatre, a Q&A after a screening of his films and that was it. I just thought he was totally genius.
The soundtrack of the video was composed by you and Giancarlo Trimarchi, with who you form the band Frontier, Frontier! It felt really fresh to me to enter a gallery and encountering these songs. Obviously there are a lot of artists incorporating sound to their work, but mainly using someonelse’s music, or field recordings, or abstract sound pieces. These industrial, almost dance songs were really unexpected and appealing for me.
Well, what I really don’t want to do with music in my work is doing something like “sound art”. I like those shows, I go and see them, but I am really not interesting in doing that myself. I don’t want to do Brian Eno. To me it’s more about music, and even though the tracks might appear to be very simple, they have been very carefully composed, every sound and rhythm has been thought over and discussed, and is there for a reason. For us very important the way you follow the narrative of the track to the extent that even if they are very minimal and repetitive, they almost become pop songs. There is a chorus, there is a verse. There is an intention, and I think that is what people liked about them, that they have a structure to follow.
Hunstscape mit Grandfather (2009). Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
What does your musical practice offers you in terms of language and expression that your artistic, visual practice doesn’t and vice versa?
I use music and sound where I feel the potential of the visual aspect of the work may have difficulties to go any further, in a way using music allows me to expand my idea of performativity, and helps me to reach to the audience in a more visceral way. Because of my interest in theatre and performance this is also true when I think about a work of art which may feel a bit more ‘complete’, and that it will go beyond a two or three-dimensional format. I think the intangible and if you like, sensorial aspect of sound makes the references to the subconscious, the performance and the deconstructed narrative a little richer.
You have used references to Alistair Crowley, Death in June or Jodorowsky in different pieces, and all of them have connections with the occult, the spiritual, magic forces. What is your interest in the esoteric territories?
I think people think that about my work, but I am not sure it is completely true. I mean, I am interested in mysticism and occultism, but I am by no means an expert. I have read Crowley and Jodorowsky, but I would say my interest is more spiritual than esoteric. And I also like using the word organic to describe it, even if it’s not really organic. I like going beyond the façade of things.
So This Song Kills Fascists (2007). Installation view. Art Now, Tate Britain. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Would you call it an “artificial or urban occultism” concerned with culture, instead of the supernatural?
Well no, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that my interest generally lies in the intangible, and the subconscious, and everything that goes beyond mere face value. But I don’t deny that I am a very visual person so, this interest in the otherworldly links perfectly with notions of occultism, however deep or shallow that connection may be, as I find that occultism is drenched in a very strong aesthetic, whilst at the same time maintaining an intellectual core.
To Fix The Gap In Your Head (2008). Courtesy Of Maureen Paley, London
This article was originally published in Celeste magazine, March 2010.
Listen to Seb Patane’s music project:
Seb Patane is represented by Maureen Paley, London