PIN-UP nr.2, Magazine for architectural entertainment, New York 2007 download as PDF
the swiss artist explains to pinup how he alters your perception of space,
one collage at a time.
Interview by Felix Burrichter, Artwork by Boris Rebetez.
The concrete steps that lead up to Boris Rebetez's studio are dangerously thin. The building, a former brewery located in St. Gilles, one of Brussels's more working-class neighborhoods, houses several artist spaces. Upstairs, Boris Rebetez, a shy 35-year-old Swiss artist who has been living and working in Brussels for 10 years now, greets me in his studio. He occupies two spaces that he sometimes shares with his wife, an artist. The space itself is raw and slightly shabby, but at the same time meticulously organized - a blend of Swiss order and the urban chaos so representative of the European Union's capital. On the wall are collages, drawings, and snippets from magazines; in one corner stands a small playpen where his baby daughter occasionally spends her time ("only when the temperature allows it"). A large stained-glass installation hangs from the wall, a piece Boris has prepared for a solo show at the gallery Etablissement d'en face, in Brussels. It is there that I first came across a catalogue of Boris's work. What struck me immediately was the fact that, in an age when computer manipulation allows artists to modify images in unparalleled ways, Boris guards a tremendous respect for the printed matter. His image manipulation is solely the result of precise cuts with an exacto knife - to startling effect.
Felix Burrichter: I was really intrigued when I saw your work for the first time. The way you juxtapose fragments of spaces, in a way that they become one entity - it is irritating and familiar at the same time. It reminded me of an essay about spatial perception that argued that as a grown-up, you never really see new things, whether it's spaces or people. Throughout your childhood and early adulthood memory, you have set categories in your head and everything new you see is simply a variation of something you have seen before. Everything is compartmentalized into fragments of what you already know. So looking at your collages, I had that strange sensation, trying to recognize familiar things - but really you can't. How did you start working on these juxtapositions?
Boris Rebetez: I started working probably 10 years ago. In the beginning it was very naive - I would find a calendar from the sixties or seventies, for example, with a lot of the same pictures. The quality of the print was very interesting for me because it almost had the quality of a painting; they didn't have that realistic aspect of today's photography. The colors were all blurred, not very sharp, imperfect -almost like old Technicolor films. And I had the idea of cutting these pictures and bring them together to make a new image. I wanted it to be a very normal image, but at the same time totally wrong, because it only existed within the act of seeing. What you said about memory is very important to me because I make a lot of collages, but in the end I only choose the ones that remind me of something. We always look for parameters of our personal culture or from the general image culture - including for me everything that comes with being born and raised in the 1970s: television, the flow of mass media that constantly invades your daily life.
F.B.: You were born in Switzerland.
B.R.: Yes, in the French-speaking part, in the countryside near a village close to Basel, by the French border - what is called the Jura Suisse. When I was 13 years old we moved to a small city, into a flat in what is called a cité HLM - the projects, so to speak.
F.B.: Isn't the preoccupation with architecture something very Swiss? Architecture is and always has been very highly regarded in Switzerland - many great architects are Swiss and there is an undeniable legacy, history, and national pride for architecture. Do you consider your interest a personal one, or do you also accept the notion that it could be very much influenced by that?
B.R.: I perfectly accept this idea. For example, I was born also very close to La-Chaux-de-Fonds, where Le Corbusier built his first projects, so I grew up with this knowledge. But the fact is that I really began to work with architecture once I moved to Brussels. At art school in Basel I had previously worked with architecture, but rather unconsciously. I realized that I began to work more and more intensely on that theme once I moved here. I think Brussels is also a place where you can ask yourself a lot of questions about architecture.
F.B.: In Brussels there is not the same level of appreciation or sensibility for architecture as there is in Switzerland - especially when it comes to preservation. They're still erasing entire blocks to make room for large office buildings, a lot of them for the European Union.
B.R: Yes, it's true. It's quite the brutal opposite to Switzerland. Architecture is quite contradictory in Brussels, but it's also very interesting because of this big chaos that never seems to end - and it's been going for 200 years. Switzerland is very good for this meeting of architecture and landscape - there is a real dialogue.
Switzerland is a country where whenever there is an architectural decision to be made, there is a democratic process - experts discuss these decisions, etc. Here in Brussels, it's more like anarchy; everybody does pretty much what they want. But it also gives this city a very realistic aspect: There is no overall harmonious arrangement and all urban tensions are perfectly visible.
F.B.: You could also call it architecture à l'arrache - isn't that similar to what you are doing with your collages: tearing things apart and putting them together again?
B.R.: Well, yes - except I'm hoping to with a slightly more harmonious outcome. [laughs]
F.B.: When an artist deals with the concept of space, it is always interesting to see how the work is appropriated within an exhibition space. Last year, you had a large show, "Two Story House" in Basel's Museum für Gegenwartskunst; how did that go?
B.R.: It was a ground-floor space, and it was actually not a great space, I'm afraid to say, because it felt like a big garage. The museum was built in the 1980s, and it has a very postmodern feeling and the space is kind of sunken. I wanted to repeat the shape of this awkward space, so I made a large installation that repeated the dimensions of the space, but on a smaller scale and as if it was turned inside out, like a sock. But the structure also functioned as a pavilion where people could go in and walk through. The idea was to turn the spectator into a part of the exhibition - as soon as you entered the pavilion you found yourself exposed just like its architecture had its inside exposed. It created a kind of schizophrenia between the space you discover and the other architecture, which is quite similar but at the same time strange.
F.B.: In that exhibition, you showed your sculptures that also deal with space and architectural objects. What is the relation between the images you are creating with your collages and the objects?
B.R.: The sculpture I made for the exhibition was done in a tinted mirror, which was often used in on office buildings in the 1970s and 1980s. I tried to make the quality of the sculpture like something you could find in real life, like these office buildings. It is important to me that it could be something very banal in the street, that it would remind you of something like that - which is where it might be similar to the collages. But for me it's more the idea of creating a kind of proto-world, where all things have their own function; it's not so much about developing a style. That's why the sculptures, the collages, and the drawings are all very different.
F.B.: Are you interested in contemporary architecture?
B.R.: Not really. I do not really have a very strong interest in architecture itself. It's more the idea of space of situations, or what I call an idea of place, which is interesting to me. It's more the things between the architecture - not the object itself. If I did, I would try to be an architect. I don't have the intention to build a building. I think as a citizen we use architecture and we are influenced by architecture - but I don't have any visions for a better architecture for the future. I'm more concerned with things of the past, things that have already been lived in, that have a life. New architecture is less interesting to me because it feels too fresh, but not yet alive.
F.B.: Moritz Küng wrote an accompanying text for your Basel exhibition in which he quoted you: the contradiction of "the deserted street full of people." When buildings have been lived in by people, there are contradictions, there are different uses of the same space, different appropriations of space that have sometimes nothing to do with what the architect intended. Is there a space, a real, existing space that has these kind of contradictory qualities that you're fascinated by?
B.R.: Maybe not a space; it's more like a moment. It depends where it depends on a lot of things.
F.B.: Well, maybe it was just a very complicated way of asking you whether you have a favorite building.
B.R.: My favorite building in Brussels was the Martini Building, which doesn't exist anymore. It was built in the sixties by Jacques Cuisinier, but it had been empty for over 20 years before they finally destroyed it. The owner was waiting for the real estate prices to go up. It was conceived at the time as almost a small village: There was a shopping mall, apartments, a school, a theater, and so on. But ironically, for the longest time there was only one person living in the building: the supervisor. It was probably one of the most beautiful buildings in Brussels.