Lionel Estève at Galerie Perrotin

Lionel Esteve, ‘Untitled’, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Galerie Perrotin HK-Paris

Turn right as you enter Galerie Perrotin‘s Hong Kong space and your eyes will immediately be drawn to two kaleidoscopic shower curtain-like installations suspended from the ceiling. A collection of painted river stones lie in a group nearby, bearing what look like colourful waterlines. Another cluster of river stones lies in the adjacent room. Covered in fluoro hand-knotted netting they look like they’ve been fished out of the water, mistaken for a crustacean catch. Filling the surrounding wall space is a series of ten brightly coloured ink on paper ‘fringed drawings’. All together the effect is that of a multi-media abstract ‘schizophrenic’ landscape, fragmented and dispersed throughout the gallery space.

‘Into the Rain’ is French-born Belgium-based artist Lionel Estève‘s first exhibiton in Hong Kong. In fact, it’s his first time to the city, although one could be forgiven for thinking that the subject matter of the show — all prisms of light and colour, and traces of water — is an homage to the city and its moody summer meterological variations. “Just as some artists try to depict music in their paintings, so here I have tried, among other things, to represent the state of wetness”, he states.

Seemingly drawing on a collage of influences such as Land and Earth Art, Minimalism, Abstract and de Stijl, Estève has created a wonderland of interactive art, where visitors are encouraged to touch and play with the installations. It’s not every day you get that sort of an experience in a gallery.

On the eve of his exhibition opening in Hong Kong I sat down with the softly spoken artist to get an insight into the works, as well as the creator behind them.

Lionel Estève. Portrait by Guillaume Ziccarelli
Lionel Estève. Portrait by Guillaume Ziccarelli

“Since I was a child I always drew. Everybody was always amazed by my drawings and it always gave me a lot of pleasure getting these compliments, so I continued drawing some more. But I never had the idea to be an artist. It didn’t occur to me as a child. I would have preferred being a goal keeper… When I was a teenager I was a disaster and they wanted to kick me out of school… I don’t know why but I asked my mother, why not offer me art school? And she accepted immediately. I was always involved with art, drawing etc, but not with the idea of becoming an artist. It always interested me, but I never thought about it as a profession.

From the time I went to art school my life changed totally, I became somebody else. And from that point I knew that’s what I wanted to be. But it took a long time to have my first show. It was because of lots of things really, but mostly because I became a father quite young. I needed money for my family and all that sort of thing … When I was 30 I thought what I was doing was a mistake. I was setting a bad example for my children, not doing what I wanted to do. All the work I was doing…I felt like a tourist. I didn’t really care. It was done well but I wasn’t really involved. So I accepted to be really poor and do my art, do what I was really supposed to do … I was a little afraid once I became an artist that I wouldn’t like it. What if I find it boring or if people misunderstand it? I would have no carte dans la manche (no cards up my sleeve). I felt like everything had to be nice and good because if not, then what would I do? For my first show I was still working to make money before putting everything into being an artist. I can tell you, it meant a lot to have my friends and artists I knew look at my work and find it beautiful. I felt at least my friends m’encourage (encouraged me).

I started using lo-fi and accessible materials because I was really poor. I couldn’t afford very rich materials … It was funny, I could use anything to make my sculptures. Everybody used to joke, “Hey Lionel, look! I found something for your sculpture on the street!”… My work isn’t about expressing or saying something. I feel like my work is about ‘being something’, you know, être quelque chose. What I hope is that people feel they are in the presence of something, confronted with something. It’s not about a particular message. I just want that people experience something joyful, a peaceful awakening with no aggression.

Every exhibition is like a project and every exhibition is separate from the previous. I just do my projects and don’t think about the ‘body’ of my work, or style. But with time I recognise that colour is something that has been present in all the work I have done. I don’t know why, but colour is very important for me, as nature is very important also … It is true I have a particular relationship with certain colours. For example red is a difficult colour for me – not a bright red, but the red of blood. I can only combine it with white, but not other colours. It’s like when you’re cooking, you add salt or different spices for taste – some are good and work, and some are bad. You know how to do it but you can’t explain why it works. Sometimes … you know when you have an idea but what you are writing isn’t what you mean? There is something precise you want to grasp. Sometimes in order to grasp a thought or an idea I imagine a sound, and to retrieve the idea I just re-imagine the sound. When you’re working at times you lose yourself, in the technique, in the colour, and so on. You can go from one point into a completely different direction you were trying to reach. At that point I just imagine that sound and it guides me back in my direction. But this isn’t part of my art discourse. It’s just something efficient, that helps (with the work).

The (fringed) drawings, I have made this sort of thing before. They are like a landscape. Landscapes are very common. Everyone knows what landscapes are or has an idea of them … But to me these landscapes are vibrations of colour. Colour landscapes. I also worked for the first time with something very liquid, in this case ink. Usually I work with something very dry, like stickers. If you look closely you can see the dripping and splattering. When I was at the point of analysing what I was doing it was clear that I was doing paysages, (landscapes) and I thought, well the dripping and humidity is very present in the work, which is why I called it ‘Into the Rain’. I live in Brussels and it rains there a lot. It was only afterwards that I realised the connection to Hong Kong. Sometimes you make things not for the reasons you expected … I am very happy with the curtain sculpture. It’s the first time I have done something like this and I’m very happy to see it. It’s about rain and rainbows. The stones on the floor are a vertical element, and then the light from the rainbow … I like the horizontal and the vertical composition together.

The thread netting on these stones, I did it by hand — these are knots. It’s very time consuming. If you look at most of my work, there is no border between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. The borders are blurred, like the works on paper, which are 2D-3D. And the stones … I was trying to understand something three-dimensional like a stone and applying the thread in a two-dimensional way. It was a lot of time spent with the stones, learning something from the stones. It took me two months to make these … The relationship between art and life, for me, is very important. My work is very time consuming. It takes many hours of work. Your work has to be pleasurable to make your life happy. It’s one of the goals to have a happy life, no?”

Lionel Esteve, ‘Into the Rain’
18 January- 2 March, 2013
Galerie Perrotin
17/F, 50 Connaught Road, Hong Kong

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