The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


A Kind Of Magic: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster On Opera And Science Fiction
Robert Barry , October 1st, 2016 11:10

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster talks about her work OPERA (QM.15) (2016), part of the Hayward Gallery’s current off-site exhibition, The Infinite Mix

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster OPERA (QM.15), 2016

The Hayward Gallery’s new off-site exhibition, The Infinite Mix brings together ten immersive audio-visual works by artists including Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller, Rachel Rose, and Ugo Rondinone in the capacious surroundings of the Store, a vast concrete warehouse at the end of the Strand.

One of the most beguiling works in the show finds French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster projected holographically into a corridor, disguised as the great opera singer Maria Callas. As she lip-syncs to classic arias from La Traviata and Medea, dressed in Callas’s famous red dress and theatrical make-up, Gonzalez-Foerster makes a truly haunting impression, hovering between presence and absence, the past and the future.

Born in Strasbourg in 1965, Gonzalez-Foerster is today one of France’s foremost artists. Her major retrospective at the Pompidou Centre last year was hailed as “strange, beautiful, and personal” by Art News and celebrated by Flash Art for achieving “unique sense of dramaturgy”. Craft/Work caught up with her to ask about her love of opera and rumours of a collaboration she is undertaking with Philippe Parreno on a science-fiction novel…

There's something almost spooky about your new installation at The Store, can you talk a little bit about how you achieved this effect, to make it look so present in the space?

I have always been fascinated with holograms in science-fiction movies, when it's presented like the immersive cinema of the future and I see more artistic potential in augmented reality than in completely virtual reality. I like the idea that an artistic experience is a layer that comes over a particular context, it’s what is happening in this building on The Strand. 

Another aspect is the renewed interest in ghosts and a kind of magic as a reaction to an over controlled, digital world. At the end of the 19th century a lot of literature explored the fantastic as a reaction to heavy industrialisation and standardisation, and I think that we are in a similar moment today.

How did you respond to this particular space where your work is being shown? Was the history of this building, or maybe just its sheer physical heft important for you when you were coming up with the work?

When we looked for the best possible stage with the curator Ralph Rugoff, he first showed me a more central space in the building but it was clear that the scenic potential was much stronger in the final space I chose, which allows for a very theatrical approach.

What drew you to Maria Callas? Why is she an important figure for you? 

The intensity of the relationship I have with opera and singers is a recent one, which started in Manchester and the opera project curated by Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist about ten years ago. And Maria Callas is so present if you dive into opera. 

I have also shown other apparitions in my work like Edgar Allan Poe or Lola Montez, and it seems that their spirit is still so strong that they only wait for an open door to show up. With Maria Callas it is the same - she is very powerful and haunting.

Often your work will see you inhabiting other artists in various ways, or fictional characters, historical figures. How important is it that it is you playing Callas? (or Fitzcarraldo, Marilyn Monroe, Vera Nabokov, etc.) And what links Callas to these other figures that you have ‘become’ in the course of your work? How does that process work for you?

It is Maria Callas dressed as she was for one of her last concerts in Tokyo, but what you hear is her voice at a much younger age. It’s also a reflection on the artistic drive in a life, which is what connects most of the characters I have previously impersonated – like Vicky from the film The Red Shoes, an impossibility to hold back and the full immersion into art. 

Can you tell me a little about how you feel this work relates to time and to history? For me, while it clearly has this haunting character of a figure from the past seeming to come alive again for a moment – there is also something sort of science-fiction about it (I guess it reminds me a bit of Star Wars…). It feels hi-tech, you know…

Yes, I guess I answered that in the beginning - it's absolutely between the past and the future and that's the holographic power.

Are you an opera fan? Can you tell me about your first trip to the opera?

I only became an opera lover recently in the last ten years. It’s always a very intense moment for me because opera connects so many aspects, it’s a very post-modern practice, with trans-characters, quotes from other works, a Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art, and there is still a lot to explore.

Do you have a favourite opera? or favourite opera composer?

I can’t decide on just one, but one of my favourites (even though it is almost never staged) is Wuthering Heights by Bernard Herrmann. And some of my favourite composers are Puccini, Verdi, Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten – to have the young boy represented by the music of the gamelan in Death in Venice by Britten is an extraordinary musical idea. And some operas also gain extra layers when they are staged by Warlikowski or Marthaler. I dream of staging an opera myself in the future. 

The show is called The Infinite Mix, a title, in some way, perhaps, suggestive of hip hop or DJ cultures, and many of the works being presented are quite ‘pop’ – at least in their choice of music. Was it a very deliberate choice on your part to do something very different, to conjure up a different kind of audio-visual history? How would you relate this work to the title The Infinite Mix?

It’s a great title – very open, with many characters, many landscapes, many different types of music, and some space to breathe in between.

Many contemporary art centres still tend to be very silent, almost solemn spaces, why do you think art institutions can still struggle with sound-based works?

Museums are not designed to be theatres, but artists are pushing in this direction...

What excites you most about working with sound and music as a material?

Sound is very immersive and emotional and in the case of staged works sound and visuals go together. I am lucky to work with great musicians, composers and singers. 

I hear you are writing a science fiction novel with Philippe Parreno. Can you tell me anything about it? About the story, when it is due to be released, how you came to start collaborating on this, where the idea came from?

Still a secret...

What else can we expect from you in the future?

In the very near future it’s my new work Pynchon Park which opens in early October at the new MAAT museum in Lisbon. Before writing novels Thomas Pynchon wanted to write opera librettos, and there are always songs in his novels… my work Pynchon Park is imagined like a tale for the 21st century and as a kind of stage for the audience.

The Infinite Mix is at The Store, 180 The Strand until Sunday 4 December