Daniel Buren’s work resists the retrospective treatment. Since he developed his visual signature of alternating coloured stripes (each 8.7 centimetres wide) in the 1960s, the French conceptual artist has notched up more than 2,600 site-specific exhibitions. From pasted papers on the billboards of Paris—the affichages sauvages
—to rows of tulips in the Netherlands, most of Buren’s works are ephemeral and survive only in the fragmented images, or “photo-souvenirs”, of his personal archive.
Buren’s new exhibition at Bozar, the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, is billed as a creative solution to the dilemma. A Fresco (until 22 May) is the title of both a multiscreen film directed by the artist and what appears to be a group show, featuring works by more than 100 other artists who have influenced Buren during his nomadic 50-year career. Here he explains why the exhibition might just count as a work of art in its own right.
The Art Newspaper: How did you get around the dilemma of staging a retrospective?
When I’ve been offered retrospectives, I always say, if you know what I do, I can’t do a retrospective. My work is either elsewhere or it’s disappeared.
To try for the first time to offer insight into 50 years of work through images in the most informative way possible, I made a film. The film is an introduction; it’s the first room of the exhibition. Nobody will see it in full because it's three and a half hours. But there is a mass of information for those who are interested.
Did you always plan to make a film?
No, I’ve always wanted to make a great wall of images, but that could never be realised because it was too difficult to make and very expensive. With digital you can do something big, with music, sounds, stills, moving images, and it’s three or four times cheaper than 25 years ago.
But it’s huge. I wanted there to be 95 chapters. The director I worked with told me that if we went over 30, we’d never be able to finish it. So I cut it down to a third. But it could have gone on for ten hours.
How did you organise the material?
Photo-souvenir: Daniel Buren, Affichage sauvage, travail in situ, avril 1968, Paris. Détail. © DB-ADAGP Paris
Photo-souvenir: Seven ballets in Manhattan, travail in situ, New York, 27 mai/2 juin 1975. Détail. © DB-ADAGP Paris
Photo-souvenir: Couleurs superposées, Acte II 60', travail in situ, Musée Laforêt, Tokyo, octobre 1982. Détail. © DB-ADAGP
Photo-souvenir: Sha-Kkei ou Emprunter le paysage, travail in situ, Ushimado (Japon), novembre 1985. Détail. © DB-ADAGP Paris
Photo-souvenir: Daniel Buren, D'une arche aux autres, travail in situ, Jardins du Sacré-Coeur, Casablanca, avril 2015. Détail © DB-ADAGP Paris
Photo-souvenir : Daniel Buren Le Vent souffle où il veut, travail in situ, in “Beaufort 03", De Haan, 2009, collection ville de Nieuport. Détail. © DB-ADAGP Paris
The film is organised into broad themes like movement or the affichages sauvages
. The chapters are in alphabetical order, within which the works are presented chronologically. There are photos and films, interviews with architects, choreographers, other artists, directors, people I have worked with.
It wasn’t a choice between the most and the least interesting works; it was mostly random.
Has the film helped you to see a progression in your career?
I see differences but not progression in the sense of better or smaller or bigger. People don’t realise [the variety] and I think that’s what’s interesting about the film.
For 18 years I’ve worked with a circus that has travelled all over the world, and almost no one knows about it. There will be many surprises—but very few people will stay to watch the whole three and a half hours. I’ve seen it twice in full and that’s all.
The exhibition itself is filled with works by other artists. Why?
The idea came from [the independent curator] Joel Benzakin, who invited me to exhibit. His idea was to show the artists who have made an impression on me.
I was very opposed for several reasons. Firstly, I’ve had many exhibitions where I’ve played with the works of other artists in collections and museums. I couldn’t do something I’d already done.
Secondly, the idea of playing with works in a museum has—for around 15 years—been a fashion for institutions. I find that ridiculous. They’re exercises in style.
Gradually I saw a possibility in the fact that this museum has no collection. I eliminated the idea of doing something with only famous artists and chose only the ones I admire. I don’t even want to put the ones I don’t admire there as a critical position—there are no Surrealists, no Warhol, no Duchamp.
I quickly saw that what was maybe even more influential than the great masters is a group of people I’ve been working with for 50 years. We’ve been in group shows together, our works have always been compared. From Carl Andre to Lawrence Weiner or Hanne Darboven, they’re people I find as interesting as Cézanne and Pollock.
Les Salles des Ombres et des Lumières, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, details, from left to right: Agnes Martin, Giuseppe Penone © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
Les Salles des Ombres et des Lumières, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, details, from left to right: John Baldessari, Roger Chastel © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
Les Salles des Ombres et des Lumières, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, details, from left to right: Lee Ufan, Ellsworth Kelly © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
Les Salles des Ombres et des Lumières, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, details, Anish Kapoor © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
Les Salles des Ombres et des Lumières, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, details, from left to right: Donald Judd, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Jean Aujame © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
La Salle des Empreintes, work in situ, in ‘Daniel Buren: A fresco’, Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2016, wall from A to K, details © DB/ADAGP, Paris/Philippe De Gobert.
This then led me to choose younger people who I knew because I’ve worked or exhibited with them, or they were my students.
There are also tributes to artists who were never well known but who were important to me. When I was 17 I did a project on the influence of the landscape on art being made in Provence. I met Picasso, Chagall and Masson, and then I met many artists who have disappeared today but they’re here as an homage. They were enthusiastic or critical of what I wanted to do and were as decisive as seeing the works of Cézanne.
How did you organise the hang?
The hang is organised in a very specific way, and at the same time like a game, in alphabetical order. All the artists and works are distributed from A to Z. It takes away any question of taste, harmony… not that the result can’t be aesthetic.
There are strange combinations, but not intentionally, because of relationships of colour or time period. Since the works spread across 115 years, it’s obviously not chronological. The only relationship is A to B.
Is the exhibition a work by Daniel Buren?
Without pretensions, I think so. It is precisely not a group exhibition. It’s an exhibition of mine which uses works that I like and admire, that are important or have a particular interest, like the painting by my teacher, who no one knows but she’s there, like the others. I use all these artists and all these works as materials.
Do you consider yourself a curator?
No, I’m too wild to be a curator. It panics me to see how the museums that have lent protect their works. There’s a whole system that makes many works difficult to obtain.
We have a magnificent work by Brancusi on loan with the obligation to present it on a new plinth and inside a plastic box. In my opinion, the Brancusi no longer means anything. And that’s signed off by the museum. The way of preserving it is to destroy it, but to destroy it in appearing to look after it.