Words by Nikolaj Hansson / Illustration by Sine Jensen
Born and raised in the rough neighborhoods of France, Olivier Kosta-Théfaine translates the cultural codes of the Parisian ghetto into his works, whether it be through broken bottles or burning a ceiling with lighters. Kosta-Théfaine is self-taught and has had solo exhibitions in Japan, Belgium, Portugal and Italy, amongst others, and we sat down with Olivier for a chat about his approach to art, Paris and contrasts.
How did you first become involved with drawing and world of art in general?
I started doing stuff in the streets around the late 80’s, and I did my first tag in ’88. That was my first meeting with art in the streets, I guess. I had no formal introduction to it; it was more in a rather natural way. Back in 1995, I was asked to be part of a group show; that was my first step into the art world and thus, the starting point of my career.
Do you believe that we are all solely a product of our environment, devoid of our occupation?
In my case, what I am and what I do is in connection with the place I live and where I come from. I consider myself a true product of the suburbs and the art that I create has it origins from where I live and what I see. I think we are in connection with our origin and environment.
One of your more remarkable pieces is the burned ceilings and sheets of paper. How did that idea come about?
I like to say that I'm a pure product of the city and the suburbs. In the suburbs where I grew up, it was common to see graffiti made with the flame of a lighter in most halls in the concrete blocks. I used to live in these places called HLM, which were cheap flats in a concrete tower, where most of the tenants where unemployed. My block was filled with this graffiti made with the flame of a lighter; nothing rather meaningful, just people writing bullshit with their lighters. The art pieces that I created with lighters were based on that. It came from an observation of my close environment; I was fascinated by these cheap acts of vandalism and I really wanted to use this medium for a piece of art. My first piece created with a lighter was back in 1995, entitled Herbier (Herbanum is a collection of dry vegetals collected and exhibited in books). I was in front of my laptop, looking at stuff on the Internet and I stumbled upon an article by the French Ministry of Interior about the 172 most dangerous places to live in France (Les 172 Cités Interdites de France). I found that list interesting for many reasons. First of all, you have to know that we have a particularity in France, where most of the buildings in the aforementioned areas have names, where some of them are quite poetic, such as names of flowers and so on. The idea was to take every name from the places that had a reference to flowers and vegetals and burn them directly onto the ceiling of the gallery with the flame of a lighter, giving the spectator a hint to the French Ghetto; the names of the flowers burned with a lighter where not only that, but also rough places to live in. I wanted to use a different medium, combining the rather rough action of burning the names with a lighter with the poetic names of the buildings.
How do you think your approach to art would’ve been, had you been raised in the countryside?
I have no idea. I can only say that as years go by, I am more and more interested by nature, especially wild nature in the city.
Do you see art as more of a dialogue between the artist and the spectator?
Yes. It could be between those two, but in my case, what is important is just to shed some light on stuff that I am really interested in and that people don’t see. The most interesting thing to me is the details of the street and my interpretation of it. To change a minor part of the details and integrate it into the art space. It’s not really a dialogue with the spectator, but what I like is, when the spectator forms an opinion on something, that they wouldn’t have noticed in the streets and thereby, opening their eyes to something new. People sometimes send me stuff that they’ve seen in the streets, which reminded them of my art. It’s really cool.
Having not gone to art school, how do you think this sets you apart from the ones who have?
When I was younger, I really wanted to go to art school. I applied for some but wasn’t accepted. For years, I was really frustrated about it, but I am an autodidact, my art is intuitive and I think that, in a way, I am not caught by tendencies and fashions in contemporary art. I just create towards me and my life, and I think I am free that way.
Would you say, that you translate the culture and traditions of suburban cities into your own language?
Yes and no. Today, I am simply observing the city and translating that into my work. However, sometimes, it could be something really traditional about the city, but sometimes, it's just some details, which no one cares about. My work is connected to the city, that's all.
In 2011, you created a garden installation from broken glass. Is there something particularly appealing to you, about the contrast between raw and sophisticated references?
Originally, the Jardin á la Francaise (the French formal garden) deals with an aesthetic and symbolic ambition. It carries in its highlight the art to correct nature in order for it to impose a certain symmetry. It expresses the desire to excite in the vegetal the triumph of order over disorder, the culture over the nature and the reflexive over the spontaneous. To make a long story short, the idea of the garden (and, by extension of that, the idea of working with a certain idea of nature) it to carry a little bit, at times fake, sweetness into my work. My classical garden made with broken glass deals with the idea of the wildness in the city, but channelled, in some way. My garden is just a contemporary translation of the historic, classical garden, transposed into urbanistic reality.
You don’t seem to have a particular preferred canvas, having used paintings, sculptures, installations et cetera in the past. Is there any particular medium, that you have a dream of using one day?
No, not in particular. I don't create like that. When I have special idea that I want to realize, I try to use the most appropriate medium for my vision of the finished piece. I don't have any medium in mind beforehand, I just choose the one most fitting for my idea.
Jackson Pollock once said: “Every good painter paints what he is.” Can you relate this to your own works and aesthetic?
I am an autodidact, I was a kid from the suburbs. My life is linked with art and my art is linked with my life. I sometimes make mistakes, maybe my art not be intellectual enough or whatever. I'm asking myself a lot of questions, but in the end, I am just doing my stuff in the most honest way possible.