Paris-born French artist Prune Nourry, along with renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, have just been announced as one of the 12 new artistic tandems commissioned to create the art and architecture of a station of the Grand Paris Express, a group of new rapid transit lines and extensions of existing lines currently being built in the Île-de-France region of France. For the Saint-Denis-Pleyel station, a future Paris Metro station located in Saint-Denis, in the northern suburbs of Paris, scheduled to open in 2024, Nourry sought to engage in a dialog with Kuma’s generous architecture and with Saint-Denis, a territory of youth and diversity.
Women and the earth are at the core of Nourry’s work, from her army of “Terracotta Daughters” in China in 2012 to her more recent army of sculpted heads in Lagos, Nigeria, or her colossal “Mater Earth” sculpture at Château La Coste in the south of France of a pregnant woman into whose womb visitors may enter, unveiled last spring. So for Saint-Denis, her idea is to occupy the station’s atrium – an aerial space made entirely of wood and in elevation, rising towards the light wells – with an army of earthen women, like two vertical battalions.
Nourry will breathe life into an army of Venuses, these symbolic and universal figures that are the first representations of women, whose raison d’être is a mystery reminiscent of that of the origins of mankind. Drawing inspiration from the Gravettian period of the European Upper Paleolithic, the most figurative era (approximately 35,000-25,000 years ago), she will sculpt eight models in clay, a material that will be sourced locally as much as possible to demonstrate the richness of the lands around the Greater Paris metropolis or the Île-de-France region. She will subsequently transform these models, with their multiple shapes like women’s bodies, into an army of 108 sculptures, all unique by their clay finish, in 13 different colors, including yellow ocher, black, red, brown, white and gray. The final result will come to symbolize that beyond the diversity of colors or shapes, we all come from Mother Earth. I chat with the artist about the meanings behind her artworks.
Describe the giant Buddha that you created and exhibited at the Guimet Museum in Paris that was inspired by the Buddhas of Bamiyan and your “Catharsis” sculpture.
The Buddha head is about five meters high. The feet are about seven meters high. The whole Buddha was kind of dismembered into different pieces that were displayed in different parts of the museum, from the rooftop to the ground floor. Even if it was destroyed, it was standing straight because the head was at the top, the feet were on the ground. And it was really this idea that whatever happens, even what happens in Bamiyan, where those Buddhas that were millennia old, that were incredibly important to our culture, were destroyed, finally, the hole that it left in the cliff is as strong by the fact that it’s now empty. The emptiness carries as much meaning because you can destroy an artwork, you can destroy a sculpture, you can destroy a stone, but you cannot destroy the idea. “Catharsis” is a giant Amazon five meters high, a woman inspired by the Amazon sculpture that I found at the Metropolitan Museum, the only one. She’s wounded at her breast and she’s looking at it in such a serene way. I saw it while undergoing treatments, I was super inspired, and I said, “OK, I’m going to do my own Amazon sculpture; it will be my catharsis, my way to heal, my ritual.” And, in fact, during the treatments, I realized how important these rituals were, the fact of marking at some points the different steps of what you go through in life. So for example, at the end of my chemo, I had an incredible party with all my friends, dancing the whole night. Everyone was costumed with wigs because I had no more hair. Then at the absolute end of the treatments, I decided to sculpt that Amazon and to symbolize the end of the treatments through a journey on a barge on the Hudson River in New York, and I invited all my friends and family who had helped me during the treatments to come. The sculpture was covered in incense sticks, and they were all firing the incense sticks. All the smoke was like a purifying smoke to me, and I took my sculpting tools, and I broke the breast, like a symbol and a ritual to say that from a sculptor, I had become a sculpture in the hands of the surgeon during the reconstruction, and now I was getting back to being the sculptor.
Through your use of incense sticks that are like acupuncture needles, you healed or repaired your sculptures as a way to repair yourself…
That’s exactly it. To me, there is a symbol between the acupuncture needles, incense sticks and arrows. They are three objects that I use in my work that are very sharp and can seem aggressive, but at the same time, to me, they are healing.
Tell me about the use of wood in your sculptures.
I love wood because it’s alive, it’s organic, you find holes in it that are like scars in a way to me, the same way you have the circles of life in wood, those circles that show you that the winter was hard, the spring was full of water, but also all the breaks that come from bulges. All these symbols are super strong to me because the scars also mark all the different experiences you had to go through and that shape you finally.
You impact yourself and viewers through your art, but you also work with many artisans, scientists and local inhabitants in your projects around the world in places like China, India, Mexico or Nigeria. What do you like about collaboration?
I think collaboration is everything, even if a sculpture can be seen as a very solitary work in a way, and yes, there is a part of it that is solitary, but finally, it all depends on the project, and the projects that I decided to do, even if they’re super different, each time there is a collaborative part in them. It can be either with the project in China, where I spent about a year collaborating with craftsmen in Xi’an, in a district called Lintong, and I was also collaborating with young girls who were the models of the project or with sociologists, whose research I was basing the project on. For my project with the blind called the “Phoenix Project”, from the idea of mythological birds being born from their own ashes, how you transform a handicap into a strength. I was in fact getting back to the relationship between the model and the artist in the studio, where not only do you sculpt the portrait of someone, but you sculpt not with your eyes, but with your sense of touch, which is super intimate. You get into the eye of the person who is blind to touch them and try to feel the expression of their faces. So it was very strange, especially in the time of COVID-19, where for some of them, they hadn’t been touched in a long time, where the fact of being touched was a question of life and death. For all the projects, there is also that relationship with craftsmanship that is super important because I like to discover new techniques and materials, and depending on the project, to choose different types of materials. For the “Phoenix Project”, it was important for me to work with raku, which is a Japanese technique where you fire the clay super, super high, and then you drop it into a mix of wood ashes, so the clay takes on the color of the ashes. For another project, it’s going to be bronze, for another project, it’s going to be Pyrex glass, so it really depends on what story or myth I tell myself and want to tell others. For some materials, you need 10 years to be just a junior in that technique, so it’s key to collaborate with the right people. It’s also that exchange that’s super nourishing for both of us, the craftsman and the artist, because I’m going to come up with an idea that might seem impossible to the craftsmen, and it would be impossible without that specialist who knows these techniques so well, who has been working for sometimes 40 years on that same exact technique. I’m going to bring an idea, he’s going to say it’s impossible, I’m going to say let’s try it, we try it and it works. And I’m happy because I met my objective, and he’s happy because he went over the limits of what he thought the material would have, so that’s the magic of this collaboration.