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Interview with Lionel Sabatté: The secrets behind his “Mind over Matter” exhibition @Mazel Galerie

Mazel Galerie is one of those places that feel out of the world, a bubble of serendipity in the middle of the so-busy Singapore shopping district. Take a step inside this clean white show-room filled with the colours of countless masterpieces, you’ll be submerged in the universe their artists created out of their hands and imagination.The owner Kevin is a bit like his galerie, sophisticated at first sight, then overflowing with passion, always ready to bring the fore to the talents he curates. This time, he couldn’t hide his excitement for one of France’s most respected experimental artist: Lionel Sabatté.

For his first time in Singapore, the French artist has gathered some of his most famous pieces in the “Mind over Matter”exhibition. He invites everyone for a walk inside his realm made of fantastic creatures, unknown dimensions, deep dialogues and questionings. Calmly, Lionel takes his cup of coffee and sit in front of Le Desman for an insightful story around his journey, his art, his thoughts and so much more….

How is your interest for art born?

My interest for art probably comes from childhood at a time when everyone draws its first illustrations as a small kid. Like most kids, I felt a special kind of pleasure when drawing and I constantly had the desire to draw. But for me, it never stopped, and it kept growing.

It took me a very long time to notice that art could become my vocation and my job. Even though I drew a lot, my first job was sport coach and it’s only when I reached 21 that I decided to attend Les Beaux-Arts (the academy of art) and to consider the path of an artist seriously.

How did you discover that art could be your vocation?

I grew up on the isle of La Réunion. La Réunion’s culture is very rich, but there is no room for contemporary art, and at the time I grew up in, it was even truer. So, I didn’t really know what art was. To me, it was a combination of comics. Two events completely changed my perspective. The first one was an exhibition of Fabrice Hyber in Poitier. There, I saw that art’s universe was way wider than what I had in mind, it was not limited to paintings and drawings, we could create unlimited kind of pieces. The other one happened when I was in Nantes to meet up with a friend. He was student at Les Beaux-Arts de Nantes, so I decided to attend one of his lesson. I immediately noticed there was something I loved immensely and that I wanted to develop. So, I took the entrance exam of Les-Beaux-Arts de Paris and was enrolled. I resigned from my job as sport coach and threw myself in a new adventure. I was young, 21-22 years old, and I was prepared to be an artist.

I’ve never regretted my decision even when life was hard (financially). I loved painting and doing plastic researches so much that I’ve never been disappointed.

I resigned (…) and threw myself in a new adventure. I was 21-22 years old, and I was prepared to be an artist.

Is it hard to be an artist?

Yes, I believe it is difficult. I didn’t know anyone in the field, I didn’t know how to get inside. So I had everything to discover. It’s incredibly interesting but hard because you have to invest a lot, to work a lot and to have luck as well… It is also easy in a sense. For me it was at least because I just love creating and there’s always this expectation that something will happen.

I always have in mind the figure of Claude Monnet who, at the age of 80 years old, paints Les Nymphéas. He is old, he is about to be blind, it’s the 1st World War, his wife just died, for most people it would be the end, and probably, he felt like it was the end too. But he created the most positive and beautiful masterpiece, and Les Nymphéas is still admired all around the world one century after its birth. The artist owns a treasure of creation, and this treasure will appease his life.

I think the most important is to have a passion and a deep fervour for art, otherwise it will be hard.

I think the most important is to have a passion and a deep fervour for art

Would you say that an artist is unconventional? Different from the others?

Yes, but I think that each life is original. I had lived 3 lives myself; the life of an athlete, the short life of a student then the life of an artist. However, the artist’s life is special because it is an invented life. We have the possibility to decide for ourselves what we want our life to look like. That’s the biggest difference with the life of an artist: Freedom.

For me, I chose to work on our relation to matter and materials, to question the living and the nature of life. That’s what I express and invent. I believe that there are as many definitions of an artist as there are artists.

The artist’s life is special because it is an invented life.

Could you describe your art for us?

Yes, I use three mediums of art: drawings, paintings and sculptures to develop a work that’s focused on permanent research, constant evolution and which (as said earlier) questions the notions of life and exchanges. What is living? What are the elements that dialogue, exchange, nourish a relation? Etc…

My art is unbridled and fantastic. I let open an imagination that can lead to abstraction. It is a way for me to accentuate the character life can take, it can be fantastic, monstrous, marvelous etc… And I can extend the domain of life. In this painting, there is a creature living in an unknown world, and this creature exists because this painting exists. I like giving life to beings that don’t exist.

Does your way of expression change with the medium you use?

Yes, and that’s also one of the elements that makes my art special. I don’t reproduce in my paintings what I do with my sculptures, it is not the same kind of expression. Each material I use is seen as a land of experimentation and research leading me to new and undiscovered territories. In my sculptures, you’ll mainly find familiar figures, sometimes animals, sometimes humans, sometimes vegetation, which are realist, at least identifiable. In my paintings you will find unknown creatures and forms of life which play at the border of abstraction. Drawings are between paintings and sculptures. Sometimes, I would use unconventional matters, often seen as rubbish ending up with familiar figures that are close to my sculptures. Other times I would end up with something abstract that goes toward my paintings. I have a drawing that depicts an animal’s silhouette made of oxidized metals (which is close to my sculptures), and inside the silhouette there is and alchemy that’s close to my paintings.

Every time I create, I’m excited to see what a material will make me do and what will appear in front of me. That’s why I like to experiment with new materials so much.

You use a lot of non-noble materials, like dust, skin, oxidized metals etc… in your sculpture. Why did you make this choice?

It was not a choice, it was an emotional tendency. The only choice I made was to follow my deep desires and to follow my heart. It came to me naturally, those materials attracted me. Why? I didn’t know, and with time, as I built my art, I tried to understand this tendency. I see art as a magic wand allowing us to see beauty in what seems ugly, even repulsive sometimes. I try to tame those “scary” materials and reveal, what for me, is there beauty and poesy.

Those non-noble materials are deeply connected to the notions of exchange and sharing. I think they have a heavy symbolism. It is the case for dust. We are all gathered in dust. If someone started to sweep this room, you would find traces of us having the interview, of Kevin typing on his computer. And we would be united trough this matter that seems so nasty, it would be a print of the moment we are leaving right now. And this unicorn made of tea. On the contrary, I think that tea is really noble, its history is very rich, at the heart of commercial trades for more than a millennium it is linked to Human’s history.

I see art as a magic wand allowing us to see beauty in what seems ugly, even repulsive sometimes.

Do you think your childhood drawings have had an influence on your art today?

Absolutely. Sometimes, when I look back at them, I think that some drawings could almost make it in my recent exhibitions. There were a lot of animals, a lot of inventions, new creatures and a part of deformation that are really close to what I’m doing today.

I used to draw pretty well for my age, in a classical way. At 4-5 years old I could already make out perspectives. The adults were impressed by this “gift” I had, and so were my classmates. When I was at school, I draw a lot of caricatures, I draw the other students, I draw my teachers, I liked to draw fun things.

So quickly, drawings became a tool of dialogue between me and the others, that’s what allowed me to exist in society. And it is still to this day.

Are their artists that influenced your work?

Yes. My influences first come from childhood first: animal universe, cartoons, comics,… created by artist of course, so an indirect type of influence. Later, the Nouveaux réalistes (New realists) like César and Klein, trough their use of new matters and their way to work with them, inspired me quite a lot. Then the combination of Surréalistes (Surrealists) influence and abstract Expressionisme (Expressionism) did have an impact on my paintings. Some artists, not that famous, also had an impact on me : the French Rebeyrolle or the Chinese Zao Wu. Joseph Beuys and his work on matter, bestiality and our relationship to nature has grabbed my attention as well.

So, about your exhibition “Mind over Matter”, what do you want to show through it?

It’s an exhibition gathering works that I developed in a 4-5 years-time. I want to show the diversity of my work and the different approaches I have. How different matters can give birth to different beings and universes.

Why this title?

My creations come to life through a constant dialogue between mind and matter, a back and forth between the pleasure to act physically on matter and the work of reflection, between physical spontaneity and cerebral, calculated thoughts. My paintings are at the same time stains thrown randomly and analyses of textures, lights and colours.

What will we find in your exhibition?

In my paintings you’ll see forms of creatures that appear in various worlds, it could be on another planet, it could be in water, in the shape of gaz or a microscopic thing made huge.

And there is also this small world made of pebbles with a small characters made of nails. This piece plays with repulsion. We could be disgusted by this clipping nail detached from the finger. Hair and nails on the floor are always a bit unsettling, right? It’s not that nasty though, people can shake hand without being scared. The nail is a tool of seduction as well, and it can be painted, it’s really beautiful. But for some reason, when it’s not on the finger anymore, it is disgusting. And this small man of nail standing on those pebbles raises those questions.

You’ll find drawings made of oxidized metals as well that give life to creatures. They are oxidizing so it talks about ageing and time.

So, my exhibition is a combination of small universes that, I hope will allow people to see those materials with a fresh look. They are an invitation for a walk, and simply, an invitation to pleasure. I would be really happy if people could enjoy my exhibition, because I really enjoy my art and I want to share it.

You live in Paris, right? Are there Parisian areas that inspire you?

Absolutely, mainly the metro and parcs. The metro because it is the place where I’ve gathered the dust I use in most of my pieces. It’s a wild place… there is kind of human wilderness inside the Parisian and metro and a little bit of aggressiveness. I’m especially talking a bout the Châtelet station: everyday, millions of people walk by here, it’s the place on Earth where there is the most circulation. And those people come from everywhere, Châtelet’s dust is probably the richest and the most international in the world. By the way, this place is called the Heart of Paris, and for me it is the Heart of Humanity as well!

As for the parcs, I love them. The Parc des buttes de Chaumont is an English garden of 150 years old, it is magnificent with its hills. It’s a place, at the heart of Paris, where time has stopped. I often go there.

For a Singaporean who’s never been to Paris, what are the places to be when it comes to Contemporary art?

There is quite of a classical route here. You can start at Beaubourg, then go to the Palais de Tokyo for instance. But the most important is to visit the galeries! There are a lot of great galeries in Paris, especially in the Marais or at Belleville, there are a lot of things to see. Moreover, galeries are free and they are a great way to discover Paris as well.

French Shopping, Dining & Lifestyle guide in Singapore