Culture / Art Republik

Fauna Allegoria: Artist Hélène Le Chatelier Explores Themes of Identity and Nature

Staging her body of works at the Fauna Allegoria exhibition curated by Marina Oechsner de Coninck, you can join her through her artworks to catch a glimpse of how our identity is very much connected to nature.

Dec 20, 2021 | By Joseph Low
Hélène Le Chatelier
Hélène Le Chatelier. Image: Corinne Mariaud

What sets humans apart from other living things on Earth? No doubt it is our cognitive abilities, which we have developed many thousands of years ago. Moving beyond just satisfying our basic needs, we have evolved to question deeper issues. One of such issues is the theme of identity and Singapore-based artist Hélène Le Chatelier is exploring it through her artworks. Be it through photographs, writings or sculptures, she hopes to provide that little spark that will set us on a journey of self-discovery.

Staging her body of works at the Fauna Allegoria exhibition curated by Marina Oechsner de Coninck, you can join her through her artworks to catch a glimpse of how our identity is very much connected to nature.

You studied art in Paris at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués et des Métiers d’Art, Olivier de Serres, where you graduated in Fine Art Fresco painting with honours. Tell us about your first steps as an artist?

Soon after my graduation, I started to work with Chinese ink. I was living in Paris and had no real connection with Asia at the time. But Fresco painting (an Italian Renaissance technique) and Chinese Ink have a lot in common. In both techniques, the interaction with water is crucial and the first stroke must be the good one.

The feeling is like a tightrope walker in the sense that the gesture must engage all parts of you and requires your full presence. This is the kind of risk I like very much! My exploration was focusing mainly on the body as a recipient of our individual and collective memory. However, when I started this work, I was in my 20s and, once more, like the funambulist, I felt a bit afraid of heights in front of this artistic journey that was literally sucking me up by taking everything from me. So after one year of full practice and a first successful exhibition in Paris, I decided to hang up my brushes for good, I thought… Until I moved to Singapore 20 years later.

You use a wide spectrum of medium in your art: painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation, writing. How do you choose a medium? Is it all based on your inspiration at a specific point of time?   

Hélène Le Chatelier, Detail of Our Forest
Detail of Our Forest. Image: Hélène Le Chatelier

Actually, it is rather the other way around. I don’t choose to work with a specific medium. It is the medium that chooses me! When I want to explore a specific subject, the best medium to express my idea generally imposes itself in a bold way. There is nothing I can resist here. While I pleasurably give way to the call of this specific medium, some other ideas may come along the way to express a slightly different nuance of the same subject through another medium. It is a bit like looking at an object from various angles.

Starting with traditional mediums such as ink or clay, I like to operate a kind of trimming around my subject to end with video or installation, a more conceptual form of art. Working with a wide spectrum of mediums is also a good way to convoke viewers in different manners. You involve yourself differently when looking at a painting or turning around a sculpture, or entering into an immersive installation, or watching a video. Art is intimately tied up with sensory experience which plays an important role in my practice in the way that it engages the viewer to resonate directly with the artwork.  

You are best known for your ink bodyscapes and for your works with paper, engaging writing and abstract landscapes. How are these works related to your studies on memory?

When I create a painting with ink, most of the time, my technique lies in processes involving traces and prints. It reflects very much how everything we are going through in our lives and how it leaves its trace within us. All together those microscopic traces shape us. I started to use semi-abstract landscapes in my work after working for some time on the relationship between the body and the memory it contains. I like to see the body as a territory to explore — outside and inside.

Our body is the only tool we have to interact with the world and our external form is only the surface of it. I use those abstract landscapes as a possible representation of our inner worlds as I believe that our intimate universe is much wider than the planet we live on.

Using writing is also very much related to memory in the way that it is a tool to tell stories from the past and to make your voice heard. It has something to do with heritage and the idea of transmitting something from one generation to another. Personally, I also see the act of writing as a kind of memory electrocardiogram, recording our emotional state at a specific moment, something to do with remembrance too.

How do you define one’s individual memory versus the overall collective memory?

Hélène Le Chatelier studio
Image: Marina Oechsner de Coninck

I would define individual memory as the sum of personal recollections one may have while collective memory refers more to our common history. I think our individual memory is very influenced by our collective one and reciprocally. I am particularly interested in observing how both aspects of memory influence our intimacies, and how they interfere with our body’s representation. For instance, how, as a woman and due to the prevalence of a male gaze on women’s bodies over the past centuries, my mind is shaped in a way that my body is unconsciously tied up to feminine body representation in relation to sexuality. These kinds of social and cultural constructions have a very direct impact on our daily lives, from the way we use fashion to the way we interact with one another.

Or for instance, even if there is no colonial past in my family and even if I am not British, as a white woman living in Singapore, and whether I like it or not, for some people I am the inadvertent heir of this collective past. It has something to do with clichés. To me, clichés denote a lack of subtlety but at the same time, it is very difficult to escape them. Recent scientific studies show how much our behaviours can be driven by them.

Both our collective and our individual memories shape us and influence who we are. All along this process, globalisation and migration challenge us in the way that they force us to constantly negotiate with our own recollections and with our collective memory to revisit who we are. This is a very complex process that has much more impact on our behaviours and in our lives than what we would like to think. 

You keep exploring the influence of displacement on the way we construct / deconstruct our identity. Would you agree that the notion of identity has been at the very core of your art for the past decade?

Yes, I totally agree. This notion is really at the core of my artistic research and I am totally fascinated by the complexity that lies behind it. “Identity” is a word that summarizes all the issues related to body, intimacy, individual and collective memory. As you mentioned in your question, I explore the way we construct/deconstruct our identity.

This principle of construction/deconstruction means that it is an in-motion process. Nothing is fixed, nothing can be clearly defined here as the identity covers a wide variety and shifting aspects of one person. Identity is something volatile, fragile, liquid in the sense that it can be elusive or unstable. Just like water, it takes the shape of its container (our body). All those aspects together form our territory, our personal landscape and, as a landscape, this is something that evolves with the course of life, reflecting the transitional and indeterminate state of our human condition.

Questions pertaining to our relationship with nature and our fast-changing environment are also very present in your art. Where did this focus on nature came from?

The relationship between humans and nature came more recently in my practice. It occurred while I started to randomly pick up branches that fall down from certain palm trees on Singapore’s streets. They look like mini trees without any roots. I was particularly interested in exploring how something could grow and expand with missing roots: a subject that has a lot to do with memory and identity again.

This led me to consider that our relationship with nature could be seen as one of our most ancient roots. As humans, it is probably the most universal link we have in the way that it is taller than our cultural differences. Over the past century, we have totally neglected this link, believing that nature could be submissive like an object. We forgot that nature is an alive entity. We forgot that we are bound with this entity through a principle of reciprocity. It is urgent that we are considerate and put this reciprocity at the centre of our relationship with nature. Otherwise, nature will drag us into its fall and humanity may soon become a fossilised civilisation.

What emotions do you hope the viewers experience when looking at your art?

I hope people relate to the artwork and question themselves with me. I hope they can be moved, intrigued and mesmerised like I am, by the beauty and the complexity of our human condition. This is a fascinating subject that can lead to an endless exploration… The magic of art is that it offers a superb mirror to look at yourself and I hope that my art invites people to reconnect with themselves and with their inner world.

What is the role the artist plays in the society?

This is a vast question. Mainly, I would say that the artist is the one who is able to be totally present in the world he lives in while sufficiently detached to step back, observe and question that very same world. His role is to interrogate the world and its construction in a way that the invisible becomes visible to other humans.

You have just won a Photographic Award (Pulse Award). Tell us more there!

I am very honoured and grateful to have won the Pulse Award 2021 in the photography category. The awarded photograph is called “Terra Incognita (Untold)”. It is an embroidered photograph that had been exhibited in Singapore during Intimate Topographies, a solo show co-organised by the Alliance Française and Intersections and curated by Tan Siuli. It explores the status of femininity representations under the light of softness.

I am particularly moved because this award not only crowns three years of artistic research about femininity, but it also rewards softness, reconciliation and resilience one’s owe to oneself especially when it comes to matters about sexuality. Choosing to stand on the side of gentleness is a real act of resistance in today’s world where contents evoking sexuality are often brutal and debates so vivid and polarised when talking about contemporary femininities.

What has been your latest project and what is planned for you across 2022?

Hélène Le Chatelier, Geology of Memory
Geology of Memory. Image: Hélène Le Chatelier

My ongoing projects comprise a large sculpture I plan to develop in the course of 2022. I will also pursue the development of Geology of Memory, a series first presented at Art Outreach in February 2021. Meanwhile, I hope to continue a long-term art and science project I started in collaboration with the Mechanobiology Institute of Singapore / CNRS from the National University of Singapore, exploring the concept of disappearance.

In 2022, I will be participating in the Pulse Awards exhibition that is going to be held in Bangkok until March. The photograph will be auctioned to benefit Foundation for Life charity to support the testing and treatment of individuals and communities for HIV.

I am also very happy to announce my participation in a group exhibition that will be organised by Intersections in March 2022 in Singapore with EHL Campus. I am very excited to work with Singaporean artists I admire a lot such as Jason Lim and Mona Choo and I have a couple of other exciting projects in my pockets, some in relation with Marina Oechsner de Coninck and some others overseas, but it is a bit early to talk about that now, so stay tuned!

What can visitors expect to see from you at Fauna Allegoria?

During Fauna Allegoria, visitors will see four photographs from my natural memory series. These artworks question our forgotten relationship with nature. They represent a network of branches nearly petrified on a background evoking a range of mountains, rifts and faults that can be seen as the folds of our minds. I will also present an installation made of branches, ceramic and mirrors. The artwork addresses the issue of the reciprocal link that binds us to nature.

Your favourite museum in Singapore?

First, I would say the Singapore National Museum for raising issues regarding identity, history and memory. I had been particularly struck by the exhibition called “700 Years” — a temporary exhibition presented in 2014. I am also a big fan of the National Gallery for the beauty and the extent of its collections and its architecture as well.

What is your favourite mantra that you live by?

Be compassionate. Believe in yourself. Do your best. Where you are now is where you are meant to be so fully embrace what you do.

If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and path as an artist, who would that be?

The first artist who had a decisive influence on my practice is the Chinese painter Zao Wou Ki. His latter works with ink acted on me as a revelation and these artworks are the starting point of my practice.

To name a few more who play a role in my artistic pantheon, I would add Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Hans Hartung, Alberto Gicaometti, Christian Boltansky, James Turrell, Richard Long, Jeanne-Claude and Christo, as well as Sophie Calle, Annette Messager, Louise Bourgeois. Definitely not enough women here!

Hélène Le Chatelier Installation at Fauna Allegoria Exhibition. Image: Handstudio.
Hélène Le Chatelier Installation at Fauna Allegoria Exhibition. Image: Handstudio.

Get your tickets to the exhibition here. Follow Hélène Le Chatelier’s Instagram: @helenelechatelier

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