In the summer of 2006 I interviewed the artist Jean Detheux. Born and trained in Belgium, he now lives in Montreal, Quebec.
Initially painting and drawing in traditional media, Detheux in 1996 switched to the digital realm embarking on what is an ongoing adventure in digital animated imagery. For ten years he experimented with this new media, inventing style and technique in isolation in a remote corner of Ontario’s farmlands.
His first public performance of a film was the premiere of his NFB produced Liaisons. That was quickly followed by Rupture, also produced by the NFB. Both films can be found on the recently released DVD Volatile Materials which also has films by other well-known non-narrative animators including Chris Hinton and Steven Woloshen. The DVD also offers an excellent commentary by Marcel Jean on Detheux’s film Liaisons.
Detheux is currently engaged in collaborative projects with composers, creating intriguing images in motion synced to original music. Look for his work, presented live, at music festivals around the world. For web access to his work, follow www.vudici.net .
THE ANIMATOR WHO ISN’T
An Interview With the Artist Jean Detheux
SK: Jean, what was your first "Ah ha!" experience in art, the moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
JD: I was about eight or so when I looked at one tiny (1 inch by 1 inch) reproduction of one of Breughel's Tower of Babel (in a "Petit Larousse Illustré," a French dictionary), and I was literally "sucked in," spending maybe one full hour "in there," coming out of it knowing that that type of "magic" was what I wanted to keep on experiencing.
SK: Tell me more about what it was that so engaged you. Was it the meaning of the image, the narrative of the Tower of Babel, the multitude of figures building this huge monument to themselves, or was it the painterly aspect?
JD: It was more "real" than "reality;" totally credible while I always knew it was "only" ink on paper (it was in black and white as well and remember, just one inch square).
It was "magic."
SK: You were a young child at the time, living in Belgium. Breughel was Flemish and yet you discovered him in a French encyclopedia. When did you finally get to see the original Breughels? What was that like for you?
JD: I don't remember where I saw original Breughels first (I know I saw many, several times), but I do remember that what that little reproduction did was to open for me the world of "Form" (not "forms") so that the magical and aesthetic experience that little black and white image triggered has been repeated many, many times since, with/through the works of many other artists, "Mother Nature" included.
You could say that my work is done trying to (re)create moments like that, first in painting and drawing, now (since my allergies started) in "animation."
SK: I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by "Form". I will press you on that because I think it's critical to understanding your work as a whole.
JD: What I mean by "Form" is very difficult to define with words.
I guess one angle is to point to how "this" talks to "that," irrespective of (or "beyond") what the representational elements suggested by the image may be. You can see that at work in the masters' works though it was maybe made most obvious by Cézanne (his "echoing shapes").
However, Old Masters such as Breughel were very much involved with that level of reading/creating. It seems that focusing on how things "play" together transcends mere representation, and staying short of that dance keeps the work at the level of mere illustration.
SK: I agree that this is going to be hard to describe in words, but let's take a crack at it because it's so critical to understanding your oeuvre as a whole. We'll use the Breughel painting; can you show me specifically what you mean when you describe how "this" talks to "that", how this particular master played things one against the other.
JD: Here's a quick and dirty tracing of what I am talking about.
SK: You completed high school in Belgium, and then went on to art school. What was art school like for you? Did you enjoy it? Was it what you expected?
JD: I did not really know why I went to art school, I only knew that university did not appeal to me even if I had considered getting into political sciences. The sight of a couple of hundred students crammed into an auditorium listening passively to a professor reading from one of his books in a very monotonous voice was not my idea of a search for meaning.
What I did not expect was to find myself so much "at home" in that art school. I had always done a lot of drawing, and the schedule was just perfect; every morning in the painting studio, every afternoon in the drawing studio, with very few "academic" courses, mostly art history and anatomy, both compulsory for the first three years of a six years programme. After a while, I realized that the Breughel experience I mentioned earlier could very well be what my art education would focus on. I had several excellent teachers and an absolutely fabulous one, Joseph Louis - I dedicated my "happening" at the Festival du nouveau cinéma to him. (Article on this event: Cinéma : ce dimanche, hommage à un Liégeois au Festival du Nouveau Cinéma à Montréal).
They were above all practicing artists, so the situation was very much one of a "real world" one, just what I needed. After a couple or three years in that school (Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et Institut Supérieur d’Architecture de Liège), I began to get some glimpses of what I had to do, based on the intuition that what we thought we saw had very little to do with what we "really" saw, and that there was (still is) an infinite world of discoveries to be made in the "field" of perception.
I have not changed focus since, and that was about 40 years ago.
SK: Once you completed school, you decided to move to Canada. What brought you to that decision? I see you spent some time in Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa and New York. What a strange assortment of cities. What were you looking for?
JD: I was drafted by the Belgian army (Belgium still had a compulsory draft then) and I could not stand that.
I deeply dislike all things military, and as I then found out, there was a legal way to avoid the draft by spending five years in a country with no common border with Belgium, and arrive at the age of thirty, which, in peace time, would dispense me of the draft. I took advantage of it.
What I had not expected is that spending close to six years in Canada would drastically change my perception of Belgium so that, by the time I went back to have a look, it no longer felt like home.
I went to Calgary to teach at the Alberta College of Art (then ACA, now ACAD), Montréal to teach at Concordia University, Ottawa at Algonquin College, and New York to teach at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture (fabulous art school), as well as New York University and Parsons.
I was not looking "for" anything in particular, just trying to survive and support the continuation of my work.
SK: You must have found several communities of artists in each of these cities. Did any of them attract you enough that you joined them to become part of that community?
JD: I am not all that keen on "communities of artists." For me art is a lonely journey akin to Pirsig's "Phaedrus" in his great book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I did meet several remarkable visual artists in New York, yet very few notable ones in Canada. I find Canada exceptional in the fields of music and dance, but fairly weak in the visual arts; it seems dominated by the “academic angle,” too intellectual, not “essential” enough .
The dialogue with others started in earnest when I got on the web (1997). That has sparked many interesting contacts and discussions, so much so it is now vital to me.
SK: You also mention in your résumé having been a chef at a Zen Centre. How did that come about?
JD: The "search for meaning" has always been front and centre in my life. I saw so many great artists around me (especially in NY) living lives I would not want to emulate (great artists, rotten people), I ached for more balance in my life, and found that Zen practice was possibly a way to achieve that balance (the "middle way").
I had read a lot of "Zen books," but once I read my soon-to-be teacher's "The Three Pillars of Zen" (Philip Kapleau), I knew I had to make the shift from "philosophy" to "practice." Which is exactly what I did.
SK: You're working in animation now which means that you have, in addition to the traditional elements that make up a still image, the axis of time and motion. In what way are these new elements critical to your present work? And how has the technology of digital production altered the way you think, feel and create?
JD: I still don't feel like I am working in "animation." I do not know for sure what it is I am working "in." In fact, the NFB just released a special DVD titled Volatile Material which has two of my films on it, along with seven other films by people like Chris Hinton, Steven Woloshen, Karl Lemieux, Theodore Ushev, David Rimmer and Anne-Marie Sirois.
The nine films on that DVD (2 by Hinton, 2 by me, and one by each of the other directors) can be seen in two ways: straight screening, or screening with a running commentary by Pierre Hébert, or Marcel Jean, or Marco de Blois.
I viewed the DVD several times, with and without the commentary, and came to the conclusion that I am not "doing" animation. The concerns and aims of the other films are not mine at all, or only episodically, peripherally, so. The concerns expressed by the commentators are, for the most part, not part of what my life revolves around, very foreign to what my work explores and is about, whatever "that" is.
Still image from Liasons by Jean Detheux
However, Marcel Jean’s comments on "Liaisons" has touched on several things that do matter to me, but he too stresses the fact that my work does not look like anything done in animation thus far, and he is right. My work feeds on something other than animation. Aside from moments in Mary Ellen Bute's work and very few others (Steven Woloshen's being amongst those), I see very little in animation that could sustain me, especially as far as "abstract" work is concerned.
I am not "putting down" those other films on that DVD. Far from it. I am certainly well aware that as far as "abstract animation" is concerned, those films are very interesting, they form a great selection.
SK: In what way is your work different, what do you see that seems missing in most other people's work?
JD: I believe this has to do with my faith in "inherent composition" (a term coined by the painter Philip Guston), which I could now transpose to "inherent animation." It seems to me that images, including their genesis, have an inherent "logic," an inherent Form, which is almost always destroyed by intentional work. My approach to "animation" therefore is a direct continuation of my work as a painter. I trust accidents, sometime am granted the gift of "fortuitous accidents," and I almost always paint the next image/frame as a "natural" continuation of the previous one. Each one is born of the one before, almost always.
Now, I may create havoc in that while editing, but at the time of drawing/painting each one comes from the one before.
In editing I may bring into contact two streams of images that have supposedly nothing to do with each other. But that is another story along the line of Picasso's comment, "What saved me is that I became more interested in what I found than in what I was looking for."
The very structure of the "animation" is nearly identical to the structure of our attention (which is also the structure of the genesis of the images themselves). We constantly go from "Where is it?" to "Aha, there it is!"
This pulsation is what I trust the most, the flux from centre to periphery and back and forth and back again, almost ad infinitum. That’s what sustains the making of all my work from still images to "animation."
This is so true experientially that the images/animations themselves become almost a by-product of my being focused on the quality of the experience itself. Very seldom do I isolate an image or frame and "fix" it with whatever intentional purpose I have in mind (though at times I will if only to have an "event" happen at the exact and necessary millisecond).
So the flux I talk about above (Where is it? Aha, there it is!) is also the underlying structure of my "animation" itself. There are moments of sharp synchronization between events and music, and others when the two pull away from each other leaving us in a more "floating" mode of experience.
There is another very potent difference between the work that interests me and what I see done by most animators: theirs seems to be almost always on a continuous "power trip" during which the key seems to be a demonstration of "control," while mine seems to fall into "abandon/surrender" only to surface in "control," back and forth, back and forth, the "back and forth" itself becoming much more the "point" of the work than any particular moment or mode of experience "in" it.
With regard to "motion", I have no interest in it per se. I find that from moment to moment, from image to image, we go through changes that are as inevitable as life itself. I would rather explore those changes "as is", changes which are "given," than start fabricating "motion" for an intentional purpose.
It is almost as if each breath, each moment of consciousness, were a keyframe of sorts.
SK: Jean, you talk about the flux of "Where is it?" to "Aha, there it is!" You've spoken many times over the years about the process of finding and losing the image, and it's an essential element in your work. Tell me more about that. How did you come to be working that way?
JD: When replying to your above question, before mentioning Husserl or Merleau-Ponty or any other "external source," I would very much stress that, as in all I do, the starting point is always my (awareness of my) experience.
I recognize in some of Husserl's and others' thoughts glimpses of what I am experiencing in my living present, but I will avoid as the plague any attempt to structure/tailor/filter what I experience with any theory.
If that is not understood, than the worth of my work collapses, I am focused on the "always-already-there" (catering to the appearing as it appears), not on the "what-can-I-do-with-it?".
Husserl wrote about catering to the appearing as it appears. You cannot paint what you see, it's an impossibility; reality is like a piece of wet soap, constantly slipping away. Look at Pissarro's rue de l'Hermitage in the National Gallery of Canada collection. Your eye travels along the edge of the far wall on the left, across the road along the edge of the patch of light further back of the woman, and up the other side. There is a magic that operates in that central section which creates a plane within the painting where figure and ground aren't distinguishable. It's how we see before we distinguish "this" from "that".
SK: For example, here's a beautiful image from your film, Danse des esprits bienheureux (2013). As the film progresses, our eye tries to identify what is figure, what is ground. But the work never fully lands on one or the other; instead it's in a constant state of flux between the two. You were close to de Kooning; do you see both bodies of work wrestling with the figure / ground dilemma in a similar way?
(Note: This piece, a test work in preparation for a major project, was revised in response to new music by Canadian composer Christien Ledroit and retitled "Twice Removed".)
JD: We had some fabulous discussions about "dedifferentiation," whereby the source of our imagery lies in the "what one sees before knowing what one is looking at."
You can't imagine the impact of that kind of validation coming from one's heroes! Mercedes Matter had already provided that kind of validation for my approach by bringing me to NY and her school, and I am deeply grateful to her for that, but to be able to talk with de Kooning (and Elaine, she was no slouch on those issues) in person, several times, and realizing that we were on the same plane, omigod!
Here's something plucked from a book on him, something to consider:
"Finally this little Dutchman comes in, says how do you do, and starts setting up a still-life. He spent about two hours setting up this simple, simple little still-life. Backing up and looking through the window of his hands seeing how it was, changing it a little bit, finally we were wondering what he was doing, Not talking much. Finally he stops and finishes it and he looks around and he says, 'Vell ve're going to spend all summer looking at this ting. On one piece of paper or one canvas and we're going to look at it until we get it exactly the way it is. Then we're going to keep working on it until we kill it. And then we're going to keep working on it until it comes back on its own."
"... until it comes back on its own!!!"
I don't know that Gus Falk above, but I knew Milton Resnick, again through the friendship of Mercedes Matter. He once said something interesting: "In all my years of struggling with the brush, the brush has always won."
Given the emphasis I so often see placed on "control" and "know-how," this is an interesting glimpse in what was so essential in (for example) the New York School, the ability/willingness to surrender control, so well expressed by Picasso in his: "What saved me is that I became more interested in what I found than in what I was looking for."
The only thing I would take issue with in the above quote by de Kooning is "... until we get it the way it is." That to me is an utter impossibility, and it is precisely in that impossibility that is found the door to one's true "style" (one's unique "point of view on the world"). Nobody else can fail the way "I" do, and in this constantly repeating failure lies the true aspect of "my" style. As Camus said: "The failure shall be the measure of success..."
SK: I can see getting an exciting motif going, but then working with it often totally messes it up - which I guess makes it just another starting point?
JD: "In my end is my beginning..." Much depends on (the width of) one's frame of reference. I've seen many artists give up just at the point where the work begins to return.
SK: It takes a lot of concentration to stay with it.
JD: "Concentration" yes, but above all, some kind of faith in an underlying structure that manifests itself only when we reach the end of what we "can" do, and carry on, with care (not as a tantrum).
SK: Did deKooning work from the model? from a still life?
JD: He always needed a departure point, often something he saw in his surroundings, or in a magazine, a museum, one of his own paintings, whatever. Here's an example of that kind of work .
SK: On one occassion when I visited you we looked through William Kentridge's Skira catalogue together. You said, "He's better when he doesn't try to explain. Look at Rembrant, how one small section affects all the others." And I replied, "Don't you have to drop narrative then, and go entirely abstract. Narrative requires that the audience can follow along, and so you have to do some explaining." "No," you replied, "Just watch the work. Listen to the work."
JD: I think the narrative is to animation what "representaton"" is to painting.
What we know in painting can apply to animation, namely that our mind is extremely capable of (re)constructing whole things out of minimal clues. I find that most narrative animation is today similar to a painting by a 19th century salon conformist. We are given pre-digested food with little left for us to "figure out" on our own.
I think that the images that grab us the most are the ones that need us to exist, the ones that need our projecting into them in order to perceive anything (any "thing").
The German choreographer Pina Bausch was working on "suggestion," her "Tanztheater" is/was a form of poetry that is a necessary "remedy" for all that "in-your-face" crap we are bombarded with these days. Wim Wenders' film "Pina" (available on DVD) is a thing of beauty.
As Merleau-Ponty said, “we derive meaning from the experience while projecting meaning into it.”
There's also a lot of gold in the magnificent poems of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa.
He has become an essential part of my "mental landscape" since discovering him a few short years ago.
Here's one of my faves:
Lightly, lightly, very lightly,
A wind passes very lightly
And goes away, always very lightly.
And I don't know what I think
And I don't want to know.
Again, most of what I see at animation festivals and elsewhere is cute, or cynical, or funny, but oh so very stuck in its so many recipes and predictable images and turns of events.
SK: We have often talked about the work of Giacometti and Guston. These are both artists whose work you admire tremendously. Giacometti painted in response to what he saw before him, searching for .... what? The meeting points of lines and tones? The confrontation of edges? He didn't care what the final image looked like or whether or not it resembled the sitter. In the end, though, his images tell us more about the feel of the sitter than any photograph ever could.
JD: Giacometti had one goal and one goal only (he stated it over and over again): to paint and draw and sculpt what he really saw. He would say: "If I could paint what I really see, nobody would be able to recognize what it is I am painting." I totally believe that. True abstraction comes from our de-identifying our reality rather than being a gratuitous experimentation. Though it is obvious to me that this latter kind of abstraction is far more widespread than the former one.
To me, Guston had his best years in the fifties and sixties, the period during which he painted very close to his large canvases while not allowing himself to move back and take it all in. This period proved to him (and I agree with him totally) that "composition is inherent," that we need not "design" anything. Just get the work in motion and let it show us what needs to be done.
Our conversation led me on a search for Guston's "White Painting I", discovered when I started teaching at Concordia University in Montreal (in 1976). This painting has been with me ever since.
SK: We've talked over the years about working to the centre of the canvas and keeping the focus away from the edges. But if composition is inherent, then what does it matter if we work to the center or work to the edge?
JD: That is not quite what I was talking about. It’s not a matter of "having" to do anything. It’s a matter of being so tuned into what is happening that we are totally available ("disponible" in French). When we can be so focused as to see what is happening as if it were being done by somebody/something else, the natural "breathing" of the process itself becomes a succession of basically two different modes: "Flux reclaiming," and "stasis reclaiming". We are constantly swinging from boredom to fear, fear to boredom (if one were to oversimplify it).
This is what is at the root of the dilemma between the struggle of working to "the whole” or to “the parts". And most of us are not aware of it at all, so locked are we in one mode or the other.
Most animators’ work is locked in only one mode and ignores/denies the existence of the other, and that is probably what is responsible for my being so little interested in most of what I have seen done in animation to date, regardless of the talent and intelligence of the animators. It is as if most of the work came out of a mold made of a belief in a world I no longer hold as "real," some kind of societal delusion, in fact, a lie ("the fallacy of misplaced concreteness").
So, to come back to your question, when we are working there is only the center (the edges disappear), or there is only a "field" where we can't find a center. We never have both at the same time. The center I "know" is not the one that belongs to the field I know - as the field has no center - and the field I know does not belong to the periphery of the centre I know - as that periphery is, by definition, always unknown (as I am seeing only the centre).
When the constant swinging from one mode to the other finally becomes obvious, one can make a choice based on some kind of "faith." To trust in this swinging, though potentially damaging to the work one intends to do, one can actually create results that are far more interesting, surprising even, than those arrived at by intentional action.
When one surrenders to those swings, one opens the door to "inherent composition / animation."
SK: You once quoted an exchange between Cage and Guston that describes brilliantly the artistic process. It begins with "first everyone else leaves the room, and ends with "... and then I leave the room."
Do you remember it? Can you quote it to me again?
JD: It is a John Cage quote, made during a conversation between Cage and Philip Guston. Cage said: "When you are in your studio, you are there with all your ideas, your friends', your enemies'. As you start working, and if you are lucky, they start leaving, one by one. As you keep on working, and if you are very lucky, even you leave."
SK: Jean, there is painting and then there is real painting - real art. How does one explain that in words?
JD: If it could be done with words, why paint?
JD: That is in part why I left academe, even if I was doing relatively well in it. Too many “words." "The map is not the country!"
SK: You've often talked about "the art that wants to be made". Tell me more about the philosophy that is driving force behind your work.
JD: That's too big and too vague a question. I would have to write books to try answer it, so I'll write a short reply instead:
What really matters is what gets done when "we" are out of the way; what is done when we are no longer "doing" anything."
Many painters and musicians know that, but animators are so often drowning in technicalities that they cannot lose control of the process the way they need to in order to have the door open to the "unexpected."
Too much is made of the animated image, as if it were something special. It is not. The work itself ought to (and can) become the automatic by-product of a struggle, a struggle that tries to reconcile (or at least to render more obvious to the doer) the incompatible modes of experience we live through constantly, from "flux-reclaiming" to "stasis-reclaiming," from "boredom" to "fear."
Consciousness can only grasp one of these poles at a time and yet we constantly shift from one to the next, passing "through" the point of balance.
That point of balance is not available to ordinary consciousness, but the quality of one's connection with the process (from one mode to the other, over and over again) determines the quality of the traces left behind, be they on canvas, paper or screen.
That's where I see animation lacking in comparison to the other arts. And that is the process I connect with in a steady way in my work, albeit on screen in "animation."
SK: I don't see you as an animator at all. In fact, you are the animator who isn't!
How did you come to this understanding of the process? Was is through Zen, or your phenomenological studies? And does it have a larger impact beyond you - i.e. what happens when this work doesn't get made? Is the world a lesser place somehow on an existential level? And when it does get made, does it move our world forward along a linear plane of development?
JD: Phenomenology and Zen helped me both deepen my experience of, and verbalize, the process, but that is of very little help in the making of the art itself. One needs to lose access to all that one knows in order for the real work to begin.
It is like a little death each time.
In fact, the process takes place whether one is aware of it or not, whether one is working or not. We constantly go through the shifting I talked about earlier - from "Where is it?" to "Aha, there it is!"
However if life has to do with "growing," I believe that bringing into consciousness that which we "do" anyway is a serious contribution to the world at large. Every little step toward greater consciousness that each one of us takes is a step forward for all of us.
This is miles away from the "look at me" madness that has taken over the world. So long as we are looking for or providing entertainment, we are working against our best interests.
Here's a poem from "The Wheel of Death" by Philip Kapleau (my Zen teacher) that sums it up beautifully:
Even as night darkens the green earth
the wheel turns, death follows birth.
Strive as you sleep with every breath
that you may wake past day, past death.
Jean made a previous update in 2009 or 2010:
... When we did the interview, Pierre Hébert had not yet made his beautiful film "Herqueville." In 2006, there was indeed very little in animation that could sustain me, especially as far as "abstract" work was concerned. Aside from moments in Mary Ellen Bute's work and very few others (Steven Woloshen), I would add today that the most remarkable example of quality work is Pierre Hébert's "Herqueville".