Paris, january 2008
At the end of a residency at the Drawing Center in New York in September 2001, I brought in some unused postcards that I had bought in Düsseldorf.
The crowds of Soho, on Broadway and Canal Street, enticed me to make little sketches, anonymous portraits of different people.
When I got back to my studio in Paris I stuck different stamps from my collection on these cards which in turn gave me the idea of travelling across the world and asking people write to something about themselves on a postcard – something about their lives or about the world they live in: war, daily life, their dreams, their hopes…
On the eve of the opening of the exhibition "The Sick Opera" at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, suffocating in my studio under the pressure of preparing for the exhibition, I began to think that I was succumbing to ‘navel gazing’. I decided it was time to leave for Kabul. It was just when the presidential election campaign was being disturbed by terrorist threats, which led me to change direction, so instead I left for Serbia. I visited the cities of Cacâk and Prokupje, travelled on to Kosovo and visited the cities of Prhisthina and Mitrovisca to hear what people had to say, to allow them to ‘exhibit’ the situation they found themselves in.
I visited schools, campuses, streets and markets, each time going to the post office to have the cards, which were addressed to me, franked, before taking them away with me.
When I got back to Paris these messages from one world to another formed a major part of my exhibition. The next journey was to Lagos, where between 13 and 15 million people have been abandoned in abject poverty which, combined with urban violence, together equals, quite simply, suffering. In 2005 violent demonstrations broke out in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis: young French people, whose parents and grandparents were immigrants, demanded to be heard, cars and public buildings were set on fire, the contagion was swift, and several other cities flared up. I decided to visit these places and to hear what these young people had to say . The results were astonishing. Not long after that I went to Havana; Cubans want to talk, and their fears are significant.
2006, Hiroshima: young school children on a pilgrimage offer a lesson of respect, tolerance and above all peace to our world which is so badly in need of it. Next stop Johannesburg, where the themes of AIDS, violence, apartheid become part of the project and Zimbabweans talk about their exile. In Moscow, two themes recur: the reversal of the economic model which is now in thrall to pure capitalism and, above all, the situation in Chechnia, a pulse which becomes apparent in a commentary in the style of a novel about a Russian man.
At the end of 2007 I went to Gateshead, England, for my exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art : I decided to organise a ‘referendum’ using postcards, asking British visitors, "What is your view regarding British forces in Irak ?"
Head above Water acknowledges the artist’s responsibility towards society by giving ordinary people the opportunity for their voices to be heard. It is an interactive and generous project which echoes the words of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant: ‘Art, to me, is not a solitary pleasure, but rather a way to touch the largest possible number of people by giving them privileged access to our common suffering and joy.’
The series Head above Water continues.