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Interview with Claude de Soria, Philippe Cyroulnik, 1979

Claude de Soria: As far as I’m concerned the fact that people want to touch a piece of sculpture is a sign of its worth. Museum staff preventing people from touching sculpture is a disaster. There is no risk of damage as with painting. And if the sculpture is properly a sculpture, the impulse is more than natural.

Philippe Cyroulnik: What do you mean by “properly a sculpture”?

Claude de Soria: For instance, with my Plaques, I thought, “What is this? Sculpture? Or painting?” And in the end, it may not be just sculpture but it is sculpture all the same. And the face that people want to touch it is proof of that to my eyes.

PC: Can you tell me how your Plaques are made?

CdS: This is something I discovered by chance and a complete explanation would mean telling my whole story. But to focus on how they are made and how a Plaque comes about… I mix cement, sand and water in a round basin. I slip the mixture under a tap, add water and stir until it’s the right consistency. The consistency is basically standard, the mixture is standard. Then I prepare a sheet of supple and reasonably thick plastic, which I place on a stand. I upturn the basin just as children will turn a bucket of sand upside down at the beach. A puddle of fairly thick cement spreads. I help it spread by tapping it very gently with a trowel in such a way as not to hinder its natural course. As the basin is round, it spreads in a circle. I let it dry for roughly 48 hours. Then I turn the whole thing over, lift the plaque off the plastic and obtain two results. On the one hand, the cement plaque, on the other the plastic, which, because the chemical reactions and slight warmth given off by the cement finds itself altered by the cement, remaining as a kind of X-ray of my plaque. All the accidents, including the halo-effect round the edge, are independent of my “will”. It matters a great deal that things should be seen to happen naturally. They happen naturally in harmony with me. There is a fusion, an interaction between the material and me, between me and matter. This is a very great source of satisfaction to me.

PC: What I find very interesting is that hollows and holes are left in the cement plaque. They come from the way the cement adheres to the plastic.

CdS: That’s right.

PC: I feel that’s important. It works as an inscription of matter on the plastic surface, the support. But it’s also what the cement loses. So there are two elements: the one, in the cement, is loss and the other, on the plastic, is additional matter.

CdS: Yes but that only works for accidents, which appear as spots. There is also the whole issue of colour, which does not conform to your proposition. What you are saying is true mainly about the bubbles. But how does the colouring work? We don’t know.

PC: But despite this difference, there is a hangover all the same. From one point of view, the imprint is the same as your plaque, whilst being a different reflection of it. In that difference, I can see otherness. The one thing that becomes different as it reproduces itself, in the form of an imprint. As if the mould had to become be altered by the process of moulding.

CdS: At the same time, it does have its own existence. Which is why I am not against showing them separately. Initially, I conscientiously rinsed then to use them again. As it happens, I started keeping the prints by chance. Jean Degottex came to see me and said he’d like to know how it was made. So I showed him a print that hadn’t been washed and said, “There, that’s the proof of my work.” He said, “That is very interesting, you must keep the prints. You must keep them and show them at the same time.” I hadn’t seen the significance. He made me aware of it.

PC: At the end of the day, there is a doubling of the work done by the material. Twice over, the material fully enters into play, with its own uncertainties as to result, as to process of transformation from soft to hard for instance.

CdS: That’s right.

PC: In most of your recent work, one figure keeps coming up. A circle or sphere. Is that something that arose by chance and which you accepted as such? Or was there something more specifically interesting about that shape?

CdS: It’s always been a recurring motif. The whole history of my work as a sculptor is in the answer to your question. I started out as a painter. I worked with Lhote, with Léger. Then I spent a year working from life at Zadkine’s and that’s where I really found I was made for sculpture. Then I left Paris and stopped working for ten years, and had to cope with many personal issues. When I came back to Paris, I decided to go back to sculpture and I rushed round to Zadkine’s who, luckily, was no longer teaching. So I had to start over on my own. At that time, I had no desire to do non-figurative work. I wanted to carry on where I had left off, meaning working from life. But having someone round to pose in my little room at home seemed problematic. So I decided to use flower buds that open and close, like tulip-buds or buds full of muscle about to burst. That lasted a year, till I found myself making shapeless balls that worried me so I decided to give up balls. Then, for quite a long time, I made torsos, imaginary human figures. After seeing the Picasso show and looking at the catalogue, I found myself enchanted with a man’s torso that came with a lot of brushwork that showed how desperately Picasso wanted to engage in sculpture at that time, before he actually did. That was fascinating. I gave myself two weeks of amazing sculpture lessons by adapting Picasso’s painting to three-dimensions according to his brushstrokes. It was fascinating. I found, by working on Picasso’s work, by working on someone else’s work, that paradoxically I was expressing myself as never before. I went on to transpose a Picasso still-life, with the same happiness and enchantment. My problem then was, what should I be doing? I can’t spend my entire life making Picassos and I don’t want to go on doing torsos and buds. This is in 1968. An invitation to a show by Hantaï at the Galerie Fournier came through the post. The illustration was a magnificent photograph, depicting canvases hung up to dry on a hook, where they took on astonishing shapes. Unfortunately, when I saw the show, I found the canvases had been stretched. But when the photo was taken, they hung loose. When I saw that, I picked up some clay and without thinking produced my first abstract sculpture based on that Hantaï photograph. Then I made a second sculpture that went even further in the direction of canvases hanging side by side, since I copied forms hanging along a wall. I started out preparing my material in the traditional manner, got annoyed, started beating it and doing something quite different which had no connection whatsoever with reality. I had taken an enormous step forwards: I had disengaged myself from the need for a realistic basis and launched out. I made many plaques like that, one of which is particularly important to me. It was quite thick, so I thought I’ll do front and back. I sent it off to be fired. It came back white, though the dried clay had been grey. I looked at the front, turned it over and noticed that everything I had to say, all my violence, had come out at the back, which in theory, was not meant to be seen at all. Why? In what state had I been in when I made this work…? In order that so much of what was mine had come out there rather than the front, which was nice and interesting and sensible… Thinking this over, I realized that when I worked the back, I was absolutely absent to what I was doing, free of any form of self-censorship or critical intelligence, oblivious of what I had been taught… There was no going over the work. I was completely free. I became intent on recreating this absence of will and critical analysis. So I started making imprints of the undersides of sculptures. Through these imprints, I was looking for something that would not be the product of any specific work. Indeed, when working, I did not consider what would remain of surface relief to mark the ink roller. When there is a result, it is truly by chance. Well, not quite, because all the forms are made by me and the imprint is the fruit of the ridges in the relief that I have made.

Then I thought, I cannot confine myself to reliefs, as a sculptor. I needed to think in the round. I had made balls. I decided to make some more. For a time, I tried making bronze balls and never succeeded. I was forced to scratch them, destroy them, sculpt them in order to make just one. I thought, bronze is not for me and started disliking the entire business of “making sculpture”. To stand back and judge whether a relief is interesting according traditional criteria made me want to vomit. It had to stop. The only thing I could do was take a piece of clay and press it between my hands. It would spread into a flat surface that stopped when I had no more clay in my hands to press, or took on vague, vessel-like shape. It was “badly crafted”, because I couldn’t bear to craft things “well”. I was physically disgusted, almost nauseous. I had to spike the clay in places to prevent it splitting in the kiln, because of the bubbles. But I was against any practical usage. And dissatisfied. I thought of trying a new material. I felt close to earth. I started think. Clay is too fragile. My work is turning it into lace… Why not cement? Which is a mixture of earth and water. I tried covering chicken wire with cement, but it kept dripping off. I tried a thousand times, it never worked. In despair, I tried to build walls or plaques, as with clay, making sure that the cement was thick enough that my markings might show. I made some cement in a tiny jug that I spilled on the only clean surface in studio: a glass plate. I tried to hollow it out in places but the hollows immediately filled. It was late. The work was filthy work. I left, thinking the glass would come away more easily in the morning and that I could throw it away. So the next day, I tried to lift the glass off. It was so stuck, I had to use a razor blade to detach it. And I found this result, the bubbles, the extraordinary life under there. It was the sky, the bottom of the sea… In any case, bursting with life… A miracle. I found myself in the presence of something natural and so amazingly beautiful, with this superb grey colour, that I decide to make more. I made small plaques and then my obsession with sculpting in the round returned. I got fed up with making “plates.”. I needed to mould my cement in something that would have a shape. Not finding the right container to mould it, I thought of pouring it into plastic. Maybe I could shape the plastic with my hands? Then, once it was dried, by assembling several forms made this way, I might be able to compose a sculpture. I spilled medium liquid cement into a plastic sheet. As it fell, I kept my hand under the sheet and saw the cement form into a ball. I tightened the top, to bring it into contact with the plastic and make sure there was no air, that the form should entirely clasped in plastic. When the cement dried, I removed it from the mould, wondering where I am going? because I was beginning to make things without using my hands. Is this truly me? Am I being over-influenced by contemporary art? In a state of excitement, I rapidly removed the mould to see what my first ball would be like: it was exactly my flower-bud of five years previously! I was astonished. Overwhelmed. By an entirely different route, I had come back to myself. I continued to make many balls, which I called fruit. Then I decided to make big plaques. At that point I had only made them on glass and lifting them off the glass was very difficult. Which is why I thought of using plastic. The first time I spilled a big bowl of cement onto plastic, I was overjoyed to find that I’d obtained on the cement plaque a halo that frame the shape wonderfully, a halo that did not appear when I used glass. It so happens that I made a big series of plaques for the exhibition at the Galerie Germain and that on my way to find celluloid at the hardware store, I saw plastic half-spheres for sale: my balls! And that is how my cement balls split down the middle appeared, which, they too, resembled my former clay-work.

PC: Is there not a certain diminution of subjectivity in favour of the material’s own intrinsic logic? Not that the process is not unique, but what drives it is the way the material works. The sculptor as demi-god is no longer there, the person “working” at material to “make a piece”, as if the material was nothing but medium, without a life of its own.

CdS: You could say that a person discovering the pleasure of releasing material to work on its own and a means of doing that is as much of a demi-god as a traditional sculptor. Letting the material work alongside one, getting it show what it can do and offer evidence of life. I believe that allowing the material a pre-eminence in one’s work establishes a connection between a certain number of sculptors and painters and me. That was visible in the “Paris, Travaux 77” show at A.R.C.

PC: Regarding the form upon which your work hinges, circles and spheres, and regarding this hidden reverse side, you said a moment ago something I found interesting, which was that it was essentially the reverse that contained work. In everything that seems secondary and is not meant to be seen that are concentrated the mass of impulses, the potential violence and creativity. I ask this in relation to the way in which you experience your situation as a sculptor, as woman in sculpture. Is that question not an issue for you?

CdS: Consciously, no. But one could say that there is a fusion, a transfusion of my unconscious into the material and this is very important, I feel, in the anonymity of the hidden reverse.

PC: You say anonymity, hidden reverse. You talk of censorship and critical intelligence.

CdS: Yes, I have to suppress my surroundings and everything I’ve learnt. Which is a bit silly, because my unconscious is also made of all this. The important thing for me is being able to get rid of the outside world when I am working.

PC: I feel one might discuss a person’s obverse. This is a reference to representation, skill, rules, normality. The attraction of the hidden reverse could be termed unnamed, unnameable, a concentration on what is magma and chaos, which comes and upsets everything that is usually structured and ordered in sculpture.

CdS: I wouldn’t say upsets. It is the social order, what I have been taught, that perturbs my actual life.

PC: Yes, but the reverse of your pieces is about what social norms perturb. It is shown violently, as opposed to social linearity.

CdS: I agree, but my problem, in my life, is not just at the level of social positioning, but more significantly at the level of my creative activity. My drama is above all that I was unable to work and so live. And this lasted for ten years. I was blocked. Then I started working again and found in the material a means of expression that is as complete as could be