Text by Agnès Prévost. Introduction, interview questions and translation from French (including quotations and French titles) by Noora Puolamaa. Click the title of each artwork to view in detail.
Copyright: Agnès Prévost. Title: Commun (Common)
“Artists, be it even modestly, face a […] huge issue here, which could, which should, mobilize them entirely.”
Thomas Schlesser (2016) L’Univers sans l’homme. Les arts contre l’anthropocentrisme (1755-2016), (The Universe without Man. Arts against Anthropocentrism (1755-2016)), Paris: Hazan, p. 259
Visual artist Agnès Prévost’s work explores nature, moved by a feeling of connection to its multiple shapes and forms. She tells us about her ties to this source of inspiration, highlighting that a work of art representing nature implies a certain relationship of the artists to nature, shown to the viewer through the work of art. Agnès shows us how some artists’ vision of nature is changing today under the effect of climate change. Reverberating through the arts, this shift generates new types of works of art, which create pathways towards a new relationship to our environment within the wider society.
Could you tell me a bit more about your work: there seem to be a lot of trees and plants, shapes inspired by nature; why choose these themes? What do these shapes represent to you?
Yes, as you can see from my work, I have always been fascinated by the beings and shapes of what we call “nature”: its beauty, its abundance, its diversity of appearances and scales, its seasonal changes, its specific local and geographic features. This great “Other”, or rather these innumerable “Others”, made of the same atoms as our species but taking on other appearances, wild or tamed; contemporary or ancestral “Others”, fleeting or lasting, caught up in their own duration, shared temporarily or sustainably with us.
The type of relationship I had with the natural world during my childhood has had a profound impact on me. At the time, during my stays on the countryside, my vision was emotional, instinctive – primary –; it was a way of seeing which, by its quality, strongly connected me to this world. I don’t consider childhood only as a phase of human life: I think there is an infancy of vision, of being-in-the-world, which refers to a state that is relatively free of societal conditionings.
Copyright: Agnès Prévost. Title: Fragment VI
Today, choosing to draw or paint trees, mountains, leaves, branches, animals, sea, or other lifeforms existing in nature is simultaneously keeping alive and questioning the relationship I maintain with them over time. Looking, drawing, are deeply empathetic and connecting actions to me; they are also moments of distancing ourselves, ways of considering that and those we are witness to. Also, drawing and painting involve, through their movements, the body – a body which reacts depending on its own memory – and intuition – because creating is a process, it isn’t entirely predictable. For me the power of art consists precisely in its capacity to thus make the intuitive and the cultural interact, or even confront one another.
That being said, proposing new representations of nature despite the plethora of already existing representations over time and space may seem ludicrous. The history of art proves otherwise. This choice even seems to me, in the era of the “Anthropocene”, to be truly crucial. The advent of this new geological era – whatever it may be called – which establishes mankind as a geological force, is in itself properly disrupting: it radically alters our vision of nature. New questions, new representations emerge as a result; it therefore seems to me that there is a symbolic history to pursue, if not to write. For myself in any case, my artistic approach has been transformed by this.
What is it about Swarm that speaks to you? (Perhaps similarities between your work and what you see as Swarm’s ideals…) What made you want to be part of this network? What is Swarm to you?
I discovered the existence of the Swarm Dynamics organization (called ForeverSwarm then) during the COP21. Its founders David Holyoake and Chris Aldhous made clear, strong statements and actions to name and try to respond to the difficulties capitalist societies face because of the ecological crisis. Their stance seemed very accurate to me.
At the time, Swarm Dynamics recognized especially the momentary powerlessness of human imagination to respond positively and concretely to the alarming challenges of our time. It therefore called for new creative visions, following an important principle David Holyoake named “radical dreaming”: a (renewed) appeal to the imagination, put to the test of current knowledge in science, technology, law, humanities… concerning ecological questions.
Moved by the ecological and philosophical disruptions under way, it is true that I felt the need to connect with other thinkers and creatives tackling the same questions, and to incorporate my works into a body of research and proposals. It was not so much about becoming part of a movement, to me it was about sharing with others the conviction that climate change and the Anthropocene placed us – scientists, thinkers, creatives, or simply humans – in front of a new horizon. Since ten or fifteen years – in a very short amount of time because the window for action is extremely short – a lot has happened in the artistic and other research fields that contributes to creating the “radical dream” we need.
After movements such as the Arte Povera, Land Art, and other strong individual works in their wake (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Joseph Beuys, hermann de vries, Piero Gilardi, to mention only a few of them), we know that the artistic action, summoning experience and imagination, opens up perspectives on environmental questions. Similarly, reality and contemporary scientific knowledge interact profoundly with human sensitivity.
I read a few lines you wrote about a “change in representation.” What did you mean by that? In what ways do you think climate change affects art, perception, representation?
If we look at the facts, the term Anthropocene was first used in the year 2000 – a historic moment in the field of geology. This term was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen during a conference in Mexico; two years later he developed his statement in the journal Nature, noting himself that the Anthropocene “modifies not only the perception of the world in the field of science, but deeply infiltrates other disciplines – especially social sciences”.
Indeed, an international conference entitled “How to think the Anthropocene?” took place in 2015 at the Collège de France, in Paris, gathering many disciplines in the natural, human and social sciences : anthropologists, philosophers and sociologists each showed the profound changes in premises, perspective and methodology which anthropogenic climate change brought about in their fields.
Why, then, would this question spare artists? Mankind and artistic production have always been affected by the conception humans have of themselves within the universe. A simple chronological look at the history of Western art, and especially the shift from sacred societies to profane societies, shows this well. Moreover, in the exhibition La Fabrique des Images (The Making of Images), Philippe Descola clearly distinguished the fundamental differences between the productions of naturalist, animist, totemic and analogical societies: humans’ understanding of their place within the world and their relationship with other beings conditions their representations.
In L’Univers sans l’homme (The Universe without Man) published recently, the art historian Thomas Schlesser compares the artistic approaches which, since the 18th century, question the centrality of mankind within the cosmos. Taking as a pivotal date the earthquake which ravaged the city of Lisbon in 1755, the work follows a chronological path showing the impact that major historical and scientific events affecting our relationship to nature and the world have simultaneously on parts of contemporary artistic research. The book ends on the beginning of our century and creations expressing the implications of the ecological crisis and the advent of the Anthropocene.
The linear perspective reflected a state of the world and of knowledge at a certain moment. Without claiming that all artistic productions will be affected by the shift in the historical human experience we are living through – historical because it also affects our perception of time and space – we can already see that frameworks of thought, representations and action are undergoing significant changes. Copyright: Agnès Prévost. Title: Polyptyque Burkhard
Concerning the change in representation, are there particular authors, philosophers, artists who have written about this and whose thinking you strongly identify with?
This question reminds me of the call for contemporary artists published in 2014 by the anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, the sociologist and philosopher Bronislaw Szerszynski and the art historian and journalist Olivier Michelon, calling on artists to comment through works of art the advent of the Anthropocene. Giving an artistic expression to this disruption allows us to fully realize it as well as to admit its symbolic significance. This call resulted in a large exhibition at the Musée des Abattoirs in Toulouse, France.
Numerous contemporary artists contribute today to showing an empathetic representation of living things, an art going beyond the dualist vision of culture versus nature, or aiming to translate the disruption that the natural world is undergoing under the effect of human action. Works using very diverse language are thus connected by these questions.
Then, I would gladly first mention the internationally known work of Giuseppe Penone. His work consisting of sculptures, drawings and photographs proceeds through empathetic movements; the hand of the artist alternates between being receptive and active, sensitive organ then master of a technique. The work gives simultaneously a shape and a voice to living things; and at the same time, mixing natural materials and human movements, it transmits a particular form of relationship with these living things, a relationship that is shaping techniques.
Thus, notably through a rather frequent use of human imprint on matter, the work tends to involve – or even incorporate – the human body and organs into matter itself. Then, far from proposing only the visual shape of the imprint, the work also shows its processual dimension (as in the series Propagazione, for instance); it therefore seems to me that it directly questions man’s capacity to mark his passage, briefly or sustainably (this dimension of memory is expressed for example in the ensemble Il vuoto del vaso, 2005). Origin and future at once, the totality of the living seems to be considered in equal parts in the work of Penone, and is integrated into a shared, common duration.
Copyright: Agnès Prévost. Title: Dessin invisible II
I could of course mention other artists who have participated to the Arte Povera, for whom nature is important. And various other works also move me in this way. The works of hermann de vries, Per Kirkeby – whose experience as geologist seems to have truly shaped the pictorial language as animated by telluric movements of matter –, the last works of Hans Hartung – significantly passionate about astronomy –, the work of Lee Ufan, or more recently Stéphane Thidet and Abraham Poincheval, for example.
Giving an important role to matter, experience and duration, these works go beyond the mere aesthetic dimension to summon several of our senses, call out to our body and our sensitivity as a whole. And since the tangible experience of the world is a component of these works, it is what they call out to within us. Having humble attitudes, the poetic dimension they carry reinforces this call.
Going from a visible pictorial space to a sensory pictorial space, I try to create these kinds of thresholds. This is what I have attempted to do in works such as Dessin invisible (Invisible Drawing), where the outline of the drawing is deliberately a transparent outline which will later be revealed by the ink that will partly cover its oily matter; or Fragments, imprints of leaves showing the trace of a contact between the plant, the page of paper and the palm. More than a limited object, framed and closed on itself, the picture, the piece of paper (the plant origin of which is eminently evident) can be open, mediating spaces, places of passage and transitivity.
My anthropological readings have also had a profound impact on me, notably the works of Philippe Descola, as well as the thought of geographer and philosopher Augustin Berque.
Please visit the artist’s website: http://www.agnesprevost.com
Agnès Prévost, Commun (Common), 150 x 170 cm, oil on canvas, 2016
Agnès Prévost, Fragment VI, 4 x 50 x 65 cm, gouache on paper, magnets, 2015
Agnès Prévost, Polyptyque Burkhard (Burkhard Polyptic), 90 x 150 cm (8 x 30 x 30 cm), pigmented prints on Hahnemühle, 310g, special collection
Agnès Prévost, Dessin invisible II (Invisible Drawing II), 76 x 130 cm, mixed technique on blue paper, separate panels, 2015
 The infancy of vision is perhaps also the one understood in the meaning Giorgio Agamben gives to the word “infancy”: “Far from being something subjective, an original experience can only be the one which, for man, is prior to the subject, in other word prior to language: a ‘silent’ experience in the literal sense of the term, an infancy of man, of which language should precisely mark the limit.” Giorgio Agamben (1978) Enfance et histoire (Infancy and History), French translation by Yves Hersant (2010), Paris: Payot & Rivages.
 For artist and philosopher David gé Bartoli (alias David Guignebert), the Anthropocene forces us to consider the political community as involving not only simply humanity but living things and even non-living things: see, for example, David gé Bartoli, Sophie Gosselin (2011) “Organiser la désappropriation, libérer le commun” (“Organizing the disappropriation, liberating the common”), Multitudes, vol. 47, n° 4, pp. 189-194.
 Paul Crutzen (2002) “Geology of mankind”, Nature, vol. 415, n° 6867, p. 23, quoted by Thomas Schlesser, L’Univers sans l’homme (The Universe without Man), pp. 14, 238.
 Conference “Comment penser l’Anthropocène ? Anthropologues, philosophes et sociologues face au changement climatique” (“How to think the Anthropocene? Anthropologists, philosophers and sociologists facing climate change”), international interdisciplinary conference coordinated by Philippe Descola and Catherine Larrère, Collège de France, 5-6 November 2016.
 La Fabrique des images, Visions du monde et formes de la représentation (The Making of Images. Visions of the World and Forms of Representation), curated by Philippe Descola, Quai Branly Museum, Paris, 16 February 2010-17 July 2011. A catalogue accompanied this exhibition: Philippe Descola (Ed.) (2010), La Fabrique des images. Visions du monde et formes de la représentation, Paris: Somogy et Musée du Quai Branly.
 Pierre Francastel (1951, new edition 1984) Peinture et société. Naissance et destruction d’un espace plastique de la Renaissance au cubisme (Painting and Society. Birth and Destruction of an Artistic Space from the Renaissance to Cubism), Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, p. 9: “The linear perspective […] is one of the aspects of a conventional form of expression founded on a certain state of technology, science, social order, world order at a given moment”.
 Exhibition Anthropocène Monument (Monument Anthropocene), curated by Olivier Michelon, Musée des Abattoirs, Toulouse, 3 October 2014-4 January 2015.
 “The will to have an equal relationship between myself and things is at the basis of my work.” Giuseppe Penone (2009) Respirer l’ombre (Breathing the Shadow), Paris: Éditions des Beaux-arts de Paris, p.13.
 To comment on this conception of the pictorial work as mediator, we can mention a statement made by Lee Ufan concerning his own work in his book of interviews published in 2002 at Actes Sud Editions, Un art de la rencontre (An Art of the Encounter): “The work of art then comes to exist there, as that which is beyond me. Its diversity, its vastness and its depth seem to result from the mysterious intertwining, full of tensions, of individuality and natureity.” Écrits, 1970-1986 (Writings, 1970-1986), Un art de la rencontre, p. 88.