FP You were in art school at the Villa Arson, Nice, and then you continued to study art in the Netherlands. Did you also study architecture?
TT No, I didn’t, but my dad was a professor at the School of Architecture in Dakar, Senegal, where he currently lives. He is what you would call an architect on paper, because he has never built anything in his life! My sister and I grew up in this architectural environment, and then we did some small jobs in the field, to have some pocket change. So the world of architecture—floor plans and the like—is familiar to me.
FP The Bureau contains various kinds of drawings, but they are not visible, as they are hidden inside the modules, in “archives” of various sorts. Some of them inspired your artist’s book Djinns . How would you describe the relationship between your drawings and your sculptural installations? How do your drawings relate to an underlying theme in your work, the tension between visibility and invisibility?
TT This is a key issue for me. There’s a real difference between a project design and a drawing. In B.A.I. my project designs were hidden because they carry a potentiality, something that will happen in the future: hence they are not autonomous. My drawings are in and of themselves—autonomous. Drawing has a life of its own; it doesn’t promise something else. It is not under our eyes to say, “I’m here, but only to make you an image of what will happen.” The designs in B.A.I. existed as something to be potentially consulted; they could not be presented in the same way as my autonomous drawings. Afterwards, it was possible for me to show some of them, and to rework some of them as the artist’s book, which was another space—yet another in-between space.
FP Your work establishes a very interesting relationship with the spectator, an oscillation between attraction and distancing. For instance, the “Polders” keep viewers at bay.
TT You cannot enter the world of the “Polders”; you view it from the outside. Their scale is so much smaller than human scale that you cannot walk in anyway, and you cannot physically manipulate them. The furniture that is so often part of these small environments is recognizable, yet it is made in miniature. Sometimes the objects are placed behind mirrors or Plexiglas. What I wanted was to propose worlds that are above all mental. When there is a line that cannot be crossed physically, the work can continue to be completed. The same is true when we look at a picture, watch a film or read a book.
I take as an example Alighiero Boetti, whose work I first saw when I was a student. He has really influenced me—all of his works, but two in particular. One is Lampada Annuale [Annual Lamp, 1966], which the artist claimed switches on for a few seconds once a year—though you never know when. It consists simply of a vertical box with a glass top. Inside, there is a lamp. What’s interesting is not the fact that this sculpture exists, that it can be seen as it is, but that it can become something, that it makes a promise. There’s this huge distance between all of its possibilities. Maybe the lightbulb switched on five minutes before my arrival, or will do so five minutes after my departure. Maybe it will never turn on, maybe it will turn on in 10 years. What will happen in 10 years, what will it be like then? Why at that very moment? Between the work of art and the spectator is a universe full of possibilities. The other work by Boetti consists of glass propped against a wall.
FP It’s Nothing To See, Nothing To Hide [1969-86], a large sheet of glass gridded with iron.
TT Yes, “nothing to see, nothing to hide”—yet it exists between two worlds, the inside and the outside, and it suggests many other possible dimensions. I like to be able to create dimensions, too, although I render them in a completely different fashion—and perhaps not as radically as Boetti.
FP You once referred to thought as a plastic entity. Can you tell me more about this?
TT Thought is something very malleable to me. Sometimes I have an idea for a work, I start to make it, and an incident occurs, something unexpected. Other times a new reflection or way of seeing things compels me to change the project entirely. This is true of everything: it is the same for the scientist who experiments in the lab, for instance. And I believe that thinking requires a continuous modeling of itself. When you write a text, you reread it and rework it: it is a material that you work with to attract the reader, to take the reader in a certain direction. You enter a field at once plastic and mental. Similarly, making sculpture is not simply a matter of style and syntax, but a practice that attempts to seduce the spectator.
FP You speak about writing. You yourself created a work that consists of a series of titles or brief texts: the title is the work. Who are the writers that interest you the most?
TT Fernando Pessoa is one writer I read a lot, perhaps because he invented so many characters, which allowed him to invent many forms of literature. Then there are Borges and Calvino. But also Dino Buzzati, whose short novella Il grande ritratto [The Great Portrait, 1960] has deeply influenced me. I reread it recently. It’s really a masterpiece. That’s the reason I titled my exhibition in Graz “Il grande ritratto.”
FP So, a tribute to Buzzati.
TT Yes. They wanted to translate the title into English and German, but I found that it was really a pity, because there are titles that cannot be translated. For example, the French publisher’s translation is L’image de Pierre, which evokes something different. Il grande ritratto is more metaphorical. What can the great portrait of a person be? How do you paint a person?
FP It also makes us reflect on the very idea of the masterpiece, the great work of art.
TT Yes, absolutely. Do you know the story?
FP I read it a while back. It is a kind of science fiction.
TT It is the wonderful story of a scientist who tries to re-create his late beloved wife in the form of a great, complex building. In it he somehow re-creates her brain and body, and all the qualities of her temperament, including her bursts of jealousy and rage: a woman brought back to life—regained by the man who loves her—but as something like a lost city. What is beautiful is the secrecy that pervades the story. It takes place in a highly guarded military zone; no one can access it, except for a group of scientists. There is a quote in the book which, to me, is a splendid definition of a work of art and how it can be approached. The soldiers say, “We know absolutely nothing, but of this nothing at least we can speak.” Ideally the spectator of my work is someone who has no information about the work and maybe even no understanding of it, yet perceives that nothing.
FP You have spoken to me about the pleasure of retelling stories as one remembers them, which you say is a way to always add new elements. Does this accent on the transformative power of memory and storytelling spring from your childhood in Senegal, where there is a rich oral tradition?
TT In Africa there is the tradition of the griots, who go from house to house in the village and tell you about where you come from and who you are. In the past they had a crucial role. Today, Dakar, where I grew up, is a metropolis, where people from the rest of Africa and from all over the world live. But the griots continue to offer their knowledge. When I was little, they would stop by our house, and I remember thinking, “It’s incredible. They speak about my ancestors killing lions, and this and that, and I’m white!” So I began to imagine that maybe I was a ghost, another person belonging to a different reality. I invented for myself and my family a whole new dimension: we were invisible, transparent people, as if we were ghosts of some kind, living in another reality. That’s why I titled my book of drawings Djinns. The djinns are ghosts or spirits often living in gardens. They are not physical entities. You cannot see them, but you can sense them.
Also, in Africa there is a unique way to capture time and toy with it. I remember that once my mother invited a family friend to our house for dinner the following day, and two months passed before the person came by, taking my mother by surprise! This left a lasting impression on me. I realized that in Africa there is a different relationship with time, and among people. An invitation like that is a kind of a gift. When you invite someone to your house on a certain date it can also mean a week or months later. And the same with greetings: when two people meet on the street, they greet for maybe half an hour, because they greet the world of a person, the whole family, all your space.