“I am an explorer,” says Pascale Marthine Tayou. He is explaining the genesis of a new sculpture to me. “This is yin-yang.” It’s about “the conflict between everyone—the struggle inside.” The work in question is lying on a table in the small blue courtyard that links Tayou’s home to a multistoried studio in Ghent. On closer examination of the sculpture, the two dominant curving elements reveal themselves as parts of a caned chair, the rest of which is lying on the floor nearby. The pieces on the table have been bound together by cloth, while the wooden frame is embellished with colorful pins as well as some fearsome arrows.
Tayou’s English, which he reinforces with hand gestures, is heavily accented and musical. He is working hard to complete the elements of what promises to be one of the biggest installations in Daniel Birnbaum’s international exhibition for the 2009 Venice Biennale, “Making Worlds.” Tayou is creating an African village comprising seven houses—raw wooden structures, their floors covered with sand—that will have videos projected inside showing people at work. The space will be enlivened with sculptural “families,” but determining this content—deciding which families will be included—remains to be done. Such totemic, roughly figural assemblages, Tayou’s best known works, often contain materials associated with his African childhood—beads, feathers, grasses, fruits—now increasingly mixed with such European elements as Italian crystal and Belgian lace.
Tayou was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in 1966. “I am a lawyer, not an artist,” he says. “I never intended to be an artist, but I’m curious.” After his legal education, he went abroad to develop his art career. When I ask when he left Africa, he replies sharply, “I never left my country, I am a traveler now.” His modest demeanor belies considerable success. A first show in his native city in 1994 was followed quickly by international exhibitions: in 1996 alone, his work was shown in museums in Paris, Turin, Tokyo and Berlin, and in Dak’Art, the biennial of contemporary African art held in Dakar, Senegal. He has been championed not only by Daniel Birnbaum but also by such prominent curators as Nicolas Bourriaud, who in 2002 gave him a solo show at the Palais du Tokyo and included him in the recent Tate Triennial, and Okwui Enwezor, who selected him in 2002 for Documenta XI.
Tayou’s first appearance in a Venice Biennale was in 2005, when he was chosen for “Always a Little Further,” the section of the international group show curated by Rosa Martínez. His installation, outside the Arsenale, was ephemeral, composed predominantly of plastic bags. He remembers people calling him on their cell phones, saying, “Hey man, where is your piece? I can’t find it.” When Tayou asked where they were, they would respond, “In front of some plastic things!” He explains, “It’s a piece about the environment but it’s also about ‘plastic art.’ There is color in the plastic, so it is ‘color work.’ I wanted a light and airy piece. I wanted to play with the sky and the natural environment. I wanted to work with the wind, light, sun, rain, clouds, air—and the architecture of the place. It is in the end an architectural piece.”
The work for the 2009 Biennale will also be an architectural piece, if a more traditional one, re-creating in some way the activity of a small village. Tayou is hopeful that it “will provoke—create a situation—and blend the history of humankind. Art is not only about seeing pictures, it is making something and creating a situation.”
At his workshop, Tayou takes me upstairs, where we look first at “the crazies,” a group of roughly 2-foot-high sculptures from the early ’90s. This series is made of materials so degraded that, Tayou says, “even the crazies didn’t want them.” There is a decided smell, as well as a sadness, to the constructions’ elements, which include parts of broken dolls, used condoms and a quantity of generalized brown detritus. Tayou points to the dried plant material that is a prevalent ingredient. “I wanted to work with grasses, not the usual materials of sculpture. I never wanted to carve wood or make bronzes.” Despite the abject nature of the materials and their fetishlike assembly, the sculptures have a sense of formal order.
Tayou next introduces me to the “families,” some of whose nearly life-size members will be “guests” in Venice. There are “Belgians” dressed in local lace, their hair discordantly adorned with colorful African ornaments. Nearby stand “talkers,” village whisperers whose mouths are obscured. On top of a cabinet is a group made of dried African fruits; other figures nearby are made of straw embellished with lightbulbs.
Tayou’s most recently completed family, “the Buddhas,” is squat and chunky. Tayou reveals that the Buddhas’ bodies are stuffed with emptied packaging from things he, his wife and his three children have eaten. I can see vestiges of a common brand of takeout Thai food, a Coca-Cola bottle and an egg carton. When I observe, “You are a recycler,” he refutes this emphatically. “No, it is not recycling! That is something else. This is more about history.” Of course, using found materials is hardly a new concept, but Tayou is not only a collector, he is also a maker. He sews and knits as well as assembling his own pieces. And like such peers as Tomoko Takahashi, Sarah Sze, Franz Ackermann, Miroslaw Balka, Cornelia Parker, Isa Genzken, John Bock and the late Jason Rhoades—a cohort now commonly labeled “accretionists”—Tayou’s work exploits the local spirit associated with his source materials.
We pass the sculpture he identified with yin-yang as we leave the studio. Tayou says, “Two days ago the chair broke. Ouch! I thought, what to do with it? It broke when my wife sat in it, and that hurt my wife, so it hurt me. I decided to make a piece with it, and the curving shapes reminded me of the yin-yang—the pleasure and the pain—that is in all of us. The pins are things I am working with at the moment and the material that binds them together comes from my wife Jo’s fashion designs.” I ask about the arrows. His response, which would have sounded incomprehensible an hour ago, is, “They were in another work, so I asked permission of the work as to whether it could give them to me for this work and it agreed.”
In the 1960s Robert Rauschenberg—whose own career famously benefited from an outing at the Venice Biennale—said, “An artist manufactures his materials out of his own existence.” Here in Ghent, 50 years later, Tayou is living by those words, producing works that are emotionally charged, formally satisfying and deeply informed by the experience of a nomadic life.
View of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s installation Human Being, 2007. Photo Ela Bialkowska. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing and Le Moulin.
Karen Wright is a London-based writer, editor and curator.