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Interview with Johan Tahon (Humo, March 9th 2010) - Rudy Vandendaele

 5841 kilometers to the left of New York lies the small suburban town Oudenaarde where Johan Tahon installed his workshop in a former textile factory. His work is currently on display in the Envoy Gallery, West 22nd Street 534, New York City. They say it’s a small world. 5841 kilometers to the left of New York lies the small suburban town Oudenaarde where Johan Tahon installed his workshop in a former textile factory. His work is currently on display in the Envoy Gallery, West 22nd Street 534, New York City. They say it’s a small world.

When I enter the workshop I feel somewhat deranged: I see the rise of a white empire, filled with dream creatures, unwinged angels maybe, ghosts with human features – appearances that become tangible in the here and now due to the plaster. A provisional appearance, I am told. The sculptor tells me he constantly shifts parts from one sculpture to another, just as long until he feels a soul in which resonates the silence.
The underlying thought in the artbook ‘Observatorium’ (Ludion Publishers) is that the entire workshop is the only true artwork. ‘The essence of everything I do, resides here. This space breathes my being. If it was up to me, I would prefer to exhibit right here, with everything in it.’ Attached to a wall hangs a neon light that used to be an ESSO-advertisement: an object trouvé. The second syllable is out of order, only the ES lights up and the Es is the whirling cesspool where our instincts roam. Tahon refers to Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
The artist just came back from New York. I ask him how he experiences current reality.
‘So much happened over there that I need some time to grasp it all. Every step I take, positive or negative, ends up in my sculptures. It’s a reflex, I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen, out of self-protection. At this moment I am anxious and happy and this combination spurs me to live more intensively: I know what I am doing, what I should be doing, what I am compelled to do. My work and my frame of my mind are intertwined: I exhale my work – there is no real effort in producing.’

How can sculpting be a form of self-defense?

‘Let’s take a real naive look at a sculpture: a three-dimensional figurative form that stands in a space. The way I feel it, this object resonates what I am, what I could be. They could be human. I make creatures that could be my friends, even though they are not really alive or present no real danger. In my daily life they have an almost ritual meaning, like totems and primitive masks in ancient tribes. Painters take a very different point of view: a painting is a window to another reality. I assume a sculptor needs a physical object to hold on to reality, which is not the case with painters.’

Where do these creatures come from?

‘Out of unbearable loneliness. It was there since I was an adolescent. Still is. Let us say that I was both an intelligent and hyper-sensitive child, which made me vulnerable. I had a tendency towards withdrawal. On top of that I lived in a problematic home-situation: my father was addicted to alcohol. The alcohol abuse killed him, at a young age. He made a well-considered choice to die drinking. At a certain point he got diabetes. The doctors told him he should stop drinking, or he would die. He said he would rather die. He said that in my presence by the way. Still, I love him, he is my father.’

He was a school principal.

A perfect principal, loved by the teachers and the pupils. He was a kind man, but vulnerable. And hurt.
I inherited his disposition. It’s genetic. Alcohol was his salvation and for a long it was mine too. Five years ago I quit drinking. Completely dry, cold turkey, from one day to the next. I felt I was going down the wrong track. It wasn’t even that hard to give up liquor: I could remember my father’s suffering dead sharp. I was turning into him, which scared the hell out of me.
I still feel that angst, every day, but I try to free myself from it. Sculpting helps, even when I wasn’t successful. At that time I was broke, in odds with society and I sculpted these creatures as a gift to myself. I was in love with these sculptures – still am. At times I sat down in my workshop at night, surrounded by my work and I felt a satisfaction I couldn’t find anywhere else. I often think of those African children who construct small toy cars from tin cans. They build something they cannot afford, as a present to themselves.’

At that time, were you happy with your recluse life?

No. Jan Hoet gave me a public life: he took me out of my workshop and into the world.

He gave you a place in mankind.

Jan was one of the first who understood my work in a spiritual way. I felt a tremendous love for that man, still do. That’s mutual. When he first visited my workshop, he was worried if I had enough food, took me to a restaurant, here in Oudernaarde. And he asked: ‘Would you allow me to exhibit your work?’ Allow? For the first time I had a function in society, a place in the world, which was for me at first, as a recluse, very hard. To conquer that, I started drinking. I still feel the urge to be recognized, and I still don’t know how to react to recognition.’

Do you still feel an outsider to society?

I am an outsider in every way, even psychologically. I never took reality for granted: I remain astonished and afraid.
You are a successful artist now. That makes a difference I presume?
When I get up in the morning, I still feel fundamentally uncertain. I’ve always been uncertain, but I try to change that.

How do you do that?

I am still seeing a therapist. Without therapy, I wouldn’t manage. I want to be cured but I know that is not entirely possible.
Weird things happened in New York. At the opening night of my exhibition, Michael Stipe turned up. The front man of REM started talking to me. He was fascinated by my work and I was surprised by the fact that my sculptures, even though they emanate from my subconscious, speak a language that can be fully understood by someone like Stipe. We were immediately on the same wavelength – he drew the same emotional conclusions from my work as I did, complete with the strange line of thought. After that meeting I deepened myself in his life, read old interviews and stuff, and I noticed that he speaks of the same things: fear and sensitivity. The call it HSP nowadays: high sensitive person.’

Did you ever consider giving up art?

‘Never. I was in love with my sculptures, just as you can fall in love with a beautiful woman: you never think about abandoning her. I didn’t have a penny, sometimes I had no food. I read Carl Gustav Jung and tried to integrate the poetry you find in his scripture into my work.
I sculpted in my backyard where I even built an improvised bronze moulding shop with a second hand burner I bought at the scrap yard. I had to monitor the temperature every few hours, even at night. That distorts reality: after a couple of days you are so tired you become unreal. In that state and atmosphere I started pouring bronze sculptures. At those exact moments I felt connected, beyond ages; I felt an almost physical link between myself and for instance the Renaissance-artist Donatello. That’s a real kick. Other people have to race a BMW at two hundred kilometers an hour over a highway to reach the same ecstatic feeling.’

But in the meanwhile you were poor.

‘Destitute. Repo man at the door, the constant threat of eviction, the fear of gas and electricity being cut of. I hugged my sculptures, afraid they would take them away from me.’

When did you first realize you were an artist?

‘I tried everything not to be an artist. Being an artist meant to me: provoking a tragedy. I realized I wouldn’t be able to live as other people.’

You yearned for normality?

‘Yes. Also due to my home-situation. My father wanted me to be an engineer, to practice an esteemed profession, and I wanted my parents to love me, so I aimed to please them. In my puberty I suddenly became extremely afraid. An existential fear fell over me – I lost faith in everything. The only thing that occupied my mind was the never ending universe and my complete futility. I didn’t speak with anybody about that feeling, tried to suppress it, hoping nobody would notice there was something wrong. How painful at the time, I still thought more people should experience this. I collapsed mentally, and rebuilt myself piece by piece. I am still puzzling the pieces together.’

I know the death of your father was a turning point in your work.

‘Yes. I was mourning, tried to cope with his death, and I noticed my sculptures became taller: the emerged above me, became monuments. Suddenly the proportions changed: I was smaller then them, as a child to his father. Unintentionally I was sculpting father figures. They made me think about ancestral images, you could even see a religious aspect – they became primeval. Gradually I noticed that my personal genesis is the same as all other artists before me, even the most primitive sculptors must have felt this. I felt privileged; there was pain involved, a lot of pain, but bit by bit I discovered ancient beauty.
I hope I speak of my father without any disrespect. He appears less and less in my work, but sometimes there are painful relapses. One day I was talking to my sister. We discussed our lives at that time. ‘It’s been enough’, I said, ‘I wished he was dead.’ The phone rang and someone told me my father just died. I was never sorry I wished him dead but I faced a tremendous bereavement.  Especially as an only son, I had to carry on the name of ‘Tahon’. That was a huge burden. My father drank, my grandfather drank, my great-grandfather drank; now it was my turn.
The Tahon-lineage is one of fishermen who lived in the North of France and fled to the Belgian coast. Rough people: drinking and acting tough. My great-grandfather sailed into a mine and was blown to smithereens. ‘Eaten by the shrimps’, they said in my family. My great-grandfather once ripped out a stove from the wall because his wife was nagging too much. ‘If you think you know everything best, you can replace the stove then’, he hollered.  I cannot dispose of that genetic material. I got it blown full in the face.’

What didn’t you inherit from your father?

‘When I talk to Jan Hoet about my father, he reacts enthusiastically, to my surprise. ‘It’s a good thing what happened to you!’ I cannot accept that: the suffering is too great. Both my parents should have noticed there was something special about me, something sensitive that had potential… There was domestic violence. But I felt the hurting soul of my father, which made me powerless: I couldn’t hate him, let alone destroy him.’

You leave your mother out of the picture.

She’s still alive. I don’t want to talk about her.

Did you ever think: once I am out of here, I will be rid of all this misery?

‘No. I will never get rid of my father. The ties cannot be cut. Even when he tried to annihilate me: he tried to demolish my first sculptures.  He realized something was created that he could not control. We lived in a small rural border town called Menen: where could I run to? I could join the boy scouts, play soccer, join the Red Cross but I chose drawing lessons. That was paradise! And that world was the complete opposite to my father’s world. Creativity! Freedom of thought! There were hippies, and punks!
I wasn’t the best sketching artist, by far, but after the general education you had to pick a specialism: graphic art, painting or sculpting. I just set one foot into the sculpting workshop and I knew: this is it. Absolute certainty. The workshop was located in the basement of the academy. The scent of mouldy clay! Cask models. The female nude: there resonates a tremendous sexual energy from sculpting. I am fond of women, in every way, but that remains private. (smiles) The teacher spoke lovingly of the materials and from the first assignment – copying a plaster model – I sensed: I can do this. It was self-evident, and the teacher noticed and stimulated my talent.
I also noticed that everything there was different from the reality I had lived in up to that moment. When I was fifteen and lived under tremendous stress due to the home-situation, I had a kind of vision and the workshop resembled what I had seen in that vision. I didn’t have a lot of friends back then, but I didn’t need any either.
But we were talking about my first confrontation with sculpting. I still work the way I did then, without thinking. Of course I sometimes make small sketches but I never produce them. If I would do that, I would tap into a part of my brain I’m not allowed to use.’

Are you the prototype of a suffering artist?

‘Not in the romantic way. I am a product of my age, and susceptible to the poison of modern age. An artist that uses the means offered to him to protect himself. Never any financial means, my parents weren’t rich. I had to discover my own way: one day I used a bag of plaster in a primitive way and got something back from which there is no return.’

You were talking about your social function. What does that mean?

‘I want produce something that people who have been in my situation recognize. I want to protect and console them. That is why my creatures  are never threatening: you can put your trust in them. Look, I feel a strong tendency towards religion but I am too rational. I cannot believe in a god, but I want to. Don’t you? But even then, my sculptures console me.
The work in itself is also very comforting: when I am on a roll and I am really deep into my work, something takes over, everything happens automatically. After the rush I often think: ‘Who made this?’ That’s a wonderful sensation, and it doesn’t happen every day. I cannot strive for that marvelous feeling, not consciously. The only thing I can do is install rituals that prepare me for the working-process.
I start with closing the door behind me. I have to be certain I will not be disturbed, not in any way. And this may sound superstitious but at noon I have to eat a sandwich at the Panos (a Belgian franchise of sandwich bars, editor) I have to do that, otherwise I get the feeling something isn’t right. When Giacometti went to sleep, he put his shoes in a particular way next to the bed. Otherwise he couldn’t work the next day.
All my work emerges from a certain indeterminable place, a zone where all art originates from. That zone has nothing to do with the here and now. It may be imaginary, it suffices. Well, imaginary… some scientists who are occupied with quantum physics dare to speak of a non-time-zone in which all kinds of spiritual things happen. Even the feeling you are simply connected to that zone is an incredible experience that can fill me with pride.’

Do you think, when you are connected to that zone, that you are one of the chosen few?

‘I restrain from those thoughts. Self-criticism is a bare necessity. That doesn’t rule out the importance of rituals in my work. Many artists nowadays are occupied by strategy: they rationally approach the art world and try to add one victory to another. That was never my goal. The Envoy Gallery is a meeting point for the underground: Jack White performed there, and Patti Smith and Philip Glass drop by regularly.’

And you thought: this is where I belong.

‘Yeah. Even when in advance I didn’t know I where I was going to end up. It’s a magical coincidence.’

On the local market square one of your works – Universus – arises. What do think when you see your work in a public place?

‘Take it back to my workshop, it’s not finished yet. Nothing is ever complete. Even Michelangelo knew that. The second thought when I see Universus: ‘Not bad.’ The figure appears to ascend to the heavens but remains attracted to the earth. With respect to content this work is complete.’

When you consider your sculptures as your friends, is it hard to part from them?

‘No. I send them of into the world. They are seeds that need to be spread around the world. They have a mission: point out the poetic to the people. Not that they are built for the masses, but there’s always a small percentage that grasps what I am talking about. Those people feel a certain vibration and know: this vibration comes from a place we all know, were we all belong.’



(translated from Dutch by Roderik Six)