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Sylvie Fleury at Galerie Lange-Pult, Zürich; Valentino RED (red yellow orange and lavender), 2020; Photo: Diego Sanchez

Q&A featuring Sylvie Fleury

Apr 13, 2021 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

Firstly, thank you so much for working with us this year on issue #14, we are very pleased to be working with you. YES TO ALL, as a phrase, originates from a computer command. I’d like to begin by asking you to tell us a bit more about YES TO ALL, the conceptual underpinning of the new issue, but also a recurring phrase in your work. How does YES TO ALL figure in your practice and why did you come to choose it as the conceptual framework for issue 14?
At first glance, YES TO ALL might seem to be the contrary of an editorial, which is about selecting and placing things together. It’s a phrase which bridges the physical and the virtual worlds somehow. I often tell the story of how puzzled I was when I first had to use a Microsoft computer for a photo project, and how my encounter with this strange box was quite confrontational in how it catapulted me into the many wonders and mysteries of using a computer. I’m certainly no computer geek. What intrigued me is how rapidly it invaded my thoughts, making me reconsider all kinds of workflows, from inner systems of judgement, to questions about tolerance. I find the space between the inanimate and the intimate or personal, very interesting in how it reshapes our thoughts and emotional responses. So, YES TO ALL, is a computer command, but also a way of living – as well as a way of making.

Sylvie Fleury, Bright Ideas, 2016; Acrylic on canvas

Can you perhaps speak about the ‘larger picture’ you engage with, in relation to call and response? I’m specifically thinking about the open call as a means for engaging with many different voices and what these voices speak to when united. Can you talk a bit about the role waste and wastefulness plays in your work and approach to making?
Here I want to answer with a question: At the end of the day, what do we do with all we see?

Tell us a bit more about how and why you became interested in working with text and different types of ‘subliminal messages’ and how these started to gain more meaning and space in your work?
One night, when I was a young student in New York, I was walking back home, quite high – not to advertise taking substances, I started looking (and probably hallucinating) at the billboards and posters, which seemed to be beaming back at me against the dark sky. It was as if certain areas were brightly illuminated so as to provide guidance for us pedestrians walking the streets. I think from then on I have looked differently at ads, branding, slogans, labels and so forth… I am happy my everlasting interest for the readymade brought my drug experimentation period to a close… and allowed me to continue with my work – which at that time, featured shopping bags.
Sometimes, I start this process when looking for a title, I always try to see if the work doesn’t already contain or even display its own title already. When I began making work, it was mainly perfumes’ names that caught my attention. My first shopping bag installation (1990) was titled The Art of Survival which I had taken from a book by Donald Trump that I had included in one of the shopping bags. In the 1980s, galleries in the increasingly booming economies, were themselves transforming into a specific kind of consumer haven, which I understood also as an incisive shift in our relationship to art. Presenting my shopping bag installation in a gallery context was daring – it was my way of pointing to this shift happening around me.
C’est la vie! was taken from a Christian Lacroix perfume on a shockingly-bright pink bag – which nicely connected with the name Rrose Selavy used by Marcel Duchamp, when dressing as a woman. Then I started making works with beauty products (Vital Perfection), slogans (moisturizing is the answer / Life can get heavy mascara shouldn’t / Be Amazing etc.) which I felt reflected aspects of how women are spoken to and of, which, when isolated, became increasingly subversive and fun!
When I had my first solo show in New York in 1993, people weren’t used to seeing shoe displays and readymade videos of cosmetics shown on monitors, or photos of enlarged magazine covers. Amusingly, I remember one guest writing: “Please no more of that kind of stuff” in the gallery’s guest book. In 2008, for my retrospective at MAMCO in Geneva, I (re-)produced this sentence as a large neon piece for a room that was mostly dedicated to readymades and displayed a bit like in a concept store.

Sylvie Fleury, Please, No more of that Kind of Stuff, 2007; Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, 2007

In your practice you engage with different topics and social issues, often grounding these in the productions of objects. Can you speak about the role of the photograph in relation to the object and how, as well as where, you might position the concept of the readymade amongst these?
Something I’ve always been fascinated by is the way in which the vitrine, or shop window, relates to the image. I see it as a three-dimensional photograph, or something even an installation waiting to be seen, admired, photographed.
In the 1990s, I started to make photographs of magazine covers and enlarge them. I believe photography helps greatly to understand the readymade.
When I was 20, I was kicked out of the Business School in Geneva and sent to New York by my father to be an au-pair and learn English. It was meant as a punishment. Already in primary school I was given terrible results in art class so I came to the conclusion that I had no artistic talent. When I got to New York, I enrolled on a very basic photography course for 6 months, it was really just training in how to use cameras, lighting equipment, to process colour and black and white film and to print. At the time, I certainly wasn’t thinking of becoming an artist. But I made funny off-centred compositions that were blurry.
The photographer teaching me suggested I should enroll at a more artistic school like SVA. She explained at SVA they would possibly appreciate my fuzzy photographs more.
Funnily, I was briefly hired as an assistant to Richard Avedon (there were quite a few…) and learned to sweep the floor of the studio and buy very large sandwiches.

Sylvie Fleury, C’est la Vie !, 2017; Performance at Marta Herford Museum, Herford, Germany

As an artist your work spans installation, performance, sculpture, painting – as well as graphic prints and different forms of merchandising – how do you relate this to the ‘impossible’ multitasking ideals set by patriarchal, capitalist societies’ on women?
Patriarchal, capitalist societies always fear women’s desire and creativity. What I was and still am interested in, is eliminating as many boundaries in as many fields as possible. My practice of referencing iconic artworks comes, amongst other things, from a desire to balance the gender of artworks. I freely select an iconic, male artwork and inject my yin into the yang. I think much of my work stems from this idea of rebalancing opposing views, lifestyles, attitudes – seeing also where these can meet sometimes. And frankly, I enjoy the process of claiming certain works in order to open up new readings and destinations for these works.

This brings me to my next question in which I’d like to look towards how you’ve worked with a vast array of different influences in your career. What role does collaboration play in your work and how important is it to you to visibly reference others’ work?
Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that I “collaborate”, although I like to think that’s what I do.
In my process, I often work closely with different kinds of highly-skilled professionals and artisans and listen to their opinions and proposals on how to fabricate my ideas, so it’s not about me going to people with precise instructions on how to make a piece, it’s about developing this with people, finding different solutions each time. For example, there are quite a few rockets in my body of work, they’re all titled “First Spaceship on Venus” which have all been fabricated by various assistants in different countries, giving each the opportunity to customise these in their ways. I enjoy and encourage these variations and individual touches.

Installation view Sylvie Fleury - Palette of Shadows, Ropac Gallery, Paris - Marais, 2019; Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris; Photo: Charles Duprat

We’ve seen the power of branding and importance placed on visual identity to shape consumer experiences and thoughts. What are your thoughts on visual literacy and privilege – and what role can art play in educating us as ‘visual’ citizens, if we can even think of such a thing.
If art is freedom, branding is addiction.

Sylvie Fleury, Marky Mark, What Comes Between Him And His Calvins or Why Real Women Don't Have Penis Envy?; 1994
SylvIe Fleury, Revamp Your (Sexual) Self-Image, 1994

What role do magazines and icons play in your work?
Just like everything around me, when I am in the right frame of mind, they inspire me. What I enjoy in working with magazine covers is studying the mechanisms used to trigger desire– which I use as material to work from. “Eternity Now”, the neon which was displayed on the facade of the Bass Museum in Miami, came from reading the on-board duty free magazine, where I saw the iconic Calvin Klein perfume advertised. So, icons and their creation or production, allow me to further express my doubts on the seriousness of the worlds they stand for.

You’ve often featured cars in your work. I’ve been thinking about the metaphor of driving as well as being driven – which can both connote a passive attitude as it can point to ambition. In what ways does the ‘road’ serve you as a guiding principle in making your work?
I like custom cars a lot. Cars can be understood as metaphors for life, they become the vehicles we use to transport ourselves and our identities around. We make small modifications in order to highlight or hide from view, or from a common destiny we share. I like to imagine we’re all able to customize our vehicles. I think today, it’s difficult to undertake anything that doesn’t relate to some form of pre-existing model, event, object etc. I am interested in these variations of how we view certain commonalities and how we differentiate, or customise them as well. How can we imagine making new works that do not rest on pre-existing models?

Lastly, is there anything specific you are hoping for or anticipating in the submissions for our open call, which closes on May 2nd 2021?
To be unable to choose and, ultimately, have to publish them all
Submit to issue 14 YES TO ALL!

Yes To All, 2009; Installation view, Eternal Tour Festival, Neuchâtel, 2009; Photo: S. Balmassière

About Sylvie Fleury
Engaging with the mechanics of materialistic desire, aesthetics and the construction of value, Sylvie Fleury’s sleek, alluring works provide a lens through which contemporary politics of gender, beauty and consumerism can be re-evaluated. Fleury’s diverse practice encompasses a variety of media and references, including luxury clothing, accessories and cosmetics, magazine covers, the world of Formula 1 racing, spaceships and icons of modern art.
The Swiss artist was born in 1961 in Geneva, where she lives and works. Fleury has had numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. In 2018 she was awarded Switzerland’s Prix Meret Oppenheim and in 2015 received the Société des Arts de Genève Prize. Her work is held in international institutions.