While walking around a street corner, a word would hold our attention. A quiet intervention would disturb us discretly. We would encounter without knowing an artwork of Élodie Merland. Native of northern France, graduated from the Higher School of Art of Nord-Pas de Calais Dunkirk-Tourcoing*, then of the Higher School of Art of Toulon*, Élodie Merland's work includes performance, artist’s book, installation and graffiti of another kind. Emphasizing reality without flattering it, the artist exhibited among others in Dunkirk*, Rennes*, Folkestone in the United Kingdom, and Roubaix* in particular for Watch This Space 9.
Ana Bordenave: When we arrived, we stopped for you to write with white chalk on a low wall the following sentence: “Seul avec son propre silence” [Alone in his own silence]. Much of your work is performed within the urban fabric and these sentences that you write with chalk, spray paint or collage, are the examples. Is your interest is it to take possession of space, or are you primarily motivated by the search of a new form of communication?
Élodie Merland: To take a piece of wall or choose to invest in a space, it's taking it for me, for a time. When I was at the Fine Arts School of Toulon, one of my projects was to go every Sunday for a year, in a phone box where I invited someone to call me. I named this, Les galeries d’une heure [One hour galleries] (2009-2010). What interested me with the phone boxes is that I can take them for a time, spend a moment inside, and be joined by phone. It's also a point of view, like a free billboard, a place you do not choose, open to the city.
My interventions also have a specific link with the space and what I perceive. During a residence in 2016 in Folkestone, I made a collage of wallpaper with the phrase “No time for a romance” in a space that seemed idyllic, but where it accumulated a lot of rubbish. So I decided to write this sentence, but the next day the wallpaper was ripped off and burned. In my opinion, it proves that it had its place there. Folkestone is a peaceful city with many artists' studios and an educated public for art. The burning was radical. There was no time for a romance or anything else.
AB: If your work is related to an exploration of the places, what is your relationship to the people who live in and cross them? In the project of Les galeries d’une heure, the audience seems to be both the source, the material and the recipient.
EM: For Les galeries d’une heure when I was called, I took a compass and I described, North-East-South-West, passers-by, cars, houses… It became postcards of the moment. I like the concept of postcard, because I associate it with places where you do not really want to go. There is a bit of humor, a link to poetry too.
Work in the urban space puts you in touch with a wider and different audience than people “locked” in a museum or a gallery. The place has the power to address this diversity. I enjoy listening discreetly to what people say where I write. In Folkestone on the Zig Zag Path, I wrote the word “Breathless”. The steep walk leaves passers-by breathless and there is a point of view where the trees cut the view towards the horizon. It's a small victory for myself to succeed in making people laugh in another language, and it is also amazing that the word has stayed for two years, although there is a lot of graffiti around it!
AB: About your residence in Roubaix in 2017 with the program Watch This Space, you said, it is better to express yourself with words, that you need to write. Is this always the case?
EM: Words are essential in my work as material and as accompaniment, because several of my projects require an explanation. My inspirations are also often literary. The expression Bruits de fond [Background noises] comes from the French writer Georges Perec, and Les galeries d’une heure project evokes La vue [The view] (1903) of Raymond Roussel, although he describes things as sometimes coming from his imagination.
To echo the previous question, the words have for me a function of communication with the public in the urban space. For each of my projects, I use the language of the country: in English in London and Folkestone, in Czech in Prague, in French in Paris and Roubaix, etc. Of course I do not speak all languages, so I make sure to find the right person to help me to translate. These translations are important in order that my words can be understood by the greatest audience. At other times, I played with my poor language skills as in the book Parler des mots dits [Talking about words said] (2016), result of my residence in Folkestone. During six weeks, I wrote a diary about my confrontation with the English language, my difficulties in communicating with others, my misunderstandings. I wanted it to be published without correction, so that it's my own English with its clumsiness and mistakes. Languages interest me as a different material each time.
AB: There is music writing too, that we can see more than we hear in the Concert pour 52 cabines téléphoniques [Concert for 52 phone boxes] (2010). Is this interest coming from a musical education?
EM: I used musical writing, because the sound interests me through the background noises. By using the phone boxes, I wanted to make a concert that nobody could hear in its entirety. Their ring tones are different according to their dates of manufacture, but they have the same duration. So I composed a score, I brought together 52 people for 52 phone boxes and a chronometer as a conductor. The concert was not aimed at the audience present, but to passers-by in the street, although they could not know what was being played and they could only hear one phone box, one instrument. At that time, I did not have any musical training. I later joined the conservatory. It made sense to me to learn to read music. It's like learning a new language. Moreover, the scores are an object that attracts me aesthetically, because this writing system, especially on contemporary scores, creates other aesthetic forms.
AB: Like the rest of your works your performances are discreet and intimate. For Is she counting waves (Folkestone, 2016) you point your finger at the horizon without words. With Love is waiting (Folkestone, 2017) text and movement are passive and repetitive. Performance, however, is an artistic form that we imagine to be active and extroverted. Your staging seems to cultivate this contradiction.
EM: Love is waiting is one of the only performances where I speak. Often, it comes down to a gesture that I make last. With Vois mon souffle [See my breath] on the same theme, I was moving concrete letters to write “Je plierai les draps seule” [I will fold the sheets alone] by recording my breath gradually increase. The boredom of the public interests me. Furthermore, Love is waiting is an intimate text, but what I like when we talk about love is that everyone can identify themselves. In any case, that's my conclusion after playing it in Folkestone.
AB: Do you create a meeting between your personal stories and a desire for universality?
EM: During my residence in Roubaix, I used the first person singular, because my work in this city grew out of my personal story. However with this exception I prefer to avoid using “I”. More recently, I also took part in a residence in Bourbourg* in a nursing home where residents lose their memory. The sentences I wrote later on steel sheets speak of loneliness, lack of tenderness, the desire to die or sexuality: “Le temps ce n’est plus de notre âge” [Time, it is not for our age anymore], “Prends-en plusieurs ça ne se voit pas” [Take several of them, it does not show]. I wanted it to be sentences that everyone could have said. If what I write is always from a personal feeling, I speak to everyone.
* French cities and towns
Interview by Ana Bordenave. Les mots vifs d’Élodie Merland [The bright words of Élodie Merland], in leChassis, n° 5, 2018, pp. 32-37, Paris.