Born in France and now based in London, Clémentine Bruno works across painting and sculpture. Part of a generation of artists working through the figurative possibilities of language and using a richly theorised corpus of references from film and literature, Bruno has held two solo exhibitions with her gallery, Project Native Informant: Ironclad Contract and Then We Are Both Satisfied (both 2020). We spoke with Clémentine at her studio on the Isle of Dogs to talk about language, process, and the materials with which she works.
You showed Then We Are Both Satisfied, a solo exhibition at Project Native Informant Soho last autumn, which was a really compelling display of new styles and familiar symbols in your practice. What was the story of this exhibition and what is special about this particular space?
I was reading Crash by J. G. Ballard last summer and it got me thinking about the structure of this science fiction novel, which also functions as a pornographic novel. Everything becomes so repetitive, it even got really boring to read it but I guess this is the pattern of porn: to be so predictable, to be repetitive. It becomes absolutely distanciated from who is speaking any kind of emotion or distance that you might feel.
In parallel, it connected to something I was looking into to think about forms of existence as trading, a metaphor to think about painting, which is the “Hammer Film Productions" catalogue. The company appropriates Hollywood classic horror films made in the 30s, using a process of the American ‘Day for Night’, which basically is the idea of filming a scene during the day but it’s set at night. Animation comes into play as a mere illusion of reality, as horror stories they are supposed to frighten you, they do the opposite: everything becomes so predictable. What is even more exciting about it is that hundreds of films were produced and many stage and relate to the same exact story. They are also known to use the same actors to play the same roles over and over. These ideas connected to the historicity of the space, directly and indirectly. Held in Soho, it is an old sex worker area, and the space itself is an old Alcoholics Anonymous discussions space – its architecture was of great inspiration to develop an installation playing with this form of existence as trading. It is the logic of the contract, how something unique becomes possessed, and where freedom consists in being out in free circulation. Anticipation of the viewer as a visitor also came into play.
It felt accurate and was a focal modality to think in more general terms about the work.
You mention lighting – artificial lighting, lighting a film set, night and day – and it reminds me that lighting seems to be an important, recurring part of your sculptural practice. We have been talking today about how to light different objects in the exhibition space, or how some of your works contain light itself. The piece you have been working on today, the helmet sculpture, has an important light aspect to it. Could you explain a little bit about this work?
We have spoken about creating parallels between the painted work and then putting readymade objects, which are basically hybrids of the paintings. This uses the ‘nothingness’ of the readymade and visa versa, like giving personality to the object. They record labour. In this object that I have been working on today, there is a helmet cast in papier-mâché. I think of craft as a process and a modality. Adjacent is a lightbulb, a lightbulb being a readymade object that I have constructed myself; in some ways it is an analogy in the way you would build a painting. So what’s happening with that image conceptually and visually is also that it is a reference in the history of painting. Many artists have depicted themselves in the atelier, in the situation, and it is sort of mocking the pathos-driven theory and putting it in an animation; it is a dehydrated situation, passing from something transcendent into an a functional object. I would call it a retrograde semblance of interiority. It also refers to the image of the stuntman. Using the helmet is something that interests me quite a lot, again in the sense of ‘doubling’ or enacting, or performance, or the performance of a performance, and how it aggregates this.
The trope of the light in the atelier is really compelling as you think through the visual language of the artist working through history. I wonder about this space here in the Isle of Dogs, your studio, and about work. You have lots of very different materials here that you build on as well, sometimes in an improvisatory way; it overlooks the river; it’s a shared space. How does your studio shape your practice?
I think it’s quite straightforward in the sense that it starts with language: I begin by reading, a novel, a film script. One of the texts that was very important in conceptualising last year’s exhibition was The Devil’s Advocate [directed by Taylor Hackford, 1998], which essentialises passing a deal with someone, existence as trading, but also with all of this mechanistic, bureaucratic, linguistic form – it starts with this to create a corpus of painting, which would return to the borrowing of the historical figure, mingled with my own imagery. Once the series of paintings are set up, it’s an idea of dislocating or dissolving all of these narratives that are created into objects, which functions as relic, replica of the painting. In that sense, I don’t like the word ‘improvisation’, although you might be right, in the sense that I need to find the right balance between this organisation when the organisation is only fully realised in the end.
You’ve collaborated with Georgia Sowerby before on Ironclad Contract and she wrote a beautiful text for that exhibition that really captured, I think, the function of language in your work. The linguistic is incisive in your practice, incorporating signs, letters, symbols, which are always figural elements too – and we might wonder how we are to ‘read’ or ‘see’ your work. The traditions of film and literature are also very important for you, in both ‘high’ forms and kitsch: could you say a little on this?
It is a really good question, I am stimulated by notions of authenticity and authorship when working. There is no subject without types of narrations or the literary is a form of insertion of the subject into language.
But then I think there's a category of painting, which is language; it’s there to have something flipped, there’s some pain in the loop. And basically, you have writing at the same level of the image, and it's being terrorised at the time. In Thank you for loving phrases, heart touching messages paintings borrow the ex-votive genre as embodying the functions of the wish, an exhaustive one. The latter ones flirts more directly with painting as a belief system and empowers an idea of reality effect or truth effect. There is a functional prospect held behind the image. It is a moment where textual and figurative representation are put on the same level. It also emphasises a phantasmagoric impression of a presence somehow absent, by holding a fictional prospect held behind the image. To this, I hybridise traditional sentences with quotes from websites and dating apps.
One thing I keep in mind when working is the idea of painting as transmuted into speech act, as well as the 19th century conception that painting is possessed by its own powers when building a show. For instance, looking at [Sigmar] Polke’s painting Higher Beings Command (Höhere Wesen befehlen)  and appropriating it is to create interplays by trying to locate where the source of power is emanating from, here by attributing an ulterior source of authority located outside of it, a source which has become purely functional.
I am looking into strategies to escape assumed access to subjectivity, and descriptive access to self-experience. The question that often comes back when building up a show is what kind of subject is being rehearsed. With the installations, it is a question of how one can push language to its limits of sense to non-sense through precarious situation and how to give negative evaluation of linguistic resource available for an attempt to self-constitution.
Letters are also strange objects which destabilise the status of the author, as the letter do not need an author or a receiver: the form of the letters is a pact in themselves.