MORE HUMAN: In Conversation with Léo Caillard, Rajesh Punj and Varia Serova

French artist Léo Caillard (b.1985 in Paris) explores our relationship with time. Through blending different periods and anachronisms, he urges us to reflect on the present in the context of the past. Caillard belongs to the new generation of artists associated with the significant changes that have been taking place since the 2000s with the dawn of the digital age and the new role of technology in relation to the art world. Inspired by the science and the problems associated with the contemporary society, he invites us to take upon a fresh and solicitous look at our era and our future.

For the past several years, the work of Caillard has become more and more engaged within the museum context. In 2018, the artist contributed to the exhibition Classical Now at the King’s College (London) alongside renowned artists Marc Quinn and Damien Hirst, dressing up two large-sized sculptures at the north entrance. He has also been exhibiting in Paris at the public spaces of Bercy, using augmented reality to create imaginary sculptures appearing on a series of empty pedestals. Caillard's recent series - Light Stone and Wave Stone - question our relationship with reality through a dialogue between light and stone, the tangibility of marble and the ephemeral digital.

Rajesh Punj is an art critic, writer and correspondent, who has collaborated and worked with Sculpture Magazine, DAMN Magazine, Galerie Perrotin, Harpers Bazaar ART, and MICAS Malta, among others. The following conversation is curated and moderated by Varia Serova, an independent curator, researcher and art critic with over five years of international museum and gallery experience.

Léo Caillard with his sculpture 'Hipster in Bronze' © Léo Caillard

Varia Serova: In the age of Metamodernism, art and technology have become more closely linked, whether by offering new means of expression and combining the media, by facilitating the process or by opening up possibilities for the creation of dialogues across space and time. Do you see it directly affecting your work and process?

Léo Caillard: I studied 3D and photography early on in my art formation. Today I still practice 3D to prepare and organize my future creations. Technology is definitely a great tool when used at the right time. It can also be a stopper on art when it replaces the process of inspiration and creation. Using it with moderation is essential.

VS: With technology reshaping what art is in a multidimensional way, has it essentially become a new art form to be explored, or does it still remain one of the tools?

LC: Technology is not a new art form in itself. It’s just a new tool to create new things. Yes, video games, augmented reality, could be new art forms that technology enables, but only the creativity resulting from sharing and curiosity are at the origin of this incredible human gesture: Art.

From the Art Game series, 2010, photography fine art print, 50 x 75 ins / 24 x 36 ins.

"A dialog in between past and present habits on images." © Léo Caillard

VS: You are working on a new concept of fine art printing, which uses 3D scanning on classic oil paintings.

LC: I use technology that is originally unique to the art conservation community. High definition 3D scans of the surface of old paintings, that I then use as a matrix for volume 3D printing on the surface of a fine art print. A way of revisiting an old painting with contemporary techniques.

VS: The new project you are working on aims to open a dialogue between matter, nature and the construction of time, and involves the potential of CGI.

LC: What is not set in stone is doomed to disappear. Digital technology only exists for a short period of time, and only lasts over time when transposed onto solid media. (Note: A digital image on a computer, for example, is rarely viewed and normally disappears within a few years (loss of the computer - etc.)

By printing, I transfer the virtual scan into a real object, a way of keeping track of the expectation of the gesture of classical century-old painting on a contemporary photographic medium.

Hipster in Bronze, 2016, Bronze, marble, 70 x 50 x 45 cm © Léo Caillard

Rajesh Punj: If we start with time, what do you understand from the past and how do you see its relevance to the present? Can the two coexist?

LC: Since Einstein’s relativity, the past and the present do not exist separately. Linear time is but an illusion of the senses proper to the finite nature of our existence. The past is literally the present, in that it conditions our social functioning and only repeats itself over the different times of history.

RP: Are we guilty of ignoring the past, as English historian Eric Hobsbawn lamented, as "a protest against oblivion".

LC: Our consciousness clings to the absolute. This is the human tragedy and the origin of art. Our body is mortal and finite, but our spirit is absolute and infinite. We are able to think together, and therefore are guilty of not knowing it omnisciently. To live with ourselves, we then transpose our guilty limit into a meaningful artistic form.

RP: What do you think of what we are given as “history”, images, information and objects?

LC: History is not a separate concept from humanity. History is basically what makes it exist. I think we too often dissociate ourselves from history (with news, media, storytelling) when it should be a part of our daily lives. We only exist in history, and not just through looking at history.

RP: When you look at the Greek and Roman statues, they are meant to be the pinnacle of art and aesthetics, is that for you?

LC: They are only a narrative representation of the human ideal of that time. Which today corresponds to the Super Heroes and fictional characters of our contemporary stories. History always repeats itself. I don't idealize them, I regard them as a reference in order to better talk about today's icons.

RP: Remarkably, however, by bringing in contemporary elements, you seem to lighten the distance, or eliminate us from the gap between the present and the past. Is this your intention?

LC: Yes. Definitely.

VS: 3D modeling now makes it possible to recreate ancient statues in their original form. These reconstructions allow us to glimpse what the antiquity could look like, which we perceive in certain ways and which we claim as an ideal when it was created. The practice also opens a debate on color in relation to ancient statues, supported by many scholars starting from Johann Joachim Wincklemann in the 18th century as compromising the whiteness of stone ("Color contributes to beauty, but is not beauty itself ”, he wrote in 1764), questions our limits of perception of beauty and its constituents, color, form and light, through time. With color growing in importance in the 20th century with the works of Rothko, James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, and others, do you plan to bring it back to the center with the application of colorful details? In your creations, how do you find the balance between color, shape and light?

LC: I love colors. But I think we no longer live in colorful times. It is also complex to use colors in the right way. This is a subject on which I reflect, but for the moment the formalism and the light seem to me to better convey the principles of our time. The color will come without my intervention I think. Through the play of wear and nature.

From the Hipster in Stone series, 2012-2017, Marble and clothes, 204 cm (sculpture) / art print, 120 x 180 cm / 60 x 90 cm © Léo Caillard

VS: Besides the custom of painting statues, the ancients had various methods to enrich their appearance; most of which are irreconcilable with our ideas of aesthetics or congruence. Some were gilded, decorated with colored stones or glass. You, on the other hand, are using more contemporary elements.

LC: When created, the statues we know and admire were not considered works of art, at least not in the definition we have today. They were iconic representations of important figures in social construction (Gods, heroes, etc.). It was therefore necessary to honor them and to practice decoration and celebration rituals (The dionysiaques, for example, at the origin of the theatre, where the statues drank and disguised themselves as humans). It was the “mass media” of the day, a way to unite around a social message.

It does not seem relevant to me today to seek to revisit these traditions, but rather to show how we have transposed them (cinema, video games, etc.)

RP: With works like Hipster in Bronze, is it all about seeing the soldiers and scholars of the Mythic Age, as normal as we see ourselves - capable of indulging in vanity and acts of violence?

LC: Yes, because in reality there are no icons, we are all human and delicate. We build ideals to better reassure ourselves but in reality, we are all equal. Far from perfection, close to feelings.

RP: The clothes in your artwork suddenly seem to create an incredible sensitivity to how we feel about these heroic characters. As if they were becoming "more human". Do you see the same thing?

VS: I absolutely agree. Fragile and more human are the first attributes that come to mind, with the artist taking a more compassionate stance. Are we reading your work correctly?

LC: This is exactly what I wanted to express. Empathy and humanism.

From the Light Stone series, 2017, resin marble, LED laser light, neon tube. © Léo Caillard

VS: What are some of the dilemmas you face when mixing traditional and contemporary art forms, such as classical sculpture and neon art?

LC: Strictly speaking, I don't face a moral dilemma doing this. Above all, it is a very complex sculpting exercise where you have to combine heavy and durable materials with lighter and more fragile materials. But complexity is one of the founding elements of creation. It forces us to search more deeply for the message and the desire to make it visually intelligible.

VS: With the iconic neon wall reliefs of Bruce Nauman, the prominent neon signs of Tracey Emin, and the minimalist and masterful creations of Dan Flavin, neon art has certainly become a well-explored direction in contemporary art. How did your own interest in this material develop?

LC: I spend most of my free time seeing exhibitions and learning about different aspects of creation. Of course I know the neon work of these eminent artists. Neon is one of the representatives of contemporary art. So it seemed fair to me to use it to open this dialogue.

It is usually used alone and in an abstract form. Here, I wanted to confront neon with the stone and the figurative, to see how this dialogue could resolve.

RP: With Light Stone (2017), there is obviously a play on words, with your “light to stone” attachment which is heavy, then also like in the real “light”, which wraps around the Greek figure. What do you mean with the choice of neon and marble?

LC: It is a dialogue between stone and light. The stone represents the real and the ancient era, the light - the virtual and the contemporary era. It's an aesthetic way of talking about our two worlds. So different, and yet so close.

RP: Wave Stone (2017), where you abruptly and quite brilliantly interrupt what's set in stone, as if the present isn't always able to fully explain the past - a stalling TV picture. Is this your intention?

LC: I created Wave Stone (2017) through questioning myself about the nature of reality, and observing the origins of the digital message. Everything comes from the wave phenomenon. The universe as a whole, if we look at quantum physics, but also at the origin of the binary digital message. This series is a dialogue between an ancient figurative form and a purely computer-generated wave. As if an intrusion, “A Bug”, had disturbed our conscious reading of the figurative real.

RP: The Art Game series (2010) seems to really capture your approach, both historic and ultra-modern. To create for you those juxtapositions that we dare not imagine. Is this polarity as you see it?

LC: The Art Game series is the first of my work around the question of time in a binary dialogue “Past - Present”. Today, we are drowned in thousands of images every day (1500 images viewed per day now, compared to 80 in 1900). But our memory remains selective, and we can only keep very few of these images in mind. The others will be deleted, or will remain on our hard drives for life. This is what I call "visual consumption", and we have to change our habits on it as well. Art Game is a way of asking the question about our digital habits with regard to works of thought. (20 years for a painting sometimes - versus a second for a selfie).

RP: With that in mind, do you approach the story knowing that it is almost “untouchable”, to keep it intact?

LC: Yes indeed, there is a search for preservation in my approach. I try to ask myself what is important, and what is not. In order to define our time more precisely.

Below the Museum, 2014, photography fine art print, 50 x 75 ins, 24 x 36 ins.

"Simple minimalist form in dialog with the empty rooms of the Louvre Museum."

© Léo Caillard

VS: That is an interesting way of looking at it. Does this open up the possibility of a conversation that goes beyond time limits? Do you see the technology moving in that direction, potentially offering new possibilities for this dialogue?

LC: I think technology tells us a lot about the past indeed. It allows us to visualize it better. There is only to see the work of engineers who scan the pyramids of Egypt or the 3D reconstructions of cities in the past to realize it. In recent years, technology in the service of the past has become more and more present and that is a good thing. We can only build the future by looking at our past history so as not to repeat the same mistakes.

RP: Below the Museum (2014), reminds me of the German photographer Thomas Struth, for the photo of the museum, but without an audience. As if the past is part of a moment long gone, is there that feeling?

LC: First of all, I have to say that I really enjoy the comparison. I am a great admirer of the German school of photography which started with the Berndt and Hilla Becher and then materialized with immansive artists such as Ruff, Struth or Andreas Gursky and many others. I particularly like their sense of abstraction while remaining figurative and in order to better define us as individuals. Yes absolutely, I had heard this reference in mind of course but he observes the audience when on my side I observe his absence. In this sense we are almost in a still life à la Thomas Demand where a form of dreaminess enters the scene with these geometric appearances emerging from the ground.

Renaissance VIII, 2019, Fine art print under Gallery Diasec in Box Frame, 120 x 90 cm,

Edition de 4 ex + 1 AP. © Léo Caillard

RP: Perhaps intentionally Renaissance Woman (2013), appears as the Floating Ophelia of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Did you intend to create a piercing dialogue through the history of art?

LC: The idea of ​​this series is to put into perspective what we define as the marker of an era, here sartorial fashion. However, it is very contemporary with outfits from great designers (Mc Queen, Dior, Chanel, etc.). However, these outfits are in direct dialogue with those of the past and the notion of temporal identity through clothing is fading. We therefore find ourselves in a timeless sensation where the portrait could be contemporary, just like classic. I took care to mix the very formal and technical approach of contemporary art (framing of systematic portraits, great precision of sharpness etc.) and the classic aesthetic of chiaroscuro painting (direct references to Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Everett indeed.

RP: Is Art Game also about how we access and understand everything about history past and present?

LC: Yes, absolutely, access to information on the Internet is instantaneous, which is incredible, but also disturbing. Indeed, everything came out of its history and its concept. By typing “Painting” on Google, you can go from an Abstract Mondrian to a Classic Botticelli in one click. Which can be confusing, because it comes without any form of narrative. The Art Game series also deals with this "over access” to information, that requires special approach and learning skills.

RP: Are you worried about the fate or the future of the past in this all-consuming present?

LC: We are experiencing an existential crisis as a society (end of capitalism, ecological, political shock etc.) and as an individual (search for a new identity, end of traditional dogmas etc.)

All this may seem confusing but in view of a more global time it is ultimately only a major milestone for humanity but one that we will have to go through in any case. Besides, it seems essential to me to refocus on our past history, to better understand it, to better define ourselves, and to better invent a future fundamentally different from what we believe to be immutable. I believe in people and I am sure we can. Because altruism and goodness are the basis of human behavior. However, I remain realistic and all this will not be done in peace, far from it. Great challenges, dramas of major changes awaiting us. But surely in the end, a more moral thought, a more equitable world, will emerge from it all. This is a time when more than ever art is needed to help us reinvent ourselves.

VS: Thank you very for finding time to have this relevant and timely conversation.

2021 © Zephyr and Maize

Wave Stone, Aphrodite Sine, Marble, Edition of 3+2 AP. © Léo Caillard