Parsons Paris

Mathilde Roussel on creative collaborations and ecological alternatives

Returning to Paris for the fall semester, we were happy to sit down with First Year, Drawing and Imaging professor Mathilde Roussel to talk about her artistic collaborations, installation work and sculptures which consistently evoke a sensitivity to materiality and ecological alternatives

You work in partnership with the artist Matthieu Raffard. How would you describe your creative collaboration? 

Matthieu and I have been collaborating on different projects since 2009, and working under the name Raffard-Roussel since 2017. Our collaboration is based on a relationship that can be defined as symbiotic, which means that we don’t necessarily have the same way of approaching an idea, but these different approaches complete each-other through a dialogue that can be established via different media. For example, we are now working on creating a machine that could be an ecological alternative to a standard inkjet printer, which will use ink made from collected coloring materials (plants, metal scraps, plaster, particles of pollution, etc.) in a specific ecosystem. To pursue this project we both investigate different theoretical and practical aspects (archaeology of media, digital technology, woodworking, inks, etc.) and along the way we share and discuss our research through several modes: writing, oral discussion, drawing, diagram making, image cut-up. These documents and images become the ecology of the project from which different other artworks can emerge.

Machine Terrestrographique, 2020, work in progress

Your art is imbued with the themes of metamorphosis, transformation and temporality. Are you able to identify a moment in time or a specific experience that inspired you to embark upon these themes of exploration? 

I believe the experience of growing up on a ferme céréalière in Normandy while being homeschooled allowed me to develop a strong relationship with the land, the soil and different kinds of plants. Being connected to the multiple transformations of the landscape throughout the year and the different temporalities necessary to grow food is something that is present in my mind. It made me want to think of artwork not as a final still object, but as a web of different forms that can change or be modified through time. 

In Mues you recycle paper pulp from your own drawings to sculpt imprints of your body. You fold these ‘skins’ and save them to mark the passage of time. How do you reconcile recycling something for a new purpose which you then fold and archive in its alternate form? Does this put an end to the transformation in the life of this material?

For the Mues, I actually started by using tissue paper recycled from the fine art print shop Idem in Paris while working there. For a few years we have been using the margins of the newspaper we read. The piles of newspapers become piles of folded thin skins casted on my body once a year. The skins are archived in boxes, but this state is only one of many other modes of existence of these Mues. Because they are not flattened when folded, they still have air that fills the empty space inside and thus can be unfolded again and exhibited in different ways depending upon the context and space. The material in itself — newspaper — evolves, it gets a deeper yellow tint every time it is exposed to light. The previous Mues are darker yellow than the recent ones. And because there is no offset ink on them, the newspaper margins are biodegradable; that means all of these Mues can be potentially composted at some point during their lifetime.

Mues, 2010-2020, tissue paper, newspaper, rice glue, 60 x 50 x 20 cm each

Your installation Hydro-lithe won first prize in the Concours International Françoise in the context of “1 Immeuble, 1 œuvre. Can you talk about this program created by the French Minister of Culture in support of artists? 

This program was signed by the Ministry of Culture with a number of real estate developers in France. Its aim is to include artwork within their real estate projects. The installation Hydro-lithe was created for a garden of a group of building residences in Pantin, a Parisian suburb. It was the first time we created a work intended to be permanent, which was a challenge because there are a lot of norms to take into account (security, maintenance, installation, etc.). But the interesting aspect is that this project allowed us to work and have a dialogue with people we don’t usually work with: engineers, architects, but also a metalworker and a digital stone carver which was an exciting technology to work with.

With this particular project, your creation also had a practical purpose, that of filtering rainwater to allow for its reuse by residents to water their gardens. What are your thoughts on giving artwork a purpose as opposed to merely an aesthetic? 

Making permanent work for a place like this building residence’s garden in Pantin, raised many issues, and one of them is its legitimacy. We didn’t want to install an artwork that would be static and untouchable; we wanted to think of an artwork that people living in this residence could interact with, an artwork that could become a meeting point just like the public fountain in a village used to allow for social gathering. The purpose of Hydro-lithe was to allow a dialogue between the residents about the sharing of common resources and about the stakes of drinkable water. In the end we tried to make an artwork that even if permanently installed, would be alive and change through time. The water that goes through the stone is purified by the spiral movement. People can drink it, gardeners can use it to water the garden’s plants, and the stone in contact with humidity can cover itself with moss or other and other vegetation.

Hydro-lithe, 2016-2019, limestone, steel, copper, push-button faucet, 190 x 100 x 90 cm

You have spent time as an artist in residence in Nashville, TN and in Brooklyn, NY. What did these experiences bring to your growth as an artist? 

 In Nashville, I was a resident both at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art and at the Watkins College of Art. At Watkins, I organized workshops with students and collaborated with them to create a ceramic installation for my exhibition. At the Museum and Botanical Garden, I collaborated with the gardeners and with a group of visitors to make a large temporary sculpture for the garden. Both of these experiences allowed me to think of my projects as ecologies in the sense that every work emerged from specific ecosystems with different actions involved. In Brooklyn, I was a resident at Pioneer Works, which is an artist-run cultural center focused on the articulations between art and science. There are about 10 artists in residence at the same time and all studios are open to the public several days a week. I learned a lot from other artists’ art-making experiments, about experimental technological works going on in the tech lab, and also from the group critics that we had every week.

In Lives of Grass, which you exhibited while in the US, you allow the sculptures to literally take on a life of their own, unfolding, growing and then decaying over time. This work is related to your thoughts about ingested food becoming a part of our body and food cycles. Has your research influenced the way you feed yourself and your family? 

I think it goes in both ways. This work was made because we are sensitive to the ecological and social conditions in which the food is grown, as well as the impact it has both on our body and on our ecosystem. Because we chose to eat mostly plants, the food we eat becomes a kind of art project as we try every day to reinvent how we cook. And because the food we cook becomes compost, we are making artwork that responds to the idea of compost.

24.08.79, 2010-2012, soil, wheat seeds, recycled metal, fabric, thread, cable, water, 170 x 150 x 45 cm

Finally, your Mues-Fragments pieces are imprints of hands made with recycled newspaper each time the earth navigates through a significant event. Have you made a new set during the current pandemic? 

The pandemic as a consequence of ecological issues is impacting many people on a global scale, and it is transforming us and the way we see the world in return. We believe our body is also changing in view of these events, and we did a new cast of hands that archives a fragment of our body state in this specific time. Hopefully, we won’t forget what has changed in us, and we will not completely go back to the habits we had before the pandemic.

Thank you Mathilde for the interesting conversation!

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