Vue de l'exposition "Enigme Cousteau" © f.deladerriere
Vue de l’exposition "Enigme Cousteau" © f.deladerriere
Vue de l'exposition "Enigme Cousteau" © f.deladerriere
Vue de l’exposition "Enigme Cousteau" © f.deladerriere
Montage, Vannerie, Aria Rolland © s.morel
Montage, Vannerie, Aria Rolland © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Aria Rolland © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Aria Rolland © s.morel
Montage, Romane Laillet © s.morel
Montage, Romane Laillet © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, préparation au feutrage, Romane Laillet, Aria Rolland et Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, préparation au feutrage, Romane Laillet, Aria Rolland et Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan et Lucille Bou / Vannerie de la Meije © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan et Lucille Bou / Vannerie de la Meije © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Lucille Bou / Vannerie de la Meije et Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Lucille Bou / Vannerie de la Meije et Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Montage, vannerie, Eléonore Saintagnan © s.morel
Illustrations de référence pour la conception des sculptures © s.morel
Illustrations de référence pour la conception des sculptures © s.morel
Interview with Éléonore Saintagnan
By Sarah Ihler-Meyer

Based on sto­ries and beliefs anchored in specific places, you con­duct field inves­ti­ga­tions that take the form of docu-fic­tions, sculp­tures and instal­la­tions. In this case, your exhi­bi­tion at the con­tem­po­rary art centre of Les Capucins in Embrun is enti­tled "Enigme Cousteau" in ref­er­ence to a state­ment that Commander Cousteau allegedly made in 1979 about the arti­fi­cial lake of Serre Ponçon: "If people knew what was at the bottom of the lake, they would stop bathing there." Is this enig­matic phrase the sub­ject of sto­ries among the people you have met in Embrun and its sur­round­ings?

Indeed, I am inter­ested in legends and beliefs, in par­tic­ular those related to ani­mals. I first heard this alleged state­ment by Commander Cousteau in Briançon, during a course with a felt maker for this exhi­bi­tion pro­ject. Since the con­struc­tion of the lake swal­lowed up two vil­lages, Ubaye and Savines, at first I thought about traces of human life. Later, I often hung around the boulo­drome in Embrun and I hap­pened to meet people who gave me another inter­pre­ta­tion of this funny story: fish, even mon­sters, were indeed at the bottom of the lake and it was Commander Cousteau who had seen them for the first time. He even plunged a crate con­taining a sheep into the water of the lake: the box was found broken open and the animal had been devoured! So there really is a whole legend around this phrase. Here, it’s not the Loch Ness mon­ster but rather sev­eral very vio­lent fish that haunt the lake.

For this exhi­bi­tion, you worked with three local arti­sans: a felt maker, a wicker weaver and a potter. Could you tell us about the place of craft in your work more gen­er­ally?

I really like arti­sanal tech­niques, like ceramics for example, which I’ve been prac­ticing for over ten years, because they are slow pro­cesses where you repeat the same ges­tures for hours while being able to reflect on other things, such as film sce­narios. Having said that, I am annoyed by the ten­dency to put craft every­where in con­tem­po­rary art, as most of the time these pro­duc­tions don’t go beyond the idea of making some­thing pretty or "cool" with a com­mer­cial ambi­tion in the back­ground. I don’t iden­tify with this approach, I’m not inter­ested in pro­ducing things that sell like design objects. For my exhi­bi­tion in Embrun, I didn’t try to create sculp­tural or hand­made pieces at all. The idea was that of a large immer­sive instal­la­tion resulting from col­lec­tive work in which vis­i­tors could wander.
At first, I was a little per­plexed, I was asking myself what I was doing, because I didn’t recog­nise myself in this slightly kitschy aes­thetic, but finally I am very happy with the result. I never have a prior idea of what my pieces will look like: I start a pro­cess and then some­thing comes out of it. It’s a bit like con­ceiving a child, you don’t know what kind of face they will have!

The scenog­raphy of your exhi­bi­tion evokes an immer­sion in the lake of Serre-Ponçon, as if we were sur­rounded by lake mon­sters and amphorae washed up on its sandy depths. How did you con­ceive these fan­tasy crea­tures and objects coming from another era? Did they come from the exchanges with the arti­sans you worked with or purely from your imag­i­na­tion?

For this pro­ject, I was accom­pa­nied by two assis­tants in civic ser­vice, Aria Rolland and Romane Laillet, who have just grad­u­ated from the Toulouse School of Fine Arts. The idea was to create lake mon­sters that were a bit hybrid, between the images we had of the fish of the Serre-Ponçon lake, the illus­tra­tions in an old book about abysses that I found at my mother’s home and images that came from our imag­i­na­tion. But it was mainly the tech­niques we used that deter­mined the appear­ance of the fish: we made bodies, fins and tails according to the methods that the wicker weaver and the felt maker had taught me before­hand, which we then assem­bled a bit like the chil­dren’s game Monsieur Patate. The eyes of the fish are made of ceramic, the potter made them fol­lowing my instruc­tions: she made some­thing quite dif­ferent from what I imag­ined but it still works very well!
I also wanted there to be amphorae, because they are often pre­sent in people’s imag­i­na­tion of the sea bed. In fact, I was thinking of an aquarium, I wanted the instal­la­tion to resemble a sort of dio­rama in which you could stroll around.

These lake crea­tures that pop­u­late your exhi­bi­tion are notably com­posed of shop­ping trol­leys, like fish on wheels. Where does this idea come from?

I wanted to make pieces that could move in space. When I thought about it, I said to myself that I would need metal struc­tures, which led me to the shop­ping trol­leys that I cus­tomised to become fish on wheels. I had the idea that each vis­itor could walk around the exhi­bi­tion pushing a fish, but in the end, the first fish we cre­ated were so enor­mous and fragile that I decided to make smaller ones with chil­dren’s shop­ping trol­leys, which they were invited to move.
There is also an ironic side to the fact that the shop­ping trol­leys were left vis­ible, as a bit of a metaphor for the damage caused by our con­sumerist society: here, the fish did not swallow plastic bags or bot­tles, but shop­ping trol­leys! It is also a nod to the solu­tion that the Belgian gov­ern­ment found during the Covid crisis to reopen the super­mar­kets: to oblige each cus­tomer, even the one who came for a simple carrot, to cir­cu­late with a shop­ping trolley, sup­pos­edly to respect the san­i­tary dis­tances! I thought it would be funny to ask the vis­i­tors of an exhi­bi­tion to push a shop­ping trolley.

In this exhi­bi­tion you also show two of your films, including Les Bêtes sauvages (2015). This docu-fic­tion is divided into three chap­ters mixing doc­u­men­tary footage, archives and recon­struc­tions. Each of these chap­ters tells a story related to feral ani­mals, that is to say ani­mals that have returned to the wild after being domes­ti­cated. The first is about the green para­keets that have been pre­sent in Brussels since 1974, when the Meli Park of Heyzel released sev­enty spec­i­mens; the second is about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of foxes at the French-Belgian border, rumoured to be used by drug traf­fickers to dis­ori­en­tate cus­toms dogs and the third is about the hippos of Colombia, which descended from three spec­i­mens of Pablo Escobar and escaped from the author­i­ties when he was assas­si­nated in 1993. This film shows your interest in the sto­ries and beliefs related to the co-evo­lu­tionary and cohab­i­ta­tional rela­tion­ships between living humans and non-humans. In this case, it is about three sto­ries where human inter­ven­tion has dis­turbed cer­tain ecosys­tems.

In Les Bêtes sauvages, which I made with Grégoire Motte, there is no men­tion of the prob­lems posed today by the release of par­rots by the Meli Park in 1974 in Brussels. It turns out that most of these birds died, except for the Quaker para­keets, the ring-necked para­keets and the Alexandrine para­keets, three green coloured species. They sur­vived because they could easily cam­ou­flage them­selves in the trees and not be chased by feral cats. Today they are blamed for making their nests - some­times more than 3 metres wide - on elec­tricity poles that threaten to col­lapse onto the road and cause short cir­cuits in elec­tricity cables; for stealing crops from fruit trees and, above all, for taking the place of other local species that are now endan­gered. Last but not least, these birds defe­cate under the trees that they use for sleeping, which can cause major prob­lems: at the time our film was being made, the European Commission placed loud­speakers in its car park broad­casting the sounds of large birds of prey in order to frighten the para­keets into making their nests fur­ther away, so as to pre­vent min­is­ters and other vis­i­tors from finding their cars soiled.
As for the hippos, descen­dants of the spec­i­mens belonging to Pablo Escobar’s pri­vate zoo, they have pro­lif­er­ated and today there are more than a hun­dred in Colombia. As with the green para­keets in Brussels, there are those who think they are an inva­sive species on the one hand and those who say they are per­fectly inte­grated on the other. Some people say that there are too many hippos in Colombia, that their faeces pol­lute rivers and that they pose a danger to humans. Others say that they are very calm because they have no preda­tors and that we have to live with them, pos­sibly by cas­trating the dom­i­nant males if they become a little too aggres­sive.
As for the story of the foxes smug­gling drugs across the French-Belgian border, Grégoire Motte main­tains that this story is true, but I think it’s an urban legend.
In any case, this film talks about a time when people’s actions could be extremely destruc­tive in rela­tion to ecosys­tems without them real­ising it or any bad inten­tion. This is the case of the director of the Meli Park,
who wanted to brighten up the grey sky of Brussels by releasing colourful par­rots, without sus­pecting what would happen thirty years later.

This per­haps bridges the gap with Commander Cousteau, who is a highly con­tro­ver­sial figure today. On one hand, he is crit­i­cised for his filming methods, the financing of his expe­di­tions by indus­tri­al­ists and oil com­pa­nies and the fact that he denounced and then exon­er­ated the French nuclear tests in the Pacific in order to obtain funding. On the other hand, he is acknowl­edged to have raised eco­log­ical aware­ness, notably through his com­mit­ment from the 1970s onwards to the ocean defenders and his ral­lying behind Greenpeace in the 1990s.

Cousteau’s films are very hard-hit­ting: for example, we see him dyna­miting oceans to observe dead fish at the sur­face in order to survey the var­ious local species. His films are also marked by racism: I am thinking in par­tic­ular of a film in which a native person, who speaks in their own lan­guage, is dubbed by an actor who speaks with an exces­sively car­i­cat­ural accent. Furthermore, he was financed by oil tycoons who were counting on him to find deposits at the bottom of the oceans: that’s how he found the money to do what he wanted to do, which was to film fish from a sci­en­tific point of view. The moral ques­tions came a little later, through his son.
For us today it’s shocking, but you have to put things in per­spec­tive: it was a dif­ferent time, when eth­ical issues and ways of dealing with them were not at all the same as today. In order to get the gen­eral public to care about pro­tecting the ani­mals of the seabed, it was first nec­es­sary to show how mar­vel­lous they were. There was still an eco­log­ical aware­ness at the time, but it was in the pro­cess of being dis­cov­ered, whereas now we realise that we have destroyed every­thing.
In short, Captain Cousteau is a very ambiguous figure and I happen to like these com­plex sto­ries, where there is no good side and bad side.

You show another film in this exhi­bi­tion, Les Moineaux de Trégain (2021). It is also a docu-fic­tion: its starting point is the "Great Sparrow Campaign" launched in 1958 by Mao Zedong to exter­mi­nate the crop-eating spar­rows. As you remind us with the ban­ners, for three days and nights the Chinese pop­u­la­tion pre­vented the birds from landing by fran­ti­cally banging on pots and pans. In 72 hours, 10 mil­lion spar­rows fell to the ground, dead of exhaus­tion. The fol­lowing spring, the locusts, lacking preda­tors, destroyed almost all the crops. This catas­trophe partly explains the Great Chinese Famine, which caused the death of over 30 mil­lion people. Based on this story, you and the pupils of the Trégain school imag­ined what might have hap­pened in schools at that time: the inven­tion of anti sparrow songs, demon­stra­tions with a street fair-like atmo­sphere, etc.

What is unthink­able today is that this Great Sparrow Campaign was seen at the time as a big cel­e­bra­tion, whereas it was ter­ribly cruel, as can be seen in the archival images.
The Chinese leaders first studied the spar­rows: they realised that after two and a half hours, a sparrow falls from exhaus­tion. Knowing that they couldn’t give guns to the whole pop­u­la­tion, they asked everyone to go out into the street for three days and nights to make noise and wave flags to scare the birds and pre­vent them from landing.
The pop­u­la­tion sang anti-sparrow hymns at the top of their voices. There were parades with floats full of dead birds and plac­ards, it was like a kind of fes­tive pro­ces­sion. It was only years later that they realised that it was a huge eco­log­ical error. This story also reveals a vision of the world in which the lives of ani­mals have no value.

The Great Sparrow Campaign in China was ini­ti­ated in 1958, the cre­ation of the arti­fi­cial lake of Serre Ponçon, which engulfed the com­munes of Ubaye and Savines, dates from 1959 and the Meli Park of Heyzel was cre­ated in 1958 on the occa­sion of the World Fair in Belgium. Is this coin­ci­dence in terms of dates a pure chance from the point of view of this exhi­bi­tion?

It is a coin­ci­dence, but it is more or less the same era, when the ways of sharing space with other species were very dif­ferent from today. In any case, there was not the eco­log­ical aware­ness that there is today, whether in China or in Europe. The 1958 World Fair in Belgium was also the year when human beings were put in cages and pre­sented to the public: it was a Congolese tribe that people would look at like mon­keys and throw peanuts at. Today, we don’t talk about this too much, but it’s still a reality. I think that these are facets of his­tory that some people have tried to erase from memory.

Your interest in beliefs and sto­ries about the rela­tion­ship between humans and ani­mals is rem­i­nis­cent of authors who are in fashion today, such as Donna Haraway or Vinciane Despret.

This is a small group of authors who grav­i­tate essen­tially around Bruno Latour, who I met when I joined his Master’s pro­gramme at Science Po, in 2010-2011. This is obvi­ously part of my reading, it inter­ests me and it raises ques­tions. That said, in my prac­tice, I try to put that aside to do field­work: what really inter­ests me is being in the place, my approach is essen­tially doc­u­mental. Then, when I talk to people who race dogs, pigeon fanciers or people who track wolves, I make the fol­lowing obser­va­tion: Vinciane Despret, Baptiste Morizot and others, they have never heard of them! The same goes for Jocelyne Porcher’s thesis that there is a tacit con­tract between a farmer and his ani­mals: when you say that to farmers, they laugh their heads off!
My real lit­erary influ­ences would be more on the side of American fic­tion, but rather for the form than for the sub­jects I deal with. I feel very close to authors like Richard Brautigan with his melan­cholic humour and the work of writers like Flannery O’Connor or Russell Banks is a great inspi­ra­tion for my new film. It’s not just what they write about that inter­ests me, but their way of telling things.

Can you tell us about your next film?

It’s a sort of eco­log­ical fable that will talk about the evo­lu­tion of the sharing of ter­ri­to­ries between humans and ani­mals, espe­cially in the his­tory of Christianity. With a huge fish as the main char­acter, this film will show how man spoils every­thing by wanting to make it his own.