“Forgotten, buried at the bottom of insomnia,” a woman’s soft, high-pitched voice repeatedly sang out against slow, ethereal music as you descended a staircase into a recent basement installation by Julien Creuzet, one of today’s most closely watched artists who earlier this year clinched the commission for the French Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale.
Creuzet’s exhibitions typically carry paragraph-length titles that point to the show’s underlying themes, as did this one that recently traveled from LUMA Arles in France to LUMA Westbau in Zurich: “Orpheus was musing upon braised words, under the light rain of a blazing fog, snakes are deaf and dumb anyway, oblivion buried in the depths of insomnia.”
Not unlike the mythical Orpheus, who descended into Hades to retrieve his love Eurydice only to lose her at the last moment, we too travel into Creuzet’s world, set somewhere below the surface of wakeful consciousness. There, in his reimagined version of an immersive opera, we’re invited to experience forgotten memories told in song accompanied by hanging skeletal sculptures of landscapes, spirit creatures, panel paintings, and holograms of artifacts come to new life from Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. If we peer and listen closely, pieced together narratives surface, overlapping before they too fade away, transformed into something else with every new turn.
Creuzet’s work is a hard-to-pin sensory exploration that sparks the imagination. It’s this friction between the strange and unknown that makes us question the familiar, an exercise at the heart of Creuzet’s practice. He wants us to question everything.
That is increasingly possible through Creuzet’s work, as it becomes more visible internationally, with the latest feather in his cap being the French Pavilion; he will be the first Black man to take it over. Other major exhibitions include solos at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2019) and Camden Arts Center in London (2022), as well as appearances in Manifesta 13 in 2020, the 2018 Gwangju Biennale, and the 2017 Lyon Biennale. In 2021, he was nominated for the esteemed Prix Marcel Duchamp, administered by the Centre Pompidou.
Yet, the prestigious platform of Venice seems to have no bearing on Creuzet. “For me, it’s just a title. One step. One exhibition,” he told ARTnews in a video interview earlier this year from his Paris studio. “It’s about continuing with my work, which is to share various imaginations with others. And in a sense, to question the world, our context, our history, our present. … Nothing has changed.”
In essence, he’s interested in reaching the widest audience possible—“art only exists when we give it to others to see”—because that is the way to “generate areas of space for movements of emancipation and movements of the imagination,” he added.
Within those spaces, Creuzet challenges preconceived categorizations, particularly ones that relate to his own lived experience, such as the African and Caribbean diasporas, the significance of artistic and literary voices from those diasporas, the legacy of colonialism, and the struggle to share our planet’s resources. For Creuzet, these subjects are personal and inescapable.
Born 1986 in a working-class Paris suburb, Creuzet was raised in Martinique, where he was introduced early on to artists from the Caribbean, thanks to his family’s love for culture. “Being surrounded by that [artistic] nourishment fascinated me—it made me dream,” he said. He still remembers the blue enamel ceramics by local artist Victor Anicet that are evocative of local pre-Columbian ceramics and the music of Eugene Mona. The “enigma” of his childhood is the source of Creuzet’s “imaginary reservoir,” with Martinique its “emotional heart,” said Creuzet who returned to France in 2006 when he was 20 years-old to pursue a standard educational track at French art schools; he is now a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris.
“I’m always left trapped, because the Other … endlessly boxes me into this one identity,” Creuzet said. “I try to be what I have to be. But in one way or another, I’m constantly reminded of my condition as a Black man. … It makes me realize there is still a lot to do in terms movements to emancipate and decolonize the body, knowledge, culture, and arts.”
Throughout our hour-long conversation, Creuzet often responded in open-to-interpretation metaphoric French prose (certain nuances, of course, have been lost to translation), which should come as no surprise given that he is also a prolific poet. “I answer this way, because I don’t want to reduce everything to one thing,” he said, pointing his finger into the air in front of him.
“Julien’s vision is needed right now,” said Sibylle Friche, a partner at Chicago’s Document Gallery, one of three that represents him. “The decolonial turn in recent art is not just a trend. It is part and parcel of former imperial nations like France coming to terms with the less savory aspects of their history—work that has only begun. Julien addresses colonialism poetically, which draws attention to its affective consequences as much as its material traces.”
At his LUMA exhibitions, Creuzet’s human-scale, drawing-sculptures, made of bent poles smothered in a colorful, gummy paste, at first appear abstract, but slowly reveal themselves to be spirit-like beings. In one, a fairy emerges from a dark blue ooze, as painted-over, pre-Columbian demons mock us. Elsewhere are mesmerizing holograms of African artifacts dancing bélé, a genre associated with slavery’s abolition in Martinique.
In his practice, Creuzet orchestrates self-described operatic installations using a range of mediums and collaborations with other artists, including musicians and dancers. Through those collaborations, as well as drawing from the writings of Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and André Breton, among others, Creuzet wants to “complexify … the way different African and Creole cultures have actually played an important role in the current manifestations of contemporary France, and by extension, the contemporary world,” said Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, director of exhibitions and programs at LUMA.
There’s also a sense of hope, even joy, imbued in these works, a nod to Creuzet’s own feelings about this “moment of crystallization” and “emancipation” that we are witnessing.
“We are living through a changing context,” Creuzet said, pointing to issues as wide ranging as Covid, the energy crises, and efforts in France and elsewhere to restitute looted artworks from Africa. Society is “asking individuals to try to situate themselves in terms of who they are, where they come from, how they feel in their skin and in their bodies, and heads,” he said.
In his art, Creuzet aims to discuss socio-political issues like these in a language he hopes can reach beyond the art world’s institutional boundaries. “Julien’s work feels so urgent because of the many references and transnational connections he makes, that go beyond the bubble of contemporary art discourses,” said independent curator Cindy Sissokho, who with Céline Kopp will curate the French Pavilion. “It’s a practice that is liberating, opening up imaginaries and therefore possibilities that expand discourses about the African diaspora.”
And Creuzet’s international acclaim will likely only continue to increase in the near future. In addition to the Venice exhibition, Sissokho and Kopp will also organize a solo exhibition of Creuzet’s work later this year at the Magasin in Grenoble, where Kopp is director. Co-produced with Brown Arts Institute and David Winton Bell Gallery, the show will travel to the US starting in 2024, marking Creuzet’s first major solo institutional exhibition there. Beginning this month, he will participate in the 2023 Liverpool Biennial, and in November, he will present a new commission as part of the Performa biennial in New York. His work is also featured in the traveling exhibition, “Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today,” which debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in October.
With a method reliant on archival and on-the-ground research, Creuzet sticks to a constant, daily work ethic. “Art is deeply about daily research. I never stop nourishing and cultivating myself. I never stop learning,” he said.
His art-making is one that forces him to “se debrouiller,” or manage with what he’s got. “I always thought of art as a door to survival or fresh air, an absolute, visceral necessity,” he said. For years, and because of financial and material constraints, Creuzet’s pieces were largely composed of found objects. They still maintain that aspect, though his production means have recently expanded, and he’s incorporated new, technically advanced elements, including virtual reality.
Today, Creuzet says he “gets the most pleasure from sharing” with others. “Generosity is the most beautiful thing,” even when much of the world is currently set up to make it “difficult to share essentials, like water and food. It’s hard to share the same planet. It’s hard to simply be.”
He continued, “I’m learning not to point fingers in an inquisitive way anymore, because I don’t think it helps improve the situation. I think everyone has to do the work of emancipation and decolonization, and we still have far to go. … I’m now trying to figure out how to engage in a form of activism and denunciation, but with less pain.”