KHURTOVA & BOURLANGES - the duo tracking a correlation between star constellations and French geography.
We meet Elena Khurtova and Marie Ilse Bourlanges – an artist duo on a mission to challenge ‘the regime of utility’. We find out if there is correlation between star constellations and French geography.
How did you meet and why did you decide to work together?
We met in 2003 at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where we both studied Architectural design. We became friends quite soon and were discussing our projects for hours, often staying at each other’s place to work over night. During her graduation in 2007 Elena decided to deepen her skills and knowledge with ceramic, especially mold-making and casting. She first sought specialists advice at CorUnum, a prestigious ceramic manufacturer in the Netherlands, and later worked in partnership with Sint Joost academy in Den Bosch. After her graduation from Architectural design in 2006, Marie Ilse continued her study further in TXT (textile design) at the Rietveld Academy, and graduated in 2008. We obviously realized how much we share a particular fascination for processes and materials, and especially the conceptual value of techniques found in ceramic and textile realms. We started working together on isolated projects from 2009 onwards, and in 2011 we dived into a residency program at the EKWC (European Ceramic Work Centre) in Den Bosch. This period was a true turning point, enabling us to position ourselves as an artist duo.
What is the key to your successful partnership?
Above everything, we are friends :) We try to give each other enough space and exibility but always aspire to motivate each other further with work and new ideas. We also often collaborate with other artists or graphic designers, which enrich our partnership with other input.
You described your work as a challenge to the ‘regime of utility’?
It is a term a dear friend of ours came up with, Mark Leegsma. Through writing – Mark is both a master in philosophy and psychology – he helped us formulate what our fascination and direction was really about: trained both as designers we were clearly interested in investigating and reflecting on the impact of use/usage on the body, objects and elements of space. However we early on knew that we wanted to dissociate ourselves from a common understanding of ‘design = function’, as we didn’t find enough meaning in making more stuff to be used. At that time we were in a residency at EKWC researching on visualising patterns of cancerous growth through Internet data translating them into 3dimensional tessellation landscape, later casting them into pristine bone china clay. The resulting ‘E/merging patterns’ offer an experience of the body that begins where the usefulness of the healthy body ends, which for us was a key stone in defining a challenge to the ‘regime of utility’.
In THE SKY IS ON THE EARTH you investigate the theory of Marie’s grandfather - the author Jacques Bourlange about correlation between star constellations and French geography?
In 2013 Marie Ilse inherited the archive of her grandfather that waited in oblivion at her father’s workspace since 1991. It was like discovering a hidden treasure, the obsessive research of an estranged relative, who had spent many years investigating a correlation between star constellations and the French geography. We both decided to research and intervene with this unique material. The archive itself bare a specific analogue quality, with profusion of hand-made folders, hand-written notes, maps covered with geometric lines and gures, etc... Its content is even more fascinating as it unravels material and immaterial connections between elements, names and places. We started the project with a 6 months residency in Paris at Atelier Holsboer and continue developing it until now, thanks to the generous support of the Mondriaan Fonds and Stichting Stokroos.
For the project you researched 24 archive boxes of maps, notes and sketches covering toponymy, legends and symbols, geography, astronomy and astrology, as well as genealogy and heraldic study of French Noble families –how did you decide what to use?
When we first opened the archive (during our residency in Paris) it was a very overwhelming experience. We sought advice from different experts from the fields Jacques (Marie Ilse’ grandfather) had investigated: a toponymist, a mathematician, an archivist, an esoteric specialist as well as ’spiritual leader’ :) This research was archived in the form of recorded conversations as a base for the project. Later we developed a seven chapters plan, touching upon either the content of the archive, its formal quality and finally the man behind the theory. We are now at chapter four and processing the last three chapters. Our method has been shaped through the process, where we mix original elements of the archive and new sculptural interventions we create, creating dialogue with each other. In that way we intend to create bridges between Jacques’ research and our own interpretation of it, in a more direct visual and material way.
Based on your research is there a likely correlation between star constellations and French geography?
Ahah! This is still really hard to tell :) For the chapter “Looking for the Ursa Major” we went on a road trip on the path of Jacques’ claimed projection of the seven points of the Ursa Major on the French landscape, roughly between Marseille and Cannes. During the day we were ‘hunting’ for each of the specific earth point and at night for perfect view of the Ursa Major on those precise locations, before it would disappear behind the horizon, which was pretty fast. It resulted in a series of photographs we did in collaboration with Maarten Heijkamp, as well as other works we developed later with earth we collected on each location. Our conclusion was that: when one looks for connection, it is quite likely to be found :) Ending up at night photographing the clear sky in beautiful isolated landscapes is definitely a connecting experience, among each other as an artist’s team, to Jacques and his theory, and of course to the sky and the earth :)
You often work with graphic designers and other artists on publications, tell us more.
During her graduation in 2008, Marie Ilse collaborated on a publication with fellow graduate and dear friend Xavier Fernández Fuentes with her project entitled Decay. Xavier came up with a beautiful translation of Marie Ilse’s concept of Decay with a publication cover made of carbon paper, so that one holding the book would leave a trace on its inner cover. This project won the Rietveld design prize that year, and both were really excited about their collaboration, so they continued further with smaller projects. Since 2004 we have been collaborating with him on a publication plan for “The Sky is on the Earth”. Last year Xavier designed our publication entitled “Looking
for the Ursa Major”, with photographs made in collaboration with Maarten Heijkamp and beautiful earth prints by Mayra Sergio. It is fascinating to see how he managed to translate the tactility and materiality of our approach through a specific play of different paper and transparency. The publication won the jury prize of the Anamorphosis prize for self-published photo-books and is now part of the MoMA library. Sadly, Xavier passed away three months ago, and we just feel very empty to lose a friend and such a talented collaborator.
Your previous project KAMA SUTRA is an installation of elements that function as couples. What was the inspiration behind this?
For years we have been fascinated by connections (a topic that coincidently comes back in The Sky is on the Earth) and specifically Japanese joinery, the craftsmanship of making two pieces of wood t perfectly for various constructive purposes. One friend of ours once commented on the book we had on that topic as “its like Kama-sutra for wood” :) We thought it was a funny remark and developed a series of pieces that would ‘literally’ function as a couple, and the various power play that can occur in relationships. We treated the material and the shape according to the relation and impact they could have on each other, and the resulting installation bears both a poetical and playful approach to the notion of connections.
In MAINTENANCE OF INTIMATE SPACE you investigate Intimacy’s constant need for maintenance against exterior forces?
On an architectural scale, we are fascinated by the paradoxal notion of waste, value and maintenance embodied in ruins in contrast with destruction of cultural artefacts used as terrorist propaganda, at the time of that project the Malian mud mausoleum. Through theorical re ection with Mark Leegsma we put in parallel constant preservation of space with maintenance of intimate space as a psychological fondament. The resulting installation is a constructed 2m x 2mx 1,5m corner of 1000 un red clay bricks exposed to an indoor water spraying system. In the process the construction slowly disintegrate while creating owing rivers of yellow clay through the
exhibition space, until a loud collapse, resulting in an explosion of wet clay. Since then, we have used this clay and leftover bricks with many projects, and will continue doing so, to give many new lives to this destructive process.
What can we look forward to from Khurtova & Bourlanges in 2018?
At the moment we are nishing the last three chapters of The Sky is on the Earth. We are starting a publication with graphic designer and artist Cécile Tafanelli entitled ‘Sans Réponses’. It focuses on the notes and lists of Jacques combined with our own hand-made weaves. The publication will be an attempt to unravel the mind of the person behind the archive. We are also working further on ‘Casting the Archive’ a formal translation of the overwhelming physicality of such an analogue archive, creating porcelain and bone china replicas of the documents piles and boxes. In 2018 we aim at developing a large exhibition that will compile the entire project. The seven chapters will be presented in one space wandering in a linear and circular way, to create fluid connections between the different elements (earth, maps, rocks, textile, documents) in a similar way as we developed through the project.
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