Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 21 September 2019

French artist Olivier Grossetête builds (and demolishes) spectacular cardboard structures across the globe

French artist Olivier Grossetête builds (and demolishes) spectacular cardboard structures across the globe. Our reporter chats to him ahead of his visit to the Galway Arts Festival

A cardboard bridge floating in Avignon, France
A cardboard bridge floating in Avignon, France
Olivier Grossetête
A cardboard bridge built by artist Olivier Grossetête Avignon, France

Arlene Harris

For most artists, the definition of success is having your work displayed in a prestigious gallery or knowing that your pieces are being viewed in buildings or spaces by large audiences for a long period of time. For Olivier Grossetête, however, his greatest achievements are destroyed - usually within 24 hours of their creation.

The French artist, who will be featuring for the second time at the Galway International Arts Festival, specialises in making colossal structures out of cardboard boxes and with the help of willing volunteers, destroys the entire project the following day.

This unique, if somewhat bizarre, process was borne out of a desire to move away from the "staid and formal" nature of most art exhibitions. "When I was in my fourth year at the École des Beaux-Arts in Valence, I began to lose interest in fine art and drawing and wanted to get away from the enclosed nature of galleries and do something artistic out in the open or on the streets," explains Grossetête. "I wanted to do something different and the oppressive nature of art as it was had become almost a burden to me. So, in 1998 I had the idea of making a statement and wrote the words c'est du travail (this is work) on 6,000 sheets of white paper. Then I took the sheets down to the local revenue office and spread them out in front of the box where people pay their taxes."

Needless to say this caused a bit of a stir and before long, people gathered to see what was going on. "It was a bit of a crazy idea," admits the 45-year-old. "But I felt that by simply writing this down it was a declaration of work that I had taken from a concept and put it into action. A group of people stayed to discuss what we thought art was and also what was wealth and we addressed a lot of important questions.

Olivier Grossetête
Olivier Grossetête

"Making a big statement with white paper isn't always possible but cardboard is a 3D version of that. I thought it would be a very interesting material to work with as it isn't always what you think it is - for example many movie sets are made with cardboard. I was also interested in the pretence involved in power so my first big cardboard creation was a tower within the hall of the art college - it was big and impressive but also because of what it was made with, it was also fake - and then we destroyed it."

Grossetête is currently booked to create 35 structures in countries across Europe, Asia and South America, but the artist says his creative streak began a lot earlier. "For the most part, I was the same as all of my friends, building dens and making things just like any other child," he says. "But I did a lot of bricolage (making things with bric-a-brac) with my grandfather. He was always making stuff out of wood and cardboard or whatever he could find and I loved helping him - so I suppose you could say this is where it all started."

Since his first major cardboard creation at college, the artist, who also works with banknotes, fines and parking tickets, realised that his work was both inclusive and created a feeling of power amongst participants. "The first piece I did wasn't brilliant - not good artwork at all," he admits. "But people joined in spontaneously and we got the piece done, despite the fact that it was very windy. The enthusiasm of the public made me see how much people enjoyed helping, both to build and take down the structures, so I made that a part of the process.

"Over time, my technique improved and the bigger the projects became, the more I came to rely on local participation. In 2000 I made a replica of a town hall in Lyons and this really fuelled my interest in making buildings which represented power, but because of the cardboard, it symbolised that this power was false. And by tearing the structure down at the end, it gave back a symbol of power to the people."

Over the years, his mammoth constructions have included a 20-building extravaganza in Marseilles and a suspension bridge in Avignon. "What we created in Marseilles was like a small town, a whole new quarter grew overnight," Grossetête recalls. "And the project in Avignon was the biggest and one of the most complex I have done as it involved making a huge bridge and flying it in the air over the river, operated by three helium balloons - it was quite a sight."

Visitors to the Galway Arts Festival will see something similar this year as the Frenchman aims to create two structures in the city - one in Eyre Square and another on the water. How is it possible to have a cardboard exhibition on the water? Answer, kayaks. "I am planning a big bridge with two arches - with 11m between each one - for Galway this year," he says. "It will be 30m long and will sit on the water in kayaks. It's going to be difficult as keeping the structure upright will be a challenge, but that is all part of the fun. The most important part of what I do is the creating - if it blows down or rains on it before we have finished, then c'est la vie, but we will do our best to ensure we keep it on course and if we find out in advance that the weather is going to be bad, then I might make it a little smaller.

"The trick is in the designs and by understanding the material and where its strength lies, I can make sure it is built as sturdy as possible, then we'll just have to hope for the best."

The second structure isn't yet decided, but is possibly going to be a church, which may raise a few eyebrows when it is torn down at the end. "Destroying the project can be quite symbolic as whether it is a religious building or a political office, it is usually a place of some power and pulling it down can be somewhat therapeutic both in a physical and emotional sense," he says. "Sometimes there is a bit of a collective madness about it with everyone letting loose and tearing the place down or jumping in on it. I remember in Thailand, where speaking ill of the king or religion is not allowed, we built a temple and a palace and the people quietly enjoyed pulling it to the ground.

"I know most artists want to hold on to their creations but I have always been motivated by the energy of people working together, whether building the piece or taking it down. I believe that once something has existed at all - whether for a day, a week, a month or even an hour - is all that matters."

Building enthusiasts will be able to help transform the cardboard into suitable building blocks this week, and volunteers are invited to join Olivier on July 21 to prepare the Galway exhibition and those with a more destructive mindset can come the following day to pull it all down.

"When I was in Galway last year, it was a lovely experience and there was a huge amount of interest in the project," says the artist, who lives in Marseilles with his partner, Valerie, and three children - Lucy (9) and twins Louis and Felix (4). "There was a mix of young and old and everyone really enjoyed themselves and were up for anything, so I'm hoping to see some of the same faces again there next year as I sometimes do in other cities around the world."

They will be using 12,000 boxes, weighing 1.5 tonnes, and 24km of tape (260 rolls) for the bridge alone. The total cardboard used for the two builds is an estimated 4 tonnes. "If it's anything like last year, both the creation and the destruction will be great. Due to the confined space in Eyre Square, pulling down the piece we did last summer was almost beautiful to watch as it had to collapse in on itself - of course, once that happened, everyone went crazy, jumping on it and having fun - so I imagine it will be the same atmosphere again."

Anyone thinking about the wasteful element of destroying so much cardboard needn't worry as a local firm, Walsh Waste and Recycling, will be on hand to remove all of the materials and recycle accordingly.

"Before I arrive in a city, I give all the specifics to whoever is organising the event and they will arrange the necessary materials for me and then sort out the recycling of it all afterwards," he says. "Also the public help to gather up all the card for the recycling trucks so it really is a very positive and inclusive experience.

"Although all the events are great, they are also very different - this doesn't matter whether it's two places on the other side of the world or two towns in the same country. I don't know what to expect when I arrive in Galway, but I'm sure it will be good and if the enthusiasm of the volunteers last year is anything to go by, we will have a great crowd of helpers too."

To volunteer for The People Build, see giaf.ie for details.

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