Are Those Two Buildings Having Sex? Joep Van Lieshout Explains His ‘Misunderstood’ Domestikator Project at the Pompidou

It was a happy ending in Paris—at least for now. Atelier Van Lieshout’s controversial sculpture Domestikator (2015) was unveiled yesterday, October 17, in the square in front of the Centre Pompidou.

The walk-through sculpture, which houses smaller sculptures and videos as well as multipurpose space fitted with a bed—was slated to be installed in Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre as part of Hors Les Murs, FIAC’s outdoor program of architectural projects, sculptures, performances, and sound pieces that runs concurrently to the fair (until 22 October).

But on October 2, the Louvre’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez, deemed the sculpture too sexually explicit and objected to its placement. The piece spent two weeks in limbo, until the Centre Pompidou stepped in this past Saturday to offer its front square for the display of the work. (artnet News contacted the press office of the Louvre to request comment on the work’s new location, but had received no response at the time publishing).

Bernard Blistène, director of the Centre Pompidou, said in a statement: “I immediately asked Serge Lasvigne [the Pompidou’s president], if he’d agree to present the work and he straight away said yes.”

“The work of Atelier Van Lieshout is a beautiful utopia fully connected to the public space. The perfect place to exhibit it is the piazza of Centre Pompidou,” Blistène added.

artnet News spoke with Joep Van Lieshout, the Dutch artist behind Atelier Van Lieshout, during the unveiling of the Domestikator about his thoughts of the controversy, museum self-censorship, and the rising tide of conservatism facing the art world.

Deemed “too sexually explicit” by the Louvre, can you tell us what’s the Domestikator really about?

The piece is about the domestication process, how humans control the world, nature, how they start farming. Boundaries are always being pushed as part of this process. Today, we are on the brink of very big changes, with robots, AI, genetic manipulations, big data, which will all have a huge impact on our society. So what I’m trying to do with my work is to start a conversation about it. What do we think about it? Are machines going to take over? Will decisions affecting society be made just on the basis of statistics? I want people, scientist, critics, architects, politicians to start thinking about these issues. Should we guide these processes, enhance them, control them?

So, who is being domesticated in Domestikator?

Well, the beautiful thing about about art is that is doesn’t have just one meaning. Each viewer can have its own interpretation. To me, the sculpture depicts two rugby players (laughs).

Atelier Van Lieshout’s Domestikator at the Centre Pompidou. Photo Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt for Carpenters Workshop Gallery.

Atelier Van Lieshout’s Domestikator at the Centre Pompidou. Photo Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt for Carpenters Workshop Gallery.

The sculpture was on view for three years in Bochum, Germany, where it caused no controversy at all. How did you feel when the Louvre banned its display in the Tuileries?

I was surprised, first of all. Astonished, actually, as it was the last thing I expected, someone saying this is a sexually explicit work. There’s no nudity, it’s not political, it’s not disrespectful to any group or religion. And the way the work was portrayed in the media was irritating. So I’m really happy it’s been given a second chance, an even better chance I’d say, to show the work and to have a conversation about what the work is really about.

I can see members of your team moving inside the sculpture, what’s inside it?

A number of sculptures and video works from my “Crypto-Futurism” series, which the Domestikator is part of. Also, a program of talks and performances will take place during the week. It’s not a fixed program, but friends, curators, artists, and thinkers will be dropping by and starting an evolving series of events until October 22. The public is absolutely invited to drop in and participate.

The censorship of your piece comes after two high-profile cases involving vandalizism of public sculpture in Paris. One was Paul McCarthy‘s Tree (also known as the “butt plug/christmas tree”), which was installed at the Place Vendôme in 2014 also part of FIAC’s Hors Les Murs. The other one is Anish Kapoor‘s Dirty Corner, which was attacked repeatedly at Versailles in 2015. Do you think the Domestikator could get vandalized?

I don’t think so… Or at least I hope not… That would be a very negative thing. I think sometimes certain groups take an artwork to project their ideas on it. But I don’t really understand what all this vandalizing is about.

Do you think there’s a wave of conservatism facing the art world?

I think we are seeing more and more of it, like the recent case at the Guggenheim with the video of the dogs. But I think it has more to do with populism rather than with conservatism, in general. And also with museums becoming big enterprises, huge operations with loads of money, and dependant on money. They have to have lots of public, so they go for populist and popular exhibitions, with key commercial interests. Controversial discussions and bad publicity are not tolerated anymore. Museums can’t take any risks. Which is a pity, because that triggers a process of self-censorship. Maybe there should be a new type of museum, more like a lab, where complex and difficult ideas are allowed and encouraged again.

I think the most interesting thing about this case for me is that you have much more controversial/difficult bodies of work than this one—for example your series “Slave City“—so I find it rather arbitrary that this was the work that was singled out. Have you had any previous experiences with censorship?

Yes, a couple of times before. Once, like 20 years ago, also in France, when I had a show organized by the Museum de Toulouse in a small village, which was closed by the then-mayor. And then in the Netherlands, five or seven years ago, where I made a really innocent work, a bus stop called Alpha & Omega, with one being and egg and the other a skull, which was criticized by religious group.

So yes, I think art sometimes provides the perfect change to some groups to tell the media that they are alive, and art is defenceless to this, as artists are less organized and protected.

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