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Features / April 11, 2014

Julie Favreau: Mastering the Moment

Julie Favreau is enamoured with magic realism. What particularly attracts her, she says, to the novels of writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Mikhail Bulgakov is the classic fantastical trope of the door: a passage from mundane reality to an alternative, enchanted space. So when I stepped into her studio in Montreal’s Darling Foundry, I thought I might be transported—perhaps to some kind of eccentric storehouse for the sets, props and uncanny objects that populate her hybrid installation-performance-video works. Instead, I found her workspace as deceptively ordinary as the outside of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, almost empty except for some work tables, storage crates and two computer workstations where Favreau edits the video and sound components of the haunting works that have made her one of Montreal’s fastest-rising artists.

After presenting in the 2011–12 Quebec Triennial at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and earning her MFA from Concordia University in 2012, Favreau was awarded the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Fellowship in Contemporary Art, a prestigious prize intended to help graduating students launch their professional careers. In the same year, Favreau also made the longlist for the Sobey Art Award. Even her current studio is a kind of prize: Favreau was granted one of the Darling Foundry’s coveted spots for local artists. The transition from her old studio to the Foundry actually accounts for its minimal appearance—much of her previous work and her collections of objects and ephemera are currently in storage. Between the Bronfman fellowship and the Foundry’s resources, this last year has been a sort of incubation period for Favreau. “Simply, it gives me time and space,” she tells me. “I’m grateful to spend so much time researching.”

But while this opportunity to fully immerse herself in studio exploration may be a new luxury for Favreau, her work has always been inflected with a sense of the privacy, focus and concentration that the studio inspires. Though it enfolds sculpture, film and choreography in multi-layered installations, the core of almost all of her works is a performer, usually alone, engaged in a highly charged interaction with a mysterious object. This performance generally takes place in a room or on a stage that feels self-enclosed, a magic circle that seems to recreate the feeling that Favreau is chasing in her own studio. Discussing Ernest Ferdik (2011), which she showed at the MACM between 2011 and 2012, Favreau says, “it was for me the classic idea of opening a door and stepping into the installation. It was that very immersive feeling.” Inspired in part by Ferdydurke, an absurdist novel by Witold Gombrowicz in which an adult man is forced to regress to adolescence, Ernest Ferdik’s video component shows a semi-nude man (Nicolas Cantin) performing obscure actions with strips of faux leather, branches of abandoned wood and a sculpted head within a darkened space. The video is then projected inside a scenographic installation that replicates and extends the video’s setting. At various points throughout the exhibition, additional performances were staged within the installation for a live audience.

The centrality of performance in Favreau’s work has led many commentators to describe it primarily in terms of dance, and it’s true that she often collaborates with professional dancers and sometimes produces work for the stage. Nevertheless, Favreau is keen to emphasize that she is a visual artist. She says, “To make something visually recognizable at the point between an object and a pure movement—that place in between is what I’m looking for.” What dance gives her, in this regard, is a vocabulary for expressing, through gesture and form, things that are difficult to put into words. In virtually all of Favreau’s work, there is no dialogue. Her performers tend to move in an eerie, hypnotic silence, sometimes accented by drone-like music. In works like Ernest Ferdik, what leaves the greatest impression are subtle aesthetic details that court an enigmatic significance without ever quite settling into a definite meaning: the weathered texture of the wood, the smooth, black surface of the sculpted head and Cantin’s facial expressions as he tentatively improvises with his materials.

“When I feel a gesture is right, it feels a thousand times more precise than any words to talk about something,” Favreau tells me. This conviction could be traced back to the epiphanic moment in 2005 when she first encountered the French Non-dance movement while on a student exchange in France. Emerging out of the milieu of nouvelle danse française in the 1970s and ’80s, choreographers like Boris Charmatz and Jérôme Bel began to create pieces in which traditional dance and dance movement disappear in favour of other activities, including theatre, lectures, music and often video or film projections. At a performance by Christian Rizzo, Favreau watched a performer acting out various simple movements in sequence at different “stations” on a stage, with musical accompaniment. It struck her as “really slowly building an installation on stage.”

“There was something in the attitude,” Favreau recalls. “Everybody in the room was working; it was as if he was talking to people through gesture—silent action, silent theatre, but so speechful. It was really, for me, like a crossing-bridge between all those different kinds of mise en scène. I said to myself, ‘I can work like this!’” Nevertheless, coming out of a video and performance background from her undergraduate studies at Université du Québec à Montréal and focusing on sculpture while at Concordia University, Favreau had no training in dance. She has since thrown herself into workshops, and often attends dance performances to find inspiration and potential collaborators, but the tendency within Non-dance to make use of non-dancers has also encouraged Favreau to try her hand at disciplines in which she is inexperienced.

Favreau tells me that, earlier in her career, she made more frequent use of non-actors and non-dancers. Now, however, she looks for performers whom she calls “actors of themselves, but really good movers and interpreters.” Likewise, her performances and installations used to be more sprawling and chaotic, incorporating large numbers of found objects into ramshackle assemblages. But a more recent work like Anomalies (2012) takes place in a cleaner, more minimal mise en scène and focuses on interactions with single objects that are crafted rather than found. This heightened clarity and focus make Anomalies Favreau’s most compelling work to date.

In each of the four sections of the video, a performer is intent on a single task: an older woman maintains an expression of stillness and composure while balancing a giant wooden compass gingerly atop her head; a young man in a pale blue, pointed hat (like a dunce cap) uses his headgear to prod and stab at a constellation of thin, finely joined rods that hang from overhead; another young man, seated cross-legged in a room made of sand, meditatively balances a tall blue pole on his calves; finally, a dark-haired young woman in a white shirt (it suggests a lab coat) sorts and arranges a collection of pale balls or stones on a set of glass shelves. In its original installations at Centre Clark in Montreal and Parker’s Box in Brooklyn, the video was projected on a cushion of white imitation leather suspended over a sculptural white grid-structure with a snake-like white form coiling through it. These are some of Favreau’s most iconic images, full of rich, mythopoetic associations and charged with an enigmatic atmosphere comparable to the occult science-fantasy of Alejandro Jodorowsky. In contrast to the dark and vaguely prehistoric sensibility of Ernest Ferdik, which seemed concerned with the quasi-ritual transformation of base materials, Anomalies’ sci-fi scenarios suggest parables about the judicious use of knowledge and technology, and about personal discipline and mindfulness.

While many influences might feed into any of Favreau’s works, she claims that there is always one “master” story or book that a given piece will draw from, however loosely. For Ernest Ferdik, it was Ferdydurke. For Anomalies, it was Mikhail Bulgakov’s lesser-known novella The Fatal Eggs, a science-fiction story in which Soviet scientists develop an enlarging ray that they hope to use to feed the populace by producing giant chicken eggs. But things go awry—the ray accidentally used on reptile eggs, creating monster serpents that ravage Moscow. Though Favreau was attracted to the themes of science run amok—of ideology, belief and illusion—the story’s influence on her piece is better discerned in certain formal resonances. She describes how “Moscow is represented by many, many apartments, people piled up, and it was visually like a grid,” and she represents the image of an atom as a pole around which things rotate. In this, as usual, Favreau is particularly adept at rendering themes and ideas as movements and objects—or, better yet, as movements becoming objects and vice versa.

For her, the idea never comes first but only arises from a process of improvisation. Meaning comes from making and doing. “If you go into a hotel or into an Ikea, it’s so empty,” Favreau laments. “In the studio it’s not like this. I think that void feeling that you can have, in many places in our society…when I go in the studio, it’s like making the opposite, making a room that is so meaningful.” In other words, if we live in a disenchanted world, alienated from the forms of production that manufacture our environment, the studio is where life is re-enchanted. “I’m interested in the aura of an object,” Favreau asserts. “If you make a powerful object, there are so many stories that are embedded into that thing.”

In this respect, Favreau differs considerably from Matthew Barney, an artist to whom she could otherwise be compared, given that both unite performance and sculpture in symbolically laden cinematic works. For Barney, the symbolic schema is predetermined—in his universe, every element represents something very specific. Favreau’s approach, by contrast, is much more invested in the arbitrary. By creating conditions of intimacy, openness and trust—between herself, her collaborators and her objects—Favreau invents the conditions for meaning to become possible. What emerges does so of its own accord.

The studio, Favreau emphasizes again, is what “makes it clear.” It’s where she goes through the slow process of editing, where she reads, where she conceptualizes and writes before and after projects. Perhaps the most surprising moment in our dialogue occurs, however, when Favreau describes another activity she does in the studio: auto-hypnosis. “It’s tricky to talk about,” she cautions me. “Because for me it’s a tool—I’m not a mystic.” Nevertheless, she’s been using hypnosis for five or six years, “from MP3s on the Internet to a type of meditation.” The angle she prefers to take on the subject is that of visions, which she believes ties her work to painting. “I have a vision,” she says. “I see the image in my head, and I will do everything until I have the vision, until I exceed that image.” When Favreau talks about visions, though, they sound less like a picture in the mind and more like something that arises from the body. She speaks of hypnosis as a physical discipline, something that allows her to “master a moment” by slowing down and focusing. It’s this almost-psychedelic level of sensitivity and attention to form that makes Favreau’s work so compelling. Like watching a film by one of the great metaphysical directors—Andrei Tarkovsky or Ingmar Bergman, for example—experiencing one of Favreau’s installations makes the rest of the world seem more vivid and present afterwards. It lets the mystery back in.

Favreau confides that Scandinavian directors—Bergman in particular—have had a profound impact on her. Her next project, which will be presented at Concordia University’s FOFA Gallery in April 2014 as the conclusion to Favreau’s Bronfman fellowship, delves deeper into a Scandinavian vein. Though it’s impossible for her to say what a work is really “about” until it’s finished, she suspects that the master text for this piece will be a novel by Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson, titled Entre ciel et terre in its French translation. “It’s so slow and yet everything happens,” Favreau says. “But all the little events are huge, and that’s what interests me.” As usual, her process for the piece began with an object—in this case, a clear glass finger. “I have an idea for an object, and then from it there will be a choreographic thing,” Favreau explains, “like a feeling of gesture, and then the whole mise en scène goes from that—which character should play with it, in what type of environment, and so on.” Thus far, her environment is a country house lavishly designed by a Swedish architect and situated on a picturesque lake outside of Montreal, where she spent a weekend shooting with two performers. The rush footage she shows me is impossibly lush and verdant, with a lingering attention to water, skin and foliage that’s reminiscent of Terrence Malick. But, as yet, the piece remains in an embryonic stage. Favreau is still improvising, searching for key elements. “The little finger will transform into another object that is in glass as well, and I am seeking for what shape it has to be,” she muses. “Right now, it is one of the most important questions of the project.”

This is a feature article from the Spring 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store until June 14.

Saelan Twerdy

Saelan Twerdy is a Montreal-based writer, editor and PhD candidate in Art History at McGill University. He is a contributing editor at Momus and the managing editor of RACAR, the official journal of the Universities Art Association of Canada.