Virgile Ittah is French , her family background is Moroccan Jewish, and here she talks about influences her family history has in her work and her move to London 3 years ago. She studied at the Royal Collage of Art London.
Then at her degree show in 2013 she caught the attention not only of Mr. Saatchi, but quite a number of private collectors and has been offered several shows in her first year out of college.
The figurative sculpture is generally not associated with a contemporary art context, so how does she negotiate this tricky combination? I met up with her in her studio, high up in one of the old red brick buildings in an industrial back water in Bromley by Bow. As she leads me through locked Iron gates and back alleyways she tells me: ‘Apart from the constant dust from the cement works , it is good here’, she says, ‘there are no trendy cafe’s , no bars, no distractions, all you can do is work!’
Virgile’s work deals with identity and nostalgia and with feelings of isolation. Enter her latest installation at the Londonnewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch and one is engulfed by tall walls of wax that house and surround the two live size sculpted figures perched on the edge of two old hospital bed frames. All is suspended from the ceiling and somewhat precariously floating in the air. This mausoleum kind of enclave is made entirely from the same wax micro crystalline and marble dust mix that Virgil uses in all of her figurative works.
Previous works were informed by her family history. She tells me, that her father as a young boy was sent to France and was exiled from Morocco. Due the 6 day war in (?) … and the following change of laws many Jewish people in 1950 lost their roots and identity to an assimilation program still practiced in France today.
So tell me about your latest installation and why the white and greyish wax everywhere?
This work is a lot about the desire to be white, and about the fake, the illusion, and the point in time when you realise that you will never achieve your ambition of being white and will always be residing in this kind of in between state of not being one nor the other.
For example, when we visited the synagoge Jewish Ghetto in Venice I learned that the Jewish People wanted to use white marble to built a synagoge in the 15th century, but the Christian people would not allow it, because they thought that it was too pure a material for them, so they used this fake marble called Marmorino. I think the use of the wax for sculpting, in my work relates to that , this fake marble, the illusion. My desire to have a western identity but not being able to reach it.
Is this important to you?
It is not in my every day life, but it is important in my work, where I try and express a feeling. I made the choice to go and face other humanities , I could have stayed within my circle of Jewish French people like so many of my contemporaries do, there are 600 thousand Jewish people living in France.
And how do you want people to respond on seeing your work.
The public does not have to see and respond to this issue specifically. I try to not frame the work too much. People should be able to come to the work and project their own emotions and experiences onto the work, this way it becomes a stronger work and responds to a wider audience. But I think it is important for an artist to know why we are making the work and find out the depth of the work in itself.
Can you tell me about the Installation?
For this installation Catlin really allowed me to have ambition in my work and they gave me space and funds to make something with more ambition. So, I thought to prolongate the body outward and and introduce contamination from the dirt on shoes from the people walking in the space. We worked with dirt and the marble dust to create these irregular walls, that are crumbling and swelling and collapsing, with the ideas of abandoned buildings in mind, also isolation, the floating island or iceberg.
This idea of rooms decomposing relates back to the fact that when Jews leave a country all that is left is the cemetery. In Paris the oldest cemetery is a portuguese one from the 15th century. No one can have access, all the graves are collapsing, no one can build on top of it no one can visit.
Can you explain the title : ‘Echoué au seuil de la raison’ translates to : ‘Failed/aground at the threshold of the reason’
It means being at the threshold of hysteria when faced with a reality.
Echoué has a double meaning. This work is a lot about this desire of becoming white without the possibility of ever realising it. The two bodies balancing on the Victorian iron bedsteads point to a time in the early 19th Century, where society has changed. The status of woman has changed, and woman want to be free , but it is not possible, and this hopeless desire of woman to be free, was making them hysterical. I did a lot of research into ‘the hysterical woman’ and I found images of woman , with bodies completely deformed , with anatomical position which are near impossible and it is this frustration of the failed desire that drove them crazy . And for me it has this link with modern society and my own background.
In the assimilation program in France , they make you believe that you are French and white and then at a later stage you realise that you are not totally French and it is this desire to be white and the moment of the realisation of this impossibility, and the effect of your body being struck with the failure of this desire, that I wanted to express with this installation.
Why is this so important to you to be white?
I think it is important to be white in a western country, there is no importance in that in an African or Middle Eastern Country. The problem arises when you are in between the two identities, to never be at ‘your place’, to be constantly floating. I cannot say that I am really Jewish nor am I really French. Like my partner Kai who is not totally Japanese and not really Swedish. It is a struggle to never be at ‘your place’ because the idea of isolation comes with that.
Do you think this is relevant in today’s mobile life styles?
Society of course had changed we are a more mobile society but I think the values in society have not changed so much. It is part of the nature of human beings to want to have roots, it makes your life easier gives you more stability helps you to survive.
To be different always means exclusion. We may feel insecure of a certain people because they don’t belong to one identity or another. People will be afraid to project themselves toward you.
Do you find yourself in situations like that?
For me it is much easier here in London, because here I am not considered as a Jewish person. I am just French, so in a way my dream of being French has come true here in England, where I am more French than I have ever been, which is quite ironical. But when I am back in France people will see that I behave like a French person but they are uncomfortable with my Jewish background and the reaction can be hate. And I have this feeling of being a stranger in my own country.
France is really different from England. There is a lot of anti semitism and racism 25% of the people are extreme right wing, 35% admit openly to being racist. It has further increased a lot since the economic crises. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to leave France.
Your figures in the installation are a double?
The double is a symbol of the other, the alter ego and symbol of death, the one body falling and the other signifies the elevating the ascent of the double. It shows the last breath before death, this in between moment, where the physical body is falling but the double is elevating, representing this duality of a being which is both physical and not. It is linked to Richard Senet’s texts where the person I see in the mirror is not myself and the illusion of how you see yourself and the reality. I think it represents also a self portrait, for when I look in the mirror I was seeing a French Person, but often people were saying , but you are Turkish or Moroccan, where all I was seeing was a French person.
Do you follow the Jewish faith?
No I am completely agnostic. The politics of integration in France is called assimilation, it means you have to erase your background in order to really become French. But the new generation does not want that anymore, we want to be proud of our origin. Here in England it is better, you can be accepted with your own identity.
I have noticed that the head of your sculptures to be more worked more smooth than the rest of the body?
I create the head always really classically like a greek or roman sculpture.
This for me represents the illusion of beauty and purity , progressively the body is becoming decomposed, the altering of the muscle followed by the sad reality of the gradual decomposition of the body. The illusion we have of the beauty of the human being which is pure and smooth is a fantasy.
Tell me about the scale of your works?
I always work on a big scale. Sometimes a collector asks me to make something on a smaller scale, but I have to tell them it is not possible. Because I really want to involve the public, it needs to be human size in order for the public to physically experience it. I would never make something smaller. I swapped from painting and photography to sculpture for that reason, I think this is the future of contemporary sculpture.
Is it Art History that inspires you?
I grew up with my mother who took me to the churches and the museums to see art . I did not see Modern Art or Contemporary Art. I remember seeing tableau’s where nude figures are overcome with dramatic overwhelming emotion.
Do you have a favorite period in Art History?
My favorite is Contemporary Art, because everything is possible today. Pre-Raphealite and Art Nouveau was my favorite one. The Pre-Raphaelite was a fake middle age era and Art Nouveau mixed the human representation with the idea of fantasy.
I like religious paintings like Pietra’s ‘Decent from the Cross’. Then the work I wanted to say longest with was by Carravagio at the Museum in Brussels (?) titled: ‘Arrest of the Christ’, it is an amazing painting I was really inspired by it.
I discovered and think that what makes my work contemporary, is the difference that I do not sculpt a particular person. I try to create human feeling through the figurative sculpture. I am tying the figurative form to something that is actually abstract.
Do you have any favorite artists?
Michael Boremanns for painting James Turell for installation and Berlinde de Bruyckere who also works with the human form but uses casts unlike myself. Her works talks about death, so the cast is well placed in her work for the cast is the meaning of death.
But when you are an emerging artist you can not really have hero’s or feel too close to other artists works because you are in the process of developing your own identity and you don’t want to go on a battle. You have to be confident in yourself and ready to fight. For me it is the only way to become a great artist and to have a really strong identity. I would say the path of Lucian Freud or Bacon is good, for whatever the trends were throughout the decades, they only made their work. It is good to be strong minded and to be sincere with your work and not to try to follow a trend.
What was it like for you studying at the Royal Collage of Art London ?
When I arrived at the Royal College of art , I brought my figurative drawings with me.
The tutor was quite surprised and astonished because most of the students were really aggressive with me , because they could not understand how I could make figurative sculpture in our times. Because currently figurative painting went back on trend, it’s ok now to be a figurative painter, but figurative sculpture they could not understand at all, so the tutor said, he had never seen such aggressive reaction. And I think it was linked to what I said earlier, the students I was with could not project themselves at all, they felt uncomfortable , my work was so different, it was something they had not seen. But progressively we began to understand each other and apparently now at the Royal College there are some people there who are making figurative sculpture. So I am happy I have given them the freedom to make something outside the trend!
Why the installation and not purely the sculpture?
The sculptures are all part of the installation, that is important for me. I don’t want for the sculpture to be the object only. I want the public to be able to experience it, I want to put the viewer inside the work to experience it better. I want to provoke intimacy with the work, people should be able to touch the work. Maybe my work in the shape of the installation is not yet mature enough, maybe it is difficult to understand. But I conceive the the idea for a work within the space. I see my idea as an image, maybe because I was a painter. Its always site specific work, and I alter the space to fit my idea.
Do you have challenges that are coming up in the future?
To get onto the next step. I had a lot of opportunities and lot of exhibitions this year for I am a recent graduates, so the challenge is to become a professional artist and be represented with a gallery. We are also planning a collaborative solo show with my partner and also sculptor Hitomi Kai Yoda, I m really excited about it and looking forward to it.
My biggest challenge, is to be shown in museums and institutions it is the only way that I can touch a wider audience. I don’t want to make work for rich private collectors only even though that is nice, I would prefer to give emotion to a wider public.
Do you like living in London, what are your favorite places?
Yes I love London, people are really open minded and flexible. In France art is mostly funded by the state here in England it is mostly privately funded. London is so multicultural you can be different from the other and still ‘have your place’. The city is big and so I like the parks the green spaces, I like the farmers markets , they remind me of France. I miss the vegetable markets in France, it’s a kind of nostalgia.
Do you have a memorable moment where art figured and made a difference in your life?
Since I was 6 years old I was drawing and painting , at 12 I began to do life drawing but I did not know that you could live from your art. Then at 13 or 14 I saw this film about a woman artist, she was Jewish and going to art classes , was really isolated and I remember she killed herself at the end. But I did not care about that , what is important , was that it made me decide that I too, wanted to live by my art.