Watching Didier Courbot at work, you would probably think he was a nut.
The artist’s most celebrated work, “Needs,” is a series of photographs that finds Courbot in cities, performing weird but well-intentioned urban interventions — planting flowers in the center of a busy traffic circle, lovingly watering the weeds that grow through cracks in a sidewalk, duct-taping a broken handrail on a pedestrian walkway.
Other Courbot pictures from the series, those which document the aftereffects of his actions, similarly convey the idea that someone strange has been by. For example, we see a couple of old public benches in a Prague green space — but on one of the benches, a single slat of the weatherworn wood has been replaced by a new, unvarnished one. The picture is just mildly unsettling. More importantly, it points us toward an interesting line of reasoning: No city work crew, it is clear, would do such an unprofessional repair job on the bench, so this was apparently done in an unofficial capacity, probably by a member of the public. What business, we may then wonder, does a member of the public have fixing public property? Is this, in fact, vandalism? Ah, the irony.
Courbot may be an offbeat conceptualist, but he is no nut. Actually, I was surprised to find that the 36-year-old Frenchman is one of the sanest artists I have met in a while. I caught up with him at the opening of his show “A Constellation of Constantly Changing Fragments,” which comprises 11 works dating from 1999 to now, including three 96 × 122 cm C-type prints from the “Needs” series. The exhibition is now showing at SCAI The Bathhouse, one of Tokyo’s most original contemporary art spaces; it’s housed in what once was a sento on the edge of the Yanaka Cemetery in Taito Ward.
Didier, who started out studying in landscape architecture school, found it natural to pitch in with the watering of public flower gardens in the environs of his Paris home. Soon, his unusually helpful character led him to perform other fix-up actions around town.
“I guess I was doing this sort of thing for a while,” he says in reference to the “Needs” project, “and eventually I decided to take pictures to show to people who could not visit the place where I had done something. Next I began to work with photographers, and it evolved from there. Although I take some pictures myself, I usually work with a local photographer — like when I was in Osaka — and I like that aspect because of course different photographers in different countries have very different styles and produce different results.”
Besides Osaka, Courbot took his toolbox to Prague, Rome and Paris. In 2001, ensconced in an artist’s residency in the Quebec hamlet of St. Jean Port Joli, where there was not much of an urban environment to work with, Courbot made wooden coat hangers, took them out into the forest, and tacked them onto the trunks of trees.
“I don’t always just repair things,” notes the artist with what might be a mischievous tone, as if wishing to avoid a “Mr. Handyman” label. “Sometimes I do other things, like painting branches, which is a type of decorating.”
And, yes, Courbot can be somewhat controversial in his approach. I imagine some animal rights people would object to “I Clandestini” (2002), a project in which the artist captured four sparrows in Paris, transported them by train to Rome, where he set them up in the nice homemade wooden birdhouse he had attached to a street lamp. There is an installation with birdfeeders, birdseed, CD-ROM and a video projector at the SCAI which loosely documents “I Clandestini.”
Also in the show is “Baby Star.” Explains the artist: “The vision came to me one morning when I awoke — a star made of wood. I described it to a craftsman, and he made it. It was my dream, but I had another execute it, so the work really doesn’t belong to me. I like that.”
We also have six new studies in ink on paper, and a treated version of the Haruki Murakami paperback novel “A Wild Sheep Chase.” Courbot’s version of the book has been stripped of all plot development (this was done in cooperation with the book’s printers) such that all we find on the pages are passages describing atmosphere and mood.
Finally there is the title piece, “A Constellation of Constantly Changing Fragments” (2003), which is a bunch of “things people would like,” purchased by the artist at various shops, gift-wrapped, and stacked up against a wall of the gallery.
“It is up to the person who buys the installation,” says the artist, “they have the choice to open the presents or keep the installation as it is.” What, I ask, would Didier do if he were not the artist, but the collector? After a short pause he answers, “First I would photograph the installation, then open the presents to see what was inside. Then I would rewrap everything.”
See? Not a nut at all. And good with his hands.
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