by Nadia Timova
Turbo is the first personal exhibition in a gallery space of young French artist Baptiste Debombourg, known to the Bulgarian public from the French exhibition “Virus! Virus!” presented at Sofia Municipal Art Gallery in 2006. Debombourg has chosen Sarajevo to be the location and the focus of his topic, as this city destroyed by war symbolizes in his mind an aspect that is particularly typical of human nature. He also intends later to present the exhibition in his gallery in Paris.
Do you remember the turbo wave of the eighties and how it unequivocally left its mark on the industry, and then on the whole cultural situation in Western Europe ?
In fact, you would most likely link this notion and the total effect it produced to some innovations of the car industry, namely the invention that gave additional power to the Formula 1 race cars and was later implemented in most motor conveyance technologies. It caused such a great euphoria that turbo was even imitated through additional tuning of the machine in order to produce a greater sound effect and hence an imaginary sensation of real physical power. And that was indicated explicitly on the “label”. If you remember, there was even a moment when this achievement became an indelible feature of other items, completely different in their intended purpose, mostly part of fashion industry. Upon the whole, in the eighties and in the nineties the turbo found its adequate way of imposing itself as a model of behaviour, as a successful means of self-affirmation, as an alternative recipe for being “something more”. At one point this fundamentally aggressive way of being, that is, of prevailing over others, became a distinctive feature of a phenomenon of East-European origin – a compilative and largely slandered product called turbo folk music flourishing mostly in the Balkan region.
Baptiste Debombourg is a young French artist who was obviously provoked by this sub-cultural situation, actually, this way of behaviour, strictly localized in this particular part of Europe. His experiment is so intriguing because the local artists who dare to pay attention to the phenomenon, that is, to analyze and interpret it, are so far the exception rather than the rule. What makes it even more curious is that this local phenomenon has been viewed through the eyes of the West-European cultural paradigm. By playing with this unknown context Demombourg takes the great risk of falling into the trap of the clichés and their sticky nature. In fact, the problem, as it turns out, is more than generous since it treats mostly models of behaviour, although of hybrid nature. And what particularly attracts Debombourg as an artist is the “pathos” of human behaviour. According to the artist, this pathos in itself expresses something deeply inherent in human mindset and behaviour that goes far beyond the local. It is the desire to be, to change by living through a different situation, by pulling on someone else’s skin, by “tuning” one’s way of behaviour.
Turbo folk music originated in the countries of former Yugoslavia and had to do, to some extent, with the situation created by the war that marked in a particularly brutal way the modern history of the former socialist country. It was practically a kind of Love in the Time of Cholera: the passions provoked by turbo folk blazed up high during the war, as if to inbreathe new strength and cheer to the suffering countries. Moreover, this kind of music could pass unhampered through the borders of the then hostile parties, reminding them, paradoxically, of the time when they were one. Or, as a turbo folk music trader said during the war, “art knows no borders”.
Turbo folk music itself is a strange hybrid between local Balkan and Oriental rhythms and ornaments and techno-beat elements borrowed from Western pop and electronic music. It means that the local moment remains but it has been compensated with the powerful, affirmative “turbo” sound. The turbo element appears as a kind of a “tuning”, not just of the local musical product but also of a certain aspect of the mass culture, attracting them to the field of actual West-European sound and behaviour. This “borderline” form, although largely accepted by the masses, actually provokes a great number of righteous objections on the part of the intellectuals. The accusations include platitude, superficiality and indecency, mostly aimed at the scarcely dressed female singers, objectivistic kitsch and other unaffectionate definitions. What is annoying in this context is the fact that the main role model remains the macho behaviour that is still typical of the Balkan region. The right of the stronger person has been defined by the possession of attributes that have more power and more glamour. The demonstrations as a whole are of the lowest order, and the turbo becomes a fashionable “accessory” of the new kind of rich men. For his project Debombourg has been initially provoked by the paradox – the injuries from the past regime and its destructive consequences, on the one hand, and the “Western” behavour largely embraced by the population and giving the illusory sense of “keeping up with the times”, on the other. This seemingly blind imitation is seen by the author as a subconscious critic of the Western society.
As the artist himself stresses, his work is always developed in a certain context. The focus of interpretation in the present exhibition, which is Debombourg’s first individual exhibition in Saraevo, is in fact this “macho” turbo behaviour that the artist actually questions in his work. Maybe what led him into that direction of reasoning is the development of the sub-genre: the new phenomenon, the music idol from neighboring Bulgaria of Roma descent, Azis, who has transformed his image beyond recognition – his feminine side is the leading one: the singer has implants in certain parts of his body, his make-up and wardrobe are definitely feminine and impressively sumptuous, his hair is platinum blonde. It means that the situation has drastically changed its sign, and the French artist has been provoked. Debombourg is in his element: the principle he sticks to in some of his latest works - destruction and attempt at recovery (product of human mistakes) – we see here as well. His installation has an extremely powerful presence – the wall has been broken from the inside in its turbo impulse to “exist” more tangibly, but as a result of the same pressure it is irreversibly cracked. It seems that the attempt at a fundamental substitution of identity in the pursuit of optimal results is always painful.
Baptiste Demombourg hasn’t yet reached his thirties, but his portfolio already contains an impressive number of significant projects. What is interesting about him is that, apart from his plastic arts activities, he has a BA degree in history of arts. After graduating in 2001 from the National School of Fine Arts in Lyon he has got another diploma from the Institute of Fine Arts in Paris where he specializes in Sculpture (that is how he defines it himself) learning from artists like Claude Lévêque, Jean-Luc Villemout and François Roche. At first Debombourg chooses this line of study being convinced that “dialogising” of a particular concept within three-dimensional space is more intriguing, hence his potential in creating a more powerful impact. His goal is probably to engage our empathizing conscience that would automatically proceed to unravel the next “mystery”. This well-thought-out choice of his has been imposed by the fact that Baptiste is extremely sensitive towards problems of the modern society. The author thinks that his artistic position expressed through and within space gets to mediate in a particularly successful way the problems that reality makes us face, namely its economic and social collisions.
As an artist, Baptiste often doubts the information that an object or a material contain according to popular concepts. He sometimes uses common materials to create unusual kinds of relationships. It could be things such as cocktail straws used to weave surfaces, coffee stirs that help create an interior vision of a bar. His version of the Duchamp urinal is particularly successful: he builds it out of Lego parts and installs it into a real restroom at a Parisian foundation. His Super Caddie, a supermarket car decorated with baroque ornaments and painted gold, also became subject of intellectual theft. Another work of his that stirs collectors’ passions is a nickel motorcycle stripped to the bones, so to speak, by street thieves.
In fact, almost all of his projects are inspired, one way or another, by a particular aspect of human relationships – mistakes, ambitions and desires, dreams of some imagined realities. But what the artist finds most interesting of all is how successful we are in making mistakes, especially when we are most convinced that we are doing the right thing, when we are most certain about the good income of our good intentions, all the while envisioning a bright future. A good example of this is his furniture – plain and very cheap (just like the way of living of people who have been given a chance “for a better life” in suburbs), which the artist smashes and then restores.
Baptiste is extremely patient and methodical in his work that is usually very time-consuming, and the process itself looks quite monotonous and dull. Although he describes himself as a “plain worker”, the results of his work are always extremely elaborate and intriguing, and also very esthetic (despite his original intentions). In most cases the artist collaborates with various institutions, as he cares very much about the social context of his work. Most of his projects include the names of enterprises impressed by his ideas and eager to cooperate providing their products or spaces. Apart from manufacturers (car part manufacturers, the printing houses that produce the popular Printemps-Eté catalogues, etc.), a church institution has participated in his projects as a sponsor or a guarantee, as well as a female Europe champion of body-building (Debombourg has “installed” the new model upon a classic pedestal); and his last project involves a cinema crew willing to make a film about a rally for cars moving on two front wheels (a political satire used by the organizers as a metaphorical expression of the problematic situation within their society).
There is usually a serious gallery standing by such an artist. In this case, Debombourg is one of the new names at an art gallery located in Le Marais, the prestigious Parisian area that houses most of the private modern art galleries. He is about to present his new personal exhibition there, which he is preparing diligently. I heard that non-smoker Baptiste Debombourg has smoked an impressive number of cigarettes just for that exhibition – in order to use the cigarette stubs for his new project.
Nadia Timova is an historian of art and art critic based in Bulgaria.
Art newspaper Kultura, printed in Bulgaria, 09/11/2007