The Antic Staatsoper Critiques Contemporary Life through Hybrid Photography
by Paul Weiner
Encountering the Antic Staatsoper’s work for the first time is like watching a romantic date end in heartbreak. The artist, who originally hails from the south of France and currently lives in San Francisco, sets the stage with masteresque, chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of Caravaggio’s paintings. He fills his images with classical references to various gods and spiritual scenes throughout his beautifully spacious compositions. But then he introduces the critique, illustrating contemporary issues through old figurative, bodily vessels within a digital landscape. The Antic Staatsoper covers material from censorship to perversion and the narcissism of today’s popular selfies in hopes of reviving art’s historically political conversation in a time when many artists are so preoccupied with the new tools at their hands that they forget about content. These pieces take on the contemporary nude, questioning the Puritan covering of the body that can amount to censorship, especially in the digital space. Oddly, the formally romantic setting of this work recalls the reactionary tendencies that the artist critiques, bringing historical context to the forefront of the work.
The Antic Staatsoper’s work can also be found on his website.
You were born in the South of France before moving to San Francisco, California. Do you feel that your art is influenced at all by geography and the cultures of the places you have lived?
The Antic Staatsoper:
Of course! I’m hungry for all cultures and experiences that life can give me.
On a personal level, I consider myself a lucky guy to have the chance to visit the most famous classic and contemporary museums in Europe. In those conditions, your curiosity is better than any art school. Europe gave me a huge culture, keeping me curious about old and contemporary art or popular and underground culture. I’m still surprised every day by the European culture and its diversity. My art is born in Europe, and I can’t do anything to hide that. I only realized how much my photographs appear European since I have left Europe. I wasn’t conscious of that before. The old Europe raised me, but I felt like a teenager who has read too many books of the Beat Generation, dreaming about things bigger than life, still waiting for a train to come.
I’ve always had a craving to live in the American culture. I’ve played in a lot of indie, rock, post-rock, and experimental bands influenced by American music. Some rock runs in my veins. I’ve eaten up the American literature of the 20th century, adored movies from the counterculture, and finally felt the call of a new kind freedom as a way of expression. I think that my thirst for liberty and the dynamism of my work comes from the United States. This energy, this power that pushes me forward, is my American part. I’m proud of it.
My heart, shared between these two loves, has found a perfect balance. Today, my only dark point remains how to be accepted in the galleries with nude pictures in the United States, even in the fantastic Frisco.
Your works often reference Gods of various different religions and mythologies, as in the case of Venus and the Dark Veil of the Censorship or Perverted Pieta. How do you select the Gods or religions to be used in each work?
The Antic Staatsoper:
“Use what you know” could be my motto. I can’t struggle against my Western culture. I really love the mythology. It seems very human to me. I love the imperfections and the deviant behavior, so simple but true of these gods. There is a real pleasure to play with these creatures. Each character has a specialization. That helps me to focus on my topic. I also like to manipulate their bodies. Their poses, the contraction of the muscles, or the position of each member in the frame can say more than any word can. Also, I need to show naked bodies to remind people that nudity is not pornography. Once again, it’s a way for me to directly ask you some questions about your acceptance of your body as a natural device for communicating with your environment. I don’t understand the prudery today. I tend to see this trend of fearing nudity as the root of many frustrations and conflicts in the world.
I use Christianity too. There are so many things to say, but I didn’t want to walk the easy an outdated path of profanity. Here again, my connections with the painters and sculptors were obvious. Their art take us farther away than the religion they’re supposed to be a part of, like Bach gives you the most powerful perceptions of spirituality with his passions. At the begining, Christianity was the first love revolution of history. But it’s really interesting to see how we have perverted it and used it to abuse others. I show religions as biological systems. This sociological phenomenon is subject to a tragic decay from the dynamic and positive youth to the dark age of its own Apoptosis. However, I think that we cannot ignore the relationship of this system or the people who lead it with their environment. Every religion and their distorted visions could unveil many humorous situations. We are only able to represent our divinities in every religion through our own prism with human or, eventually, animals features. Or, sometimes, religions avoid any representations so as to avoid questions about their origins.
Of course I don’t forget the other religions. For Venus and the Dark Veil of the Censorship, the idea came from many female friends of mine in Europe who told me they could now get in trouble for wearing dresses or skirts in certain places. Some of them have been threatened by puritans asking them to put on veils. I can not let this be silenced. As I said, the body is the key: less gods, more spirit!
Tell us a little about the physical process for making these works. To what extent are they digital versus photographic?
The Antic Staatsoper:
It’s hard to answer. I never considered myself as a photographer. I always have doubts when I see the work of other photographers. Actually, I’m just a frustrated painter who is not able to hold a brush or to mix two different colors to get something consistent. I was very impressed by the Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. He is also one of my favorite contemporary artists. I had the chance to see the five parts of the Cremaster. I discovered that he was, in fact, a plastician. He shot movies only to set up his scenery. I think that is what I do too. My pictures could be movies or paintings or sculptures or even music because in the beginning, I’m a musician. Photography was, well I have to admit, easier for me to manage. Maybe it’s a kind of sketchbook.
My digital process is based on old painting processes. Yes, it’s very old school. The scenery is the same that you could use for a drawing, a very simple set up and a simple light, as natural as possible. I need the models to express struggle and the instability of the situation, the moment before the conclusion. At the end of the process, I try to be a painter, so I use a digital brush because it is less harmful than a real one. I try to paint some texture on the pictures as if I had made and shaped all these pictures with my own hands.
Tell us a little about your formal interest in merging classical imagery and contemporary, digital methods of creating. Your Decorum series seem to reference, for instance, 17th Century Dutch paintings such as landscapes by Rembrandt and Vermeer while the Gods series has a Baroque feel about it, perhaps sourcing from Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro scenes.
The Antic Staatsoper:
Three years ago, after a long love story, something broke in my relationship with art. I realized that something was missing, but I didn’t know what.
I needed to come back to the classical imagery. I needed to go back to the true aim of art, a way to reach an upper consciousness, a gate to the spirituality. I wanted something less fed by itself, something less self-centered. I was bored by the “me, myself, and I” inspiration. The second point was technology itself. Today, the technique and technology seem to be more important than the intention and the meaning. These perfect tools distract us from our goal. That’s what was missing for me in contemporary art: a real purpose, a yearning, and a real battle for these values. That is what I found in classic art, a strength and a complexity that can haunt you for days and days. In the end, you get your own questions and maybe some answers. This is an active art. It lives inside you. It brings you out of your material contingencies, above the poor representations of the religion and its false perception. This art opened new doors for me. It gave me a window toward spirituality. I use a classical imagery so as to talk about our world.
I also wanted a Lo-Fi approach like in lo-fi music. The aesthetic didn’t need to be perfect, punching digital imagery straight to her face. But using digital technology was necessary too. I don’t want to be seen as passé.
I started the project DECORUM in 2012. At the beginning, I just wanted to ask questions about our uses of these new technologies in art and not about the tool itself. My first intention was to show the lack of sustainability of the contemporary imagery. I imagined digital pictures rusted in our hard drive. Some of its rotten pixels reveal our world like it will remain after us: empty spaces with simple lights, old artifacts of humanity, an old-fashioned vision, the last sustainable form of imagery, and the lights from a vanishing world.
Most of these pictures were taken in the north of France and Paris. The European painters and their uses of natural light were an important influence. In this back-to-the-roots project, I played with the old imagery and its powerful symbolism fulfilled by different meaning and hidden messages. In this way, I began to ask questions about our behavior. It created a place for new experimentations.
I used DECORUM as a starting point for my work-in-progress, GODS. It would be its birth place.
For this project, I chose contrasting imagery. I want you to feel the struggle even in the lighting with only one light above each character, the light of spirituality. The contrast is in the Manichean symbol of their battles. Gericault and Il Caravaggio are my masters, of course. The language of their bodies and the strength of their scenery were decisive and definitely helped me to initiate the project. The body, the pure, naked body in all its beauty is the perfect interface between the material and spiritual world. Only a natural light can express this union, this dialogue.
At this time I realized that I was horrified by a world which is falling again in a new obscurantism and puritanism. Just read the news, and you will get an idea of what I’m talking about. But the thing that scared me the most was the lack of opposition from the world of art. I don’t think that most of our creative producers are really involved in these conflicts.
I needed something powerful in order to ask my questions to the world.
The topics are various, but they all lead to the same basic issues: the misunderstanding between religion and spirituality, the new behaviors between generations, the new medias and how they modify us, large corporations and mass-media, society and entertainment, new relations, empathy, love, fertility, creation, and our ability to reach universal peace. Together.
How did you begin your Gods series and what emotions are you trying to evoke?
The Antic Staatsoper:
After having launched the Decorum series, I realized that I created a new universe, a Tabula Rasa where I could experiment with more ideas.
I’m very slow at work, and it took me more than 3 months to complete each picture. Each time, I let my ideas becoming clearer, collecting information to enhance the accuracy of my purpose. I stretched all the interrogations and statements I had in this universe until I got the scenario of the scene. It was the starting point.
Decorum is my Mount Olympus. I filled it with characters coming from mythologies and old beliefs. These characters, these gods, were created as a mirror of our own behaviors or trends, playing with distortions to gain more efficiency. Their symbolism still works in our world, but sometimes the conclusions seem to take unexpected paths.
My first God was Altas. He carries the world on his shoulder, but why should he continue? Do we deserve this privilege? All these Gods evolve live in a blurry world in tandem with our world.
I never intend to give emotions through my pictures. I would like to be able to play with your emotions, but I don’t know how. Emotions are correlated to your own life, so they are different for each person. At each exhibition, the feedback always surprises me. The viewers most of the time describe my pictures as disturbing, erotic, provocative, or mesmerizing, and the reasons were always different for each picture. Rather than giving emotions, I prefer to ask questions. My pictures represent the last step before your own conclusions are made. You could guess how it will end, but the conclusion will be your own one.
I would like after seeing my pictures that you keep them in mind, wondering if you agree or not. Are my questions relevant? Does this picture bring you other questions? Do you feel a new need? Maybe this is the kind of emotion I want you to feel.
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