peter de potter on the symbolism of nudity, the speed of images online, and the power of silence
As he releases his first monograph, the Belgian cut-and-paste collage maestro opens up in a wide ranging conversation about the state of today.
Peter De Potter has spent the last few years almost exclusively releasing his artistic output to the world via the web, primarily on Tumblr and Instagram. The artist favors the immediacy of the net, instead of traditional forms, to push his vision unfiltered into the ether.
His aesthetic is instantly recognizable, if not easily or satisfactorily summarized. You could say he pulls together fragments; his works feature scratches of text and juxtaposed images. It revolves around ideas of the male form. He takes and repurposes and breathes new life into the pieces, crafting a unique visual and textual alphabet that is entirely his own.
But now, he's dropping out of the web and dropping a massive, beautiful, monograph. The Vanity of Certain Flowers is surprisingly his first book in a career that's stretched over 15 years.
An integral part of the Belgian scene centered around Antwerp, Peter went on to forge a creative partnership with Raf Simons that began with their iconic book, The Fourth Sex. Since its release in 2001, Peter has provided many graphics for the designer's collections. The new tone Peter helped pioneer with Raf in fashion is recognizable in his own artistic output; there's a rawness and an honesty, an emotional vulnerability and an unafraid intelligence that defines his work. It's nowhere more evident than in this new book, which lends an incredible look into the Potter's world. Trading in the web for printed matter, The Vanity of Certain Flowers is a beautiful milestone in the artist's career.
This is the first book you've released that is 100% your own work. Why did you feel this was the time to do it?
Mainly because this particular series almost dictated it… It's the biggest series I've done to date and it just made sense to bring everything together in one concentrated go. This way I could show the real scope and depth of the series. In that sense, the book is a story, more than a portfolio. To me it's a rounded artwork in itself.
What are you most proud of in this publication?
The book is mainly about the idea of retreat and finding growth and strength in self-discipline and self-education. Touching upon consecration — ascesis, even. I wanted the series to have an overall sense of calm and silence. When I go through the book now, I think those elements are certainly there, even though there's an overload of images.
The book really is a visualization of a particular state of mind — something silent and pure with the feeling of promise, something imminent and beautiful. It's a world far away from nightclubs, computers, cityscapes, anything communal in fact. The challenge for me was to evoke this silent, almost pastoral space without making it into a blatant rejection of what you could call wordly things.
Where does the title, The Vanity of Certain Flowers, come from? What does it mean to you?
As always, the title came first. As soon as I wrote it down I knew it would become a project. I like the fact that the meaning, or rather the feeling of the title changes when you switch the emphasis from one of the three words to another. It could be metaphorical, spiritual, physical…
I think 'vanity' is a strong notion, very much in sync with these times. Or out of sync, depends on how you look at it. It's not the first time I touch upon the vanity theme, but combined with the idea of retreat, it's interesting to think about how the idea of vanity would evolve or translate when there are no stimuli from an outside world.
You've recently been working primarily on the internet, using Tumblr to distribute your work, for example. Were you nervous about the permanence of a book?
No, not really. It's the same thing. The internet is less fleeting than most might think, anyway. Everything we post and share is digitally engraved and I think that because we have gotten so used to their delivery and recurrence, digital images tend to get engraved in our minds as well, much deeper than we might imagine. Images in digital spaces reach us differently. With each new image that pops up on our screens, there is this tiny little shock of the new — literally. Because they come unsolicited and unfiltered, digital images have a sense of the unexpected. But equally a sense of rediscovery. In a book it's more of a locked groove, but I hope this book also challenges and surprises. In fact, the book is one long imaginative feed in itself, making some sort of perfect sense as it progresses and unfolds. Well, that's my hope anyway.
What do you feel is the relevance of a book in the age of Instagram, Tumblr, and the deluge of images we experience online now?
I think that a book has become a little event now, something that consolidates all these disparate, often subconscious ideas any digital-savvy consumer might have about visual culture into a concrete, covetable object. I like the fact that a book is physically released, sent into the actual world and that the viewer has to go through a number of actions to get to it. I think a lot of people are again appreciating that, they like the fact that they're collecting a book, making it theirs and theirs alone. Next to that, there's a romance about books that people are once again enjoying.
Maybe it won't last? But today a segment of young people are looking at books like they would look at sneakers and phones: objects that define them as completely 'now' and in touch with the time and therefore as relevant. Print is here to stay a little longer.
What attracts about the internet as a way of working?
It was six or seven years ago when I started looking at the internet as my main platform, which is an eternity by today's standards. Back then, it was the best way to inject my work directly into the maelstrom of contemporary visual culture. It was a completely honest gesture — on the internet, the earth is basically flat, so the images had to survive by their own strength without relying on the status of the one who made them. I still like that aspect. But obviously things have changed now. A lot of that naïve, wide-eyed charm has gotten lost, which is a natural process, so we can't be too mournful about it. Nowadays everyone knows about the marketing value rather than the creative possibilities. I remember when social media first came to the fore, you could see all these people trying their hand at this new kind of self-portraiture, bringing themselves into the limelight, even though no-one really knew what it all entailed. It was exciting to see how people presented themselves on social media, almost finding out different layers of themselves during the actual making of a self-picture, it was like looking at self-examination in digital motion. Of course the aspect of discovery soon rubbed off. Nowadays literally everyone is in on the game, everyone knows all the tricks. People have started to look like corporate adverts of themselves, even with the calculated flash of realness. I'm by no means dissing that, just observing. It's fascinating in itself, to see how so many people nowadays take on a formatted method of self-imagery.
You're very well known for the work you've done in collaboration, whether that's Raf Simons or recent work for Kanye West. Do you prefer working by yourself or with others? Does your way of working differ much when it's just you?
Not at all because it's always just me, haha! I have always been working autonomously, but yes, I have been fortunate that other people liked my work to such an extent that they felt confident enough to invite me to bring it wholly into their own world. My working method, my themes, my content, my approach, has always been the same from the start. Of course there have been developments, different stages… 15 years ago pop culture appropriation felt much more natural and urgent to me than it would do now for instance. Five years ago I was entranced by the possibilities of social media so that was very much reflected in my work. Today I'm putting more focus on my photography even though I still treat my camera the way I treat my computer and my notepads — as another tool to talk about the notion of images.
Do you think of your work theoretically, in a tradition of experimental art? I'm thinking specifically of the way artists have used collage in the past, but also of things like concrete or experimental poetry? It's easy to tell who is influenced by your work, but what about your own influences?
I remember as a teenager going through a stage where I discovered a lot poets and artists and writers in such a short timeframe that it almost made my head spin. People like e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Tristan Tzara, George Bataille. All of those made a big impact and they still influence me, no doubt about it. They showed me that the word and the act of bringing the word can be explosive, even when it's delivered delicately. I think I was influenced most by artists who on top of that could conjure up their own particular world and break free from art theory, people like Wyndham Lewis, Francis Picabia, Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin…
But I think what inspires me the most, especially nowadays, is the standard that some people have set for other to follow. It's one thing to delve into someone's work but yet quite another thing to examine their genius. Of course it's all completely subjective and maybe a bit silly but it's the best exercise to subject yourself to. It makes you stand on edge and prevents you from doing the obvious. Here — again — I'm thinking of Richey Edwards. He was very important in terms of what my work is about. Forget about the fact he dressed like The Clash. I loved the fact how he referenced mass culture to pinpoint subjects that the very same mass culture tried to turn a blind eye to. And I think he was a unique in the sense that he was about a relentless search for truth but at the same time could see the alluring beauty of all things. Most importantly, he was a figure in popular culture that championed intelligence, which is a rare thing. I still think his lyrics to "Faster" should replace the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
Do you approach words and images in the same way?
Yes, they're both equal components of our daily life so they should be equal components in art and imagery. A word is an image and an image is a language, to put in in Magritte-speak.
You keep certain thematic constants in your work: nudity, masculinity, homo-eroticism. What keeps your interested in exploring these ideas? Do you ever feel frustrated by journalists who circle back around the questions in your work?
I first and foremost make my images as a means to engage with the viewer, to get something across. To me, my work is a conversation. But strange as it might sound, my work is not so much about the elements you might see displayed in the images, because those elements, to me, are my alphabet, my tools to form my language.
So no I don't mind people asking about them, I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder. You mention homo-eroticism and I can see where that's coming from, but for me that's too limiting. When I portray a person it's never about seduction or arousal. To elaborate on the element of nudity; I don't want to analyze it to death but most of the time the nudity in my work is there to emphasise the idea of aloneness, in the sense of being solitary in an everyday way but also in the sense of being liberated from context. Nudity can mean something uncluttered and that's what I mostly look for. And when it's done right, there can be something so definite and resolute about the portrayal of a naked person that it becomes emblematic. The erotic doesn't really come into it to be honest. In fact, if I would have some small crusade then it would be to do away with the idea of young people as submissive eye candy. There is still a lot of that in our visual culture.
If anything, I'd like to make work that is free from categories. Or free from serving only one kind of audience. Ideally my work is about now, and god knows how multi-layered and complicated and diverse the state of today actually is.
The Vanity Of Certain Flowers is available now at the-broken-arm.com
Text Felix Petty
Images courtesy Peter De Potter