Ann Stouvenel: How did this residency project come to life?
Marcel Dinahet: The residency project came from far away; I have been attracted to the island of Ushant for a long time. From 2000 onwards, I organized workshops, which were based at the ornithologist center, a few steps from the Créac’h lighthouse. I was a teacher at the art school in Rennes then and we had sometimes joined our research with the university and geography students led by their professor Hervé Regnauld. The last workshop was made with a group of teachers and students from four art schools in Brittany. Moreover, I was interested in Jean Epstein’s films and the relationships he had built at the beginning of the last century with the inhabitants of Ushant, the islands and the ocean. In 2007 and 2008, I started a personal project (I made a series of portraits of the descendants of the actors from the film Finis Terraeand I met and became close to these people). I then made a series of video portraits of the cliffs in Ushant. That took time and I had to be present on the island. With Celia Crétien, we originally created the association Finis terraeto organize two days of broadcasting artist films that were about the sea and insularities, with the help of Mayor Denis Palluel who gave us access to the premises. At that time, I learned that the Finistère department was restoring the semaphore in order to put an artist residency into place. Rodolphe Rohart, who piloted the operation for the department, offered us to use the semaphore every year for two months for two residents. This residency quickly became the association’s project.
AS: A French artist and a foreign one come each year and other artists or theorists can be included, depending on possible collaborations. The residency comes with a scholarship and production costs. The main goal is to offer a frame conducive to take some distance and leave everyday life behind for a given time. It seems to me that this project is very much unique and essential for creation. Can we talk about the development of a community, 10 years after the first residency? Is there a spirit developing around the project?
MD: I realize that a residency project takes time to fall into place. On the island, the information travels quickly and the presence of an artist attracted a lot of attention at first, a lot of comments. Artists made themselves known, each in their own way. Some developed relationships. Successive residents constructed the project in this context. The discovery, the unexpected, unsettled their practice sometimes. Elements, the extreme nature of the landscape, the possibility of being alone, a month, at the semaphore, under the Créac’h lighthouse, the most powerful lighthouse in Europe in front of the Atlantic Ocean at the beginning of the Channel, puts the artist in an exceptional position. The question is to see if this position in this place creates a common mindset in the artists’ practice. In my opinion, this worldwide dimension, linked to a place where we find ourselves, is bound to create a link, maybe perceptible, in the artists’ practices. In this sense, one can talk about a community of artists that have come to the semaphore.
AS: I am always curious to discover the work of residents after their time in Ushant. The island transforms itself in an experimental field. Its location, atmosphere, history and traditions, very specific, are explored by the artists and theorists who live there. During his time, Jean Epstein filmed landscapes like portraits. When you travelled, what caught your eye and what were your interrogations?
MD: In the book Jean Epstein. Cinéaste des îles(Ed. Jean Michel Place), Vincent Guignent writes: « By going to Brittany, Jean Epstein doesn’t forget his intentions or his cinematographic grammar. By working on the event and the myth, he sets an archaic and pantheist relation between mankind and the elements: water, air, fire and earth. He experiences the limits of the world, the finis Terrae, a poetic writing that gives as much importance to nature and objects as to its characters. The sea is a living character whose swell is the language, the optics of the lighthouse are eyes that watch the ocean.” In Ushant, the island holds a dimension that is interesting to experience physically. It is spread to allow us a long walk to visit and discover it. One could say that the island is an amplifier! When there is low atmospheric pressure, the wind is more violent than on the continent, the dimensions of the rocks and the unfurling waves become huge. In opposition, the islanders are safe in their little houses. The entire island is being tested by the storm. Twenty-four hours after, calm can have returned. During every stay, I discover and think I see the details of the littoral in a different way. That probably has to do with the variations of the simultaneity of elements at play. This simultaneity brings me to new perceptions. In this engaging process, I give a lot of space to intuition; it’s sometimes necessary to accept dead ends in order to move forward.
AS: How do the inhabitants of Ushant meet the residents? What relationships have developed?
MD: The progressive anchoring of the association on the island first started with its relation with the Musée des Phare et Balises (Museum of Lighthouses and Beacons), with Delphine Kermel, its director, and also with the city hall through its Mayor Denis Palluel. These two people were extremely helpful in making us meet the inhabitants (providing premises, presenting the residents’ artworks to them, helping us make projects, meeting them in the context of projects, even housing the residents, etc.) According to the field of research of the residents, they managed to create direct and diversified relationships with the inhabitants. Several artists, for example, were invited to talk in a high school in collaboration with the teachers.
AS: During this residency, there is a real experience. Alone in the semaphore, every moment is lived, fiercely. I’m also thinking of the elements that are very much present.
MD: Yes, to be in a position of watcher at the interface between the Atlantic Ocean and the continent, in front of the ocean, is a beautiful starting point for thought. To spend every night under the giant sweeps of the “two white beams joined in rotation” of the Créac’h lighthouse (the title of Enrique Ramirez’s video which now belongs to the Frac Bretagne), is at the center of this signal that sweeps the invisible horizon, alone in the night. In the middle of the elements, especially when there is a storm, sea sprays go over the semaphore. It is also a very specific relationship to space.
AS: Why is taking some distance important? Can we talk about risk taking?
MD: As soon as you lay foot on the island, it becomes very present. The relationship to elements appears to you in a very frontal manner. One receives so much information that it’s often necessary to spend time to take some distance.
AS: This context seems to be favorable for artists searching for something, to pullback. What follow-through can one give to the experience in the semaphore, short and long-term? What repercussions can this residency have on an artistic work?
MD: Time builds this project. Year after year, what the residency provides to artists, in their practice and their approach, can lead us to think that this ensemble has to be considered as a big space for reflection (insular at the extremity of the continent.) The majority of artists gives back generously and under different forms what the amplitude of the landscape has given them. The association does not have exhibition spaces for the works made during the residency. The Musée des Phare et Balises and the city hall help us periodically. Works have had the chance to be shown, notably for very recent works: Eléonore Saintagnan at the Diagonale art center in Montréal, Gregory Buchert at Mains d’Œuvres in Saint-Ouen, Laurent Tixador at the Art & Essai gallery at the Université Rennes 2, Pauline Delwaule at the Centre Pompidou, or Enrique Ramirez at the art center Le Grand Café in Saint-Nazaire. Ihave also noticed that past residents come back to continue their experience and others are hoping to come back to this piece of land in the middle of the ocean. Underneath its treacherous austere appearance, this island offers us a never-ending renewal of perspectives.