They met at the school of Nice’s Villa Arson. In 1984, when they were third-year students, they decided to team up. Richard Bellon, Renaud Layrac, and Frédéric Pohl may not be household names, but as a team they were quick to gain notoriety. Of course their name, BP, was already famous, and that is always good communications strategy. BP have appropriated objects from the world indexed by their name in a particularly appealing, literal, and humorous way, while holding up to the art of their time a limpid, ironically tautological mirror. Christian Bernard met up with them five years after their first ”one-team” show at Villa Arson.
Let’s start at the begining, why did you decide to work together ? What’s in a name?
We agreed that painting: no longer offered any interesting prospects, either to us as individuals or in general. Relatedly, we wanted to get away from the old notion of self-expression, which is why we decided to work not as individuals but as a team. We wanted to reflect our cultural environment – rock music, city life, and the machines and objects, merchandise and images, of industrial society… Finally, we wanted to see how far we could go by letting our work develop out of our name. Our choice situated us in the tradition of appropriation, since we took the initials of a world-famous oil company. This would have been a totally gratuitous gesture, had we not decided to accept the consequences and constraints that came with the name. Our materials and methods had to come exclusively from the world of petroleum, automobiles, and machinery. Moregenerally, we were interested in an art based on intellectual attitudes, objectifica- tion, and simulation.
Saussure spoke of the linguistic sign’s arbitrariness. In your case one might speak of the arbitrariness of a name. One of your first pieces, Three Monochromes (1984), comprised three windows filled with motor oils of different colors. The components of your creative method were already clearly discernible : the dual reference to oil (paint and petroleum), the neutral combination of ready-made industrial materials, and the humor of taking reality and language literally (here, the cliché of the picture as a window). The 1986 Oil Painting completed your system by : introducing the paradigm of movement. In that work a, visible device created a perpetual flow of motor oil across, the surface of a picture, painting a black monochrome film before the viewer’s eyes.
That piece was important for us, although the mechanical aspect did create a certain number of’misunderstandings about our work. The oil-dispensing device was meant to be a metaphor for the practical ccrmplexity of painting, not an aesthetic tribute to auto mechanics ! In fact the work was supposed to be our last. It was our farewell to painting and the farewell of painting – a painting painting itself in real time, before the viewer’s eyes, and constantly self-destructing. The End.
The piece also marked the beginning of your inventory of the visual possibilities of dirty motor oil.
Motor oil soon became our principal medium. The ideal reflection of our name, dirty motor oil is a smelly waste product. We liked the idea of turning it into a ”noble” matter and showing its other qualities : its beautiful, shiny, fluid, heavy blackness. Black symbolized our mourning for the death of painting and color. It also eliminated the problem of subjective choice. Moreover, oil is an elusive fluid, that can’t be touched with impunity. It can thus be taken as a metaphor for the artwork’s aura. Whether flowing or still, the smooth, opaque liquid forms a mysterious mirror that captures the environment, destabilizes space, and draws the viewer into the realm of illusion.
When combined with the pure forms that you use (circle, square, cylinder, etc.), the dark fluid’s inherent beauty brings an undeniable aesthetic dimension to your work. But you modify that dimension with your wacky humor and many references to the forms, habits, and clichés of modern and contemporary art.
In our appropriation of the world, we are not biased : we are as interested in the modern canons of beauty as we are in the mundane reality of things and the simulation of art. We phlegmatically repeat what the world offers us, and in the modern world monochromes are the colors that move us most. Some of our pieces are autonomous in relation to art, while others are deadpan imitations of it.
What will you be exhibiting next ?
Isn’t there a risk that you will wind up making the kind of figurative art that you have always rejected ?
No. Our photographs involve a specific investigation of the medium itself. Using the checkerboard archetype, we have played on the interaction of positive and negative elements. Moreover, we want to work in every possible genre. Our approach requires media that allow for variation and duplication ; photography, unlike many of the media we have used, provides images that can be reproduced. Finally, our photographs are like rebuses, which brings us back to the arbitrariness of the sign and of our name.
Translated by Charles Lynn Clark.
Interview by Christian Bernard, in Galeries Magazine n°37, juin 1990