Yoann Bourgeois In conversation with Gilda Bruno
Feb. 6, 2023
Yoann Bourgeois looks at art with the eyes of a child who has never stopped dreaming. An acrobat, actor, juggler, dancer, and choreographer among others, the kaleidoscopic talent draws on his obsession with the physics of suspension to immerse the audience in surreal spectacles challenging the rules of the world as we know it. Nestled in the heart of the French Alps, Bourgeois leverages his childlike vitality in the production of shows, films, and installations that speak to the core of humanity. Active at the intersection of art, fashion, opera, music, cinema, and more, his work has been showcased internationally, rapidly earning Bourgeois a reputation as one of the most poetic, thought-provoking personalities in today’s cultural scenario. With ODDA, he talks about finding freedom and joy in adult life, art as a form of resistance to the challenges of our times, and his ultimate goal: “reaching a point of suspension.”
GILDA BRUNO. With a background in circus arts, acrobatics, and dance, you have become known for your gravity and balance-defying moving installations, many of which include surreal set designs you have conceptualized and developed yourself. What specifically made you want to approach these disciplines and what can you tell us about the early days of your artistic career?
YOANN BOURGEOIS. When I was a kid, I thought that childhood would last forever yet, one day, I nearly saw it come to an end. The circus was the only thing that kept me going, giving me the opportunity to preserve my inner child through the years. It saved my life, quite literally. There comes a time in life when you are forced to leave the game to gradually step into the adult age of work; the circus allowed me to preserve that very playfulness of childhood and envision a poetic life rather than a productive one. Thanks to it, I made a fundamental discovery: we are not actors. Instead, we are vectors. Life is beyond us at every moment. We are traversed by forces; hang on to a swinging trapeze and you will actually feel them! Inspired by physical phenomena, this powerful, eloquent experience is what continues to inform my artistic language even today.
G.B. You’re an acrobat, actor, juggler, dancer, and choreographer, yet — as you pointed out in several interviews — no term seems to represent you better than “player.” What aspects of your work make you a “player” and why do you think that such a definition sums up the essence of your art?
Y.B. “Player” first and foremost so as not to be locked into a (too strict) disciplinary category. “Player” for I cherish the beauty of the gesture. “Player” because freedom and joy are values that I don’t negotiate. Finally, “player” is a conquest of existence, the player being for me a model of humanity that knows how to transform any constraint into yet another rule [of the game.]
G.B. What would you say if you were to describe what you do in one sentence?
Y.B. I’m trying to reach a point of suspension.
G.B. As an all-around artist working across performing and visual arts, you must be constantly after new inspiration. How do you normally gather creative stimuli?
Y.B. My practice is very inspired by the observation of nature. This is something I dedicate myself to on a daily basis in permeability with the territory that surrounds me and its landscape characteristics, which are, for me, a great source of inspiration. I like the power of the mountain, its disproportion to the human scale, its oblique perspectives, and sometimes its harshness. Natural physical phenomena are, for me, a constantly renewed source of wonder. I create “model worlds” that simplify the complex data of reality to amplify a specific phenomenon. This amplification manifests itself in the form of a relationship between opposing forces, forces I engage within my performances, which always tend to pursue the path of balance. This is what I call “a point of suspension” — something that is unstable and therefore requires movement.
G.B. Your work often involves the development of a geometrical, minimalistic and slightly surreal setting wherein one or more performers move, immersing the audience in a different dimension. What artistic and intellectual influences have shaped the aesthetic of your choreographies, and what are you trying to convey through your suspended-in-time-and-space signature style?
Y.B. I believe that all the arts seek to resist death. In this sense, the pyramids of Egypt are exemplary. Yet, at least on some scale, even the pyramids, just like all other things, will eventually turn to dust. With this certainty in mind, what alternative do we have? At the other end of immortality is eternity, which is here. Here and now. This is precisely what that “point of suspension” I mentioned earlier represents: “being there” is not self-evident and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Quite the contrary, it’s the hardest thing. It’s a form of vertigo. The works and personalities that influence me give me the keys to vertigo. Among those are Johann Sebastian Bach and, in particular, his musical work “Die Kunst der Fuge” [“The Art of Fugue”,] and Escher’s lithograph print “Relativity.”
G.B. Though dressed in contemporary clothes, the performers in your moving installations appear to belong to a dreamlike parallel universe where everyday rules and norms have ceased to exist. Drawing on your fascination with weightlessness and the physics of suspension, you create performances that transcend the logic and obstacles of real life to focus on the humanity that lies at their very foundation. How do your ethereal set designs and soundscapes relate to the outer world as we know it and experience it?
Y.B. This question reminded me of a beautiful quote by the German artist Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” For me, the goal of art is on the side of the unseen, the unheard of. In a way, my works try to capture the living, not to reproduce life. I don’t care whether it looks like the real thing or not! Provided that they amplify life.
G.B. Six months since the start of this new year, we already have every reason to think 2022 will be your big breakthrough moment. Over the last few months, you juggled between the theatrical direction of Virgil Abloh’s latest Louis Vuitton show in Paris, the conception and choreography of Coldplay and Selena Gomez’s new video “Let Somebody Go” as well as that of Harry Styles’ hypnotizing video clip “As It Was”on top of your other commitments. What do these collaborations tell us about your artistic craft as a whole?
Y.B. This 2022 is full of great projects. Collaborating with artists from other practices encourages me to explore new possibilities and advance my art, eventually enriching it. It also allows me to reach other audiences, which is fundamental for me: I aspire to create a universal language that is immediately accessible to anyone, whatever the age or culture. The further I go, the more I notice that the circle of requests widens. So, hopefully, my quest is not in vain!
G.B. You had the honor of contributing to the breathtaking Louis Vuitton Men’s FW 2022 Show, the last one developed for the house by the late creative director Virgil Abloh. What was the vision at the core of the highly anticipated event and how did you translate it into the choreographies that animated the show? How does it feel to have had the opportunity to weigh into the legacy of a visionary force like Abloh?
Y.B. When Virgil first presented his collection to me, I was blown away by his free spirit — the kind of spirit only children have. An imagination capable of envisioning what we could not conceive ourselves, what up until then seemed other… Something at once close to the world of dreams and surrealism but also incredibly current… Virgil was a formidable bridge that made it possible for communities to come together.
Drawing on those ideas, we imagined a “Dream House”, a project we developed in collaboration with the Playlab team. This dream house was broken down into space by a vacuum that divided every room from the other. In each room, mechanical devices such as trampolines, spinners, and seesaws would move the space magically, creating a real playground! From there, I came up with a choreography that was inspired by people’s interaction with the space and involved both models and dancers.
Together we diverted the motives of the fashion show itself by seeking to defy gravity: the worst nightmare for a model is to fall! And as we are players, we played with the fall! It was during this process that Virgil left us. It was a cataclysm.
After the stupor, a question arose, “Could we go on without him?” This dilemma elicited a collective response, “We had to keep going for him.” The show took on a very powerful dimension that saw his friends and collaborators unite as one. Within that atmosphere, I brought up a concept that, as you’ve probably noticed already, is dear to me: suspension. Suspension is the absence of weight, the moment of all possibilities. We all needed suspension, that is to say, a kind of eternity… Maybe a way to stay with Virgil…
G.B. This new issue of ODDA explores what the magazine’s muses have been up to over the last 10 years while shedding light on what is next for them in the coming decade. What did this past decade mean to you and the evolution of your practice?
Y.B. These 10 years have been more intense, richer, harder, and more exciting than anything I could have ever imagined. Thanks to my art, I made incredible encounters and discovered extraordinary places. I have set up scenes on sublime rivers or peaks, playing at sunrise or for a whole night… But it is the dimension of “decompartmentalization” of my practice that most certainly sums up this evolution. I have managed to export the singularity of my language — which is anchored in living art — to the sectors of technology, fashion, cinema, music, and visual arts, to name a handful, and I am glad that thoughtful research can also lead to a wider audience nowadays. During this past decade, which has also been an eventful one for the history of humanity as a whole, I have learned that agility and mobility remain crucial in approaching any sort of change.
G.B. What was the highlight of your career over this last decade and how are you planning to top that in the near future?
Y.B. It is difficult to name just one highlight because the gap between each one of the experiences I lived through my work is remarkable! However, one of the most powerful memories I have is that of the installation of “The Mechanics of History,” one of my performance pieces, at the Panthéon in Paris, back in 2017. I loved imagining a bouncing city together with director Oscar Hudson for the launch of the Apple AirPods campaign in 2019, and I passionately designed professional internships around the concept of vertigo with philosophers, extreme athletes, and poets, all set in my beloved Chartreuse mountains, where I live. I am currently working with choreographers hailing from all over the world and coming from different dance styles to ideate a new way of writing movement that encompasses all the major choreographic families. Though we are still at the first stages of research, if we succeed in achieving our goal, it will be a historic spectacle.
G.B. As a multidisciplinary artist engaging with a number of disciplines including dance, design, music, and more, it is plausible to think that your craft may, at some point, take on a different shape, unfolding across other previously unexplored mediums. How do you see your practice evolve in the coming years?
Y.B. My artistic balance will always have its roots in strong territorial anchorage and international collaborations. In the future, I would like to pursue film and event design. At the moment, I am in the process of designing my own place of creation in the heart of the mountain to foster a dialogue between artistic and environmental issues. I am also in conversation with many great artists, so I am definitely moving up!
G.B. What motivates you to create more?
Y.B. The period of mutation that we are currently witnessing fascinates me and I want to take part in it, passionately. We are facing major existential challenges and I would like to contribute, in my own small way, to deeply redefining our relationship with the Earth. I believe in the symbolic power of art, which transforms our imaginations. I really have faith in the act of creation and think it’s a form of resistance. Through my devices, I try to manifest the power of our fundamental interactions to thwart our deadly anthropocentrism and possibly re-enchant the world.
n conversation with GILDA BRUNO
Edited by EMMELEIA DALIWAN and ALBERTO CALABRESE
Photographer FELIX DOL MAILLOT
Fashion Editor SID YAHAO SUN
Stylist ELISA SCHMITT
Photographer Assistant VICTOR FERRE
Fashion Assistants MANUEL ROBIN and LEO BOYERE
Special Thanks to STEVEN PRANICA at CREATIVE EXCHANGE AGENCY