Benjamin SABATIER on Social Utopias, Modernity and Freedom - In Conversation

Much like a skateboarder, he utilizes urban infrastructure as his inspiration, finding beauty and meaning in the raw, industrial aesthetic. It only makes sense that the artist has teamed up with THE SKATEROOM for a very special collaboration. Benjamin Sabatier- Play Hard 1-3 concrete skateboards Together with Jean-Charles de CASTELBAJAC and Plan X Gallery (CB HOYO, Evgen Čopi GORISEK and Pascal MÖHLMANN), Benjamin SABATIER is one of the five guest artists to create a bespoke collection of skateboard art editions curated and revealed during an exclusive event at Paris Les Bains. For his part of the collaboration, SABATIER has designed a collection of concrete skateboard art decks with a fascinating meaning. In an exclusive interview with THE SKATEROOM, he reveals more about the symbolism behind the rare editions, as well as the inspirations, interests and personal mythologies which led him to where he is today.

What was your journey towards becoming an artist like?

I grew up in a family of artists, my parents were art teachers in the 1980’s, organizers of contemporary art events in Marseille. As students of Claude Viallat at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Marseille in the 70s, they allowed me to become closely acquainted with the artistic and intellectual work of the Supports/Surfaces movement. The movement’s influence is often present in my artistic approach, most notably through my choices of form and material. Additionally, the artists who they brushed shoulders with at the events have accompanied my childhood and adolescence. Gina Pane, Fred Forest, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, François Boisrond, Keith Haring, Dominique Gauthier, Richard Monnier… their œuvres have inhabited and constructed my universe. One of the most special moments was getting invited by Keith Haring to draw with him at the age of 6 - it was an incredible experience. Very early on, I was destined for a life that’s focused on creation.

Your work has a very industrial, almost architectural quality. What sparked this unique style and how did it evolve?

In the 90s, my family had purchased an abandoned farm in the plains of Livradois-Forez in Auvergne, surrounded by nature in the middle of mountains and pine forests. Together with my brothers, we had a passion for renovating. For over 15 years we have been amateur carpenters, roofers, masons, plasterers, welders, joiners, electricians… often even lumberjacks. The most trying part was carrying stones and pieces of rock which we stacked and fitted together in order to build dry stone walls. Through the physical expenditure and the knowledge we acquired, we also got a lot of satisfaction. For my parents, these activities were a type of learning and personal fulfillment, which gave a certain autonomy and independence through gaining practical skills. It was a way of learning from the materials through practice and experimentation, discovering their potentials and their limits, which is the starting point of what artistic creation is. Through using these construction materials in my artistic work, I am prolonging this story.

Your work seeks to “place art in a broader socio-economic context.” What do you mean by that? And - what is, to you, the ultimate purpose of art?

The materials which I use are part of the communal realm and are known by all. Manipulating legible gestures is my way of integrating my work with the social dynamic. The recurring usage of raw materials - brick, nails, concrete, cardboard, tape etc. - distances my work from that of a heroic “inspired creator”, in favor of an aesthetic of construction which makes the reproduction of works possible and accessible to all. Creativity, and the ability to produce in general, is within everyone’s potential. It’s the ability to combine mind and gesture within the transformation of matter, in order to discover the autonomous power of a free individual. It’s essential for creativity that the individual manifests and expresses their humanity. In this sense, how can we not reconnect with the great revolutionary utopias of the historical avant-gardes? Man is the creator of works with the utopian desire of transforming the world, led by the objective of obtaining happiness. It’s not a coincidence that my favorite slogan is “Do it yourself!”

Why is concrete your preferred material (both in terms of aesthetics and larger significance)?

Concrete is a material which I have particular affection for. Both for its malleability and its texture, which is able to be transformed from liquid into solidity, but also for the world of construction which it evokes. The Construction Site is an image of a process in progress, of form taking shape. The concrete used also refers to modernity, especially the brutalist and functionalist architecture. These radical currents were inspired by urban-architectural theses and achievements of Le Corbusier in the 1950’s, and they grant real aesthetic credit to the raw and “natural” beauty of concrete. The practitioners and theorists of his architectural thoughts wanted, above all, to defend an ideology of social progress, which was expressed through the creation of large modular and repetitive complexes intended for social housing. Over time, the verticality and harshness typical of this type of building have in fact become synonymous with a certain socio-economic violence... My work with these materials, derived from construction sites and the waste or surplus of mass production, thus discreetly reflects the failure of modern utopias, whether architectural, political or social.

Could you tell us about your collection with THE SKATEROOM? Its concept, inspiration, the artistic process...

In this project initiated by THE SKATEROOM, I use concrete to produce skateboards in order to humorously reconsider my questions of social utopias and the failures of modernity. Concrete reflects the coldness of the urban world, social conformity and the power of a globalized economy. The practice of skateboarding on the other hand, is a synonym for freedom! Its adepts physically appropriate the city, its concrete surfaces and industrial urban furnishing, thus playfully diverting their usage. The fragments of colored paper, crushed and encrusted on the surface of the boards are, for their part, the waste from my current activities - whether artistic or administrative - collected from the floor of my studio. Indeed, these cheap pastel papers, whose standard color is that used in all administrations of the tertiary sector, are used here for large abstract collages, which allow me to paint directly with the "color of the economy". The title of the collection, “PLAY HARD”, manifests clearly the critical issue between the concrete material, tertiary activity and the practice of skateboarding.

Do you have any personal experience with skateboarding or skate culture?

As a child I used to live in the countryside and haven’t had access to urban means necessary for the practice of skateboarding. It is nevertheless through magazines, fashion, punk music and graphics (especially the drawings of Jim Philipps), that I could access this culture which was otherwise underdeveloped in my surroundings. One of my greatest prides was, around the age of 13, managing to buy myself a second-hand skateboard with my little savings. A “Vision” board – equipped with “Krypto” wheels. I was even able to renovate and repaint it with my own graphic style. The small courtyard of the family house (a few square meters covered with raw concrete slabs) was the only space available for skating and became my favorite playground. On its rough and bumpy surface, I skated as best as I could, trying to perform the few tricks that I’ve seen on the only VHS tape I owned. My practice of skateboarding may not have survived adolescence, but skate culture has a significant place in my personal mythologies.

You live in Paris and Les Bains (where this collection launches) is an iconic Parisian venue. Does it have any significance to you?

Having been too young and not yet a Parisian in the 80’s and 90’s, I unfortunately haven’t attended the golden years of clubbing at Les Bains. When I moved to Paris after my studies at the beginning of the 2000s, the place was no longer in the spotlight and the arty Parisian nightlife was happening elsewhere. Nevertheless, the images and stories of Les Bains in its prime, which I’ve seen on television and in magazines, absolutely fascinated me. The place was haunted by mythical figures like Pierre & Gilles, Philippe Starck, Joy Division, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Depeche Mode, David Guetta, Andy Warhol. When its current owner Jean-Pierre Marois, accompanied by curator Jérôme Pauchant, have reached out to me to create an in-situ piece there for its reopening in 2015, in order to symbolically mark the end of the years of transformation and construction, I didn't hesitate for a minute. Likewise, when I was invited this year to take over the entire space of Les Bains with my recent sculptures and collages, I was once again enthusiastic and delighted to continue this adventure.

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