From February 17 – 19 2013, Sarah Gold and Karlyn De Jongh introspected Ben Vautier in Nice, France. Through different performances – round table conversations, body painting, communication through written texts, or by lying together in bed in the ‘Ben Room’ of their hotel – ‘Ben’ was investigated, openly discussing any topic. The following text is part of one of these performances, whereby Sarah and Karlyn each hold a mirror in front of their faces and ‘introspect’ Ben, while he is looking into these mirrors. The total project was recently published by the Global Art Affairs Foundation under the title Ben Vautier: Introspection Truth Sex & Art and a video of the project was exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale in the exhibition PERSONAL STRUCTURES at Palazzo Bembo.
Sarah Gold: This is an introspection on Ben.
Ben Vautier: Introspection… This is a nice word ‘introspection’. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and I‘m hoping I change, and the more I look at myself, the more I see a stupid old man who is always the same and cannot change. So, art is change, but we cannot change; we are just the same.
Karlyn De Jongh: I think you are too afraid of change. You do not seem to go into reality, you do not act.
BV: I would be a serial killer, if I could change. I would kill humanity.
SG: Why would you kill humanity?
BV: Because all humanity is ego. We cannot get rid of ego.
KDJ: What do you mean, ego?
BV: Ego means you cannot get rid off thinking, I, I, I… I want this, I am there, I am here. Je suis, je suis, je… Always ‘I’.
KDJ: But you are, your work is about that. You are ‘I’.
BV: But I do not want to be. That is why I want to become a serial killer.
SG: Are you a jealous person?
BV: I am jealous of other artists, never of women. Not ‘never’, really… I say I am not jealous, but maybe I am jealous of my wife fucking with someone else, that could be… It excites me, it excites me but at the same time that it excites me, it gives me anguish, both… It goes up and down.
KDJ: So why are you jealous? Is it because you cannot do it yourself?
BV: Because you do not want to do it with me. No, no… It is because I cannot do it myself. I am jealous, because… it’s complicated.
SG: Are you afraid?
BV: We are always afraid. Afraid of being oneself, afraid of death, afraid of losing or not being who we want to be, afraid of wanting to be another.
KDJ: Who do you want to be?
BV: I want to be truthful. I just want to find the truth and to say, “I am not a liar.”
SG: Do you think, you have been truthful in your life?
BV: No, I have been a liar. You know, once George Brecht told me he liked a painting in which I wrote, “I am a liar.” I said, “why do like that painting?” He said, “Because it is not true, you are not a liar! And if it is not, and if it is the truth, then you are not a liar. So, to write ‘I am a liar’ is a truthful sentence.”
KDJ: Can you still look in the mirror and be serious about yourself?
BV: When I look in the mirror, I … I once did a piece called Mirror Piece, in which I looked into the mirror, hoping to see myself change. But it takes a lot of time. Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I have bags under my eyes. When I was young, I did not have bags under my eyes.
KDJ: But that is a visual impression. Can you look at yourself in an human way? Are you proud of yourself?
BV: No, I always see the same. I suppose, I always see the same ego.
SG: If you have to choose one: art, sex, truth. Which one would you choose?
KDJ: What does it mean, ‘truth?’
BV: I do not know.
SG: What is the most elementary emotion you have?
BV: Anguish. Not knowing what to do.
KDJ: Not knowing what to do? Or not daring to do?
BV: Not knowing. Anxious. Looking for. Worrying. Thinking of.
SG: Where do you think this comes from?
BV: Survival. Art survival.
KDJ: Is art about your survival?
SG: Is it survival of the fittest?
BV: It could be.
KDJ: Are you fit enough, Ben?
BV: No. Truth is sometimes against survival.
KDJ: Are you afraid? Of yourself?
BV: I am tired. I want to go to sleep. I have been afraid, but not of myself, no. I want to go on, continuing…
SG: Who am ‘I’?
BV: I do not know. I’m tired.
KDJ: Who is Ben?
BV: A boring artist, who is looking for something new and does not find it.
KDJ: Is there a difference between I and Ben?
BV: Who is I? Who is behind there? We are all the same in a way. A mirror is … I wonder who discovered the first mirror and what he thought when he saw himself for the first time. He must have said, “what is that?!”
KDJ: I think you are trying to avoid giving an answer.
BV: I do not know the answers. I am not so clever. I do not know the answer.
KDJ: After fifty years of performance, of making art, can you not give an answer to the question ‘what is ego?’
BV: I can show off, that is all. To know ‘why’ and philosophy is too complicated this morning.
SG: We spoke about your mother yesterday, tell us about her.
BV: My mother was very, very important to me, because I lived with my mother and she used to say, “Ben, the only thing that counts is the truth, the truth, the truth!”
KDJ: What did she mean?
BV: She always used to meet her friends and play bridge together, and my mother used to make horrible fights between them, because she used to say, “In the name of the truth, I must tell you that you went with another man and your husband does not know it!” So, they were horrible stories!
KDJ: If you cannot say now who ‘I’ is, can you tell us: who is the other?
BV: Who is the other? On a morning like this, I am not a good philosopher. I would love to talk with you about it. The other is always. You cannot be someone else, but another. Marcel Duchamp once said, “c’est le regardeur qui fait le tableau.” This means, “the man who looks at the painting, makes the painting.” Then you always need another to exist; a big one to become small; a rich one to be poor; a poor man to be richer; a strong man to be a weak man. You always need another, you cannot be alone. You are beautiful, because there are girls who are—I suppose—less beautiful. You are tall because there are people who are less tall, because there are little people. In a world full of little people, maybe one of the little people would be a giant compared to some other little people. So, to be another is always to be in comparison with others. And let’s say in art, we have those who succeed in bringing something new and those who repeat themselves and are not new enough. We are fighting to try to find newness. We are trying to find something that makes our difference. If I am different from the others, people will say, “I recognize it! That is a Ben!” Or, “I recognize it! That is a Rembrandt!” So to be, to exist, is to be someone in comparison to the others. But maybe today it is interesting for artists not to look like one another, but to (on purpose) look like everybody. So that is another simple art, too. But then they also cannot get away from being different. When John Cage says, “Everything is music.” At the same time he is changing the games, the world’s games. In previous times composers had a certain personality. The personality of John Cage was to open up a window through which everything else could pass.
KDJ: If it is like you told us that ‘ego is jealousy.’ I am not a jealous person. Do I still have ego?
BV: Maybe you do not know your jealousy sometimes. I think, jealousy is culturally different. Maybe. I do not know, I can’t tell you. For myself and I think for most artists when they look at another artist, they think in their mind, “Oh, that’s good! I would have liked to have done it.” So, “Oh that’s good, I can do better” or “that’s not good, mine is better.” It’s a way of ‘the other.’ It is a degree different in jealousy, it is the presence of the other. There could be jealousy in a way, when you say, “I did this! He took my idea. Why did he get success and I don’t, and I did it before him?” So, there I would say is a more condensed jealousy. But that is always, for example when you go into a show and you look at the work, you think, “That is good! I would have liked to have done that.”
KDJ: So when you see some writing and you know that you have done it before, then the jealousy starts? Or how does it work? I think you have a very strong tendency to prove yourself. You want to prove that you were there first.
BV: That was true. I even used to write texts, but now it’s different. Now it is 2013, and I have changed. These days I am pleased when somebody recognizes what I did, and I am less anxious than before. It is not becoming more ‘zen,’ but it is about taking life as it comes. Now, I do not bother as much. But when I was 30 or 40… Now I am 78. I think time has changed me a bit.
KDJ: But now we have been speaking with you the last days for this PERSONAL STRUCTURES Art Project and you mention it very often. So, that would mean that during your 30’s and 40’s, you must have been impossible!
BV: No no, it is that time, Lu-ci-di-té. Lucidité means… Sometimes you meet people who reject art. I say: “be lucide”. Do not tell yourself stories! You can say: “I’m not jealous.” Others might say, “I don’t care. I do this for God. I will pay for others to help humanity.” I say, “be lucide”. Your ego is there. You are in front of the world. You react to the world. To be lucide, means to be aware.
SG: You just mentioned God, do you believe in God?
BV: Yes, I could believe in God. But I am closer to being an atheist than to believing in God. But still when I look at science and we are talking about the Big Bang, and we are talking about our ego presence, then I think there is an interrogation point.
KDJ: So you did not throw God away completely? You threw him out of the country, but then you were traveling quite a bit and took him back home?
BV: He does not look like me and he does not do bad things. He is a kind of … I have some theories … I do not know. I cannot tell you … It is a mystery. But I had to take him away. But there is a mystery in the words ‘life,’ ‘survival,’ ‘ego,’ ‘reproduction,’ ‘time,’ ‘space’… and if you put all of these words together and combine ego with time and space, you only get an interrogation point. You do not get an answer. To see time, space, ego, survival … these ‘things’ exist. But the ‘why,’ the ‘when,’ ‘how’… We don’t understand them.
SG: Are you fine with not knowing?
BV: No! I’m always trying. But you see… When Copernicus said that the world is round; and when Newton said that the world has gravity; and Einstein said the world is time; then Hawking said something about the black holes and that the universe started many millions of years ago and before that was a Big Bang; each one has given an explanation. Then came another explanation, and another one. Today we have the explanation of the quantity. The world is full of explanations.
KDJ: What is your explanation?
BV: My explanation of the universe is a funny one. [Ben starts drawing] My explanation of the universe is that there was—at the beginning of time—an ejaculation. Just as when I fuck. This ejaculation contains ego, reproduction, survival. Now, what happened before, I do not know. But I feel that the world today is an expansion. The universe expands, the galaxies … This is the ejaculation of ego. Why do I see ego as more important than galaxies? It is because ego contains the explanation of these galaxies. I mean to say that we need the ego of Hawking to say this-and-that about the world, we need the ego of Einstein, we need the ego of Freud, we need the ego of Heidegger, we need the egos of the ones who spend their time explaining things. So what do we have? We have the universe, which is full of explanations. These explanations come from ego, because Einstein was jealous of so-and-so. All these egos are there.
That interests me as a theory. I’m actually trying to find the particle of ego, which I want to be able to scientifically find. And then I will call it ‘particule de Ben’ [Ben’s particle]. And people will be able to say: “Of course, the particule de Ben! C’est très important!” And it is all a joke! But somebody will see the particle of love, which is very important too!
SG: So what you drew here, that is all? Everything?
BV: Yes, it contains all. The ‘particle of ego’ means lucidité. It means ‘introspection’. You cannot speak of ego unless you know what it is made of. What is ego? Ego is the name of jealousy, ambition, wanting to be, not wanting to be, lucidité, lucidité over the others. What means ego? We come back to my famous verse [Ben searches the right plate out of the collection he made that day.) This one! And it becomes this one! How did the ejaculation come? It comes from an ego, which was all alone in the universe. There was nothing. And he met another ego by chance, we do not know how they met. He became very angry and started to fuck the other one. And then… bang! … The ejaculation! The bang of two egos gave the ejaculation.
KDJ: Are you afraid of sex because your ejaculation is not as powerful as this one?
BV: Yes this one is very powerful … But I have two children and five grandchildren.
SG: This was such an intense ejaculation that he must have died after his ejaculation and we do not want that to happen with you, of course.
BV: This one? Yes! But I have another theory. Today we have the extremes, the extreme world. We have the extreme big and the extreme small. We are losing this sense of knowing where is the middle. So, I was thinking, if you take your brain … Your brain is full of billions of neurons. It could be that my ‘ejaculation of ego’ has led to tons of other egos that are ejaculating too. So, we have not one universe but we have many universes. I’m still working on this. It is very complicated.
By Karlyn De Jongh and Sarah Gold