In late February, while in the throes of preparing his project for the 56th Venice Biennale, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot was just as purposefully going about daily life at his home in the South of France. As we spoke via hiccuping cellphones, he was preoccupied with getting to town to pick up the chicken he would cook for his son’s sixth birthday party (his other three children are girls). He let on with amusement that the cake, which he wasn’t baking himself, was to be a giraffe.
For Boursier-Mougenot, 54, life and art and thought are consonant, and that is echoed in his complex artworks, which more often than not have a life of their own. Three months before the Biennale’s May opening, he was plotting the final details of the installation that will transform the Neoclassical French Pavilion into an island, or more a dreamscape, with trees and harmonic sounds. Partly modeled on an Italian Mannerist garden, his piece will extend to the pavilion’s exterior. As with much of his work, space and sound are the chief ingredients in this project, and as such, they are hard to reign in.
Inside the pavilion, there will be one tree and outside two, mounted on hidden platforms. They will move almost imperceptibly, driven, according to Boursier-Mougenot, by the sound of electric currents that run through them, resulting from the differential between the earth and the large rooted trees surrounding the pavilion. Given the shifting environmental variables, visitors’ perceptions will be in constant flux, balancing uncertainty and unpredictability with the meditative quality that comes of having to pay close attention. Boursier-Mougenot is, he said, “inspired in part by electricity. I’m trying to catch electricity through trees.” He is interested in the capacity of vegetal life to harness energy.
The pavilion, which has been curated by Emma Lavigne, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, is the result of teamwork. “We have a good team,” Boursier-Mougenot said. “Especially the scientists.”
Throughout his career as an artist, Boursier-Mougenot has been an active media-mixer and discipline-crosser. His work has involved science, technology, animals, and plants. It is in some ways an approach that replicates, in one person, the diversity of his family members’ occupations: His great grandfather was a landscape photographer, his grandfather a painter. His father is a sculptor, one brother is a landscape architect, another studied engineering and geography, and his mother is a sociological urbanist. Born in 1961 in Nice, Boursier-Mougenot started out as a musician and composer—he studied saxophone and violin, and realized, he said, that he wouldn’t be a good instrumentalist. Nor was he a good student. (“Education inhibits people,” he said.) He did listen to a lot of jazz, and eventually he branched out into theater, set design, and lighting. His ten-year stint with Pascal Rambert’s avant-garde theater company, beginning when he was in his 20s, formed the basis for the borderless, nearly genre-less work he makes today.
In 1999, he debuted an artwork at New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) as part of its National and International Studio Program, which established his approach, that of a kind of accidental composer. The P.S.1 installation consisted of an aviary of finches and a structure composed of harpsichord strings and wire hangers equipped with microphones that conveyed bird sounds. Later that year, he had his first show at Paula Cooper Gallery, where he installed inflatable blue kiddie pools filled with water as well as variously sized white china bowls and glasses. The water was heated with electric coils and pumped to flow in two different directions, causing random interactions and generating a kind of celestial-sounding music. He continued in that vein with Videodrones, his 2001 installation at the gallery, in which he captured and projected images of passersby, along with street activity, to produce unplanned sound patterns and harmonies. The video signal produces an electric humming sound, which responds to other environmental stimuli, like light and motion. For Boursier-Mougenot, anything can be music—it just depends on your perspective. “A man who loves cars,” he told me, “for him, engine noise is pure music.”
If engines can produce music, so can household appliances. In 2006, again at Paula Cooper, he installed a group of vacuum cleaners in a piece called harmonichaos 2.1. Small harmonicas are inserted into the nozzles of the vacuums, which produce sound through suction. For shapednoise, produced as part of the 2010 Glow festival in Santa Monica, California, Boursier-Mougenot installed a foam-producing machine on top of a lifeguard tower by the piers. The foam was produced by visual signals picked up by nearby video cameras, which in turn stimulated an audio response. The foam-making activated by ambient noise eventually encapsulated the entire structure. More recently, he has incorporated traditional musical instruments. In offroad (2014), shown last year at les Abattoirs, in Toulouse, France, grand pianos moved around the room, responding to electronic sensors, which enable them to shift direction so as to avoid collisions. As part of the same exhibition, he placed a drum set in shallow water with a cosmic-ray detector that, when activated, prompted a loud downpour of water onto the drums.
He has also had an ongoing fascination with creatures that produce music. For a show three years ago at Galerie Xippas in Paris, he arranged large stones on a stairway, such that they demanded attentiveness as visitors made the ascent. At the top of the stairway there was a room with five burned-wood beehives that emitted sounds; behind a glass door was another hive and a swarm of bees making their own music. Boursier-Mougenot rejects the presence of specific musical influences on his works, but when you are listening to them, it is difficult not to think of the surprising, impressionistic tones of Erik Satie, or Debussy.
Last year, Boursier-Mougenot spent four months at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, making a home in the gallery for 70 zebra finches and a “forest” of 10 white Gibson Les Paul and 14 black Thunderbird IV bass guitars (their strings being the only places for the birds to perch) and 14 amplifiers. He suspended three nest condos from the ceiling; cymbals on the floor held the birds’ food and water. Titled from here to ear (1999), the piece has been playing “gigs,” of a sort, for some 15 years now, at international venues ranging from the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Hangar Bicocca in Milan to the Long Gallery in Tasmania to the Peabody Essex, its 17th stop. It is not a simple undertaking. “We had to acclimate the birds—half of them male, half female—to this new environment that would in essence be their home,” said project coordinator Jaime DeSimone, who is now assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Florida. “As in any crowd, there were a couple of bully birds, and they required the occasional time-out.”
From here to ear requires balancing the needs of different beings: the birds living in the gallery and the humans who come to see them be an artwork. At the Peabody Essex, each entrance had hanging mesh so that the birds couldn’t escape, and sand-covered pathways that allowed visitors to navigate the space without disturbing them. There were careful temperature controls (zebra finches are native to Australia) and a staff of veterinarians, cleaner-uppers, guards, and “gallery interpreters.” “We needed to make sure that the birds were maintained in a natural environment,” DeSimone said. “The space had to be healthy for the birds as well as for the visitors.”
Through it all, the performers were free to play, which they did by perching on guitar strings and cymbals and plucking or scratching away. They were jamming, but not without a degree of oversight. Mostly Boursier-Mougenot left them alone, but he did, DeSimone said, create different ranges of chords, so the harmonics would change.
Boursier-Mougenot’s tastes in music are decidedly eclectic; he rejects hierarchies. “Two days ago I was cooking and listening to music,” he said. “I was impressed by Morton Feldman. I thought, I don’t know this piece; it became something else as I listened.” He mentioned he’s been “reading a book about punk music. All the people who were important in their time were bad musicians.” By which he meant they weren’t generally accepted as good. Schoenberg, for instance.
When it comes to his own work, he told curator Christoph Cox three years ago, on the occasion of an exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “concrete stories or memories about the works are often more interesting than theoretical references. I’ve been disappointed by certain artists who constantly refer to established works, but whose work is not as interesting as their talk about it. If an art critic or historian sees a correlation, that does not disturb me. But I like it when people can have an aesthetic experience without reference to art history.”
“I’d like to stay free,” he told me. “My work will be a dream. Music listens to you more than you listen to it; my works are under less control than myself.” He added that he likes “to be surprised. I’m working with engineers. They don’t always take time to understand; they believe in theory.” And yet, in science, as in art, missteps are always possible—and often necessary to the process. “I don’t want to be a modern artist who manages his work,” he said. “I want to take time to look. When you make something wrong, you learn a lot.”
Barbara A. MacAdam is co-executive editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Trees Do It.”