“When Doing is Saying”
I’m interested in how actions can communicate and have an effect
Australian-born artist Angelica Mesiti is no stranger to Palais de Tokyo: Living between Sydney and Paris, she first visited the museum in 2006 and instantly loved it. Today, it happens to host of her first major solo exhibition presented in a French institution, Quand faire c’est dire, on view until May 12th as part of its new season of contemporary shows, “Sensible.” Angelica Mesiti researches and explores non-verbal communication, and at Palais de Tokyo she is presenting a selection of five films in an immersive, experiential installation, drawing from a body of work from 2012 to 2019. This is clearly a good year for Mesiti: the artist also will represent Australia at the 58th Venice Biennial, starting in May.
What is it like working between Paris and Australia? Do you feel a duality in your work?
I’ve been living between Sydney and Paris on and off since about 2007, and it’s definitely affected my work. I think it shifts your perspective on where you come from, but also the city where you live. I feel Paris is a very stimulating place for my work and as a place to live. So it has a good influence. When I go home to Sydney, I always get this feeling of being completely relaxed, in terms of the language, in terms of the culture… being slightly on the outside in Paris is an interesting perspective from which to make work, actually. That definitely has an effect on how I see things, what I’m interested in, and what I do.
Could you explain the title of the exhibition, “Quand faire c’est dire” (“When Doing is Saying”)?
The title of the exhibition came from [curator] Daria de Beauvais. It was an idea she brought up for discussion, and when she proposed it, I felt like it has an affinity with the work. I guess she was thinking about this linguistic connection and how words can be actions, and I’m interested in how actions can communicate and have an effect. It offered a wider perspective by which the viewer could enter the work.
Can you tell us about the five video installations in the exhibition? Do they mean something as a whole—do they come together in some way?
The works in the show are a selection of pieces from a body of work created over ten years. With Daria, we spoke about how the viewer would experience the show, and we made our choices and decisions based on this kind of “parcours” or experience moving through the work. The first two pieces in the show, Citizens Band and Mother Tongue, take a rather documentary approach, even though they are ‘constructed,’ because I’m working with real people, real situations. Performance is what they normally do, so I’ve invited them to participate in this project and I’ve created a frame around their activity. But it is based in the world and on existing spaces. Then as you progress through the show, you come to The Colour of Saying and Relay League. I guess the approach is a little bit more experimental, and the viewer is asked to participate a little bit more. There are architectural arrangements that require you to reposition yourself to experience the work from beginning to end. So the way you receive the works, and your interaction with them, changes slightly. It goes from seated viewing to something that requires you to walk and move. The final piece in the show is Prepared Piano for Movers (Haussmann). This is really a sound piece with images: it documents two movers transporting a piano up six flights of stairs in a Haussmannian building. This is inspired by John Cage, and this is the way we exit the show: with a more experimental, open sound/noise/music work.
How do you select the people, the moments, the sounds you want to portray?
It’s quite different from project to project. With Citizens Band, it was personal encounters. I saw Mohamed Lamouri on the Parisian Metro (Line 2), and started a conversation and ultimately a relationship that I wanted to follow. With something like Mother Tongue or The Colour of Saying, I had more of a specific concern I wanted to find some answers to, so I looked for specific groups that might respond to these questions.
Your work highlights that language is not limited to that which is spoken. How would you define language and communication?
That’s a tricky question. The visual arts use methods of expression and communication outside of language. In that sense, I’m not really doing anything unusual for a visual artist. My training is in dance, performance, and filmmaking, and these are all mediums where we communicate with other means than language. I guess this is my use of non-verbal communication methods.
Would you describe your approach as more of an observer, or do you wish to comment on a situation?
Well, as soon as you record something, you’re changing it. So I don’t think it’s possible to be a completely impartial observer. By recording things, simply by the choices I’m making and the juxtaposed relationships that are being generated, there’s an opinion there. I don’t have any misconceptions about that.
How much of your personal experience goes into your work?
I feel like there are a lot of early experiences and types of training that informed the practice I developed. It’s been a process of building on existing elements, from crafts to interests to attraction. And then you develop your own language, and it becomes a personal thing.
This is your first major exhibition at Palais de Tokyo. How did you approach it?
I think 2006 was the first time I came to Palais de Tokyo, and it was a really exciting experience. I came to see a show called Notre Histoire curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans. I was really impressed with the place, and when I would spend longer periods of time in Paris, I would always come here. I’m a fan of this institution, so it’s really exciting to be invited to present my work here. It’s been a nice feeling like I have a familiarity with the institution, that I’ve seen the way the space has been transformed and how the ideas are explored here. It’s really agile: it’s constantly reinvigorating and reinventing the idea of an exhibition and the use of the building, and that’s a pretty exciting space to be invited to work in.
You’ve been selected to represent the Australian Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennial. Can you discuss the project you’re going to present there at all?
You know they like to keep it very secret! It’s an open-call process, so I proposed something that I wanted to see as an idea, to think about and have conversations around from the perspective of Australia. I proposed a concept, and then there was a long period of development. It’s been pretty fascinating, trying to navigate this idea of a “national pavilion” and what my relationship to that is, and how I want to treat this idea of nationhood or identity. These have been really interesting questions to think about as someone who is Australian-born, lives in Europe and has European roots, yet was educated in Australia. It has given me a lot to think about!
Portrait and video: Michaël Huard