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Ria Pacquée (T. Warenichova and Z. Li, 2010)


April/mei 2010




Ria Pacquée is a multimedia artist who lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium. Some of her most well-known performance works include the Madame and It series.


What does performance mean to you?

That ‘s already a difficult question to start with... What does performance mean to me? It means a lot to me. I was very young when I started in art. I think I performed without knowing it yet, I realized that later. It was one of the things I immediately had in my body and in my mind, and which I understood also directly when I saw other artists perform. I could immediately understand the way of thinking of those artists. I never went to art school, so I was searching for answers. Doing performances was the start of everything. I didn’t get any answers, I got even more questions. It was my first step into the world of art and before I knew it I also made connections. I thought I was the only one who was doing this kind of things. People came to me and said: "look, there are other people who do performance art." Then I started meeting people and little by little I entered the world of art through performance.

What do you think about performance back in the 1970s? How was it for you in general, back then?

I started in the 1970s. If I talk about the end of the 1970s, beginning of the 1980s, there was less information, so we all had to look it up ourselves. There was not really a worldwide connection like now. These days, there are more performance festivals, there is the internet.. There were only a few people who were doing performance art in Belgium and we knew them. Then we had contacts in Europe with some group in Germany and some people in Holland. But it was not really in an art galleries, it was more underground.

Do you have your favourite performance artist in that period? What kind of work do you appreciate?

Yes I think so, I don’t know if I knew it in that period, it’s a long time ago. But I think later, at the beginning of the 1980s, when I start to knew more about performance, there were artists like Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, they were quite influencial people for me. Gina Pane, she cut herself with razor blades and I also did that. But I didn’t know she was doing that, at the same time. And then someone said: ‘Yes, but do you know Gina Pane?’ And I thought: ‘God, she did this already before me.’ But I didn’t care, because it came out of me, and that was my way of expressing things. So for me, it was nice to see that other people were going in the same direction. You try to find your way, and especially in the world of arts, it’s very difficult to obtain your position. It took some years, but I think by seeing what those people also did, and they already started much earlier than me , it had an impact on me.

How do you feel about your performance works in general? What are their main characteristics and specific elements ?

You are asking me very difficult questions. (laughs) Because I started with performance, in one way or another, it’s still in my new work. Even if I don’t do it so much in public anymore, I think it had a big influence on all of my work. Later, it did develop in a particular way. I see that when I make videos now, I use breathing a lot, for example. So there is still a lot of myself, the body, but it is not visible in the videos. But I still play around a lot with all of these elements. I also think that, because I started early with doing performances (at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s), it was always in a protected space, like art galleries and art spaces. Not big ones, but, like I said, more underground. I started doing performance art on the street. Then, I would go down the street and I became more invisible, in one way or another.

You published one book about The Story Of Madame And It?

Yes, not all the stories are in it, but it’s in the small black book.

Can you tell us more about this performance? But maybe also about other performances? Because on your website there are some images, but you don’t get a lot of information...

Yes I know, I just wanted to give a general view of it. If people have any questions, they can ask me. But let’s start with ‘Madame’. I started doing performances at the end of the 1970s, beginning of the 1980s. Then I switched to painting for two years, making large pornographic paintings. But on a certain moment I felt, I couldn’t go on. My drawings were not very good, so I had to make a choice, either I had to follow drawing or painting lessons. And I thought none of those two was an option for me. Actually the best for me is to go out, because I can’t just sit in the studio and work. At that time I was already taking photographs for myself and I wanted to create a kind of mass figure. I started to look around and I came up with Madame for the first time already in 1981, I think. This was during the performance in Montevideo gallery. I built a house in one week, completely on my own with very heavy stones. So there was this house standing in this incredible big store in the Montevideo street, it’s here in Antwerp. For the opening I wanted to make a figure, a sculpture of a woman watching television. So I built a house, it was not a beautiful house. There were chickens inside, I was peeing in the house, and so there was a smell of pee in the house. There were empty bottles of wine and beer... And so I wanted to create a figure, and I couldn’t make it, I really couldn’t sculpt it, it didn’t work out. So I thought: ‘Ok, I am going to sit there myself.’ So I was sitting there, watching television without an image and drinking beer all night, being this figure. And that was in fact the first time I used the Madame figure, which wasn’t the Madame yet. 

Then a year later, I wanted to redo this figure, to make it again in a kind of small wooden scenery of the house. It was called ‘Waiting for my man who lost the war’. I put this house in Antwerp, on the streets, and the whole afternoon I was sitting and knitting there. People passed by, they all looked at me, but nobody asked something, which I found strange. So I did a few performances, but without pictures. It wasn’t the intention, I didn’t think of pictures at that moment. I thought more of the action itself, that moment, that place. Also from my earlier performances, from a lot of them I don’t have pictures, because for me it was not important. Now I have to say I regret it. 

So I performed a few times as Madame without really thinking of this mass figure yet, it was still in a kind of art context. I also exhibited ‘One souvenir of the men I loved’. It were  pictures of five men who didn’t exist, they did exist but I did not know them. I found their pictures and put them in a frame. At the opening I sold in fact all the things from the men which Madame wanted to get rid of, because the men left her alone. So this was still in an art context, but at a certain moment I got the idea to put Madame into the streets, because I wanted her more and more to become this mass figure. 

The first time I went with ‘Madame’ on the street was with ‘The girl who was never asked to marry’. I bought a very cheap dress and with a professional photographer we went to all the places where you go at the wedding day. On the wedding day she goes alone, so I made up this very small story that she goes to the city hall and Middelheim. I rented a taxi for a very low price, made a few pictures, went to an empty church and at the end I was eating a cake somewhere in the kitchen. I already had a whole story in my mind. Out of all the pictures I chose six for the presentation. Madame also went to the carnival. At the carnival, everyone is dressed up, Madame was completely fake as well, but in the most normal way comparing to the rest. It was a strange situation. 

So Madame really existed on the street. I used the people on the street as a scenery and there was always someone with me. The first performance with the marriage was with a photographer, but for the rest of the performances friends of mine took the pictures. It could have been you, because I already played a lot with photography. Madame is based on snap shots. So people just followed me, they didn’t have to be photographers. Snap shots had to be in colour and it was also based on the pose. For example, I saw in a certain situation which picture had to be taken. I saw two people, I quickly went to those two people and I posed. And the person who followed me knew he has to take this picture for me.

When I went with Madame to Lourdes, the first two days I went with somebody who took pictures, looking around for places and possible situations we could use, because I didn’t know Lourdes that well. Then the third day I dressed myself up as Madame and I went in between the crowd. Then I also didn’t know for sure what could happen. For example, if I would see a priest, I would try to take a picture with him. Because nobody saw it was a performance piece. It only became a performance when it was shown in a gallery or in a museum. If I didn’t have a chance to exhibit it in the gallery then it wasn’t art. It only existed when you put it in an art space. Then on a certain moment I did 12 or 13 stories with Madame, I don’t remember. I show a few on my website, not all of them. And then the last one was, I think, when I was invited to Italy. I used Madame again and then I thought I have to stop now, because it became too easy for me. I knew exactly which pose I have to do and then all the fun of it, is gone. I thought if I go on with Madame, I’m going to repeat myself. I can put her everywhere, it’s too much. So I definitively stopped with it.

Sometimes people still ask: ‘Can you come with Madame?’ and I say: ’No... (laughs) the story is over.’ A year later, I was asked in London to do something. Then I created this other figure, the ‘IT’ figure, which was an androgynous type. It was like someone standing with this cardboard poster. Again, I was looking for the right place in London, because London is big. So then I thought the City would be best. And I went to a place where all the business men came. I went there with a message, which wasn’t a real message. I just took a text out of a book. I opened the book and I pointed randomly on a sentence, which I then used as my message. I just stood there and then I went around the city. And I stood there at different bank offices, no one reacted. There was just only one person who came to say something, and that was a police officer. He said: ‘Please, can you move?’ Because in London you couldn’t stay longer than 5 minutes on the same place with a message. But I attached my message on a little cart so I could move my message.

I created this work after taking a picture from a lady, she was regularly protesting against abortion in the streets of Antwerp, with the message on a cardboard poster. I just made the same thing as she did, because I really thought that the woman with the poster looked like a sculpture, it was very beautiful. It was very well made, with wheels and all, I wouldn’t think of it myself. For ‘Madame’ and ‘It’ I used the real world as a scenery, where you don’t have control of everything. You don’t have control of the picture, because you don’t know what is happening behind you. And then the photographer has to take the right picture. So that is the existence of Madame. I know some fashion students were inspired by this, although the clothes were all very cheap, I found them in second-hand shops.

I think fashion students like this concept, it’s really interesting. But those clothes may be cheap or expensive, it creates a certain character...

Yes! I once went to a horse racing show in Waregem, where you have a mix of normal people who come from the city of Waregem, and very rich people. One woman wore a very expensive dress, I’m sure it was Chanel or whatever, and I wore this pink dress and I thought, God, I have to be with her on the picture. There was a similarity.

Do you think people would react on your performance works differently now than back in the 1970s and 1980s?

Yes, I think so. Especially the performances I did with ‘Madame' and 'It’, there was no reaction because no one really saw it, no one knew about it in a sense. But the really physical performances are different. Time passed by and I think, for example in the beginning of 1980s, when I was sometimes naked during a performance piece, it was still a bit of a taboo. Nowadays, performing naked is not a taboo anymore. For sure. It’s different.

I think people now are more open minded to performance art...

Yes, they are. I see it more and more. When I am at a performance festival, because I sometimes still do a performance, I see that performance shifted more into theatre, it became less a script, there is more thought behind it. There are a lot of performances where people really play theatre and they tour all over Europe. I think in the 1970s and the 1980s people from theatre didn’t know performance art existed. It came later. But we artists knew the theatre very well. And I think someone like Jan Fabre, who knew both theatre and performance art very well, decided to make a shift towards theatre. Sometimes people from theatre come to visit me and ask me to do a project with them, but I don’t do that. I am not a theatre maker. It’s different.

The performance I did in public, was in Schaarbeek, in ‘Les Halles de Schaerbeeck’ and I was sitting in a cage, and I was saying things in this cage. But you don’t know when you end or when you start. Let’s say, you start at 5 o’clock and I waited for 2 hours, because I couldn’t wait so long in a small cage. Then I stopped doing it. With theatre you have a schedule, an exact place. When they asked me to do a performance I sought for the right place. The space is important, the duration is important, it’s completely different from theatre in my eyes.

A similar question... How was it for you to do performances back in the 1980s and now? Personally?

I’d still say performance was and is an important element. In one way or another it continues to be very important to me, even if I am making completely different things, I still use myself. There are some moments when I have an exhibition, that I use myself in a video. That are the elements which keep coming back. It is not always shown to the public, which is also a difference between the 1970s and now. In the 1970s, like I said before, it was not important to document performances, it was the action, that moment, everything was important: the smell, the duration, the things which you couldn’t really put on the photo. And I think what is different now is that every action is documented. Acconci already made use of video for example, in the beginning of the 1970s, but I wasn’t interested in it.

Why do you do less performance after 1999?

Yes, it’s because I started using photography and video more and more. You can’t do a performance piece every day. I think to start with performance was important for me, and then the shift came with the ‘Madame' and 'It’ series. It was something between performance and photography. And then I continued with photography, video and sound.

So you use different types of media?

Yes. But I think this performance element is crucial for myself, because I do a lot of walks when I film, I feel that the performance element is still present. In one way or another, it’s integrated in the making of videos, in the way I make photos and in everything I do.

What do you try to achieve when you do a performance? Because it’s also very personal… Is there always something concrete in your mind what you want to show to people? Something very important you want to say to the audience?

I think it differs from performance to performance. You can’t answer: ‘I want to say this or that, no...’ I think sometimes, it’s just to put yourself in the position that you show a space without making anything, except with your body.

Can you give an example?

For example, the performance piec I did with bread. It was in France and we could choose different locations. That time, I always arrived without anything. So for example, when there is a festival, you go there, and there are three or four houses or spaces they show. So you start looking for the right space, and you ask if it’s free or not, if no one else is going to use it. From that time to that time you have to do something. I do it in a very concrete way. I remember, it was a very beautiful large space and there was a window that came out on the street. So I thought: there is a window, there is a big space, what am I going to do with it? I was in France, I was thinking of French bread (baguette). So I decided to eat French bread during the performance. In that space I made a very long line out of bread, which was visually quite beautiful. At that time I was also influenced by Antonin Artaud, it’s a French theatre writer, so I looked for his book and I wrote a few lines of text from the book. It’s a very practical way of thinking, but that’s the only way I can describe it now. The evening of the performance, I was naked, crawling over the bread. I had also an elastic, I remember, which was attached on both sides to the wall, it was purely visual. It was like if you make a painting, you try to make a visual acting. Crawling on that kind of bread was not so easy. While I was crawling and eating the bread, at the same time, saying some parts of Artaud's text, the line was disappearing. In the end, I nearly had to puke, because the French bread is very dry and I could nearly speak anymore. Then I ran out of space and I escaped through the window into the street. So I left the people in the space all alone, only with the rests of bread. For the rest, everything was gone, the beauty of the line was gone, and I was gone as well.

There is one work of yours, it is called ‘Tell me your secret’, can you tell us more about it?

I stood there for a few hours with the stone and people always had to pass by the staircase to see other performances. While they did so, I was telling them: ‘I can’t tell the secret’, but I was whispering the secret very quiet to the stone, and in the certain moment when the secret was told, and while people were still coming, I threw the stone away.

Do you have a favourite performance from your personal work?

I don’t know, I think every performance was different. I think most of the performances I did, not all of them, were not so fantastic or whatever, but I didn’t have any bad feelings about them. Even when they were not always visually as strong as I wanted them to be, still it was the act of doing it that was the most important... Sometimes you learn by failure.

And what’s the difference between your works before and after 1999? For me there is a difference, because you do less performance after 1999 and you focus on another media...?

I don’t see a difference; it’s a natural progress for me. There is still, I think, a link with the first thing I ever did in my life. And that was on the street, when I stepped out of a tram and I was waiting I think for twelve hours on the corner of the street, just without doing anything. Until now, I think, the only thing which is always coming back in all different works of mine is that I’m still running around in the streets and also the fact that I need the outside world. I like to go into this reality. Because if you really go into reality, with a very open mind, everything becomes a bit surreal. And I think this counts in a way for all the works. Even if you just stand in the space and you observe the space on itself, it becomes not anymore of the space you looked at. It becomes something more.

This performance element always comes back. Ok, not when I show pictures, then it’s not there. But if I show a few of my works together, there is always a performance element in it. Even if it’s just a breathing like I said before or whispering or the use of my voice, there is always this element included.

What are you working on now?

Now I have an exhibition the 29 of April here in Antwerp. It's called: ‘Colour walks’, it’s about colour. It’s about the travelling I did, I was in Ethiopia and at the certain moment there was a market full of colours...But I'll give you the book and you can read it, it’s all in it.

Thank you. Maybe you would like to say something that we didn’t mentioned in the questions about performance?

The most important thing is that performance is not theatre. Because it is a visual thing, it is something visual you want to create in the space or outside. And I think the difference with the 1970s and the 1980s is, that there was sometimes a shock element you wanted to put in it. But these days there is so much to see on internet, that I don’t play with this anymore. And there are a lot of taboos which are not taboos anymore.

Interview by Tatiana Warenichova and Zhao Li

Transcription by Tatiana Warenichova and Zhao Li 

Editing by Tatiana Warenichova, Zhao Li, and Thomas Crombez