Conversation gathered by Matthieu Jacquet
In 1982, First Blood (Rambo in French) was released, an action film whose famous protagonist would mark the imaginations of several generations. In November 2018, the French artist Alain Bublex presented at the Galerie G.P. & N. Vallois An American Landscape, his own interpretation of the film, wholly redrawn without characters in order to highlight the American landscape. Between his love for the city and the American lost paradise, the artist looks back with us on this ambitious work.
Matthieu Jacquet: Your latest project An American Landscape is a reinterpretation in drawings of First Blood (1982), the first film starring the famous Rambo character. How did the work come into being?
Alain Bublex: I started this project last year, but I’d begun to think about it a little more than ten years ago. I’d discovered First Blood sometime after its release and it provoked rather ambiguous feelings in me: although it didn’t correspond to the type of film that I usually like, it appealed to me beyond its plot, which was pretty simple. In reality, what interested me the most was the landscape in which the action took place, which particularly affected me: the spurs of the Rocky Mountains at the beginning of winter in North America. I realized, several times, that I’d tried to see the film for the landscape without really managing to, because I always got caught up in the plot. I then decided to remake the whole film in animation, in which I removed everything that related to the plot to depict only the backgrounds, the remarkable landscapes.
At the gallery, I will only present the first 10 to 15 minutes of this film, which I’ve not yet finished, what’s more. The interest of the work, for me, was not to finish the film but to begin it and see where it would go. The result may prove rather surprising for audiences used to Rambo: what we end up with is a film that is sometimes very slow, almost contemplative and melancholic, depicting elegant and wild nature. What is most disturbing is no doubt discovering just how much the animated scenes recall the history of American painting, going from the painting of the Hudson River School, embodied notably by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran, to hyperrealist painting from the 1950s to the 1970s. So, from one of the most famous American action films, we obtained a slow and melancholic animated film presenting kinds of trompe-l’œil of paintings, which confront us with paintings that aren’t there.
At the Galerie Vallois, you’ve chosen to present this landscape both in motion, in the film, but also still in a selection of “preparatory” prints on aluminum. Do you think that the complementarity of these two approaches is important for spectators?
The film reconstructs the experience of the original film in its temporality: rather than redoing extracts, I felt it was important to develop it in a linear way, by following its plot from the start. In First Blood, the Rocky Mountains landscape is a little special because it is far more significant in the United States than in Europe: for Americans, to a certain extent, it embodies the “fundamental landscape.” During the second half of the 19th century, the United States was already an important country on the international scene, but parts of it remained undiscovered: the east and west coasts states were separated by what were called the “unorganized territories.” In 1850, several expeditions, which painters joined, crossed these territories in order to establish land routes. The painters came back with sketches, which they would transform into huge paintings representing the Rocky Mountains, almost imaginary and idyllic wild landscapes conveying, all in all, a vision of lost paradise.
I think this connects with a widely shared idea in the early years of the United States: God himself gave this virgin territory, similar to paradise on Earth, to the founding fathers. Hence it is precisely in this wild, indeed biblical, landscape where Rambo gets lost. If we follow his tale, he’s a Vietnam vet marginalized by his country’s recent history, who no longer fits into contemporary life and who reverts back to a wild state in the Rocky Mountains, being the original landscape bequeathed by God. It’s for this reason that I’m exhibiting paintings in the gallery, showing this central position of landscape and marking its references to the pictorial genre, along with the film, which stages it in its most obvious role.
The film’s notoriety led these landscapes to become anchored in the American collective unconscious. By representing them in this way, did you want to create a paradox between familiarity and foreignness?
Above all the work’s ambition is to clarify a grey area of the film, which we mainly remember for its narrative about the return from Vietnam, then the following episodes about the soldier’s relationship with the contemporary world. The idea was hence to bring out in the film what we believe we know about rather obvious visible givens, but which are obscured by the urgency of current events.
Glooscop, an imaginary city whose existence was almost made credible by substantial resource documents, arose from your first artistic project. Here, you depict the landscapes of Hope, a city existing in Canada, in which First Blood was shot. For all that, the second seems more fictitious than the first…
That’s true, but it’s above all drawing that brings about this effect. Right from the first images we realize just how much the place that served as the film’s setting resembles painting, that it is itself, in fact, swept along toward the imaginary. Whether these cities are fictitious or imaginary ultimately doesn’t concern me that much. When the film was shot in the real landscape of Hope, the framing and transformations brought to it mean that this reality was transformed to become a symbolic space. In the same way, whether Glooscap was imaginary or not had little importance: it was at least as real as any other city in which I’d ever been. The idea of Glooscap was that of a “generic city,” as Rem Koolhaas managed to define it: it was a question of making a kind of collage of North American cities in order to produce an umpteenth version, which conformed to but was slightly different from all the others, thereby able to produce the idea that an urban space existed beyond the specificities of each city. The town of Hope is finally pretty similar to Glooscap: it is so common that it could be anywhere in the United States. In the film I made, you hence recognize images from First Blood, if you’ve seen it, and these landscapes typical of North America.
Added to which, vector graphics, recurring in your work, emphasize this impression of fiction even more. Why did you once again favor drawing with the camera?
Very simply because, on the one hand, a certain number of artists, filmmakers, and video artists, already choose the camera, and on the other hand because I know how to draw, which gives me the possibility of doing it differently. Rephotography has been developed much more in the United States since the 1960s; in this sense, the approach already belongs to the country’s artistic history. Moreover, something comes into play in drawing that cannot come into play in the camera: when you draw an existing thing in a realist manner, you are led to select the elements which will allow you to convey a particular intensity in what is seen. A drawing is a model of reality, it is not reality itself, but the thing that is simplified down to its very essence. Consequently, you eliminate a certain number of details that you consider less important than the others. The images produced are therefore accentuated, they have a density that photographic or cinematographic images wouldn’t have. The technique used in my film is both digital and manual, because it’s a question of vector drawing. I like this practice in that it allows me to produce images that I totally control, light and economical, free of the pixelization of digital images.
In my relationship with animated film, I’m particularly influenced by Japanese animation, especially Studio Ghibli films: I try to obtain the same character of details and realism in the settings. What has always fascinated me in these films is that they most often take place in an undetermined time and place, somewhere between the 1950s and today, between Japan and Europe… I find it very interesting to locate oneself in this way, somewhere in modern geographic space and a relatively wide period: it’s drawing that allows this. This technique allows me to bring to life landscapes that don’t embody a precise town, but the United States in the broad sense, from their foundation to the spread of their economic, political, and cultural power, which is to say in the undetermined part of a period of about a century.
You started out as a car designer, before turning to an artistic career. How did this experience influence your overall approach?
Its main influence no doubt can be seen in the way I look at things: I never look at objects with a view to their possibility of becoming works of art, unlike many artists, but more as projects that have led to their creation. I’m immediately drawn toward the desire, the idea that is found behind the conception of an object because each refers back to a someone who originated it and who convinced a certain number of people to make it exist. To transform the world into a project is without a doubt the originality of the designer’s gaze: this leads us to think that all the things that exist haven’t always existed, they don’t have ontological reality but are solutions, thus we’ve surrounded ourselves with micro or macro solutions. The influence of my past as a designer is hence most likely asserted in this capacity to import this project dimension into reality: we find ourselves in a perspective of the future and of perpetual realization. Besides, the structure of things speaks to me and I have a pronounced taste for technique. I’ve also got a more widespread culture in design and architecture than in fine arts, which markedly feeds my practice.
In the example of First Blood, these paintings that I’ve made aren’t really individualized: altogether, they’re a project aiming to tackle North American culture and landscape in a certain way, but it’s also a project which remains unresolved, the solution is concealed because we will not see the film in its entirety, the paintings are merely sketches… The goal is hence to make my film exist as a project, without it necessarily being finished: like a designer, what takes precedence for me is the intention, allowing me to propose things that won’t all be made, but which would all have their own importance. For me, the realization of an artwork is a kind of momentary interruption of work, it corresponds to an instant when activity is suspended. This is why I probably think less about the creation of the thing than other artists.
Would your deliberate removal of the film’s lead character mark the decline of a myth, that of the virile American hero embodied by Rambo?
To be honest, I didn’t focus on Rambo’s absence but on the landscapes. We can turn this question inside out like a glove: why should there always be someone? Is a representation not valid if figures are absent? In my work, human figures are often absent and I’m not particularly concerned by the question of whether they’re present or not. Here, this most likely conveys my perception of the film, in which the hero and the plot didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.
Consequently, in your film interpretation, the landscape becomes, in your own words, its “lead actor.” Is putting nature back into the foreground a way of inspiring human beings with a certain humility?
Yes, maybe, but it shouldn’t be said that I thought about it, or that I intentionally sought this. In a work, no matter what it is, there is on the one hand what is given by the artist and his intentions and on the other, the established zones of interpretation, which belong to the people who receive the work. This idea didn’t guide my project, but for all that, it doesn’t bother me that the latter suggests that it may have. Nevertheless, my approach didn’t consist of removing the characters, but instead of redrawing the backgrounds without including the characters: they’re omitted, but not eliminated, which is significantly different.
The urban subject is found throughout all your work, like a permanent feature taking different forms according to the project. How do you explain your fascination with the city?
It is above all explained by the fact that the city is the environment in which I’ve lived. I was born in a city (Lyon), in which I grew up and spent most of my life. Then I lived in Paris and I traveled in a certain number of different cities: due to this, the city is my natural milieu that, since my birth, surprises me differently. I notably went through the 1980s-1990s period when there was a revived interest in the city—an interest that had already previously existed in several periods during which the city became superimposed with society’s ambitions.
Finally, then, I remain the product of my era and of this changing relationship to the urban fact. Today, I don’t think we can be completely untouched by the city: even most of the “negative” spaces of the city, like rural spaces, are intrinsically linked, indeed influenced and built by it. When you’re in the Dutch countryside, for example, you’re in a kind of reservation of the city, where the urban extends into the rural, with the highways, trains, high tension lines, parks… It is therefore highly probable that most of Europe is in a similar configuration. I now think the city has become the natural environment that we nearly all share.
Paris, 6th November 2018