A glimpse on Emmanuel Chantebout’s work by Lu Muyi

Emmanuel Chantebout was feeling lost. It was on the eve of the year 2000, he had recently graduated from the drawing-painting section of Paris National School of Fine Arts. Short on money, wandering in the south of France, he finally took a job in a publishing company, but felt guilty about not making art.
Born in Paris to a jurist family, he chose to follow other paths instead of what a latent atavism could have prompted him to. However, his early paintings and photography were mainly focused on the position of the artist faced with the powers of politics, economics, mass media or religion throughout history.
As a bustling student, he started to question the glorified figure of "the artist" who is politically and socially involved. From these hectic times, he still holds a sense of provocation. Chantebout scarcely tries to please, lure or seduce. Voluntarily shocking with his early erotic orgies and personified photomontages, he soon understood the necessity for an artist to have a place to show his work. Without any consultation, he converted a corridor of the Chimay Palace in Saint-Germain-des-Pres’ district, in a student gallery named "Rive droite", which still exists today into the School of Fine Arts.
After several journeys abroad to England and Australia followed by exhibitions in France, he moved to China in 2003. He was eager to open new perspectives in him work but as a Chinese-illiterate, painting was at first his only means of expression. He says: "I attempt to give a narrative to the social situation I live in. My first series of paintings in China were only for the pleasure to paint a new environment I was discovering on a piecemeal basis".
Chantebout’s first period in China was spent walking around observing Beijing’s various street life, from the sellers of jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) to the daily flag rising by the Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square. At this time he painted a series of urban landscapes featuring cranes and passers-by, subjects that found their way naturally onto his canvass. His point of view is definitively the one of a hidden witness, a fresh and light approach to a new world impregnated with benevolence.
Emmanuel Chantebout soon started to learn mandarin and settled into his studio in a traditional lane of courtyards in a Beijing hutong street. His interaction with Chinese people started to grow and thus he was exposed to Chinese society gaining a deeper insight into the culture. At that moment, he also opened an art gallery in Dashanzi 798, a complex formerly known as Joint Factory 798. Dashanzi Art District houses a thriving artist community, amongst the 50 year old decommissioned military factory buildings. The area is often compared with New York’s Greenwich village or Soho.
Inside the famous 798 area, holy of holies in the contemporary art scene in China Chantebout is the curator of his own gallery exhibiting both Chinese and foreign artists. He is interested to show case new talent, which is unusual as many of the surrounding massive exhibition spaces plan only to exhibit established artists. His dual activities allow him to meet a great number of Chinese artists and also to introduce other foreign art practitioners to the Chinese audience. His self-assigned objective is encapsulated in the name of his gallery, Perif Gallery aiming to open new ways of thinking and employing peripheral strategies.
Proceeding also on his personal work, his second period was marked with a very new motto: the building of a new China. Entitled jian (construction), Chantebout stages Chinese lingdao (bureaucrats) giving press conferences on red backgrounds stamped with huge white Chinese characters. The red colour, symbol of happiness and prosperity in China, explodes linked with the white Chinese calligraphy. The Chinese leaders aiming to build a modern China are not the only new protagonists in this series of works; soldiers and guards are also present. The current challenge of China is depicted on his canvases raising questions such as, "how is it possible to lead a whole nation of people forward with such rapid development and modernization?"
Chantebout draws inspiration from what he calls the "strange contradictions in Chinese society". This revelation prompted him to create a stunning series of pictures featuring expressionless, identically clothed models marking a breakthrough in Chantebout’s painting style.
The artist revealed bustling people only dedicated to their own activities and living in an absolute ignorance of what is going on around them. They are active and yet lost in their surroundings, which he depicts as an empty, deaf and comforting white space. The individual ignorance of the global development they are each involved in presents the viewer with questions about China’s development. On the canvass, the crowd is dense, obviously happy and buoyant, despite the police and army forces presence in their midst.
The pictures of this period are slightly different, according to the painter who says of these works, "I freed myself from a certain sense of guilt." His technique changed and he allowed himself to use photographic resources by which he exploits duplicating his images. Using cutting-and-pasteing he in effect reinforces the meaning and impression of multiplicity and anonymity. Instead of synthesizing the world, Chantebout is cloning it.
In a current fourth period of working Chantebout is following his flow if ideas now reflecting upon them through a confluence of artistic technologies. He still uses digital photography, which he retouches on computer and repaints, but now the paper cuts are magnetised. The canvases are evolving to become a platform of exchange between the artist and the public through the mobility of the figures in the crowd. A dialogue is opened up regarding the last power the artist faces, his public. Can an onlooker intervene into the artistic creation process? "Absolutely, yes." says Chantebout.
Every protagonist is now separated one from another thanks to an individualization of the characters through firstly the paper cut process and latterly because the magnet figures can be moved. The audience’s role is no longer a passive one but an active meeting or maker role as they are invited to move the figures on the metallic canvas. The recurrent intervention of the viewer forms the image inviting new authors to the table. The iron canvass reminds one of the rapid industrialization of China and the evolving image is a metaphor of China’s rising.