Name: Claudia Comte
DOB: 12 December 1983
Place of birth: Morges, Switzerland
Occupation: Installation artist, sculptor
Ms. Comte, what important issues are fueling your art these days?
Right now, I really want to work on one of the most, if not the most, urgent topics of our time, which is climate change. I think with art, you can create a strong reaction to this topic, and it becomes a new perception. I did a residency with the TBA21 Academy in 2019 and created an underwater sculpture park, where we dropped sculptures into an area of the ocean near Jamaica, and encouraged coral to grow on them… The sculptures change over time, and you can go, for example, in a glass bottom boat to look at them. It becomes art that is not only for you. I think it’s a fun way of speaking about the urgency of our time.
Seeing a sculpture in the ocean also plays with our perspective in a fun way — which is something your art installations are often celebrated for.
Yeah, I really love to create joy through my installations. I love when people feel good and appreciate the environment I've created for them. What is the best for me is to hear from the museum or the gallery is that they have some visitors that stay for an hour or two. For the Copenhagen Contemporary, for example, I created this collapsing forest where people could carve their name or even mark on the trunks. The museum was telling me that a family would come and stay for a long time; the kids were running around, it was as if you could have a picnic there. That’s really what it is about for me: to make art about sharing and having emotion, sometimes in a more humorous way, too, to contrast what we have learned or what we have seen for so long with male artists that played it so seriously.
“Just because it's humorous, doesn’t mean that it's not also serious. It’s both and that can really be a strength.”
Humor is more of a tool to get your message across. It also tends to make art more memorable — you’ll always remember the piece that made you laugh or smile.
Yes, I really use it to reach this empathic connection. Just because it's humorous, doesn’t mean that it's not also serious. Actually, it’s both and I think that can really be a strength. It also opens it up to a larger public. It’s art for everyone, whether or not you have a background in art. I'm trying to do something that everyone can grasp.
Is that why your work often incorporates an active element, or even an interactive one?
Yeah, exactly. With my show After Nature, which is all about our oceans and the regenerating corals you find under the sea, I’ve created coral sculptures carved out of wood that is endemic to the local area. And to go along with that, there will be a performance with its own unique soundtrack where a dancer will incarnate different sea creatures and pass from room to room. I love to create an installation which then gets activated.
Like with Now I Won, which you presented at Art Basel in 2017, where you created a carnival in which people could play games you had built in order to win one of your sculptures.
Yes, but that one was activated from the beginning. We built everything, all the games, the bowling and darts and the arm-wrestling booth, with the idea that they would be interacted with. That was really incredible, seeing people interacting with with my work. It brings lots of energy to the installation when you bring so much of your energy in the first place. And I think people really liked it to be surrounded by that, to be able to actually touch the works and spend time together having fun… It just gave a new perspective. Plus there was, like you said, a chance to win one of my carved sculptures.
Those prizes were carved from marble, but usually you work with wood and carve each sculpture yourself using a chainsaw — some pieces are very large, but others seem impossibly small!
(Laughs) I have five chainsaws; one is really big but they get progressively smaller — that’s how I make these tiny sculptures. The biggest one I’ve done is this family of cactus that I created in the forest near where I was born in Switzerland. I’m also working on a gigantic piece of Sequoia, I received the trunk for that three years ago already and I’m just waiting for it to dry… With the chainsaws, I do a rough job, creating a rough surface. Actually, when I first started using the chainsaw 13 or 14 years ago, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t sand down the surface of the wood… My first pieces all had a very rough surface. But a couple years ago, I was tempted and I tried sanding down the sculptures. It’s never-ending once you start it, it’s almost addictive!
How did you learn to work with the chainsaw? I can’t imagine there was a chainsaw course at art school.
I learned by myself! I was in school at the time and I had spoken with my teacher about this but no one was really taking me seriously. I went back to my hometown and visited the lumberjack school; I spoke to this guy there who was, at the time, the champion of the chainsaw, he was doing sculptures that were 2,5 centimeters. In the region, he was famous for this. Anyway, I went there and explained him what I wanted to do and about my ideas, asking him to teach me… But he told me you have to go to school for three years to learn this! Obviously I wasn’t going to spend three years learning this, so I picked up the chainsaw that belonged to my grandfather and started practicing. It’s such an interesting skill, you could spend 10 lifetimes to understand it.
I love that your work is also very physically demanding. Apparently this means that you have a very personal connection to all your sculptures because you invest so much energy into them.
Yeah, I mean, sometimes when you’re doing these specific movements, like the same gesture over and over again; applying the paint, pressing on the vinyl, removing it, it puts me into another state. It’s almost meditative.
“I provoke this need for action in order to create the piece — but the installation also couldn't live without the action of creating it.”
Do you think that physicality is almost necessary for your work to be its best?
That’s an interesting question! I do really like to create this analogy around my work, but I’m not sure what comes first. I provoke this need for action in order to create the piece — but the installation also couldn't live without the action of creating it. I love when I get a shipment of trunks that get delivered and they are just gigantic, and it doesn’t feel impossible because I want to do it… But it does feel a bit crazy! It’s a question of physical strength, but also it’s the need to make the piece, whether that’s alone or together with a team. I really like that physical work.
Do you usually work with many assistants?
I used to do all of it myself, but yes, now I have a team of assistants who help me… What I really love is when the production happens and everyone is getting sort of in sync. It becomes really a group thing, everyone putting this energy in together. The support I’m getting, not just from my assistants but also my partner, my friends, my brother, is so necessary for me to develop my voice further. The exchange of ideas really helps in developing the exact technique that really makes my work come to life.