On storytelling and 'Boaz': In conversation with Romain Kronenberg

Paris-born artist Romain Kronenberg speaks about storytelling, language and myth in the unfinished narrative of Boaz, exhibiting at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, France.

by Vidur SethiPublished on : Apr 22, 2022

In the souvenir shops of Procida, a small island off the coast of Naples, French artist Romain Kronenberg encounters the story of a forgotten voice on an old tape recorder. An abandoned cassette plays a child’s voice that is quiet and yet impossible to ignore; its content uncanny, carrying spaces and voids that felt untouched and full of possibilities. In this coincidence of stumbling across a story, Kronenberg encounters the “destiny of a treasure". A young orphan named Boaz carries a presence that leads to moments of devotion as his relationship between his adopted family, his brother Malachie, their sister Deborah and father Amos gets negotiated. Putting forth the central provocation around the meanings of sacred and its extension, Kronenberg explores the story of Boaz with characters that are legendary, mystical, sacrificial through a short and rhythmic novel by the same title as the protagonist. The text further develops into an immersive exhibition, on display at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse in France till April 30, 2022. Curated by Coline Davenne and Sandrine Wymann with participation of Meris Angioletti and Emi Yatsuzaki, the art exhibition deepens the interplay between the visual and narrative forms by exploring origins and repercussions of myth through a set of sound pieces, visual artworks and documents.

Speaking with STIR, the visual artist mentions his personal experiences and processes involved in developing Boaz into an intertextual, intermedial, indelible narrative.

Shop in Procida where Kronenberg encountered Boaz | Boaz| Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
Shop in Procida where Kronenberg encountered Boaz, Photograph, Romain Kronenberg Image: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur Sethi: Your background entails a study of theology and composition, the designing of sound, creation of visual work. How do you define your artistic practice in the discourse of what entails the cross-, inter- and trans- natures of how we see disciplines? How does (if at all) one bleed into another and is there a prominence in terms of form that becomes crucial to your practice?

Romain Kronenberg: I don’t especially use these prefixes while talking about my work. In fact, I never do. It would certainly be superfluous, as I think they are inherent to art — as most languages borrow from / engage in dialogue-connect with other ones: literature with music, cinema with music and text, music with architecture, etc… This being said, in the variety of my work, I am the one creating in every discipline; more and more disciplines, as time passes. At the same time there is a desire to discover — a curiosity, the fear of boredom and the search for the most accurate language — the one that will lead me, as closely as possible, to what I try to express. At the moment, literature is that discipline. Take Providence for instance: the project that I am working on right now. First of all, it’s a novel made of three chapters. Each chapter, unbound and printed on rag page is held in a box that I designed. In box 1, several audio tapes (music that I made and readings of the novel) ; in box 2, a fabric sculpture; in box 3 are paper artworks (posters, drawings and photographs).

Tu comprends que la vie glisse, 2022, Poster of Providence| Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
Tu comprends que la vie glisse, 2022, Poster of Providence Image: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: What went into the decision to split the Boaz project into three parts? How did you draw on each aspect of your practice from visual art and photography to music to eventually decide the composition of specific artworks and documents for each stage, especially for the first stage at Galerie Sator and for the second at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse?

Romain: As I work, I make plenty of decisions, most of them concrete — yet trivial. But the most important aspect of my work that may look like decisions are not. They just happen, as happens the obvious. The way that I write novels is very eloquent for that matter. But most of the time, I don’t know what will come next. Things happen as I write, and I trust they will keep happening, as long as what I am writing right now is honest (to me). That explains that I never go back to what’s already written (except in the details).

The three stages of Boaz happened that way. At Galerie Sator, the first stage of the project, I wanted to reveal to the readers of the eponymous novel to the objects made by its characters, imagining that they could be moved by seeing them (the photo album, some drawings, videos — daily-private objects). I couldn’t say that these objects were art in the novel. But being exhibited at the gallery probably changed their status.

At La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, the same objects are shown again, but “glorified”, “idealised”, which came by itself as I was imagining the project. Sculptures and sound artworks, mostly, are the means to this “idealisation”. They celebrate. If this second stage is already distancing from the novel, the third stage (work in progress) is completely free from it. It will show the destruction of the previous idealisation, and explain its necessity — the necessary movement between poles, between creation and destruction.

Boaz at Galerie Sator, 2021, Romain Kronenberg | Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
Boaz at Galerie Sator, 2021, Romain Kronenberg Image: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: I find it fascinating that in many ways your own characters are your collaborators over the course of creating Boaz. What does the Soma Anders represent to you? What does it mean to interact creatively with your own creations to further your artistic process?

Romain: I can’t say them and I collaborate or interact. They induce objects that I make — that I later combine, together with mine. This ensemble becomes the project that previously induced the characters: the circle is complete…  What I can say is that what they make, I would never make it: straw and wire sculptures, family photographs, children’s drawings… For that reason they provide the opportunity to decentre myself, they open newer artistic perspectives. And what they are, I am certainly not: I feel what they feel, want what they want, need what they need, through empathy. They extend my space. And as far as I am concerned, this shift is even more necessary at a time when identity seems to catch a lot of attention within the society. As for Soma Anders, it is indeed the collective that gathers us — them and I. And I hope that, in the future, only my first name will remain (Romain), and my last name disappear. As they themselves have no last names.

Vidur: In the specific context of La Kunsthalle exhibition, what relevance does the Boaz novel hold, and how do you think the experience of the exhibition changes for someone not familiar with the novel or context at all?

Romain: It’s uneasy to comment on something you are part of, but I would say that entering the exhibition space, one understands quite fast that there is a story that is being told. There are too many faces on the walls, too many voices on the loudspeakers, too many words on paper. Now, if you have read the novel, your visit can be quite enthusiastic, as you are playing with the pieces of a puzzle you know the general shape of. But if you know nothing about the narrative, you may be destabilised and frustrated. Which is why we offered the public to borrow a copy of the book, a few months before the exhibition. Three hundred copies were and are still available in several public libraries of the city. We also organised a reading of the novel, followed by a visit of the exhibition. And well, we imagined an exhibition catalogue that would facilitate the visit.

The experience of the first two months of this exhibition tells me that among the people who haven’t read the book, some are intrigued, and borrow it after the visit. Some others don’t stay long. And I assume that such a project, combining a narrative and visual arts — time and space, can’t satisfy everyone. What matters is that it really satisfies some of them.

02 mins watch The clock, 2022, sound installation, views of the exhibition Boaz  | Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
The clock, 2022, sound installation, views of the exhibition Boaz Video: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: What role did language play in the gestation of the project? Since the original audio cassette of the story of the orphaned boy was in Italian, and the audio exhibited contains an edited mix of conversations in Italian and French, how do you situate language within the exhibition itself, also with reference to the posters “Tu vois mala” and “come ogni giorno fosse lo stesso giorno”?

Romain: Language is diversely distant to sense, sound and graphic in the exhibition. There is the found footage in Italian secretly whispered, a clock playing a voice every 15 minutes, recorded conversations between two characters, a limited edition of the novel (unbound) become artwork, and posters showing words in specific layouts. Each artwork reveals a different aspect of the language: its musicality, secrecy, melancholy, symmetry. The words “Come ogni giorno fosse le stessio giorno”, for instance, that the boy pronounces several times on the audio cassette, are displayed on a poster repeatedly, taking the shape of a fractal. The words on the poster “Tu vois, Mala?” show the way I say them — graphically, as I always write aloud, giving a great importance to consonance and rhythm. There is one last aspect of language that is important in the exhibition: the possibility for anyone to write to the characters, on their email addresses, listed in the exhibition catalogue.

Vidur: Do you situate the themes of transcendence, legend and mythmaking within the characters of Boaz? In what ways has your background in theology helped you select and work with similar themes?

Romain: I have been working on these themes for quite some time, long before Boaz. In 2014, in Turkey, I imagined a video where pictures of Ani’s ruins alternate with construction sites in Mardin while a Kurdish voice imagines a conversation between Titans and Gods. In 2017, in a disused factory, I imagined a video staging two gods depriving humans of their presence. From this point of view, Malachie’s interest for transcendence is an echo of myself. But he expresses it in his own way, makes references I wouldn’t make. Once again, he is independent from me, as says the song: we are one, but we are not the same. As for my background — and it can sound contradictory, I must say I have no particular interest in the monotheisms. Already as a student, I was more interested in medieval mysticism and pre-monotheistic cults than in classical theology.

02 mins watch Excerpt from Boaz, 2021, film| Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
An excerpt from Boaz, 2021, film Video: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: Why does Malachie call his groups of dolls little theatres? Could you speak more about the contents of the letters that this character wrote to you? How did you organise the placement of each doll in space? How do you imagine Malachie would have done it?

Romain: First a few words about the dolls themselves, these small objects made of straw and wire are quite mysterious to my eyes. Here is what I know. The novel depicts Malachie as an enthusiastic, even nervous person, always in need to talk or make to keep his mind busy, evacuate his energy. When he turned 20, he showed an interest in the Cargo Cult, where Melanasians’ reaction to the arrival of some colonists took the shape of objects made of straw copying the colonists’ (radios, planes), with the hope of getting the same results as them. This magical perception of technology having probably made an impression on Malachie… it may be an origin for the dolls.

But who was Malachie depicting in his dolls, then? Who was he trying to “copy”? What magic was he trying to arouse? In his letter, he explains that he organised his dolls by ensembles (of two to five), to avoid them to get bored. Now if you take a closer look, each ensemble — that he named — evokes a situation that he may have encountered, in his own life, with his brother Boaz. The vertigo may refer to transcendence, to suicide too; The secret to the silence around his brother’s legend; The friends may be a portrait of them both, arm in arm; as for The mother, he explains that he has nothing to say about it (and we know nothing of Malachie’s mother, indeed). These stage plays, whose protagonists would be him and his kin (idealised), may explain that he calls his ensembles with the childish expression: “little theatres”. In his letter, that I do not wish to make entirely public — as some parts are definitely private, Malachie untrusted his ensembles to me and asked me to keep them visible to the public, but he gave no specific instruction about the way they should be exhibited. This is why I try to change their display at every occasion, keeping them organised by ensemble — as he defined them, of course. How would Malachie have organised them in space, himself ? Very proudly, undoubtedly! And less cautiously than I do…

Vidur: With regards to the film, at what moments did you feel that Romain completely stepped back and Boaz took over? Or did you feel that Romain never entered the picture? If so, what do you make of notions of authorship of the film?

Romain: The film Boaz (25’) shows the making of the two brothers’ film Boaz is my brother (5’) — both entirely filmed by Boaz, reveals such a strong bond between the latter and his brother Malachie that I wouldn’t like to step in, for fear of disturbing the balance, between them. Yet I intervened later, to edit the pictures and compose the music. Them and I were in two distinct-parallel temporalities, that never met. As for the notions of authorship in general, I must say I feel less author of the project than responsible for it.

A view of the exhibition Boaz at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2022 I Boaz | Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
A view of the exhibition Boaz at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2022 Image: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: Malachie’s love for rituals and cults makes it understandable that he would be the one to worship Boaz the most ardently. Where do you stand on devotion in terms of your art practice and how close do you feel to Malachie?

Romain: I feel very close to him in this regard. For instance, the way I write a novel is a succession of rituals, of magic. First just thinking about doing it — without even knowing what, precisely — sometimes for months. Waiting for the right time… And suddenly, one morning, the right time has come. Choosing two or three compositions that I will play all day long, on the headphones, writing. Starting to write — and I write very fast — seven days for Boaz. Never going backwards. Being totally focused on the characters, on their actions. Feeling what they feel, smelling what they smell, seeing all the spaces where they live, anticipating their gestures. The only think I never see is their faces but I can feel their energy very accurately. I cry a lot during the process — and I don’t even feel uncomfortable saying it. And at the end of the day, I am exhausted and sleeping. The day after, starting again, without reading more than a few paragraphs of what I wrote, the day before. The memory is enough, and as soon as the music starts, in the headphones, every sensation starts coming back with it. And I am on track again. When I write, I forget who I am, where and when… I am just present for them. Composing music follows different rituals but it is as intense and repetitive as writing a novel.

The novel (limited edition) a view of the exhibition Boaz at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2022 | Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
The novel (limited edition) a view of the exhibition Boaz at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2022 Image: Romain Kronenberg

Vidur: In the letter that Amos writes to Sandrine, he cites the notion of Jungian archetypes with reference to Boaz and has some lovely reflections on whether Boaz was destined to be the legend he became for the community. How have you integrated the idea of destiny in your own practice, and do you think that your place in the disciplines of music, art, film, or photography has a touch of Jung?

Romain: Jung is one of those intellectuals who integrated the sacred into his structure of thought, into his own practice and didn’t relegate it only to his private life. He was also a reader of Meister Eckhart, who I read myself regularly during my studies. In both of them, I find an interesting balance between devotion and abstraction, desire and ideas, intuition and intellect. In my view, this balance is essential. That may explain my interest for their works. The subject of destiny is not so different, as it raises the question of essence and existence: how can I balance what I am essentially with my free will. Boaz answered this with his death.

Profile image of Romain Kronenberg I Boaz | Romain Kronenberg | STIRworld
Romain Kronenberg Image: Mathieu Dubernat

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