Image: Julien Salaud
Fleuve Céleste – Loire Valley, 2015
Julien Salaud stands in almost total darkness, the only illumination coming from the glowing lines of his own captivating, immersive artwork. The drawings bear a certain resemblance to the carved rock illustrations of his cavemen ancestors, but the distinctive luminescent twist marks them out as something much newer, much bolder. And the French artist didn’t use stones to make the work, either; instead, he utilized pieces of thread dipped in ultraviolet paint before being suspended from carefully positioned nails on the walls of the room.
And as if by magic, the string pieces turn into beasts that, when hit with ultraviolet light, appear to be floating in a vast sea of stars. In fact, these futuristic cave paintings reflect one key theme running through Salaud’s work: according to the artist, each of his pieces offers “a different point of view regarding what an animal can be.”
Indeed, various creatures, both solidly lit and shadowed, seem to leap from the wall’s blackness. The artist, of course, consciously included many in the images, but other beasts may simply be the mind playing tricks. Indeed, stare for long enough and it’s surely possible to see all number of creatures in the utterly incredible patterns.
These amazingly innovative displays come from Salaud’s Grotte Stellaire – or Stellar Cave – series of installations and his most recent work, Fleuve Céleste, also known as The Heavenly River. The site-specific pieces have been featured in spaces in Israel, New York and Paris, among others.
Stellar Cave IV, for instance, was created during a lesson run by Salaud at Israel’s Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, with both graduates and employees working together to develop the class’ “manifesto.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that it mirrors one of Salaud’s own artistic preoccupations – namely, the links that humans have with the natural world.
The magnificent Fleuve Céleste, meanwhile, is installed beneath a winery in France’s Loire Valley. The mesmerizing subterranean tapestry was completed using some 65,000 tacks and around 28 miles of shimmering cotton. It’s almost like viewing a cross-section of the Earth where birds, fish and insects all have a place.
In fact, the Maison Ackerman cellar in which the work resides is located more than 80 feet below ground, adding even more to the feeling of being transported back to the time of prehistoric man. Fleuve Céleste is going to be on display here until the end of 2017.
Image: Julien Salaud
Stellar Cave – Paris, 2012
Fleuve Céleste’s creation, however, was something of a labor of love for Salaud, who has admitted that working in the cellar location was “painful.” Along with a pair of assistants and half a dozen students, the artist toiled under the ground for close to a month. Between them, though, the group clocked up an amazing 58 days’ worth of work in covering the cellar’s flaws and erecting the piece. The total cost of the installation, meanwhile, was nearly $26,000.
Salaud’s previous piece, Stellar Cave II, proved similarly collaborative, as 11 helpers joined the artist to realize a scene that was created in ten days and with 18 miles’ worth of string. Stellar Cave II was installed at the Singapore Art Museum as part of Art Garden 2013, and visitors to the work were accurately assured “a stellar experience.”
Still, this was by no means just an astronomical vision, as when visitors glanced upward at the jaw-dropping piece, they could also see glittering animals playing among the stars. Some smaller museum patrons even got to have a go at creating their own glowing masterworks by tying string around already in-situ nails.
The first Stellar Cave piece was installed in 2012 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. According to the contemporary art gallery, the ceiling-fixed piece evoked ancient rituals that involved deifying the stars.
Stellar Cave III, meanwhile, made its appearance in the fall of 2014 at New York City’s Friedman Benda gallery. It was positioned toward the close of an exhibition entitled “Apocryphal Times” – fitting, perhaps, for a display that somewhat plays with reality.
And through their distinctive animal shapes set on natural canvases, Salaud’s astonishing Stellar Cave works seem to take their cue from the preserved prehistoric paintings seen inside France’s Lascaux caves. This significant site was discovered in 1940 and placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. The caves themselves feature extensive carvings and illustrations thought to have been created as far back as 17 centuries ago.
The Lascaux pieces depict up to 100 different kinds of strikingly lifelike animals – figures that, nonetheless, could also hide an alternative meaning. Researcher Chantal Jégues-Wolkiewiez, for example, has suggested that some aspects of the Lascaux paintings actually depict astronomical projections of how the stars appeared at that time. Within this context, therefore, Salaud’s work can almost be seen as a natural extension of art begun in prehistoric times.
Salaud himself is a trained biochemist and has been fascinated with animals from a young age. As the artist explained to Entre magazine, “I [spent] so much time in the woods chasing deer with my classmates in the schoolyard.”
Even Salaud’s first job in the scientific world involved animals and their relationship to man – specifically, humans’ impact on French Guianese wildlife. And while Salaud didn’t really enjoy the work, he did love following the animals.
In fact, even prior to the Stellar Cave series, Salaud worked on a succession of pieces called Stellar Animals, created from 2008 to 2011. Here, Salaud fashioned his own take on taxidermy by inserting pins and nails into stuffed animals – including a deer – and adorning them in decorative pieces of thread. The resultant webs can certainly be seen as a precursor to the artist’s larger, more ambitious Stellar Cave projects.
Meanwhile, for Fleuve Céleste, Salaud did not design the installation prior to working in the subterranean cellar in which it is located. Instead, he let the walls and ceilings dictate the shape and outcome of the final piece.
Fleuve Céleste nevertheless almost acts as a throwback to Salaud’s previous glowing fiber works. This is because animals featured in Stellar Cave, Stellar Cave III and Stellar Cave IV can all be seen reproduced within the more recent piece in the Maison Ackerman cellar.
This last, curious image from Stellar Cave IV is possibly one of Salaud’s most thought-provoking, however. Close up, the humanoid deer seems to be holding up the tapestry and its many magnificently gleaming threads with just one hand. Perhaps it is a representation of Salaud himself, the artist as a creator of life.