Last Wednesday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Eden, Eden, Eden – the legendary novel by Pierre Guyotat, who died in February of this year. Donatien Grau – the acclaimed scholar, writer and museum executive, who was very close to Guyotat – describes this literary work rather wonderfully as “barely bearable, but so beautiful” and “a very intense, very radical take onto oppression, violence, sexuality”. Believing the book, and Guyotat’s work more broadly, to be more relevant now than ever, Grau decided to organise an event to celebrate its anniversary, comprising 50 readings around the world, one for every year since its release. He enlisted a number of friends and “fellow travelers”, as he puts it, to help – including artist Paul McCarthy, writer Chris Kraus, artist Kaari Upson and rapper Abd Al Malik. Eden 50, as the project was named, also included a new film by Amiel Courtin Wilson in Melbourne – which is shown, in part, below – a performance by Michael Dean at Progetto, a reading by Philippe Parreno in Berlin, a concert by Scott McCulloch in Tbilisi. Here, Grau shares more about the project, what he hopes to achieve through it and why he believes Guyotat’s work holds such relevance to this day; why he is, to borrow Grau’s words once more, “the voice of our times”.
Ted Stansfield: First off, I wondered if you could introduce yourself and your practice?
Donatien Grau: I’m a scholar, writer, museum executive. I tend to think I am a philologist, meaning someone who studies the structures of text, and the presence of text in the world. But perhaps I am first and foremost privileged that creative figures I admire respect me enough to have me as one of their fellow travelers.
TS: What has this year been like for you? How has it altered your practice and, further to that, your viewpoint on the world?
DG: This year has been very intense, like for all other people. During the lockdown, it meant working towards defining creative strategies to engage with the collections of the museum while we were closed. It also is the year of the publication of Taking Time, Azzedine Alaïa’s manifesto I helped make happen and of my own book on Azzedine, which is just coming out in French. It is also the year of the passing of Pierre Guyotat, one of the individuals Azzedine admired the most.
“[Pierre Guyotat] is also a hero, who almost was homeless for the sake of poetry. He is the voice for our times” – Donatien Grau
TS: Can you tell us about this project that you’ve been working on?
DG: Three years ago, Azzedine decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Pierre’s legendary Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand Soldiers, his masterpiece that preceded Eden, Eden, Eden. So we organised a reading, which lasted for five hours, with many friends and fellow travelers, for a few months or for decades. The reading took place at Azzedine’s gallery, it was actually his last public outing. Michael Dean, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Paul McCarthy, Coppa Volpi laureate Dominique Blanc, rapper Abd Al Malik participated, among others. At the end of 2019, Pierre was ailing, and we were discussing what to do for the fiftieth anniversary of Eden, Eden, Eden, a book that is even more legendary than Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand Soldiers, I had to give it some thoughts. Pierre was turning 80, he was quite worried about age, and connecting the birthday and the anniversary. So my mind wandered: what about 50 readings around the world, on the very day of the fiftieth anniversary, which is September 9 2020?
Pierre thought it was almost a joke, but one he quite liked. He passed away a month after we had begun to initiate the process, but, as chairman of the Association Pierre Guyotat, the entity devoted to the further expansion of his work, alongside Régis, Pierre’s brother, Guilaume Fau, Pierre’s executor and the curator of modern manuscripts at France’s Public Library, and the members of the board of the Association, we decided to do it, to prove that Pierre’s work is more relevant now than ever.
TS: Perhaps you could give a very short introduction to Pierre Guyotat, for people who may not be familiar with him and his work?
DG: Pierre was deemed the last avant-garde author by Edmund White. To put it simply, he is James Joyce for the 21st century, and we are so pleased that the great Irish author Colm Tóibín will be reading for this project. He is James Joyce, because he changed the very fabric of language and dealt with language as with a material. But he clearly was an author for the 21st century: every subject we deal with today he has dealt with. Decolonisation is a key origin of his work, as he was a soldier during the Algerian War, and sided with the Algerians. In several of his books, including Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand and Eden, Eden, Eden he presented the direst portrait of oppression one could ever paint. Eden, Eden, Eden was actually censored, even though coming out with three forewords by Barthes, Leiris, Sollers, being immediately given a raving review by Foucault, and supported by the likes of Pasolini, Sartre, and to be president of France François Mitterrand. No one has depicted oppression like he has. He is also an author who completely defined gender fluidity, playing with the stereotypes of gender to redefine them. And he began doing all that 50 years ago ... He is also a hero, who almost was homeless for the sake of poetry. He is the voice for our times.
TS: What is your personal relationship to Pierre?
DG: I was very close to Pierre. I edited several publications about him, did a conversation book with him. When I was working with Azzedine, we did the exhibition Pierre Guyotat, la matière de nos oeuvres, which looked into his relation to visual artists, and how he inspired them. This was actually the first time his drawings were exhibited: ever since they have been shown at Cabinet, were just shown at Xavier Hufkens’ in Brussels and feature prominently in the upcoming Manifesta in Marseille. But really my relation is one of an admirer, secretary, and sometimes scholar.
TS: What inspired you to launch this project?
DG: The goal of this project was to show how vibrant Pierre’s work is, and to show it with world-class institutions and artists: the fact that they would team up, from Dakar to Buenos Aires, from Tokyo to LA, from Saint Julien Molin Molette, the village right near where Pierre grew up to Garage in Moscow, is extraordinary. I can honestly say never in recorded times have such diverse institutions collaborated on a project for a contemporary author. I am humbled by the inventiveness of each them: whether it’s a sound installation at Galleria Borghese, an Instagram campaign at The Box in LA … I’m even more humbled by the contribution of artists who are at the forefront of this project: whether Theaster Gates in Chicago, Paul McCarthy in LA, Philippe Parreno in Berlin, Abd Al Malik in Vitry where Pierre wrote part of Eden, Niranjani Iyer for Jaipur, Ray Brassier and Mohamed Nassereddine in Beirut, or Ced’art Tamarasa in Lusanga, they are offering new readings, new propositions. Their creativity and generosity are astounding.
“But Eden, Eden, Eden is also a work that tackles the greatest political and existential issues of our time, outside of Western views” – Donatien Grau
AM: What relevance do you think Eden, Eden, Eden has for today?
DG: Extreme relevance. Eden, Eden, Eden is a difficult text, whose reading is at times barely bearable, but so beautiful. It is a very intense, very radical take onto oppression, violence, sexuality. Maurice Blanchot once said that is was “too strong”, like a liquor is too strong. It is a very extreme text, but also a direct confrontation to our world in the most beautiful language. It is a masterpiece of poetry, and in that regard it is timeless. But it is also a work that tackles the greatest political and existential issues of our time, outside of Western views. It addresses our life in all materiality and physicality but goes all the way from the plant to the sky. It is a manifesto for and manifestation of awareness to life.
AM: What are you hoping to achieve through this project?
DG: Nietzsche had a beautiful sentence about Montaigne. He said: “that such a person lived, and that he wrote, truly, life on earth found itself enhanced”. Pierre changed language, changed art, and he gave everything for that. He gave his life to art. Now art is giving back his due. Joyce was quite admired during his lifetime, but not nearly as much as after he passed away. It may be that his work was intimidating. The second life of Pierre’s work is starting now. Some people have said that we are doing is a tribute. I don’t care for a tribute: tributes are for dead works by dead people. Pierre’s work, as he wanted it to be, belongs to the future. First and foremost Eden, Eden, Eden, which came out 50 years ago.