Carving up the world
What reaction would Christian Renonciat most like people to have to his work? 'Well,' said the French sculptor. 'I wouldn't mind if they laughed.' And laugh I did on first seeing the giant plywood handbag that was one of the largest examples of Renonciat's work shown in Macau's Orient Foundation last month, and opening at the University of Hong Kong's Fung Ping Shan Museum this evening.
Of course, a two-metre high handbag seems more sensible as a subject when it is made clear that the show, one of the lighter elements of the annual French May festival, has been mostly sponsored by Hermes. A plywood 'Kelly' bag, suitable for a King Kong-sized Princess of Monaco, is a brilliantly blatant piece of sponsorship.
But, exercised humorously as it has been, it is a nice example of how industry sponsorship of arts and of craft can work well.
The handbag was the exception to the exhibition, in that the base material actually looks like wood, albeit contoured and carved like a geological map-maker's model.
Elsewhere, Renonciat has gone to tremendous trouble to make sure it does not.
The walls of the exhibition are covered with everyday objects - plastic, brown-paper-wrapping stuck 'casually' with sticky tape, corrugated cardboard.
Very ordinary things, until you realise they are all carved from wood. Even the sticky tape is made of polished pine, the 'polythene' wrapping does not exist as plastic, but is textured wood carving, polished until its whole essence shines.
A horse blanket, slung against the wall, looks for all the world as if it were made of wool, with a thin line of polished satin around the hem. And a padded postal bag that will never contain a present.
Renonciat, born in Paris in 1947, graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in philosophy. Abstract logic was too, well, abstract, so he learned the more concrete skills of woodworking. 'I was a craftsman, restoring furniture for seven years in Antibes,' he said.
'My target was to learn the traditional techniques of wood working.' Part of that was learning the craft of sculpting human figures, which included representing details of clothes.
'So I just thought why do we have to be so formal? Why not just recreate the shape of a blanket on the wall? It's the same thing.' His role is not to be a craftsman, and skilfully recreate everyday objects in another material, he said. 'But in a philosophical sense it is to talk about the material of things, and what wood can say about it. I try to show things like emptiness, surface, skin and body.' The show is like a retrospective, moving from his realistic to his most abstract pieces. Even after seeing the show it is easy to be tricked by the trompes d'oeil. A simple napkin, with the letter 'R' embroidered (in the carved embroidery-lookalike sense) looks real, until you realise it is made of the same material, and indeed is emerging from, the wooden table it has been 'thrown' on to.
'I like people to smile. What I really want is for people to have the same happiness in looking at my work as I have in doing it.
'For me it's the pleasure you have in a concert when the music is played, when you feel that everything is balanced.' Too often today, he said, art is made to disturb. 'This is how artists make sure that they are avant garde and modern.' However, if Renonciat does not intend the viewers to be disturbed, he is content for the wood to have a sense of serious violation.
Several times during the conversation he emphasised the harshness of his relationship with his material. He is not, he stressed, kind or gentle with the wood, nor even particularly fond of it.
'I don't want to be a slave of the wood; I want to do whatever I like with it.' So he gouges it with chain saws, chews it up with metal instruments, and makes it into something different. 'The wood is really my material: we have a special relationship, violent, aggressive. There is a big difference between me and the craftsman who wants to make the best of the wood. I have no respect for it,' he said.
A piece of low quality poplar, varnished, can be quite surprising, he said.
'I usually use white woods, soft woods, poor woods: I like to take cheap wood and make something special from it.' Another way, perhaps, of challenging the natural order.
His techniques show little nostalgia for old traditions. 'I work very fast, very roughly, and I use all kinds of tools, old ones and new ones, whatever will do the job best. And it is the same with methods, I use whatever works.' One of his most successful techniques is French polishing, an 18th-century method of putting an almost luminous shine on wood.
'You use lacquer, from the lac tree, mix it with alcohol and put it on to a piece of soft cloth. Then you turn it against the wood for hours, and very slowly this quality of polish comes through.
'You do it all day, and the alcohol evaporates from the polish. It's very pleasant,' Renonciat joked.
There are few people using the technique now: it is so labour intensive that furniture makers today cannot, or do not want to, pay for it.
'When I first used it to make these abstract pieces that looked like plastic it was almost like a joke, to take that serious technique and apply it to a subject so common.' One of the hardest things about visiting Renonciat's exhibition is obeying the notices around the walls instructing visitors not to touch. When your eyes are deceiving you, when the form of the thing becomes all-important, when you want to understand the trick so that your enjoyment of the work goes beyond the trickery, it is hard not to employ other senses as well as sight.
Not important, shrugged Renonciat. He understood the impulse of hands, and accepted it as part of putting on an exhibition, even though he did sometimes have to do constant repairs on the most delicate pieces.
'The signs are not really to say don't touch, but to say please touch gently.' The Way Of Wood. Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road. 9.30am-6pm closed Sundays. Until May 24