PASCAL LIEVRE AND Britney Spears sitting up a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g. Well, perhaps, they should be. Pop music and kissing have become Lievre's livelihood - not to mention the foundation of his art.
The 41-year-old Paris-based conceptual artist is part of a growing movement of postmodern French artists who work in the re-appropriation of commercial pop culture. On a sweltering afternoon at Art Statements Gallery, Lievre, who has flown in for his first Asian show, is taking me through his latest body of work: traced silhouettes of famous paintings, remixed Abba and Jermaine Jackson videos, and, yes, the selling of kisses.
Lievre's 'Ombres Chinoises - Chinese Shadows' highlights his paintings, videos and performance art. His work is complex and aggressive, often entailing political commentaries on popular culture and art history.
'Silhouettes in French are called Chinese shadows or les ombres chinoises,' says Lievre. 'I started to imagine that I could tell the history of art by silhouetting the subject of an existing painting. Lievre deconstructs art history by literally tracing the figures of famous paintings and then setting the silhouettes against bright fluorescent backgrounds. In doing so, he removes all notions of perspective from the original painting - transplanting the subject into a new context.
In his latest show, he has traced paintings by the likes of Renaissance masters such as Paolo Uccello, ancient Chinese artists and abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning. As he merely traces the copies of others, Lievre considers himself more of a conceptual artist than a pure painter. 'I use bright colors to attract people to the subjects of my paintings. Otherwise, they might never go to a museum to see an Uccello because they might find Uccello very boring,' he says. 'The subject becomes more and more a logo.'
Lievre works obsessively on each painting, which takes anywhere from a week to a month, working four to eight hours a day, to complete. He's also a rising star in video art, and there are two of his pieces in the show. Abba Mao appropriates the Abba song Money, Money, Money with text from Mao's Little Red Book, while the artist paints his entire face red. He says it's a comment on the irony between Maoism and the new Chinese economy. Axis of Evil, the stronger of the two videos, combines Jermaine Jackson's love song And When the Rain Begins to Fall with George W. Bush's Axis of Evil speech, shot in and around a Niagara Falls honeymoon suite. It's intended to show the dialectic between a declaration of war and a declaration of love.
'Pop music is very powerful,' says Lievre. 'Almost anywhere in the world, when Britney Spears or Madonna sings a song, people recognise it. And for me, the relationship between the power of politics and the power of pop music is very strong. It's the relationship of two languages. In fact, pop and politics are the same for me.
'Mao said that artists have to speak the same language as the peasants and the workers. He imagined a language of art. I think all the artists have to think about how to touch the people. Mao had an idea. China is becoming more and more capitalist, so that's why I chose Money, Money, Money. Maybe now or in 20 years, Chinese will forget Mao but we all remember Abba. So, maybe Abba wins.
'The reason I'm interested in popular languages is because I come from a very populist family,' says Lievre. 'My father was a worker and my mother was a cleaner. There was no culture in my family. My father only read one or two books in his life.'
As a result, Lievre's career as an artist began relatively late. 'I am self-taught,' he says. 'I had studied something completely different in school - management - before I decided to start to paint. It took a long time for me. I started by copying the work of other artists.'
In effect, he is still copying - albeit for the sake of parody. 'I never ask for permission,' says Lievre. 'All painters for a long time, including Picasso, have copied others. It's a tradition in painting. In France, laws protect artists and images. It is so present that an artist now cannot use other works without permission. We know now that all the new artists use and take references from everywhere.
'I found only one exception in the law text in France that gives you full permission: if you are ironic. That is, if it is parodic. When your art is parodic, you don't have to ask for permission. That's why I say that all my work is parodic in the eyes of the law.'
At the opening of the exhibition, Lievre carried out a performance which involved selling kisses for $10 - an appropriation of 1970s French performance artist Orlan, but in the context of Asia. 'The kiss in Asia is not the same as in Europe. When you kiss someone is Europe it is very light, very usual. Here the French kiss is not so ... you know. Most of the people were frightened. I sell it for $10 and all the money was for Aids research. People were very generous to give money for this cause. They all played the game, but the kisses were mostly on the cheek. But I received maybe 100 or more kisses.'
Lievre plans to continue to improvise on popular culture. His next project is a grand undertaking that involves the adaptation of text from the most read author of the 20th century, romance novelist Barbara Cartland. 'I was interested because she created a popular language that touched one billion people,' says Lievre. 'In effect, Barbara Cartland succeeded where Mao didn't.'
Ombres Chinoises - Chinese Shadows, Art Statements Gallery, 5 Mee Lun St, Sheung Wan. For more details: 2122 9657 or go to www.artstatements.com. Until Jul 30