Arts Preview: Pentateuque

Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 2:17pm


Fabien Merelle

If you walk through Statue Square in the second half of May, you will see an extraordinary sight: a five-metre-high resin sculpture of an elephant balancing on the back of a man dressed in pyjamas.

The elephant - which is currently at a rather large studio in Guangzhou, receiving its finishing touches of grey paint - is 1.3 times life-size, and about the height of a two-storey building.

"It started with a dream," says 31-year-old French artist Fabien Merelle. It happened at the time he and his partner were thinking of getting married but she was Jewish and he Catholic and the pressure of their families' expectations felt unbearable.

He painted his surreal dream in his usual tiny, exquisite monochrome watercolours and called it Pentateuque. The name is a reference to the first five books in the Bible, "which both Jews and Christians have in common, so it should be easy to find a balance, although it is not always so easy".

Some time later he was approached by Hong Kong gallery owner Edouard Malingue.

"Edouard talked about a gallery show and asked me what I would do if he could find me a place to exhibit outdoors as well. And I said how about the elephant?"

After a few hours, Malingue called him back, Merelle recalls.

"He said, I can't sleep, I'm so excited." Merelle teamed up with Pascal Molina, an animatronics expert. He was also helped by British 3-D scanning company Ten24, which scanned Merelle's body by using a series of specialist cameras.

Once they had nailed the shape, it was difficult to get the balance right. Merelle recalls being in a room full of "serious people in suits" all discussing how to balance a five-metre model elephant on the back of a man bearing a distinct resemblance to himself in stripy pyjamas.

"It was surreal," he says.

The pyjama trousers feature in all his work: "When I studied at the Beaux-Arts academy in Paris there was no place to paint, so I had to work in my apartment." At first the pyjamas were just an accident, "but later I found that I couldn't work so easily without them on". He wore them in Xian, in 2005, when he received a scholarship to study Chinese inks at the Beaux-Arts academy there.

"Every Monday I would meet the master, Chen Guoyong, and he would paint something, like a mountain or tree, and I would watch. Then all week I would try and paint the same thing, and the next Monday I would take it to the master. He would look at it and then paint something else and I would watch him again.'

It was an extraordinarily different way of looking at the artistic process. "In France, I never saw a painter show me how he painted something. It is like a secret process, and there is not a sense that you need to know how something will look before you begin.

"In China, it is about demonstration. And the picture has been established a long time before you touch the paper."

For his first Le French May show, Merelle hopes he has achieved something between these extremes. A fine balance, indeed.

Fabien Merelle, Pentateuque, Statue Square, May 20-June 15; "Elles et moi", Edouard Malingue Gallery, Central. May 21-June 29