"The physical encounter with the object provides an irreplaceable experience” – Meet gallery owner Kamel Mennour
Laurent Issaurat: Kamel, can you tell us about your personal trajectory?
Kamel Mennour: Very early on, I knew that my life had to be in the art world. Things started to take a turn when, in parallel to my economic studies at the Sorbonne, I started to sell lithographs and small paintings with a student friend, essentially decorative, to work councils. Together, we criss-crossed France, from Angoulême to Illkirch, via the large companies installed in La Défense. This tremendously enriching experience reinforced my desire to go further in this direction. One thing led to another, and while most of my classmates were going into auditing, consulting or finance, I opened my first gallery on rue Mazarine in 1999. It was the beginning of a great adventure.
Laurent Issaurat: What is the guideline of your gallery?
Kammel Mennour: This is not a simple question, but I will try to answer! First of all, intuition has always played a key role. When an artist is for our gallery, I feel it, in an irrepressible way. I think for example of Ymane Chabi-Gara. While we now work mainly with very established artists, I discovered the work of this particularly young, but so singular, artist during the Covid period; my desire to showcase her work came to me as a kind of evidence. On the other hand, in the practice of the artists of the gallery, there is, in my opinion, a common point, which is rigor, both plastic and conceptual. It is this absolute demand for rigor that is essential to establish the credibility of the artists with the institutions of the art world, with whom we maintain a constant dialogue, and of course, with collectors. Another specificity is that I have always had at heart to create bridges between young artists that we have supported to highlight their very strong potential, and major artists of the international scene, confirmed for decades. We have thus constituted a family of artists, of all generations, who, together, participate in a spirit, in a form of coherence. I would add that, for some time now, we have been interested in bringing artists from the gallery into conversation with historical creators who have passed on to posterity, as for example last year with the sumptuous "Face à Face" between Louise Nevelson, a masterful Ukrainian-American sculptor born in 1899, and Alicja Kwade, a young German-Polish artist born almost a century later, in 1979.
Laurent Issaurat: Your programming reflects this identity particularly well, doesn't it?
Kamel Mennour: Absolutely, we are fortunate to have four spaces in Paris, which allow us to illustrate everything I just mentioned, sometimes simultaneously. So, for example, as we speak, we are dedicating a solo show(1) to Latifa Echakhch in our first space on the rue du Pont de Lodi. In parallel, we dedicate a quasi-museum exhibition to Judit Reigl (1923-2020) in our second space on the same street, while the group exhibition "Soudain dans la forêt profonde" unfolds on two sites, avenue Matignon and rue Saint André des Arts, around a firework display of contemporary artists, but also of works by Courbet or Eugène Carrière, an artist of the 19th century. We will show the latter’s immense contribution to the art of the beginning of the 20th century, and in particular how his work influenced Picasso.
Laurent Issaurat: Has the pandemic had a lasting effect on the way you work, as a gallery owner?
Kamel Mennour: Yes, there have been structural changes. Like many galleries, we have profoundly changed the way we work: fewer fairs, more digitalization of works. The artists have helped us a lot in this sense. Let's take the example of a painting by Zao Wou Ki, which we have in the gallery; its value is several million euros; in the context of the growing place of digital in our activities, it is likely to be sold to a buyer who will commit without necessarily having seen the work directly. This is possible, of course, only for top artists, whose works are offered by well identified, serious and reputable galleries. In a word, with the pandemic, the phenomenon of digitalization of the market has accelerated and taken an unprecedented scale.
Laurent Issaurat: Under these conditions, is there still a point in having a physical exhibition space for a gallery?
Kammel Mennour: Yes, absolutely. Exhibitions reflect the DNA of our gallery and are crucial in showcasing the work of our artists. More generally, the physical encounter with the work provides an irreplaceable experience. To take the example of the Zao Wou Ki painting I just mentioned, if it is possible to make an informed choice of acquisition on the basis of the visuals sent by the gallery, it is certain that the physical, direct encounter with the work is essential to perceive all the power, the nuances, the musicality, the sonority, the volutes, impossible to perceive without having the work in front of you. The person who would buy this painting via Internet, when they would receive it physically, would be extremely pleasantly surprised, because the reality of this painting is much more powerful than its digital "visual".
Laurent Issaurat: Do you have an opinion on digital art and NFTs(2)?
Kamel Mennour: For a long time, some of our artists, have incorporated the most innovative technologies, for example, through video or installations, but none of them, I think, would like to see their practice confined to a single category, which would be far too reductive, and I share this vision. Regarding NFTs as such, what is important to understand is that it is possible to own an original work (for digital artworks, a digital file registered in the blockchain(3)), and at the same time, a whole series of copies can co-exist and circulate, exactly like what we already know for decades with photography. We've experienced this technology firsthand: about five years ago, a collective of three young French artists, Obvious, came to me with a project of digital works, created in part through algorithms - artificial intelligence in other words. At the time, I wasn't ready, but two or three years later, I called them back and we started presenting three digital portraits, at the crossroads of traditional painting and avant-garde technologies. By the way, we were the first French gallery to show so-called "NFT" works.
Laurent Issaurat: How do you see the place of Paris in the field of contemporary art?
Kamel Mennour: It is a real revolution that has taken place in my opinion. Ten or fifteen years ago, Paris was perceived, rightly to some extent, as a "museum city", a "sleeping beauty"... which has clearly woken up since then! The quality and richness of the museum program, the opening of major new venues such as the Fondation Vuitton or the Bourse du Commerce, the success of major fairs, the installation of international art dealers and gallery owners, who have arrived from London, New York or elsewhere and are seeking to establish themselves on the continent, have all contributed to this movement. Paris has also become a place where a growing number of artists, French and foreign, young, emerging or confirmed, settle and work, which obviously contributes crucially to the vitality of the ecosystem. These underlying trends, taken together, have contributed to repositioning Paris as an epicenter of the contemporary art world.
Laurent Issaurat: The news will be very rich for you this year, in particular through an exceptional presence of artist of the gallery in Venice...
Kamel Mennour: Indeed, we benefit from a rather remarkable alignment of planets this year! Zineb Sedira has been chosen to invest the French Pavilion, Latifa Echakhch has been selected for the Swiss Pavilion, while Ugo Rondinone and Anish Kapoor will also be present in Venice.
Laurent Issaurat: Finally, what advice would you give to young gallery owners?
Kamel Mennour: First, to be in the air of time, in what the Germans call the "Zeitgeist" ("spirit of the times"). Secondly, to be close to the artists, to be able to listen to them, to understand them, in order to help materialize their projects. Finally, to know how to create, maintain and develop excellent relations with critics, representatives of museums and art centers, to ensure that the work of artists can be validated by these institutions. I would add that this profession is also made of experiences, failures; but maybe the important thing, as Samuel Beckett so beautifully wrote, is "Try again. Fail again. Fall better(4)"?
(1) An exhibition based on the work of a single artist.
(2) Non Fungible Token, that is, an asset that cannot be exchanged for an asset of equal value. An NFT makes it possible to associate a non-fungible asset (an image, a video, a music, a work of art) with a digital token. Holding this token means being the owner of this asset whose authenticity is guaranteed by the blockchain. (Sources: Les Echos : www.lesechos.fr/industrie-services/conso-distribution/nft-metavers-quatre-definitions-pour-comprendre-ce-nouveau-monde-1378207)
(3) Developed since 2008, blockchain is primarily a technology for storing and transmitting information. This technology offers high standards of transparency and security because it operates without a central control body. More concretely, blockchain allows its users - connected in a network - to share data without intermediaries. Sources: https://www.economie.gouv.fr/entreprises/blockchain-definition-avantage-utilisation-application
(4) "Worstward Ho", Samuel Beckett, 1983
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