L’art en apnée – art in one breath

This interview is an excerpt from a book I am currently writing. It starts with the peculiar and adventurous life of Sidney Regis, free-diver turned artist and evolves towards the definition of contemporary art. For Sidney is exploring the main themes of the story of art and photography but… Under water. You might wonder: what difference does that make? And I can now tell you: a huge one! For water changes the rules of photography and our perceptions of space, colour, movement,… 

Water is more than an extraordinary medium, it is a forgotten wonder: everyone and everything is made of water. It is the red thread of life. It is the perfect medium to question our relationship to nature and explore the notion of identity in the objective to find out who we are. For we need to remember where we come from to know where we are going. What makes Sidney’s art emblematic of today’s art is that it is environmental, societal.. And, in his latest project, even connected…

Last portrait – 82,9 cm x 82,9 cm – kozo paper 70 gr – 22 october 2012

+596xxxxxx. I couldn’t recognise the country code. I took the call and was pleasantly surprised to hear from an old friend of mine. 15 years had gone by and she was now living in Martinique, married with two children and a great job. She had seen, through the alumni association from HEC, our business school, that I had left finance for art. She was wondering if I could meet her husband, a photographer, who would be in Paris at the same time as me, for the FIAC.

From the portrait she drew from Sidney Regis, I understood that water and his life were inextricably connected. We agreed to meet Place Vendôme, in Paris, a location as far away from nature as possible and I wondered briefly if he would be like a fish outside of his element… 

Although I didn’t know how he looked, I recognised him immediately: he was floating through the place, as if he was connected to life and the world around him, with an open heart. We started a conversation that hasn’t ended yet.

Valerie Reinhold: Sidney, I heard you say “remember where you come from” so I now ask you the same question, before we elaborate on your artistic practise.

Sidney Regis: I was born in Guadeloupe and grew up in Martinique. 

My father is a yoga teacher and his relationship to others and to nature probably rubbed on me. My mother was a stewardess and all her travel stories were my first “adventures”! She passed on her passion for travelling and discovering the world to me.

As a child, I was not very athletic and my asthma didn’t help. All my sport teachers were convinced that I would never do much! I had little interest for football -maybe because I was really bad at it- and was anyway more drawn to the sea. It may sound weird to you, but I really loved holding my breath! So from playing on the beach, I gradually spent more time in the sea and underwater, for spearfishing.  I guess that was the beginning of my passion for free-diving!

VR: How did you become a professional free-diver?

SR: I moved to Bordeaux in 1998 to study at the STAPS, the French faculty of sports and sciences. 

My aim was to understand how the body can do extraordinary things. I was fascinated by its magical side, which can be defined as the relationship between the body and the soul: this can trigger incredible performances. How can someone random accomplish something extraordinary? You know, when a mother can lift a car to save a child. Or when a yogi can stop his heartbeat… That type of things… Free-diving seemed very fitted as the field research for my master.

I met the French national team while working on this study and.. Getting to know them was a life-changing experience as I decided to switch from research to free-diving.

Blue on Blue – 110 cm x 110 cm – kozo paper 70 gr. – 2012

VR: So in the end you were more interested about the experience than the observation! And what did you learn as a free diver?

SR: First, You have to imagine that when you free-dive, you need to let go. You have to accept the water pressure, stay focused on what is happening inside and outside of your body. Above all you need to be patient: It can take months to gain one more second holding your breath! The danger, if you push too hard, is deadly: when a free-diver wants to go one meter deeper and ignores the signals his body is sending… The risk is a black out and drowning… So free-diving at a competition level taught me a lot about myself. I learnt to stay focused, to remain “centred” and above all humble.

It also taught me about teamwork: there is no performance without a team: the team is the key to let go and be in the right state of mind to perform. The team mates are each-others gardian angels as the roles rotate between free-diving, securing the diver and measuring the performance. Trust is the key.

I learnt something more and that was to look at the sea with my eyes closed! I had to close my eyes to free-dive deeply and I learnt to feel and “see” with my other senses.

VR: Were you satisfied with what you learnt?

SR: It’s not about satisfaction: It’s about learning and mastering the right techniques and your body. It’s about authenticity and integrity. Free-diving is impermanent: nothing is set in stone… I “just” wanted to dive as long and as deep as I could, like all my fellow divers… I wanted to push my own limits… It took years and I finally joined the French national team in 2007. Satisfied? not really. Happy? Tremendously!

VR: I read about your records too…

SR: Thanks. I had a few, for example in 2006, when I went -41 meters without palms. In 2007, I reached -70 meters with palms and I qualified for the world championships. 

VR: Did you go?

SR: No! That same year, another free-diver (Julie Gautier), gave my number to a Canadian artist and film maker, Gregory Colbert. He asked me if I wanted to be part of his next project, “Song of Sea”. The first shooting, in the Galapagos, was falling exactly at the same time as the world championships in Egypt…

Choosing means renouncing… And I went with Gregory.

VR: So you left a promising career as an international free-diver for an uncertain future as a model for an artictic project?

SR: That’s about it… Gregory had already done “Ashes and Snow”, a project about the beauty of nature. His approach, his aesthetics and his drive were more than enough for me to choose another path than free-diving competition. 

That said, the “modelling” part of the project was far more complicated than I had imagined… We had to free-dive without mask and palms but dressed with robes and yet look zen and relaxed, our sinuses filled with salty water and with wild animals around us, all day long… It made competition look very easy!

What Gregory really wanted from us was to connect with the animals to capture this bond, this relationship made of respect and trust. He is not someone who will satisfy himself with just a pretty picture. that’s what makes his pictures and movies unique.

VR: That sounds crazy though!

SR: Retrospectively.. It was not without risks and I had memorable bruises, stings, burns,..! It felt like going beyond our limits and achieving what everybody said was impossible. But we felt we were privileged to get so close to all these living masterpieces.

VR: Definitely crazy… Can you tell me more about Gregory?

SR: Gregory is an artist whose life revolves around the beauty of and our connection to nature. He evolves outside the traditional art circuits and yet, he is one of the artists who has had the most visitors in his exhibitions! For Ashes And Snow, he built 5,000m2 nomadic museums, designed by Shigeru Ban and Simon Velez, entirely recyclable, that traveled to Venise, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Mexico. His last exhibition, in 2009, had more than 7 million visitors!

VR: This is very impressive! What did you learn from him?

SR: Patience, pugnacity, focus and to have a clear vision.

VR: I imagine his vision echoed something in you…

SR: Definitely!

Very young, I knew I wanted to share my vision of the world, my relationship to water and to nature. I knew I wanted to say something but I didn’t know how! Gregory put a camera in my hands when I told him about a crazy idea I had, back in 2008 -something like writing with light under water-. Then he pushed me to really find my own vision.

VR: How would you define your vision?

SR: Roni Horn said it very well about his series “Still Water” so I will adapt his words: when I free-dive into water I’m entering into an event of relation. rather than an object, water becomes a form — of consciousness, of time, of physicality, of the human condition, of anything I desire to project on it, of anything I want it to be. This water exists in monolithic, indivisible continuity with all other waters. No water is separate from any other water. I am not looking at water, I am inside.

It is this relationship, almost symbiotic, that feeds my artistic practise and that I want to share. I feel privileged to experience it over and over again. I want to show people the wonders of the water, but from an artistic angle.

VR: Didn’t other artists already do it? You mentioned Roni Horn…

SR: Before I really started to create anything I could satisfied with, I spent many years learning the practical skills but also reading, -almost cramming!- about photography and the story of art. So I started with writings about artists I liked, like James Turrell, and then I read about the artists and writers who had inspired them, and so on..

VR: Which theories or artists influenced you most?

SR: Many bits from very different theories and periods helped me shape my own vision. It ranges from the radical side of Ad Reinhardt, Minimal art, Mondriaan, Surrealists’ views about imagination, Bachelard, etc. Bridges between artists who were fascinated by water and how it captures light, its structure, the Radikant from Nicolas Bourriaud,…

Plastic Bag – 82,9 cm x 82,9 cm – kobo paper 70 gr – 2011

VR: “Silent Lights” is the first chapter of your work. Where does the idea for this body of work come from?

I realised that underwater photography was mostly limited to documentary photography and hardly had a “true artistic” dimension. There were many beautiful images about fish, water, corals etc. But what about the artistic and photographic theories?

So I started at the beginning of what photography (photo – graphy) means and focused on light and time to capture colours, movements, texture and perspective. 

It took about 5 years to develop Silent Lights, countless dives and many aborted ideas before I found  the perfect settings for my camera to show the incredibly beautiful underwater world, but through art. All the pictures from the series are taken with these settings that capture, I hope, another narrative underwater, one connected to the memory of water.

VR: What were you looking for?

SR: I wanted to capture light, movement and colours, to show people what they usually don’t see. But I wanted to do it by revisiting the principles of photography.

The images are not re-worked digitally: there is no scenography either. They are all taken under water, free diving and only with natural light. 

VR: When I look at the pictures, some remind me of the colours of Rothko, the design of Twombly..

SR: It is up to you to see the references you want… That said, I am very curious about art in general and a few artists in particular, like Rothko, James, Turrell, Cy Twombly, Hiroshi Sugimoto. When I can, I try to pay homage to these artists -like the horizon series, which was a “clin d’oeil” to Sugimoto!-. I also re-visit the theories that are at the origin of their work, like the perception of light for Turrell.

I believe that there is no future if you don’t know your past. That’s why I keep on reading, seeing and understanding other artists’ works. For they speak about our world and this is also what I want to achieve. Through water.

VR: how long does it take to take a picture?

SR: It depends! It can take up to 2 or 3 years actually! Like for Full moon… I wanted to capture the full moon from under water but the right conditions were never there. I almost gave up! And then one day, after many attempts.. I got it!

In general, I first visit the location I have chosen.I sometimes use a tripod built for for the gigantic camera I am using. And then… I wait for the right moment! Sometimes, dead leaves, flowers, excrements, forms of pollution will drift by and add colours and shape.

Full Moon – 82,9 cm x 82,9 cm – kozo paper 70 gr – 2011

VR: How did you choose the locations? Are there specific meanings?

SR: The images were taken around the globe : Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Martinique, Dominican Republic… Every place has a specific character and a very specific light. That said, all these places seem to converge to echo each other.

VR: You often speak about convergence of beliefs in water: can you develop this point?

SR: Water is a natural element that is loaded with various symbolic meanings in many different cultures. From ancient Greece to modern China, water is a symbol of the chaos of the beginnings and of the body resurrection and spiritual rebirth. Water is the dark Styx for the Greeks and the “delicious” kawthar in the muslims’ paradise. Water is the home of naiads and gods, but also swallows unfortunate sailors. In every civilisation, water is “loaded” with spirituality and power. Our beliefs, emotion converge in this universal element.

VR: “I am not looking at my subject, I am inside”: what do you mean?

SR: I said that to emphasise the fact that in my work, water is not just a pretty background for corals and fish. I am not looking at my subject -water-, I am inside my subject.. And that changes the whole perspective!

I want to transcend water and at the same time capture the essence of the connecting fluid: so I give it density and I transform it into a material, a medium.

VR: Your photographs are often printed on a Japanese paper -Kozo-. I can imagine this choice is not random. How did you discover this paper and why did you choose it?

SR: That’s a lot of questions in one! I will start with my interest in paper. Have you read “Sur la route du papier » by Erik Orsenna?

VR: I have, a long time ago though

SR: Here is the part that, for me, confirmed my intuition about paper, in relation to my work.

-« Ecoutez !

(…) A part deux aboiements dans le lointain, (…) je n’ai trouvé aucun bruit qui mérite attention. J’avoue mon échec.

-Vous êtes comme les autres vous oubliez l’essentiel! L’eau vous n’entendez pas l’eau ?

Je lui dis que bien sûr mais que…

– Vous croyez que l’eau n’a pas d’importance ? Ou pire, que toutes les eaux sont pareilles ?Apprenez que l’eau est la vraie matière première du papier ! Certains jours je n’arrive à rien. Je vérifie. Tout est conforme. Je vais dans le village. Je demande à mes amis. Eux non plus ne fabriquent plus de bon papier. Et puis le bon papier revient, grâce à l’eau. » 

VR: You mean that your work, to be complete, has to be printed on the right surface?

SR: Yes, in a way.  The photos from Silent Light are saturated with colours and the light shows a large range of blues, greens, etc. I wanted to find the right paper that could translate all these subtleties. I also found that, perhaps to be close to an “organic” feeling -after all my pictures are about a living element-, the paper had to be granular and really have a paper texture, in opposition to a slick and shiny kodak paper that will give a more “slick” effect.

I went to a few excellent studios, in Washington and Paris. The first paper I found made the picture too perfect: that’s when I got the intuition to use a Japanese traditional washi paper. They are fairly hard to find and above all extremely delicate to use for colour printing as they are very thin and unforgiving. Luckily, I met one of the best master-printers in Paris, Alice Tremblais.

Sidney Regis in his studio

To be continued….

The Sea is orange – 82,9 cm x 82,9 cm – kozo paper 70 gr – 2012