Caroline Secq, the gleaner by Erwan Desplanques
Her house is the biggest rubbish dump in the Landes. You could call it a sort of poetical second-hand shop for unsellable things, a recycling centre run out of her sheer instinct and inherent knowledge of colours and matter. A place where, day after day, she puts together in huge wooden frames a thirty-year-old oil can, a bone from a bird, a piece of fishing net and some necessarily odd thing or other gleaned on the sand, its origin being as enigmatic as its seemingly obvious place in the middle of the picture. Caroline Secq would like to have an even bigger house and a larger workshop. She would like to be able to invite in all the different matter which exists around the world and which lands up at and knocks on the door of her house at Uza on the Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, boxes pile up outside – rubber flippers, plastic toys, ropes, of all the colours of the rainbow – black, pink, blue and yellow. Whereas inside two hundred works of art are stacked together, taking over the bedrooms, the living room and so on...
“I have to live in the middle of muddle and mess,” she says. “I only do the housework once a year.” She laughs. This is more or less true as the artist, with an energy and obsession which are quite out of the ordinary, goes through things and sorts them out as much as she accumulates them – a doll’s leg, a polystyrene rectangle, a strip of plastic – each little kind of object has its own crate, its own box while waiting to be used one day, when she so decides, because some highlight, some colourful hue is missing to be able to finish off the work under way.
Funnily enough, she says she is really rather good at setting sail and starting afresh, leaving behind flats, jobs, boxes and former lives. Caroline Secq has lived in Lille, Paris and Bordeaux, she has been a press attaché, an advertising executive and a language therapist. Thirty years ago, she even went to live in California. She started off as a waitress in the Green Dragon (“an old church converted into a new-age Café-Gallery”) before getting a Master’s Degree in spiritual psychology at the University in Santa Monica. These multiple lives seem to provide her with never-ending material, a whole stock of images and experiences which have sharpened her taste and her sense of composition. They are so many precious strata in which her work takes root.
It was in the United States that her “collecting mania” began. Caroline Secq picked up bits of wood and started working on assemblages. She didn’t know how to paint or draw but wanted to try something different – she wanted to feel, to touch, to create. “I went over there with nothing and came back with a container full of wood.” Once back in Paris, she soon started feeling cooped up in her flat and set off for the South West of France to confront the waves and solitude. Little by little she abandoned wood for plastic which was everywhere on the beaches. She collected and started putting things together more and more. “When I arrived here twenty years ago, the beach was a dustbin.” She says this with stars in her eyes. Pollution is not always an unsightly, filthy heap of rubbish. This amalgamation of refuse on the sand, these clutters of rubbish washed ashore by the tides, all build up a picture – they are “still lifes” that speak about us, allude to loss and new beginnings. These consumer goods are buried, tossed about and buffeted by the foam and the weather. They are the remains of lives of excess and unconscious behaviour. “People find the mass of refuse on the beaches quite mad, but they don’t understand that it comes directly from their very own dustbins.” Aujourd’hui, selon elle, les plages sont « trop régulièrement ratissées », au risque que les machines raflent sur leur passage du bois, des coquillages, According to her, today’s beaches are too frequently cleaned as, while they move along, machinery swipe up wood and shells, “everything that consolidates the dunes”.
She could have left it all untouched, left the beaches at Contis or Cap de L’Homy just as they were, like a ready-made. “Beauty is there already – it’s just a question of framing. For me, what’s inside a kitchen drawer is already a work of art. All I need to immortalise the contents just as they are is some resin.” It’s a bit like Daniel Spoerri’s “snare-pictures” which capture the remains of his meals or like the Arman’s collections and his collages of everyday objects (forks, watches, pegs etc.). Unable to transport the whole beach and exhibit it in a museum, Caroline Secq has taken samples, bits and pieces of that vast, ever expanding plastic continent just off the coasts, transforming them into inspired, disturbing, joyful or deceptively chaotic creations - extremely precise inventories or monochrome clutter to be looked at like so many lists or explosions.
She is wary of both figurative and conceptual art and works above all for the organic joy she gets from matter and the momentum she derives from composition. She sums it all up by saying, “I’m not an existentialist; I like happy art.” The plastic artist would have liked to be part of the Nouveau Réalisme movement like Jean Tinguely, instead of being associated a bit too quickly with Art brut, as if she had no real idea of what she was doing or where she was going.
Recently, she has been associated with the latest green artists in vogue although she has been working for more than twenty years. She is thanked at present for cleaning up the beaches whereas she thanks the beaches every single day for providing her with solid, free material. This misunderstanding will go on for a long time and no doubt be to her advantage. Society is beginning to take plastic seriously and look on her work differently, it’s beginning to understand why she works with that material which used to be so very much in vogue in the thirty-year post-war boom period but which is now reviled and how she transmutes it and gives it a place of honour. With her “plastic art” has never had a more suitable name.
Caroline Secq knows the power of words: “If people say I work with rubbish it seems disgusting, whereas if I explain that I work with remains and relics that changes their whole outlook.” She sediments trifling bits and pieces just as one draws up archives. Her big formats are mirrors which reflect our ways of life: the portrait of human beings as compulsive consumers and discarders, or walking dustbins. Is it beautiful? Unfortunately, it is... The artist often sums up her work with the words: “from refuse to resurrection” (she was in advertising after all!). She works with metamorphosis, points out the ravages of overconsumption without grousing, turns pollution into a “physical, sensory experience which can really lead to awareness.”
When hung up, the graphic and formal plenitude of some works radiates whereas others defy good taste, and track down discomfort or turbulence. The visitor is often tempted to look in detail at the picture and go back family trees – who was the owner of that old watch lost at sea? What little girl did that doll which was buffeted about from one country to another belong to? Are those people alive or dead? Did they realize that they had lost something?
Caroline Secq doesn’t care less about any of this. Her art isn’t sociological. She isn’t concerned about where the objects she finds come from or the story behind them. She prefers to let people project their own feelings on all this junk which she assembles and fixes together with monastic patience with the help of an electric screwdriver or glue gun. The dolls’ heads, for instance, which emerge from some compositions with laughing, shattered, disturbing faces make one step back. She smiles. “You’re the one who is distressed by them. I’m not a bit afraid of those little babies”. She finds “lots of toys dating back to the 60s, little cars once buried which reappear with the movement of the sandbanks.” The past always ends up by coming to the surface. Caroline Secq stands in wait.
She forages around like this three times a week, the gleaner of the coastline, with a bum bag slung round her hips and another bigger bag in her hand. She doesn’t use gloves – and doesn’t with people in everyday life either – she picks out what interests her, looking carefully at shapes and colours. “I have never found anything repugnant and in any case I’m not afraid of microbes”. She obviously doesn’t pick up everything (“I leave stuff for other people!”) but just what she’ll find useful for her next creations. One day it will be a jellyfishlike sandal and the next day a greenish-coloured sieve. The term “Diogenes syndrome” is used to talk about mad collectors who pile up all the crap in the world in their houses. Caroline Secq isn’t mad: she collects things with a definite aim in mind and, like the Greek philosopher, she sheds light on all the transgressions of her fellow men. She is funny, intelligent, spontaneous and hostile to all any kind of airs and graces and useless waffle. She is sensitive to energy — things and people — and absorbed in her work. Her work is like her - full of superpositions, accumulations and assemblages which pretend to be haphazard while following a completely coherent trajectory that of a firm commitment to things, concern for nature, sensory impulse, complete and utter freedom and optimism saved from the waters.