Johan Creten posted an Instagram photo of the seven man strong installation team at Leila Heller Gallery prying open a crate shaped like a coffin to find a figure taller than a grown man entombed inside. It was one of the artist’s best known works, Why does strange fruit always look so sweet? and a cornerstone of True Love, Creten’s exhibition currently running at Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai. The team peeled away layers of shroud-like padding, and operating a gantry crane, at last stood the figure up on its own azure legs. At that moment, the presence of the sculpture which Creten battled 17 years to complete, charged the cavernous gallery.
Creten is a pioneer in conceptual art of note, having stubbornly chosen to work with ceramics since the late 1980s, an era in art history when the medium was considered too folksy or rudimentary for a sophisticated gallery’s white cube. Having smashed the stigma into shards, his work has been shown at the Louvre among many other highbrow institutions, and perhaps most importantly, his example has made it possible for younger artists to devote themselves to ceramics and still have a place in elite galleries and collections. True Love seamlessly combines new works with some of Creten’s top hits, each chosen to resonate with a cosmopolitan Dubai audience.
Decades ago, a patron invited a young Creten to come create in the Mexican desert for seven months. He laughs as he tells me, “It wasn’t a formal residency like today. This was just someone with a shack in the desert with a mattress on the floor.” Totally isolated and without access to medical care, Creten contracted swollen lymph nodes, spiked a dangerously high fever, and languished on the floor of the shack, passing in and out of consciousness. “In my garden there was a date tree and the dates were brown from sugar and flies,” he remembers. Every so often, Creten would be jarred awake by the sound of a heavy fruit falling to its death and hitting the dirt. He recognised a profound connection between his precarious state and the rotting dates.
After recovering, he made several figures like the one at Leila Heller Gallery, each distinct and with a title deliberately ending in a question mark. “It’s an overgrowth, a returning to the earth, as if we are all strange fruit and unknown to one another,” he explains, deliberately leaving viewers to interpret this meaning for themselves while considering the heavily gilded figure.
“I never feel rushed,” he claims. Creten understands time as fluid in nature and never feels bothered when a piece takes time—even more than a decade—to feel complete. Born in Belgium, and now with a home in Paris, Creten didn’t have a studio for the first three decades of his practice. Even today, he zig zags across political borders from residencies, to kilns, and lent studios. “Who knows,” he says flippantly. “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll go to Japan.”
Creten—who photographs well and also makes art that photographs well—certainly knows his way around a hashtag, yet is also aware of the damage social media inflicts. “I love Instagram, but it has made our attention span for art not even two seconds,” he complains. The remedy? Put down the phone camera temporarily and take a seat at one of the 15 “observation points” or ceramic pedestals, which Creten has placed around the gallery. Speaking directly to viewers he says, “I hope I create a space in which you can be confronted with yourself, with new ideas, and hopefully go to a new level.”
Contemplation is Creten’s wish for those taking in his show. This is strongly implied by the way he tinkers with scale here, including pieces like Vulva and Odore di femmina-La Borne no. 4, potent in part due to their diminutive measurements. “Something doesn’t have to be gigantic to have power,” he says. These sculptures force one to slow down and offer gratitude for life’s miraculous pleasures and their connections to the primal, natural, and spiritual realms.
However far-reaching the messages behind gilded ceramic works like Big Glory might be, the starting point is unmistakably bodily beauty. Among conceptual artists, work that is aesthetically pleasing is often shrugged off as too commercial, as though art that that is attractive and yields a high sale must by default be vapid. Creten shakes this notion off, but says that some things never change. “When I started to do sculptures in ceramics 30 years ago, it was kind of taboo to think of beauty in the contemporary art world. It is still suspect when something is too beautiful or handmade, when it’s got colour or texture.”
Johan Creten's True Love runs at Leila Heller Gallery at Alserkal Avenue until 18 July 2019.