Piero Bisello
On the art of Mona Filleul


The art of Mona Filleul drags you into the cracks between life and survival. There is an off-the-grid quality to what she makes, where the grid is the one of actual supplies and that of art’s institutions. Choices in her work come across as responses to a recurring question: what is the most honest thing to do in a specific moment. Think of being cold and getting an extra sweater to counter the uncomfortable feeling. Indeed, sincerity prevails over trickery in her work, whether as a necessity or a contingency, whether as an a priori condition - she is that way - or as an a posteriori one - she will act that way. She recently put forward this thought experiment to me: imagine making art with whatever is left after a nuclear explosion. You’d have to make do of course, but keeping your expression true to itself won’t necessarily be an issue. Moreover, why make art in dire straits at all, one might ask. Let’s come back to those reasons later.

It is an easy misstep to romanticize Mona Filleul. The facts about her life and art can wrongly project the image of bohemian outsiderness onto what is, in fact, utmost connected to reality; as a matter of fact, few feel so real. To twist an old Belgian proverb, the beautiful is less what one dreams than what one sees; Mona Filleul prompts such spins. It is true: art and life have been a pair for some time, becoming even a thing in art history books from at least the 60’s onwards. Responsible for this conceptualisation was, among others, Allan Kaprow, who illustrates well what Mona Filleul is not. What is “life” for Kaprow exactly? In his essay Performing Life, 1979, he says: “When you do life consciously, [...] life becomes pretty strange—paying attention changes the thing attended to—so the Happenings were not nearly as lifelike as I had supposed they might be. [...] A new art/life genre therefore came about, reflecting equally the artificial aspects of everyday life and the lifelike qualities of created art.” [1] Whether through his famous Happenings or his works beyond them, Kaprow was digging into life as a topic. He indeed lived, like all the living things before and after him, but he aimed at stepping back from that which he called life—or his life—to talk about it in his art. Mona Filleul won’t step back; she won’t do life. Life is not so much a subject for her investigations as it is the irrefutable context where things happen, a transparent premise.

This might be where survival and Mona Filleul are addressed together. In Art as Experience, John Dewey wants “to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experience.” “Mountain peaks do not float unsupported,” he says.[2] This is especially true in Switzerland, where Mona Filleul would escape to, once in a while, from her Brussels fate. Randomly met in a park a few years ago, a Swiss singer offered her a free stay in a forest hut in Ticino, providing only a satellite view of its location to find it. The trip became a regular one for Mona Filleul in the years to come, even when there was no longer an invitation from the owner. The place seemed abandoned anyway, and her Brussels situation became increasingly precarious. Out of necessity in the hut, materials and techniques for art production were chosen according to the actual possibilities provided by the specific environment. [3] Her willingness to remain loyal to an original artistic desire born elsewhere, and most likely bound to remain independent, traveled with her to the forest.

The idea of independence came up quite often in a recent conversation with Mona Filleul. Materials have connotations, roles given to them by disciplines–biology, chemistry, engineering, etc. She sounded as though she felt sorry for them, apologetic for the conceptual and dutiful box these tangible things were put in without asking for it. But how can materials wish for anything, with their lack of mind, let alone intentionality? Matterism–blocks of paint stating that they’re not just an ingredient for an image–has been around for some time, and so have bas-reliefs, one of the artist’s techniques. Unlike the rather passé matter painting though, she restates some independence to her own dear materials through the ungovernable shadows and lights toying with the sculpted image that is bas-relief. The things of her artworks are off her grid, and indeed everyone else’s.

Mona Filleul has a hut in Brussels too. She built it herself inside the attic of one of the many, at times abandoned, art deco gems of the Belgian capitals. Her cabanne is a heated place to live, sleep, and listen to music. To keep the warmth in, she insulated it with her artworks, literally. Do not be seduced though, this was no gimmick but pressure of circumstance. Some of her bas-reliefs depict simple agricultural tools–life’s basics in some respect–and when put on the walls of the hut, the place becomes the offspring of Forrest Bess’s ranch in Texas. Indeed, few figures, not only from art history, feel so fittingly akin to Mona Filleul than Bess.[4] The American painter active in the mid of the 20th century rarely experienced life and art as separate instants. The sought independence, perhaps a failed quest, yet a thing that has become the stuff of legend, brings them together in a place where we can comfortably abandon politics. Mona Filleul’s art is folk only if we allow “folk” to be a singular noun, not a mass. Honesty only might make that possible.

[1] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press

[2] John Dewey, Art as Experience, Tarcher Perigee

[3] A list of those was made available in the press release of her 2020 exhibition Conservation, nation at Emergency in Vevey.

[4] The best description of Forrest Bess’ late life is by Sofia Silva: “On a night when the [Mexican] Gulf’s breeze was blowing strong, Forrest Bess grabbed a scalpel and cut open a fistula between his penis and scrotum. He followed the directions of the enlightened Australian endocrinologist Eugen Steinach, who said that, in order to make your body immortal, you had to reach your own urethra and tie the vessels so your semen could flow back and into the cuticles of your nails, up to the capillaries of your eyes. Between sorghum and ponds, while the moon shone and the frogs sang, Forrest Bess mutilated himself thus becoming an immortal pseudo-hermaphrodite. He wrote letters to Carl Gustav Jung and lived on fishing. He had nose cancer, he cut off his nose; he got skin cancer, he ran to his mother. When America was beginning to discover his paintings, he wandered naked through the streets of San Antonio, until one day he died.” https://www.ilfoglio.it/cultura/2015/08/02/news/il-visionario-mutilato-86258/

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