The influential Belgian creator trades in Tumblrs for a limited edition monograph titled ‘The Vanity of Certain Flowers’
Even if you don’t know his name, you know Peter De Potter’s work – whether it’s the now-legendary pieces he worked on over a ten-year collaboration with fellow Belgian Raf Simons, his exploration of youth online expressed by screengrabs ripped from social media and hosted only on Tumblr, or the more recent, much-memed cover for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Still, in his years of working as an artist making a mark on fashion, youth and visual culture, De Potter has never released a book. Of course, he’s contributed to them – like the outsider teen bible The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes, created in conjunction with Simons’ 2003 Pitti exhibition – but he hasn’t created one of his own.
That’s all about to change, though. Announced today exclusively on Dazed, The Vanity of Certain Flowers is a self-published 272-page monograph of entirely new work, containing photography, photomontages, and graphics. Described as “a mental landscape broken down into hundreds of images,” it both explores visually familiar territory for De Potter (the male body, sportswear, crucifixes) and gestures to something new, focussing on the concept of “retreat”. But rather than escapism or admitting defeat, his call for retreat is one for “self education rather than self gratification”, a move away from a culture that’s increasingly obsessed with status and ambition towards the idea of an almost spiritual search for truth inside yourself.
As with many of his projects, the title came first, with its metaphor a reflection both on the nature of flowers (which must be beautiful to stay alive) and people. “The Vanity of Certain Flowers has a very nice ring to it,” shares De Potter, “but at the same time even when you see it, read it or say it out loud, it sort of makes sense and, on the other hand, it doesn't make sense at all, which I really like.” As the book becomes available for pre-order and De Potter announces a signing at The Broken Arm in Paris, the artist discusses his scrapbook brain, the relationship between image and text in his work and why his exploration of the body is never about seductiveness.
When did you first start working on the book?
Peter De Potter: I’m always working on things, but in order to sort them out in my mind I focus on just one idea or one series at a time. In this case I think it must have been early spring this year that I started working on this theme, this kind of subject, but then very soon it dawned on me that I was shooting a lot, making a lot, the scope was getting so big that it actually felt very natural to make it into a book.
Your work often just exists on Tumblr blogs – is the process different when you’re thinking about making something that’s going to be physical?
Peter De Potter: I’ve got a scrapbook kind of brain, so I’m really really bad at saying: Day One: this is the goal, I’m going to work towards that; everything is much more organic in that way. When I started putting series on Tumblr it was for all kind of reasons: practical reasons, or conceptual ones as well, but they were always growing as they went along. The decision to make this into a book happened not even a month ago. For me, working on it wasn’t that different but, of course, in the end it will be, because I've never shown anything of this kind of length or scope, it's all new material.
Is it hard to work out when you’re finished?
Peter De Potter: (laughs) That’s actually a good question, because in this case, the book is, let’s say, 60 or 70 per cent of the whole output of the project. Ideally, if I had 16 pairs of hands, each series I’m doing I would continue with. It’s never like when I’ve finished something it’s buried and sealed. In this case, the deadline of the printer was a way of telling me I had to finish!
Can you explain what you mean by retreat? When you first hear the word it can seem almost like it has negative connotations, but you’re using it in a positive way.
Peter De Potter: It’s not supposed to be negative – for me, for everyone living today, retreat should be some kind of a spiritual goal, or something that’s so normal that you take it for granted, like breathing or drinking water, a self-evident thing. I think that the concept of retreat could be an act of rebellion, to actually say that you’ll invest in your own retreat, to find the truth about yourself. It’s not about turning your back to some things like, ‘Oh, it’s too much pressure. Let’s retreat.’ I feel we are living at a time when people are all about accomplishments, so in that sense, retreat is a bold thing to do or investigate or examine. I’m never the kind of person who really wants to drive the point home, it’s more about creating a mode where you can show that the actual strength and beauty can reside more in this state of retreat.
Because of elements of nudity, often your work is categorised as just exploring male sexuality or masculinity, but it’s more complicated than that – how does the body play a role in your mind?
Peter de Potter: I’m not a writer, so I have to put everything I want to say in my images, even if I show 200. For me, using the face and the body is as natural as breathing, especially a naked body. I’m very happy when people see that it’s not about revelation or sexiness – it’s actually the contrary. It’s more like bringing a sense of purity or even anonymity to the idea of a man or a boy, or a person. In a way, I think that the body and the unclothed body is a very, very powerful carrier to drive a point. The challenge is always not to go into the idea of sexiness, but at the same time to make it as powerful and as normal as possible. There’s a lot of nudity around, both male and female, but it’s still sort of stuck in this idea of seductiveness; the gaze is always about seductiveness or maybe affirmation. I don’t want to go into that territory. It’s always, always a very fine line and I hope that I’m getting that message across.
“...the unclothed body is a very, very powerful carrier to drive a point. The challenge is always not to go into the idea of sexiness, but at the same time to make it as powerful and as normal as possible” – Peter De Potter
You just said you’re not a writer – but how do you kind of arrive at the text that you incorporate in your work? Where does it come from?
Peter De Potter: Well, as a writer you only have a blank page and the alphabet… I luckily have a few more tools to work with, but writing and words – I don’t differentiate between them. I’m always making images but also working with words. It doesn’t feel very conscious, it’s just something that happens. I think the combination of those two, to me, it’s more normal than if they were separate. They really do exist on the same level, a word or a line is an image and an image is actually a word. It’s the exact same thing, I want to treat them in the same way and my words or my texts or whatever, they are never a way to explain an image, never. They are just there to complement each other but never like, ‘Oh, let’s have a caption’.
The internet has been key in your work – do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of imagery that’s out there?
Peter De Potter: Before, you would switch on your computer and be met with an avalanche of images. I still think that was a totally fantastic thing because it was the first time that we experienced that, instead of having to actively look for things ourselves. One of the main reasons I put myself on the internet was that I really wanted to have a direct line into it, to inject my work directly into that avalanche of images – that’s the way to reach your viewer in the most immediate way.
But what I think that’s changed is that people soon understood that, including companies. Those people are not the enemy or anything, but they’re chameleon-like, hiding in this whole avalanche, but with completely different goals and projects – that’s really clouding the whole thing. You really feel that now it’s becoming a tool to use while at the beginning... it sounds like a release – it was a million billion images were being released onto the world. I still feel that the most interesting images today, or new kind of images, are made by people who maybe aren’t even artists. They are just making images because of technology and because other people are doing it, and I still feel that a the most thrilling thing is still happening there.
Do you have any plans for a retrospective book?
Peter De Potter: I don’t know... to be honest, I’ve never even thought about it because I’m not a very nostalgic person to begin with, I think there’s a lot of lost energy in that kind of thing. A retrospective? For me, I almost think that because my work is shared a lot online already, I don’t really feel the need for it. But maybe I’m wrong...
Finally, your influence seems very clear in other people’s work. Do you pay attention to rip offs? Does that bother you?
Peter De Potter: (laughs) People don’t say rip off anymore, people say homage! It’s nice, you know, to see that your work has had touched or influenced people. That’s great. I basically used to live on Tumblr, and some people actually do it very heartfelt and in a very direct and spontaneous way – if they see my work and feel like doing something and it maybe looks like it, it’s fine. It’s different, of course, if it’s more established companies but, again, I think it’s a compliment. I’m the first to say that I’ve also been quite influenced by people.
Peter De Potter will be signing copies of The Vanity of Certain Flowers on Friday September 30th from 7pm – 9pm at The Broken Arm, 12 Rue Perrée, Paris