Joëlle Dubois hat uns schon 2019 auf der ART COLOGNE begeistert, als sie am Stand der Galerie Thomas Rehbein mit ihren sehr direkten und expliziten Darstellungen der täglichen Realität von Millenials auffiel. Geradezu ertappt fühlte man sich beim Betrachten der Szenen, in denen ihre Protagonist*innen – fast ausschließlich Frauen – in ihren Instagram-tauglich gestylten Schlafzimmern einsam auf das Smartphonedisplay starrten. In ihren neuen Bildern geht Joëlle Dubois einem sehr persönlichen Thema nach: der Alzheimer-Erkrankung ihrer Mutter, die sie zu einer Reflexion über das Konzept des Vergessens und Vergessen-Werdens anregte.
Leonie Pfennig sprach mit ihr über Zoom kurz vor der Eröffnung ihrer aktuellen Ausstellung in Köln.
Leonie Pfennig: Your new show Forget me not is about a very personal topic: your mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and your handling of it. Can you tell me more how you’re addressing this?
Joëlle Dubois: This show is something totally different to what I’ve done before. In terms of concept. Forgetting and being forgotten represents one of the greatest fears for humans, especially when connected deeply to another person. For what is left of us when memory fades away?
What are we then and what have we been before?
“Forget me not” is an imperative, a request and a personal wish – a reminder not to forget. And not to be forgotten. I think the paintings are still very recognizable, although the backgrounds are more sober. There’s some darkness, stillness and sadness in my recent work that comes from this experience. There’s also a desire to tell a story or be able to relate to people and tell stories that I think a lot of people go through.
So yes, the focus is very different. The exhibition is about the concept of forgetting. Not only my mother is forgetting me, but in a way, I’m also forgetting her. For example, it is hard for me now to remember her how she was before. Her disease has such a big impact and changed her so much.
LP: I noticed that your style changed. The settings or interiors don’t seem so important anymore, or maybe it’s the interior of the person you depict, the inner world instead of the visible outside?
JD: Yeah, exactly. That’s right. That’s why I’m deleting a lot of backgrounds or exterior things. The theme “forgetting” is very vague to express, like, how do you depict something like that? That’s why I refer to surrealism for this show and incorporate a lot of symbolism as a reference to forgetting.
LP: For how long has your mom been ill?
JD: I think it started around 2017. But I’m not really sure because it goes very slowly, in the sense that in the beginning, it’s not really noticeable. For two or three years, the doctors only said, you just have a lot of stress, you’re tired.
LP: Because she was forgetting things?
JD: Yes, but it’s not just forgetting things, it is also some sort of fuzziness she was feeling and having symptoms like aphasia and apraxia. Your perception of time and space are getting abstract and you’re forgetting how to pronounce words. That’s how it started.
LP: Although your previous works were quite personal, too, but maybe a different level of personal or intimate.
JD: Yes, before I was telling a story which was more recognizable for a lot of people. They were not only about my experiences and relationships, but also about today’s human experiences in general. But the personal element was always more hidden or in the background, I could always hide myself trough the social media aspect. In a way this felt safe.
LP: Would you say that addressing your mother’s illness in your work is a personal need for you to deal with it, or is there a broader interest in the topic of illness, weakness, concerning not only your personal story but a general discussion about it?
JD: Exactly, now I feel the need to tell this personal story, also to cope with this loss. It’s very vulnerable now. My art is always a way for me to process things, but I also leave enough space for people to interpret it in their own way. Because dementia is very current these days and so many people are affected by it. A lot of people are telling me: “my mom had it too, or my aunt, or my grandmother …” It’s very contemporary.
LP: Last time we spoke, we were talking about how intimacy plays a major role in your works. Intimacy between lovers or ex-lovers, physical intimacy. I feel that now there is a different level of intimacy involved, but this time not an erotic one.
JD: I just reflect on topics that are present in my life. The intimacy represents the relationship with my mother or with the concept of losing someone. But also the different emotions that accompany this situation.
LP: You always played with your own idea of symbolism, now it is here again in the vanitas symbols, the skull, flowers … can you describe a bit when and why you make use of those?
JD: It’s my way of “talking” about the emotional aspects, to leave room for people to develop their own associations and thoughts. I have a painting with eggs and flies. And these are typical or traditional objects trough art history. The eggs represent life and birth, but the flies represent decay and also the vulnerability of human life.
LP: Do you have the setting or the scene in mind? An atmosphere that you want to create? Is it already planned, or does it develop while you’re painting?
JD: I already have everything planned. I see it in my head, the composition and scene. I knew for example that I wanted to have a portrait of my mom, one of her on a chair and another one in a bed. But I also refer to works from art history and I combine these elements. When I painted Bed Habits I started with only her in the bed, and her profile. But while it was evolving I felt like something was missing. Then the plate of fries came to mind, because my mom is addicted to fries. After that, the cigarette came. So during painting everything often comes together. Philip Guston’s Painting, smoking, eating was the inspiration for this piece.
LP: How long do you work on a painting? Do you do several in a row, at the same time or do you finish one and then do the next one? How is your process?
JD: Because I’m quite neurotic, I have to finish something first before I do something else. Now I had to change my process because there’s a strict deadline. And I don’t have a lot of time to produce. For “Forget me not” I worked on four paintings simultaneously. I’m learning to let go.
LP: In your exhibition, you will also work with installation and objects for the first time. What made you turn to this?
JD: I just like to challenge myself, so I am recently exploring installation art. There are two installations in my exhibition. One is a 3D installation Moon cave. The cave installation is a reference to a universal aspect of childhood. Furthermore, it is a symbol for the uterus, which in turn refers to motherhood and the creation of life, and thus also to the feeling of home and security. The cave is wrapped in a white fabric, ornated with traditional Flemish lace placemats. The hand-knitted objects not only embody the craft that is passed on from generation to generation, but also express their fragile grace in the ornamentation of the lace. The second one is a handwritten installation with neon I am my mother’s daughter. The neon lights reflect a personal memory of childhood. Our house was full of neon lights that my mother collected from restaurants or bars that were shutting down or she found them at junkyards. I used to hate it as a kid because I always thought our house looked like a bar. But when friends were coming over they were always super impressed. She also loved bright colors, so every single wall in our house had a different color. Even our kitchen floor was made up out of giant fluorescent puzzle pieces. I guess that’s why I love color so much. When I’m creating, I feel this connection with my history, as a person, but also as an artist. It’s like a puzzle that is getting made during painting. I’m proud of my history and with these installations I want to honor my ancestors and preserve my past.
I’m just trying to search for different ways to not just stick with paintings, I want to break free from the wall and push myself to create different type of works. It’s all about embracing being a woman and doing what you want. Being a badass basically .
LP: Can you tell me a little more about the drawings you made for the show?
JD: I am currently totally obsessing about imagery of Alchemy in the Middle Ages. Where they obsessively tried to create the elixir for eternal life. There are just so many beautiful old images of life and death. How they represent science, it’s ridiculously good. I even did some deeper research of different traditional healing techniques by various indigenous cultures. For these drawings I combined these influences. My mom was always so afraid of getting older. So she would go crazy for this elixir. I had a lot of fun creating these drawings.
LP: You said before that the broader theme of the works is forgetting. When I think about this process, it is also about memory or memorizing, which is the opposite of forgetting. It’s very abstract. You can’t touch it, it’s really hard to describe how it works. It’s a mystery, yet it makes us human to have the ability to memorize and to have emotions and to forget. I find it really interesting how you try to find pictures for this and how you find a visual language for these very abstract natural processes that are not tangible or visible.
JD: For a long period of time I just had to think about this. Not only think, but also feel: how does it make me feel? What kind of imagery would you put in… During the summer, I was already thinking of it, and it took a lot of time to let it soak in. And also, the process was very different than before.
LP: Can your mom still relate to your works? Can you talk about it with her?
JD: No, not really. She knows I do something creative and I know she is really proud.
LP: This whole concept of age and illness – there’s this kind of shame to it. And a lot of people are ashamed to talk about it, their own illnesses, but also if it affects your family. When you tell someone about it, people often don’t know how to react. Then again, it affects everyone at some stage, we will all be affected by it or be in touch with it. With our own age, but also with our parents aging and getting ill. And still, it’s so hard to talk about. It should be normal, people get old and these things happen.
JD: I guess, in our society, we are very focused on staying young. If you look at how popular plastic surgery is, or all these retouched photos and filters we are surrounded with … So I guess in a way we are very afraid of getting old. Also the way we treat older people in our society, in Western society. We are getting more and more detached from our nature, this is also a theme that was in my previous work. Trying to normalize the natural body, but now it’s more about normalizing the circle of life, to get rid of the stigma around it. Aging is just a part of life, we have to accept this. Before I tried to paint to accept my uncertainties about my body or about being a woman. But now I try to face and accept my own doubts or my own insecurities through art. By painting this, I’m accepting my mother’s illness. The mother-daughter relationship has completely changed. It’s actually the other way now, and I also have to be my own mother. which is an interesting and thankful subject to work around. The show in October with my Belgian gallery will be an extension of this one.
LP: I was thinking of one conversation we had maybe two years ago, where you said that the women in your paintings were like your role models, in the way they’re taking control of their life and gaining back the power over how they act.
JD: Yeah, in a way this is also an attempt to accept this situation or this role that I have to fulfill now. It’s almost therapeutic because I’m dealing with these things. And I’m glad I can paint about it to let it go. I think it’s going to be shocking for some people. But there is a lot of beauty in the sadness.
LP: And like you said, it’s your own story. But I think that a lot of people that look at it can relate to it immediately. I don’t think it’s only depressing, this whole idea about forgetting and memories, you also memorize the good things and to try to keep those memories, to not let them go.
JD: I wanted to take this rather depressing theme and create something beautiful out of it. It has all sorts of color inside. It’s not all dark paintings.
LP: Thank you for your thoughts!