Lumiere, formerly known as Colette, was born and raised Colette Lumiere in Tunis, Tunisia. The origin of the name Colette was very much inspired by French novelist and performer Siodine-Gabrielle Colette. Lumiere, her current transformation, is at first glance an example of a living work of art. My first introduction to then Colette was through Noah Becker's Whitehot artourage. From her sense of fashion and make-up along with her despondent expression of poetess, she transcended everything present. Much of what we see in the modern day, Lumiere has been processing over many years in pop culture from music to fashion, as well as performance to film, which helped build her various personas and interventions. Archetypal Pop Princesses present in music videos and art, Madonna especially and currently Lady Gaga, were very much inspired by Lumiere's history as an artist in performance, video and paintings. Lady Gaga has plagiarized Colette's living environment of the 1970's in a recent window display at Barney's, New York, called "Gaga's Boudoir." Also, Lumiere's "Sleeping Performance Installation" was imitated by Gaga to promote her perfume in the style of Justine of the Colette is Dead Co. (Her Reverse Pop series 1978-82). Her installations at Fiorucci, a store in New York, at the Clocktower, PS1 and European exhibitions brought critical attention to this genre. Other works of Colette such as her "Living Tableux" resonate in Cindy Sherman's photographs. Even the staged performances of Japanese artist Mariko Mori channel Colette in the use of cultural and mythological icons. Much of what Colette stands for is as an example of someone rare and unique, almost untouched. She manifests from self muse maintaining its truth and origin. Given the obsession with fame prevalent in today's society, Colette's influence can be seen in many young women walking the streets of New York. These are mostly girls who channel an eccentric style inspired by modern women in art, music and literature - but it's not Bjork I think of, or even Dorothy Parker. Colette immediately comes to mind. Because in its extreme, Colette Lumiere's legendary status influenced pop cultural history.
"CONVERSATION WITH LUMIERE"
Kofi Forson: Fortunate enough to have been at the opening of your documentary Pirate in Venice. I was somewhat awestruck by those gathered. They all seemed otherworldly. Present among them was Anthony Haden Guest. It's quite clear you have had the fortune of meeting some extraordinary people over the course of your career.
Colette: Thank You Kofi, I am glad you got to see it. I was moved by the responsive audience, and yes I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with extraordinary human beings in my life and art, and hope to continue to. Anthony is surely one of them! Always lights up a crowd!
Forson: The documentary captures you in your excellence at home, on the streets and boutiques. Somehow it renders you as free spirited bohemian, the opening scene for example where you wake up from sleep to answer the phone. There's that sense of joie de vivre. Share with me that openness and charisma you experienced at a time when art was very public. That life was one big party from the bed to the studio to the club.
Colette: Oh that scene you describe, was taken from Charlie Ahearn's film on me "In Preparation for the Salon," 1994. It was the only one in the series of portraits of artists that did not include an interview. I guess the visuals said it all. One of of Olympia's rules (my persona at that time) was to promote art that celebrate life and elevates the spirit." Could not get more politically incorrect for that time!
I was always interested in reaching multi-audiences. This is probably one of the reasons why I choose to work with so many mediums and why I present my art in different kinds of locations, besides museums and galleries; for ex. the street , shop windows, clubs, etc. I hold dear the memories of those days and as you describe it, my poet friend, it was "one big party! From the bed to the studio, to the clubs!” Night life played an important part in our lives in the seventies and 80's. Although it may not have appeared so, I also spent much time alone in the studio.
Lumiere (of Laboratoire Lumiere), my current manifestation, is also as you describe it, interested in la joie de vivre! I believe in the power of Beauty and Joy. Simple as that! It is definitely under-rated!
Forson: Your legendary status is undeniable. The documentary is able to chronicle much of your life in art and status as some one who made a great mark on history. We live in a world now of self-professed pop stars. Not many would know the influence you left on icons like Madonna and currently Lady Gaga judging by the film. Do you think the film should have done a better job detailing how your installations and fashion boutiques shaped what was the trend on the streets?
Colette: Fredriecke documented my "apparition" performances, in Venice as well as my chance encounters with old and new friends. In between, she intersected my history with earlier footage and images and intentionally did not add a date nor identify the personages. It was her way of capturing my spirit and the essence of my work. I found it effective, being that my work addresses themes of timelessness and parallel universes.
I was pleased at the film's poetic style, and its 'collage' approach. If you look at the footage more than once , you realize that there is a lot information. One absorbs it subliminally. To create a classic documentary was not the intent.
About the film not detailing my inluence on Pop culture, and I guess you must referring to the latest publicized “rip off”: the plagiarism of my vision in Barney's Christmas windows created by the Pop star's creative team “Gaga's Boudoir?" Not the first time for me as you know. It is common for popular culture to steal from well-known artists. Mainly because art is not as acessible to the masses, so some take liberty to steal it. It happens within the artworld as well. I chose to protect my vision and, as many know, took action in front of Barneys. I am very moved by the support by most in the art community. “The real victory is to be able to turn what is not controllable into a dream reality: making art," words from the House of Olympia...I still have not heard back from Gaga, yet this unfortunate incident has turned into a source of inspiration. It may not have reached the mainstream but “those who matter are aware” and sympathetic as an art critic said.
Forson: How important is the city of Venice to the making of this film?
Colette: Venice was crucial in making this film. I love the city. I just had met Fredericke through the author and curator (of my show at Paolo Barozzi 's gallery) Alan Jones. She was so enthusiastic and curious about all, that what began as a "family album"" developed into a film. Not to mention there was no budget.
Forson: Your ability to bring art to the public is evident in the film. The most striking example is when you proceed to nonchalantly paint the streets with designs. This is very much a modernist means of art, I suppose predating graffiti.
Colette: I began to paint the streets anonymously, but my identity was soon discovered. The video clip was filmed by Al Hansen (the late fluxus artist) in 1973. It does bring to mind Banksy and his recent film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Arnold Newman, the famous photographer, who arrived on location got arrested! I had already fled by the time the police arrived. Painting the streets was similar in spirit to graffiti art and preceded it. My aesthetics, however, was unique and did not fit the style of the movement. This might explain why I am not included as part of the movement. I am currently included in more shows of that nature, even though I have never been part of “a group." Regardless, the growing interest in the art of the 70's and 80's has contributed to my art and influence surfacing. For example, I am in the New Museum's current show “Come Closer,” which includes ephemera and street art downtown in the 70's and 80's, featured in “React-Feminism II," the travelling show which begun in Berlin in 2008 with my street works, and the short films are still being shown in various venues. Next a museum retrospective “a propos!"
Forson: Throughout history women have been admired for their beauty. One would be lead to think the Mona Lisa is what women always aspired to be. A face that doesn't age remains unaffected through time.
I've seen photographs of you as a younger woman. That sense of innocence is still present. But what is remarkable is that you transcend what is traditionally model or pinup. Your beauty represents what is muse. A persona that passes through time but endures pleasure and pain still able to maintain its originality. What is the origin of the Colette persona?
Colette: Oh you're making me blush! I was born with the name Colette (named after the wonderful French Writer). Why is the sky blue?
Forson: Facets of your performances include "COLETTE IS DEAD" and "the Sleep," both of which are imitated in pop culture: first by John and Yoko's give peace a chance sleep in and proclamation of a living person's death is common in music and literature.
What is the metaphorical interpretation of your death in this circumstance? I would suppose you could have transformed like David Bowie's many manifestations. Do have to say though, this piece alone is a highly sensational juxtaposition of beauty and death. Reminds me of how the corpse is prepared before burial.
Colette: So many questions in one! Sleep, Death , Love, transformation are all common themes for art!
John and Yoko's Bed was a great happening! And when it comes to the music scene, no one greater than Bowie!
My beds and my use of sleep was expressing something of a different nature.
In portraying the sleeping reclining female in my room installation/performances, "I was creating a landscape and becoming one with it." I portrayed myself as the subject and object of my work . To quote the art historian Peter Selz “something that till Colette came along was a man's prerogative. The nude laying female before that, was historically portrayed through the male gaze...” Blurring the line between dreams and reality also played a big part in my work as well exploring and commenting on the line between art and life, and that of art and commerce.
What makes answering your question more complex is that, in 1978, I staged my death in an installation performance at the Whitney.
In 1978, I made my death a performance and resurrected as Justine of the Colette is Dead Co. (Reverse Pop series). This added another meaning to laying still. The series was a “parody and the solution to the dilemma of a young, well known innovative artist” (myself) whose vision the commercial world had already shamelessly imitated. It was my first living persona. As Justine, I posed as a recording star, "Justine & the Victorian Punks," an interior and fashion designer, and conceptualizer of products inspired by Colette's image (ex; the colette doll-perfume-clothes-beds-records). I also became the head of the estate . Needless to say, Women at that time had a better chance at being heard as an entertainer than as an artist. Oh and I am afraid it is still so! Ah!
Ironic that many at that time interpreted my work superficial and my exploration of the self in my light boxes and self transformations as narcissistic. And the "Colette is Dead" series were so convincing that many in the art world thought I went “commercial!?"
My extravagant and unique style of dress not common to the world of art did not help, and to add further injury I often used nudity. An art work for me is self-explanatory. Art is a language of symbols and loses power in translation. The art world seems to still rely on explanation? Time, also, seems to play a role in the acceptance of new ideas.
Forson: What I find the most impressionable in the film is what would be considered your boudoir. How long does it take for you to create such a majestic installation?
Colette: You must be referring to the “living environment“ - a complete work of art of the early 70's - it took weeks to create that one - all in white silk parachutes that I bought in army and navy stores. I did not let anyone in at first....as it often happens when I am in working on something. It is like being pregnant, one has to be protective during the incubation period as well as at the beginning of the birth.
It is always a challenge to create a room for a public space. For my current show “Lumiere travels to Springfield,” I created an “on-site installation” in a historical Victorian home, of the Benedictine Catholic College in Illinois. I transformed (Colettesized) each room, by incorporating fabrics, recent lumiere paintings & earlier art works, costumed dressed forms, projections, and audios. Each room represented a different persona from my history. For the opening, C.I.A. models represented The Colette institute of Art were integrated in the rooms. During the procession, A Colettesized Gaga “from a parallel universe ” walked towards An Altar, and got on her knees in prayer. “Forgive me Mother".....Another dream of mine is to create a permanent Colette Chapel!
Forson: How has the press responded to you over the years? There are scenes in the film with articles written about you. Were the articles about you more favorable in Europe than they were here in The States? How has the media portrayed you over all?
Colette: The press, as to be expected, has responded to the more superficial aspects and sensational elements of my work and life. Although I have had mythological art writers, historians, poets write more deeply as well.
I have been covered from the National Enquirer to Vogue to ArtForum...just to give you an idea.
European press and art world in general, is more favorable to artists, but most public press look for "scandal" and I have had plenty of that as well. I even made art out of scandal during my Bavarian adventure series as Countess Reichenbach when I lived Munich (86-9) in series called "Dial C for Scandal."
Forson: In your post film address to the audience you remarked on how you felt regret that the filmmakers were never alwaysaround to capture you at work. Even sometimes although present when you would ask them to film they refused. This brings me to the greater question about your career and role in history. Is there a sense of regret? More so regret in how perhaps you managed your career.
Colette: Oh none "Je ne regrette rien" as Edith Piaf sings in one of my favorite songs besides "La vie en rose" (both I have used in my presentations). What I was trying to communicate is that sometimes when something magical happens, there is no one there to record it. And that Fredericke was not always accompanying me, through no fault of her own. These moments can later be expressed in a work of art, so they need not be wasted.
I would also like to see a full-length documentary of my life and work . Wim Wenders, are you listening?
And as far as I have managed my career? Well, that is another long story...but as Malcolm Morley once said “I did not become an artist so I could have a career." I do feel this is a good moment for the world to be receptive to my work. Ironically, this is largely due to all the imitation! When I was younger, I think a big part of me resisted commercial sucess. After all, great artists are rarelly understood! I am ready now!
Back to the making of the film A Pirate in Venice. It is often a shock, even the best of actors would agree, to see oneself not “camera-ready” on film. Fredericke had the insight to record private conversations I had with friends, without my being aware, or self-conscious, and in that way portrayed me in the most real way possible. More viewings of this film are in the works! Next stop Berlin!
Forson: Generally the 60's fashion sense intrigues me the most. I say this because the glamour and allure of Hollywood gave way to rock and roll. The 70's followed, maintaining that same sensibility, how rock and roll permeated the conscience of the general public with all the variables, style, attitude and models. What were your early impressions of fashion? Who made a mark on you the most?
Colette: Old movies! Art History! Dance, music, theater, style, mythology, ruins! Oh, forgot to mention that most of the rooms incorporated sound. “The Beautiful Dreamer LP,” one of Justine & the Victorian Punks' theme songs (released as art multiple 1979), was re-realeased by DFA record label in 2011!
Forson: As far as texture and fabric of your fashions and designs what do you prefer? There's a lush quality and brilliance and attention to color.
Colette: My palette has varied, but I always seem to return to pale muted colors as in the recent lumiere paintings and “metaphysical portraits." Dreams are often made of light colors. I also love black and whites...I am not for high definition, I prefer the blurry look. Ah.
Forson: Does the allure of style mask your identity or is this the true Colette? If I could mention Madonna again. She seemed to have relished in the adventurism of her style but that was who she was. The artist known as Boy George or even Prince were circumventing their true self. Are you accentuating your true self or is this an art persona?
Colette: Both of course. After all, it is I who has created the persona and their look, attitude, and philosophy. Yet it may sound contradictory, but I also create the personas to permit a certain distance and allow objectivity.
Forson: Your installation pieces seem to benefit more from your originality, the aura and dimension and scope. How do you balance your sense of creativity between the installations, video and painting?
Colette: “The media that I use is not as important as the fact that I turn it into art” (Justine 1978). Johnathan Crary wrote in an article in 1982: "At the core of Colette's work is a nomadic principle...not one medium is valued more than the other...also a wish to reach high and low audiences...”
Forson: Performance art has always been a place where art met theater. I see the value of French artists who stemmed from theater, whether Cocteau or Artaud. Your performances celebrated and courted art created in the moment left to be judged in time if not endured and forgotten. But as the documentary proved your performances are relevant in modern history.
Colette: Well said! Fortunately, lots of “objects d'art” and artifacts remain that captured these ethereal and magical moments of my art adventure: from photo works to light boxes, from paintings to sculpture , from audios to videos.
Forson: I see variety of women who walk the streets of New York, if not the world. You come to mind each time. It's never "oh she is trying to be Anais Nin or Dorthy Parker." I think of you. Why is that do you think?
Colette: Why is that?
Forson: You are a living treasure, Colette.
Colette: You are my cherub messenger! Ah, thank you – I hope this has shed some light on the subject...!
Remember Lumiere is my current muse. .. Head of the "Laboratoire Lumiere" 2001, the C.I.A. Colette Institute of Art (2004) (please join her on Facebook) The C.I.A. motto: "Fight Terror with Glamor!” It was created to help preserve, protect and share Colette's vision. ...stay tuned! Lumiere. www. colettetheartist.com
view all articles from this author
Kofi Forson is a writer, photographer and director living in NYC.
His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.