Slow French sculptures head to hectic Hong Kong

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By Anna Maria Jakubek / AFP

Time and how it shapes us is key to the work of French sculptress Nathalie Decoster, including the giant bronzes she has just shipped off to Hong Kong — quiet meditations for a hectic-paced city.

Forty monumental human figures of bronze and steel, from two to six meters high (six to 20 feet), are currently making the month-long boat journey to Asia, where 15 of them will hang for two months in the streets of the vertical city.

Decoster intended the works, to be displayed as part of a month-long celebration of French culture before they continue on to Macao, as a reflection on the passing of time, and man’s frailty.

The guest exhibition is a sign of China’s new clout on the global art market, with a flourishing economy that has left newly moneyed middle and upper classes eager to acquire both homegrown and Western art as symbols of prestige.

For Decoster, an all-smiles 46-year-old who is quick to laugh and uninhibited in speech, her tie to Hong Kong began when a Chinese businesswoman took interest in her sculptures, buying several for the city’s Art Center and elsewhere.

The women bonded a couple of years back, over a day at Decoster’s converted factory studio just west of Paris, a space cluttered with sculptures large and small, art books, power tools, wire, cardboard and interesting objects.

Decoster creates sculptures of small human figures in precarious positions inside large hoops, cubes and other geometric shapes.

It is her way of depicting human frailty.

“The circle represents the passage of time and the square is structure,” she said at the studio she has worked in for seven years, a long chilly space well-lit with skylights and large, arched windows.

“I’m a fragile person and I’m a crazy person and I need reassuring structure,” she smiled.

Arriving late to the studio, sunglasses askew on her lion’s mane of unruly, blonde curls, Decoster fumbled with her keys to open the door, erupting in laughter and admitting that she is frequently running late.

This realization years ago is what prompted her to address the passage of time as a theme in her work with the hope of conveying the value of time to others.

Decoster’s ideas come to her at random moments — “I wake up and it’s there” — and by the time she jots them down, she sees an entire photographic image in her mind’s eye, which a team then helps her turn into sculpture.

More than a dozen of these sculptures are on display in Decoster’s studio backyard, a tree-filled plot overgrown with grass that brings her so much joy she never wants to leave the workspace.

The studio has an upstairs bedroom for the times Decoster chooses to stay, as well as a kitchen and living space with a fireplace — and shopping cart full of kindle — and wooden crates of wine at the ready for guests.

“I like to work in pleasure,” Decoster explained, Brazilian music playing in the background.

Decoster’s work has been shown in Canada, Brazil, the United States, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, France and elsewhere over a career that has spanned 20-plus years.

Among the sculptures in her backyard are variations on the 15 that will be showcased at Statue Square, Mandarin Oriental and other Hong Kong spots.

These include five “Trees of Life” sculptures, metal outlines of trees with little bronze human figures dangling from them like leaves, to show the parallel between human life and nature.

“It’s to say we are like leaves: we are fragile, ephemeral,” Decoster said. “We are tenants on this earth, as is nature too.”


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