• Jakob Rowlinson & Floryan Varennes

    In Conversation
  • Jakob Rowlinson: Thanks for agreeing to be my artist in conversation. As soon as Queercircle asked me, your name popped...

    Jakob Rowlinson: Thanks for agreeing to be my artist in conversation. As soon as Queercircle asked me, your name popped into my head as a person I would love to chat with! We are both double Virgo's and since I've gotten to know you, I've loved seeing how our shared interests are explored in quite different ways through our practice. How are you doing? 

    Floryan Varennes: I'm rather well thanks, but busy programming on my side. I have just closed my exhibition Violence Vitale at the Maison des Métiers du Cuir which follows a residency program of the French Ministry of Culture "Artiste en Entreprises". And in a few months I'm getting ready to finalise a professionnalisation program for young artists and creators in France (and I hope in Europe), and I'm going on another research residency.

  • JR: So I have been a huge fan of your work since I saw it on Instagram two years ago, and it's clear you have a love affair with medieval armoury, weapons and the accoutrements associated with a knight. For me, images of knights and medieval pageants were a huge inspiration in my childhood, and I think that so much of my work is actually about me addressing these early fears about gender expectations - as well as a full on fantasy or nostalgia for the past. Without me projecting my thoughts on to you, was this also the case with you as a child? Did you come to find fascination with the medieval period at a particular time in your life? 

    FV: Yes, I can see where you're coming from. As you know I'm a child of the 90's, and during my childhood I was fed a range of scattered references that really shaped me. Two trilogies (and also two types of temporality) were revealing of my artistic concerns today: The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix. Added to this were references to 'Evangelion' and 'The Chronicles of the Lodoss War'. 


    So I'm very interested in the Middle Ages but more particularly in what is called medievalism (or survival or medieval revival). It corresponds to a set of artistic, political and cultural manifestations elaborated in a conscious will to recreate or imitate the Middle Ages. My goal is to perceive certain analogies/polarities with our time. It functions for my part as a heuristic modality - that is to say a comparison which allows us to perceive the denials, compromises, and the advances of our Western civilization. The Middle Ages questions me through its power relations linked to the body, its systems of parade and its forms of love life, thought, and art (gendered systems, social-bodily relations, warrior concept, medicinal, love). My iridescent banner, 'Sursum Corda', is a good example of this, as it articulates several aspects of my research about the medieval period and it impacts our world today.


    However, I am not at all nostalgic for the past; on the contrary I am very critical of it, even if it's fascinating and exciting. Rather I would say that I am an archaeologist of the future. As you know, I have a double curriculum (master II in visual art in France) with a specialization in sculpture. Afterwards I attended a lot of seminars in Paris at several universities to increase my historical knowledge on topics related to bodies in art. Then in 2018 I started a new research masters, this time in Medieval History at Paris-Nanterre. Through this studying I fed a lot of historical, scientific and academic reading into my practice. 

  • JR: There is something truly beautiful about your work, which partly stems from the clinical or sinister nature of certain...

    JR: There is something truly beautiful about your work, which partly stems from the clinical or sinister nature of certain materials you use, alongside a sexiness or alluring slickness to your style. I'm deeply impressed how you balance these medieval references to sickness in the body with modern discussions about safety and danger. Is there a particular importance or urgency in discussing these things now?

  • FV: You're talking about relationships related to aesthetics. The relationship of beauty in art is complex, and generally this tension comes from the history of art and art schools, which perpetuate certain schemes of what is beautiful or what is pleasing to the eye. Sometimes being too seductive is rejected, forbidden, or put aside. In my work I have fought against this, because I have understood that my research on the topic could easily overflow onto the form of my work. However, it is necessary to define what we call aesthetics; for my part I speak in the first place of a dichotomous relationship between seduction and aversion. So the "beauty" in my work resides in its ambivalence, that is what happens through the themes of my research. But rather than matching disturbing imagery with violence or aggression, I treat it with fragility, softness - often ephemeral or healing materials. With my pieces 'La meute' or 'Fin'amor' for example, I play with this ambiguity on all points, technical and conceptual.


    I also use materials that have various qualities which allow me multiple effects; from transparency, reflectivity, pearlessence, to iridescent leather, rivets and high-tech fabrics, sometimes also using materials like velvet or medical polymers, surgical steel, and dried plants, which transpose more deleterious ideas of beauty into my work. The plants came quite late in my practice, and reveal a new branch of care that I am exploring. I try to operate a real work and a certain logic of solicitude and the vulnerability, as well as exploring the role of the care in my work. This is very evident with the plants. They create a temporal and social link, because they have a direct affinity with the Middle Ages, being natural remedies and reminiscent of therapeutic gardens. I use a lot of plants that are related to this period (found in manuscripts, tapestries, coats of arms, but also medical codexes etc). The plants that I use - Lavender, ivy, thistles, bramble, broom etc. - have multiplied phytotherapeutic effects. I call them super-vegetables! I use them in my installations as symbols, but also as a way to mark the passage of time, space and the senses. I'm also interested in their olfactory sensation, and especially their prophylactic properties which can be incredibly powerful as well as dangerous. The piece "assag", which comprises two glass weapons resting on a bed of lavender, embodies this violent and sweet aesthetic.

  • JR: I really love your recent work titled HILDEGARDE. As I mentioned to Ashley, I'm very interested in the namesake...

    JR: I really love your recent work titled HILDEGARDE. As I mentioned to Ashley, I'm very interested in the namesake of this work, Hildegard Von Bingen, within my own practice. Partly this is because I am interested in women from the medieval period who managed to find agency in a male dominated world, and who could use (knowingly or inadvertently) the means and methods available to them - such as divine inspiration or sickness - as a way of forging a space for themselves. Does this make sense? I know you have also written a lot about Joan of Arc. Why are you drawn to these figures and can you tell more more about the recent piece you made?

  • FV: Absolutely. I do in a way try to bring a certain visibility of people to my work. Women in history have often been less visible and then later "rediscovered". Well, it's a bit more complex than that, because in the Middle Ages, categorisations were not so much based on gender but more on class, which complicates the contextualisation a bit. But nowadays, and since the 80's several historians (Sophie Cassagnes-Bouquet, Didier Lett, Frédérique Villemur, and Françoise Michaud Frejaville, to name but a few) have enormously advanced the research on gender relations. In my work, two roles are combined: the healer with Hildegard, and the warrior with Joan of Arc. For Hildegarde, my research focuses on the form of the work, with 7 suspended white leather stretchers that I named in honor of her. When the clamor of battle fades, and the old splendor dies, then it is necessary to bandage and palliate, patch and regenerate. The long process of repair begins, and with it also the techniques of care. The stretchers are coated with an antibacterial treatment and suspended at a height of three meters. Hildegarde, the name of my installation, refers to the woman of letters, the prophet and herbalist, Hildegard of Bingen. She was celebrated for her books on healing that prefigured the discovery of blood circulation and the nervous system. A network of ribs run across the surface of my pieces, which turn into muscle-like tissue, irrigated by a vital fluid - all the while being retained at other points by a system of metal rivets. Padded and intended to receive a body in a soft way, each of these stretchers however is devoid of occupants. So in this work I am transposing the panacea of the Middle Ages onto the cyber-futuristic era of medical pods (medical beds designed to regenerate bodies).


    Furthermore, as you mentioned, in June 2020 I graduated - Master II in medieval history, on another well-known figure: Joan of Arc. I chose to study this heroine because depictions of her in art history have often echoed my own practice as a visual artist. I'm interested in the body outside of stereotypical gender norms, and really fascinated by medieval pageantry, the panoply, emblems, armor, weapons of knights. So my investigation into the image of Joan of Arc began with depictions from the 19th to the 21st century. From this research came a set of two-dimensional works that depicted her life, her equipment, and most importantly her transitioning physiognomy; all the while questioning the gender representations of the young heroine. I did this historical transdisciplinary research too, combining medievalism and art history with critical tools related to gender studies. My aim was to provide a new perspective on common depictions of her. It was a long, very long, and dense work in terms of historical and artistic research. I had to track down the smallest painted images of Joan of Arc in Europe, and I think she will appear again sooner or later in my visual work.

  • JR: You make a lot of references to sci-fi in your practice. How did that first manifest and why is it important do you think?


    FV: There is indeed also a more futuristic, cyber-fictional aspect to my work, and in my investigations these have become more specific to my personal relationship with human enhancement. For this I rely a lot on philosophical and scientific readings like Paul Préciado, Bruno Perreau, Donna Haraway, Thierry Hoquet, Susan Sontag, Aubrey de Grey, Joan Tronto etc. I am very interested in body augmentation and reinforcement, as well as in different types of medicine that use these techniques. I also draw inspiration from what heals and enhances our body - to envelope, to be understood as an anthropotechny. For example the biotechnological sciences (and bioethics), herbal medicine (nootropic), pharmacology & toxicology etc.


    In my work also attempt to refute the binary division in society. This is how the notion of 'pharmakon' takes on its full scope for me. As the philosopher Bernard Stieflrer explains: "the pharmakon is both poison and remedy, it is both what allows us to take care of and what we have to take care of, in the sense that we have to pay attention to it: it is a curative power in the measure and disproportion that it is a destructive power. This "at once" is what characterises pharmacology, which tries to apprehend in the same gesture the danger and what saves." It is a simultaneous process of attack and self-defence, of states and temporalities, and of contrary bodies that I like to bring together in my work. I now add these contradictions totally unconsciously into my practice: for example making fragile but aggressive glass weapons, or quilted stretchers (as soft as they are solemn), quartered but visible standards, armoured and translucent drones, and a bed of lavender flowers that assaults the senses so much that the odour is almost unbearable! In my most recent work, focusing on Iris flowers, there are interlacing tubes that connect different elements together into the form of petals. This is a play on the ambivalence of the hospital imagination, referring to the state of suffering of the body, as well as to the network of cables that keeps it alive. The pharmakon is at the heart of my reflection, but declined in such a way that several types of antinomy (corporeal, temporal, material, conceptual) act as a balance which we cannot know if they are destructive or saving.

  • JR: As well as an artist, you are also a medieval historian. How has queerness and your identity influenced the...

    JR: As well as an artist, you are also a medieval historian. How has queerness and your identity influenced the way you approach your research?


    FV: My identity is not what I deal with first but I do not put it under silence either.

    The fact that I am a historian as well as an artist isn't something I usually promote, but it's isn't something I hide either. Not for nothing did I choose the subject of my dissertation to be Joan of Arc and the various representations of her throughout the ages! I am subtly working on the notion of queerness in history, in that I am trying to talk about an "antinomic rapprochement".

  • I define the Middle Ages as a period that allows for the history of the margins. My interest lies towards spaces of friction, especially those that welcome different, flamboyant and vulnerable bodies. In my research I try to disengage myself from the essentialisms and binaries of Western postmodernity, those that artificially separate temporality, nature and science, tradition and technology, gender and sex. I decline them in so many sensitive forms, bringing together contrary states. What I find fascinating about medieval history is that it is by no means static, and it teaches us so much about the roots of European civilisation, which is being undermined by many conservatives who dictate their (warped) vision of history. Research allows us to better understand the past, our past so complex, so tense but so little immobilized, in the end the Middle Ages is as queer as our society can be on various points. I can quote to enlighten us, the historian Clovis Maillet and his book Les Genres fluides (The Fluid Genders) which demonstrates this allegorically, or then Queer Love in the Middle Ages (The New Middle Ages) by Anna and Queering the Middle Ages by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, and there are so many other examples. Not forgetting John Boswell, who left us some of the most incredible writings (even if many of them are no longer true). He is one of the founders of LGBTQIA+ studies and he is also... a medievalist.

  • ARTIST INFORMATION Pronouns: He/Him Location: France Floryan Varennes is an artist-researcher working in sculpture, installation, finery and object. His work...


    Pronouns: He/Him

    Location: France

    Floryan Varennes is an artist-researcher working in sculpture, installation, finery and object. His work summons ambivalent corporeal apparatuses, by combining technology as well as various artisanal techniques. At the source of his reflection, he deconstructs and interlaces two chronological registers: on the one hand, medieval history, with its warrior connections, its systems of parades, and its forms of love life; on the other hand, speculative futures combining various therapeutic protections and curative techniques, either ancestral, surgical or biomedical.