At the age of 85, the French artist Ben (real name: Benjamin Vautier) is as irrepressible as ever, both personally and artistically. Earlier this month, he was on hand to greet the press at the opening of his exhibition, “Être Libre,” at the Domaine de Chamarande. He sat enthroned on a platform bearing a sign proclaiming that “anyone sitting on this socle is a living sculpture,” holding his cane like a scepter and visibly enjoying sparring with the gathered journalists.
Ben, who was a friend of the late French artists Yves Klein and Arman, is probably the last living member of the Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus movements. The exhibition is a riot of works (some 400 of them), covering his entire career and filling room after room in the Château de Chamarande and its orangery.
Self-mocking, irreverent, impertinent and thoughtful, Ben is like a lovable uncle who can’t stop punning and joking, only his jokes take physical form in written words, paintings, installations and accumulations of objects. And, unlike most joking uncles, Ben is actually funny.
His age and a bad knee do not seem to be slowing him down a bit. Producing new works just comes naturally to him, and he is currently planning to make a film in which the audience members become the actors.
As indicated by the show’s title, freedom is a big concern of Ben’s, but so are such questions as “What is art?” and “Why me?” Although he denies being a philosopher – “I play at it,” he said – the witty white-on-black handwritten sayings he is best known for often pose existential questions and are almost always thought-provoking. This man who has been called both a provocateur and a prophet also comments on social and political issues, always with a humorous twist.
In Ben’s world, everything is art (and “everything is ego”). A hatbox bears the inscription: “If god is everywhere, he is also in this hatbox.” A mirror has “Portrait of the artist” written on it, while another says, “I am the most beautiful.” Each step on a staircase has an enigmatic label on it: “Watch out for this step; it slips,” “‘The artist’ is in the stairway,” “This step is sensitive,” etc. A mannequin wears a tunic with a hole in the middle with the words “center of the world” and arrows pointing to its navel.
Ben’s art is universal. As Bernard Blistène, currently the director of the Centre Pompidou, once said: “We all have something of Ben Vautier in us – he talks about us, our misery and joys, our fears and vanities, our desires and failures. In short, Ben is the seeker of truth. He is, without doubt, a moraliste, but never a moralizer.”
Ben was given a retrospective at the Musée Maillol only four years ago, and it is a pleasure to see him back again so soon, especially at the 17th-century Château de Chamarande (35 kilometers from Paris and easily reachable by RER line C) in the summer. If you go, plan to spend some time wandering on the estate, with its extensive grounds, ancient trees and lake, after gorging yourself on the ebullient spirit of Ben.