In creating her 2007 solo Eloge du poil the French artist Jeanne Mordoj asked herself: How would it be for a woman today to live with a beard? To answer, or to journey towards an answer, she gathered to herself a collection of unusual elements: two badger skulls, a trapdoor gallows, scores of emptied snail shells, wooden canes, heaps of soil, and, most memorably, a batch of raw eggs. Here the artist talks about her background and the creation of the work.
In French 'poil' is not the hair on your head; it's the hair under the arms, on the legs, on the body. When you speak about poil it's much more complicated than 'hair' because poil is all over the body but we pluck it out or shave it off. Poil has a really strong meaning in France; for me it speaks about all the things we reject.
The meaning of the show's title, Eloge du poil, is a little bit provocative because 'eloge' is to praise something and it is also like a eulogy – so it is in praise of this thing that everybody is pulling out. The title is meant to be quite funny and provocative, but behind this it references a lot of the things that for me we can see in the show – or it speaks of the things we never do, like playing with eggs or with skulls or soil. It is talking about this kind of frontier between what is allowed and what is not, which, sometimes, is where you have to go in art for the meaning to be deeper.
I grew up in a family of artists – my parents were illustrators and sculptors, so I was immersed in this kind of artistic field, but I also grew up in the countryside and I think that had a big impact on my imagination. When I was young I was very interested in animals, skulls, earth, eggs, all these materials which you find outside and which are marvellous for a child. In the city you can also have a big imagination of course, but I was in the countryside and my creative world, it comes from here. I can really feel it now, this background, and it's also a big part of Eloge du poil.
When I was thirteen I met the circus. I went to a circus school not far from my regular school, and then when I was seventeen I decided to try to get into the school at Châlons. This was the late '80s. It was very new, the school, and they took me. I will never know why, but they took me – and it was just horrible. I really wasn't ready for it; it was very strict. All my childhood was really open and there was no structure – completely the opposite, in fact – and so it was like a shock, a very big shock. It was like military service.
So it was really hard, but afterwards, in a way, it was nice to know what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. That's how it is in life: you try things that you will never do again, but it's an experience and it's important to have this. After the school I went to learn and work with Cirque Bidon, which was a circus in Italy, originally from France. And it was great because I was there to learn the life: we were doing everything, from feeding the horses to building the circus to performing – everything. I stayed there two years before deciding to leave because I found there was so much to do every day that there wasn't enough space for artistic work. So I went to learn. I wanted to learn again, to learn technique and more, so I travelled around and would choose tutors one-by-one – go and learn some theatre with this one, some contortion with him, some juggling with another. It was good for me to choose the people and to learn in this way, because I think school is nice to meet people, but school is not for artists. You cannot learn art in schools; you can meet people, you can exchange with people. But art? To me it has nothing to do with schools.
Of course there were many artists who made nice things after studying at Châlons, but a lot of them were also formatted to a kind of template because they had learned classical or contemporary dance with this, this and this, so they had a kind of profile, a physical profile, and today the schools are focused so much on technical perfection. I teach a little bit myself now – not always circus people, but sometimes, and I see how hard it is to bring them out of the technique.
The problem in circus is that the techniques take so much energy and time that it's quite hard to be creative, so you have to go away from it a little bit to find other things. I know it from my own experience, because when I decided to go on stage and make theatre without objects I felt so lost. It was so hard for me because in circus you are always in a relationship of admiration with the audience, and it's like a drug because you create things that make people think, Wow, I can't do that! Wow, it's amazing! Always the relationship is on this level, and when you're making theatre, just speaking, of course people know you are on the stage and they are not, but it's completely different, the relationship. I thought it was amazing to see how you feel lost, how you feel you're nothing, you need your objects. To change you have to really break from circus technique – and it cannot be sweet. I was so afraid to do it at first, it was really hard for me to make this passage, and after I could again touch my techniques of course. It wasn't a different world, it's not like I began to be an actress. Now I can take my objects and my things on stage, but behind this, for me, is the possibility to be on stage with nothing. I didn't want to stop circus, to stop using the techniques entirely, but I needed to stop for awhile to meet them again in another way.
For this scene I remember how it came about: I was making a cake. I always liked to separate the white and the yolk with my hands, and one day, I don't know why, I ran the yolk down my arm and was like, Wow, and then it took years to build this piece. At this moment I was not juggling anymore – I was not practicing circus. Or in a way I was practicing, but I'd already left my objects and this came when I'd decided to go another way. I think circus artists need to be open, because you have to be connected with a lot of things to be creative, have to observe life, and sometimes if you are too much in your technique you cannot see it.
For the sequence with the canes, I was in a secondhand shop and I saw these and I thought, What are they? I didn't think they were particularly nice or anything, so I don't know why I wanted them. I just bought them, I have no idea. I took them and put them in my house and then one day, I don't know why, I took them and I balanced them on my arms. So I begun the work; at first I was doing it without moving, and it was quite difficult and it was a passage – a journey. I worked on it a long time, and now I feel like I could do it all my life, like tai chi, because it's very nice to practice.
When I started to create Eloge du poil I wanted to explore... the darker side of myself, perhaps. Because all my work is connected with my intimate feelings, this is my first inspiration. What am I asking myself at this moment, and what is it important for me to ask? Where do I feel fragile or where do I have questions? And hopefully if the work asks things of me it will ask questions of other people too. Before Eloge I'd made two other solos in which I was building my work, my own world; it was a lot about femininity already, but in a very nice way – more in a beautiful way – so I was ready to approach it from another direction. I was in my thirties by then, so it was another age, another relationship with femininity, another need to take a position in the work and in what I wanted to speak about.
At the start of the process I was awarded a travel grant from the Villa Medici, and for my research I chose to travel around Eastern Europe, alone, and to look for bearded ladies. I never found them, but in a way I didn't want to meet any. I just wanted to follow something.
I don't like to put the work in a specific time; for me it is atemporal, outside of time, because the most important thing is to let people bring their own imagination, and I don't want to connect the images or reflections with anything really precise. I'm not working in abstraction, but I'm looking for this place where there is... something, but it is like poetry – it has meaning, but in the same way it doesn't have meaning. Is it important? Maybe not. You can invent your own meaning – it's reflected in you. Of course I read a lot, or I have a lot of inspirations, but afterwards I don't want to speak about it. For me Eloge du poil is about how it would be to become a bearded woman today, and, if she was OK with her beard, how she could make people frightened, or maybe be beautiful sometimes – what kind of tension that makes, what kind of contradictions are inside it.
The video shown here was filmed at the Théâtre de la Bastille 13 May 2009. The film was made by Claire Childéric and Isabelle Bourzat, with Yves Laisné. It was edited by Régine Jusserand.
John Ellingsworth interviewed Jeanne Mordoj 13 November 2013 at The Place in London, sitting outside in the clear, weak sun.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.