Worth a laugh

In 1967, he cut a sheep in half; 30 years later, Arman is still re-moulding rubbish. But, he tells Robin Dutt, don't take it seriously
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In his search for an original self expression, the French-born artist, Arman, sought inspiration in unlikely places. Junkyards, flea markets and pavements were his playgrounds, where he would pick up discarded rubbish, urban flotsam and job lots of domestic items to include in his iconoclastic sculptures.

That was in the 1950s and he's still doing the same today as his latest show, Accumulation in Relation, at the Mayor Gallery, clearly demonstrates.

Although he shuns the appellation "pop artist", preferring instead the more classical sounding "neo-realist'', Arman shares the same sense of radical irony as Marcel Duchamp - he displays piles of stationery trash in Plexiglas boxes. And like his friend Yves Klein, he sets fire to grandfather clocks or embeds full bottles of pigment in nylon resin. Taking an electric saw, he slices up violin cases and recreates manic cubic expressions that Kurt Schwitters might have nodded approvingly at. And, in about 1967, he sliced in half a sheep's head and preserved it in plastic - around the time a certain Damien Hirst was born.

His purpose in confronting the viewer with these familiar objects in unfamiliar arrangements is to draw attention to their individual and powerful presences.

Laced with nostalgia and sparkling with a sharp irony, his homages to typewriters, woodsaws, irons and pressed shirts display also a certain mischief.

At the age of nearly 70, this master of acquisition has still not lost his passion for putting things together.

"I'm working on a whole new series of `sandwiches' now," he says with obvious excitement, a smile playing on his lips. "I've sliced a grand piano in two and put a Yamaha motorbike in the middle."

The grand scale has never worried Arman. He once half-buried 30 pianos in the front garden of his summer house in the south of France that, reluctantly, he had to dig up because of the need to add another bedroom.

It is plain that, though serious and painstaking about his work, he operates from polarities. He talks of the sadness and joy that can be seen in his work at any one time. "Objects embody psychological references," he suggests. "They are domestic cult objects. Collecting them can be tender and tragic at the same time. Transition is often tragic. For example, I learnt to type on those old typewriters which I now use in my sculpture but for young people today they are like diplodocuses. To me there is a touch of nostalgia and they become mythologised."

The fashion designer Elio Fiorucci, when speaking of his famed museum of kitsch objects collected over 30 or so years, spoke of the "irony of mythology" and Arman concurs with this view. "Take Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mouse - they are icons of our civilisation just as the Greek gods are."

But it is not only the selection of the objects that marks out his skill but their arrangement. At one and the same time they appear revolutionary and classical. In the past he has sawn up trombones but arranged them like a Grecian pediment. In another famous piece, Barracudas, Arman arranged everyday saws to look like a startled shoal of fish.

Although French by birth, he is in fact half Spanish. His original name was Armand Pierre Fernandez and his father owned an antiques shop - an obvious early influence.

In 1958, a catalogue printed for his Paris exhibition of cachets (rubber stampings) misspelt his name, leaving off the "d" off his first name, so Armand became Arman.

All artists perhaps like to think that they are loyal to their work but how many often change to suit the whims of fashion?

Arman claims to be true to himself or, as he likes to put it - "faithful in my unfaithfulness", referring to his range of sculptural techniques - the welding, the burning, the piling up, the embedding in resin and so on.

But whatever he does he likes to think of the work having some kind of resonance and relevance. He likes to think of it giving rise to a wry smile or even a belly laugh. Contemporary art that amuses, however, is often derided as intellectually disposable. It's a crime to smile. Instead, the work must be bathed in the aura of deep seriousness - even if that seriousness is wholly and cynically manufactured.

Cool and cruel not warm and welcoming seems the way but Arman is full of the warmth of the south. As the only European to share rank with Warhol, Lichtenstein et al, he wants you to enjoy the work and to share some of his obvious pleasure.

Lennie Lee, a contemporary iconoclastic artist who sells some of his work for pounds 9.99 a piece and who scours Bond Street for boutique chuck-outs, loves what Arman does. He sees "the truth of the everyday objects which surround us," says Lennie. And it is obvious that the younger visitors to the gallery derive a delicious pleasure from Arman's lively pieces.

His sculptures, apart from being visually exciting, seem to suggest very definite sounds. The typewriter sitting above reams of paper might be tapping away quite happily. The saws one can almost hear slicing through the wooden cabinet. The suspended coffee grinders are poised to empty noisily their contents into the waiting jugs below. And the telephone receivers surely suggest a Babel of confusion above a pile of haphazard directories.

So how is Arman to be judged in art history terms - as a cheerful prankster or a man with a clear agenda? "My agenda is not the next 10 years - it is now," he says. "I think that only time can be the real judge of art history"n

At the Mayor Gallery, London W1, to 29 Aug (0171-734 3558)