Biography by Franck Piepers
« The conditions of life must change, regeneration only comes from the wide field of art »
« The only true revolutionary power is the power to invent »
« Everybody is an artist as everybody can give form to something »
It is by reading these three quotes by Joseph Beuys, like plunging into the very cradle of conceptual art, that the final threads of this biography of Quentin Carnaille are woven together.
Thirty-two years old, one metre eighty, barely seventy kilos and wearing a baseball cap, he has a face that reminds me of a buddy whom I sat next to in high school… in the back row.
I met Quentin Carnaille, an artist from the south of Lille who, a few months earlier, had covered the heads of memorial statues with mirrored cubes in the capital of Flanders.
Carnaille grew up in Roubaix in the back room of his parents’ pharmacy, one of those old landmarks that smells of peppermint cough drops, whose façade still proudly bears the original wooden cladding of a bygone era. The building stands at the entrance of the Rue de Lannoy street, below the long high street that leads to La Fraternité hospital from the Boulevard de Belfort.
Customers of this pharmacy not only come for the cures for their ailments but also in search of a willing ear to their troubles in this working-class cosmopolitan neighbourhood, where Flemish and Mediterraneans, housewives, pensioners, workers and orphans of the textile industry mix.
The reason for which I describe this rather unexceptional pharmacy at such length is that it was without a doubt a laboratory for experiments, as well as seemingly insignificant yet defining episodes that, two decades later, made Quentin Carnaille the artist that he is today.
It all started in a somewhat ‘special’ closet, located in the back room
of the private area in the building that housed his parents’ pharmacy.
Carnaille loved locking himself in there to watch customers coming and going through a one-way mirror, observing life from the other side of the counter. Invisible, from the shadows he could see everything… These were magical moments, just like in children’s fairytales where old wardrobes in attics lead into parallel universes and new worlds.
Reflections fascinated him, especially those from the mirrors in the family bathroom. While taking his bath, he would contemplate and meditate on the infinity projected in the two mirrors positioned across from each other. Without realising it, the sensibilities of an aspiring artist were already germinating within him. In his bedroom he began to accumulate a host of decorative objects that amazed and fascinated him, amongst which were kitsch and cheap lava or wax lamps.
The youngest of three sons, Carnaille describes himself as the family troublemaker. He attended the now famous Jeanne d'Arc Montessori School in Roubaix, a pioneering institution that was recently profiled in a documentary by Alexandre Mourot Let the child be the guide. Following this credo, Carnaille grew up in an environment that was conducive to creativity, exchange and sharing. A free spirit, he did not easily fit the mould of the traditional student; only by repeating France’s CM2 level in public school was he able to continue to sixth grade. At this time, he joined an older brother in a boarding school in Saint-Omer, where his life would undergo a 180-degree turn.
Upon his return he discovered that his parents had moved from Roubaix to Brigode, a beautiful district of Villeneuve d'Ascq. This meant their home was now separate from their workplace. At this point, Carnaille was following a traditional path, carried by the values of a Cartesian, scientific family culture. Art books were scarce in their library and trips to the museum were practically nil. However, in his fourth year, a passionate art teacher took to him, drawn in by his abundant creativity. No doubt she must have seen the first signs of an artist in the making.
His baccalaureate diploma in hand, Carnaille tried to follow in his family’s footsteps by studying to become a pharmacist. However, after three months of lecture halls and cold sweats, he had to confront the obvious: he would never take over the reins of the pharmacy from his parents.
What now? he wondered. I’ve got to get a degree to guarantee my future and reassure my mother and father. You know, the conventional wisdom that has infiltrated the minds of a whole generation, Generation Y. This is Carnaille’s generation, light years away from carefree Montessori.
What do I do with my life? How do I achieve ‘success’ in the eyes of others as well as my own personal fulfilment? These and many other questions led young "Quentin Y" to study architecture at the school of Saint Luc in Tournai. Why architecture? The answer, once again, lies in an episode that is as insignificant as it is decisive. It comes from the memory of building a shack with friends in the forest of Parc Héron …
Surprise! Carnaille rises from the bottom to the top of the class in Architecture
“It is settled! Carnaille will be an architect.”
Or not ? … Indeed, while Carnaille excelled in creativity and innovation, maths was quite another matter.
“You don’t have the range”, as French rapper Orelsan would say. Whatever. Broke, but with a master's degree under his belt, it was a done deal. But where is Carnaille the architect? He’s not on Google, or at least not as an architect.
Carnaille regains his freedom. Carnaille emancipates himself.
Carnaille becomes an artist.
It all began during his architecture studies, while he was living in a shared apartment with five other students in Tournai. The three hundred square metre building became a laboratory for new experiments where the students moved from conceiving to creating. Between classes and throughout the long summer holidays, he and his friends would take over spaces, transforming the garden in a Japanese-inspired style.
While mass consumption continued its domination of society, Carnaille became part of the first marginalised groups to make recycling a way of life, and pallets into pieces of furniture. He earned enough to treat himself to a few bottles of Chimay and certain naughty smokes to philosophise at his leisure. And thus the scene is set.
Yet, beyond environmental forms, what about his first conceptual creations? Though they are probably gathering dust somewhere in storage, they still evoke delightful memories like the first sparks of a performance to be. In some pieces Carnaille used salvaged printed circuit boards, arranging electronic components to evoke a city, its towers and, more abstractly, its anthill-like organisation – much like the one in which he struggled to find his place.
Of all the things he salvaged, it was a case filled with clock mechanisms, bought for a small sum at a flea market, that he found most intriguing. What could he do with it?
While sitting on an old sofa, his tired eye gazing at a crack in the wall, he started thinking of the passing of time and the responsibilities that he would soon have to face. His mind turned to the watch he no longer wore, then to his cell phone with its dying battery, then to the man whose name he had inherited, his respected pharmacist father who just wanted his sons to be happy.
Then something happened, a fortuitous event so fascinating that it changed the course of his life forever: As he was looking at his coffee table, a few watch mechanisms that he had just knocked over started moving, then forming a cluster, thanks to a magnet that by chance was placed nearby…
From that astonishing moment, inspired by the game of these tiny notched wheels he would create a pair of cufflinks, two jewels to adorn the white cuffs above the hands that had never abandoned him: his father’s.
Thus, introspection and recognition forged the soul of his first creations,
like the solid and authentic foundations of the building that Carnaille would erect.
So time resumed its course after having stopped, now ticking with a purpose beyond reason alone.
Two years later, in 2010, he would win the Maisons de Mode Lille competition, garnering as a prize a workspace in the Lille-Sud neighbourhood, just across from where he is now located.
In the cellar where he set up a studio, a “cavern” conducive to introspection, he made a decision: Carnaille set out to live by the passion that inhabited him.
In 2011, upon hearing that the rapper 50 Cent would be coming to a club in the city, the old Fabrik,
Carnaille takes the plunge and, by a combination of audacity and cheek, manages to get one of his creations onto the star’s wrist.
Smiling naughtily, he shows me a photo immortalising the moment. 50 Cent proudly wears the watch, captivated by the concept behind Carnaille’s creation.
But is it really a watch? It possesses all the elements that make a watch a watch, yet it does not tell time, as its notched wheels and needles intertwine in a motionless dance.
At only 26 years of age, Carnaille had begun the journey of making
a name for himself through his daring and innovation.
Time inspires him, enthrals him to the point of obsession, in this era in which the chronometer seems to have accelerated to an infinite vertigo.
The infinite: another concept that first entered his thoughts as he was contemplating the mirrors of his childhood.
Horology is the title of the collection of his first works, which include Origin, Emancipation, Thinker, The March of Time, Gravity and Fall. These works carry many questions that the young man poses both himself and us, existential questions that have haunted mankind since the dawn of time: on the secrets of the cosmos, its physical aberrations the subject of which man has relentlessly tried to establish rules for – from Copernicus to Newton to Einstein and more contemporarily Witten.
Then there’s the magnet, the invisible force that upset everything on his coffee table, upending all that seemed pre-destined: The paradox of a scientifically demonstrable physical phenomenon occurring randomly and becoming the most defining moment of his existence.
Following this was born a fascination for the forces of gravitational attraction, as Carnaille delighted ‘magnetically’ through his works with levitation that form the collections Hourglass and Introspection.
Exit a time of clockwork mechanisms, doubt and the pressure of the killer ‘Chronos’ :
in a game of forces and reflections, Carnaille embarks upon an intimate and personal journey,
with intuition as his only guide.
Universal beauty that lacks concepts is no longer valid at a time in which ideas and performance prevail.
Carnaille describes himself as solitary. However, while quiet is essential for him to reflect, regenerate and refuel his mind, he remains nonetheless connected to the world - although not through his iPhone or the algorithmic walls of social media. He readily elaborates on the raison d'être of his creations and on the impact that he hopes to achieve, rather than the “Edward Scissorhands” that made them. It was only following long, passionate discussions centring on each of his works that I finally managed, bit by bit, to pierce his armour of glass and steel.
In Anonymity, Connection and Identity, Carnaille steps outside of his studio, setting out to conquer the world,
as if to unite an army of aspiring artists connected to the collective consciousness, through the reflections
in the mirrored cubes covering the heads of our most revered statues.
Quoted at the beginning of this article, Joseph Beuys was convinced that every man is an artist and that if everyone were to use their creativity, all men would be free. In this way, he created the concept of “social sculpture”, which was supposed to bring about a more just society. That’s what Carnaille’s mirrored cubes inspire in me: as if behind them lies a hidden hope to ease the mindless drudgery of worker bees, to restore light on the fallen, and to re-awaken life.
As moved as I am by the thoughtfulness of his work, I am reminded that Roubaix native Carnaille was born and raised near the entrance of the path leading to the hospital named La Fraternité…a symbol of the road he has taken as an artist?
Finally, one last, strange parallel strikes me when Carnaille welcomes me to his workshop, in the back room of a co-working space he has recently created and set up in order to connect with other creative minds who have their eyes on the future. Here I find a glass greenhouse space of about fifty square metres, in which, amongst other creations, a dark, twisted pipe snakes from top to bottom leading outside towards a vacant and sinister lot.
Carnaille explains to me that we are in fact in the middle of an old florist’s, a hidden Garden of Eden in the heart of Lille-Sud. On this fertile plot, plants went from germination to full bloom, with cuttings and green shoots nourished by the light, and watered with the sweat of well-trained hands.
This place reminds me not only of his family’s pharmacy, but also of the old building he shared in Tournai. On one side of the mirror, there is life, friends, interactions; and on the other side, there is a private, personal lair where he takes refuge. The latter is where others vanish from his thoughts, while he contemplates the silent immensity that looms over him.
It is in this luminous and humid isolation that the work of the artist is born:
the creation of an intuitive energy that he photosynthesises.