What images keep you company in the space where you work?
A reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1555); photographs, including one I took of my father as a country doctor in the snow (the first I ever shot); and portraits of Honoré de Balzac, Lauren Bacall and an indigenous man in the Amazon rainforest.
What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?
Paul Gauguin’s painting Nave Nave Mahana (Delicious Day, 1896). I saw it when I was about 12, with my mother, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. It depicts women whose combination of power and languor was completely distinct from those I was familiar with. The fact that some of their breasts are uncovered and their nudity doesn’t feel artificial, as it does with figures in Italian painting or those by Peter Paul Rubens, particularly struck me.
If you could live with only one piece of art what would it be?
Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s polyptych The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (c.1425–32). I have been to Ghent to see it many times: it’s so big, there’s a lot to look at. I especially admire its philosophical and theological architecture. Generally speaking, I really like Flemish painting; I tend to prefer it to Italian painting. Flemish artists make beautiful objects with common or even ugly things, whereas Italians make beautiful works with beautiful things.
What do you wish you knew?
Mathematics. The poetic impulse imposed itself very quickly upon me. It took over rational thinking when I was a child and reduced all other impulses. The articulations of poetic logic are not the same as the mathematical logic of intervals and connections. Poetic logic is as rigorous as mathematical logic, but it is different. Mathematics is a logic of figures and of signs; poetic logic is a combination of concrete and abstract objects. If I had been able to understand the concrete beneath the figures, I could have devoted my life to mathematics. But I did not have the right teachers. I also like counting – I do it in nature – and numbers: kilometres, feet …
What is your favourite title of an artwork?
Nicolas Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète (The Inspiration of the Poet, 1630). I saw a reproduction of this painting when I was a teenager and it gave me ideas. It was a very inner representation of inspiration, as always with Poussin: an extremely sober one. It confirmed in me what I felt. It was a silent object that told me to carry on.
What should stay the same?
What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?
What music are you listening to?
I do not listen to pop, rock or rap – which is everywhere in supermarkets and on the radio. I quite liked it at a certain point in my life – a moment of youth and sex – but I am at a different stage now. I have listened to all sorts of music: what we call in French grande musique (classical) and jazz, as well as music from other countries, especially Afghanistan and Mongolia. Music is an extension of the voice and of the word: a need for rhythm, melody and harmony is a gift in some people. It is very mysterious, and very important to understand what human beings are made of: the history of the musical sentiment, from prehistory until now. Writing that is not musical is no fun.
What are you reading?
I am about to start Donatien Grau’s Dans la bibliothèque de la vie (In the Library of Life, 2019), as we are travelling to Los Angeles together. And I always take a volume of Dante Alighieri or Stéphane Mallarmé when I travel.
What do you like the look of?
The zebra, because of its stripes and very specific locomotion, which appears to be at once very calm and in a hurry. I also really like the look of elephants: they are so heavy; we can really feel the weight of them walking on the planet.