“When I was young, I used to hoard all sorts of materials such as wood, cardboard and plastic so that I could create objects - mainly boats. Twenty years later, I began sculpting from found materials. In the meantime I studied art, specifically graphic design, for five years in Paris at a college called ESAG-Met de Penninghen from 1983 to 1988, before starting to work as a freelance graphic designer. Gradually, sculpting became the obvious direction for me and in 1990 I started making insects.
When I was about nine years old, I developed an interest in insects thanks to one of my primary school teachers who was also an entomologist. I suppose it was natural that one day all these things would combine. Over time, I did less graphic design and in 1995 I finally stopped working as a graphic designer and I have been making creatures from scrap material ever since. Creepy crawlies such as spiders, insects and wasps are my principal source of inspiration, as well as animals with comical potential such as ostriches, fish and toads.
I especially enjoy children’s reactions to my work. When my seven-year-old daughter’s friends visit or when school children see my work I witness a variety of responses: some are astounded, others want to touch or move the sculptures and others ask questions; these are touching scenes. I also love seeing objects which have their own past and their own practical uses take on a second life in my creations.
I do not have a set way of working. Either I first imagine and design the sculpture without having all the parts or I use parts I already have and see what I can create. It takes about a month to make a sculpture and I can sometimes work on two or three sculptures at the same time. It took me just a month to make my first sculpture and 17 years for my last one! Sometimes, I have all the pieces I need bar one, and then I find the missing piece by chance when I’m not looking.
The parts are screwed together; there is no welding at all and I try to keep the pieces as they are found in their used state. I regularly go to second-hand markets, flea markets, garage sales and car-boot sales. I often hide the true purpose of the bits and pieces I buy because the sellers wouldn't sell them to me; for them the car parts they sell (when car parts are concerned for example) have to be used only to restore cars. They think I am crazy to use these parts for sculptures. Friends and family also always think of me when they get rid of old things.”
Take one workshop full of junk and a Frenchman with an eye for detail (not to mention an obsession with bugs) and you will find the most eclectic mix of metal insects this side of a sci-fi novel.
Twelve years ago, a successful French graphic designer called Edouard Martinet had his Damascene moment. He became severely bugged, by bugs – but not for the first time. He was 10 when one of his primary school teachers began to teach his pupils about insects, and in a rather obsessive way.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Martinet has become the art world’s virtuoso insectophile, transforming bits and pieces culled from flea markets and car boot sales into exquisitely executed insect forms. Though best-known for his surreal entomological creations, his repertoire has now grown to include fish and animal forms. “I didn’t notice the link between this work and that teacher at first,” he admits.
This genre of art has produced intensely individual, and even politicized, work. Christopher Conte’s abstracted bug-forms suggest precision-made machine parts. Tom Hardwidge’s bullet-bodied ‘arthrobots’ have been described as steampunk artworks. And Scott Bain’s interest in ‘dead stuff’ and taxidermy generates sculpted insects from an apocalyptic vision in which, he says, nature will destroy consumerist humanity.
What sets Edouard Martinet’s work apart is the brilliant formal clarity of his sculptures, and their extraordinary elegance of articulation. His degree of virtuosity is unique: he does not solder or weld parts. His sculptures are screwed together. This gives his forms an extra level of visual richness– but not in a way that merely conveys the dry precision of, say, a watchmaker. There is an X-Factor here. A graceful wit.
His 55cm high Coq, for example, is composed largely of typewriter type-bars. The form radiates energy and seems about to spring into movement, or crow at the very least. It recalls the bizarre, porcupine-like electromagnetic Writing Ball machine patented in 1874 by the Dane, Rasmus Malling-Hansen. The Coq is equally surreal, for it is simultaneously a symbolic expression of typography, and a rooster. It’s this often brilliantly executed tension between a sculpture of recognisable form, and parts and details that have nothing to do with the form, that make Martinet’s works so notable.Perhaps living, working and teaching in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, has something to do with this expressive mixing-and-matching. The region’s Ya d’ar brezhoneg movement promotes a French-Breton bilingual regional character. And yet Rennes was also one of the first technopoles – high-tech industry hot-spots – to be established in France. Thus, Edouard Martinet exists in a city where historic precedent and new fusions of technology exist together. Only Paris has a greater concentration of IT companies.
The artist’s beginnings gave no distinct hint of his later work. Having studied at L’Ecole Supérieure des Arts Graphiques in Paris, he lived and worked as a graphic designer in Paris from 1988 to 1992. “I studied graphic design because I liked drawing, and I was interested in posters and beautiful books,”he recalls. Predictably, he found work in publishing, and in advertising and trademark logo design. But after little more than a year, he knew he was only marking time, and continued to experiment with sculptures made of discarded materials.
His fascination with found objects was not new. “When I was young I used to keep all sorts of stuff: wood pieces, bits of cardboard, plastic,” he says. “I made all sorts of things from them, mainly boats. I can’t remember the very first thing I made that Ithought I had done really well. ButI do remember the first really successful sculpture – a mosquito made with bike parts. “I was 27, and I gave it to my sister to thank her for supporting me financially in my art. I used bike spokes to make the legs, a hub for the thorax, a brake for the proboscis, a bike chain guard for the wings, and the abdomen was made from two bike headlights.”
The desire to create sculptures which linked the precision of graphic design with his instinct for rearranging detritus became too strong to ignore. “I like giving life to found objects,” he says, “and I don’t want to make them useful. I only want them to seem alive, but not as if they could be functional robots. I want the sculptures to give the impression, for example, that a bird is about to fly, a grasshoppers about to hop, the praying mantis is ready to catch its prey. In a word – life!”
This quest for poised expressions of life-force is evident in Edouard Martinet’s own tastes in art: “What interests me in other artists is the emotion you can feel when you experience their art. You can’t explain it. The artists I am thinking of include Picasso, Bacon, Damien Hirst, Turner, Basquiat and Bernard Pras.”But how does Martinet’s work escape being filed away as ideal material for cabinets of curiosities? “People who like my art happen to like the precision of my sculptures,” he says. “But they also discover objects in the sculptures that they know, or which remind them of old memories.”
So, quite apart from cockerels composed of type-bars, we encounter fishes made largely with kitchen spatulas, spoons, and trumpet parts; a langoustine made with tool-parts; a pigeon whose gleaming wing is partly formed with the badge from a Schwinn bike fascia; a ladybird with bike-chain feelers; and a wasp of such complex delicacy that its individual parts defy recognition.
Martinet has a “huge storage” of material, cast-off bits and pieces whose shapes appeal to him. “And I don’t always know what I am going to do with them. I use any sorts of bits. Bike parts, utensils, radio parts, car and moped parts, car lights, umbrella ribs, sunglasses. I find them everywhere – boot sales, brocantes, garages, everywhere you can find used objects.” Almost anything can be of use. The strangest? “Ski-boot fasteners from the 1950s, which I found in a brocante in the Dordogne. And I have never found another example of those particular fasteners. The potato-peeler I found in a food market in Rennes and, again, have never again seen one like it.”
His sculptures, which range from 30cm to 2m long, are never achieved straightforwardly. “The original idea can change as I proceed,” he explains. “I discover what the sculpture is becoming gradually, and sometimes I change pieces. But there can be pieces I really need, and if they’re not in my objects in my studio I have to wait to find them.“For some pieces, I have to wait months. I had to wait 15 years to complete the dragonfly. I had the idea, but couldn’t find the right pieces to make the sculpture so that it would correspond to my original idea. But I got there, and the dragonfly was displayed at my last exhibition at the Sladmore Gallery in London.”
Edouard Martinet works at night and his fabrication process requires relatively few tools – essentially a drilling machine, grindstone, pliers, screwdrivers – because he uses parts that will fit together naturally. And he keeps them in their true found state, which could be almost new, well-worn, or even rusted.If he has the right parts to fit his vision for a sculpture, its making will take about a month. “Every sculpture is complicated, even these that seem relatively simple,” he says. “The most difficult thing is to find the right part, the one that will seem obvious – as if it had been manufactured specially for the sculpture.”
Martinet is beginning to consider new subject matter. “I have other plans that I have not experimented with yet,” he says. “For example, I would like to cast my sculptures in bronze, and work on the chimera theme. I am interested in the combination of animals and human beings, or different animals together, like the Greek sirens – half-bird, half-woman.“It’s another kind of sculptural story that you tell with the chimera. They are oneiric, the material of dreams.” He fails to mention it, but his idea touches on another specifically Breton connection: in 1BC, the region’s Celts minted coins which showed a charioteer whose horse had a human head.
Martinet’s sculptures convey “a poetry of the past,” as he puts it. Can it be long before one of his customers is provoked into verse by a glinting crawfish, or a tensely poised praying mantis? The 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche would surely have responded to the splayed type-bars of Martinet’s Coq. He bought one of Rasmus Malling-Hansen’s strange Writing Ball machines in 1882 and used it to tap out this droll poem:
The Writing Ball is a thing just like me: of iron
And yet easy to twist, especially on journeys.
Patience and tact one must richly possess
And fine little fingers to use us.
It is, perhaps, something like patience and tact that gives Edouard Martinet’s sculptures their fundamental value in terms of form:he certainly knows how to take ostensibly conflicting bits and pieces and sculpt them into something that is figuratively refined,yet also full of surprising inflections of fact. This, ultimately, is where true resonance of his art lies. His sculptures force a re-imagining of the obvious in which a beautifully finished object glows not with perfection, but with character.