Master of kinetic art, his light sculptures possess hypnotic powers. Brilliant and original, this Englishman is also a scientist passionate about cosmology.
"Welcome to the house of chaos." Message with a double sense. Firstly, caught offhand by my early arrival, my hosts have neither had the time to change, nor to clear up the toys that litter the floorboards. Secondly, it refers to the movement that offered Paul Friedlander the opportunity present his sculptures to the general public in 1990. He was, at that time, at the head of a group of artists and scientists involved in exploring the "theory of chaos", advancing the hypothesis that it is always possible to meet the unexpected in the middle of ordered phenomena: the famous "butterfly effect", dear to so many meteorologists and the "determinist systems" of mathematicians.
That rapidly became complicated, but better to accept that from the moment of entering: the whole Friedlander universe emanates from science before becoming art. As for the hypnotic powers of his sculptures, there's nothing spiritual or mystic about them. The man may well dress like a hippy, have learnt the guitar "to play Bob Dylan" and "live his most intense moments in natural surrounding", his mind is fed by rational things, complicated formulas and profound [p. 17] reflection on the existence or not of the beginning of time. "I've always had a very precise idea of the 60s and 70s. I was attracted by the people because they seemed more sensitive and more humane than the rest of the population, but my convictions stopped me from following their ways. I was not the kind to go to India to find myself or to work on an organic farm. I think I was seen at the time as a kind of eccentric physicist."
After having abandoned the vast artist's studio of his beginnings on the banks of the Thames, he lives today in a rather chic residential area of London. His work space, curiously similar to that of a carpenter, is contained in corner of the living room. Certainly, an enormous opening in the ceiling, right through to that of the second floor, allows him to construct sculpture 6 metres high. But otherwise the house is largely and joyfully occupied by everyday life, and notably by his youngest daughter Natam, one and a half years old, that Paul is bringing up with his companion Voravanna, a designer, expert in light installations. "Children need time, tolerance, trust and certain occasions for playing and being creative. We are against restrictions." His two older children, Naomi and Jack, from an earlier union, benefited from the same education. Paul Friedlander also, incidentally, but he has mixed feelings about his own childhood.
As a child, he dreamed of space travel
Precocious child, he very early felt "different from the others and from the world in general". "At home it didn't matter; my parents always understood me and defended my right to be different. At school, on the other hand, it was very hard. My class mates found me strange; I had few interests in common with them. It was also there that I first came onto conflict with the authorities: I refused to participate in the morning prayer, it had no sense for me." Escape came in the form of cosmology, dreams of stars and constructions of space crafts in the family garden in Cambridge. "My dreams of space travel and physics are deeply rooted in me and have inspired my whole way of living".
Oldest of three children, he was the only one to accompany his parents to the States at the age of two. His father Gerard, brilliant mathematician, was invited there as researcher by the University of New York. By the return journey, taken aboard the Queen Mary, Paul Friedlander was fully converted to "large and mechanical things" such as he'd discovered on the other side of the Atlantic. Nothing astonishing then that this revelation would lead to his making sculptures of up to 13 metres high.
In ecstasy before the works of Nicolas Schöffer
Having excelling in maths and physics in secondary school, Friedlander continued this discipline at university level. His passion for cosmology found itself troubled by the Big bang theory. "I preferred, and still prefer, the model of constant creation. I'm an optimist and can't resign myself the idea that time has a beginning. Time is eternal; there can't be a beginning and an end". The Big Bang idea disturbed him to such an extent that he hesitated before the idea of pursuing a scientific career. An exhibition in London just at that moment struck him with great force, clarifying everything, in all senses.....
"That day, I had gone to see an exhibition in the Hayward Gallery, entitled "Kinetics". I was 20 and it changed my life. The works of Nicolas Shöffer left me ecstatic. I went home knowing what I wanted to do with my life and I put myself to it straight away. After the lectures, I worked on kinetics." His fascination for the father of cybernetic art has remained unchanged. To this day, he maintains a precious contact with the French artist's widow, Eléonore.
University over, he immediately started studying art - a bitterly disappointing experience. He found the professors "not very intelligent", regretted the emergence of conceptualism as the only "real" art and failed to understand that the world should be governed by "fashions rather than by the beauty of things". The diploma obtained, he left for London, installing himself in a disused hangar and surrounding himself with other artists. There he invented objects for commercial uses, and more often than had his ideas stolen. From there he moved into the world of theatrical productions and [p.20] concerts where he made his living doing the lighting (sorry can't remember if there's a more professional way of saying it!). He invented new procedures, experimented with different techniques, but suffered from the restrictions imposed on him. Then, at 36, he abandoned everything and finally consecrated himself entirely to kinetic art.
"Parallel worlds exist"
The "Chaos" experience constituted the real starting point of his artistic career. Exhibitions and commissions, distinctions and conferences duly followed. He was invited to the MIT in order to present his work, accomplishing thus a childhood dream. Since 2002, his name has been listed in Who's Who and his computer programs, downloadable from this web site, are extremely successful. "I learnt programming late, by myself, and it's something I love. I use it to create, but also for the simple pleasure of making software". To see him rushing about the house in search of the black-out curtains essential for bringing his sculptures to life and to then see the difficulty he has turning off his creations, one would imagine that he lives 100% for his art. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No sooner has one turned around, than he's skipping through the last number of a scientific review to see that his article has been published. He thinks that in a year's time, he and a few other scientists will be able to talk with the future. "Realistically, I may be able to receive a phone call from myself in the future. Certain recent facts support the possibility very seriously. It implies the existence of parallel worlds, but of that, I've already been persuaded for a long time." To be considered crazy doesn't bother him. "I'm profoundly rational, but I also know that very many things remain inexplicable. We can't have an answer to everything, even in those domains where logic reigns. Luckily. Because, not knowing, it's what helps us to progress..."