Francois Davin – The Act of Art


I first met Francois Davin in Germany in 1998 at an art in nature conference which culminated in the creation of Artists in Nature International Network (AiNIN). From that time, apart from being early and active members of AiNIN, we formed a strong personal and artistic friendship.  

I worked with Francois on the 2000 Le Vent des Forets, he took part in the first Floating Land in 2001 in Noosa, Queensland (an event modelled on Le Vent des Forets) and he eventually came back to Australia to make projects and live on a farm nearby.  We have had many discussions about art in nature over the years. However, we both went our separate ways after the early 2000 years, but now with him back in France, me back on a 250-acre property in Kin Kin, Queensland and AiNIN going through some hard times, Francois and l have rekindled our long-distance friendship with a commitment, along with some other great artists, to get AiNIN back on its feet. 

Francois’s journey as an artist is inspirational. I recently interviewed him and asked why his focus has moved from art in nature to site-specific art and what does he mean by the concept ‘the act of art’. Whilst he is well known in France for his work with the community to develop ‘the golden tree', L’Arbre d’Or de Brocéliande, located in the Foret de Broceliande in Brittany and his consequent development of a new kind of art event within a community - Le Vent des Foretsless is known of how he built his unique perspective.  


L’Arbre d’Or de Brocéliande

   Created as a visual prayer for the rebirth of the mythical forest of Broceliande after the blaze of 1990. Brittany, France. 5 oaks left burnt and a chestnut tree, cleaned and goldleafed. Red schists. L: 10m  l: 10m h: 8m 

For this project, which took 9 months, everything was offered by those who could, including materials, transports, logistics, lodging, food... and my time and energy. It allowed me to see how strong and valuable was “sharing the Act of Art” for everyone involved. From then on, I recognised the act of art, ceremony on and for a territory, as central to my artist life.

We all start somewhere in building respect for each other and the world we live in. Francois was lucky as a child to have a mother who introduced him and his brothers and sisters to a strong understanding of nature. My mother would say when we were walking in the mountains - she would say oh here near that little spring there could be a salamander under this stone she would lift the stone and generally there was a salamander under the stone”, he chuckles. His father built in him a respect for the built environment and to take time to look and understand the nature of human settlement. On top of that, being an eleven-year-old boy scout reinforced the concept of nature as an act of God. His relationship to nature is as he calls it “a relationship of love - love as a sort of open relationship, a sort of respect.  This is some place that I will try not to damage. I won't walk on plants if l don’t need to.  I will not pick a flower - never do that. I would even have the same respect for stones and rocks, and from love to respect I easily moved to a sort of veneration, you know a sort of spiritual relationship, something that looks like a religious contemplation of God.” 


Before one starts to pigeon-hole Davin as a highly religious artist, his spirituality does not reside in a dogma. His relationship to nature is cultural, emotional, and spiritual, acted out through love, respect, and veneration. It is these concepts of behaviour that inform his practice and define his work less in terms of a search for an undefiled nature or creation of an art object that represents nature. 

His work resides in the doing, in the act of art. As he says nature, particularly in Europe, “has been searched and turned over and moved again and changed so many times to make a landscape that is really very unnatural.” At the same time the artworld has become obsessed with the art object and the way it is transacted. We have become separated from nature and the artist.  And here is the rub, Davin points out that “we have had for more than 30 years, ministers of culture in France saying, "oh, my objective, my target, is to bring more people to art, you know bring them to the museum and so on..." and that was very important in my change of focus. You cannot easily bring people to objects but you can more easily share your act of art. This is totally central to everything I did after my work on the golden tree. I had two galleries in Paris and one gallery in New York selling my objects - you know there were paintings, there were sculptures and there were artist books. I said I don't do objects anymore I will do things for places.” This does not mean that he would make a sculpture for a place.  

When he says he will ‘do things’ what are these things exactly? Again, it is very much art as a verb.  Davin talks a lot about ceremony and pilgrimage, about the art being in the act of relationship and in place… “when I talk about art, I put myself into a state of art, the state of art during which I develop a sort of ceremony and that ceremony becomes material but the material that remains after the ceremony is, a sequel of the act, is a consequence of the act.”

Set the Table for 170 Guests
2018 Public Park. Center of the village of Tytsjerk, Friesland, The Netherlands.
170 plates ,roofing thatch, willow branches. Diameter: 8 m

In November 1944, the Allies were chasing the German troops in the south of the Netherlands. Their bombs destroyed many lodgings sending on the roads thousands of homeless civilians. 170 of them, catholics and dutch speaking, went all the way north to Friesland, Protestant and Friesian speaking. The village was Tytsjerk. After a few days in the Temple, all 170 refugees were hosted in farmers’ houses until April 1945. I wanted to celebrate this extraordinary fact. I thought of a large table ready to receive 170 plates. I built it with willow and thatch and went door to door to invite today’s inhabitants of Tytsjerk to participate by offering one plate each. Most of them did not know the story of the 170...  On the official opening, the participants and many others shared a cake I cooked with a recipe from the town where the 170 had come from.

This act is not just about the artist or the art but how he shares with the community…” I will be the person who will invite the community to enter a ceremonial relation with their own place which I sometimes call remarrying. I'm remarrying the community with their place and I'm acting as a sort of priest... ok, all these words, ceremony, priests all that is very religious but in my point of view it's not religious at all, it is just human.”


Much of the ceremony does in fact revolve around the human things we do, such as working together or sharing food, housing, or ideas together. But how does the artist enter a community in a way that the community will accept them and work with them?

Of course, Davin will not go into a project that he is not profoundly attracted to. However, once he enters a project, he opens himself up to the community, letting the community know that it can come and work with him. He says that he offers and indeed provokes a meeting before the realization of the project by putting out flyers in the community … “everybody goes to the bakery, so I would put little flyers in the bakeries and say on such a date the artist will take you through his project he's been invited to make in the town. It is financed and has been approved by the municipality, but he wants to share this idea with you.” In the end the project must be accepted by the community… “twice I was financed and had all the approvals and I did not do the project I had been selected to do because there was a negative reaction of the population, a very negative reaction with the population in one case. 15 days later l offered them an alternative project and they jumped on it and the participated in an incredible way.”


2019. Vestiges of XIIth century church of Saint Gayrand, Lot et Garonne, France
About 50 drinking glasses, water, an ancient mill stone, plywood, gold leaf. Diameter: 1,20m H: 1m.

The inhabitants of a small French village are trying to restore the ruins of this old church destroyed by the English in the 14th century, burnt by the Protestants in the 16th century, where the priest was massacred during the Revolution... A lot to be healed! I “rebuilt” the baptistery. It is where the priest pours water on the head of the child in the ceremony of baptism. It is a place that all the members of a community share by their physical experience. I asked each inhabitant to dedicate a drinking glass to a loved one. I gathered them on a round tray, supported by a mill stone, filled them with water and wrote the names of the loved ones, next to it. It was received as a “communion by the water”.

But sharing a project with a community goes much further. In Le Vent des Forets sharing and decision making resided with the community. “Feeding and entertaining the visiting artist was shared by community volunteers.  The community would come and have dinner with the artists every day, not all the community, others would provide physical, and material help to build the art pieces. We would not hire and pay for a crane to lift that big stone and put it in place. No, the tractors would come out of the community even during the harvest. Even the organisation set up to run the event would be based on commissions managed and staffed by community members.  This was done so that the power is left to the people. Someone would coordinate all this, and I did that for the Le Vent des Forets, but the coordinator would not have power. He would not have power in the selection of the artists' projects; he would not have power to decide how, and on which date an orchestra would come for a feast. All decisions, processes and accountability would belong to community members. The basic financing of the project would be left to the community. This means that if the community liked the project they would vote for a budget for next year. If they didn’t like it, they would not vote, and the project would stop. All these principles would ensure that the community wants the art project.”


So how did it Davin come to create an event like Le Vent des Forets that became a model for many other outdoor art events in France? To understand this, we need to go back to the earlier concept of ‘the natural’ not being wild untouched nature but land that has a deep history that is traversed and worked by people. The notion of the ancient is important for Davin – it consists of history, memory and legend and is the bedrock of his desire to place people at the centre of his art. 

Walking and pilgrimage played a large part in the development of this world view. “In 1983 for example I was walking with my rucksack. I had 15 free days for walking and I walked along the coast of  southern France as close as I could to the sea, which means sometimes it was impossible because there was a Cliff, but sometimes I would go down a Cliff and into a little Cove and in one of these Coves I found hundreds of pieces of wood of various lengths and birds bones and all sorts of things that had been thrown there by the sea and I suddenly thought, oh my goodness, this is what remains of one of the wings of Icarus  and I spent more than 10 days rebuilding the wing of Icarus and in the following year I decided that l will again try to explore legend and I went onto a mountain in Greece and found a very big stone, a beautiful big stone and I marked this stone as the stone to which  Prometheus had been bound, you know when his heart was being eaten by the eagle and so on and I marked this stone. These were my two first site-specific place works and I was doing that alone.” Whilst these projects dealt with specific legends and locating them in place, Davin’s interest in legend and its deep connection to a community was developed in a more powerful way in Brittany.


In 1990 a big forest in Brittany, Foret de Broceliande, where people believed that the Arthurian cycle took place, caught on fire. One third of the forest was burnt out.  Davin was saddened by this, as was the community and so he decided that he wanted to do something to heal that place and so he launched the idea of creating a sort of visual prayer for the rebirth of the forest. For his project he would not seek funding and instead give all his own time for as long as his own finances held out. He reached out to the community.  “I will go door to door and knock and ask if you can help by doing this or you can help by hosting me or help by loaning me this tool or help by covering one of the trees with gold leaf. I went to see the people who made the gold leaf and I told them, well, you know this memory in the forest has burned… you need to do something, you need to offer the gold leaf and you need to do the job of gold leafing this tree.  There was a miracle… a statue in town was to be gold leafed for a festival and they said oh why not do a tree in the forest instead. They offered this idea to the festival and the festival organizers said yes, great, you go and do that in public during the festival and we will pay for the gold leaf, and it happened. The golden tree, ’Arbre d’Or or Or de Brocéliande was born. On the opening day there were many people present, about 5000 people unexpectedly, and there were 250 people who had participated holding arms saying we live together, and this completely changed my outlook on how we and l can share the act of art.”


Davin continued to do extensive walks and go on pilgrimages. Whilst some of the pilgrimages were on established pilgrim trails his pilgrimages were focused on the relation between pilgrimage and inclusivity and through this, he built the concept of art as sharing. He embarked on a 1000-year-old Buddhist pilgrimage trail on an island in Japan. “Whilst not a Buddhist I would walk and offer to that walk and offer to that little track that was used by the steps of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. I would make something and leave it there and continue to walk and I had a sign written in Japanese explaining that I was not a Buddhist, and I was offering my art along the way, and I would show that to everyone before they would host me in the house, give me food, make me a present or to the monks to host me in the monasteries. I stayed in 45 monasteries.  They understood extremely well what l was offering.” 

The idea of a pilgrimage where people along the way provide for you deeply informed Davin’s concept of the ‘act of art’. When people would walk to Compostela they would be hosted by the people along the road. They would give the pilgrim a pile of straw to sleep on and a bowl of soup and the pilgrim would go on their way. To Davin “the life of an artist is a sort of pilgrimage – it is walking through life with the help of the villagers, because one needs to be still alive tomorrow morning after breakfast. This is important and so the pilgrimage and the pilgrim needs to be sincere, he or she needs to be full of desire, all the elements I consider as essential for an artist before and beyond his or her visions and creativity”.


An Ark for the Water
(El Arca del Agua)
2018. Parco Natural de Penyagolosa, Valencia, Spain
About 100  water containers, water, wood, bamboo. L: 11m

Since the Middle Ages, members of 5 villages of the area walk every year as pilgrims all the way to an hermitage, up a mountain, singing in Latin their prayer to God to send them rain. In the Bible, Noah built an ark to escape an excess of water. My proposal was to build an ark to save water. I walked door to door of these 5 villages to ask the inhabitants to contribute by offering a container that would be placed on this Ark. I built this ark and placed it besides the pilgrims way, heading in the same direction, a few hundred metres of the hermitage. On the opening, the participants filled the containers with water and sang their ritual prayer.

The development of Le Vent des Forets set the groundwork for community sharing in the act of art, for the community to take greater control of a project. Importantly the art would have to be produced on site and in public view and in that the artist needed to show that he or she working in public view is so different from bringing an object from the studio onto a truck and dropping it in a place. “I think if we are serious, we must stop considering good art as that which is chosen by the people in the capitals to be imposed on the stupid people of the country - you know the one who knows imposes the art they choose on a population. No if we are serious and we want to share we must be invited by the local people.”

 Davin considers village people to be (profoundly) simple, they build their lives around day-to-day achievement – “in the case of the farmers for instance there is a bet that throwing seeds in frozen ground will result six months later in a harvest”. They are practical and down to earth. For him it is easier to work with these kinds of people who have not been vaccinated against contemporary art. These people need to see an artist working in their community and they understand and accept the working methods that the artist employs. Davin tells the story of a Japanese artist hosted in a Village who could not speak any French and could not talk together with his host. However, every morning he would take his chainsaw on his back and enter the forest under the rain and the whole Village was looking at that and asking what's behind this totally unnecessary act. Whilst it appeared unnecessary in the day-to-day life of living in the Village, it somehow resounded with the psyche of the village.  The Village, even those not involved in the project, suddenly entered this mystery of what the artist set out to achieve. 


For Davin this kind of ‘achievement’ is about ceremony and not really about ‘achievement’ as we know it. The secret or mystery of the artist’s work, the ceremony, is all part of the ‘act of art’. Davin believes that there is an immense need for ceremonies in today’s world – “for having a ceremony, having something that would gather people together, not for something material, not for achieving, but to create something understandable that maybe is not rational”. So, the literal concept of ‘nature’ is no longer important.  Nature that encompasses the layers of humanity and its ceremonies upon it, is the basis of Davin’s work. As he says “the streets, the suburbs of Paris and the centre of Paris are now also places where I'm happy to do site specific art. I tend to forget about this romantic concept of nature”.


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