Scouting at the sources of river Seine

Art Residency: Sequana by Yan Tomaszewski : Imagining new alliances between the human and the river. Yan Tomaszewski’s residency at Cneai / École d’art de Douai / Ateliers Médicis

Yan Tomaszewski is a French/Polish artist, trained at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (FR), at Royal College of Art in London (GB), and at Le Fresnoy Studio national des arts contemporains in Tourcoing (FR). His projects, employing a variety of visual and narrative techniques, explore a wide array of cultural and historical themes through a research-based method, focusing on the engagement with local people, their history and environment. 

In this interview, Yan tells us about his recent stay at 3 diffrent art residencies at Cneai in Paris, École d’art de Douai in Douai city (FR), and Ateliers Médicis situated in Clichy-Montfermeil (Seine-Saint-Denis) (FR) where he was working on his most recent project titled Sequana.

Scouting at the sources of river Seine
Scouting at the sources of river Seine

Tomaszewski pursues a broad creative strategy of combining sculpture, film, and locally-based research to explore the complexities borne by representations of the river Seine. Delving into local, mythological, and scientific discourses, the project strives to examine and re-imagine the representation of the Seine as a living entity with an active and reciprocal relationship to the people living within its proximity. Some of Tomaszewski’s other projects include Gangnam Beauty, The Good Breast and the Bad Breast, and The Boogeyman

How did you find out about the residency programme? How did you apply?

Everything started during the early pandemic. A Parisian contemporary art centre called Cneai reached out to me at that time to develop a new project with their nomadic residency. I proposed something I had had in mind for a long time: a sculptural and film project focusing on the river Seine – Sequana. Simultaneously, I was invited to participate in a six months glass and ceramic residency at École d’Art de Douai in the North of France, where I started to work on new sculptures for Sequana. Later on, wanting to get closer to the sources of the Seine, I used the same project to apply to Ateliers Médicis, another nomadic residency program. In 2022, I started their residency in the region of Troyes in the East of France, where I was hosted by Centre d’art contemporain / Passages.

Glazing at Ecole d’Art de Douai
Glazing at Ecole d’Art de Douai

What does your regular art residency day look like?

Since I was alternating several residencies, it really depended on the location and the kind of process I was focused on. The studio practice was definitely  most intense at École d’Art de Douai, a centre for training and production, specialised in ceramics. I was immersed in work for several weeks on a daily basis,  at first  modelling large-scale pieces and then  experimenting with custom-made high fire glazes.

While working in the framework of Cneai or Ateliers Médicis, I was more focused on the research and film aspects of Sequana, which meant a lot of screenwriting and scouting along the river, but also attending various meetings with scientists, activists, mythologists, lawyers, etc. These residencies include a time for sharing the research process with local kids and teenagers, so some of my days were entirely devoted to collective workshops.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on right now?

The project emerges from a paradox: the identity of Paris is deeply rooted in its river, yet the Seine has been so domesticated it is no longer noticed for what it is –  a living entity. Sequana is a film and sculpture project exploring our relationship to the river  in order to imagine new alliances between human and non-human entities. I am interested in the complexity of the river as an archetype – both destructive and protective – and in the representations this complexity has generated. 

On the one hand, the river was imagined as a snake, a reptilian monster or a dragon, whose overflowing energy had to be domesticated. Myths of local Saints who were dragon-slayers can therefore be encountered all along the Seine. They can be understood as a metaphor of the human attempt to master the monstrous river using dykes, dams and canals. 

One the other hand, at the sources of the river Celts used to worship the healing goddess of the Seine, Sequana. They left her numerous offerings representing sick organs and body parts. These wooden anatomical ex-voto have literally become one with the river and were miraculously preserved in its swamps.

The project tries to overcome oppositions by capturing the river’s monstrosity, be it its representation as a dragon or its relation to sick bodies, as a fertile ground for imagining a multispecies, non-hierarchical, fluvial uprising. It draws on mythology, environmental law, and Celtic cults in order to imagine new ways of relating to the river as a fellow.

Scouting at the sources of river Seine
Scouting at the sources of river Seine

Does the change of context help you in the creation process?

My approach is research and context based, so it is always essential for me to concretely explore the territories related to my projects. My works are often anchored in specific places, discovered through residencies. For example, Palm Springs in California for The Good Breast and the Bad Breast or Daejeon, Gangnam, and Hahoe in South Korea for Gangnam Beauty. For Sequana, the sources of the Seine in Burgundy are definitely such a seminal place.

Do you place an emphasis on your work or rather on meeting people and exploring the city?

For me, these are intertwined. With the exception of École d’Art de Douai, where I had a strictly studio-based practice, I was diving into the specificities of local stories, landscapes and crafts, and it all happened through meetings with the right people.

Scouting in the collection of Sequana’s anatomical ex-voto, Archeological Museum in Dijon
Scouting in the collection of Sequana’s anatomical ex-voto, Archeological Museum in Dijon

What challenges and opportunities did the residency involve?

The residencies at Cneai and Ateliers Médicis both have a nomadic formula, which means that they haveno specific residency space but help you arrange what you need for your work, whether it is a studio or a residency in a specific location or institution relevant for your project. I guess this can be unsettling for some artists, but in my case itallowed more flexibility and serendipity.

Name three objects which are the most important to you during the residency.

In Paris with Cneai, my bike was definitely my best asset to explore the shores of river Seine. At École d’Art de Douai, I had a beautiful old brass weighing scale I used for preparing my glazes, which made me feel like an alchemist. And in Troyes with Ateliers Médicis, I used a pair of binoculars to look at the marvels of lofty stained-glass windows inside churches – a locally renowned specificity which was a great inspiration for the storytelling of my project.

Film and sculpture workshop in Pantin
Film and sculpture workshop in Pantin

What is the role of institution in your residency? What does it provide you with?

The Cneai and Ateliers Médicis offered me artistic counselling, financial support, and networking opportunities. The Cneai is still involved in the process, contributing with the idea of  coproducting  the film. 

The École d’Art de Douai provided not only outstanding studio facilities, allowing me to work on large-scale ceramics, but also technical and artistic guidance, especially in the research of custom-made glazes.

What would you recommend to artists going abroad for an art residency?

I would advise not to apply for art residencies which are too short: one or two weeks is definitely not enough to dig into the spirit of a place. I would also recommend applying for residencies not only abroad, but also in the artist’s own country. I had attended several residencies abroad before doing my first residency in France, outside of Paris, where I live and work. I think the pandemic helped me realize the potential of a more local approach. 

Detail of a glazed ceramic from the series Sequana
Detail of a glazed ceramic from the series Sequana

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About The Author


Founder of Contemporary Lynx (2013). Editor-in-chief of the Contemporary Lynx in print and online. The art historian with a Master of Arts degree in Arts Policy & Management (the University of London, Birkbeck College) and Master of Arts in History of Art (Jagiellonian University in Cracow).

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