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Interview: French artist Fabrice Hyber on his exhibition at the Baltic

IF recent grim weather has left you feeling in need of a general boost to your wellbeing then you could do worse than check in for an hour or so at Baltic

French artist Fabrice Hyber at the launch of his exhibition at the Baltic
French artist Fabrice Hyber at the launch of his exhibition at the Baltic

IF recent grim weather has left you feeling in need of a general boost to your wellbeing – an indulgent spa treatment perhaps – then you could do worse (and save yourself some pennies) than check in for an hour or so at Baltic, where you’ll find newly-opened exhibition Raw Materials is a breath of fresh air. Quite literally.

At the Gateshead gallery French artist Fabrice Hyber has created a mental spa in the form of a walkabout experience for us to explore.

Once past what looks like a Hollywood star’s dressing room mirror, emblazoned with the feelgood words “je t’aime”, is a pine-clad space of cupboards and corridors.

With all that wood it resembles a Norwegian sauna and, as the enthusiastic Fabrice escorts me in, with the words “you move forward, you enter my mind”, it turns out that visitors are indeed in for a sensory experience of sorts.

Born in Lucon, France, in 1961, Fabrice is renowned for his range of work in painting, sculpture and installation made possible by a variety of supporting businesses as, over the years, he’s built up such a network of links with major companies.

This exhibition brings together pieces created throughout his career, some of them originals and some, like a huge 1m-thick square of expensive Yves Saint Laurent lipstick over a wooden base, are re-creations of well-known, and much-talked-about, pieces.

The iconic company gave him its glossy red top-seller to work with – “Pur Couture Number One” he says. You can’t help thinking just a chip off a block could keep the make-up bag full for years.

There’s more glamour in the scattering of Swarovski crystals (the jewellery company is another partner in his work) on the floor: the rainfall from a big white cloud hanging overhead.

It’s deliberately fake-looking, but there’s the real deal too.

Over the next few minutes, I open doors to various wooden closets which, in turn, shower water, rumble with thunder, flash with lightning and blast out wind.

One contains a rainbow, while outside a typical kind of camp site shower are two sinks: turn the tap on one and water flows from the other, and vice versa. An elevated water tank is concealed by wood.

Then there’s a space lined with multiple mirrors where you can view yourself from every conceivable angle – not so appealing when you’ve just opened the nearby door and been subjected to such a powerful wind that it sets your hair on end.

In this world of artifice and controlled natural elements is an area of artificial lawn where hanging sheets of material and net conjure up the colours of nature and the outdoors as you walk through. It’s like ploughing through lines of washing and a momentary panic sets in when I’m engulfed but then I’m out the other side, facing a chill-out room (lined with a wall of working fridges).

There are two more “showers”, one filled with fresh flowers whose fragrance fills the air. Except they’ll start to give off an acid as they decay during the run of the exhibition, says Fabrice. Similarly, two wooden vats, one filled with apples, one with grapes, will begin to ferment into cider and wine.

On the floor are four “baths” separately filled with salt, sponges, chillies and, my favourite, thousands of one euro coins so new and shiny I try to resist the urge to plunge my hands in. But as this exhibition invites us to indulge the senses, can we touch them?

If staff are on hand to keep an eye on things, suggests Fabrice. But while he’s always keen for us to interact with his work, and tempting though it might be, it would be a shame, for instance, to leave hand prints on that beautiful block of lipstick, which it seems has happened before.

Raw Materials has been shown previously, at the Palais de Tokyo gallery in Paris, but Fabrice has re-configured it for Baltic, his first solo show in a UK gallery.

He’s also done new drawings, accompanied by notes and references to his business partners.

Busy adding finishing touches – or rather drawing as much as he can before he heads home to France – he’s taken wherever his imagination wants to go.

There are flowers and theatre masks. One drawing is of a city skyline, circled like a crown. Was this inspired by Newcastle?

“No,” he answers. “There’s nothing that doesn’t already exist in my mind.”

And the likeable Fabrice’s imagination comes together with some solid science in the weird and wonderful MIT Man.

This figure built from vegetables – which no doubt will also smell over time – is the result of asking a professor working in stem cell research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a business partner, to research which foods benefit particular parts of the body.

Fabrice doesn’t know all the names of the vegetables in English but I spot all sorts, including asparagus and what looks like courgettes down the legs. There’s a cauliflower head (good for the hair apparently) and oyster shells over the chest. The exhibition is a celebration of Fabrice’s work, and imaginings, over the years. There’s also one of his famous square footballs; a curious self-portrait in a water tank and a painting made from charcoal and oil, which apparently also smelled badly when first made.

As for those raw materials, he says it’s not just about publicity for the businesses providing them. He strongly feels partnerships between companies and the arts do good for both.

Fabrice’s work is all about the connection between mind and body and whatever your brain might be telling you, there’s much that brings a smile.

My mental picture of the end of the exhibition’s run, imagining the fetid air and visitors bingeing on wine and cider and stuffing euros in their pockets, makes me smile even more.

Raw Materials runs at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art until June 30.

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