Sebastien Leon transforms spaces with sculpture and sound. Creating installations that can take up entire rooms, Leon frequently uses sound not only to enhance his art, but to help him realize each piece’s goals. As much a musician as a visual artist, his work shows that visual and audio perception are essentially inseparable, just as they are in the natural world. A frequent collaborator with other artists and musicians from around the world, he holds a unique perspective about how contemporary art exists across cultures. He recently spoke to us over email from his studio in Tribeca, NYC, to discuss some of his recent pieces, his interest in the increasing cross-disciplinary projects, and how he embraces the unexpected when creating something new.
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LASTBLOG: Before you began working as a musician and artist, you worked as a marketing executive at Armani and Chanel. Would you say that this experience has influenced your work?
Sebastien Leon: I graduated from an MBA program in Milan at a young age and immediately started working for Armani in Madrid and Chanel in New York. That didnʼt last very long though; as soon as I moved to New York, I started hanging out with artist friends and going to see exhibitions in Chelsea, to concerts, plays… All of this definitely became more meaningful to me.
Two friends and I converted our downtown loft into a gallery space, in which we set up a variety of installations with artists from our neighborhood. My marketing background helped me to approach brands and ask them to finance our shows, which at that time seemed the best way to get our projects going. I was then hired by a few large companies to become their curator, with the idea of always producing new works. This allowed me to collaborate with many artists, across all sorts of media, and effectively became my own sort of art school. Over the years, I started to develop my own work, sometimes with brands, other times with museums or galleries.
“I like integrating music into my installations, because it enables the mind to travel.” – Sebastien Leon
LASTBLOG: When did you begin composing music? What interests you about the intersection between sound and space?
SL: I used to play in a band as a teenager, but I gave up making music when I started traveling. One day, Bonoʼs fashion label Edun asked me to direct one of their shows, and I thought it should absolutely incorporate music. I was then encouraged to be actively involved in the production of the music by musician Kyle Fisher (Rainer Maria), which gave me the confidence to write music again.
Music comes to me in different forms: records, installations, concerts, sound sculptures etc. I like integrating music into my installations, because it enables the mind to travel. It is an invitation to the voyage. There is something about music that is quite pure; when you listen to a piece and close your eyes, no other element clutters your thoughts. Specific music reminds me of specific places, colors, fragrances, emotions etc. It all becomes meditative after a while, when you really focus on it. So when Iʼm able to associate music with installations, the experience feels complete.
LASTBLOG: Can you talk a little bit about your process? How do you bring something from idea to execution? Do you have a specific space in which you find you create best?
SL: Since I am occasionally involved in the production of large commercial projects, I easily surround myself with talented professionals – architects, engineers, producers, designers, musicians, directors, craftsmen etc. – people who will improve the execution of my ideas. At the end of the day, my work is more important than me. What I mean is that I think that my role is to express something about the world I live in, to translate the “air du temps”. I act merely as a filter, through my aesthetic and thinking.
LASTBLOG: Where do you go for inspiration? Is there something youʼre consistently inspired by, or does it vary from project to project?
SL: I get inspired by nature – observing it of course, but more importantly by feeling my connection with the earth. I need to be grounded to work, so I often start by meditating, by slowing down. I also draw inspiration through exchanging ideas with my friends. Most of the time I feel as if I donʼt control my work as much as I channel it, so I welcome accidents, limitations and explorations. Each new project is an opportunity to challenge these constraints.
LASTBLOG: When creating an installation, do you normally begin with the audio or visual aspects? In your mind, how intertwined are those elements?
SL: When my commissions start as a musical assignment, I inevitably tend to bring in a physical element, and when they start as an installation assignment, music tends to find its way in as well. Eventually, most of my projects combine audio and visual elements in a similar fashion, I feel like they gain from each other. My installations feel stronger with a musical element, my music feels more enveloping within a spatial context.
“Most of the time I feel as if I donʼt control my work as much as I channel it, so I welcome accidents, limitations and explorations.” – Sebastien Leon
LASTBLOG: Have there been ideas that simply were not feasible? At what point did you realize this?
SL: Each country has its own specificities: working in China means cheaper labor and fewer construction limitations, working in France brings great craftsmanship, working in America entails very responsive and talented creative collaborators. There are projects I do in China that I couldn’t replicate in America and vice-versa. But rather than thinking of terms of what is physically impossible to achieve, I always approach my projects in terms of translating concepts and ideas. With great producers, we always find a way.
LASTBLOG: Can you talk about your recent piece, “Conference of the Birds”? What was your process for this piece? Where did the idea come from?
SL: Last year I was approached by Audi to create an installation in the middle of Guanghzou. I thought that the combination of both Audi and Guangzhou represented a unique opportunity for me to speak about how technology and industrialization could be used for the common good, about keeping a balance between nature and industrialization. I therefore chose to construct the show around the story entitled “The Conference of the Birds,” written by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar in 1177, which tells the tale of birds searching for a king. In the end, they realize that this mythical king does not exist, and that they themselves hold the power to shape their own lives. I created a multi-channel sound installation playing altered birdsongs and engine sounds. The birds sang in speakers floating above the heads of visitors, and the engines played on the ground. Since we created a spherical gallery space, the sounds traveled in very odd ways, which made the whole experience very disorienting. This otherworldly feeling was reinforced by a seamless white room, vivid pink lighting, and thousands of spherical reflective balloons covering the floor and ceiling.
LASTBLOG: One of your pieces which I found to be particularly interesting was the Leontophone. Can you talk about that a little bit? Where did the idea come from? How did you decide on how you would execute the piece?
SL: I’ve always been interested in creating my own sound sculptures, making music fill a room in unexpected physical ways. The Leontophone is a mythological snake that killed lions by hissing. I liked the idea of creating a snake-like instrument that would hypnotize visitors by its music and its deforming mirror reflections. I recorded vibraphones and assigned particular short melodies to each scale, placing induction speakers behind each one. The sculpture was then programmed to play by triggering all the scales one after the other.
LASTBLOG: What is interesting you in the art world right now? What about in music? Are you trying to work these things into your own work, and if so how?
SL: I think that art is permeating through more and more aspects of our lives, and in all sorts of ways, and its production tends to be more creative and spectacular than ever before.
LASTBLOG: Is there anything you are currently working on? Can you talk a little about it?
SL: I am currently working on a show commissioned by Champagne Krug, taking place at the Plaza Athénée in Paris while it is closed for renovation. I am taking over the whole penthouse floor to show new paintings and drawings, as well as a new musical sculpture that I will unveil for the occasion. I have also designed furniture with gold engraving of my drawings and will be playing new music composed in collaboration with Loup Barrow, who will perform his Cristal Baschet, a fantastic experimental musical instrument made in the 1950s. It is quite amazing in that I am able to show a lot of the media i am involved in under one roof, and what a roof! The French chef Alain Ducasse will be hosting a series of dinners in the exhibition room every night for two weeks.
LASTBLOG: How would you say your work has changed since you began?
SL: My work now incorporates all media, while before it was more about one specific way of expressing my ideas. It has also probably become more refined, and as I take on less projects, the results are better, more complete.
“I donʼt have set plans, I like being surprised and letting life take me to new territories.” – Sebastien Leon
LASTBLOG: Can you talk about your experience with collaboration, be they with other artists or musicians? What do you see is the value of these collaborations?
SL: I see an immense value in collaborations, in working with teams. I have been working with artists for the past fifteen years, sometimes as a curator, sometimes as an artist, occasionally as a producer, and it has been an extremely rich experience. This has been my training as an artist, it has changed the way I look at the world. I think it is important for all artists to remember that the work is more important than them, that ego is an obstacle to happiness. When I think like this and am able to surround myself with talented individuals, I am able to develop successful and meaningful projects.
LASTBLOG: Where would you like to take your work going forward? How do you see it evolving?
SL: I have recently been spending a lot of time painting, and yet approaching it somewhat as a sculptor. I use industrial techniques because this is where i come from – airbrush, heat brands, stamping, taping etc. I like the idea of being able to entering a painting, so I paint in large formats.
I am also excited at the idea of composing music for my instruments, and playing shows with them. I think it would be interesting to use my instruments for films; they all are very hypnotic and textural.
Nonetheless, I donʼt have set plans, I like being surprised and letting life take me to new territories.