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Raphaël Zarka about skating sculptures

After french artist Raphaël Zarka fell in love with skateboarding in the late 80’s, he also discovered his love for art and combined both when he graduated art school. First with his skateboard encyclopedia On A Day With No Waves (2006) and later with Free Ride (2011), a book in which, among other things, the similarities between skate obstacles and sculptures were discussed. Furthermore he built a replica of the sculpture of minimal artist Tony Smith which is also called Free Ride for an exhibition in Rome, where it was open to public to be skated for three days (while the original is save at the MoMA in New York) and he curated the exhibition Riding Modern Art, which shows photos of skated sculptures and can be seen next in Luxembourg (photos shown here have been produced for this article and are not part of the exhibition).

Raphaël, in your book, skateboarding is described as phenomenological minimalism. What does that mean?

In the chapter of Free Ride, where I wrote this, I’m trying to investigate, what it means to me to see photographs of skaters on the works of art. First, there is of course some aspect of vandalism, because skateboards, most of the time, leave marks on sculptures. But having said that, I had the feeling there was something more to it. To try to answer that, I made a little shift : I decided to investigate the meaning of skaters on sculptures as if it was an art practice. Therefore I’m not really saying that skateboarders belong to the tradition of minimalism or that they are influenced by phenomenology, I am saying that if riding on public art was the work of an artist, it would be rooted in that art movement which implies certain ways to consider sculptures. To explain what it means you have to bear in mind that minimalism comes from the geometrical side of abstract art. Normal artists want to create a form, a composition, but instead of having figures, trees or flowers, you have triangles, circles and cubes. The most radical artists from minimalism, those that I refer to as “phenomenological minimalists”, don’t really care about objects. They care about space. They don’t really care about vision, they care about experience. It’s not about putting an object in a space and looking at it, they think, that objects redefine the whole space. So the artwork is the relationship between a simple form and the space around it. For them, a sculpture is not an object, it is a space that you don’t only look at but that you experience through motion, with your whole body and not only your eyes. I think that is very important and suitable to the logic of skateboarding.

Raphael Zarka about skating sculptures
Malte Spitz – Frontside Rock ’n’ Roll (Photo: Biemer)

Do you think there are certain art movements that provide skaters with better spots than others?

I would say all that refers to geometrical abstraction, because skateboarders are really interested in basic forms. As a student I noticed, that I had a natural tendency towards some works in that vein. It is about space, it is about materials, it is about simple shapes and then I realized that the first things I built as a teenager were objects of that kind, pyramids, manual pads, or jumpramps. Some of those shapes are interesting for geometrical abstraction artists. But then I have to insist that making a jumpramp doesn’t make you an artist. There is a similarity in the forms, but for me, making art is all about making a decision and a relationship towards history and that’s a question of context. The question is not „what is art?“ anymore, but „when is art?“. Everything is doable as an artist, but it’s the context that you put it in, that makes it an artwork.

You also wrote in your book that skaters don’t translate the meaning of the artwork, but rather read it. Could you tell more about this?

In Iain Borden’s book Skateboarding, Space and the City there is this expression of „performing the city“. In art, when you have an action instead of a sculpture, you call it performance and the artist is a performer. A musician and an actor are also performers, they are playing, acting, which means performing a script or a musical score and when you do that there is an interpretation. So that was one of the ideas to go beyond this vandalism of riding modern art. My idea was that we could see sculptures as scores to be performed by skaters. Skaters would be performers not because they do performance art, but rather because they are some types of musicians. And there are different ways to interpret them. Play a song by Bob Dylan, or a score by Mozart. When you have different photographs of skaters on the same sculptures and someone is going to do a fliptrick and another one is dropping it, they use the sculpture completely different. So they emphasize a different aspect of the same piece.

"My idea was that we could see sculptures as scores to be performed by skaters"

And maybe do you think that some artists may even think about what people in the open space could do with their sculptures?

I think that there are so many different strategies that it is very hard to generalize, but for geometrical abstraction, there are maybe two big tendencies. One is very static, the Mondrian type, very balanced. And some others want to render or express motion or movement, they want to materialize some kind of energy. So when there is a skater, he activates the sculpture. So the motion is not only potential, not only the representation of the motion through abstract means, but suddenly it’s effective. So I’m sure that in this regard, the skaters are underlining the decision of the artist to do something dynamic. So I of course agree with you in this regard. But in some sculptures it is contrary of what the sculpture is expressing. Like when you ride a bench, it’s completely static, it’s made for rest, and you turn it into a track, a space of motion. And that’s the same with a handrail, it’s made for security and stability, to prevent the risks of falling. For some sculptures it’s also the way it works.

Raphael Zarka about skating sculptures
Marlon Lange – Wallride (Photo: Leo Preisinger)

In the collection you made for the exhibition, did you find pictures where you thought: „Man, you made the completely wrong trick on this sculpture!”

I see your point and it’s very interesting, but basically my answer is no. I never had this feeling, but then some photographers who know that I’m looking for those types of images, are sending me photos and sometimes the skater only skates the plinth of the sculpture. They think, because there is a sculpture in the image, that might be enough to belong to this riding modern art collection. But it is not. If the plinth is not part of the work, it has no meaning for me. Of course then with my own taste, some tricks seem better than others. The exploding pavement sculpture in Paris can be skated in many ways. Some people skate it like a quarterpipe, some use it as a jumpramp. There are tricks I prefer, but I just like the possibilities of transcribing this space in many different ways. Some other sculptures do not have that many possibilities. Some sculptures are quarterpipes and you couldn’t use it for anything else as a quarterpipe in a skatepark.

Do you think the artists who build certain sculptures and the skaters that are attracted by them are likeminded in a way? For example if there is a minimalism sculpture that attracts more skaters with clean skating and not too much flip-in-flip-out shit.

They don’t come from the same context, but if you look at the roots, I’m sure there is a connection. I think the relationship you get from skateboarding towards space, materials and a certain type of discovery has a lot to do with the way an artist refers to materials, spaces and discoveries. When I was in high school and I discovered the work of Kurt Schwitters, who is a german artist who is doing collages and was close to dadaism, it was a revelation for me. Before that, for me, art was all about making a beautiful drawing or having skills and suddenly my teacher is telling me about this guy who is walking down the street, finding bits of papers, a metro ticket, and coming back to his studio to reassemble them and to do something out of his experience as walker in the city. In a way I had the feeling that that was the same thing we are doing as skateboarders, trying to find spots, which basically means finding a bit of space and give it another function, another meaning. When you skate in the city, you are selecting your spots, you have a kind of map in mind and I see that as an editing of the city, to use a filmic metaphor, or a kind of collage.

"That is what is so great about skaters on sculptures, it helps me to cope with what I think is really, really bad art"

You got the sculpture, a piece of art, somebody is performing a trick on it, which some people will also label as a piece of art, and you got someone shooting a picture, another piece of art. So you have three layers in one picture. Can you tell a bit about the interference between this?

I think that is precisely why I was interested in the photographs of sculptures in skatemagazines. It was because of this question of layers, because I think that basically what we see around us is always layered, but here it was very easy to get. When you see a sculpture in a magazine, instead of having the name of the artist and the title, you have the name of the skater and the trick and the name of the photographer. On the latest prints I produced for the show in Luxembourg I included full captions. You have the name of the artist, the title of the piece, the year it was made, the name of the skater, the trick, the year of the trick, the location and the name of the photographer. So you not only have a skater on a sculpture, but you also see how long it took for the sculpture to be activated in this way. And to go back to the photographer, for me, there is a very strong connection between him and the artist, because when you put an artwork in a public space it’s not only a matter of form, but also a matter of perspective. Where are you supposed to be, when you look at this piece? I find it interesting to check in art catalogues, to see where the actual art photographer put his camera and to compare where the skate photographer put his camera to shoot the trick. In the recent years, maybe because the photographers grow older, or got more practice and knowledge in the making of a photograph, they become more and more „classical“. If you see Marcel Veldman’s Kingpin covershot of the sculpture in Utrecht, it could be in the monograph of the sculptor and I love when boundaries are blurred that way. I think it’s just nice communication, because in a way it’s the artist who takes the photograph. Because most of the time the sculpture shows the viewpoint for the photograph. The photographer might not be conscious of that, because from certain angles a piece looks better. So the skate photographer, that have an eye for this, try to find the right angle.

Raphael Zarka about skating sculptures
Jonas Heß – Frontside 180 Fakie Nosegrind (Photo: Hendrik Herzmann)

Sometimes as a skater, you have more scruple to skate a sculpture, you wouldn’t ever have it with a normal ledge. Why you think it is like this?

I had no idea that they would think that way, I thought they would only be objects among other objects in the city. Then I think it’s really interesting that you say that, because for me it is a moral question. If you know that it is an artwork, you know that most of the time it is unique. And even if you might disagree with the artist, because you don’t like the aesthetic or think it’s bullshit or whatever, I guess you can still get, that it is the work of a person who has gone through a difficult process to arrive there. Like if anybody watches a skater and sees him slamming and when he gets the trick he’s like: „I don’t care about skateboarding, but I saw that you really wanted it“. Maybe, even unconsciously, you can have this feeling for artworks in the city. I know that now from my own experience, It’s hard work for an artist to have a sculpture in the public space. But then there will always be that addicitive side of skateboarding that says: „Fuck it, I know it might be wrong and I will scratch the paint, but I will do it, because I can’t help it!“

Do you make a difference between sculptures, urban architecture or design or urban furniture and if yes, where do you draw the line?

Of course. Even if the form or the materials can be similar, the context, the history, is completely different. Even the production process can’t be compared. Of course there are some connections, but a sculpture doesn’t have a real function. When a skater goes on a sculpture, it creates a function. When a skater goes on a bench, he adds function to it. To me this is something very different.

"I think the act of skating has a lot of similarities with the act of sculpting, but I don’t think it makes skateboarding an art in itself"

You think it is also different for the skaters?

Of course not. As skaters they shouldn’t even care about this, but if you step off the board and look around, some things might just come to your mind, because you spend so much time in the city that you begin to analyze it. In a way you know exactly what a manhole cover looks like. I think nobody apart from skaters and the specialists of this know about these things. Skating makes you very aware of the city but that awareness needs to be used, I guess that’s a reason why skaters should rather study architecture than economics.

Do you think good art is better to skate than bad art?

No way. That is what is so great about skaters on sculptures, it helps me to cope with what I think is really, really bad art. It’s almost like a redemption for certain sculptures. But that’s subjective and what I consider bad art, for another viewer will be completely different.

Some declare skateboarding as art. Could it also be said, that grinding is sculpturing, because it leaves marks and gives the spot another meaning.

I think an artist could use skateboarding as a way to sculpt. I think the act of skating has a lot of similarities with the act of sculpting, but I don’t think it makes skateboarding an art in itself, because it is not sufficient enough. Then it all depends what you mean by art really. I think some links can be done between skateboarding and what we call „martial arts“. Also art can simply refer to what is done well, skillfully, patiently, like the art of chess or the art of making bread, in this sense, I would agree, there is definitely an art of skateboarding.

I once interviewed Tait Colberg who wrote the book The Skateboarding Art and for him, skateboarding is a dance. Would you agree with him?

I would agree, because there is an aspect of choreography to skateboarding. You have style, you have movement. But like any activity skateboarding has a really open meaning. Skateboarding can be investigated through the prism of minimal art, choreography, or situationist theories like Iain Borden did, but none of those investigations will tell you what skateboarding is all about. It’s just about opening doors, it’s like riding the practice of skateboarding in different ways.

Raphael Zarka about skating sculptures
Phil Anderson – Backside No Comply (Photo: Daniel Wagner)

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