Forgotten savoir-faire and abandoned factories are a major source of inspiration to Jérémy Gobé. In his sculptures, he likes to take a conventional material – often fabric – into new territory, like the knitwork in his monumental installation, « La liberté guidant la laine » “Liberty Leading the Wool”, transforming itself into a quasi-organic species, ready to invade its surrounding space. A material in full revolt; a form of affirmation of its existence at a time when many companies in the textile sector are closing down. In 2018, while creating a piece for the International Festival of Extraordinary Textiles in Clermont-Ferrand, Jérémy Gobé discovered Puy-en-Velay bobbin lace. Observing that the traditional pattern of this lace (known as “point d’esprit”) was structurally similar to that of a coral skeleton, he sought to reveal this obvious connection in a project that was at once artistic, scientific and industrial. This is the “Corail Artefact” project.

You made the connection between a lace stitch and the structure of a coral cell because you had previously worked on corals using their skeletons in combination with other materials such as building pegs or salvaged items to make hybrid sculptures. What fascinated you about coral?
The first thing is that I wished I had created these sculptures. I found the shapes so incredible that I had to admire nature as the ultimate artist. Then, as I thought about it , I said to myself, “Actually, they’re not works of art, they are life,” these forms are created for a function. I found it fascinating, as an artist, that such a beautiful form is shaped more by function than aesthetics. So I wanted to establish a parallel with nature. My first instinct was to imitate her touch by “continuing” the corals using other materials as if they were still alive and unfurling.

How is your project Corail Artefact organised ?
The first phase is the creation of artworks and art events to raise public awareness of coral-related issues. To create the piece for the International Festival of Extraordinary Textiles, we designed and wove coral-inspired patterns in 1.5 km² of lace, which I then sculpted into a form creating the illusion of a coral reef. The idea was to make the visitor feel as if they were actually inside a reef. The white colour of the lace illustrates very well the bleaching that  occurs in corals when they die. The second phase of the project is scientific research. Together with Isabelle Domart-Coulon, a biologist at the Museum of Natural History, we initiated scientific research protocols on the potential of lace to regenerate decimated coral reefs. And the final phase of the project is the development of innovative ecological materials and their application on an industrial scale.

As current research in marine biology is searching for the ideal scaffolding for the coral – coarse enough for it to attach to, transparent enough for photosynthesis to happen but also flexible and biodegradable – your hypothesis about lace has proved interesting. Can you explain to us how the lace will be used once in the field ?
Well, the first application would be to use the lace on coral farms where corals are grown and then transplanted back into the reefs. Instead of using a concrete or metal stake as is currently the case, biologists could use lace. Then, ultimately, the goal would be to cover the decimated reefs with the lace directly to restore them on a large scale. We hope to carry out the first in situ tests during the coming year in Malaysia.

Why did you decide to add an industrial phase, with the development of ecological and innovative materials, to the artistic and scientific parts of the project?
Through all our actions the idea is to provide a global response to save corals. If we don’t solve the problems directly linked to human activities, even the corals that will develop thanks to lace will still die. The first goal is to put an end to plastic which is a major cause of ocean acidification. This is why I am developing containers made from biosourced and compostable materials as an alternative to plastic. We are also developing an ecological concrete where sand is replaced by natural materials. Concrete is one of the world’s biggest CO2 producers, it alone accounts for 5% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions and the sand used in this material is often extracted from the seabed and the coastlines, thus gradually destroying the coral. We also plan to use this eco-friendly concrete to rebuild structures where blast fishing has wiped out coral reefs.

So you’re shifting away from your work as an artist…
Yes and no, because for me everything comes down to art. These innovative materials were born out of my artworks. Most of the time, in order to complete my works the way I imagined them, I have to create the materials, a bit like a painter might make his own colours. Then, I try to provide myself with the means to follow all the way through on my idea by launching a research and development program for industrial application. It’s a vision that may seem surprising nowadays but is in fact quite typical. It places the artist back where he really belongs, at the heart of society. I want my works to have a real impact on life, to extend beyond the gallery, beyond the art centre. This process may seem to involve elements entirely foreign to what we learn at the School of Fine Arts, such as setting up a business or scientific research symposiums, but it’s always geared towards making a dream come true. The “Corail Artefact” project is the perfect forum to show that artists don’t just come up with ideas, but that they can also put them into practice. In the future, I would like to create the Corail Artefact studio, to supply artists with every possible solution to finding eco-friendly materials for their projects. 

With the same purpose of finding a global answer to the issues facing coral reefs, you envisage creating a set of solutions based on local resources. In Malaysia, for example, you  might consider replacing cotton lace with banana fiber…
As far as I’m concerned, any and all future solutions must be local. First of all in order to reduce pollution caused by transport but also to create jobs locally. For instance, we would like to move people away from fishing so that we can restore reefs where there is hardly any coral or fish left. But there have to be other alternatives to fishing, otherwise it will create zero activity among the locals who are already struggling to feed themselves. Building virtuous circles is essential, otherwise we end up with projects that divide communities instead of bringing them together. For me, there’s no such thing as ecology. It’s basically just common sense. When people talk to me about my project, they often tell me that it is “innovative” but in my opinion, it should actually be the norm.

Jérémy Gobé ©Manuel Obadia Wills

Text : Ambre Allart
Photo credits : Manuel Obadia-Wills ; Thomas Granovsky ; Jérémy Gobé