A conversation between Laurent Ajina, Elsy Lahner (Curator for Contemporary Art, Albertina) and Alexander Giese (Kunsthandel Giese and Schweiger)
Elsy Lahner: Tennis is a sport and a passion for you, but even though I don’t play it, I also have a connection to it. I think it’s the whole aesthetics of tennis—I have known the ball since I was a kid and it has always fascinated me how it feels, how it sounds, and how it bounces on the floor. I think there is something special about the whole experience: how people are dressed, how the court looks like, et cetera. Is that of influence in your work? Is the beauty of tennis perhaps also the reason why you started to play?
Laurent Ajina: Well, I started playing tennis against a wall for almost three years. I grew up in a district of Paris without tennis clubs and played exclusively against a huge wall, from about five to nine, non-stop. This routine of playing against myself may not have been the best start to become a good fighter on the court as now I don’t just play to win. It’s true what you said about the clothes and sounds and colours, but there is also this other side to tennis: it’s a very competitive field of expression. It’s almost like you were a gladiator in an arena who has to win. But as I said, I started playing by myself and just heard the sound of the ball bouncing off the wall, which instilled a certain relationship to architecture, space, geometry, and rhythm in me. Today, I have a screen in my studio which streams tennis matches without end. I like to have the screen on. Following the matches is like following the change of seasons: there are differently coloured surfaces, from indigo blue to red and bright green, which works as a kind of colour installation for me. And even though I don’t watch the match, it has a really strong presence in terms of colours and sounds.
Alexander Giese: It should be mentioned that Laurent plays tennis very aesthetically, his backhand is just beautiful. So when we play together, I rather watch him playing the backhand than take care of my own game.
LA: It’s a kind of mirror: you can see your opponent and you’re connected through a certain symmetry of movement. But it’s a distorted mirror, you’re never in direct contact with your opponent; instead, you have to feel what they are doing. Spinning this small yellow ball that’s like the sun and thereby creating your own space has also a kind of cosmological dimension. I play a lot, like Alexander. We play a lot, we train a lot, it’s part of our balance, it’s part of our lives.
AG: Tennis is a Yin and the Yang is art for both of us.
EL: The tennis ball itself is like a Yin and Yang, the two sides interlocking as they do in the symbol but in a three-dimensional way.
AG: The beginning of our friendship fifteen years ago was strongly rooted in tennis. We played in a small club in Burgenland, and I was very impressed. I think Laurent was one of my first international opponents. And I instantly felt the enthusiasm we shared.
LA: I remember one New Year’s Eve we spent at your house. You told me that you once attended a tennis camp at Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, which offers the best training worldwide. I had also been there. We discovered that we had this extraordinary link. I had been dreaming about this academy for many years, and my father offered me to go there after I had finished school.
AG: Indeed, but Bollettieri failed to make professional tennis players out of us, which allowed us to go into a different field: the arts, where we also connect. The fact that we share this passion as well is what made it easy for the two of us from the beginning.
EL: How did the idea of a cooperative project come up?
AG: I don’t know when that happened. We now have this new space at the gallery with larger walls, and I think at some point we said, ‘Okay, let’s try and do something together.’ It was quite clear that it would be connected to tennis. We scheduled our exhibition for the days from mid-October to the beginning of November, when the Erste Bank Open takes place in the Stadthalle. Since Laurent studied architecture and the Stadthalle is an interesting architectural site in Vienna, it occurred to us that our exhibition should be connected to this tournament. So there are four paintings related to the Grand Slam tournaments and one to the Erste Bank Open. That was the concept we developed in our first talk, and we stuck to it. For me, it’s a dream come true to be able to connect those two great passions of my life and to make tennis happen at the place where I work.
LA: I realised in recent years that tennis is linked to my art. This has not always been evident to me. When problems with my legs prevented me from playing, I missed the court and rented a tennis court just to sit and read there, to be there.
EL: Really? That’s beautiful.
LA: Yes, sometimes I come to where Alexander trains. I don’t wear tennis clothes, I just come to sit and watch.
EL: I can connect to that. When I was a child, my father had a restaurant adjacent to a tennis hall, and I loved to sit there and watch and listen to people play. I never played myself, but I understand why you would love to just sit there.
LA: There is a mystery about the size and the dimensions of a tennis court. For me, a football field is too big, while a tennis court is just perfect. It’s like a room, like a place where you could live, it has the proportions of an apartment or a house. Although I have the TV on with all the matches at my studio, I missed the tennis court in its physicality. This is why I rented a court to walk around. I got really close to the lines and looked at every detail that you don’t realize when you play. I came to see the court as a geometrical plan.
AG: I can also relate to that feeling. After you have played and the court is messed up, you clean it with a net and make sure the lines are shiny again. For some people, that’s just something that has to be done, but I enjoy taking care of the court and making it look nice again.
LA: You’re right, a tennis court is the essence of a zen garden: a zen garden is made of stones, there is no vegetation, and you clean it with this wooden tool. It’s a very peculiar introspective moment after each match to move the sand and see the lines clean again—we are gardening in a way.
EL: How are your works related to tennis? What is the concept behind them?
LA: There is a close connection between breathing, freedom, and movement when I work. Drawing a one-meter-long line on a wall on a five-meter-high ladder, I get the same feeling as when I play a backhand on the court. My paintings show square or rectangular forms linked through per-pendicular and parallel lines. For me, the shapes are also connected to devices and to how we constantly interact with all these screens on mobile phones et cetera. In my big chaos of lines, I like to open these windows that are focal points for the eyes and allow me to introduce emotions through colour. There are infinite possibilities of interacting with colours, and tennis courts may be coloured in twenty different ways. The architecture of stadiums also varies. Every tennis stadium is a piece of art—the Australian Open court is like a James Turrell installation when the rooftop is open to an evening sky.
EL: But would someone who is into tennis be able to tell the difference between one tournament and the other just by looking at your paintings without seeing the titles? Would they just recognise the colours?
LA: I think aficionados would. There are four paintings, and each of them is special. The Australian Open site resembles a blue pool or a lagoon. I think it’s the most recent stadium. It was built as a piece of art, with all its neon signs and advertising. After that, you have the French Open at the Stade Roland Garros, where you’re back to earth with the red-coloured sand and all its fragmented pieces. Then you switch to Wimbledon, which is an English garden with no advertising and only white clothes. It’s minimal to the highest degree; it’s beautiful and has a very special feeling for every player, I think. Finally, you have the US Open: there’s a lot of noise, everybody is talking, you smell hamburgers, planes are crossing above, it’s very urban—just like New York, which was the birthplace of hip hop and street art, and you can feel that on the court.
AG: I think if somebody who is a little into tennis sees those four paintings in random order and would be asked to put them in the right order of how the Grand Slams are played during the year, they would be able to do it correctly. You don’t see it, because it doesn’t say, but you feel it.
EL: Yes, it makes total sense how you just explained it.
LA: But it’s not only the colours, the way I organised the forms is very specific to each tournament. The Australian Open is a kind of pool, so you have these blue reflection-like tones. The Roland Garros painting has little pieces and fragments, just like grains of sand. The Wimbledon painting is like an English garden, a labyrinth. And the US Open painting is back to colours and organised chaos, it’s very energetic. What is important to me is that my paintings are not illustrations of tennis courts. Perhaps you find a line and a little square and can use them as an access to understand the whole painting, but it’s not illustrative.
EL: Are you able to treat the tournament in Vienna in the same way? Or is it completely different and calls for another approach?
LA: It’s different. As I look at it as something on a screen, there is always this distance. Every tennis court is a new adventure. The Stadthalle is a beautiful place, it’s full of blue and grey and little touches of red. I don’t rank my emotions according to the various courts, every court is beautiful. In Cameroon, there is a tennis school for underprivileged kids called Oyebog Tennis Academy. There, they don’t just play on courts, but also paint lines onto the streets, it’s amazing. It’s the same as playing football with an empty coke can. It’s a mental matter, an attitude, it’s about making your personal heterotopia as Foucault calls it, you make your own space, your own house, a space where you feel good.
EL: Your own zen garden.
AG: And we won’t just mount the paintings on the wall but we’ll create an atmosphere here. This is why we just ordered a ball machine, which will be shooting branded tennis balls through the gallery. Everybody who comes and likes the show may take a tennis ball home as a souvenir. The sheer feeling of holding a tennis ball in your hands is just lovely.
LA: It’s about pleasure. I’m a French painter, and the history of modern painting knows Bonnard, Matisse, Léger, and many other French artists who turned to pleasure and beauty. I’m profoundly linked to this golden age of painting, of beauty, of light, of surfaces. For me, a painting has to convey a positive feeling. It’s like when you turn on a screen: you usually choose something that gives you great energy and perhaps changes your mind. It’s an exhibition about this pleasure.
EL: As a freelance curator for many years, I’m used to working with abandoned spaces, and you find several old tennis courts in Vienna’s backyards that are so beautiful.
LA: That’s true, we were talking about beautiful colours and beautiful things, but there is also this desolation of something old which is no longer useful. There are all these abandoned spaces, like bus stations in the middle of nowhere or old tennis courts. In my work, there is this chaos in which strong colours serve as a means of organisation, but all of the Grand Slam paintings share the same grey background that looks like something which is falling apart or disappearing. That was important to me, too, I used abrasive brushes to create the effect of something old which has been used, and I like this contrast. Tennis is not only about neon lights and clean things but also about chaos, deception, and the sadness that overcomes you when you lose points—and I use that. It’s not superficial. When I work, I start with a colour, a little piece of yellow, for example, and look which colour will be next. The painting grows like a composition, like some music, it’s connected to sound.
EL: Like a symphony or jazz piece that—starting with a certain rhythm, from a simple motif—condenses more and more. And like in jazz, you also improvise during the process. At the same time, you proceed like making a collage. You build up your works layer by layer. The coloured shapes and the black lines take turns, overlap.
LA: You’re right, as I’ve mentioned, music plays a very important part in my work, I sometimes like to play it very loud, and it helps me not to think too much while I paint or draw and to get into a process where I’m not fully conscious—in tennis, when everything just flows and goes well, it’s called being in the zone. As regards the colourful paintings of the last year, I get this feeling of being in the zone. Whereas colour impacts the brain directly and can be experienced from far away, my lines are similar to writing and you have to be closer to the painting to properly take them in.
EL: You’ve only been working with colour for a few years. Before that, your works were black and white and exclusively drawn with a marker on a wide variety of supports. Are you more and more moving into the field of painting with paint and canvas? What role does drawing play for you?
LA: When I used to draw a lot, I thought more like an architect and about how things grow. The impact of colour is very intense, it’s about textures and materials, and since our world is so digitalised, I want to use it to add a material touch. I’m not giving up drawing, it’s still present, but it’s more hidden and provides the foundation for my current work while adding colour is more connected to all the dimensions of our world and is what makes life enjoyable