Enki Bilal

Read our interview with the graphic artist, novelist, artist and filmmaker, from the September 2013 issue

By Paul Gravett

Enki Bilal, Artwork for the exhibition poster to Mécanhumanimal, acrylic and pastel on digital proof. © the artist / Casterman, 2013 Enki Bilal, Corinthian-style helmet, 2012. © the artist and Futuropolis / Musée du Louvre Enki Bilal, Capsule of a high-altitude balloon, 1931, in the exhibition Mécanhumanimal, 2013, Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris. Photo: Michèle Favareill

In his early sixties, Enki Bilal feels in his prime, enjoying the freedom of being able to apply his brooding, speculative visions and narratives fluidly between comics, films, paintings and other projects. An ex-Yugoslav naturalised as a Frenchman in 1967 and an acclaimed author of bandes dessinées since 1972, Bilal remains something of an outsider, at one remove from France’s cultural elites, despite such honours as two one-man exhibitions this year in Paris, one at the Louvre, the other entitled Mécanhumanimal, currently at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Born in Tito’s Communist Belgrade to a Czech Catholic mother and a Bosnian (nonpractising) Muslim father, Bilal grew up amid the fault lines that would eventually fracture his homeland. Becoming an attuned observer of global tensions, he anticipated in his fully painted graphic novels the breakup of the Soviet state and visualised the attack on the World Trade Center years before 9 / 11. His latest trilogy introduces a looser, stripped-down technique in crayons with added highlights on tinted paper. His story envisages the planet traumatised by our abuses into an unrecognisable, untameable sentient environment, in which humans and animals are realigning and hybridising to survive. As Bilal takes a seat in his Paris studio for this conversation, a stuffed zebra’s head stares down from the wall behind his head.

ENKI BILAL: I think we are living through a period of interior mutation. People in France say there is a lost generation, who have difficulties getting a job, difficulties their parents never had. That’s true, but that generation is arming themselves with technologies, with which they will construct a world of their own making. It’s a difficult time for them, but they are also pioneers of something new. The same is happening in politics, which has become impotent. Why? Because it is business, finance, which controls everything. We are coming to the end of a world. It’s interesting to compare today with the radicalism of the 1960s, like the famous May 1968 revolution in France. I think we’re now facing a more peaceful, technological revolution. In the coming months, European politics is going to realise that it is powerless to direct the economy. This may allow this young generation to take matters into their own hands and demand change, because they have the strength to demand this, a strength for survival. So perhaps little by little we will move into an unfamiliar zone where things can happen. I hope so. I don’t consider this younger generation to be lost, quite the opposite, they must continue. It is up to them. The old political system no longer functions.

ART REVIEW: Growing up in Yugoslavia, were you let down by communism?

EB: Tito never let me down. When you’re young, you’re unaware. Tito imprisoned or eliminated his political enemies, but he kept the country together. The collapse of Yugoslavia and what followed were far worse. Out of the patriotic groundswell against the Germans, Tito had forged a sort of authority and solidarity around him, which meant that religions no longer really existed; the Catholic Croats could support Tito, who was a Croat, and the Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosnians, all of them fought side-byside. The fact that I was born into this gave me something. Coming to France, I realised by sixteen, seventeen, that communism, especially the Soviet model, was a failure.

AR: I gather you don’t see yourself as a futurologist, but how do you feel when what you imagine becomes real?

EB: That happened with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which Pierre Christin and I showed in The Hunting Party [1983]. We had the idea of telling the story of the Third World War next, but we said no, we should stop here! It’s the freedom to imagine what is to come that gives me this ‘talent’. Where journalists have to stop because they must report and verify the facts, the writer and artist can go further into imagining what may lie ahead. This is how I function. For example, to explain ‘my greatest prediction’, in 1997, of the fall of the towers of the World Trade Center, when I was working on the graphic novel The Dormant Beast [1998], there was a dimension in the Yugoslavian civil war that was barely dealt with at that time by the media, the religious dimension. 

We heard lots about different nationalisms, but it was as if political correctness in France meant no one dared to say it was a war of religions. I read a report in 1995 on the Taliban in Afghanistan and learned more about what they were doing. My mind was also caught up with the horrors of the war in Yugoslavia, in which the mujahideen came to the defence of the Bosnians, and you had Serbs on the extreme nationalist right. But I did not want The Dormant Beast to be about contemporary Yugoslavia, I wanted to create a universal story, so I projected my main characters 30 years into the future as adults, but they were born at the moment when I was making this story, during the war in Yugoslavia. I was really afraid about the world falling into the hands of the Taliban, as had happened with the Communists. So I imagined what if extremists from the three main monotheistic religions succeeded in creating this ‘Obscurantis Order’. What would be the first symbols of the West they would attack? And I thought of New York.

AR: How do science fiction, and science fact, inform your work?

EB: I come from a culture of science fiction. I’ve read many authors, [Roger] Zelazny, [Philip K.] Dick and others, like the Australian Greg Egan, though I read little science fiction these days. There are good French SF authors but they’re marginal, there’s not the same openness to science fiction here compared to America or Britain. Real science moves very fast now, faster than political progress or curing diseases. While I can read about these incredible developments, I can also go a bit crazy and devise absurd things, anything is possible.

AR: Are you also in touch with scientists and other thinkers?

EB: Yes, at conferences or inviting them to contribute to projects like my latest exhibition about inventions, planetology and hybridity, Mécanhumanimal. I was speaking about it with Paul Virilio, a great architect and theorist. He’s become very depressed because his writings about catastrophe have made him so conscious of the desperate situation we are in. In the end, he says something very simple: with each new extraordinary invention, man invents the catastrophe that comes with it. It’s a profoundly realist, lucid analysis and ultimately pessimistic. The butchery of the First World War was horrific but also led to major advances in medicine. Mankind is like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

AR: You have directed three feature films of your own and are developing the fourth, adapting your graphic novel Animal’z [2009]. How do your films influence your comics?

EB: I don’t want to make comics like films. I’ve added more text narration and interior voices into my more recent comics and changed the page layout, making them more literary than comics or cinema. So in Julie & Roem [2011], I incorporate Shakespeare and have characters who find themselves speaking Shakespeare’s lines. I know that book pleased many people, but upset others who didn’t understand it because it destabilises them, it’s not normal, there’s too much to read! Cinema by definition shows the maximum, while literature demands that the reader imagine everything. Comics are a mixture of both, but if you put more emphasis on written text, you increase the role of the reader to make their own additional images in their head.

AR: How did your book and exhibition Les Fantômes du Louvre [2012] come about?

EB Since 2005, the Louvre and publishers Futuropolis have had a partnership, each year giving a comics author free rein to explore the galleries and collections, and make a graphic novel in which the Louvre is the main character. They wanted me to do something, but I did not want to make a comic. Then the Louvre director, Henri Loyrette, gave me carte blanche to make a book, and right away I saw it. I told him I would take photos of works in the galleries and invent the stories behind ghostly faces appearing in them, of unknown, fictional people who at some point in their lives had crossed paths with that particular work and artist. In total I made more than 400 photos. I narrowed them down to 23 pieces, each one photographed from a distorting angle to create space in which a phantom could materialise. I left the fictional characters almost entirely to chance. 

I painted a man, a woman, old, young, at random and then researched the work, the period, to find out who this character might be, what is their connection. Each story begins with their precise date of birth, sometimes to the second, the place, even the weather, to show that this is a game, it’s apocryphal. Strangely some people have been taken in. An eminent critic on France Culture asked me what documents I had used to trace these obscure historical lives! I painted these portraits over my photos, printed onto canvas and slightly desaturated to give my ghosts more presence. When Loyrette saw them in my studio, he said we must exhibit them in the Louvre. He found a magnificent gallery, the Salle des Sept Cheminées, and hung them alongside the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the works I had chosen.

AR: Your arrival and success in the art market have been relatively recent.

EB: Yes. I sold two large paintings at my first selling exhibition in 1994 for 618,000 old francs, a good price at the time. Then, in 2007, one of those paintings came back on the market and was put in my first sale at Artcurial. The expert’s estimate was €35,000 and I said you must be crazy. Then it went for €170,000. And everything else sold at a very high price. A modest portrait of a woman, estimated at €6,000, sold for €93,000. That was a Trafalgar for Artcurial, for the art market and the comics world. It took off from there. The way people looked at my work changed, but it has not changed me. There were other sales of my comics art the year after, emblematic pages from my graphic novels, which fetched €100,000–€120,000. I also sold all my drawings for the graphic novel Animal’z in 2009 as one lot for €900,000. It seems among living painters in France, I am now the second-best seller; only Pierre Soulages sells for more.

AR: Animal’z, much of it set at sea, and Julie & Roem, set on barren dry land, are two parts of a trilogy. What comes next?

EB: I have started the third part, called The Colour of the Air, about characters trapped aboard an airship. We follow them and we meet the characters from the previous books. Everyone will eventually find each other. All of them are heading towards one place, invited there by the planet. And at a given moment, the graphic treatment will shift from my subdued palette back and transform into painted colour.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue. Mécanhumanimal is on view at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, until 5 January