Lionel Sabatté resurrects life from the discarded and the unexpected. He procures dust from Paris’ busiest subway stations, vegetable fibres and even from himself – scraps of dead skin and fingernails. All these materials converge into a menagerie of lifelike sculptures, some based on real creatures and others, fantastical.

The latest to join Sabatté’s bestiary is a spindly equine organism sporting a thin horn on its head. Upon approaching the Licorne (unicorn, in French), one might get a hint of musk in the air. It comes from old pu-erh tea leaves, mixed with clay and bound to the creature’s metal skeleton.

Licorne, Tea Unicorn, 2018 Tea leaves on metal structure

Completing Sabatté’s otherworldly illusion in Mazel Galerie at Pacific Plaza, where he is exhibiting his latest creations, are a myriad of dreamy colours across paintings. Amidst willows of psychedelic hues is a hint of a face, a snout or a pair of eyes.

Whatever it is, Sabatté leaves it to the imagination of the viewer and gives little clues in the name of these works. Thus, the name of the exhibition — Mind over Matter — encourages the audience to look beyond the unconventional mediums and aesthetics, and discover Sabatté’s stories of being human and the environment. He shares with us insight to his work and how he imagines his creatures.

How did you conceive the idea for Licorne?

I spend a lot of time painting, and from there I find ideas for my sculptures. I got the idea of using tea in a painting I had named ‘Infusion.’ The painting is oil on canvas and had nothing to do with tea, but the name got me thinking about the process which led to tea leaves.

Infusion, 2015 Oil on canvas

I experimented with the material in 2011 when I was working in Beijing, and the first tea sculpture I did was a goat inspired by prehistoric cave drawings.

This time, I wanted to do something different, something imaginative. Tea was one of the first drinks in human history and played a crucial role in historical economy and trade. Licorne thus is a symbolisation of how far tea had brought phenomenal progress to humanity.

How did you create the Licorne? Is it made entirely of tea?

It’s actually based on classic sculpture making. I mix the leaves with earth and glue and then mould it onto a wire structure. The trick is to dry it fast because if the mixture is still wet, the tea will start to get mouldy. I had to work with a hair dryer for a long time and it certainly was very noisy. This sculpture took me more than three months to complete. I like it when the sculpture looks alive, and that occurs when the piece is not in a perfect shape too. It’s not easy to create ‘accidents’ especially when it takes so long to put each part of the body together — I have to be careful not to over do it.

This is certainly not the most unconventional of materials you’ve used. You made sculptures from dust and even your own nails. Why go to that extent?
Rat St, 2017
Dust on metallic structure

The first time I worked with dust, I was disgusted by it actually. In fact, I didn’t go into using these materials just to be unconventional. There’s something poetic about the materials I use, they always link back to being human, or exchanges between humans. For example, fingernails are nice until you cut them away, it’s seen as waste, it’s dirty. But it was on you before, it just changed. The more I work on it, the more interested I became in using unusual materials.

Sur les bords du Drac, 2016
Pebbles, nails, dead skin and glass globe

The dust was one of the more difficult materials to get. Unlike tea, dust is not commercial — no one in their right mind is going to sell you this stuff. I went to collect dust at the subway in Paris where thousands of people commute. The dust comes from people: bits of hair or fabric. I didn’t like doing it, everyone thought I was crazy. I had to convince myself that I wasn’t and that it was all for art. So I did a few of these, made small sculptures of mice and birds. It was a small poetic portrait of humanity. These works later propelled me into recognition in the Parisian art scene.

How do your paintings complement your sculptures?
Le Desman, 2015
Oil on canvas

My paintings allow me to be more creative and depict creatures from other worlds. These forms could be alien, underwater, on earth or even microbial. In my work in general, I just like to discuss life. I leave it up to the imagination of the viewer, quite like looking at clouds in the sky.

Why adopt such a dreamy, colourful palette for your paintings?

I used to do dark-coloured paintings four years ago. More recently, as seen here, I work with more dreamy, pastel palettes. I started doing more colourful ones in more difficult periods of my life, particularly during terrorist attacks in Paris. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I guess it was my way of reacting to the situations around the world. It’s quite like Claude Monet who created beautiful paintings during his period of loneliness, right after he lost his sight and his wife. I felt it was the same for me.

And you’ve managed to combine both sculpture and paintings in your more recent works too.
Ours Du 8 Janvier 2018, 2018
Solution based on oxidised iron and bronze on Arches paper

In these works, I use oxidisation to create rust for a unique range of colours and textures. It’s a visualisation of how living beings breathe to live, and oxidisation is part of this process. Instead of oils, I used liquid iron and liquid bronze on paper. It’s not an easy task, but I have my own technique. I also use liquid oxygen to speed the rust on the metals, then I varnish it. Here, you can see flakes of metal coming out from the painting too. It’s not two-dimensional nor is it three-dimensional. It’s like 2.5D — in between both forms.

Jasmine Tay
Senior Writer
Jasmine Tay is the dining, culture and jewellery writer. She makes fine silver jewellery and causes mini-explosions in the kitchen when she can't afford fancy dinners. Sometimes she tells people what she thinks about art, and binges on the music of Danzig when they don’t agree.