Telling stories differently Mathilde Bourgon’s Totems

A single fold in the paper is all it takes to pave the way for a sculpture”
© Totems, Mathilde Bourgon (Gautier-Languereau)

Among the outstanding books on display at the AB — Augmented Books 2.0 exhibition is Mathilde Bourgon’s pop-up book Totems. Published in 2016, the book has been around for some time. But the totems have had an even longer life than that and are strongly connected to Mathilde’s creative journey.

Mathilde, your book Totems is the first one you published, but apparently it was more of a culmination of something than a first step.

When I was attending the École des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, I was in the printed image” section of the school, and for my project to graduate in 2009 I created some characters: the Transpolypius. It wasn’t pop-up as such, just folding, but by their shapes and their symmetry, they were really the start of my totems.

I learned the pop-up technique a little later, from a book. I decided to redo all the figures in the book to practise. I had a lot of fun combining them and little by little the totems reappeared.

I finally created my 9 totems for an exhibition, which showed them framed. I wanted to make an artist’s book and after that came the version published by Gautier Languereau. I’m happy to be able to show all this in the exhibition!

Your totems have a taste of elsewhere”. They have a special story?

Their form was born before their story, but they all carry within them a country I have visited. Their story is nourished by real elements, existing places, experiences and encounters. For each totem pole, I have written a little tale about their symbols and the powers that can be invoked.

Given how the totems were created, you weren’t necessarily thinking of readers when you made them. What reactions have you had to your pop-up books?

It’s true that when I started making books, I didn’t know how the readers would perceive or handle them. But since then I’ve had many encounters and I’ve been able to experience a lot of different reactions. For me, there are two kinds of pop-up. There is the pop-up like Totems, where the mere volume is impressive. Then there’s the kind of pop-up I experimented with in Trois petits Indiens, which is flatter in terms of volume, but in which you create movement by shifting the pages. The children like it, they are impressed. They often compare it to a video game or animation.

So far, we’ve talked about your work with paper for books, which are small, fairly codified formats, but you also do large installations. Do you have a preference?

I like to do both. When you create a book with a publisher it can seem like there are a lot of constraints (budget, number of pages…), but in fact it’s easy to get lost when you make an installation in a large space with only cut paper. 

Constraint gives a framework and often, I can do unexpected things thanks to it. When I think about it, my totems were born when I was not very comfortable with the pop-up technique. I was in the learning phase so what I could do was limited. Without this constraint, my totems would have been very different.

Generally speaking, looking at your work, one gets the feeling that your creative world is vast.

That’s probably because paper allows you to do an infinite number of things! The advantage of paper is that it’s very easy to find and it’s a material you can work with without the need of using any particular machine. A single fold in a piece of newspaper is all it takes to pave the way for a sculpture. It’s magical!

There are still so many possibilities that I would like to explore. I already have a connection with live performance because I do pop-up for a circus arts company, but I would like to create a small show for children with cut out paper. I would also like to make paper cut outs for an animated film. And also do more large shop windows. My plan is simple: to keep exploring!