Two years ago, serendipity led me to discover the captivating world of Thierry Noir’s artwork at an esteemed auction house. Since then, I’ve been following his artistic journey. Noir’s oeuvre spans from the realm of mural art to canvas paintings that exude boundless energy and rhythmic music.
His artworks often feature anonymous figures with circular or elliptical eyes, set within geometric shapes. These enigmatic characters either inhabit their own distinct worlds with an air of disdainful detachment or engage in the joyous pursuit of playing musical instruments. Some figures even cast a cold, unflinching gaze upon the audience. It’s as if these figures are Noir himself, I can’t help but think, perhaps, in a way, Noir is painting himself. For those passionate about contemporary art, like myself, Noir’s work is profoundly alluring, not solely due to his bold and vivid visuals but also because of the artist’s unique story.
Thierry Noir, hailing from France, etched his name in history as the trailblazing artist who painted extensive murals on the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. This monumental structure divided East and West Berlin during a turbulent time. Noir’s murals, which used vibrant colours and simple, almost cartoon-like imagery, evolved into symbols of hope, defiance, unity, and longing for emancipation. They played an instrumental role in the eventual destruction of the Wall in 1989.
As we stepped into Noir’s exhibition at Christie’s this autumn, we were beckoned into a world that seamlessly transitions from concrete “walls” to expansive canvases. We were privileged to conduct an interview with Noir. His distinctive style, characterized by its bold and vibrant essence, remains as captivating as ever. He generously infuses his experiences, love for music, humour, innocence, and humility into his artistic expressions.
AZ: Let’s talk about the new Techno exhibition at Christie’s this time.
TN: The preparation for this exhibition began six months ago, and it involved the creation of entirely new artworks specifically for this event. It was a challenging six months of hard work to organize everything, from selecting the colours of the walls at Christie’s to preparing each of the canvases. The inspiration for this exhibition actually came from Fabric, a techno nightclub near Farringdon in London. About three or four years ago, I was invited to creat a mural inside the club. The idea for this exhibition had been brewing for a while, but when the pandemic hit, everything became much more challenging. Now, things are back to normal and people are partying again.
AZ: You have had many projects since your Berlin Wall creation. Is there a favourite? Which projects have left the deepest impression on you?
TN: The Techno project at Christie’s is a personal favourite of mine. It involved a collaboration with music and different musical styles and instruments. I also have vivid memories of the huge murals that I painted in Los Angeles in 2017 which are the largest in the city. I spent two months under the scorching sun of California. It was so hot that I had to constantly hydrate, drinking at least a gallon of water daily just to combat the immediate effects of sweating.
AZ: You were inspired by music of that time when you were painting on the Berlin Wall; how about now? Have you changed the music you listen to? How has it affected your creation if there’s any?
TN: I’d like to maintain the same feeling I had 40 years ago, the same approach. It’s crucial to preserve the spirit of that time, albeit in a different way, while maintaining the same quality of art and embracing the social element. When I’m painting, I don’t feel like I’m working; it’s a passion.
AZ: Have you noticed any changes?
TN: Yes, white hair now. (Laughs)
AZ: Did you change your music style a little bit?
TN: As for my music taste, it has evolved somewhat. While painting, I used to listen to the radio, but whenever advertisements came on, I’d swiftly switch to another channel. Most of the time, my musical choices still harken back to the ’80s and ’90s. Artists like Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie and Human League make up my playlist.
AZ: Project Achtung Baby 30 was a collaboration with U2 to mark 30 years since the release of Achtung Baby. How did the collaboration with U2 happen? Do you also listen to U2’s music? Any interesting stories to share from the collaboration? In 1991, you had already created a series of painted 601 Trabants for U2, and the Noir Trabants and artwork were featured on the cover of their album. Therefore, in the second collaboration, do you feel your thoughts or feelings have changed somewhat? What are your new reflections, if any?
TN: U2 made a significant record when the Berlin Wall fell, aptly titled Achtung Baby. In 1991, U2 ventured into film by contributing music to a movie called Until the End of the World directed by Wim Wenders. Then for their Achtung Baby project the band sought out the artist who had painted the Berlin Wall, me. My art had been featured in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire in 1987 and it was Wenders who made the original connection between myself and U2. So in 1991, I painted 15 Trabants which were used for U2’s Zoo TV World Tour. One Trabant also featured on the album cover of the original Achtung Baby LP. Thirty years later, I was invited by U2 to create a new Trabant. It was exhibited inside the entrance of the renowned Hansa studio in Berlin which was where Achtung Baby was originally recorded.
AZ: Project GOLD is an ambitious project showcased in 10 countries. What inspired this project?
TN: GOLD was initiated in Tokyo to celebrate the 2020 Olympics. I created artwork for each sporting disciple featured in the Summer Olympics. Each painting was on a 40-centimetre diameter round canvas, somewhat resembling a hidden treasure. After creating the canvases, I also created moving animations of the sports and these were projected onto monumental digital screens in various cities around the world, including Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York and London.
AZ: When painting the Berlin Wall, you risked your life. What were your feelings at that time?
TN: Painting on the Berlin Wall was strictly prohibited. The Wall wasn’t just a border; it represented a zone. The actual West-East border was five metres behind it. So, when I painted the Berlin Wall, I was technically inside East Berlin. Both sides of the war, including the soldiers, were within East Berlin. Occasionally, soldiers would come over. It happened once, and when they approached, they brought a ladder and machine guns. However, they were only about five metres away, so it was relatively easy to run. The trick was not waiting for them to get too close.
As for the feeling, it was incredibly bizarre. It felt like a leftover, a piece of something unusual. This incident took place when we were trying to create something special for a television segment at 6 in the morning. They arrived with television lights, huge ones. But since it was still early, between day and night, the intense light made everything look particularly extraordinary, as if the gods were trying to communicate something. So, we started drilling with a machine or attempting to attach a door to the wall. They approached me, and one soldier even stood over me. The television was urging us to stop, fearing the situation was becoming too dangerous. They eventually left.
Afterward, we witnessed many cars and trucks. People were on the phone, and then four soldiers came and took away what we had tried to attach—a heavy metal door with a metal frame. Imagine a door that’s around three metres and sixty centimetres tall, and they had to carry it. As they leaned it against the wall, there was a colossal sound, and they took the door away. It was always something special, dramatic, and intense.
It was far from being just an art project. Remember, the Wall marked a deadly border. So, it wasn’t a lighthearted endeavour by any means. Reactions came from both the West and the East, and it was a serious matter for everyone involved.
Next year, it will mark 40 years since I first painted the Berlin Wall, but I don’t have any specific celebration planned. The places where I used to paint are no longer there. The Wall has vanished, and the abandoned streets have been transformed into well-renovated areas.
AZ: And you used to risk your life to do that.
TN: Certainly, yes. When I was young, I was full of energy and enthusiasm. The experience of painting on the Berlin Wall was truly unique. It was then that I realized that some people wanted to own a piece of my art, to bring my paintings to life for them. It was a significant moment in my career.
AZ: How do you approach painting on canvas these days?
TN: I strive to maintain the same energy and enthusiasm as I did in the past. It’s about preserving that spirit without a guy with a machine gun behind me.
AZ: How does it feel now? Is it calmer, perhaps even somewhat therapeutic?
TN: It’s a different kind of feeling, one that keeps me in the creative mood, allowing me to reflect on my artistic journey—what I started and what I aspire to create next.
AZ: Could you tell us more about your “recipe” of two ideas and three colours?
TN: Certainly, this “recipe” emerged from the desire to address the initial apprehension that often accompanies painting. When you’re just starting, it’s natural to feel uncertain, and the expense of art materials can make you cautious about creating something you might not like. So, this “recipe” was conceived to empower people and give them the confidence to commence their artistic journey. It’s quite simple: take two ideas, such as a duality like good and bad, and combine them with three essential colours – green, red, and black. Blend these elements, and your painting is complete. This juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas adds a layer of depth and intrigue. It’s a playful concept, yet we hope it resonates with those who are truly passionate about their art.
AZ: Any new projects coming up to share? Will there be more projects in Asia?
TN: Yes. Next year in Hong Kong, probably.
AZ: If you could paint on any walls in the world, where would it be? Why?
TN: I believe it’s essential not to confine myself to a wall for the rest of my life, but rather, to leave it for the younger generation to shape and define with their artistic expressions.
AZ: Do you have any words of advice for emerging artists in the new generation?
TN: I would say that finding your unique path is crucial. Avoid simply following in someone else’s footsteps, as imitation won’t lead to a lasting legacy. Strive to be original. If you can create a distinctive style that sets you apart, people will come to appreciate the value of the original over time, choosing it over mere imitations.
AZ: What do you like to do when you’re not creating art?
TN: I enjoy strolling around, observing life. Places like Covent Garden in London are fascinating to me; it’s an excellent spot for people-watching.
AZ: Will you retire one day?
TN: I don’t know.
TN：我的音樂品味確實有所發展。以前畫畫時我經常聽收音機，但一有廣告我就會馬上換台。大多數時候，我的音樂選擇仍然還是回歸到80年代和90年代。像Depeche Mode、Pet Shop Boys、David Bowie、The Human League，這些是我主要的播放列表。
AZ：您與U2合作的《Achtung Baby 30》是為了慶祝《Achtung Baby》專輯發行30週年。能談談這次合作的緣起嗎？您平時也聽U2的音樂嗎？合作過程中有沒有什麼有趣的故事？回想1991年，您為U2塗鴉了一系列的601 Trabant汽車，這些作品甚至出現在他們的專輯封面上。那麼在這次第二次合作中，您有什麼新想法嗎？
TN：U2在柏林牆倒塌時發行了一張標誌性專輯《Achtung Baby》。1991年，他們為溫·文德斯導演的電影《直到世界盡頭》創作音樂，開始涉足電影領域。在《Achtung Baby》項目中，樂隊特別找到了曾在柏林牆上留下畫作的我，因為我的作品曾在1987年文德斯的《慾望之翼》中展現過，所以可以說是文德斯讓我與U2結緣。我為U2的《Zoo TV》世界巡演繪製了15輛Trabant（衛星牌汽車，前東德最具代表性的國民汽車），其中一輛還出現在《Achtung Baby》原版LP專輯封面上。三十年後，U2再次邀請我創作了一輛新的Trabant，這輛車在柏林著名的Hansa漢莎錄音室的入口處展出，這也是《Achtung Baby》專輯的誕生地。
Interviewed 採訪 x Rinka Fan
Edited 編輯 x Michelle 余小悅