A house is just a sculpture you live in

Interview Guy Ferrer, the creator of the recently unveiled T.O.L.E.R.A.N.C.E. sculpture in Abu Dhabi, talks about why he likes designing houses as well as creating sculptures.

Abu Dhabi - 17th November ,  2008 -Portrait of sculptor Guy Ferrer, whose statue 'Tolerance' is being unveiled on the road by Emirates Palace midday 
Wednesday  ( Andrew Parsons  /  The National ) *** Local Caption ***  ap004-1711-sculptor Guy Ferrer.jpg
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Guy Ferrer is a difficult man to keep up with. Only a moment ago he was describing the inspiration behind his monumental new bronze sculpture, T.O.L.E.R.A.N.C.E., which was unveiled at the entrance to the Court of the Crown Prince on Bainuna Street this week. And now, without preamble, he's off on a tangent about how he personally designed and built 15 houses. Excuse me? "Of course!" he beams. "When you're a sculptor, there's no limit in considering your activity. As far as you're creating a three-dimensional piece, it can be a little object to put on the coffee table - and I did designs for several companies for this kind of project - but it can also drive you to create, for instance, houses. And what is a house except a sculpture that you can live in?"

He looks at me challengingly. As a matter of fact I can think of a few differences between houses and sculptures; ovens, for example. But there's no hope of interjecting. Ferrer is on a roll. Architects and sculptors, he says, "have exactly the same problems and issues and the same questions to resolve, as far as you create a piece that will take the light, that will contain your thoughts ? So there's no limit. Why should I limit myself, creating a little coffee-table sculpture?"

"Do you have any architectural training?" I ask. "Well, no," he concedes. "But I would say that I'm so trained that I could sometimes give lessons to - well, modestly - to architects who have the tag on the wall. I've been working hard in this field so I really know a lot of things about it." This have-a-go chutzpah is something of a Ferrer trademark. Born in Algeria in 1955, he started making art - also untrained - in his late twenties. Why? "I wanted to be useful. I wanted to deserve my life. And I think that art is probably the best way to do that."

He started painting and sculpting under the powerful influence of Alberto Giacometti - in particular, the Swiss artist's coal-black, spindly figurines. "You know this sculpture, Giacometti's sculpture?" Ferrer says. "This man who is walking, and in fact he is defying death? Because he's vertical, and he wants to go on? This artist is really particularly important to me." No kidding: a Giacometti-style barbecued man recurs throughout his work - in his knobbly busts and his spidery figurative canvasses, and not least in T.O.L.E.R.A.N.C.E., the piece that brings him to Abu Dhabi now.

T.O.L.E.R.A.N.C.E. isn't really a single sculpture: the Bainuna Street version, commissioned by the government after last year's artparis-Abu Dhabi, is the second to have been erected. The first is in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris, and a third is in progress in Perpignan, on the French-Spanish border. Ferrer hopes to produce eight in total, a typically ambitious goal. There will be minor tweaks between castings ("I'm not a printer," he scoffs, "or somebody who turns out these things. I like creation, that's why I'm living") but the idea will remain the same. Each piece will spell out the word "tolerance" in letters assembled from allegorical figures and religious icons. The "E", for instance, is represented by a Hindu Aum symbol, surmounted by an Islamic crescent. "N" is a pair of Giacomettian stick men, one diving to the ground in death, the other springing up reborn.

It isn't tremendously subtle. But subtlety seems beside the point when faced with Ferrer's ebullient sense of life. Apropos a vague question about the rough textures he seems to like working with, he exclaims: "Everything can be art! So yes, you can find rubbish and transform it into gold. It's just a question of freedom. I want to tell you also that painting and sculpture are the best exercise to be free."

Later I ask him why he stopped dividing his time between France and America (for seven years he kept a studio in Orange County), and for a moment he looks a bit deflated. Jet lag put paid to that arrangement, he admits. But you can't keep a Tigger down for long; a second later he bounces back to make the startling assertion: "I'm absolutely decided to open a secondary studio in the UAE to replace the one I had in California. Definitely ? the future is wide open here." The idea had probably just crossed his mind. I don't doubt he'll go through with it.