Artist Paul-Yves Poumay Discusses How Art Will Change Society

Explorations of AI Art — Episode 17

Beth Jochim, Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. Twitter: @_bblurred

Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be. —  Miguel de Cervantes.

[Fig.1] The artist Paul-Yves Poumay


Paul-Yves Poumay is an artist and author based in Belgium who works with photography, painting and sculpture. Often described as provocative and optimistic, yet his work does not hide a sharp criticism of the world's obsession with money. Moving from light and vibrant colors to darkest ones, from reality to fantasy where the representation sometimes appears inverted by touching the notes of the absurd, his way of questioning life finds an unconventional expressionism that makes of him the world’s most expensive artists in the contemporary art scene. In fact his sculpture, not presented to the public yet and entitled Le retour de Don Quichotte, has been estimated over 2 billion euros.

Paul-Yves Poumay has a background in finance and marketing, and extensive work experience in banking and insurance both in Belgium and in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Although his passion for art finds its roots in his childhood, his job has kept him away from it for several years, until one day this situation has changed and, following his heart, he has enrolled in the Art Academy of Spa in Belgium.

He publishes various short essays about society, writing for the prestigious Le Monde, the Belgian business newspaper L'Echo and the daily newspaper La Libre. He is also the founder (2017) of the non-profit organization AWI Art World Institute Asbl  whose mission is to build a fairer and more sustainable world and contribute to human progress.

Poumay's words reveal a free and ironic spirit dedicated to the demolition of an economic and financial system close to collapse. Art becomes the bearer of universal values and reminds us that we are united by the same destiny through space and time, while the absurd is an expedient to face the mistakes we have made and that we are still perpetrating.

Poumay seems to agree with the Latin expression: errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum.

Following this idea, art is not only a way to express the inner world of the artist, but to find a solution to problems that afflict our existence. We are talking of a passionate art aimed at rebuilding a better world through collaboration and shared values.

We virtually met and discussed topics ranging from art to technology, from Artificial Intelligence to the Covid19 emergency, up to a hypothetical post-pandemic future.

The interview with Paul-Yves Poumay is different, in a way, from the typical interviews carried out for Cueva Gallery where the focus is on AI and technology. It has provided us with interesting food for thought. Rereading it before publication, I found myself with several questions, but above all with a pleasant feeling about art leading the way to change. Whether it is art made with clay, terracotta, pastels or the most modern technologies, the intention of the artist, as well as the sensitivity of those who experience it, are what really matters. It is about creating an active dialogue with the potential to generate something greater than the sum of the two parts.

Our discussion on technology and Artificial Intelligence has inspired the artist to paint the beautiful triptych below.


[Fig.2] Bug in the algorithms (2020) - triptych - acrylic on canvas and acrylic on burned wood in the center. Total dimension +/- 300x 115cm, dimension on the wall 118x307cm. Image courtesy of Paul-Yves Poumay. The artwork has been inspired by our chat on Artificial Intelligence and art.


[Fig.3 and 4] Bug in the algorithms (2020),  acrylic on canvas and acrylic on burned wood in the center. Each panels is 115x75cm. Credits Paul-Yves Poumay.


Your studies and work experience are in finance and marketing. Then, one day you decided to embrace a new path that brought you to become an artist. Could you tell us what happened and if, in a way, your work has prepared you for this change over the years?

Since I was very young I always admired the paintings of great artists without further research or questioning. At the age of 12 I was able to carve wood very deftly in my grandfather's carpentry workshop, and also to create a plastic figurine. At the time, anyway, I just thought that if my work was successful it was only a matter of luck...I doubted and I was afraid to bare myself. Then, at 18 years old I won a photography competition, but I chose finance studies at the university over art.

When I reached the age of 40 I was struck by an irresistible need to sculpt. Even today I am not able to explain this sudden and deep need to go back to do some art, but I started to sculpt again creating works that I loved. This happened at the same time I began to share economic-philosophical thoughts in the Belgian national press.

I still have a partial economic activity because my artistic approach will only be welcomed with time, since I have decided to make fun of finance and try to change society through art.


Your artistic practice ranges from photography to sculpture to painting. Is there a medium that you prefer over the others, or each of them allows you to reach different forms of expressiveness?

Photography is the immediate way to capture a particular moment... a man, a flower, an atmosphere or a landscape. Painting and in particular sculpture allow me to transcend my personal emotions related to the individual experience of life. When I paint and especially when I sculpt, I sometimes find myself as a sportsman at the end of a marathon: I gave everything and I am unable to continue. The emotions, then, can be intense.

These means of expression are complementary and allow me to be in a continuous artistic loop. With photography, I fix moments while with painting and sculpture I translate emotions.


 [Fig. 5] L’homme qui offre des fleurs (2020) - The man that offers flowers, acrylic on canvas - 115x75 cm. Credits Paul-Yves Poumay.


 "Le retour de Don Quichotte" is a sculpture of yours estimated over 2 billion euros. Can you tell us more about its genesis and what does it represent? I am referring also to the fact that the profits generated by the sale of this work are  intended for patronage and fundamental research within the non-profit organization (NPO) AWI of which you are the founding member.

I have imagined using the sculpture of Don Quixote as the way for trying to change society through art. I share what the Parisian art critic Caroline Canault wrote about me: «With humility, generosity, humour and idealism, like the hero of Cervantes, Poumay has the wish, by artistic act, to denounce the financial industrialization, the injustices of our society in order to build a more fairer and sustainable world for all living.»

My collaborative initiative (AWI NPO) is carried out in the form of a call for donations to acquire Don Quixote by milligram: 26.5 Euros per milligram for a total of 76 millions milligrams available. The different buyers will thus become co-owners of the world's most expensive artwork. Both a single man and a single milligram are insignificant per se, thus demonstrating the inability to act alone.

In this battle not yet won, this project stands as an aesthetic weapon of mass disturbance. I am a generator of artistic activism, a potentially vital activism capable of making reality stagger with real goals.

Through AWI and thanks to Don Quixote, we would like to build a fairer and more sustainable world and contribute to human progress. As for basic research, our purposes are subject to considerable uncertainties. This involves the exploration of unknown areas and  the acceptance of whether what you have not found yet can be useful or not.

In order to make real improvements and ensure maximum benefit to all living creatures, the collective will create a team of researchers, discoverers, intellectuals, artists and free thinkers. Every honest and free man is necessary to seek, discover and explore absolutely every possible new organizational form that can be further applied to our communities. No revolution, no class struggle and even fewer borders, speculations, populism, demagoguery or simplistic solutions: only a plan for humanity.

Art, music, culture, science, research, agriculture, moral elevation of humanity, abandonment of competition and collaborative and thoughtful participation of citizens, and more generally any creative and generous act, are at the center of the association. Teaching and education are key factors in sharing, communicating and stimulating thoughts and discussions related to the topics explored.


Without denying the progress of society in relation to current global development, our intuition and our heart push us to try to show, through an artistic medium (art is a universal symbol that connects people in time and space) , that financial industrialization is a failure of historical proportions and is responsible for the violent destruction of land resources and the exploitation of the weakest. This mistake must be corrected if humans want to maintain a peaceful and balanced relationship with nature and their mates.


In order to make AWI's voice heard in the debates currently reserved to the men in power, it is necessary to get a massive popular support to the project and a substantial financial contribution. The capital will be first supplied by selling each milligram from the sculpture Don Quixote.


 [Fig. 6] The King (2011) - Terracotta, 40x40x20cm. Credits Paul-Yves Poumay.


Through art and absurdity, you challenge the foundations of our society and the financial world. Do you think that art not only could offer a way to denounce the aberrations of our time, but also a way out?

In my opinion, art offers a way to denounce the aberrations of our time, but it could also allow us to find one or more ways out of the current situation, if only it could use the same means utilized by those who act in the name of economic growth or capital and debt needs.

I wish I could prove, through the absurd, that capitalism is not the answer to the organization of our planet. This is a historical mistake. Without the power of money, it seems impossible to be heard. The people and organizations that hold finances will continue to dominate this world. Humans have given too much power to money and those who hold it. After centuries of waiting, Don Quixote could therefore help our poor world. I think that if art was strong enough financially, it could push the powerful men to confront the absurdity of the motive that drives their behavior.

[Fig. 7] The Migrant (2020) - 30x25x30cm, clay. Credits Paul-Yves Poumay


What is your relationship with technology?

For me technology is a means, not a goal. It creates comfort, but also and above all addiction. Humans become too assisted in what they do, and this could create diminished generations. Today, unfortunately, technology seems to be a means of collective control while it is sold to us as happiness. Individual freedom will be violated if we are not careful.

On the other hand, technology allows people to interconnect, share ideas, improve communication, etc. That's really its biggest advantage!

What would men do if the sources that feed technological power will disappear? Do men have to use technological resources to live free and fulfilled, or destroy the planet to fuel consumption and technological development? I created several paintings on burnt wood that I named green washing, Bezos' syndrome. To explain this paradox, men burn our planet, but then they would like to save it with money ... It won't work, it's ridiculous!


Artificial intelligence (AI) art has greatly developed since 2018 with the discovery of generative adversarial networks (GANs), and how machine learning algorithms could be used to generate images. Since then, many artists have embraced AI as a tool, a medium and even as a creative collaborator. We see that new aesthetics and narratives are developing with a deep connection to our time and that AI art can unveil biases of our society (i.e., project "Training Humans" at Osservatorio Prada in Milan). Do you think is it something you could be interested in and perhaps explore in the future?

I've heard of these works created by and with Artificial Intelligence. Of course, I see incredible opportunities for future artistic developments. AI affects all the areas of our lives. We note that for sport, for example, regulations are regularly drawn up in order to channel the behavior of different sportspeople and maintain a form of equality between them. Will art based on AI escape this normative aspect or will there be a separate category for it?

Digital art in general, and photography in particular, use algorithms to improve results. At my level, none of my pictures are in any way modified except possibly by cropping. We are used to talking about artistic performance. In my opinion art is not a competition, but simply a sum of personal and special achievements. Artistic achievement translates personal emotions. While I accept these emotions could be improved through AI, I compare AI art to a drug that would improve performance. If AI could help me find the drunkenness in my achievements, I would be much more interested in it.

In the end, everyone chooses their own way of creating and, since I have nearly no knowledge of the subject, I would obviously be interested in learning about these developments.


How are you coping with the lock down due to Covid-19? How do you keep yourself in the creative loop?

For me the Covid-19 lock down represents imprisonment, an unacceptable deprivation of liberty. My freedom is non-negotiable, but I must comply with the laws of my country which has chosen quarantine. I would rather die from Covid-19, immediately and be free, rather than be held as a prisoner by an authoritarian state.

The current atmosphere seems anxious: harmful behaviors arise, a scent of death reigns between men while nature breathes like never before. This lack of freedom represents an obstacle to my creation, although I have produced some paintings, but much less powerful than the previous ones. I find myself painting vases with flowers ... flowers cut and deprived of their freedom ... and tormented and lifeless men ... The covid-19 has an effect on my creativity.


[Fig. 8] The Vase (2020) -  Acrylic on burnt wood - 103 x 120 cm. Credits: Paul-Yves Poumay.

Coronavirus has exposed many problems of our society, including injustice and discrimination. When things stabilize, and I am not saying back to normal because it seems to be unlikely, what do you hope for the world and the arts?

I published an article about it entitled For a lasting confinement of the economy. Politicians expect a rapid return to normality, but shouldn't normality be defined by partially halting human economic activities rather than by the unbridled resumption of an impossible growth in a finite world?

Quarantine has taught us to redefine essential activities and priorities, so why do not go into this long-term thinking? Today, if COVID-19 is a concern for all humanity, it could also become our best ally in changing society. In a short space-time, our relationships with others, nature and daily life have been profoundly altered. This partial shutdown of the world economy, totally unimaginable until recent times, allows us to consider so many fundamental improvements: climate, pollution, waste, depredation, etc. Humans must start a new dialogue with their environment and focus on social injustices at a global level. Even little Greta no longer needs to go out on the street to express her indignation. Without any media, a microscopic virus takes care of the work.

Today we have a choice: should we save the economy - "a system built by a minority, for a minority, but that imposes itself on everything and everybody" -, or rather humanity with Earth and its components , - "the source of our lives"?

For fear of death, even the greatest supporters of capitalism choose confinement to preserve life. Of course, the pandemic is brutally and severely affecting our society, but above all it represents a unique opportunity to reshape the global organization. It is not a question of saving a country or a continent but the world! When the elite thinks and writes that to save Europe it would take this or that, this elite still propagates a very archaic way of thinking in the face of globalization that affects our civilization.

As I define Art as a universal symbol that connects people in time and space, I really hope that Art could be a way to help people to change society. That’s why I strongly believe in an organization like the NPO AWI.


To follow the artist: 

Twitter: @poumay



About the author: Beth Jochim is the Creative AI Lead at Libre AI, and Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. She works at the intersection of technology and arts. She is actively involved in different activities that aim to democratize the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, bringing the benefits of AI/ML to a larger audience. Connect whit Beth in LinkedIn or Twitter.

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