- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
The international contemporary art fair, ArcoMadrid, will open its doors on February 25th, in association with Colombia, as an invited nation.
The Fernando Botero (Medellín, Colombia - 1932) art collection is one of the 50 most important museum collections in the world. As a palette, paint, and brush artist, his hands have never stopped working. His figurative art draws out the form and essence of his subjects, provoking a higher sense of sensuality, flexibility and grandeur. Reality is transformed through his imagination: sometimes into kindness, other times into scathing violence. The sculptures, paintings and drawings have created a relevant artistic production, whose objective is “to create a formal opulence.” These powerful figures, whether in marble or bronze, have been on exhibition in the most important venues in the world, such as: The Champs Elysees in Paris, Park Avenue in New York, The Grand Canal in Venice, and The Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid.
The still-lifes, the bull fighting, the circus, the religion and the eroticism make up an extensive theme rooted in Latin America — specifically in his native country — with a manifest skill in drawing and color. The beautiful and the violent combine together in the Boterian imagery that brings us closer to Colombia’ssoul through a nostalgic reminiscence.
Through his studies in Montecarlo, with views of the Mediterranean sea and his characteristic lighting, we can draw closer to the soul of this magnificent artist.
Elena Cué: His knowledge about art history is plentiful and has unquestionably influenced his art work. Do you believe that an artist can be complete without being influenced by culture?
Fernando Botero: A great artist is born from a profound knowledge of the tradition and problems of painting. However, there are many works in which freshness and audacity surprise, as can be seen in popular art and in certain examples of modern art.
E.C: You have said that “art is a permanent accusation.” Do you believe an artist has a moral duty to use his work to point out and denounce injustices in this devastating world?
F.B: The only duty an artist has is in the quality of the art. There is no moral obligation to denounce. An artist confronted with a tremendous injustice sometimes feels inclined to say something. Denouncing the situation is the artist’s choice.
E.C: Goya’s influence in your paintings is evident. The series of engravings, “Casualties of War” ("Los desastres de la guerra") totally reveals a dramatic cruelty and barbaric humanity. Your work includes a series about the crimes that occurred in the Iraqi jail of Abu Ghraib after the United States attacks in 2001. In this world of cyber-technology, events are ephemeral, since the new always replaces the old, in contrast to art which is powerful and timeless, making it more applicable. Why did you choose this precise series of crimes?
F.B: I did not choose this series of crimes, it was impossible to ignore them: just like Iraqi prisoners being tortured by Americans, in the Abu Ghraib jail - the same place where Sadam Hussein was tortured. Or, the violence in Colombia which left thousands of victims, on both sides, and displaced people, and since this happened in my country, it was especially painful for me.
E.C: Goya already stated that illustration didn't make barbarism disappear. Do you believe there is hope in this respect?
F.B: It is not possible for art to resolve situations which are basically political. The artist shows the situation that exists like a “permanent denunciation.” Nobody would recall the small village, Guernica, which was bombed, if it were not for Picasso.
E.C: Wisdom comes from a long life. What do you believe is the meaning of life?
F.B: The meaning of life is different for everyone. Some take on a hedonist attitude. For others, there is a necessity for spiritual or cultural fulfillment based on discipline.
E.C: You have already embraced the life of an artist in every possible way, in all of its complexities. What counsel would you give the younger generations of artists?
F.B: An artist is born like a priest is born. If they are born an artist, I would tell them art is not a game, it is something very serious which completely requires everything you have to give.
E.C: With an aesthetic technique as identifiable as yours, in which reality is expressed through a volumetric sensuality, what opinion do you have of the English artist, Beryl Cook, whose work reflects a seemingly jovial nature with an aesthetic sense very similar to yours?
F.B: This is the first time I have heard of Beryl Cook.
E.C: Your artistic production has beentypecast as “Magic Realism” determined by the importance of the myths in Latin-America, as well as the “New Figurative”artcharacterized by a return to the informal methods of figurative painting. Do you agree with this description?
F.B: Magic Realism, definitely not, because in my works nothing is magic. I paint about things which are unlikely but not impossible. In my pieces, nobody flies and nothing impossible happens.
Art is always an exaggeration in some sense; in color, in form, even in theme, etc… but it has always been this way. It is the same with the nature of some works by Giotto or Massacio, or the color of life as expressed by Van Gogh.
It could be a new figurative work. It is probable because we have inherited the liberty from abstract art, and we have a liberty in terms of shapes. Color and space involves thinking, not realism.
E.C: What literature works have influenced and helped in the type of works you paint?
F.B: I do not believe that other arts can influence painting - sometimes a vulgar image or a piece of popular art have more affect in the sensitivity of the painter than a masterpiece of literature. Since the very beginning I intuitively had an interest in exaggerating sizes.
E.C: What importance does sketching have in your painting?
F.B: It is of utmost importance. Sketching is almost everything. It is the painter’s identity, his style, his conviction, and then color is just a gift to the drawing.
E.C: The generous donation of more than 200 works from your own collection to the Botero Museum in Bogotá, and almost 20 others to the Antioquía Museum in Medellín is exemplary.
What have your motivation and satisfaction been in this respect?
F.B: The donation I made to Columbia from my collection, and from many of my works, is one of the best ideas I ever had in my life. The public’s enjoyment is the best reward.
E.C: The millennial Hindu book, Kama Sutra, about the art of love in its spiritual and sexual fullness is reinvented by your imagination in Boterosutra. Which artists, from your point of view, have the best ability to represent love?
F.B: Eroticism has made great plastic manifestation all over the Orient, in Persia, Japan, India, etc. I did my Boterosutra series using more imagination than memory, trying as always to make the artistic expression more important than the theme - the rhythm of drawing, the subtle modeling, the application of color were the dominant elements in this series. The theme is extraordinary and unique because only in loving the human body can you make postures which could only be repeated in the circus.
E.C: Nietzsche, in The Birth of a Tragedy, writes “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Is the art, as stated by Nietzsche, the metaphysical activity of life? For an artist like you, would this metaphysics be the only way we can make our avatars existence tolerable?
F.B: I have never read Nietzsche, but I do believe that the artist presents a world as the metaphysics of art. The artist presents, through his work in general, a more beautiful loving world that makes the “avatars of our existence,” as you said, more tolerable.
E.C: The study of the relationship of an artist’s biography and work has been a constant throughout the history of art. The Colombian history, social and political reality are expressed through your career. How do you see your country evolving right now? What vision do you have for spreading your national cultural identity?
F.B: The work of an artist, in its totality, is like a self portrait – in my country, in between great dramas, there has been an economic evolution and culturally positive advancements. I believe in the importance of the roots in an artist’s work. That ‘something’ that comes from the motherland is what gives works their touch of honesty.
E.C: What have been the most important moments of your life?
F.B: The most important moments of my life have always been connected to my work. They were moments in which I felt I accomplished something unexpected.
E.C: What do you have left to do?
F.B: Learn to paint.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
"No Comment" is the title for the opening of the exhibition of Chinese artist, Yan Pei Ming, at the Center for Contemporary Art in Málaga (CAC, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo).
Yan Pei Ming (b. 1960, Shanghai) grew up during the Maoist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and worked as an artist to support the regime. Later on, he was part of the first group of artists to flee China in 1980. With great expectations, he arrived in France to study Fine Arts and earned a degree in that subject in Dijon, Paris and Rome. This geographical, cultural and artistic shift has had a substantial impact on his work.
The work of Yan Pei Ming stands out because of its decisively simple palette of red, white and black, and its forceful yet precise brushstroke line that sends us into his private world. His work primarily focuses on the portrait, an artistic genre that he depicts by emphasizing the psychological burden displayed by his iconic subjects. When you enter into the Parisian studio of this French-Chinese artist, you get the immediate sensation that you've not only traveled through the history of Western painting, but also that you've seen traces of the time period when he was working to support the Mao regime. All in all, Yan Pei Ming is, perhaps, one of the best examples of what it means today to be an artist in a global world -- where human beings, in a particularly dramatic way, are confronting experiences of solitude and death.
Elena Cué: You grew up in China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and then relocated to France when you were 20 years old. You studied for five years at the National Superior School of Fine Arts in Dijon. What was the pictorial evolutionary process like going from the limitation of propagandist art to support the regime to complete freedom?
Yan Pei Ming: At that time in China, the influence on painting was from the classical tradition originating from the Soviet Union. It was propagandist painting to support the regime at that time. Those five years that I spent at the National Superior School of Fine Arts in Dijon were years of absolute freedom for me. From that moment on, I was able to combine what I learned from propagandist painting with a very individualized view of today's world. My freedom of expression is very noticeable in my current work.
E.C: How did you survive the East to West cultural shock, going from a communist regime to Mitterrand's Socialist France?
Y.P.M: In France, individuality was what stood out. In my opinion, the politics of François Mitterrand were, no doubt, socialist, but still liberal.
E.C: You graduated from the French Academy (Villa Medici) in Rome in 1993. What was your impression of Italy? What was that experience like?
Y.P.M: It was one-of-a-kind. I had an incredible year. It was as if I was in paradise, following the steps of all of the great painters that had come through this city. Those old masters help me to understand art from the past and they pave the way for me to make art that must be done nowadays. It was an unforgettable experience for me.
E.C: What memories do you have from childhood?
Y.P.M: My childhood was blessed, but lonely. Even from my earliest years, I was in my own universe. I always dreamed of being a painter because I could express myself without words. That's powerful.
E.C: You have painted your father several times, even dead. Tell me about him, please.
Y.P.M: I have always done portraits of my father, just as much in China as in France. I have captured him at different times in his life, and at different ages. My way of seeing him has evolved over the years. Also, there are oftentimes characteristics and defects that I've been able to find in the titles of those portraits. It's true that the way in which a child sees his father is not the same way an adult sees an older parent. I think that my portraits of him bring that to light.
E.C: You have depicted Mao on several occasions. What does that mean and who is Mao, in your opinion?
Y.P.M: He has been present in my work since I was a boy. His was the most copied and most widespread image in China. That left a mark on me. I also remember that my first lesson at school was entitled, Long Live President Mao! He is a mythical character.
E.C: Your 2009 exhibition, "The Funerals of Mona Lisa," made you the first Chinese artist to exhibit at the Louvre Museum. A huge portrait of Mona Lisa was accompanied by four paintings: two self-portraits depicting skulls from the cranium scanner, a portrait of your dead father and a self-portrait in which you pretend to be dying, which tops off the exhibition. Why is Mona Lisa crying? Can you explain this peculiar scene?
Y.P.M: It is a piece that I did in 2009 for the Louvre. It is a polyptych called, "The Funerals of Mona Lisa." I reinterpreted Leonardo da Vinci's portrait to be Mona Lisa crying at her own funeral and in front of spectators. My expression is similar to that of Marcel Duchamp after adding a few whiskers.
E.C: Your existential concern began at a very young age. The ongoing presence of death in your thinking is constantly represented in your work. Does the idea of death make you reaffirm life?
Y.P.M: A lot of emotional states appear in my work: my anxiety, my pain, my uncertainty. It is important for death to be present as well -- and, of course, energy and life. I don't need to sugarcoat or make things fancy. Paintings aren't for cuddling.
E.C: What worries you most about death?
Y.P.M: When I think about death, I rise up. From that point on, I work even harder to fill up on life. I'm not afraid of death. I'm afraid of no longer living.
E.C: Iconic paintings of art history and celebrities, your self-portraits and the representation of your father. Do you think that it is a way to transcend?
Y.P.M: I'm interested in everything, just as much art history as historical figures and the anonymous. The construction of history and sociopolitical issues interest me a lot. They all form our world as well as my painting.
E.C: Much of your work involves portraits, primarily figures, politicians or celebrities with sometimes serious and solemn expressions, yet kind and friendly other times. To what extent do portraits relate to the passing of time, as it does with Rembrandt?
Y.P.M: You're right. Rembrandt is a master portrait artist, especially the self-portrait. He's an important artist in my eyes. He's not the only one. There are also French, Italian and Spanish painters like Goya, El Greco, Velázquez and Picasso.
E.C: The revealing and fierce strength in your pictorial expression, combined with the huge sizes of the canvases and the drama of your simplified color palette of white and black or white and red really emphasize the emotional burden that's conveyed by those depicted. What are you most interested in drawing out from each character?
Y.P.M: In my opinion, the individual is the essence of humanity. A portrait allows the individual and their time period to be seen.
E.C: You stated on one occasion, "What interest me about a person are their attitudes, fears and lives, which are often tragic." Is the goal to feel less alone when facing one's fears and one's existence?
Y.P.M: I'd like the world to share my anxiety and my fears.
E.C: In your series on killers -- people that randomly snatch life away -- what is it that interests you about them?
Y.P.M: Animals have always fought to survive. I think that the same thing happens with man. Conflicts, wars and injustices are characteristic of man.
E.C: As an artist, where do you see beauty?
Y.P.M: To me, beauty is found in painting.
E.C: Your interest in Goya shows up in your reinterpretation of The Executions of May 3 or in Picasso, whom you've depicted. Have you been to the Prado Museum? What do you think of our Spanish masters?
Y.P.M: I've visited the Prado Museum several times and it has impressed me every time. When I was at art school in Dijon, one of my professors, Jaume Xifrá, made quite an impact on me. He was Catalan and spoke to me a lot about the Spanish painters.
E.C: Do you believe that there's a dividing line, or at least some difference between the Chinese artists that left China after the Cultural Revolution and those that stayed?
Y.P.M: There are differences between the artists that departed and those that remained. Without a doubt, their environments and lifestyles are different and therefore, their work is as well. In regards to myself, I would say that, as of today, I am a nomadic artist without borders. I am just an artist.
E.C: Your work deals with war and peace, money and globalization, capitalism and communism, with death as the backdrop. Is this your view of the world?
Y.P.M: My view of the world is pretty pessimistic. I don't believe in peace. Since the beginning of man, war has existed and it endures. It makes me think that man will continue fighting until the world is destroyed.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
Yue Minjun (1962) is considered one of the most prominent Chinese artists of our time. He was born in the Heilongjiang province, situated in the North-East of China and belongs to a generation of artists who grew up in the midst of the the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This was a decade marked by repression and fear, with education based on idealistic beliefs and principles. Intellectuals were sent to the countryside to work in order to learn about agriculture and production, contributing to the revolution through physical labour. With the death of Mao in 1976 came a period of reform and dramatically reduced repression, which saw an explosion of a new form of art. This emerged amidst many huge social, political and cultural changes, following an art form largely dictated by grandeur and political propaganda. The '80s are well-known for movements including '85 New Wave, which saw a surge of young artists breaking free from the recent past with a strong freedom of expression and creativity. The '90s, in turn, have been characterised by the emergence of Cynical Realism and Political Pop, and marked the beginning of the appearance of Chinese art internationally. Subsequently, the ‘noughties’ became a decade characterised by commercial success. Each of these factors have contributed to a transformation in the way of thinking and expressing art nowadays.
Elena Cué: Have these historical, largely outward changes been accompanied by similarly radical, internal changes for you?
Yue Minjun: Yes, that's right. My experiences, feelings and some things from my cultural past have been essential for my current artistic creation. Furthermore, these experiences have reaffirmed my artistic concepts. In general, the Chinese give the impression that we are calm and peaceful people, nothing eclectic or categorical.
E.C: How did the free art of your generation in the 80s and 90s errupt after the Maoist ruling?
Y.M: I started drawing at the age of 10, and, initially, during that learning process and the visual images of the time I was greatly affected in a different way to how I saw after the 80s. However, if you are an art lover, your interest will grow when you begin to understand why an artist paints in one way or another. Then, your interest grows into a deep curiosity and uses this as a tool to gain further knowledge, with a constant evolution towards personal growth.
Although a cultural and artistic system in China exists, with the introduction of foreign art the change was shocking.
E.C: What memories do you have from your childhood and what has influenced you?
Y.M: Many things have influenced me, especially from a visual perspective, because what I perceived in those days - or what I remember from them - have been transmitted to my painting as one of the most important factors of expression.
In fact, in many of my works we can trace influences of the origin of propaganda painting, which emphasises the influence of the Cultural Revolution in my memory. For example, there are rows of heads that appear one after another, that undoubtedly offered transcendence in my past.
E.C: He has been considered to belong to the Cynical Realism movement, first described by the critic Li Xianting in the '90s. This came about in response to the tragic consequences of the student and intellectual protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. These resulted in Minjun moving to a colony of artists in Hongmiao, situated in the Chaoyang district on the outskirts of Beijing. In 1989, an exhibition here by Chinese artist Geng Jinay, depicting his own face laughing, influenced Minjun’s work. And in 1993, Minjuin too began to use representative self images in his work - capturing himself in a frozen moment of laughter. These faces have since remained in all of his work, becoming an unmistakable sign and trademark of his artistic identity.
Joking, irony, mockery, humour and pleasure… Laughter manages to lighten tragedy and pain, acting like a remedy against helplessness; like a safeguard against the imposed cruelties of reality on the sanctity of life; a clarity within solemnity; acting to undo the natural urge for power, that is Nietzsche's concept of a will to power. Laughter acts as an antidote to our anxieties and concerns, as a symbol of protest… Laughter is a powerful tool encompassing many meanings.
What does laughter represent for you?
Y.M: In my work, laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us. In short, life. It makes you feel obsolete, which is why, sometimes, you only have laughter as a revolutionary weapon to fight against cultural and human indifference.
E.C: Minjun's international recognition came in 1999 when he was selected alongside other artists to be part of a show directed by Harald Szeemann for the 48th Venice Biennial. This saw a series of sculptures used in clear reference to the Terracotta Army of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of a United China; these are known as the warriors of Xian, with each of the warriors with a distinct face and identity. The individuals in your work are, by contrast, all smiling self-portraits.
Having grown up as part of a community, are you now using your work to try to empower the individual?
Y.M: Actually, the terracota army of Qin Shihuang Emperor, or The Warriors of Xi'an, are symbols representing feudalism. Then, the individuals are actually immersed within an expression of the army. Of course, if you look very closely, each one has a different expression; but if you reflect from a collective point of view, the image of each sculpture is projected more weakly.
Inspired by this historical work when I started to create my own sculptures, I trusted that using the same person and the same expression would portray the disappearance or absence of the individual more accurately.
E.C: Democritus, the Greek philosopher belonging to the pre-Socratic school of thought, was known as the "philosopher who laughs", owing to his knowledge that reality cannot be reversed and that laughter is the best tool we have to help us cope in life. On the one hand, this represents an accepting of our reality, thereby stripping it of all seriousness. On the other, however, this serves to help us make sense of our own existence.
Do you believe that man should use this as a weapon against the unintelligible nature of our existence?
Y.M: The laughter could be a perfect marriage with feeelings. If we have the capacity to smile throughout adversity, then our presence will become stronger, tolerant and diverse, both for the artistic culture and for the majority.
E.C: Some of Minjun's works use icons in reference to key works throughout the history of art, including Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, The Third of May 1808 by Francisco de Goya, and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian by Manet, inspired by the Tiananmen protests.
To what extent has your work been influenced by Western painting? Does the laughter in your work represent any negativity or criticism?
Y.M: The influence was very big in the 80's, thanks to the reform and the opening up of China, it came to us with the impact of a variety of foreign cultures. At that time, I was studying painting and I had the opportunity to be in touch with these works, which is why external influences were so relevant to my artistic creation. In my evolving expression there is an important part of my old work that is evocative of realism, which, at the same time, examined important questions such as the revolution, social reforms, definitely, as well as passion for life. And then I was getting to know artists like Picasso, and I was approaching Western painting while reflecting on visual evolution.
I think representation like that, in a more popular and simple way, my works will generate a more comprehensive meaning, both for the Chinese and the Western viewer.
E.C: Do you use laughter as a tool for criticism in your work?
Y.M: Yes, that's right. That's why I choose to paint laughter, to comunicate a sense of pleasure and happiness, but actually, it hides a double perspective of drama and suffering.
E.C: What are your sources of inspiration and where does your aesthetic come from?
Y.M: Actually, my Western influences have not come in the form of aesthetics or techniques, but rather in the form of iconography. Ancient Western painters knew and used this form of enlightenment in their painting, which also have many different interpretations between the West and China. Therefore, I have also practised the use of iconography to portray the interpretation of what I actually want to express.
Regarding the aesthetics and techniques used in my work, one can appreciate a ceratin simplicity, referencing my training at University. A good example is my teacher, who graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts of China, learning the techniques of realism from the former Soviet Union, and France at that time. He also learned how to observe objects while influenced by Impressionism; he painted lights and shadows, etc. However, I make use of the techniques I learned through my work, no longer portraying spontaneity or thoughtlessness.
During the formation of my aesthetic style, beginning with my own feeling or point of view, I thought my work should be as simple as possible, without any handling; completely removing sophistication without altering the initial result. Actually, I claim that my work is directly perceptible, beautiful and candid, with bright colours in order to attract the immediate interest of the viewer.
E.C: At times you have said that each of your works are based on your feelings and experiences, and that you are by nature a pessimist.
Where does this pessimism come from and what has it led to?
Y.M: My pessimism comes from the sad desperation that I feel when I observe my own culture. I mean, the society that surrounds me, their way of life and my own.
E.C: Your works contain allusions to Communist iconography, to a consumer society or to historical moments, at the same time loaded with conceptualism. Tragedy and comedy are cleverly mixed in such a way that it makes it difficult for us to determine our feelings about what we are seeing.
How do you hope the public will approach your work?
Y.M: The direction of my work is allegorical between human nature and our own existence. Because I have noticed that, not only in the East or in China, people are constantly facing emotional conflict.
I want to show how the individual, through painting, must remain awake, and how we need a greater understanding of the basic concepts of nature and life itself.
My work dosen't try to overly dramatise, and not because of that absence of tragedy. I want to refer to what each person feels by their sorroundings, or to the past experience that has been left in them through materialism; this does not liberate the human spirit, it is a pressure that leads to slavery.
E.C: In 2007, Minjun's painting Execution became the most expensive piece of work ever produced by a Chinese artist. And last year, Cartier's Foundation for Contemporary Art held the biggest ever tribute to a Chinese artist in Europe, exhibiting almost 40 pieces of your work.
What has this international recognition and commercial success meant to you?
Y.M: For me, the social repercussions that my work had and the spread of them in the country where I live, has been very important because that generated my personal growth and my artistic recognition.
I'm glad to know that the majority of my work is recognised by a lot of people, and that contributed to the reflection and comprehension in the way the artist is used to comunicate with society.
E.C: What is the future of your painting?
Y.M: There have been major changes to my creation. Given the different influences during my life, such as the Cultural Revolution or the time of the reform and opening. Actually, the 80s onwards have been an important period, as an era of great social change.
Of course, these changes refer, in most part, to the growth of materialism. Afterwards, I became more interested in discovering the origin of laughter in my work. Why are you laughing? Why is there this expression of laughter? I have come to understand that it is my own traditional culture. As a result of my reflection on laughter, I have related many of my works to the maze, which is integral to traditional culture; trying to express a feeling of confusion, loss and internal questioning that is in harmony with pain.
"Man alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter" - Nietszche.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
Both the Island of Mallorca and circumstances have led me to a meeting with Miquel Barceló during which I had the opportunity to discover more about his life and work. The visit began in his ceramics workshop, La Taulera, and ended in his home and workshop in Farrutx.
“Have you seen these black pieces? They are smoky” the artist says while he shows me the study. “I leave them there in the chimney so the soot covers them and then we attach cobwebs and everything. I really like it. The clay I use is from just near here and it ends up being this bread-like colour, as you can see, which happens to be the colour of Mallorca cities”.
The workshop has a certain incline: “The soil went in through there and comes out in the shape of a tile or something. Claude Parent came up with a theory about oblique architecture that goes back to the 1960s, because obliqueness always forces you to be in action. If it is horizontal you’re stationary, if it’s oblique it’s dynamic. It’s fun to live in an oblique house because if something falls off the table it will roll away. It’s a very interesting philosophical concept”.
Elena Cué: Will this ceramic piece be black?
Miquel Barceló: I never know what they will become.
E.C: When did you begin creating black ceramics?
M.B: I started to create ceramics in Africa and black ceramics not so long ago. First I began making smoky paintings, because a way to destroy the work I throw away is by burning it. But given that ceramics can’t be burnt, we crush it to make grog, which is ceramic dust, and then we turn it into something else. Regarding the paintings, it’s strange because I wanted to destroy some by smoking them, but as I started to scratch them, they turned into something else. The same happens with ceramics; they turn into objects. Look at this black cut, it’s like firewood... I hate these bright and colourful ceramics. I like ceramics from two thousand years ago, the Andalusian ones. In fact, in general, there is very little I actually like about ceramics. I like some of Miró and Fontana’s work in ceramics, but I think contemporary ceramics are horrible.
E.C: I visited the Caves of Drach...
M.B: The Caves of Drach, the Cathedral of Mallorca and the bottom of the sea are definitely my favourite places here.
E.C: Have you seen the girl’s hand that was recently discovered?
M.B: Yes, things appear constantly. Here they analyse a coprolite and say, “it’s 50,000 years old”. It’s a race to see who has the oldest cave, it’s stupid. Altamira is wonderful but there is nothing even remotely similar to Chauvet. It’s an absolute jewel; the oldest and yet the best, it’s ironic.
E.C: I remember you said Chauvet was one of the most inspiring aesthetic experiences of your life.
M.B: The Chauvet cave has more to offer than Altamira, Lascaux, or any other. I have seen them all so many times, it’s almost a profession. There is something about this particular cave that goes beyond what we are able to understand. Yet in the Altarmira cave, we not only understand how it was built, but very much the reason why. Instead, in Chauvet, there is something that escapes us; a relationship between man and his paintings that we also cannot grasp, that sort of deep empathy with the animal. The difference in the animals’ morphology is amazing. In Lascaux, one bison is every bison; they even used a template, which is very modern. They had a piece of skin to draw the outline. When they paint a bison, it is a generic bison. On the other hand, in Chauvet a horse or a lioness is unique to the point that there will be no other exactly the same as it. So unique, you could even give it a name and surname. It’s like Rembrandt’s group painting, in which each character has a life and parents and children, it is amazing. Chauvet is the other example of a culture we know nothing about. And it is very likely that their epigones can be found in the caves of Altamira.
E.C: Why the obsession with caves?
M.B: There are many here; for me it’s like going under water. It’s also the place where light is made. The cave creates things, it’s always fascinating. It’s also the place for burials and reflection. Where I live there is a cave and this was a very determining factor when I decided to buy the house.
E.C: I can see your last paintings are not so matter-orientated.
M.B: I don’t like my work to be particularly matter-heavy. I mean I do really like Velázquez, and his work was like that, but it’s not so much because of the amount of matter used, but more about the perception. With Goya or Velázquez, it is not the amount of impasto but the evidence of the impasto that’s important in each brush-stroke, meaning it is not an abstraction, it’s a physical fact that makes the difference between Velázquez and Goya. That kind of physicality of things is very much what characterises Spanish painting. Even painters like Meléndez or other painters that seem flat. Rembrandt began painting like Meléndez did for his whole life, and then he gradually started refining and concentrating... Like Giacometti, he came to the conclusion that all human figures converge at the nose. It’s like a pyramid, they said his paintings could be hung from the nose because he used a lot of impasto on them, poor Rembrandt. And Meléndez was a frustrated figure painter, he always wanted to be a realist painter, a portrait painter, he was trained for that. He was the son of painters and he was trained to become a leading figure. But poor Melendez never managed to be a realist painter and he had to paint still life his whole life. There are hidden figures within the still life paintings which make each tomato like a portrait and its life begins on the edge of the table. All of his paintings stand out because of this edge, at the beginning they are clean and in the end he paints the bumps and scars he has suffered throughout his life, as if he was painting all his wounds.
M.B: I have read a lot about the life of painters, I enjoy it. The only place where I always feel affinity with people is in the Museo del Prado. When looking at the paintings, I feel there are things we do share. I go there very often, whenever I can. It is my favourite museum. It’s the great painting museum. I also like the Museum of Cairo, it is wonderful, but El Prado is the best painting museum in the world. The Louvre Museum is a great global museum, but El Prado is the painting museum and baroque painting museum. It’s traditional and of a private culture.
E.C: There is another, more beautiful Africa, but you chose one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali (Dogon Country). Arid soil, full of dust, desert, termites, illness, death... Why?
M.B: I didn’t choose it, it chose me. First I was going to cross the desert, because I had been living in New York and I had been painting these white paintings and I did not quite know the reason why, a kind of need for cleanliness, to renovate something. I also wanted to get rid of the burdens I was carrying. So I went to the desert without really knowing exactly where I was going, a trip with Mariscal, so then we went to ask a guy who did the Paris Dakar for advice because I didn’t even have a driver’s license.
E.C: Pure adventure.
M.B: Just imagine how daring; off I went in a Land Rover I had just bought. I usually do things this way... They told me to be careful with the dust, which could even get into a can of sardines, and I thought it was sort of a metaphor, but it turned out it wasn’t. It was a fact, a reality. The dust got into everything; in between papers, in the paint... At the beginning I fought against it, like the termites, but in the end I incorporated it. It was like a gift, it improved everything. And my work had meaning there. We went to Gao, to Timbuktu, next to the river. It was a place of great beauty with a pink dune, which is a sand mountain where couples go to to see the sunset. So I started painting, not like in New York, Paris, or any other place. Painting a big painting on the floor didn’t have any meaning. I started drawing at the market, like when I was 12 years old; I started to draw people and sand. It’s like being in space, painting without gravity - like drawing nothingness. Spaces without a horizon are pure light. I started the sketchbook and the watercolours and then I got to the Dogon Country and I was fascinated. To begin with, I only knew its statuary because you can find it in museums. It didn’t even interest me that much until later on when I got to know it. Then, in 1991, the Dogons built me a house, but there was a coup and a revolution, so for a month I went across the Niger River in a canoe.
E.C: Was it dangerous?
M.B: Well, there were soldiers, armed Tuareg... The canoe was easy to spot, it was different from the rest, because I built it to paint on it. It had a table with sides. I painted the front and back of the small boat and we sold it there for 300 Euros, the normal price for a canoe. When I sold it, I wondered if there was some smart-arse who knew my work and maybe I would find it later in Paris. But it ended up in Gao, old, and I’m happy, it was good that no collector had found it. Anyway, later the Dogons built me another house in the best place, next to a water fountain and some caves, a fantastic place, which is still my house.
E.C: When listening to so many experiences one of your profound remarks comes to mind: “We paint because life is not enough. Regardless, life is enough here. It is almost excessive”. Did time slow down there and was life so cruel that it became excessive?
M.B: Everything is extreme in Gao; happiness is extreme and pain is extreme, boredom, everything is extreme. Everything is lived intensely. If you’re sick, you almost die, everything is intense. That is why you miss it so much later. But you are also spending such a long time just sat waiting because it is so hot. Sometimes it reaches 50 degrees, and you have to wait until the temperature cools down. By nature I’m not patient at all, but I think in Africa I learnt a lot about this kind of patience.
E.C: What did you do during the time you had to spend waiting?
M.B: I wrote, drew, I was able to read, think or do nothing. But I remember when the typical policemen would stop you and ask for money if you were a white person. At the beginning I bargained but then I learned the rules. I learned that if the policeman didn’t have weapons, or a cell phone, I’d wave at them and keep going. In Africa they are so polite that you say “Salam Aleikum” and they reply, and then they whistle at you to stop, but you are already a hundred meters away. So I decided- if they have a weapon I’ll stop; if they don’t I’ll keep walking.
E.C: Were you able to remain patient?
M.B: The first time I crossed a line that they had painted on the road behind a corner, I got out of the car with my friends, I got the teapot and mats out and I started making tea. They kicked us out immediately. When they see you’re not in a hurry, they kick you out. They know how to bargain with white people in a rush, which almost all of us are. White people tell them “I have a flight tomorrow” and they think great, I’ll get a lot here. The thing is we are transparent.
E.C: What do you miss most about Mali?
M.B: I think most of all I miss the laughter. Every single day I would be among friends and we would laugh so hard we would cry. Literally around fifty people, both men and women, used to come to my house and drink tea or beer and tell stories.
E.C: And what were those stories like?
M.B: They were their stories. They retell the same story they have told you fifty times before, but an improved version of it, it is about constantly making it better. I learnt this from Paul Bowles in Tangier, because he transcribed the stories from the market, from the illiterate storytellers. The stories were published in Anagrama.
E.C: Don’t you have his book collection?
M.B: Yes, I have his book collection. In his older years we became friends, he was 80 years old. He was the only European who had come to live in Africa at that time. For me, he was a role model; he was not the typical guy who goes to live in Bora Bora. Like me, who went to live in Dogon Country... Who decides to go and live there? A successful and wealthy guy goes to live in other places. Francesco Clemente went to the south of India, near Goa, he was more chic. Dogon Country was one of the poorest.
E.C: I thought it was more a search for purification?
M.B: I was not looking for that, I liked it so much that I stayed. I think I needed to find a balance.
E.C: Do you go to the extreme to find that balance?
M.B: Yes, I have a tendency to do that. But there I also found something no other place had, this Dogon wisdom and this way of being in harmony with things. Everything makes sense there, you never know if it has been made by man or by nature, it has a perfect harmony which is very hard to find. And I liked the relationship with people. The same happened with food, which is very sober and of an absolute simplicity. Mali’s food is very tough, there is only grain, it is like Neolithic food, but you get used to everything. I think it suited me well, because I was afraid of becoming a cretin and not realising it, seeing that I had reached success at a very young age. Cretins are the last ones to become aware. In art, it is easy to lose tension and my friends were dying during all these years, Basquiat and the painters from my generation.
E.C: You also have a lot of merit because you were involved...
M.B: In things that are not very healthy.
E.C: Yes, but there is more merit to sever ties with everything, friends included...
M.B: It was the 70s. And between one day and the next I think I realized I had this great power to walk away. In the past I didn’t know if I was going to be able to. I knew it when I did it. It is like the chapel of the cathedral, I found out I could do it by doing it. I think it is like that, you know things when you do them. Each painting is like that. So if you fail, nothing happens because you start again. Now that I think about it, when I was going to work in the Cathedral I didn’t know quite how I was going to do it. I knew I wanted to make a great cracked ceramic, divided naturally. I didn ́t want cut tiles, and somehow I had the need to do it, I had the confidence that I would do it.
E.C: This experience was similar to the Chapel of the United Nations, since it took you many months to find the appropriate material.
M.B: It was painful. From September to February. We had to throw everything away, and I had to fire a whole team.
E.C: And the French students?
M.B: I also had to fire them and I still don’t talk to anyone. One of them came to me with some sort of papier mache proposal, like a decoration. I told him: “No, I want to make a cave of painting, I do not want to decorate...” So I started again but it was very complicated and I was lucky they didn’t fire me. Working with the pressure of a contract which is about to expire and with penalty for delay. They reassured me, but the United Nations needed this hall.
E.C: Did they understand it?
M.B: One day I wanted to explain properly to “the ones in charge” (I don’t want to mention names), what was going on. So I used an inappropriate metaphor related to suicide and said, for instance: “Look, for someone like my grandfather suicide was not an option; it was forbidden by the Church, by his philosophy, it was anything else but that”. For me and for our generation since Nietzsche, suicide was an option. For an artist failure is an option, that is, I never have the guarantee that a work will succeed, because if I had it I would never do it. Today you have seen the shattered pieces in the workshop. Each of them was an entire day of work and that was a failure, and this other was a technical failure, because of humidity. So, whoever told it, made a summary about the suicide thing. Perhaps he thought there was a risk of me committing suicide and told me: “No, calm down, take as much time as you want”. He thought I was going to hang myself from a stalactite, it was very funny.
E.C: Art: how much is pleasure and how much anguish?
M.B: Anguish is a work tool, it goes with my work. Anguish is like another brush, it is implicit. I don’t find a way to avoid it, sometimes you go beyond it. And also there is great pleasure, of course. The evil grace is that you’re never able to repeat the same pattern. Sometimes it turns out very well, and I go back to my workshop wondering if I step on the same stones, if I do exactly the same thing, it will turn out fine. No. Never.
M.B: It is a miracle that can never be repeated in the same way. Paradoxically, it will be repeated in another way, the complete opposite. It is about accepting, about accepting right and wrong just as it comes. The banalities that are always spoken are true.
E.C: Mali, Nepal, Japan, Sicily, Paris... You are a cosmopolitan man, some kind of migrant in a strange land. Why the need for a nomadic life?
M.B: It must be a result of the isolation. I understood that the first time I lived surrounded by water, I became claustrophobic. I have always seen the ships and wanted to be inside, even though painters are very sedentary.
E.C: Also as a source of inspiration?
M.B: Yes, after Mali I needed something at this level. That is why I went to the Himalayas, because I thought there was something there with a similar spiritual level to Mali, something I had not seen elsewhere. I went across the mountain range and I’m going back this summer. Also because I like the summer less here and I like August there. I have always thought that painters should constantly invent the techniques and the tools, we don’t have to assume anything. We have to reconsider it. In the Himalayas you have to reinvent how to work. Last time, I was working with parchments and I took some from here with me. I was working with them in monasteries. It is funny because the monks told me I was responsible for the animal, because each parchment was the skin of an animal. It is not a sin, you are responsible. It is nice: I had a little flock with me. Now I think about that with any piece of fabric, that you have to be responsible. It is a responsibility to place something new in the world; it does not matter if it is just a pot.
E.C: Mali’s situation is sad...
M.B: Mali has left a mark on me forever, without a doubt; in my work and in myself. But I already knew it was going to end badly, because I saw it coming. Even though I didn’t think it was going to end up quite so badly... Well, I thought my children would keep on going because they had a lot of friends there. Hopefully this will continue for them too. They meet there to make collective works. Since I no longer take part in these activities, I try to help with other things. It is fine if my children inherit this responsibility to try and improve, but these are things one cannot speak of. You do them but then don’t talk about them.
E.C: I’m curious to know what happens inside the artist at the beginning of the creative process. The transformation from impulse to sublimation. You have mentioned that your painting is an activity that is, to some extent, sexual.
M.B: Yes, yes, everything is very sexual. It is clear. When I see the ceramics, it is so evident to me that sometimes it was almost ridiculous for me to emphasise it. Like in these vases of female genitals. In Palma Cathedral I looked at it with a psychoanalyst who is a friend of mine and I explained to her how some fish are like male genitals, and the fish open like vaginas and anuses. Our view of the world is a lot like this.
- Written by Marta Gnyp
Indian superstar artist Subodh Gupta draws inspiration from Hindu mythology and Bollywood. His own life could also inspire a movie: a young boy from a large family growing up in one of India’s poorest regions, discovers a talent for drawing. He attends art school, moves to Delhi, works in theater productions and visual arts. He develops a hyper-realistic painting style where kitchen utensils serve as subjects, then goes on to create large installations and sculptures. Within a couple of years, he becomes an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are sought by famous collectors worldwide. Marta Gnyp: The prophecies about our world as a global village seem to have come true. Thanks to new media, the Internet and the fast-pace of communication, we all seem to speak a similar language— even in the field of arts. Do you consider yourself an artist who works in the tradition of Western art? Is it inevitable that a good international artist has to relate to the Western art tradition?
Author: Marta Gnyp
Indian superstar artist Subodh Gupta draws inspiration from Hindu mythology and Bollywood. His own life could also inspire a movie: a young boy from a large family growing up in one of India’s poorest regions, discovers a talent for drawing. He attends art school, moves to Delhi, works in theater productions and visual arts. He develops a hyper-realistic painting style where kitchen utensils serve as subjects, then goes on to create large installations and sculptures. Within a couple of years, he becomes an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are sought by famous collectors worldwide.
Cocoon, 2009 brass and metal alloy, ø 183 cm courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich, © Subodh Gupta
Marta Gnyp: The prophecies about our world as a global village seem to have come true. Thanks to new media, the Internet and the fast-pace of communication, we all seem to speak a similar language— even in the field of arts. Do you consider yourself an artist who works in the tradition of Western art? Is it inevitable that a good international artist has to relate to the Western art tradition?
Subodh Gupta: No. For me art has one language and it is not relevant to divide the artistic legacy and production into Western or non-Western. We all work in a similar way, from the visual and conceptual point of view. The art language is, however, not a common thing; it is something very secret and private. A good complicated movie or a good book can be understood easily by the attentive reader who knows how to read and interpret it. On the other hand, the artist is always rooted in his own tradition. This is the reason I use Indian objects and Hindu rituals. Jasper Johns could make the American flag the way in which he did it only because he was an American artist; it would carry a completely different meaning if a Chinese were to make it.
Incubate, 2010, 25 stainless steel eggs, 5 chandeliers, variable dimensions installation view Subodh Gupta.Take off your shoes and wash your hands, Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, 2010, © Subodh Gupta courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo: Alan Dimmick
MG: I read that getting to know the works of Marcel Duchamp was very important to you: you even recently remade one of his readymades which referred to L.H.O.O.Q., his Mona Lisa with a goatee Et tu, Duchamp? Do you consider the daily objects you use as a form of readymade? According to Duchamp, the readymade has to fulfill two criteria: it has to be visually neutral and not personal. I wonder whether these criteria apply to your work —firstly, because they are visually very attractive and secondly, because as I understand, they appeal to many Indians by calling up childhood memories. What is the function of these objects for you?
SG: I don’t believe that the ready-mades by Duchamp were not visually attractive to him. I respect Duchamp as a great artist and thinker and the Mona Lisa was a kind of homage to him, an expression of my admiration for his great artistic freedom in thinking. But my objects have a different character; I don’t care about the ready-made concept of Duchamp. I use what interests me, what is mine, what fits into my way of thinking and art making. Those simple kitchen utensils are a visual paradox of the shiny attractive appearance on the surface and the emptiness inside; they show in a very accessible way the extremities of our time: the nothingness and the exuberance, and on a concrete level, the lack of the most essential ingredient of our life—food and the striking accumulation of hollow expressions of any kind.
MG: Does this partly explain why your work is so successful outside India as well?
SG: My themes are universal, although my references could be named the Indian village traditions, i.e. usage of cow dung and the importance of food. There is a combination of local and global languages. Everybody can read and understand in my art the paradoxes of our life.
Terminal, 2010 brass, thread, variable dimensions installation view Subodh Gupta. Take off your shoes and wash your hands,Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, 2010, © Subodh Gupta courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo: Alan Dimmick
MG: Have you been surprised with the enormous success of your works?
SG: Well, actually not. I am not surprised who I am.
MG: At what moment did you first feel you were an artist?
SG: I have always felt I’m an artist, even from the very beginning when I started to draw and paint but didn’t know what art really meant. I didn’t know what was good and what was bad art. I have been experiencing this fantastic energy ever since, and I have always been a very self-confident person about what I’m doing. I like it when the challenge becomes bigger every time for me as an artist.
MG: What is the status of the artist in your country?
SG: I spend the days mostly in my studio; I’m not a person who goes out very often. The artist is, in my opinion, a very normal person. The magic which is needed for my work can be found everywhere within the normal life of my friends, my studio, my surroundings, in common life.
Two Cows, 2003 – 2008, two bicycles, bronze and chrome, 42 × 73 × 18 cm © Subodh Gupta, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich
MG: Speaking of your friends, the works of your generation of artists in India are so strong and omnipresent that one speaks about the Indian Renaissance. Why is it happening now? Is there an urge to express a new Indian identity through art, related to the country’s more powerful economic position in the world?
SG: No, I don’t believe in this statement. Artists from all generations have been important; I respect very much the modernists, to give you an example. Of course, the contemporary life—not only in India—is very complex. People have the desire to see more and want to be confronted with the new in a very fast way. I can sense two opposite dynamic powers in our time: one wants to bring us closer to each other and the one wants to divide us. Art has the power to bring us together. Seeing the recent developments from this perspective, art all over the world is becoming reshuffled; it is not only the Indian renaissance but the general increase of interest in arts. Look at the number of galleries, collectors and museums abroad. To the contrary, in India, we don’t have one single museum of contemporary art. Surprisingly enough, people abroad have other ideas about contemporary art in India. The fact is that in this huge country, we don’t have places to show today’s art. We have a long way to go.
MG: It means that the position of the collector in your country is very important because they have the task of supporting the artist and making the art possible.
SG: We don’t have a lot of collectors in India. We cannot always count on the few collectors spread out all over the country; foreign collectors who love our art are more important. Most of the people in India who love contemporary art have no money to spend it on art. On the other side, the richest people operating in the global context have often no single artwork in their home, which is sad. Thank god art lovers from abroad give us the possibility to express ourselves and to grow.
Still Life, 2009, marble, wood table, 120 × 213.4 × 76.2 cm, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich, © Subodh Gupta
MG: Your works are being sold mostly to foreign collectors?
SG: Yes, sporadically to the Indian collectors, but mostly abroad.
MG: Speaking of buying and selling art, did earning huge amounts of money somehow influence your life?
SG: No, where I’m coming from and who I am doesn’t matter; principally, the artist has the right to live a good life. If we are lucky to succeed in our life, why not enjoy it?
MG: Do you see a connection between your art and design and fashion? Do you see this crossing of disciplines as something typical for our time? If yes, does it bother you?
SG: Not at all. I love fashion and I love design. Merging of disciplines can be very fruitful. Look at what was happening during the Venice Biennale 2005, where architects, photographers, filmmakers, video artists, painters, and sculptors met in one platform. Fashion and design are very close to arts; they are definitely linked to each other. I respect them all.
Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, 167.6 × 228.3 × 4 cm © Subodh Gupta, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich
MG: Your wife Bharti Kher is also a successful artist. Both of your personal stories sound like a dreamy Bollywood movie: a British young artist of Indian origin traveling to India for the first time meets an Indian artist and falls in love—without even speaking a common language. Then she moves to India and now, you work and live together. Did you start to look differently at Indian culture through her eyes?
SG: Yes, we became very close and as a foreigner, she wanted to understand how the system works so she asked me many questions. However, you cannot change the way you see, you can only start thinking differently. You are who you are; you cannot change rituals, not in your country, not in any other place. But you can change your own thinking—only you yourself, nobody else can do it for you. If I’m looking bad, that’s me who is looking bad. If I’m looking good, that’s me who is looking good. The perspective of every individual changes over time, but your destiny does not. So my language definitely changed, but my heart didn’t.
MG: Do you see your art changing in the near future?
SG: I always experiment. My theater background helps me to look from different angles. I am not planning anything beforehand, but you will see after a while that my art looks different.
Et tu, Duchamp?, 2009, black bronze, 114 × 88 × 59 cm, installation view Subodh Gupta. Common Man, Hauser & Wirth London, 2009, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo: Mike Bruce, © Subodh Gupta
MG: What connect all your works together? What is for you the essence of your art?
SG: For me, art is about time. Art has the power to express feelings and ideas; it makes us understand what was not understandable. Duchamp is able to make us look and see differently: how much we owe the person of Duchamp, and how much to his work, we don’t know. Yet, the visual language is so powerful and so individual that without looking at the works of Duchamp, I couldn’t look into Duchamp as a person. So for me, as an artist, my artwork is me, but without my artwork, I am nobody.
MG: What would be your dream project?
SG: I don’t know. I’m dreaming all the time.
Subodh Gupta is represented by Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, London and New York.
- Written by Elena Cué
The career of Guillermo Kuitca (Buenos Aires, 1961) began at nine-years-old when he entered the workshop Ahuva Szliowicz supported by his mother, Mary Kuitca, a psychoanalyst, but especially by his father, an accountant named Jaime Kuitca. From here, he left at 18-years-old, having turned into a precocious painter; he had his first solo exhibition at the age of 13 and taught painting classes. His interest in film, music, literature and architecture is present in his work. More importantly, his passion in theatre is present. He is the author, director and set designer. His work is included in the collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, Tate Gallery ... But the most interesting thing about Kuitca is that, thanks to him, future generations of Argentine artists have formed.
Author: Elena Cué
The career of Guillermo Kuitca (Buenos Aires, 1961) began at nine-years-old when he entered the workshop Ahuva Szliowicz supported by his mother, Mary Kuitca, a psychoanalyst, but especially by his father, an accountant named Jaime Kuitca. From here, he left at 18-years-old, having turned into a precocious painter; he had his first solo exhibition at the age of 13 and taught painting classes. His interest in film, music, literature and architecture is present in his work. More importantly, his passion in theatre is present. He is the author, director and set designer. His work is included in the collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, Tate Gallery ... But the most interesting thing about Kuitca is that, thanks to him, future generations of Argentine artists have formed. In 1991 Kuitca created scholarships where they study and work in disciplines related to the visual arts.
Elena Cué: With a precocity like yours, what memories remain and who has made the greatest impression on you?
Guillermo Kuitca: Undoubtedly, the figure of my father has been very important in this case. He was very excited when I became an artist. His interventions were very subtle, but I remember when I went to buy the first fabrics, the first easel and first brushes, I always went with him, and I imagine it left a notable mark on me. Many years later when I was already a painter totally dedicated to this and absolutely committed, Dad told me that in his youth he had tried to paint. He was from a humble family, which meant having to steal the hairs from his father's shaving brush as well as cooking oil; luckily things I learned much later, because children are very sensitive to every little thing.
E.C: His pictorial series have changed according to their own rhythm, but also the historical situations; this applies to "Nobody forgets anything" (1982) in pure conflict with the Falkland's war. For this series he locks himself in his studio using whatever material is at hand: doors, wood or fabric. It is a very intimate series but also a political and historical view of the world; depicting the bed as the central image, women and heartbreaking scenes over and over again. The bed is a symbol that has accompanied him in his work as the installation Untitled, 1992, using 52 mattresses painted with maps.
Why the eternal recurrence of this object in your work? Has your concept changed over time?
G.K: I saw the bed as a vehicle that I could use to move through human experience and through my work, as if the bed had wings or wheels, that is to say, the image has neither one nor the other, it is rectangular with legs but has the potential to move through time and space.
There is something very basic in the image that exists as a kind of heart in the works and I think that persists until, I think, 2013 with a big play called "Double Eclipse". This had a number of beds and it is as if there was something from that first experience, from that bed in 1981-1982 that is maintained. Of course my views on this subject are changing, extracting excessive forms of conceptual links: psychological, political, or sentimental things. How to turn the bed into a rectangle as if it were a plan of where life happens instead of the demarcation of a house, of human experience, like taking it to the most essential point possible. But that concept I would say almost survives along those in which is the human experience, birth, death, sex, sleep, illness, reading ... this stunning cluster of intimacies that occur. From the most sublime to the most banal. So I would say that more than the evolution of the concept, it was like taking adhesions that had stuck through time. The bed as pictorial representation is almost like a perfect equation that produces a very simple representation as an absolute inclusion, taking advantage of the huge space.
E.C: Psychoanalysis has been present in his life from an early age. His mother and a childhood influenced by therapy sessions have contributed to this, which meetings he went to reluctantly. If the origin of art lies within the subconscious, hidden deep in our personality, this reality finds a way to manifest symbolically, says Freud, through dreams; also by spontaneous writing or scribbles where aesthetics and morals of our consciousness are not involved. Both are used in his works. His "Diaries" series are paintings made on canvas where he scribbles, draws, notes and paints over months of his daily life. These involuntary diaries and oniric aesthetics in many of his works, where the figures live in half-empty spaces with disproportionate scale, surreal disjointed scenes, leave an unsettling impression.
The most intimate, the product of pure thought, emerges in your paintings. Does painting facilitate knowing oneself? How do you feel about displaying these in public?
G.K: Interesting paradox ... because while I like your version, for me, and I guess that for many artists it does not rule out a process of self-knowledge. Without doubt, there is an inner expression brought into play and that is how it becomes accessible. It is also true that for me, the power of the artwork exists in the privacy that is created between the work and the viewer. Therefore, the work is not what is between the viewer and myself, that is, the access to me personally. But I think the strongest aesthetic experience is the relationship created between the work and who looks upon it; therefore I tend to disappear from the scene. I think that trying to look at the work while wondering about the artist, what is its truth, what is its secret etc., is probably losing the richest artistic experience, in generating a particular privacy. That, in general, the painting produces this kind of miracle, which is what I see, what happens to me. Sometimes nothing happens, it's almost like an experience of love; like a secret between the work and I, the individual looking.
Of course it is entirely lawful and I accept all kinds of visions and do not think some are more legitimate than others. However, I believe it is richer to ask oneself whether the artist who made this work is hidden, or vice versa, whether they are revealed in these details. On the other hand, everything is automatic work, for example, on the tables in my Diaries, rather than subconscious. It is automatic work, it is a kind of restless hand which marks things. It is not a test. In that sense, I like it when you think of the environment as rarefied as they are in dreams. But it is also true that there are many more dreams than dream interpretations, and Freudian psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic techniques in something that is already more than 100 years old. This is not to do with the dream, but interpreting the dream. In that sense, one can dream without interpretation and I think the public who visit visual arts, the trained and untrained, either from exhaustion or disinterest, even including the fortunate, have abandoned the permanent temptation to try and interpret the artist or the work.
I think there are thousands of possible entries to a work and perhaps only one of them is interpretation. In my case, I was born in a family where psychoanalysis was very conventional, it was not uncommon. In a city where many people were analyzed, psychoanalysis did not appear as something exceptional; I only saw it as a peculiarity with pros and cons. As you say, I could have been analyzed myself, I was in a situation where the guys here in Buenos Aires in the modernity of the 60s, were sent to the analyst when they sneezed instead of going to the doctor to take an aspirin, everything was considered to be psychosomatic, there was a kind of total abuse of therapy. And no guy liked to have their head messed with. Sometimes, with the access that the public have, the critics are surprising because it is believed that the work conceals oneself and actually substitutes in a way that if you were aware of it, you could probably not do it.
E.C: His work has developed over time with varying central motifs: the first works with distorted figures, quilted beds covered with maps, architectural and city plans, newspapers, maps, the empty luggage carousels at the airport, unclaimed suitcases as representations of the orphan, are examples of what have interested him at various moments.
What is the relationship between the choice of your motifs and your obsessions? Up to what point is art a channel for them?
G.K: I think there should be a very direct line, of course, the work itself is already very obsessive but probably thinking about it is decoded at that time. I sometimes look at my works from the past, and I understand what was in my head at the time of making it. At the time of doing it, I didn't necessarily consider my obsessions, because the process itself is very demanding and absorbing and it is perhaps all that is needed to make a work. I am in dialogue with the painting, in a kind of battle and sometimes this bypasses a reflection of where my head actually is. Anyway, at the time, I am also looking at what connects all of these, and what themes are being projected. When you mentioned all the topics that have been present in my work, there is a huge body of work that has the theatre existing between these sequences of beds, cities, the maps and after, the leap to the luggage carousel. The theatre was a very important issue; somehow I had to make it rotate from the view of the stage to the view of the audience, as a permanent exchange. When the first luggage carousel appeared, it appeared as a backdrop, like a stage platform, almost as if it had nothing to do with with the representation. Of course I was interested in the unclaimed luggage, desolation, but the first luggage carousel was a response to the stage area. Then, as the works acted as signposts, the best one can do is not to resist but to continue on that path.
E.C: So it is only possible to notice these obsessions in retrospect...
G.K: The work is more intuitive. I don't know if I'm a good observer of my work. Of course, I investigate and submit my work to all types of analysis; the cruelest possible. But when I do that, there is an intuitive element that I do not want to lose. If I constantly ask myself what I am going to do then I lose the purity, arbitrariness, intuition and nonsense that are very important moments, in which the work opens up to the other, the viewer. If not, it is always a self-reflection. For me it is essential to concentrate and not to ignore what the work asks me.
E.C: What is art to you? Do you think art should also have a utilitarian purpose that is intrinsic to our time? Or is it closer to what Schopenhauer said, when describing art as a drug that temporarily eases the suffering produced by our continuous chain of needs and desires, against our will?
G.K: Obviously Schopenhauer's time is not ours, but if art were a drug or balm, as Derrida said the drug is both a cure and a poison, that will become his own utility. In this fragmented world, art in its most sublime expression does not produce experiences that can soothe or solve all our frustrations. In this sense, I do not think that it is ever one hundred percent effective for the human soul, and I do not think that utility is the barrier that makes this impossible.
When we speak about art, I do not know how we do it; as exchange value, as decoration, as thought, as a vehicle of ideas, of all kinds of information, which would not be so negative. It seems that in the world we live in today, we have no chance to convert a single object into something (beyond money) in which we condense a sense of neither profit nor absolute compensation. Art has helped those of us who are close to it, to live, of course. It has broadened our horizons, it has made us a better people to a certain point, or not, but it has helped us to live when we have suffered and suffered and gone through everything that has happened around the world. It is very difficult to give an answer. I think art is still that experience which happens between the work and the viewer, and I think that it withholds some closed meaning. But not because it hasn't been revealed. There are writers who manage to describe their experiences with art, but there is some privacy which is like the heart of art. There is privacy, like a measure of art in which its meaning is enclosed. I don't know if one day we will have access to it, or whether it makes sense to do so.
E.C: You once said that you live with enthusiasm but also with despair. Could you tell us, what is your dream now? What have you despaired over?
G.K: Regarding my hopes, I have never created as many projects as I have this year; something that has taken me away from my studio. I guess my dream is to return to and lock myself in my studio and concentrate on my work. Hopelessness has to do with this, at least in recent years when I have felt that things are never resolved, and with the disappointments of those who govern us or the accumulations of power. I fear more the power of accumulation than that of money. Although it is almost the same, it is not exactly the same. That always leaves a bitter taste about the life that I live, and I cannot complain because I am a very privileged person but I cannot be carefree. The hopes always come on a more personal level, starting with this or that project, or for the people around us. When we speak about hopes and dreams, we are reduced to the smaller, personal scale, and when we speak about despair we speak of the world, of hunger ... It's curious how we shrink our hopes to a small scale and how they are exaggerated with despair. In times of crisis, the artist has to play a role that connects disappointment to hope.
E.C: I discovered that you are preparing an artist book with MoMA, could you tell us something about it?
G.K: I am very surprised that you know this. While I was waiting for you, I was working on it. I am developing some ideas, there is something beautiful about this project which is the freedom of the material formatting, images, size, absolute freedom. It is an ideal situation but sometimes people need to recognise the limits in order to know where to go. With the publisher of this project we began to discuss and have ideas. I have always been fascinated by artists' books. I'm not sure yet how it will be. My work is, generally, horizontal and I do not like horizontal books, I like vertical books. I struggle with the format in catalogues. It is a bit like painting. Lately, I have been painting murals and working in the corners of the rooms which fascinate me. It's a little bit like a game between the corners and the separations in what I'm thinking about right now.
Guillermo it has been a pleasure, I have learned a lot about art in this conversation.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
Maurizio Cattelan was born in Padua, Italy in 1960. Internationally, he is considered as the most relevant Italian artist in the contemporary art world. As a self-taught artist, his career began in 1989 with a black and white photograph titled Family Syntax; a framed self-portrait in which he appears forming a heart with his hands over his naked chest. He has previously collaborated with a gallery in Milan working on furniture design.
Elena Cué: Your work is anarchic, irreverent, absurd and provocative to the extreme. It is often a dramatic satirical representation. One could say he is post-Dada who questions all established values; religious authority, our society, materialism and contemporary art itself. His attitude towards established authority, and thus towards its political and religious representatives comes from his school days. His work is cast as a dark comedy so that each individual may develop their own interpretation.
Do you approach your own existence with the same sense of humor?
Maurizio Cattelan: I think humor and irony include tragedy in itself, as if they were two sides of the same coin. In both cases, laughter is a Trojan horse to enter into direct contact with the unconscious, strike the imagination and trigger visceral reactions. If humor of certain works was enough to pull of anger, fear and amazement out of everyone, the psychoanalysts would be in disgrace ... shame is not enough.
Elena Cué: It is difficult to create a concise profile of Maurizio Catellan. How would you define yourself?
Maurizio Cattelan: I think that the world needs to find a provocateur or a scapegoat, from time to time. I just found myself in an odd place in a fancy moment. No matter what they say, I still think to be the most boring person I know.… I would fall asleep trying to define myself!
Elena Cué: The artist's work is simultaneously highly considered, as well as being an extension of what lies latently within their subconscious. This pure kind of thought; dark and impossible to decipher, becomes very symbolic if it reaches the surface through the creative process.
Has art helped you know yourself better? What do you get out of it?
Maurizio Cattelan: You should ask it my psychoanalyst, if only I had one. Probably I never needed one because my job was a kind of therapy: every work I made was a part of me I got rid of while creating it. Happiness is not about gaining something, it’s more about getting rid of the darkness you accumulate. Apparently, since I retired the treatment is over: I’m not sure it worked, but in the meanwhile I produced a lot of crap!
Elena Cué: You've said you don't consider yourself a conceptual artist, that you don't think.
Is that another joke?
Maurizio Cattelan: I feel I’ve never started being an artist, maybe that’s why it was so easy to decide to retire...I constantly question myself and everything I do, this helped not to take myself too seriously. And I’m not very fond of categories, I find words are terribly dangerous, as they seems to be as definitive as tombstones. This could maybe explain why my works are always “untitled”: it is like writing a joke on my own grave.
Elena Cué: Meaning and materialization are two fundamental criteria to define a work of art, the subsequent interpretation that each spectator brings to the work can be added as a third criteria (Arthur C. Danto). Given that the materialization of your work is carried out by others, in this case by Daniel Druet, a master in artisan modeling who has created many figures such as Pope John Paul II, Hitler, model Stephanie Seymour and Kennedy.
What importance do you give to the meaning and subsequent interpretation by the viewers?
Maurizio Cattelan: I never asked myself the question in this way, I just searched for images that, in the flood of useless information from which we are overwhelmed everyday, would stir an instictive reaction, from the stomach. Returning to the issue of humor, I think it can be a great way to bring to the surface anger, but without violence. Since the first moment of conception my sculptures were born as images and in that form they continue living in the media. As long as it is a powerful image at first glance, it’ll work.
Elena Cue: Your fondness for using images of iconic personalities holds huge power of communication. Pope John Paul II dying with a suffering expression after being struck by a meteorite in Nona Hora. The image of John Kennedy lying in a coffin with his bare feet in Now. Or Hitler in a smaller than natural size, kneeling in prayer in Him are, for better or worse, all examples of demystification to which you submit personalities who have been political or religious icons for masses of people. You appropriate their power and use it as a weapon at the service of your will.
What do you look for with such provocation and potential irritation that may result in a large proportion of viewers?
Maurizio Cattelan: To me it’s like when you are telling a joke, but no one would laugh: most of the times, provocation lies in the eye of the beholder. I believe there’s nothing wrong with showing people’s vulnerable side, moreover if they’re icons. It might help blur some lines but I don’t think it undermines their status. Quite the contrary, it reinforces their position as well as the belief that they are powerful or sacred icons.
Elena Cue: A very significant work is Bidibidobidiboo, in which your alter-ego is represented by an anxious squirrel in the kitchen where you spent your childhood. It commits suicide with a revolver dropped by its feet. The fact that the name of the exhibition comes from the magical words used by Cinderella to transform her miserable life into a fairy tale add an additional twist to an already surreal situation.
In Untitled 2004, you hung some children figures from a tree with a noose around their necks in Milan. The work lasted less than 24 hours because of the controversy and the anger it raised, which led to such high media coverage that it transformed the work into an iconic piece.
Do you use art as catharsis? Do you think that to affect emotionally, one has to surprise or shock?
Maurizio Cattelan: Someone once said that our heads are round so that our thoughts can fly in any direction: there’s no specific way of interpreting a work, its shape is round such as our heads. People can find a personal path, serious or funny, emotional or shocking, every way is walkable.
Elena Cué: Sarah Cosulich, the director of the Contemporary Art Fair Artisima has invited you to be a part of the 2014 edition of One Torino. The event will be held at the Palazzo Cavour, and it will open its doors on November the 6th. After abandoning your career as an artist, you will be in charge of commissioning this fair along with the two other young commissioners Marta Papini and Myiram Ben Salah. The name of the exhibition is Shit and Die and it is taken from the installation created in 1984 by Bruce Nauman: One Hundred Live and Die, that included multi-coloured neon phrases on 100 tragic and mundane possibilities to live and die. Shit and Die is one of them. This short declaration encompasses the existentialist worries of the author.
Could you elaborate on the meaning of this exhibition given its bleak name?
Maurizio Cattelan: We thought the combination of declarative ease and uncompromising toughness delves heavily into the universal human experience without imposing a neither fixed or stable meaning. Echoing the title, and echoing the path of life itself, the exhibition is a purposeless journey, simultaneously sad and hopeful, tough and absurd, silly and tragic, slight and profound. In the end, I would synthesize it like this: if you wake up and you’re not in pain, you know you’re dead.
Autorized translation of article, also published by the author in ABC