A history of old and new, of beginning and end… (Interview).
By Daleysi Moya
“Alejandro Campins. A history of old and new, of beginning and end…”, by Daleysi Moya artoncuba.com
In this 12th edition of Art Biennale of Havana, Alejandro Campins has developed, from the space of the Servando gallery, a peculiar exhibition entitled City of the Dead. The exhibition, inspired by a famous Cairo necropolis, combines its experiences in this site –ambiguous and surreal–, with the general ideas that provide guidelines to his work with the pictorial genre.
Where does the idea of a project as City of the Dead come from?
The project emerges from some general ideas that I have been managing in my work related to the subject of death, that is, the beginning and death, or death as a principle, and the issues of impermanence, timelessness. These are things that interested me a lot, not only in painting, but also in the everyday life, in living.
In 2010 I was at the 12th Art Biennale of Cairo and I went to this place called City of the Dead. I spend a whole day there, visiting. It came to my attention because it was an incognito place. It’s not about a place that is accessible to every visitor that is announced for you to visit, with a cultural or tourist interest.
That was in December 2010, and it turned out to be an amazing experience, a very rare one, because is a cemetery, but also works as a city. There are schools, mosques, coffee shops, traffic; there is everything. I hallucinated there. It was very remarkable for me how life and death coexisted, as they took each other by the hand.
This is one of the things that attracted me the most of the journey. I returned to Cuba and I said to myself: “I have to do something with that, but nothing came out. And three years ago – my work was already in another string, going around the subject of death and timelessness– came to me the idea to get back to that place. At the moment it came back one day and I was tremendously connected, it was like narrowing time between the day I was there and the moment when it occurred to me to do something with it. The distances where reduced and I had the whole experience fresh.
Your work is shaped by remnants and remembrances, personal and other memories for which you build new temporalities on the canvas. Why, especially in your most recent work, do you come back to places forgotten by history and time?
I believe that the interest for those places goes far beyond the social or political history that they have. That is important, in fact it adds an extra to the investigation, but my interest transcends that. Se trata de una atención que a veces ni yo mismo me suelo explicar porque es un vínculo. It is an attention that sometimes I do not even explain to myself because it is a link –I would say metaphysical– that exceeds the rational. I am very seduced by the beauty of these places; they call my attention deeply because they are authentic testimonies of the time, of the way in which nature and what man is capable of doing, they come together and create a strange reality, a timeless reality. In a way they are a sample of how man invades nature and how nature, in turn, defends itself and invades man. There is created a kind of attraction, something similar to what you wrote one time, about the mixture of reality and fiction. And that strange mixture, that sometimes I do not even know how to explain, reflects a beauty that captivates me. It also reflects human nature. I take great care of how to talk about these things so they do not look like ecological rhetoric –that has part of that, but it’s not just that– nevertheless, it is alarming the way in which the human being has lost the original connection with nature, being ourselves the nature. It amazes me how that bond weakens more and more. I a way I try to rescue that. I’m in the middle of those two things, but I interact with them in a more empathetic, emotional, emotive way.
Do you believe that in the case of the City of the Dead the relation established with this necropolis –without a doubt a magical place, let’s say beyond belief– synthesizes, in a special way, your connections with the cycles, the «found energies» as yourself have named them, what emerges and what ends?
Yes, the place is quite related and it has a lot to do, perhaps it`s like one more leg of the table. What I like, however, is that it does not necessarily have to be an abandoned location, in fact, I have pieces like these that I am currently doing, or what I want to do, with pure landscape, without any architectural element that makes my work narrative. In the case of this series, City of Dead, although is not an abandoned place, It come to my attention the fact that inside the cemetery are places that do not fulfill the function they have and begin to realize other.
The history of this peculiar place begins in the middle of the 20th century, when the Jews invaded the Sinai, territory of Egypt. The people who used to live where were banished and their lands occupied. Many moved to Cairo, the metropolis, but it happens that Cairo is a city with more than sixteen million inhabitants, a very large city, and many have nowhere to live, so people started entering cemeteries (there are several cemeteries in which, I understand, people live, but this is like the metropolis of cemeteries, the mecca). Currently there are around five hundred thousand inhabitants, that is, half a million… and the dead. One million between the dead and the living. But the most interesting of all is the relation between life and death, how people manage to coexist with that. For them, the experience is different.
I really like an idea I’ve heard that says: “who fears death fears the truth”, and that thesis has illuminated me thoroughly. Neither do I think my relationship with death as catastrophic, or depressing or sad, at all, but on how, through painting, to reach a level, a mental state (painting is a mental state), mixed with death. On how to achieve a connection between life-painting-death it’s simply a way to reflect on that, to discuss about it.
Why is it that, even in the case of an inhabited space, the human figure does not appear in the pieces?
In my last pieces I have been eliminating the human being –in terms of physical form, a figure– because makes my work a slight narrative. I want that narrative to be implicit, to be more suggestive, more emotional. In this series what I did was to reveal scenes in which there is evidence that there is life. The paintings have a city appearance, not a cemetery. That creates strangeness, one wonders: what is this? An abandoned space, a cemetery, an invented place? And I like that strangeness because it is like the site itself, in the end you do not know where you are, you do not know if it is a city used as a cemetery or a cemetery transformed into a city. I appreciate that some paintings have the appearance of a city, but at the same time the spirit of a necropolis. It’s the strangeness of seeing a covered car, a window with curtains, some hanging flags, and a soccer goal. Traces of life. It´s about the narrative suggesting, without being evident, that something could have happened there, something is going to or is happening… that incertitude of time. That the painting has encapsulated past, present and future and that you cannot assign it a specific time. All this is of my interest, and not only with this series but with my work in general, with the landscape.
In what way do you get involved, from the experiential point of view, with these spaces that later pass to your works?
I believe that, in the end, all this research that I am doing now has to do with that, with my constant desire to know places, to connect with nature. I consider that this has been coming for a long time, from many trips that I made to the countryside. The work that I began to do more concentrated, let´s say, in this matter, emerge from landscape and from the interest to know new spaces.
It always attracted my attention –and still does it– observe nature and see how things change, how they mutate. The notion of seasons fascinates me. It is a subject that throughout History of Art has been very much treated. I´ve experimented only once the change of one season to another: from winter to spring being in Switzerland and it´s something amazing, how people´s temper is transformed, the landscape, the atmosphere on the street, the colors of nature. That has no name. It’s a very odd behavior that here we cannot experience. I have a debt with that, and in the future I want to make some paintings related with those changes. That interest, that link with the transformations, the process, death itself, gives me an enormous desire to interact with nature, and I consider that the best way to do it –apart from living with it– is by drawing it, painting it, and taking pictures to it.
It is clear that for you the topic of scales is a defining point in your work process. Why have you decided to develop the whole series from the small format?
The experience with the place and time I started the series was distant (three years), and although the connection was immediately created and I relived it again, it was like a distant vision. For me, the small painting generates a more intimate relationship with what was lived, more personal, hence the format. Larger paintings are like immediate experiences, more selfish, egocentric. I believe that, despite the fact that this site attracted me a lot, my identification with the place, with that way of life and culture, is limited, punctual. That is why the idea was to create a nexus, a link, but a small one, more subtle, to put it somehow.
Beyond the small format, the museography of the exhibition has decided point out the gaps, to enhance spatiality. Tell me a little about this museographic election.
I want to create this kind of contradiction: montages with small works within a large space and, at the same time, propose as a kind of trip. I believe that the experience of seeing a small picture on a wall of about three meters can be like an intimate journey, like reading a book, a closer relationship. That compels people to concentrate more on each piece. These are works that may resemble each other, there is a connection, and if I put them, for example, one next to the other, they could lose their identity, they would lose greatly. Putting them alone is like granting a personality charge to each one. In the end they all refer to one place, but each one has its autonomy, because that’s what I saw there, each corner had a story, energy of its own, like its silence. There was a city atmosphere, but there was as well that mysterious silence of the cemeteries. It was that mixture. I want that empty space of the gallery connects with that. The exhibition is going to have people and that means there is life, but at the same time it´s given space to silence.
Despite your work can be classified as a landscape, the look that underlies the landscape is very particular. How does Alejandro Campins understand and elaborate his dialogues and connections with the landscape, whatever that may be?
Throughout the History of Art the landscape had several looks. A slightly hedonistic one, which has to do with the painting that reproduces it from the point of view of mimesis. There is another type of landscape that is much more emotional, more internal. Caspar D. Friedrich said something like «close your eyes, look at the landscape and then paint it, that is the true landscape”, and that is, somehow, the idea that the Romantics had about this category of painting. I consider that around there is my linkage with landscape.
My real connection with the landscape is strongly related with what it reveals to me. I think that more than saying things about it, it’s the nature who can answer me. It´s like a dialogue with nature. But is hard because is a complicated genre. How you achieve to do something there capable of touching sensibilities within the contemporary world? Lately I am focusing greatly in what I call discrepancies with nature. That mismatch is what I try to capture, it is there where I direct my observation. For example, those landscapes that I make are «ugly», scenes that are not typical of the landscape. How can I build those scenes that no one would look into a landscape? And try to capture the beauty that is in every little place in nature. I always say that nature is like a museum, that wherever you look it is telling us a story, history of old and new things, of life and death. I try that when someone stands in front of one of my landscapes that person does not have a comfortable experience.
I feel that in nature is present the essence of all. In every scene that I do I try to grasp that timelessness, that beauty as a synonym of truth, that is there, enclosed.