In this 12th edition of the Havana Biennial, Alejandro Campins has developed from Servando gallery, a peculiar exhibition called Ciudad de los muertos. The sample, inspired by a famous necropolis of Cairo, combines his experiences in this -ambiguous and surreal- site with general ideas that guide his work with the pictorial genre.
Whence does the idea of a project like Ciudad de los muertos emerge?
The project arises from general ideas I have been working related to the theme of death, that is, the principle and death, or death as a principle, and issues of impermanence, timelessness. These are things that interest me a lot, not only in painting but in everyday life.
In 2010 I was in the 12th Biennial of Cairo and went to this place called the City of the Dead. I spent a whole day there. I was struck because it was an unknown place. This is not a site that is accessible to everyone; neither is announced as a cultural or tourist interest place.
That was in December 2010 and it was an amazing experience, a very strange experience, because it is a cemetery but also works as a city. There are schools, mosques, cafes, traffic; there is everything. I freaked there. It was very striking to me how life and death coexisted there.
That was one of the things that attracted me the most from the trip. I returned to Cuba and I always said, “I have to do something with that,” but nothing came to my mind. And three years later -my work was dealing at that time with the theme of death and timelessness- I got the idea to retake that place. It suddenly came to my mind one day; it was like narrowing the time between the days I was there and the moment when I thought to do something with that. Distances got shortened and had all that experience fresh again.
Your job is shaped from scraps and memories, personal and others’ memories for which you build new temporalities on the canvas. Why, especially in your most recent work, do you retake places forgotten by history and time?
I think the interest in these sites goes far beyond social or political history they have. That’s important, and in fact it adds as an extra to research, but my interest goes beyond that. It is an attention that sometimes not even I can explain because it is as a metaphysical link, which exceeds rationality. The beauty of those places much seduces me, I really feel attraction by them because they are authentic witnesses of the time, the way in which nature and man are able to come together and create a strange reality, a timeless reality. In a way they are a sign of how man invades nature and how nature, in turn, defends itself and invades the man. Hence a kind of attraction, something like that you wrote sometime on the mixture of fact and fiction is created. And that strange mixture, which sometimes I do not even know how to explain it, reflects a beauty that captivates me and it also reflects human nature.
I care a lot about how to talk about these things so that may not seem an ecological rhetoric, which is part of that, but is not only that-however, it is alarming the way in which humans have lost the original connections with nature, because we are nature ourselves. I wonder how that link is weaker and weaker. I try to rescue it a little. I’m in the middle of those two things, but interact with them in a more empathetic, emotional, emotive way.
Do you think that in the case of the City of the Dead the link established with that necropolis, without doubt a magical place, synthesizes in a special way your connections with the cycles, “found energy” as you called them; what emerges and what ends?
Yes, the space is quite linked and has much to do; maybe it’s like one more leg of the table. To me what I like, however, it is not necessarily related to an abandoned site, in fact I have pieces like this one that I’m doing right now, or that I want to do with pure landscape, without any architectural element that becomes them into narrative works. In the case of this series, Ciudad de los muertos, although it is not a deserted place strikes me that there are spaces in the cemetery that no longer serve the function they have and begin to meet others.
The history of this peculiar site begins in the mid-twentieth century, when Jews invade the Sinai, territory belonging to Egypt. The people who lived there were displaced and their lands were occupied. Many moved to Cairo, the metropolis, but it happens that Cairo is a city with more than sixteen million people, a very large city, and many have nowhere to live, so people started to live in cemeteries (there are several cemeteries where people live, but this is as the metropolis of the cemeteries, the Mecca). Currently there are about five hundred thousand inhabitants, i.e. half a million … plus dead people; one million people dead or alive. But more interesting is the relationship between life and death, how people manage to live with that. The experience is another for them.
I really like an idea I’ve heard saying: “The one who is afraid of death, is afraid of the truth,” and that view has illuminated me. I do not think in my relationship with death as catastrophic, or depressed or sad at all, but how, through painting, reaching a level in a mental state (painting is a mental state), mixed with death; how to make a connection between life-painting-death. It’s simply a way of thinking about it, talking about it.
How did you get involved, from the experiential point of view, with these spaces that then pass to your work?
I think that in the end all this research I’m doing now has to do with that, with my constant desire to know places, to link me with nature. I think that comes from long ago, from the many trips I made to the countryside. The work I started doing more focused in those topics arises from landscape and from my interest in knowing new spaces.
Observing nature and see how things change always called me and calls my attention. The notion of seasons fascinates me. It is an issue that has been highly treated throughout the history of art. I have experienced only once the change from one season to another: from winter to spring by being in Switzerland, and it is an amazing thing how the temperament of the people, the landscape, the atmosphere on the street, and the colors of the nature change. It has no name. That behavior is so rare that we cannot feel it here. I have a debt with that, and in the future I want to do some paintings related to these changes.
That interest, that link with the changes, processes, death, gives me a great desire to interact with nature, and I think the better way to do it – apart from living with it- is by drawing, painting it, making pictures of it.
It is clear that for you the issue of scales is a key point in your working process. Why have you decided to develop the whole series from small format?
The experience with the place and the moment I start the series was distant (three years), and although the connection was immediately created and I revived it again, it was like a distant vision. For me the small painting generates a more intimate bond with the experiences, more personal, hence the format. The large paintings are like immediate experiences, more selfish, egocentric. I think that, even though the site attracted me a lot, my identification with the place, with that way of life and culture, is limited, punctual. So the idea was to create a bond, a link, but smaller, more subtle.
Beyond the small format, the curators of the exhibition have decided to make emphasis on the gaps, enhance the spaciousness. Talk me a bit about this curatorial election.
I want to create this kind of contradiction: a montage with small works within a large space and, at the same time, propose it as a kind of journey. I believe that the experience of watching a small picture on a wall of about three meters can be like an intimate journey, as reading a book, a closer relationship. That forces people to focus more on each piece. These are works that may resemble each other, there is a connection, and if I put them, for example, one beside the other, they might lose their identity. Put them alone is like granting them a load of personality to each. At the end they all refer to one place, but each has its autonomy, because that was what I saw there, every corner had a story, its own energy, its silence. There was a city environment, but also there was the mysterious silence of cemeteries. It was that mixture. I want the empty space of the gallery to connect with that. The exhibition will have many people and that makes them feel there is life, but also it is given space to silence.
Although your work may be classified as landscape, the look over the landscape that underlies on it is very particular. How do Alejandro Campins understand and make his dialogues and connections to the landscape, whatever it is?
Throughout art history landscape has had several looks; a look slightly hedonistic that has to do with painting reproducing it from the point of view of mimesis. There is another type of landscape that is much more emotional, more interior. Caspar D. Friedrich said something like: “Close your eyes, look at the landscape and then paint it, that’s the real landscape” and this is, somehow, the idea the Romantics had about the genre. I think there would be my link with landscape.
My current connection to the landscape has much to do with what it tells me. I think that more than saying about it, nature is what can answer me. It is like a conversation with it. But it is difficult because it is a complicated genre. How do you accomplish something that touches sensitivity in the contemporary world? I’m focusing a lot lately in what I call gaps with nature. That mismatch is what I try to capture, is where I look. For example, these landscapes that I do are “ugly”, scenes that are not typical of the landscape. How can I build those scenes that no one would look within a landscape? … Try to capture the beauty in every little place of nature. I always say that nature is like a museum, that it tells us a story wherever we look it, a story of old and new things, of life and death. I try anyone not to have a comfortable experience when watching one of my landscapes.
I feel that the essence of everything is in nature. I try to capture timelessness in each scene I make, that beauty as a synonym for truth that is there, locked.