Interview by Emma Lewis for Photomonitor
Nicolás Sánchez (b.1981) is a Chilean artist currently living in London. His practice is driven by an interest in the situations that highlight, and even suggest an alternative to, the conditions of capitalist society. Often this is realised through his own journeys or interventions in urban and rural spaces, which are then presented as short films and photographic series. In Wild rosehip jam (slow food) (2008), he recorded the making and sharing of jam made from fruits picked on a walk through the periphery of the city; in La balsa de Noe (living off) the fat of the land (2011) he documented his navigation of Chile’s Mapocho River on a raft that he constructed from the waste that clogs its waters.
Continuing his interest in the idea of landscape as performance, in Sánchez’s latest series his journey took the form of a pub crawl – although not in the traditional sense. Roaming London’s streets on Sunday evenings during the winter, he adopted the position of the lone outsider looking in, to capture pubs in the hour before closing on the slowest night of the week.
Consisting of a video and six of his series of thirteen photographs, Meditation on an Ending is Sánchez’s first solo UK exhibition and the inaugural exhibition at Cecilia Brunson Projects. His work has been shown in numerous international solo and group exhibitions including the MAC Museum of Contemporary Art, Chile, Borges Cultural Centre, Argentina, and BAC Festival Barcelona, Spain. In 2009 he won the Juan Downey award for video creation. Below, Emma Lewis recently interviewed Sánchez about the background to his works currently on show in London.
Emma Lewis: You have previously described your work in terms of a critique of capitalism: specifically, the idea of observing or creating situations and gestures that counter the homogeneity fostered under this ideology. How did you seek to develop this position in Meditation on an Ending?
Nicolás Sánchez: In all the cultural and artistic movements that interest me (the German Romanticism, the Decadentists, the flâneur poets of the modern era, the Hudson River School, to mention just a few), the night as an image and as a metaphor has been a recurrent subject. Especially during the Romantic movement at the end of the eighteenth century, the night represented an alternative to the suffocating clarity of the Enlightenment, and a fascination with the obscure arose in response to the excesses of rationalism and its misleading utopian promises. Meditation on an Ending brings back this same feeling that the Romantics experienced in their time. Because of the optimistic view based on science and technology as the solutions for all of our problems, we experience a misleading sensation of plenitude, we think everything is being clarified by these means, but – I think – it is not. Mainly because our existence is diverse and random by nature. Meditation on an Ending is an exercise of turning the gaze inwards, to the night of the self, to the infinite night, to the sombre future, to an ending.
EL: What interested you about the pub, specifically the institution of the British pub, with regards to this mood or spirit?
NS: First I was fascinated with the traditional pub as an image (the different decorative styles, the hanging pots outside, the names, those particular signs, and so on) but didn’t know what to do with it. Then I started understanding it as an old institution of convener spirit, as a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, bohemians, drunks and anonymous nighthawks, that have always defied the hours and challenged the norm that keeps them contained but never content. So then I started pub-crawling at night with my camera at that damn hour when pubs are almost closing. Obviously Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) appeared, as did Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), and with them, these images of pubs like sinking ships in the night, a mix of pleasure and despair in a kind of contradictory harmony. It is again the bringing back of historic sensibilities: Hopper was the portrayer of the great depression at the United States, of the emptiness, anguish and hopeless sensation behind the curtain of blinding optimism and faith in the economic growth and material progress.
EL: In the video we observe a pub in this ‘damn hour’. A patron’s occasional, steady movements and an outside light that flickers sporadically are the only movements in an otherwise very still, quiet scene. Is your attention to slowing down and relative absence of action intended as a part of your mode of critique?
NS: In my work there has always been a steady and contemplative gaze and aesthetics. This has to do with the difficulty of images [succeeding in] triggering a dive into ourselves. Most images nowadays – even if they succeed to refer to something else than themselves, even if they get past the surface, to dig furthermore – even then, they only allude to the external. To be able to turn towards the internal, looking inwards, and spark an enquiry – not a desire – art must be capable of slowing down the images as well as ourselves. My works in general and Meditation on an Ending in particular are directed towards this, through a contemplative approach. More than criticizing without pointing to solutions, I look for an awareness of the gigantic shadows that the future projects in our present. That is how I like to read the video you mention, as a metaphor: While the city sleeps and the shadows cover everything, a few people plot their own revolutions, getting lost around the nights to be found in a new way every day, changing everything, changing themselves.
EL: A number of the works in the series are titled ‘We spin around the night’, from the palindrome ‘In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni’ (‘We spin around the night consumed by fire’), the title of Guy Debord’s 1978 film of the same name. Could you explain the significance of this?
NS: Actually this was my second finding, after Hopper and Manet. The Situationists appeared, again as in most of my work, in the act of crawling itself, of drifting around the city at night looking for pubs. The group led by Debord, that as part of the historic avant-gardes vociferated for changing everything from the root, conducted urban derivés as a way to change a world that suffocated them with boredom, juxtaposing to the city grid a human one. So this gave the name to the original photo series, although the exhibition is called Meditation on an Ending. It is an old Latin palindrome as you point it out, that Guy Debord rescued – in my point of view – as a homage to those who are searching without sleeping, to the wakeful who can not rest and get burnt, consumed by the fire while they are spinning around the nights.
EL: Did you apply any structure to your movements through the city? How were you guided around?
NS: I never make any plans in the first attempts. Here I let myself be guided by the night and its power to sharpen our senses. In the middle of the (partial) darkness, silence and solitude, everything resonates in a stronger way; the unknown and the uncertain awake anxieties, fears…. but also cheerfulness and quietude. That frightening beauty that the Romantics called the feeling of the sublime: that is my compass. Unlike controlled causal processes, the creative process – life itself, following Beuys – is not foreseeable. There has to be space for the casualty and imagination, especially at that numinous time at night when forms are ever-changing and diluted. It is a search for metaphors rather than answers, as the only possible way to capture the transcendental which most of the time is blurred or only insinuated.
EL: With the idea of drifting, or the derivé, in mind, I wonder what degree of importance you place on the specifics of geography and location? (For example, the pub frontage and also the red postbox seen in one image are indicative of the country you are in – but the name of the particular establishment has been digitally removed.) What was the decision behind this relative anonymity?
NS: The first cut I did among the pubs that left an impression on me, was to discard the too-bustling pubs and the over or under illuminated ones. After that, I digitally removed only the signs with the names of each pub, not looking for a denial of the place, but in an intention to extend the metaphor to any other pub. The postboxes, phone cabins, transit signage and slightly distinctive frontage of many pubs, despite speaking of a specific country (a detail that I like), are mostly generic urban furniture or archetypal typologies, so I didn’t consider them to interfere with the poetic play. The intent behind this selection process is to choose the best way to give the known the dignity of the unknown, as Novalis says, a higher meaning to the commonplace, to the ordinary a mysterious appearance.
EL: And how about choice of time, too? As you mention there is a sense of quietude, even melancholy, captured in these images of the Sunday evening in the hour before closing time – a feeling that may not have been evoked had you shot at a different time, on a different day of the week….
NS: Absolutely. Going back, London is a place endlessly photographed, full of images of its appearance, immersing myself in its night was the way for me to slow down the images, to make them point inwards again, where we never look in these times of insistent expellant images that have failed – or never wanted – to show us the elemental paradoxes of human condition. The quietude of Sunday midnights were a beginning for this elegy of the night, for those who are looking for themselves, who are in search of something they don’t know but that does not let them sleep, for those who don’t believe in mass revolutions but in small, silent conspiracies.