Nicolas Sanchez L.

Home / Texts / 2014 / March / We spin around the night and are consumed by fire: Cecilia Brunson talks with Nicolás Sánchez

We spin around the night and are consumed by fire: Cecilia Brunson talks with Nicolás Sánchez

The sun descending in the west,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine
Night by William Blake
As human beings, our greatness lies
not so much in being able to remake the world
as being able to remake ourselves
Mahatma Gandhi

Nicolas Sanchez artistic practice is pulled by an incessant need to wander. He has built a consistent and diverse body of work that incorporates performance, film, installation and photography, and many of it is made in wide-ranging and often inaccessible geographic locations such as Siberia and Patagonia. Other works explore themes closer to home: such as the study of the London pubs and the city of London depicted during the ‘graveyard hour’ of the slowest night of the drinking week, as seen in this exhibition at Sala Gasco. Between Walter Benjamin’s Flâneur and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, he situates himself as both observer and subject within the work. All in all, Nicolás Sánchez practice makes a deep and evocative argument that oscillates around a permanent sense of loss. Just as Romanticism arose in response to the excess of 18th Century rationalism and its broken utopian promises, Sanchez uses his landscapes as a form of romantic escapism whilst breathing into them a feeling of desperation, melancholy, anger and hope.

The following is a conversation between curator Cecilia Brunson and the artist Nicolás Sánchez that had place on Cecilia Brunson Projects at London, UK, on a rainy Saturday of September 2013.

Nicolas, I have to say that when you came with your first picture, I knew you had a really interesting project in hands, and my fingers itched to make an exhibition. How did you come about these images of pubs at night?

The project arose from the need to do something with that infinite city, to respond to that universe which are big cities where we seem to get together to feel less alone, and paradoxically we isolate ourselves through the same impulse. But London is so hyper photographed that I decided to start exploring the city at night -when everything which is clear and known becomes diffuse without precise boundaries -, on its empty hours, on Sunday midnights. One of the things that immediately caught my attention was this image of the pubs at their closing hour. This old British institution, this gathering place of artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, bohemians and anonymous night owls of every age, appeared for me in a whole new perspective. They were like sinking ships in the middle of the night, where a handful of castaways, contained and never content, seem to want to postpone the damn hour when the bars are about to close. It was a very seductive mix of pleasure and despair but in a kind of harmony. I was at first sight shocked and in love with this image.

And the night itself has been a subject for so many artistic movements...

Especially for the Romantics, that I admire a lot... they found in the night an alternative to the clarity of the enlightenment. I think it is the same again... The night appeared as a stage full of metaphors about the paradox of human experience in the city, about that endless search and our need to complete ourselves.

Yes!, and despite the darkness of the night, there is a sort of warmth coming out of the pub even though it’s at its closing hour...

It is part of this ambivalence of the image, although the pub is closing and this darkness is covering everything, then this sort of warmth appears... they, the patrons are a few, but they are carrying a fire, that is contrasting with the emptiness and quietude of the exterior. It is a very special and beautiful moment with a very special atmosphere...

In London pubs there is still the tradition of calling the closure with the phrase "time gentlemen please"...

Right. The parish rings a bell and announces the closing of the place; beers are hurried, farewells follow and with it the feeling of nostalgia that accompanies any ending. Outside, the city silently falls into shadows and the dim light of the streetlamps guides the last night owls home through empty streets and sidewalks.

And if we associate the work with Hopper obviously, and Manet... Is that something you would associate yourself with?

It was unavoidable, when I saw these pub images, to think in Hopper’s Nighthawks and secondly in Manet as you point...

I am thinking of his “Bar at the Folie-Bergere” painting...

Absolutely, this sad girl behind the bar... but mostly Hopper. He was the portrayer of the great depression at the United States, of the hopeless sensation behind the optimism in the economic growth. I love when Hopper paints empty houses or buildings because he is actually painting people, portraits of people even though you can’t see them

I find that really interesting, because, just like hopper was capturing that moment of depression, you are capturing a city in a moment where there is an absolute affluence, and it’s a culture of excess. Is this a sort of critique?

It’s just the bringing back of historic sensibilities... more than a critique I prefer to talk of an awareness of the gigantic shadows that the future projects in our present -following Shelley, the poet-. And part of the seductiveness of these images is that you can see that affluence but you also can see the other side of the story. The feelings that these images awake may reflect a crisis of excesses, but also of shortcomings. I think that this double reading is interesting because it speaks of feelings transversal to all epochs.

Aha, and the image “Untitled (Lord Southampton, Belsize Park)”; for example? What’s the story behind it?

This has been Martha’s family pub for over 80 years. I know the story because many times, waiting for the perfect time, I went inside the pub and started talking with their owners. Martha is selling the pub, she is closing, nobody is coming, a buyer wants to build luxury apartments there. So I tried too, to make these portraits of pubs, like people’s portraits, just in the way I think Hopper did.

And what role do the photographs of parks in the middle of the night play within the entire photo series?

They are also nocturnal cityscapes of London, but with a wider, more distant gaze. In the logic of the series they function as context, as a more distant portrait but of the same moment in the middle of the night’s deepness. While outside the city sleeps, others plot their own revolution within their hearts, get lost in the nights in order to remake themselves every day, to change everything by changing themselves.

In the photos, but particularly in the video, as a viewer, it is very captivating and you feel a bit like a voyeur...

The idea was to immerse the viewer in this special atmosphere. It is very voyeuristic at first sight, but sometimes you get into the image and become part of the scene too...

And this kind of mounting of the photos, I think it helped a lot…

Exactly. At a quick look, you only see glare and reflections. But having a second gaze you start to see things, you penetrate the surface, you get into the scenery and find details in the shadows and capture the whole atmosphere. It was a way of slowing down the images...

And that’s what I find very appealing as well about this project. Normally I find that in photography, you look at pictures and you capture things immediately, whereas painting needs a different kind of time. And what these photographs do is link both worlds. There is a moment when you begin to see, to discover…

In all my works I always try to slow down the images with a steady and contemplative gaze and aesthetics. This has to do with the actual difficulty of the images to trigger a dive into ourselves. Most images nowadays only allude to the immediate, to the external. I think that art must be capable of slowing down the images as well as ourselves, to make us look inwards and detonate some sort of enquiry...

It’s like when your eyes need a moment to be able to see after entering a dark room

Yes that is a beautiful metaphor!

And the title of this series... ‘We spin around the night’, is also the title of Guy Debord’s 1978 film...

That’s right. The Situationists appeared, as in most of my work, in the act of wandering around the city, in this case, at night looking for pubs. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (we spin around the nights and are consumed by the fire) is an old latin palindrome (which can be read equally in both directions) that 
Debord rescued –in my point of view- as a tribute to those who are searching without sleeping and get burnt by the fire...

So the performative component of your work... it is present here too?

Absolutely. Although I do not appear explicitly, for me the performative work is as present as in the other pieces. When you see the whole photo series and the video, with their titles that refer to specific places around the city, you realize in your mind the performance itself. This drifting was the performance and it is very present for me in a more metaphorical and beautiful way sometimes.

Your practice works really nice, reading it as an ethnographical investigation... you travel to different places and do very different things but all linked in a way.

Every place I have inhabited, for long or short periods, was a trigger for me. My creative process is deeply linked to a place; it’s a response to it, to a reality. It is a buffer for approaching it, for being capable of assimilating what I like but also what scares me.

And finally Nicolas, what projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on the promotion and circulation of "Life is elsewhere", an artist film in which I worked on from 2010, a lyric documentary about a trip to Atacama and Patagonia in search for life. Additionally, I was earlier this year filming in Tangier, Morocco for a future project on immigration and search of freedom.

Both projects, so distant in geography and appearance, point towards different directions but to the same point. They return once and again to the same thing, to the usual, but which I can’t name easily. Roland Barthes said, “what I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance”, and it is with that finality that I use the image, to point towards that which I can’t name, that which disturbs me.