And when you finish studying, what’s the real world like as an artist?
Well, pretty fucked up. It’s especially Spain. Although I was very lucky in the scholarship calls. I was selected for a stay at the Spanish Academy in Rome, and then I got the Botin Foundation and went to the United States, and I was also in Barcelona with another scholarship from the Círculo de Bellas Artes…
However, I survive with something that started as something parallel to the art world, but which I later discovered is quite related. I earn my living as an imager, making images of sacred art. This allows me to survive. But it also helps me to explain who I am from an artistic point of view. Because I make cult images and, transferred to another field, I try to make the invisible visible, for example.
When you make sacred art you have to stick to the commission, but then in your more personal work there are a series of themes that come up repeatedly. What are your interests as an artist?
To a great extent I’m interested in the unknown. Art has the capacity to show what human beings are like. Art explains it better than science, because the latter tends to make reductionisms that explain reality from a very limited point of view, which gives you very great certainties. But art allows you to have a very direct presence with the complexity of reality. In that sense, like mysticism, art offers you little lights. Just as Val del Omar had a line of mystical cinema.
It may be outside of those more fashionable themes, but I ask myself those spiritual questions that have to do with human beings, such as death or suffering, which are very classical and perhaps not very up to date.
You could say that your two photo books are related to this idea that science does not give all the answers. In one part of a scientific classification, an archive in the spirit of a catalogue, and in the other you go to the microscope, the dna chain… There is a reinterpretation of the scientific.
It’s true. In both, this big issue is raised. In 19th century society it was the “modern project” and faith in the progress of science as something unlimited. I question this in ‘Révélations’, this whole approach of banishing illness and madness which is the most contrary to modernity and pure reason.
This is happening now in a more current and even future context. Aurelia’ is almost a science fiction project. The idea is that in 2045, thanks to many resources, death will be optional. It proposes the end of the human race as a being that ends its days and dies.
Millions of dollars are already being invested to put an end to death. The analysis that is made on many occasions, at least that is the impression that I have had during my investigations, is that the problem can be solved quickly, because the human being is only considered in biological terms. If you study it in biological terms and setting goals, you can solve different issues until you manage to end the problem of death.
But we’re back to the reductionism of science, and in this case of technology. But the reality is much more complex from my point of view. The human being is not only a series of biochemical relationships, but there is something there that we do not fully understand and that has to be explained through realities such as art or religion, mysticism, which tells you about something much more complex. There are many problems to be solved, such as the conscience, the individual, multiplicity… We have to resolve issues that have to do with what is considered the psyche, the soul.
That’s why the two projects are a nod to scientific discourse. In fact, they use scientific methods. They are photographs taken with electronic scanners, or those of the Salpêtrière are photographs taken by a body of doctors to document clinical cases.
How do you get to ‘Aurelia’?
By reading a news item about the immortal jellyfish. And I keep the clipping and it stays there as it happens with many projects about which I collect information and document myself. And I get interested in that world and collect information. It turns out that there are three types of jellyfish that have had some kind of research that claims that they have a reversible process, that is, that when they reach a state where they “die” they reverse the cycle and return to the initial state. This is what scientists call transdifferentiation. Differentiated adult cells are able to return to an embryonic state and regenerate their life cycle.
That was the trigger for this project. The idea of being able to build a story in which this type of discovery would generate a domain of death on the part of man.
And who do you come into contact with?
I’m always interested in the strangest, most mould-breaking things. I find out that there is a Chinese student of marine biology, Jinru He, who in first year of his studies picks up one of these jellyfish, the moon jellyfish, also called Aurelia, and keeps it in a pond until it dies. But then he leaves it for three months in a tank. The jellyfish is left as a wrinkled mass, but from there, after three months, he discovers that from its upper part emerge some polyps. He analyses them and they have the same genetic information as the “mother jellyfish”. It’s a phoenix process.
This is published in 2015. I contacted him. I went to China to Xiamen University, but I can’t reach him. And they tell me he’s doing his doctorate in Kiel in Germany and I’ve already contacted him. Then I tell him what I’m looking for and we take the pictures.
And all that generates the photobook and the exhibition that is in the Museum of the University of Navarra.
That’s it. My first idea was to make a cult object.
What do you mean by a cult object?
Cult, almost worship. For me, the advantage of the photobook is that it is an object. In fact, in Navarre there’s the book itself as a piece of sculpture. And there’s a development in a circular cleft in a larger size in a purely sculptural piece.
This idea is based on the fact that it is a specimen with an unlimited process. And I can think of how to make a book without a beginning or an end, something that contradicts the concept of a book, in which you have the cover and the closure. I have the idea of using the system of a cleft and joining the covers together, so that the book becomes something cyclical and, at least symbolically, something infinite.
This is how the first part of the book comes about, which consists of showing the cycle of the jellyfish with the photographs taken with the electronic microscope. They are impressive photographs. This was another chapter, to get into the scientific techniques to be able to visualize the invisible; in this case a jellyfish of some millimeters and to try to discover what happens inside it.
These microscopes obtain images that are somewhat similar to fossils. You get a new dimension of the jellyfish. It is usually something ethereal, mainly water, a gelatine full of light and when you look at it with this microscope, you see something stony, like prehistoric. Just the opposite. And there is this fascination with this contradiction, when we start photographing these jellyfish and their different states, which means working to have it at different times.
As I go down the microscope, I discover new things. The more microscopic, the more new worlds appear. Even in the jellyfish’s skin there’s impressive fauna. And if you keep going, you get to the genetic information. It’s a fascinating world, which has to do with the idea that in the microcosm you can discover the macrocosm. From the small, you get to the galaxies. This, in microphotography, happens all the time.
There is a very high degree of automatism when taking pictures. You choose the compositions and images, but you are shooting with a machine that you do not even direct. But it all has to do with the origin of photography, of making the invisible visible. The new technologies make this a continuous thing, the ability to renew our capacity to see what was hitherto hidden from our gaze.
With all that you have just said, many reflections come to mind. But there is an idea that I think is very present, I see clearly a connection with the religious: immortality and resurrection, what happens in this world as a reflection of a superior world… Together art, science, religion. In fact, on the cover of your book there’s a cross.
Ha, ha. Yes, the symbol is funny because the jellyfish has a four-leaf clover that also has the outline of a cross. And there’s gold, which brings in a sacred element. And it relates it to alchemy and the desire to achieve in eternal youth or the philosopher’s stone to be able to convert metals into gold. That’s something that’s recurrent in our culture. But not only in ours, also in Africa or Asia.
In fact, the whole book has that character that I used to say about worship, which is posed as the new manual that can define the life of a being of the future. In this way, the whole approach of the book remains very open. It will hook those who are in favor of transhumanism that links to this object as a way of overcoming death, another will connect because they have a cross… I like very much that the work is completed by a new author, the spectator who with his vision finishes the work.
Like many sacred books, this one also has several volumes. There’s a diary. Is that the apocryphal part?
Ha, ha. The first book is a golden one and is very objectified. But the other is conceived as a diary, with a text that I write in 2046, which would be the year in which we would have managed to defeat death. A reflection is made, without explaining exactly what happened, but opening up a multitude of aspects that have to do with this matter of death. Among others, the possibility of creating a new species appears and what are the limits of nature, of science, if those limits are cultural…
I propose some reflections in very open ways. This booklet begins with a letter I write to Jinru He, and I already introduce some topics. And then all those themes are raised, which, through a sequence of photographs, connect with some transhuman beings, who are no longer human because they are immortal, or with the archaeological remains of Pompeii; bodies that through death were immortalized.
There is a game about what would happen if we were immortal, if we were sold is immortality. I wonder what would happen to art, for example, which would no longer be so linked to tragedy, as it usually is in the West, and would have a more aesthetic value. Or if art would be the answer to all those questions we’ve always asked ourselves.
You are linking immortality to the disappearance of pain, suffering and illness. You assume that we would defeat death in all its manifestations.
Death would be the extreme manifestation.
As you explain, ‘Revelation’ and ‘Aurelia’ are two sides of the same coin. In one you focus on pain and suffering and false hope in progress. And in this one you come to ask what would happen if that progress had been successful.
It is not false hope in progress. It is something that determines. What seems false to me and generates a disappointment is to consider that science as such can achieve progress by itself, simply because man is a more complex reality. Happiness is not necessarily linked to the solution of technical questions. I think that it is not possible to absolutize a paradigm, not even that of progress. Because this generates many problems such as, for example, who is controlling such progress.
We see it in World War II, with the development of Nazism and its idea of progress, like the essays of Dr. Mengele. In many cases it’s the same approach we’re taking now. There is a neo-Maxist architect and thinker, Paul Virilio, who has a very significant phrase that says: the Nazis lost the war, but they won the peace. That exclusion that the Nazis made of what did not fit in the canons and was exterminated, was already done in another way in La Salpêtrière.
There is a danger that this will happen now, and this is the thinking behind this project. The selection that is currently being made, an artificial selection. Those who are not willing to have a colour of eyes or a height will be left behind as a redoubt of the species. For me this has a tremendous violence that to a certain extent is very dangerous and that is going to create many conflicts between those who can access and those who cannot. For me, art has the capacity to question these things.
You don’t belong to any photographic ghetto. In fact, you have broken into the world of photobooks with some success both nationally and internationally. How do you see the evolution in recent years?
One of the drawbacks of the market is that it creates a very large homogenisation, and when I say the market I could say the contemporary art industry, insofar as it is marked by the market. This homogenisation is something completely counterproductive, because art escapes from all kinds of cataloguing and breaks the mould.
But one of the advantages of the crisis we have suffered has been the appearance of phenomena outside the market with a very high cultural and artistic interest. One of these phenomena is the photobook, which is a more democratic system of being able to develop artistic projects with a great deal of intensity and to which more people have access than the pieces exhibited in a gallery and which in the end are bought by four collectors. This is a tremendously interesting aspect.
You have one foot in many worlds, instead of being from one particular sector. Your work is very different.
Maybe that’s not very sought after. But the reality is that it creates a kind of lack of understanding. People need to catalogue you, put a label on you. I have dissociated myself from that kind of work because I am incapable of producing in a serial way for the market, which always asks for the same work, and I think that is a very big limitation. If there’s something about an artist it’s that he’s setting himself new challenges and breaking with things he’s done before, and that means you never consider your creative capacity to be closed. That has allowed me to work in a very interdisciplinary way and to reach different approaches.
One can say that he who embraces much, does not squeeze much. That can take its toll, but that toll is ultimately very positive, because it keeps you alive. I always think about something that was talked about in my generation, that art is a long-distance race. And in a long-distance race, where is the finish line? There are people who ask themselves that question 20 years from now, or three centuries from now.
But I don’t understand creation in the short term. I don’t intend to succeed. I think that creates big problems for many contemporary artists. It’s very important to think about things in other terms from the start, because if you’re not always on the lookout for approval from a curator or gallery owner… And that creates tremendous dissatisfaction and destroys your capacity to create.
On the other hand, it’s not easy to maintain artistic intensity without a certain amount of recognition. Recognition is important and you have to look for it in one way or another, whether it’s a gallery or a competition. But it’s important that in the end there is a kind of ethic, faith in the work, in doing what you think you should do apart from recognition.
You have just collaborated with David Jiménez and Alejandro Marote in a chapel where you have also worked as an imager. Are there other photographers that you also like?
The choice of these photographers for this project was determined, firstly by their closeness, they are people I knew and are friends with, and then by the possibilities their work offers to find a place in a religious and sacred space with a certain purpose, and not everyone falls within these criteria. In this case, Alejandro Marote made a series of photographs with superimposed frames with tremendous color intensity and suggested to me the possibility of making a via lucis. By introducing his work into a religious context, it works in an amazing way.
The same goes for David Jimenez. He was a constellation of birds, which when introduced into a church becomes a kind of cosmic discourse of creation. We’re happy with the result.
With respect to other photographers, more than a name, what I identify with is something that is happening: the use of art and photography to tell stories, the artist as a storyteller. From my point of view it’s one of the most interesting things that is happening today and it takes art out of a kind of narcissistic, excessively self-absorbed approach, which is something that contemporary art has suffered from.
Art is a service linked to the ability to communicate. Today, many artists tell stories that are universal, regardless of their aesthetic background. This has not always been the case. When I studied in the faculty, it was anathema to think about the people you’re addressing, and from my point of view it’s something fundamental. And to that extent, art has always told universal stories, whether it’s a myth, a historical or religious event. It was something that everybody could connect with, and that’s very interesting.
Specifically in Spain, that happens. For example, Cristina De Middel brings not a wonderful or novel photograph, but the ability to engage viewers in a story and that’s wonderful. We don’t talk about it much, but I think it’s a phenomenon that’s happening in our country.