I haven’t found a better way to go back in time. Diango Hernández in conversation with Astrid Wege and Andrew Renton Published in The new man and the new woman (exhibition catalogue) Marlborough Contemporary, London
Memory is all we’ve got, so to remember is an essential task. Facts get recorded in us via individual experiences of all kinds, but it doesn’t mean that anyone else but us will remember these facts. I have assumed, for my practice and myself, that art is nothing more than transforming and exposing individual memories. Art as the reassembling of personal experiences that can be delivered to people in a new form of reality, and which is nothing other than fiction. The new man (el hombre nuevo) is, first of all, a very familiar phrase to me, something that was ‘written’ on my memories without using a pencil but as a never-ending repetition, or, better to say, as a tedious litany. I can’t precisely recall when I heard of it for the first time, I guess I was too young; I guess I was too far from here, very far from this precise moment in time.
All the references I have collected and relocated for this exhibition were the result not of premeditation but of accident (assuming that accidental discoveries happen by chance and not by the guidance of our obsessions). The starting point, the first ‘accidental’ discovery, was a 1930’s catalogue of Allach porcelain. The strange circumstances that surrounded this discovery proved a vague thought I had years ago – I will only find things that make me complete. In order to define the relevance of this catalogue I have had it with me for more than three years, I have flipped through it hundreds of times and I have taken it with me to Havana, the city where everything started for me. It was only in Havana that I found one important answer that awoke me to the need of making something else out of it.
There is no need to unfold or to explain this further, because it is very simple: Why can an object only reveal its essential purpose when it is relocated? Only with the help of the Allach catalogue in Havana, hundreds of miles away from where I found it, could I see my entire education as a mass-produced object. I took the catalogue with me back to Germany and I started thinking about how to ‘translate’ these porcelain figures into drawings. Until now, I haven’t found a better way to go back in time, it is only by transforming an image into a drawing that I can access the past.
What is it about that specific medium of drawing that is so productive for you in terms of accessing the past? The series of works may well be drawings, technically, but formally they reveal strong contrasts between an image that is barely there – black on black outlines – and the materiality of the board which supports the image. For me this materiality is important, emphatically present. It’s not just about images, but the space of the gallery has been transformed into a progression of physical encounters for the viewer. You work with such a broad vocabulary of materials, could you talk about some of them at work here?
If we understand a photograph as a mirror of reality we can assume that the photographed object exists or has existed. The drawing that forms the basis of any specific object the blueprint is rarely visible, the drawing is, in most cases, irrelevant. The drawing was just the beginning, the medium used to produce the object and it usually remains hidden in the past. If we present the drawing of an object instead of a photograph of it, we can’t really prove that the object existed. Where are the original drawings of the Allach porcelain? I believe that by making these drawings I can access a source, and maybe history can be reversed.
Graphite is the material I have struggled with since I was a kid. To keep a page of my notebooks clean was a big issue for me. On the first day of school, I got a pencil, a couple of notebooks and a surgical blade. There was no pencil sharpener and so we used this extremely sharp blade; we had to ask teacher’s permission to go to the front of the classroom, sharpening our pencils into a trash basket in the corner. But many of us would sharpen the pencils at our school desk, the graphite powder mixing with our sweaty tropical hands; the white pages of our notebooks became very dirty as well as our white shirts.
Graphite is the material that I have used for making the series of ‘drawings’ for ‘The New Man and The New Woman’ exhibition. I have used a very particular technique in which a very dense layer of graphite covers the entire surface. The lines that I have drawn are only visible because I have used a pencil made out of metal that polishes the graphite. In this way the lines reflect the light and can be seen.
Materials and techniques can be only relevant if they help complete a particular story. Here I quote Sebald:
‘It was Cornelis de Jong who drew my attention to the fact that many important museums, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague or the Tate Gallery in London, were originally endowed by the sugar dynasties or were in some other way connected with the sugar trade. The capital amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through various forms of slave economy is still in circulation, said de Jong, still bearing interest, increasing many times over and continually burgeoning anew. One of the most tried and tested ways of legitimizing this kind of money has always been patronage of the arts, the purchase and exhibiting of paintings and sculptures, a practice which today, said de Jong, was leading to a relentless escalation of prices paid at major auctions. Within a few years, the hundred million mark for half a square yard of painted canvas will have been passed. At times it seems to me, said de Jong, as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy.’ W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn.
The graphite ‘drawings’ shown in ‘The New Man and The New Woman’ can’t be linked to a form of tradition in art but to a particular story of mine. This is a very important notion in my practice; I can’t follow or directly support art history since I believe art history is only serving the interest of value.
I would like you to dwell a little longer on the question of materiality. The choice of material can also imply a moment of critique, as is indicated in your reference to the Italian architect Castiglioni who made a maquette of a fascist building out of cheese. You transferred this approach to your own school building. What does this transferal and reinterpretation of a specific material as well as gesture mean to you? And how important is it that the beholder can ‘read’ and trace back these references and associations?
Materials definitely play an important role in this exhibition; their suggestive connotations can lead us to very precise meanings and can awaken particular stories. In Castiglioni’s architectural model made out of cheese, the material becomes very poignant; it plays with our senses, particularly smell. On the other hand, it unfolds a mocking moment, which is a very important critical tool.
‘Humour is like a whip with jingle bells attached to its popper.’ José Martí.
The Castiglioni model could have many associations, one of them can be found, for example, in the 1940 film The Eternal Jew, in which Jewish people are compared to rats. But in his model Castiglioni subverts who is attracted to cheese by giving the model this title: ‘Model for a Fascist Cultural Centre.’
I don’t have a particular interest in the architecture of the schools; I instead focus on its connotations and my subjective interpretation of Castiglioni’s model. The schools were also cultural/formative centres where architecture couldn’t be seen as a form of construction but rather as a designed system where mechanisms such as isolation, indoctrination, collectivism, exploitation and control were more relevant than the reinforced concrete that was used to build the schools. It is easier for me to see and to understand this architecture typology reading Foucault’s interpretation and analysis of the Panopticon.
For Foucault, the Panopticon is an architectural design or plan that signals a convergence of a historically-situated political and social ideology, a socio-material epistemology, and a pragmatic of social control and resistance. In its most concrete form, the Panopticon is a socio-material template for institutional orders of all kinds ranging from prisons, to schools, to factories, to hospitals. In its abstract form, the Panopticon ‘is a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.’
I can’t lead nor control the viewer’s interpretations, therefore I have never wanted the viewer to have a ‘handbook’ in which all my references are explained and exposed. Every artwork has multiple important moments in its past and many others in its future; which means that an artwork has a story behind it and another beyond it. The perspective of the viewer is the only element that defines the present of an artwork. In this sense the graphite drawings give an important clue to the viewer because their appearance changes in relation to his standing point: sometimes the drawing is visible and sometimes what you can see is just a graphite surface that has apparently ‘swallowed’ the lines.
Perspective, yes … Stepping back from the individual drawings, there is a cumulative effect that the viewer experiences while moving through the series. It is another type of perspective. Your processes of making and your exhibitions often seem structured with this experience in mind; single works that combine in series. Not bound up in a recognisable style, there’s something of a process of ‘working through’ an idea. So it is hard to pinpoint the ‘look’ of your work. As much as we’ve focused on the material and formal concerns of the work, is there another starting point? Ethical, conceptual, autobiographical? And, if so, how do these translate into the stuff of art? Do you impose limits or criteria on yourself when you are working?
Changes are dialectic forces behind curiosity. Hurricanes have always fascinated me; when I was a kid together with a couple of friends we used to look forward to the hurricane season. I have seen quite a lot of hurricanes and I have been right there inside the eye of many. There is hardly any rain inside the hurricane eye. In fact it is kind of peaceful and sometimes even sunny. Their eyes are powerful and generate huge amounts of energy around them. The day after a hurricane is what we enjoyed the most. The landscape, usually revealed to us as a photograph, was violently changed every time, the tall and elegant palm trees looked like huge naked columns. Big, heavy objects were moved from ‘point A’ to a totally random place. Hurricanes gave us change – probably the change that wasn’t delivered by a society that was committed to a static social process paradoxically called revolution.
Making art, and most importantly thinking, must be for me moments of transformation in which dialectics are permanently in command. Special stories challenge me to redefine my ‘language’ and, in most cases, push me to enter unexplored aesthetic territories where specific tools must be used. I have a particular attraction to artists’ moments of change. In many cases artists’ trajectories are defined by particular contents or formal themes and sometimes these trajectories are broken by introducing a new body of work. In these moments, artists are totally vulnerable and at risk. They have liberated themselves from coherency and linearity; they have jumped into what could be understood as a mistake.
‘Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.’ C.G. Jung
Once I have started to think and shape a body of work, there are no limits imposed. I am only following a series of links that constantly appear while the story develops. To synchronise these links is often the most challenging process because rules have been abandoned? from the beginning. I am aware of the difficulties that such processes carry but I can’t help it. ‘Disconnected thinking’ is a concept of increasing appeal; if an artist can’t disconnect himself from the actual circumstances of artistic perception then we must stop using the word Art and maybe just call it ‘Market.’
Published in The new man and the new woman (exhibition catalogue) Marlborough Contemporary, London