Illustration from Roman de Mélusine or the Chronique de Melusine, written by Jean d’Arras. 1478.
What is Melusine’s Works?
The title Melusine’s Works essentially names a method addressing a manner of exhibiting. A series of paintings on cardboard are produced. A framework structure made of “shamanically” assembled found wood is built at the same time, or before, or after that, with the aid of maps, drawings and mock-ups. Then, or at the same time, the paintings on cardboard are fixed to that structure forming “walls” and “roofs” (and, of course, corners, tokonomas, holes, and so on). The work is inaugurated and the visitors enter the ephemeral architecture as proposed by the installation, which is also an ensemble of paintings displayed in narrative form. Thanks to the technique applied, the public may interact with the work using water, in an attempt to reveal what underlies the prevailing white appearance of the images. The construction remains a short time where it was located, and is later dismantled. Some of these devices were made in institutional contexts, and two of them were exhibited in white cubes, but I prefer the public space, which is, without the slightest doubt, more significant, challenging and richer in possibilities for chance events, improvisation and interaction.
What is the subtext under the title of this series?
Melusine was originally a folkloric character from certain regions of what are now France and the Benelux, and the protagonist of old legends that reached literary form by the end of the 14th century. We may now consider her a literary character with an outstanding career, visited by Breton, Goethe and Proust and also by Manuel Mujica Láinez, who wrote (El Unicornio) a sort of implausible mythical biography. Melusine is a water nymph who takes the shape of a woman and goes on diverse adventures until she is discovered and runs away. I’m interested in two aspects of Melusine which explain her appearance in my work. The first is her capacity to magically build wonderful constructions in one night which, nonetheless, always entail some sort of mistake, vice or imperfection. The other aspect is her aquatic nature: when in contact with water, even if she’s sprayed, Melusine shows her true side, and thus looks more like a siren. The constructions of the Melusine’s works series play with both references.
When did you start with this series?
The series [December, 2014] is now composed by six presentations. It began in 2013, although was preceded by a work from 2010 entitled Casa de Medusa (House of Medusa). The first installation of the Melusine’s Works series was exhibited in Nancy, France (7th October, 2013), and the last one in Lendava, Slovenia (28th November, 2014).
Why do you use cardboard and wood?
I started using rough, worn, found wood in this symbolic way in an installation and a series of sculptures from 2006 in which I thematised the Fall of Icarus. Before that, I employed wood as a medium for drawings and paintings. These paintings and series of paintings from 2004-2010 were also essays on appearance, disappearance, vanishing and demise. They put into play notions regarding the evident temporality of the pictorial surface itself. Cardboard started to be important because of technical and practical reasons when, after living 12 years in Montevideo, Uruguay, I began to live nomadically, staying during long periods in different cities and countries. I then began to look for appropriate materials to apply some technical and pictorial ideas in large format, to create easy to transport paintings and installations. Cardboard is cheap or free, is an important part of urban debris, refers to processes of conversion and metamorphosis of organic matter, has the colour of the skin, evidences former usages related to merchandise and travel. It has marks such as signs, letters and words, wounds and stamps. The painted surface of a painting on cardboard may be detached and transported as very thin paper, as I did on many occasions as was the case with the whole Tempel der Medusa. While building the installations I usually only use nails and traps, sometimes wire, tape, and string. Painting is another matter. Nevertheless, cardboard isn’t rare in the tradition of painting, not at least in my country, where it may be frequently found in low budget constructions and poor housing. I later discovered and studied the work of other contemporary artists working on large size installations made of cardboard, such as Christian Eisenberger, Rob Voerman, Sylvie Reno, Mahony and the Russian painter Walerij Koschljakov, with whom I share many things in common.
Sometimes it seems difficult to talk about painting today –we even began to discuss what is beside or behind or above it. However, at the same time it seems that for you painting comes first, and this could also be said regarding the installation’s themes and its structural configuration, isn’t that so?
More or less: first of all comes thought, which is drawing, and then comes the drawing of thought: schemes, lists, diagrams, and so on. Anyway, these installations are, in my opinion, pictorial devices. The first time I used these materials I was experimenting with the representation of movement and change, not at iconographical level but as it arises from the material itself. Portrait and self-portraits were the privileged themes at that time (2004-2010). From a technical point of view, I was revisiting some experiences made by the matérico painters from the 70’s in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. They were important for my generation, especially in academic circles. In 2008 I started to work in a more alchemical way, let’s say: studying old recipes, collecting substances and materials, producing oils, leaving things to ferment and rot, improvising. The project Laboratorio Color y Contexto [Colour and Context Laboratory], a subgroup within the Traspuesto de un Estudio para un Retrato Común [Transposed Study for a Common Portrait] artists´ association, functioned during this same period. Our intention there, in the context of a collective effort to represent a place, was to produce colours and materials to paint and draw only using organic substances and materials offered to us by the natural environment. I also decided to use only organic and mineral materials in my work, although I’m not intransigent in this regard. By chance I discovered that I could realise whatever I sought to using lime and a very small repertory of substances: earths, oils, milk, gesso, plants, oxides, blood, charcoal… In this context, the use of cardboard isn´t part of an orthodox position: it’s just that some effects can only achieved with it. What I now do is in some ways a variant of the fresco technique -not the Renaissance fresco, but the pre-classical one. It’s just that the materials supporting it are inappropriate for that function, and there’s some kind of revelation in this incoherence. All this makes sense due to the functional purpose of the paintings which are functional to the installations: they are “roofs” and “walls”, they are decorative.
What “effects” are you talking about? Is the interactive potential of these works so important for you that you ask visitors to throw water to them to “see” what is behind the white surface? Wouldn’t this only be a spectacular aspect, so to say?
The “effects” I was talking about are a representation of movement, transformation and change, although for anybody who studies the historical context in which I initiated with these practices (post-dictatorial Uruguay -and also in democratic Slovenia, by the way) it will become apparent that the notions of disappearance, erasing and reappearance are not there by chance. Anyway, this aspect of the technique applied acquires different grades of importance in each edition of Melusine’s Works. In Tempel der Medusa it isn’t important, and the visitors didn’t interact with the installation in this way, it simply proposed itself as a space to go through. The same may be said about Pasaje de Medusa, displayed at the National Museum for the Visual Arts of Montevideo in August, 2014. The cases of the first installation of the series, exhibited in a public space in Nancy, France and the seventh, erected in a central square of Lendava, Slovenia, are different because the iconography (related to historical painting) and the highly symbolic and controversial places for which the installations were conceived granted more significance to the act of un/veiling, which is, in fact, a very simple chemical reaction. But it’s also something that occurs in time. Without using water you just need to observe more intently to “see” what is behind. Perhaps it is possible to “see” more this way than when throwing water to the image. And who says that there isn’t even more to be “seen” behind what is behind? And where or when is there nothing more left to be “seen”? I like complicated images. We need them urgently, after so many years of one-idea works of art and single-concept manners of displaying works of art. I like allegories and emblems. We need them urgently, and this is a difficult task, because the existence of allegory (real allegory, not its post-modernist simulacra) rests largely on social consensus about what represents what. We must return to macro political thought, without losing the achievements of micro political devices. Our situation is desperate.
What can you say about the architectural references of these constructions?
The places where the installations are displayed are quite eloquent. I’m interested in the immediate, irreversible, elusive, ludicrous, perverse contrast that these installations establish, produce and invent between themselves and the surrounding architectures and vice versa. This was very clear in Lendava, where the installation appeared as a sort of zigzagging tunnel placed in the middle of a public esplanade. It was at the same time standing in the way and conceptually communicating the austere synagogue and the disturbing mass of the very dark building in front of it -a theatre and concert hall designed by the controversial Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz. The shape of that installation also established a curious dialogue with other surrounding buildings such as the block of flats in front of the square and a former shopping mall. Talking about materials and connotations, a South American person would make an immediate mental connection between my installations and the villas, cantegriles, favelas and chabolas in the outskirts of all the big cities of the continent. This subtext is not apparent to all, at least in Europe, but it’s there. Precariousness, marginality and poverty are some of the words that spectators and visitors of the installations mentioned, but also resistance, inventiveness, habitability. The paintings make everything more complex and not so univocal, and simultaneously create distance between these experiments and the tradition of architectural models made by architects and placed in public spaces. Furthermore, because habitability is something the installations resemble and not something represented or displayed as such. I think that the tradition of artist-made installations in public spaces that elaborate on notions of habitability is quite strong in Eastern Europe, even more than in Latin America: we need only think of the work by Raoul Kurvitz, Tomaš Džaden, Tadej Pogačar and Marjetica Potrč, among many others. This is a very interesting issue for me. But I generally think more about the specific functions related to the iconographic project in each installation. Then there is the typological aspect: Tempel der Medusa was a temple, and Melusine’s Works 7 was a passage, like Pasaje de Medusa. The first of the Melusine works was a study for a monument that I’m still developing. The “house” of Medusa was an installation actually inside a house. The installation I made for the Unheimlich exhibition, in Hamburg, was a Capella, I think and elaborate on these categories to produce new works.
What is the Arqueologías [Archaeologies] project?
Once the installation is dismantled, the “walls” and “roofs” that I’m interested in are cut, sliced, fragmented, and prepared for an easy relocation. These sometimes rather large pieces of very thin paper (the painted surface of the cardboard) become the input for collages and new works. I have exhibited some of them as “archaeological remains” from the original installations. The first time I did this was in 2010, displayed as a narrative frieze in the Loess exhibition [Juan Manuel Blanes Fine Arts Museum, Montevideo, December, 2010-April 2011] using a group of paintings on cardboard that had been part of the House of Medusa installation. This is one of the reasons why I called the Tempel der Medusa a “temple”. In this case, the exhibition of its ruins as archaeological remains had been planned since the very beginning of the project. The remnants of Tempel der Medusawere transported (illegally) to Uruguay in a bag and displayed there twice. Though Uruguay is not Greece, the irony of this protocol was pointed out by many visitors. With time, the entire set of archaeological remnants of many of the Melusine works will form an autonomous corpus and find new permutations and configurations.
What about the Tableaux vivants?
The Tableaux Vivants series are un/veiled paintings developed in time and registered and exhibited as videos. As the video loop suggests, the operation and process of un/veiling the paintings themselves may be repeated over and over again. Some fragments of Tempel der Medusa were displayed autonomously as Tableaux Vivants.
What relations establish all these considerations regarding the concrete iconography unfolded in the series of paintings as such? What links materials and themes?
Themes are related to the functions of the displaying device and the place where it is located. Sometimes the chosen site has determined the iconography -although not always or not necessarily in a significant manner. Most often than not, a series of persistent images (from memory, drawing, books and archives) are combined with others glinting in reality, so to say. The latter are preserved in memory, in my own drawings from life, photos and videos. The combination of images from the past and these very present images, or images of presence, has a certain allegorical force and also carries my mind to the future. The work process also involves specific research and the appearance of new images and texts from the history of art, together with new manners of engagement with real people and the actual terms of the dialogue (between art and people).
From Melusine in Lampedusa (Francisco Tomsich in conversation with Polona Fatur), the Introduction to the book Tempel der Medusa | Templo de Medusa (Ediciones del Viento, 2015).