A CONVERSATION WITH GRETA ALFARO
A large, corniced and fringed cake sits on top of snow-covered ground. It is night. A pool of artificial light illuminates the confection and the area that surrounds it. Two wild boars wander into frame. They make cautious circuits, snuffling, nudging and biting at the cake’s decorative edges. Eventually hunger overcomes caution and they devour it, smothering themselves in a crumbling mess of sugar coating and sponge. Now, covered in white icing, the boars hulking figures blend into their monochromatic, snow covered surroundings. From an image of nightmarish unreality something far less threatening emerges. The boars, beasts used as metaphors for the degenerate characteristics of human nature, have become playful, benign, perhaps even cute.
This surreal set of events is captured in Greta Alfaro’s fourteen- minute video work In Praise of the Beast (2009). While a straightforward allegorical reading of the work is possible — in which gluttony, satirised and anthropomorphised, takes centre stage — the metaphorical and symbolic possibilities of the beast reach further into realms of the unconscious. In Praise of the Beast, like much of Alfaro’s work, comes from her interest in those basic ontological dichotomies of human experience: the divide between the interior and exterior, the public and private. From the transgressive behaviours of individuals, to the submerged histories of places and institutions, Alfaro’s oeuvre functions as a sustained investigation into those aspects of life western civilisation seeks to suppress, and keep hidden. In the following conversation, Alfaro explains the narratives and ideas that propel her ongoing exploration into that liminal space of light and shadow, pervading our socio-cultural lives.
M - Something that offered a way into thinking about your work, when we first met, was the discussion we had about windows and Spanish houses. Is this where your interest in exploring public and private behaviours came from?
G – I mentioned the comparison between British houses and the more traditional Spanish way of living, which was based on the Arabian way of building: not having windows facing the street. Nowadays we have these windows in Spain but they’re very closed with curtains and fences so that you can’t see inside. Here and in the north of Europe you can usually see what people are doing, what they have in their rooms. So maybe living in a society that marks so clearly the division between public and private was a starting point for me.
M – Could you talk a bit about the series of photographic prints you made in 2007 called Celebration. Did you originally find these images by trawling through flea markets?
G – I made a collection of hundreds, if not thousands of family photo- graphs that I found in flea markets, and in the street, featuring unknown people. Then I made a selection of the ones that I found more intriguing or disturbing, and added some elements into them that enhanced this feeling of weirdness. I was thinking about the family album as a window that you offer the viewer into your private life. About how you construct it so that people get an idea of your ideal life. So it’s really a construction based on prevailing social rules. That’s why I found it interesting to add something that is possibly the reality of a private life, instead of this idealisation.
M – Like much of your work there is something both unsettling and co- medic about these images. For instance, in the photo of the old couple smiling amongst framed pictures of medieval instruments of torture.
G – This picture of the old couple was a very interesting one, because I have the albums of this family from three or four decades. I have lots of negatives from these people and their family, so I knew that it was the owner of the house that was taking this picture and the old couple were his guests. They are portrayed in the very low part of the photograph so you just get their heads. Then the biggest part of the picture is the decoration of the house, which is quite opulent: golden frames in a very expensive, luxurious environment. Maybe it’s actually not so expensive, but you can see that is how the owner of the house wanted to show it, more than showing the friends in the picture.
M – Although some of the pictures in Celebration came from the 50s, the images mostly seem to come from around 1965—75. That was the era where all these transgressive behaviours suddenly came out. The suburban landscape was no longer a boring place where old people went to die and families went to rear their kids. It became a kind of nightmarish locality where the Manson family might come and murder you in your home, or you might stumble into an orgy at a swingers’ party. What you captured in these images was a kind of unapologetic debauchery, an unashamed deviancy.
G – That’s interesting. At the beginning when I decided to work with these photographs I considered these decades — from the 60s, 70s and early 80s, and in the case of America the 50s as well—as the golden era of the analogue camera. Let’s say, from the 50s in America and the 60s in Europe, the photographic camera started to be an object of common use that everybody could afford. It was also the moment when we were exposed to a larger amount of photographs and images through media, with TV becoming very popular. So for me it was very interesting how you would observe and consume this amount of images, digest them and then create your own images that would usually be very similar to the ones you saw on TV. You wanted to be something like what you saw in the advertisements: happy, young, beautiful and ideal somehow.
In Celebration 4 two Mexican men, both in neatly pressed and tailored suits, are photographed sitting in what appears to be a living room. One holds a cigarette while the other holds a drink. They are both smiling. A young girl sits with the smoking man. In the foreground of the picture, three lines of cocaine and some residue lay on a small coffee table. Once you spot the drugs Greta photo-edited into the frame, the image is pulled into a more sinister, warped reality. The kitsch, retro domesticity of this setting has been turned on its head and questions about its ontological status follow. Is this the scene of some bizarre drug fuelled christening? Are these well-dressed, slick haired men actually ́narco traficantes ́ with a bizarre taste for children?
Perhaps there is something in this photograph that also reveals our own media learned, cultural prejudices. After all, what do we see: two well-to-do gentlemen relaxing after a hard day at the office, or something less savoury? A number of stereotypical signs — signs we have been taught confer a kind of preconceived, a priori degeneracy on people — spring from the root of race: skin colour, flash suits, slick hair, and alcohol. These men could quite plausibly be drug users, we think. The presence of cocaine, so in sync with the images of the other visual markers, is only made strange by the presence of a child.
M – Let’s talk about In Ictu Oculi. This is the video in which a dining table, set for a banquet, is placed in an arid, country landscape, and then demolished by a pack of hungry vultures.
G – Yes, it happens in around ten minutes. The title is from possibly the most well-known Spanish vanitas painting. I wanted to link it to the Baroque, and the sense that things can change or take a dramatic turn very quickly. Even if we think we are very safe, things can take you by surprise. I think Baroque and Surrealism are both of my references into art history here. The work was also about our desire to control every thing, and the impossibility of doing so. Maybe, as you say, in dreams is where you see it more obviously, and for most people it’s not a very important thing; it’s something you forget as soon as you wake up. But life can be very much like this as well.
M – Where did the image come from; was it a nightmare you’d had?
G – No. I have a very strong oneiric life; I dream a lot and give a lot of importance to my dreams, but I don’t usually get my ideas from them.
In the end, without realising, the way I work with images and narration is a bit dreamlike, but it’s not something that I do on purpose.
M – So the images come from your imagination?
G – I usually think it’s something like a vision that I get. But this vision is very much based on my cultural environment. I usually work with images that are a bit archetypical so that they have a very strong presence in culture and infiltrate our subconscious in such a way that they always stay there. Then, suddenly you start making connections. That’s why I always turn to the history of art and traditions. You juxtapose them with contemporary culture and get very surprising relationships.
M – The vanitas style of painting is to do with death. Is that right?
G – Well you have the Dutch style and the Spanish one, which are quite different. The Spanish one is more linked to Catholicism and the Dutch one to showing off richness. But both of them are quite obsessed with death, with things being perishable, and the fact that we are going to die at some point. It’s also a reminder — of course at that time it was quite a religious reminder, like ‘okay regret all of your sins because you are going to die and go to hell’ — but I’m interested in them from another point of view. I think our culture is so obsessed with youth, with living forever as if you were young. I always think it’s good to remember that life is not that. It might look that way in posters and ads, but life is another thing, it has different cycles and is going to end at some point.
M– Let’s talk about place, or site-specificity now. Could we start with a recent piece called Invención (2012)? You made it in a chapel in Mexico; is that correct?
– It took place in Ex Teresa Actual, a former convent in Mexico City that has been converted into a museum, so the different exhibition spaces correspond to the typical parts of a church. What I did there was to work around the ideas of Baroque: so ostentation and the ephemerality of life. It was also in relation to the specificity of Mexico and the idea of the church linked to ritual and social rules, social communion and communion from a catholic point of view as well.
M – Because you could eat the structure?
G – Yes. Well inside the main part of the church, by the altar, we built another little chapel out of plasterboard walls — approximately 7 × 4 × 5 metres. We then fully decorated it with meringue, recreating the decorations and forms of Mexican baroque churches. It looked like plaster in all these convoluted shapes, but it was all done with meringue and it was edible. So when you entered it was a very dreamy space that you could eat.
M – Did people eat?
G –Yes, it was a lot of fun having the public there.
M – Did they devour the whole thing?
G – Not the whole thing, because it was huge, but they ate a lot of it — and we also had some vandals. The idea was that you get to this very surreal space, you’re able to eat it like in a fairy tale, but in the end what lasts is an image of decay. What you see are the ruins.
M – Another recent site-specific work was Fall On Us, And Hide Us (2011). Was there more of a personal relationship to the site in this instance?
G – Some years ago, I went with my parents to eat in a restaurant in a game reserve. The restaurant belonged to an acquaintance of my father and it is located in the middle of a valley called Valdorba: a very wild land, very near to cities and towns, but isolated, accessible only by narrow, old provincial roads. This valley is known for game and Romanesque architecture. There are many very small villages with outstanding little churches from between the eighth and the twelfth century. That day when we went for lunch, I saw from the top of the hill where the restaurant stands a little village. Its church was derelict and the little group of houses around it too. We asked my father’s friend and he said that it was an abandoned village and that most of the villages around were like that. So, after eating wild boar and deer, I convinced my parents to go and investigate. We headed first to this village, which is called Bézquiz. This is where Fall On Us, And Hide Us was to be filmed years later.
M – How did things develop from that initial visit with your parents? I suppose in a way again I’d like to know where the image came from.
G – I can’t remember if I started thinking about Fall On Us, And Hide Us and then the church came to my mind, or if I came back to the memory of the church and then decided to do a project in there. I came back to visit those villages in Christmas 2010 and then everything started to click in my head. Only one of the churches that I had visited the previous time was still derelict. It was exactly the same as I remembered it. The altar table was still there. I climbed to the tower. And, as I remembered very well, in a corner opposite to the presbytery, there was an open tomb with human bones spread in the earth below the broken wooden flooring. The idea of filling the floor with bones came from this. And it was there from the first time I visited the church, this image had stayed in my head over the years very strongly. I have to say that I am usually very inspired by the land where I come from. I don’t do it on purpose, it is just that it is my imaginary; it is the culture that is engraved in my mind and identity. The stories I heard as a child, the images I saw in the gothic church where I went (almost) every Sunday, the strong weight of tradition, both Catholic and Pagan, that is inherent to where I come from and that called my attention since I was a child.
M – Could you talk a bit more about that Pagan side of things? Was this linked to the idea of farming, fertility and seasonal change as it is over here?
G – That area of Navarra, where the little village of Bézquiz and this church are placed, was in the cross over between different cultures. You can see the remains of Catholicism, Basque culture and myths, French influence and roman Paganism. Navarra was famous for witchery. The most important witch burning in the history of Spain was the burning of two hundred witches from Navarra performed in one night by the inquisition of Logroño. The stories around witches are still popular and well known. The best imagery regarding this is, to me, the paintings and engravings by Goya. These legends about witch covens always involve night, plain nature as the area around Bézquiz, alienation through psychoactive drugs, cannibalism, unrestricted sex, killing and death, and a male goat representing the devil. It is all very linked to Greco-Latin religious rites and deities.
M – it feels like a real unification of all the themes you’ve been talking about.
G – Yes, it was not only the church in itself, but its location, the time in which it was built (eleventh century), the landscape, and the stories around it.
M – This brings us to European Dark Room (2012), another site-specific piece that you made in the office of an old tobacco Factory in Madrid. Whereas Invención had the outward appearance of a nice, fluffy, dream- like experience, European Darkroom was quite frightening.
G – Yes they are very different... but they are very similar in a way because both of them are covering space with something edible and sweet. But Invención is a very playful installation for people to enjoy, and European Dark Room was made to be filmed. What I did in the work was cover the office, all the furniture, all the objects and walls and everything with chocolate. Then, while it was being filmed, we placed very strong heaters that heated the room to around one hundred degrees centigrade so that the chocolate melted. What you get in the video is this kind of paranormal event going on, as if the walls were sweating something, something from their past maybe.
M – When we were talking about this before it seemed that the way you use paranormal references was quite real. Let’s take ghosts for instance. There are two ways of looking at ghosts: as supernatural beings or as manifestations of memories and histories that haunt individuals. With European Dark Room you used the history of the building itself.
G – Yes, again it’s like the themes that appear throughout my work. The hidden things that you don’t want to be made public, that dirty the official image of persons or institutions. When I was invited to do this project at the tobacco factory, the first thing that came to me was the origins of the tobacco trade. The building was an eighteenth century building, it’s enormous and was linked to the first trade of tobacco into Europe — chocolate has the same history. Spanish people were the first ones who prospered from this trade, which was absolutely linked to slavery and the exploitation of cultures and people. So I really thought it was important to do the project there, particularly in an office which is a place of bureaucracy and control.