Studio visit by Pauline Hatzigeorgiou

In the fall of 2012, while he is invited to exhibit along with young Spanish artists at Elisa Platteau, Oriol Vilanova discovers Brussels, its atmosphere, artistic endeavors, and flea market. After a few strolls in this emblematic venue of the Place du Jeu de Balle the decision to settle in the city becomes clear to him. The work of the artist, a native of Barcelona, develops then for five years, and yet a constancy stands out. Through a variety of media and heterogeneity of procedures, Oriol Vilanova demonstrates his commitment to the concept of staging – "mise en scène". As when he scrupulously sorts the elements of his installations or arranges theatrical works that shape his fictions, he seems captivated by the persistence of a narrative framework where he likes to reveal the most implicit resurgences. In this regard, the museum provides him with a genuine medium of expression. There he exhibits his series of gleaned postcards, alludes to its mediation devices, interprets, or directs his performances... Contrasting with the museum space that represents the fixation of time, the flea market he visits with an (almost) obsessive rituality, is one of oblivion.
"Because this is where it all begins" - the flea market as an appendix to the studio - our interview divides between these two spaces. By opening the doors of his studio - his apartment actually – the artist shows me the genesis of some of his productions, and with this, a working method closely regulated. In this space with immaculate white walls, bathed in light and equipped with a meditative sobriety, Oriol Vilanova appears to be like a taxonomist. Among the items on the shelves that mark the two places of work and residence, overlooking the books and archives, a furtive glance discerns some works of art, as the "Old Time" sign, or auxiliaries of some others, as with the inscription "Sold Out". Everything takes its place and each of these objects, which we imagine to have been collected on one or the other shop, tells its story. In this workshop, the time scales are intertwined; theatricality dominates.
Pauline Hatzigeorgiou Your approach, and many of your installations such as Copies or Repetition is a Base Question which are arranged with postcards, have been deployed around the principle of repetition. We perceive the reverberations of a repetitive act - the way you gather the items forms the base of these works in the subject framed by the postcards. Facing them, the viewer can’t help but read the repetition conveyed within the images. Wouldn’t there be a successive inquiry of mises en abyme that ties the small narrative of the postcards to the history they reveal?
Oriol Vilanova Yes, repetition is also emphasized by the size of the cards. The flea market is really the foundation of my work, and if I am so interested in it, it’s not only for the material that I find. It is a space, which has a very strong theatricality, and this is essential to me. There are the characters that I observe and meet. The transactions are also very codified as if they were scripted. I particularly like the way objects are displayed. The market is a theater. The theater, as a form of writing too, allows me to develop topics that remain hidden in the image archives. For example, faced with the installation of triumphal arches [Copies], we come to the question of heritage conservation. In the end, these small stories that lie dormant in each postcard, stories that have become illegible, are revealed through the fiction of theater.
PH It is interesting that the theatricality of the market provides you with a narrative source for works that then enter the museum, a space where the mise en scène is obviously central. Between these two places, there are two connections to the past that oppose each other. On one hand, the flea market in which the past is buried, on the other, the museum that preserves it. By transposing the first into the second, it's as if you interfere with the forgetting of a silent past and reactivate the present that preserves it.
OV The flea market is a place of defeat. Unlike the museum, where every object is accompanied by a detailed history and by the small text of the label, the flea market is a place where all is forgotten, where subtitles are blurred. We don’t know the images, stories, ... and it’s precisely this that interests me. I love working from this material, with a narrative that ultimately doesn’t look so much into the past but more as to how these objects from the past, who have lost their memory, can tell the present.
PH The collection then makes sense because it bridges the past and the present. How does your collection come to be?
OV I have been collecting for a long time. Even before the vocation of becoming an artist. I started as a collector of images, editions, strange things, without the idea of having to show them one day. The things that interested me have not really changed. The purchase system was there, but I had no classification system.
PH Do you create, or do you rather feed your collection from anonymous collections?
OV Very often, in fact, what you find at the flea market, are collections that belonged to people. When you open a box, you enter the history of a family. The reason for its presence in this place is death, and the refusal of relatives to keep this collection. The images are classified to the taste of the collector. I completely ignore the individuality of the collection. I do not read the text on the back of the postcards. I am only interested in the pictures that I have to disorganize first, and then re-organize, to form my own collection.
PH These findings, which are the result of chance, enter then a well-established classification system. Looking at this shelf on which your files are arranged, a carefully organized passion shines through, like the one of a philatelist. Can you tell me more about your method of selecting postcards, and this classification system?
OV Chance is very present throughout the process. Or rather the subconscious. For me, the notion of the collection is closely linked to the act of thinking with the images and through them. The images choose me, and not the opposite. At the market, I flip through the cards, very quickly. It’s my eye that selects them instinctively, at first sight. Back at the studio comes the classification step. First, there are series that are established and that I complete, as the triumphal arches, the interiors of museums, flags, double, reflections, swans, doors, sunsets ... There are also potlatches I collect for other artists, such as the series of Niagara Falls that I will send to Zoe Leonard someday. Finally, there is this, which I rarely show. These are the Unclassifiable Rarities. In reality this is where it all begins. In this space I put the cards purchased in the morning, in chronological order of acquisition. Then, I spend a lot of time looking at them. I turn the pages over and over again. When I see a repetition in an image or theme, I tell myself that something is happening, and there I choose. Making this choice takes time. Once it's there, I can start building combining, consolidating. The thought that was implied at first takes shape and becomes explicit through repetition.
PH The aspect of process is fundamental. As indicated in the title of your portfolio, "A collection is forever unfinished", your approach is rooted in a transient present. Moreover, many works are indicated as "ongoing". Let’s take the work Copies (2000 - Ongoing) for example, where an immeasurable number of triumphal arches postcards are arranged; doesn’t it resemble a show played in the museum?
OV I think that the notion of a collection is always an unachievable thing. I like the idea that the work remains alive. I am interested in work that has no end. Because when you close the archive, or the collection, it instantly becomes a mausoleum. I looked for a method that allows the collection to stay alive in a natural way. The installation copies are the result of such an attempt. The work is now part of the collection of the MACBA. It is stored in a public institution and is intended to be exhibited in its galleries. The work is still ongoing, and I regularly send triumphal arches postcards to complete it.
PH So you're the curator of your installation?
OV Yes, absolutely. This is a collection of triumphal arches, but the images aren’t classified by city or date. Depending on the time you spend looking at it, other series appear. One can recognize a series of dictators, a series of red lights... For example, these are Soviet triumphal arches before and after Stalin. He had indeed demanded their destruction but after his death, they decided to rebuild them. There are stories within the story. It's funny because in this case the sole function of the triumphal arch is the symbol. It is a formal monument that emerges in Rome and is perpetuated since. The monument itself is a copy, and the installation, a copy of the copy.
PH By repeating this form, we can see the signifier detach itself from the signified. You deconstruct the function of architecture. The latter is very present in your approach - you are also an architect. With the series Repetition is a Base Question, you proceed to crop postcards with statues so that our stare focuses on the pedestals, the passers-by, the details. In doing so, it is ultimately the social dimension of the monument that gets affirmed, this social dimension that is also central to the "postcard" as an object. What do you think?
OV Yes, the repetition of the triumphal arch allows us to create a distance with the symbol, an analysis of it in contemporary society. It is true that the postcard causes a similar distance because it is obsolete. Due to this time difference, we no longer have the keys to understanding their history. I am also interested in the passing that this item undergoes through, which is initially produced serially, but when I find it, it has become unique. It has been altered. It has lived. I like to stage the history of the object, to discover what it can transmit.
PH Doesn’t this accumulation of images also seek to strike the affect of the viewer?
OV Yes. Here are some cards that complete the Sunsets from... series - an accumulation of sunsets I file in relation to the color spectrum. I collect cards that have no human trace, where the sun is framed in a natural environment. It becomes pure abstraction. It could be anywhere, everywhere and nowhere at once, even if every place claims to have the most beautiful sunset [laughs]. A sunset in the popular imagination is positive, it’s beautiful, but when you are confronted with the repetition of this image, it becomes post-apocalyptic.
PH In addition to the narrative that springs instantly to the reading of the image, a narration that is accentuated when multiple images are combined, the concept of off-screen seems very present in your work. Let’s take One hundred and fifty for example, which consists of an edition of 150 postcards of caves with the sentence "The Collection Will Be Complete with the other 149 postcards" stamped on the back. The reader is again faced with an inability to cope with the completion of the work.
OV It's funny that you bring up this notion because it is precisely the title of a current project: Hors Champ - Off Screen. To explain it in a few words, I am very interested in the fascist past, the links it has with our present. I picked the monument to Franco, Valle de los Caidos, his mausoleum actually. It is a huge building located in the middle of nature. I asked myself what to do with it, destroy it or preserve it? I am interested in its habitat because it is an environment that offers an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals. I would like to make a film that would give the animals a voice since they were there before, during and after the construction of the mausoleum. It would be a fictional wildlife documentary, focusing on the off screen. The presence of the architecture would be made by its absence to the camera, and the story would be kind of timeless, in the manner of La disparition of Perec where absence intensifies presence.
PH From accumulation we arrive to the impossibility of the image. Moreover, in your theater work, the concept of emptiness is very strong. Doesn’t this absence of your own theatrical work seep into your visual productions?
OV Yes, two of my theater pieces are completely iconoclastic [see Goodbye and They cannot die]. There is no picture. I like to go from iconography to iconoclasm. From the large collection of images to their demise because I believe it is the same subject that translates from one space to the other. And, in the theater pieces, it is obvious. The exhibition spaces are empty. There is the disappearance of the museum, the disappearance of the works. The viewer raises the question: if the museum disappears, the originals will no longer exist. The copies would then take over.