Fernando Renes Interviewed by Octavio Zaya
In the Omnivore’s Shade, 2008
Translation from Spanish by Dena Ellen Cowan

Octavio Zaya: The presence of Mount Fuji is apparently recurrent in your latest work. It is safe to say that it’s an important “character”, at least, as far as I know, since La Meseta {The Tableland}, the animation you first presented –still in progress- at Trans/New York and later at the CAB of Burgos and at Distrito Cu4tro in Madrid. Its significance is evident in Omnivorous Romance, the new triptych of animations shown recently in Madrid, and included in this book. Why Mount Fuji? In your work, does it represent more than the Japanese volcano? If I’m not mistaken, you’ve never been to Japan…

Fernando Renes: Mount Fuji has been a recurrent theme in my work for the past three years. I have always felt curiosity about that mountain, but particularly as Hokusai sees it. I remember having seen an exhibition by Hokusai at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in the year 1999 or 2000, on 100 views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai. It was a show that made a lasting impression on me; it was the first time I’d seen originals by the artist, and I was amazed by how simple and sophisticated they were at the same time, and by the way he somehow chose the Fuji motif to “anchor” his vision.

Then I started using Fuji as a “character”, as you rightly point out, and it occurred to me to multiply it, to make a herd of Fujis, almost from a pop premise, to somehow de-sacralise it. For Omnivorous Romance this was my first sensation, to animate a “herd” of Fujis, which were at the beginning of the work. However, afterwards Fuji once again takes on a more individual identity in the scene where the children are playing and finally end up being bombed.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been in Japan.

O.Z. Should I take it that you consider yourself indebted to Japanese drawing or that it’s among your primordial influences?

F.R. I would say that Japanese drawing is among my main influences, but not only the drawing, also Japanese philosophy, calligraphy and poetry. I believe I’m interested in everything that has to do with condensation and signification, or providing meaning, on an artistic level. There was another Japanese exhibition that also impressed me considerably. It took place two years ago at the New York Public Library, and it was titled Ehon, the Artist and the Book in Japan. For me it was a sensational exhibition, where I discovered many artists whom I have since investigated and studied with much interest, especially Kawamura Kiho and Kawamura Bumpo.

O.Z. It strikes me as really important and revealing that you should state your interest in what you say may be related to “condensation” and “signification”. I know that you say this deliberately and that assuredness of yours is somewhat unexpected, perhaps even equivocal. The varied meanings of the word condensation include to concentrate what is dispersed, to synthesize and to summarize, whereas signification involves bringing about meaning, understanding. Of course, to condensate is also to convert steam into liquid or solid, and to signify also refers to indicating something or placing importance on something. Obviously, all these meanings are mixed and developed in a body of work which by nature plays with the transformation of one moment into another moment, from one picture into another, one element, one word into another, etc. From nonsense to profoundness, from simplicity to the dream of imagination, your work insinuates meanings where –as I said in the essay I wrote when I nominated you for Vitamin D (Phaidon, 2005)- chaos is organized, and order is arbitrary. But you are also referring to another condensation and another signification, aren’t you?

F.R. The condensation and signification I’m talking about are very subjective qualities. When I say I’m especially interested in condensation and signification on an artistic level it’s because they are in some way those qualities that resound in me in an especially strong way, as a viewer, as a receiver. And since I conceive creativity as receptivity above all, I always have a special sensitivity toward this type of characteristic in the work of others. This is especially applicable to nature itself.

There is a story I’m not very good at telling, yet that I believe may serve to illustrate a little better everything I’m trying to say. What’s more, with this story I would also be talking about a most important device in my work. I heard this story when I was 17 years old and I always bear it in mind. It’s a Chinese story in which an emperor at the time insists on being drawn/painted (I don’t know exactly which verb they would use) a crab. And naturally, since he is the emperor, he wants the best painter to paint it, and for it to be the best crab ever painted.

They bring a painter to the emperor, who asks the painter what he needs to produce the much desire crab. The painter simply requests time, saying he’ll need a year in this case. A year passes and the emperor asks about his crab. The painter says that it still isn’t ready, that he’ll need five more years. The emperor agrees. Those five years pass and the emperor, impatient by now, demands the painter to deliver the work. The painter again apologizes and says he still needs more time, in this case ten more years. The emperor very reluctantly agrees again. Ten years minus one day pass and he still has not begun to paint the crab. The painter is aware of the emperor’s impatience. So that night he gets to work and in the morning the work is done, one of the loveliest crabs ever seen.

The moral of this fable could be the saying by a Chinese painter, who I believe was Shitao, “that before you paint a bamboo, let it grow within you”.
I believe I work in a similar way. That “ruminating” to which you have referred in some of your essays on my work would be a form of condensation, concentration, synthesis. All this “occurs” in the funnel, which would literally be me. I would be that funnel in which the condensation takes place, where the steam, which is the stuff of dreams, sensations and even occurrences, is liquefied or solidified in drawings. For the time being, I’d say that I’ve managed to liquefied or solidified in drawings. If I ever move on to making something more solid we’ll be able to speak of solidification, and through all this, reach a meaning or its negative. Sometimes one can see the two profiles and other times the cup. But as an artist I try to provide views of both.

I see my profession as a constant search for forms and stories. And for me the most naturally artificial or artificially natural way to carry out my endeavour is through condensation, with its prize of signification, which afterwards always ends up becoming profound dissatisfaction, and the process begins all over again. But I suppose the latter is yet another kettle of fish.

O.Z. Indeed, I have said a number of time that you amuse yourself ruminating about incidents and stories. But with that I presuppose that you are chewing for a second time what you digest, that you think and reflect on what you draw and on drawing itself. As if you were constantly gobbling up your own undertakings. There’s a drawing you made in 2000, Bulimia contra nostalgia (Bulimia against Nostalgia), which has always struck me because of how it relates to your interest in devouring everything that crosses your path, as regards your own personal curiosity as well as the nature of your own work, your way of working. And this no doubt leads us to Omnivorous Romance, which in a certain way distils or “condenses” all those obsessions. How do you see it? What is Omnivorous Romance? And how does it relate to your own undertaking, to the way you work?

F.R. Leading up to a piece like Omnivorous Romance is natural considering the distillation of my work. As you correctly point out, that eagerness to devour everything, as I illustrated in that drawing Bulimia contra nostalgia (Bulimia against Nostalgia) –although the complete title is Ataque de nostalgia repelido por ataque bulímico (Nostalgia Attack Repelled by Bulimia Attack)- also stems from the fact that that devouring sedates me; s like a drug. My mother often reminds me that when I was little I even ate rocks, and since I’m the first-born of two families that went through hardships, I believe that through me they were able to make up for some of them. Getting back to the point, this eagerness of mine to devour is for fantastic things. I need to see, to see and touch, to gobble up great quantities of information, which I later put through the funnel, where I condense them and end up filtering them into what my work becomes.

I considered making a piece like Omnivorous Romance to enlarge the capacity of my own funnel, as well accelerating digestion or, in this case, putting the still to the test, by subjecting it to a more demanding than ever distillation process. I tried to condense all the sensations, desires and things I wanted to say into this piece. Many were left out, becoming material set aside for pending condensations. But throughout this process of creating Omnivorous Romance , which lasted a year, there were times when the health and integrity of the still was endangered, and I mean this literally, especially during the last three months –September, October and November. Everything I wanted to distil sometimes got to be too much for my capacity. Then I had to try almost desperately to make the condensation more effective, which interestingly leads us to another fundamental question in my work: the will to retain the emotional urgency of what’s told, which in my case becomes a sort of seismograph of myself. This theory of the still, the funnel, is really not very practical, for I can do only one thing at a time, and it often gets clogged, so I end up not doing anything for a long time.

I decided to use this titled Omnivorous Romance / Romance omnívoro to describe a piece that functions in the manner of a self-portrait. On the one hand I’m omnivorous, as I believe I’ve already made clear, and on the other hand I like the word romance because its written the same in both languages -English and Spanish- and in both it has a second sense related to fantasy, which in this case is closely related to he first meaning, idyll, which can lead us to a situation of dreaminess.

O.Z. In a certain way, that is the thread running throughout your work. There’s actually no other intention, or logical consequence, which determines a work. The work is full of discontinuity, transformations and metamorphoses. Repulsion, desire, fear and joy are all concentrated into a single piece. There’s always a lot of humor in your works; little jokes inviting us to reflect upon this or that question. In the case of Omnivorous Romance the “story” is circular because its begins and ends with Mount Fuji, as in Fujinokisha, wherein a train obsessively and uninterruptedly encircles it. You speak of self-portrait and it occurs to me that in the most of your pieces you’re always present one way or another –in this case with a brief tape inserted into the work in which you devour incredible amounts of food. That presence of yours is never surreptitious, as in Hitchcock, but can occasionally even be exhibitionist. To what point is the work simply an inner monologue?

F.R. I appreciate you asking this question because it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind but that I’ve never been able to articulate this way. One might say that my work is a sermonizing inner monologue. Like all artists I’ve got a relatively big exhibitionist side. Mine is a body of work that arises from a reflection and comparison with regard to me, but it’s a process in which he ends up being the defendant, the defending attorney, the prosecutor, the jury and ultimately the judge.

Though my work is neither interactive nor do I materially the beholder in it, I do believe that it would be a vain effort on my part if I didn’t show what I do others, and somehow believe that I’m reaching someone. I believe that art is communication, not understanding. For me it’s a channel that sometimes reaches, but most of the time does not.

Omnivorous Romance is a “circular” story as you very correctly point out. One might say that it’s a set of several circular subsets. Things first appear; they’re shown one way, and then appear again later in a different way. There’s not only the Fuji I start with, and end with, but in between there’s a Fuji made dizzy by a train that goes around and around in circles inside a house, as a child’s toy. Also, the elephant and the boat appear again later as toys in that same room; the planes make two complete circles around the scene, and so on.

There’s a film by Kurosawa, Throne of Blood (1957), which I had in mind when approaching the development of Omnivorous Romance. In this film everything is circular, and what has appeared once, reappears bringing consequences. And the last thing I’ve got to say about this reflection on the circular is that one of the four themes of Nietzsche’s legacy has always been present in the condensation of this work: the eternal return of the same –the other three would be: superman, the death of God and the will to power.

O.Z. Certainly the nature of the circle is the recurrent, eternal and inescapable return, and in relation to your work, the synthesis that Nietzsche supposedly developed through the mathematics, physics and astrophysics of the time, and perhaps through some oriental philosophies, undoubtedly has a certain echo in it. If we consider that time infinite, and that space and matter are finite and limited, everything in the universe can be combined, distributed and redistributed in a finite number of permutations. If we accept the eternity of time, those permutations would be repeated thousands of times in the past. But as we already know, when we refer to time, space and matter, scientifically speaking, we aren’t speaking of certainties, but of probabilities. Surely, as artistic strategy or a working devise, even as regards the moral, redemptive sense the eternal return has in Nietzsche, that vision is interesting, though it would also entail the return of the same as inevitable, beyond our responsibility. The question is complex for us to deal with now. Nevertheless, those permutations and probable combinations are undoubtedly reflected in your art and the way you work. The work, however, as you assert, does not end in you. Whether it communicates or not doesn’t seem to me to be fundamental, especially in your work, because communication entails understanding and a logical sequence. And art need not to be bound to the dictates of logic, but rather, as in your case, to the freedom of the imagination, don’t you think?

F.R. The freedom to express my imagination is the spring from which my work originally and ultimately emerges. For me it’s the most important attribute one can have; everything happens in it and with it. I can’t think of any other quality that’s more generous and generating at the same time. Even the most abject thing can become something else with the imagination at hand. By using the imagination, opposites can cease to be so and co-operators begin to confront each other; yellow and blue make green, and red, blue and yellow make black, and Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c. 1454-57) may seem to be anything but a battle.

This reminds me of another one of the characteristics my work posseses, which I believe to be a subset of imagination: combination. By combining opposite elements, or even similar elements that are only slightly different, one can reach places where one has never been.

Another of the powers of the imagination that I have experienced several times, and that I never tire of enjoying and continuing to cultivate, both in my work and my personal life, is that it’s the perfect antidote for a bad mood.

I’m very pleased that you have associated or almost defined my work with this freedom of imagination.

O.Z. By the way, speaking of imagination, the other day, as I was preparing, so to speak, for this conversation, I ran across an ad for a book on habits, customs and other questions about food, and new ways of eating, that specifically referred to what they called the omnivore’s dilemma and the omnivore’s solution.
I was speculating, or wondering, to what extent the questions it raised, strictly related to food, could serve as a metaphor for artistic activity, or at least as a metaphor for your work. As if we were to read between the lines, or as if we were to substitute “work of art” for “food”. For example, would you eat anything your parents or your friends did not recognize as food?

For a long time now I’ve eating things my parents, and indeed some of my friends, don’t recognize as food. And if we substitute art for this food, this is something I’ve been doing all my life, though in specific cases my friends have influence me when considering the “dish” in question.

O.Z. And what would you say about the food that contains ingredients you can’t pronounce?

F.R. I haven’t got any problem, since I eat the food, not the words, though the latter sometimes happens to me, yet for a different reason.

O.Z. Do you usually eat things that don’t rot?

F.R. No. We have been eating very healthfully for a long time, and I use the plural because I can’t refrain from mentioning my partner, Abigail Lazkoz, who cooks very well. She does practically everything; I just eat and wash up. Besides, one day this Christmas we saw Soylent Green (1973), and ever since then I’m much more appreciative of tomatoes, leeks, a good piece of meat, etc. But like a good omnivore I also ought to be ready to eat an occasional Soylent Green cracker; maybe this is the tangent I’m trying to trace now.

O.Z. Then I suppose that you aren’t one of those who pays more, but eats less.

F.R. I believe my diet is quite varied and healthful; meat is certainly what I eat less of. One of my favorite foods is fish, any kind of fish. I’m crazy about sardines from Cantabria –unfortunately, they can’t be found here in New York. Today, Abigail made some baby squid in their own ink that were incredible. She usually says that I’m not very objective about these things, but they were really delicious.

I also consider myself to be an animal that eats grass; we have salad for dinner practically every day. Today I put some lentils in water to soak, so that’s what we’ll have tomorrow, with a little bit of chorizo to add some flavor. And chocolate is a foodstuff I eat on a daily basis. It’s something my body craves, especially at midday and in the afternoon, I guess to be able to prepare the body for the trauma that comes with dusk.

O.Z. Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to try Abigail’s baby squid. As for the chocolate, as you know, recently they’ve proven once again that it’s good against high blood pressure. From what you say I gather that on the one hand you cook or are cooked for, which is really what one ought to do, though in New York you can’t plant anything you eat, which would also be very healthful. But, on the other hand, I also see a certain tendency to snack. So you don’t eat at mealtime only, and I guess then that you don’t eat everything on the table.

F.R. I love to snack, and especially when Abigail and I are chatting, whether in the kitchen or during a break from work. I believe you can eat in many places, but one thing I always take into account at mealtime, and this must be a mania, is that I always like to eat in the shade. I guess it helps synthesize or condense the food better.

O.Z. The important thing is to eat when you’re hungry, with other people whenever possible, and always with real pleasure, enjoying what you eat, don’t you agree?

F.R. I agree. One of the best things one can do in this life is share a good meal in good company.

Eating alone can be very sad. I’ll tell you a minor anecdote in this respect: I was alone in New York in September and October since Abigail was in Spain because of the different exhibitions she had there, at Artium, Guggenheim, etc., and although at lunchtime I didn’t have too much trouble, because I was engrossed with my work, and in some way eating lunch was a breather, at dinnertime I despaired a little at having to face the meal alone.

I found a semi-solution. I got hooked on a Chilean soap opera, Los Treinta [The Thirties], subtitled “Eso que ocurre después de los 29” [What happens after 29]. It was shown from 10 to 11 at night on, and as the days and shows went on CaribeVisión TV, the characters began to join me at the table, to the point where on week-ends, when the show wasn’t on, I missed them.

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