There are almost no publications about him, for a painting he takes a whole year, for his photographic works he develops the hardware himself, and the software along with it, and he has only exhibited twice in his entire career. The trained engineer is involved in large projects on facsimileing and 3D reproduction for museums, but his skill is largely applied to his own slowly and brilliantly developing work.
Manuel Franquelo is an artist of unusual radicalism, both in the autonomy of his means of production and in his relationship to the art market. In conversation it quickly becomes clear how withdrawn yet informed, how reflected yet modest he is as a person, but also how mundanely existential—despite its technical perfection—his art is. A position that in its resistive precision and clear-sightedness can only count as pioneering.
Michael Heitz: You studied engineering (telecommunications) before going on to study art. Could you tell me something about your path to technology? And how about your road to art?
Manuel Franquelo: My father had a penchant for math, and studied engineering; my mother, music and philosophy. I think it was important for me to grow up in an environment where widely diverging attitudes and points of view were constantly mixing in a very natural way. I moved to Madrid to study engineering, and not long after I started preparing to enter to art school.
When I was almost finished with my engineering degree, I decided that I wanted to devote more time to art, so I opted not to continue this first path. A few years later I finished my fine arts degree, and from then until today, art has been my main profession. I have done some engineering, though almost exclusively in an artistic capacity, not professionally.
You conduct intensive research into the techniques of visual reproduction, you scan and duplicate historical masterpieces with high-level, self-designed hardware and software, and you obtain tremendous accuracy and brilliance in their realistic portrayal. Where does this apparent obsession come from, and what is your artistic interest in it?
I think it’s important to clarify that what interests me is not the meticulous, the minute, or the perfect, as is often the interpretation. What interests me is the insignificant, that is, that part of the everyday that goes unnoticed—what nobody pays attention to. The interpretation of the world through the insignificant has been a constant theme of my career. I have always been interested in this point of view; perhaps due to a distrust of the extraordinary, the heroic, and the spectacular—concepts that often seem to me remote and suspect of manipulation. Maybe in the end it’s just a symbolic protest on my part, a more or less hidden desire of mine to give a voice to everything that gets silenced by dominant discourses and ideologies.
What is your opinion of the museum and the archive, of conservation with the aid of copies? In the tendency towards the indistinguishability of original and copy do you see a danger, or a potential, such as for democratization?
The museum’s current role is quite complicated, and, as with art, it’s not at all clear what its function in contemporary society is. In any case, what does seem certain is that we need to document ideas, events, and artifacts to build as complete and neutral a record as possible of our memory.
When a particular cultural asset is exhaustively documented with today’s technological capabilities, an enormous volume of data is generated which, among other things, enables the building of perfect facsimiles that are sometimes indistinguishable from the original to the human eye.
It is important to emphasize, despite its obviousness, that a cultural asset is first and foremost a symbol. Replicating its visual appearance isn’t everything, because, as has often been pointed out, what gives it value lies precisely in a property (the cultural meaning) that can’t be seen with the eye.
I don’t think it’s dangerous to use facsimiles, provided that their nature is well understood. On the other hand, I don’t believe that these help the democratization of art as we understand it today, because its discourse operates precisely in the intangible space of the signified which is impossible to replicate.
Benjamin describes the aura as “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” Your work perfects the means of technical reproducibility of visual and spatial works, bringing them into a proximity that indicates an absence. Can you relate to the associated idea of loss and obliteration but also the sublime that comes from the presence of an “original?” Can we conceive of or construct the identity of original and copy, and is this desirable?
If we’re just talking exclusively about visual similarity, it seems to me having the original and the copy be identical is nowadays conceivable, achievable, and also in some contexts desirable. Another very different issue is the one concerning cultural value. It’s obvious that there are qualities that can neither be perceived with our eyes nor with our devices that confer tremendous differences in value on objects that are visually indiscernible.
In this sense, I don’t believe that it is currently possible to conceive of the original and the copy as being identical. The difference that separates them isn’t visual but cultural. Of course, the culture could change, but in the short term, that doesn’t seem likely.
On the path that you are pioneering, an improved exactness of detail in sculptural works and spatial arrangement will undoubtedly soon be achieved, as can already be observed in the use of 3D printers. Given your very sculptural work on images, would you be interested in working sculpturally at some point?
For years I’ve been developing 3D scanners that have been used in conservation projects all over the world, from the Prado to the National Gallery. Strangely, I’ve never used them to produce my work. Of course, I’m not at all ruling out that I could use some of the equipment when the discursive framework of one of my projects calls for it.
Can you say something about your method? Do you isolate the objects for the photo sessions and then assemble them digitally, or do you arrange the whole tableau and take an overall shot? How long does the process take? Is there a prior conceptual configuration, a kind of composition?
Little by little I’ve become one of those creators who doesn’t like to talk about the methods used in the making of their work. I think most of the time the only thing that comes of it is that the explanation gets put between the viewer and the work, hindering the interpretive process. I think it’s better for the viewer not to pay much attention to these things and continue the process of creation from the side of reception.
Something similar happens with the length of the production process. Sometimes a work needs to be contemplated as if it had been done effortlessly and instantly. And sometimes, we need to think its production has taken an eternity. The real length of time it took to produce is irrelevant; giving information about it only serves to impede the imagination.
Like a classical painter of still lifes, you drape the previously collected things syntactically, they have writing on them too. And of course many of the objects have symbolic meanings and make historical references. Is readability important to you, or would you negate the possibility of a linguistic approach? My question addresses your relationship to semiotics and iconography, and not least the question of “meaning.” Are you preoccupied with this complex theoretically and/or in your concrete work?
Everything that is seen and everything that is read determine a horizon of expectations. This precisely constitutes the subject of my work. I care about all conscious and unconscious, iconographic and semiotic questions; and as far as the production of meaning goes, I’m especially interested in the side of reception and the ways in which a viewer can project their own world onto my works.
Your visual rhetoric is unmistakably involved in an intimate dialogue with art-historical motifs, so that one is tempted to detect the differences between your specific selection and the traditional canon. Whether or not there are motifs of mortality or finality (memento mori, vanitas, etc.), for example, and how you represent them. In what way, for you as a contemporary of the 21st century, does the situation of art today fundamentally differ from that of the 17th or 18th centuries?
For me, the absolutely fundamental difference between art’s place today and the practices of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries is that back then, art simply didn’t exist. As Boris Groys says, “Before the French Revolution there was no art, only design.” Of course there were techniques, methods, and canvases with all kinds of images but the reasons for creating them were very different from those at stake in today’s art world.
The seemingly deep-frozen character of your images indicates a single moment in space and time. On the other hand, every object carries its history with it, which—quite literally—gives it its own texture. To me there seems to be a decisive tension in the huge gap between the past-tense assemblage, as it were, and the almost super-presence of each individual object which looms out in ghostly isolation. What role does time play in your images?
Of course in this project I am not concerned with the photographic “decisive moment” nor with the future, frozen for a few milliseconds as a sign of fleeting movement or change. The temporality that interests me in this work has more to do with the confirmation of the biological time of human life, with remembering and forgetting.
I’m concerned with the way of being that things have within time. Seeing how an object differs from another one across time, but above all, how it differs from itself.
In Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant, I have sometimes photographed the same place a second time, months or years later after the first, in order to take note of the changes. In this way I have tried to associate time with space; to see how it grows in places—to quote Perec’s Les Lieux.
Georges Perec writes in L’infra-ordinaire, the book that also includes a very detailed description of his desk (“still life / style leaf”): “Ce qui se passe vraiment, ce que nous vivons, le reste, tout le reste, où est il?” In light of your last series, Things in a Room, in which you portray the objects that have accumulated over many years in your studio, I’m interested in the existential dimension of your art. What status would you give it?
There’s an existential dimension to almost all of my work, an interest in the investigation of reality through the immediate experience of my own existence. Here it connects to three themes: the enormous importance of everyday life in the culture of the last hundred years, the subject of ruins, and the impermanence of things as in the traditional Japanese aesthetic mono no aware.
You have a radical approach to painting and to your art in general. You spend up to a year on each painting, so you don’t produce many canvases. You summon up a high degree of technical perfection, and you’ve only exhibited twice in your career. Publications are also a rarity. What significance do the exhibition, the viewing, and also the viewer of your works have for you?
It seems to me that trying to compete in the economy of attention from the field of contemporary art is a naive goal in the twenty-first century. I have acted within a limited scope in order to gain the time and freedom that are necessary to construct a few insurgencies and micro-revolutions that could not only be useful both to me and to society. Often, you have to give in some areas to be able to gain in intensity; it isn’t easy to have everything all at once.
You once called the current system of art, with its simple and brutal means of inclusion and exclusion, “fascist.” Do you believe in a political potential of art, of your art? How might this look, and where would it ideally be located?
Of course the contemporary art world has precious little democracy, as Pierre Bourdieu, Natalie Heinich, and many others have shown.
In my opinion, art as we know it today doesn’t have an effective political potential. It seems to me that there is too great a distance between solving a problem symbolically in the autonomous field of art and doing it effectively in real life, as Andrea Fraser has pointed out. Real problems are tackled much more effectively with real actions.
By the same token, years ago I decided to use my engineering knowledge to develop free, not-for-profit, hardware and software programs, with the aim of making an incursion into the real world by providing not symbolic but functional solutions that would serve real needs. Perhaps, as Alistair Hudson points out, the only possible way to make useful, functional art that is truly integrated into society, and in which the important thing is the way of doing things rather than the things in themselves, is to forget autonomy and critical distance.
Where will painting, photography, and art be in 100 years?
It’s difficult to predict, but I imagine that by then painting will have almost entirely disappeared. Practices that lack a function within society are very difficult to maintain and end up losing even their symbolic value, which in the end comes from their use in real life.
The case of photography is different, because it has extremely wide applications in very diverse fields, from the leisure and entertainment industries to science and technology. In addition, its digital evolution opens its way for an incredible path that will take it from the simple task of looking and registering to the infinitely more complex task of seeing and understanding.
With regards to art, I think that, as many others have predicted, it will gradually be absorbed by the tourism and entertainment industries, and its political use by governments will decrease in importance along with our society’s belief in its failed promises of social transformation, which have stood systematically unfulfilled almost since its inception.