interview with fernando bayona

interview// manuel cuellar & nivardo valenzuela
english translation// brian wilbur
photography// fernando bayona

Vaffanculo Magazine: What is the source of inspiration you use to develop the subject matter covered in your photography, subject matter such as home, interpersonal relationships, and religion, to give a few examples?

Fernando Bayona: The inspiration is in the air, in front of your eyes, in that which surrounds us, suffice it to leave it at this: everything flows. The mind of the artist is a species of multi-receptor that channels and processes thousands of stimuli in a very short time. For me, inspiration doesn't arise suddenly and unexpectedly; I would say it's a method of work. Even if it's true that there are some days in which you find yourself more receptive, and that these days favor seeing the thoughts and images floating around one's head with a special clarity, even then, when the muses visit me, they tend to catch me working.

In this way ideas arise from multiple environments, from the happenings of the most banal routine, from news media, reading a book, or the lyrics of a song. From there, I make a quick outline to trap the idea and to prevent it from disappearing amidst the massive over-stimulation that we receive from our surroundings--it doesn't matter if it's on a napkin, a piece of cardboard, or a note saved in a cell phone agenda. Other times the ideas remain in a stand-by process, in a state of semi-latency, floating around in my head. And suddenly, without knowing why, or perhaps aroused by some experience, they strike you without warning, establishing a series of connections amongst themselves, as if they were fitting together all the pieces of a huge puzzle, giving you the clear solution to the project. From there, I try to generate a story, which in turn solidifies some characters that need a set design and some materials to configure it and so, little by little, like a small snowball rolling down a slope, it builds and builds. I normally work like a scriptwriter to generate the dialogues, in this way, past and future lives define the characters that I insert in my settings.

Once I have it clear what it is I want, the outlines give way to reference images so that the team can understand what it is they are to generate. From there, we start to work together in collaboration, and the ensuing debate births new ideas that add up to those magical moments that arise in photo sessions and from the little contributions of each member of the team. Still though, in the end, I'm the one who decides what to do.

Once the photo is ready, everything follows its natural course. I take 3 months of rest in which I don't look at the photos, in an effort to distance myself from them and, in doing so, to see them with new eyes. In the process of post-production, new ideas also appear that significantly modify the final image. After the photo lab, it's framed and onto the gallery.

The inspiration is not an aim, but rather a process, during which all these detours take place.

VM: In Circus Cristi, a tension arises between the Christian tradition and the sexualization of the bodies of the models that represent the scenes of the life of Christ. For example, the scene from "Beso de Judas" or "Duda de Tomás." Where does the need to redefine the life of Christ from a modern perspective come from?

FB: It arises from the questioning of religion in general, and the origin of the grounds upon which Catholic dogma, in particular, is established. The project calls these beliefs into question; it asks whether they are a reliable interpretation of the message left by Jesus, or if, on the contrary, they are a method of social control advocated by the powers that be. A power to which their leaders cling, despite knowing that their ideals make no sense in our modern society and that fail to satiate the needs of the population. I cannot understand why the institution responsible for the most crimes and assassinations, committed over a period of more than two millennia, is not able to offer up the mea culpa that it requires of its own followers. I'm surprised by the genocidal nature of the so-called "Holy Father" that advocates the prohibition of the use of contraceptives, knowing fully well that this act will lead to thousands of deaths every day and exposes millions of people to infection. I don't understand how he can sleep peacefully at night.

By the same token, I'm unable to dismantle their double standard. I ask myself about the same platitudes when something occurs, like some tragedy or death. They always say, "It's divine will. The Lord has wished it so." And I ask myself, why then does the Pope ride in a bulletproof car and have dozens of escorts in his entourage? Or why does he enjoy the assistance of the world's best doctors? Doesn't this perhaps contradict God's decisions? If something were to happen, it would be because of God's will. How does he dare go against what God has decided for him? In the same vein, I can't find the reason why he enjoys privileges that not even God's son enjoyed.

It's because of this that I consider what this Institution has done to the teachings of Jesus to favor its interests. I ask myself why certain passages or subjects have been avoided that don't interest them. Or how so many other biblical texts have been used to negate the female figure, to control her for the majority of history, or how religion has been used to impede scientific advances.

VM: What's your version of Christ's life? Why do you use beautiful, sexualized bodies and homoerotic scenes in the representation of Christ's life?

FB: I don't know if I have a concrete version of Christ's life--the version I lay out could be one of many thousands of possibilities; there's nothing new under the the sun. I currently find myself in an irreversible shift towards Atheism. I'm unable to understand so much barbarity and moral and social deprivation and, above all, I don't understand a God that does nothing in the face of so much suffering among his/her children.

My personal vision of Jesus is that of a simple man, a visionary for his time, who was involved in the society he happened to be born into and who perfectly understood its errors and needs. He left a moral code through which one could support a way of life, but in my opinion, this is at extreme odds with what the Catholic religion advocates.

I use attractive bodies in homoerotic poses similar to those that appear in ad campaigns, in the world of fashion, using the same banal tone that is assumed by these types of images, but at the same time dealing with subject matter conceptually charged and that is already perfectly embedded in the collective subconscious. It was a game of contrasts. In the end, after all is said and done, these sorts of images aren't far removed from art history, from the classic representations of biblical passages created in all artistic disciplines. Look no further than Caravaggio, Michelangelo, or Leonardo. In saying that, I don't pretend to put myself in the same league with them, I'm simply drawing parallels. It's imagery that's been widely used as religious iconography for more than 2000 years.

VM: In scenes from the series, "Jesús y María Magdalena" and "Piedad," for example, we see decadent, antique, as well as modern elements. Why this juxtaposition?

FB: It's a reflection of our society, one which fights to modernize itself but that also hasn't forgotten where it comes from. It's a conceptual game in which I establish parallels with our current society. I consider how religion has influenced us and how it has been present in all the stages of our intimate and daily reality, something we live with and something we resist setting aside in order to advance.

VM: Spain is one of the few countries that recognizes civil unions between people of the same sex. Nevertheless, in 2010, your exhibition at the University of Granada was shut down and you received threatening e-mails. So, what is the function of artistic vision in relation to the socio-cultural conditions in which it is conceived?

FB: I received tens of e-mails threatening my life, as well as via text and calls to my cell phone. With my exhibition, I intended to call into question the limits of freedom of expression and the meaning of dogmatic mockery in our society. I also aimed to investigate the limits of what is supposed to be politically correct and those of our individual liberties, but moreover, to ask at what point certain social collectives are able to censor information that is of public interest, in order to prevent seeing the basis of their dogma threatened, and above all, avoiding these threats to their source of profits.

I believe that our mission is to question social conventions in order to try to view them from another perspective and to determine which of their truths are currently valid; that is, if they make any sense, or if, on the contrary, they are susceptible to change.

VM: In your work, one can also detect a reflection of the personal, the intimate, and the emotional. In a space like we see in Sweet Home, how do you perceive the personal when the idea of home is presented in a context of the absence of intimate space?

FB: For me, the intimate is not a physical place, it doesn't have walls and for that reason it's not located in a geographic spot that, as intimate as it may be, can always be visited by somebody else. For me, memories, experiences and internal thoughts are intimate. I wouldn't know how to tell you the exact place in our head where they reside, but to me that is intimacy and it lives in that place.

VM: In Milkabouts, that which tries to connect or unite the individuals, in an oral way, is milk. Why use milk in motion as a unifying element? Why, in rethinking amorous relationships, do you use only men? And what does it mean to have the models naked?

FB: Let's being with the previous question. To me nudity is purity, truth, the truth shown without any artifice. The naked body is the complete opposite of flesh disguised under dress. With clothing, other elements intervene that can distort our perception of the subject, be it the type or style of clothing used, the color or fabric. In this way [by using nudity] the actors are shown under equal conditions, differentiated only by their physical characteristics.

Milkabouts is a completely autobiographic series. In that moment I was looking for my internal self. I needed to define my sexuality, which was an exercise in self-awareness. For that reason I turned to the masculine form in order to cement my sexual preferences.

The use of milk is a recurring symbolic element in my work. I use it as a unifier of conflicting concepts. For me, it represents life, the origin of all products. It symbolizes both the masculine and the feminine, whether through semen or a mother's milk, elements without which human life is impossible. In this series it is specifically laid out--the sexual and pleasant exchange of seminal fluid, but also implicitly within that, the possibility of transmitting disease.

VM: In your most recent work, Long Long Time Ago, in each shot we see a violin forming part of the fable. What meaning does the violin have, and how does it relate to the series as a whole?

FB: It's not an element I would have ordinarily chosen, but rather the only imposition that I received from the Swiss bank, BSI, as a part of accepting their Grant for the Visual Arts. This violin is Guarneri de Gesu, Panette, 1737, a small work of art that represents the aforementioned company. In my project, and in continuing a theme that is more and more a habit in my photo series, I don't only limit myself to producing images, but also invent a larger history to interconnect the images and to create a greater whole. In this series, the narrator of the fable is Merlin, the wizard, who, while giving King Arthur a music lesson, recounts the legend and magical properties of the instrument in his hands. Gepetto made it from a piece of wood leftover after making Pinnochio; he in turn gives the violin to Rapunzel, who likewise passes it on to the miller's daughter from Rumpelstiltskin, and in this manner it changes hands, each time modifying the moral of the story that takes place in each of these traditional tales. For example, Sleeping Beauty doesn't wake from a prince's kiss, but rather from the melody that he plays for her; Little Red Riding Hood no longer fears the wolf because when she feels threatened, a sweet composition plays to calm the beast. The Little Mermaid doesn't turn to the witch to ask for legs, but instead is provided human extremities by a few magical notes. Scheherazade accompanies her stories with music from the violin, and is able to dodge death; or, it's used to discover whether the Princess from the Princess and Pea is the real one or an impostor, substituting the violin for the pea. It's in this way that I modify things, story by story, interconnecting them to, in turn, create a new tale.

VM: In several of your works you confront your audience and force them to reconsider their spectatorial and moral positions. In the course of your career as a photographer, what or who has been an impetus to make you think or question yourself, and, in so doing, influence you?

FB: The influences are many and come from a variety of sources. First off is my family, of extremely humble origins, but who from the very beginning made me rethink things and, above all, question reality and what we know of it. My father taught me that reality is made of malleable, ductile things and that everything can appear as something else if you choose the appropriate material. Above all, however, he taught me about a closeness with the earth, to the origins of man and their most atavistic knowledge. My mother, for her part, taught me to use cloth, thread, the little details that make up more feminine chores. She taught me to think clearly and see past what is happening on the surface, to find beauty in simple things. I believe that they are the first and foremost people who have strongly influenced me because they've always made me understand that the things that are truly important are humility and honesty with oneself and with the work that one performs.

Second is my hometown. I grew up in a small, forgotten village in the middle of nowhere in Jaén.

I can't forget those teachers who accompanied me as I advanced through my studies, as well as people, both anonymous and familiar, who I've encountered along the way. I strongly value the teachings they've imparted to me simply through the vicissitudes of daily happenstance.

On a professional level, I believe that great artists like Erwin Olaf, David LaChapelle, Louise Bourgeois, Joel Peter Witkin, Eugenio Recuenco, Gregory Crewdson, Mattew Barney, etc but above all the classics [influenced me.] My work is plagued by links to art history, be it painting or sculpture. I feel a special weakness for Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Goya, Velázquez, Mantegna, or Flemish painters.

VM: What kind of audience do you have in mind when you approach the subjects you work with? For you, what is the main role of photography?

FB: I don't normally ask myself that. I believe that the entire public is susceptible to the arts, even though it's true that, depending on their respective cultural education, some may be better equipped to decode the language I use than others. I'm interested in all kinds of spectators, from children to the elderly. I think that my work has something to offer for each one of them, independent of their level of cultural awareness. There are a lot of people who have a great deal of relevant background but who, when confronted by one of my images, are only able to see the surface, who don't go further. In these images there's a wide conceptual background that you can only access if you know how to properly open your eyes, and this, in many occasions, isn't produced by education... it's something one feels or doesn't feel, it simply comes to you.

The role of photography is very relative, each time [I work] I further question its meaning. In my particular case, I use it as a means of communication with the external and above all as a method through which I may learn about myself, but also a means of escape to the subjects that spring into my head, a method of analysis of the reality in which I've happened to live and that I tend to disguise in aesthetics, even though sometimes it's loaded with violence and harsh reality in the final development of the image.

VM: What are you working on now?

FB: Currently, I'm working on a cycle formed by 4 photographic series, called Hidden Cycle. It deals with a personal and freely interpreted version of the Divine Comedy by Dante. [It's] an entire story set in an underworld in which violence and pain are the day to day reality for my characters, a glimpse of the daily hell of our society and a questioning of the pillars upon which it rests. But there's also room for reflection in Purgatory, a look at the little details and things that make up our lives. It's a stop on the path, a speculation about the sense in our daily effort to arrive at our established goals, but that make us lose so many valuable things along the way and that are subsequently impossible to recover. And maybe something about the light at the end of the tunnel, in Heaven, even though it's very likely that this would be so carnal that it'd receive criticism for my take on religious subjects.

I realize that it would be a cycle that wouldn't leave anybody feeling indifferent because of the use of such violent images, and for the locations in which I'd situate my collaborators. Hell would be an experimental game that would put more than 50 people in a closed space, for 48 hours, who've been asked to play the role of a specific character, roles they should interpret without constraint; what's more, I'll encourage it. All those who participate in this performance are conscious and abide by established norms. In this way, anything can happen. It could even be that somebody overreaches the boundaries of their character, but that's what this is all about. The Hell project will take place in an industrial slaughterhouse so that blood and violence are assured, which is no different from what we see everyday in the media.