Interview with Rui Sanches in the context of the exhibition “Espelho / Mirror”

Pedro Gonçalves (Galerias Municipais), Rui Sanches

espelho rui sanches galerias municipais

Galeria do Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional and Museu Coleção Berardo, 2019-20

[Pedro Gonçalves]
Several times now you have said that works of art are constructed by the accumulation of the contexts in which they are exhibited and the discourses that are written about them. Do you think exhibitions such as this one, which shows works that cover diverse periods of your career, including your university study period in Britain and the USA, can be seen as occasions that further reflection on your work and thus promote the building of bridges to understanding new paths for the works you will execute in the coming years?

[Rui Sanches]
Yes, of course. I think the individual exhibition is the ideal moment for understanding an artist’s work. Particularly, if it is accompanied by a published book that can later serve as a memory of that exhibition and as a continuity in time. I think one of the great missions of exhibition spaces and museums should be to focus, in a concentrated way and with the sufficient space, on the work of the artists in order to understand the continuity and the relationship between the old and the recent. And for the artists it’s important because it’s a moment for stocktaking, a moment when a retrospective view is possible. There are many works here I haven’t seen for several years and I will now be looking at them through different eyes, particularly when they are shown in the same context as things from other periods. This results in a kind of travelling shot of my life as an artist, and I believe that is fundamentally important for me, and for the public in general.

[PG]
They simultaneously constitute occasions that provide space for critiques in the press, and catalogue texts are written dealing with your artistic career. Do you think that this discursive output has any impact at all on how you now see your past work or on your subsequent artistic output?

[RS]
Yes, I think there is much less space now for critique in the press. The days when the Expresso or the Público had supplements on art exhibitions are long gone. There is practically nothing on television either, radio the same. And that phenomenon is not just happening here, it’s the same all over the Western world. So, I think that this aspect doesn’t have the same weight today. What you do have is a number of people involved in criticism, or in curatorship, and who are part of the art scene, with whom artists can talk, and through these informal contacts there is a thought output. I believe very much in networks, contexts and relationships between people. I think being part of a community is very important; it is based on a community of productive persons: artists, critics, theorists, people who work in museums, who work in the museums and exhibition spaces, and things take shape that way. That is very important for artists – that we do not work in a void, alone in the studio. The possibility of exchanging ideas and being in contact with other people is important to me and to us all.

[PG]
The role of the curator has gained in importance in recent decades. Exhibitions that do without them are rare today. Do you think that has changed how an exhibition functions? How do you see the presence and work of a curator in relation to your work?

[RS]
I think, yes, we have seen considerable change in relation to this in recent years. The curator has taken on a protagonism, an importance, they didn’t have before. I also think it depends. For example, in the case of a show like this one, my work with Delfim Sardo was important; his presence and way of looking at things were important. Especially, when you’re lucky enough to have a curator you know well, who has accompanied your work over the years, and therefore, with whom the dialogue becomes very fruitful. The whole exhibition montage and work selection process was very easy. There is a common source of experience for both of us… His capacity for organising works of art in the space is very important and the work went very well. I think there is a certain exaggeration as to the importance and presence of a curator. Sometimes there are small shows by one artist in galleries and these then feature the name of a curator. Let’s just say, things get a little inflated. Or there is a certain hand-washing aspect on the part of the commercial gallery managers. I think someone who runs a gallery should also be obliged to do curatorship work, so that bringing in somebody from outside isn’t necessary. Maybe it’s just a phase we’re going through and things will later balance out. I’m not very much in favour of exhibitions where the curator takes a decisive creative role. I have seen some exhibitions where I have thought the curator was abusing that creative power, treating the works of the artists in a disagreeable way, even showing them in contexts that are not very interesting. But it’s the artists who subject themselves to that kind of treatment who decide.

[PG]
Another factor that you say influences works is the exhibition space. Do you think the Galeria do Torreão Nascente [Eastern Tower Gallery] at the Cordoaria in Lisbon has in any way had an influence on the way the works were shown here? Has the space made you look at any of the works differently throughout the installation days and has it influenced the decisions to place them in certain sports?

[RS]
I think so. This space is magnificent for my work. I had no idea just how good it was; I think it’s perfect. I have never seen my work so well installed anywhere as it is here. The relationship between the cement floor with the wood, and the white walls. On the more disagreeable side, it is by no means a perfect gallery with luxurious finishes. The works take on greater protagonism that would be possible if the space were immaculate. That is the advantage of this space – it obviously needs a certain amount of maintenance and renovation work. In a conversation with my wife yesterday, she said it was similar to a space in the United States which is Dia Beacon. It kind of follows the same type of logic – an industrial space, an old converted factory, and when we went there, we had the feeling that this was the ideal place to view works from the 1960s or 70s – minimalist, post-minimalist. If you’d never seen such works before and saw them there for the first time, I believe you would indeed understand them. It is completely different to view those works there or to view them as part of a group exhibition, or in a more banal white cube museum. And here, too, I got the same feeling. The works are the protagonists and they come alive; the scale is optimal, the ceiling height generous. I think it’s great.

[PG]
You have said on other occasions that you are particularly interested in the intervals one finds between the various artistic idioms, the grammatical fluidity you find there and the opening up of new possibilities for the works you execute. However, your work is always pigeon-holed into disciplinary categories. Is this not a paradox? How do you see this disciplinary write-off of your work?

[RS]
When they ask me what I do, I normally say I’m an artist. Sometimes I say I’m a sculptor when they pressure me. But, alongside my sculptural work, I have always done drawing, painting, worked with various media. So, I don’t think that separation is overly critical. Sometimes it turns into an academic debate – where does drawing stop and sculpture begin. Those things down there with rope on the wall[1] – are they drawings with rope or are they soft sculptures? Of course, I feel comfortable being able to speak of painting, sculpture and drawing – we think we know what we’re talking about. I am normally known as a sculptor, even though I also do other things. I have always done drawings alongside my sculptural work – these were always two fields I worked in at the same time, from early on. In other words, the drawings I do are never drawings for sculptures, at least not those I show publicly, nor are they drawings of sculptures. They are drawings that have their own autonomy in terms of idiom and are close to what I do in my sculpture work, but they are different. I have used paint. I use photography in my drawings, to give another example. So, there are different types of idioms that I have been using over time, and it isn’t always easy to separate them. So, I think that is a matter I’m not very interested in. These are issues that may be of interest as a subject of theoretical discussion, but they are not very important to my practice as an artist. One of the characteristics of the times we live in, for some time now, is a lack of clear boundaries. It was very clear to me that when I was studying and painting and when I went to London, I had reached a kind of dead end in my painting. I had left painting behind and started working with the three dimensions. It was a process that progressed little by little: my paint hit the plane of the canvas, but then it stopped, and I had to switch to three dimensions to continue working. And that relationship between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is something that has always interested me. What relationship does sculpture strike up with the wall and the floor, and how can painting go beyond the realm of the two dimensions or create the illusion of going beyond that realm. That whole question, between illusion and reality, between the factual and the virtual or fictional. These pieces are, at once, very factual, pieces made of various woods, shapes in plywood, and where you have the idea that you are looking at something that is very object-like, very factual, and at the same time they relate to things that are not there. It is that dialogue between what is and what isn’t there that I find interesting in sculpture.

[PG]
In your doctoral thesis – Window, Mirror, Map… – you argue that the artist’s point of view should be re-assessed. In what way could that be carried out? Do you think giving more frequent interviews could be a way towards achieving that? Or are interviews still far from achieving a re-balancing that would make it possible to render the artist’s voice more important in dealing with their work?

[RS]
I think there is a lot of work that can be done at the historiographical level in terms of what the artists themselves have to say. It has been the case that artists die and then people go: “ah, if only we had made a documentary, a recording, or done a long interview with the guy, bloke, whatever.” There are so many cases of people who are at an advanced age and probably there is not a lot of material that gives a voice to artists. This is debatable; there are all kinds of opinions: people who think that the artist is the last person one should be listening to, because they have done what they had to do and all the rest is interpretation, exegesis. I think the artist’s viewpoint is important, like a balanced opinion on an issue, even if afterwards there may be opinions, or interpretations, that say that he thought he was doing “this”, when in reality he was doing something else. But I think it is important to let the artist’s voice be heard. There are so many artists, over the centuries, who have written about their work and who have had an important theoretical side. So many – Robert Smithson, Donald Judd – so many people who wrote very authoritatively, even on their own work sometimes. We in Portugal don’t have much of a tradition of talking about our work. I am a teacher and at the school I don’t see the young students talking much about their work. Now, things are changing, even in public, and this is a good thing, I think. There are people who don’t like to do guided tours of their own exhibitions or talk about their work at exhibitions. I find, based on my own experience, that whenever I talk with people about my work, they become more interested. There is a proximity with the work that can be acquired, and sometimes contemporary art is not easy. We all know that people often have difficulty getting into a work, they have their own preconceptions, and the contact with the artist often facilitates the building of that bridge.

[PG]
Throughout the 1980s you created a group of works that paraphrase paintings, dealing with the composition of various paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. This work was preceded by analysis of the works and historiographic approaches. In today’s world, what role should Art History and Art Theory play in art teaching?

[RS]
If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s that Art History should be taught as part of an art course. That is one of the few things I’m certain of… Today, in a school context, when a visual arts course, or however you want to call it, is set up, a lot of discussion goes into what should be on the curriculum for such a course. What can we teach? Can art be taught? Can one teach people to be an artist? All these questions are constantly debated. I think people have to know, have to organise a narrative on what is done, and then, from there, they can make their own choices, or go for certain options.

I like practical courses, where people go to work, have a space. Maybe because I did my training in an Anglo-Saxon context, where it was very much about “getting your hands dirty.” I arrived in England and on the first day of class, they said to me: “look, here is this space, go to work now.” Nobody told me what I had to do. Taken to the extreme, this can, of course, be very radical.  Particularly for younger kids, it can lead to a block, because you don’t know what to do. I don’t think it’s all that radical; but I do think that there has to be a focus for the work, and the student himself has to come up with that. Everything else must be organised around this. In other words, there must be a process, a kind of range of options and you choose depending on what you’re most interested in. But I think Art History should always be a presence throughout the curriculum.

[PG]
Coming back to this exhibition, which is entitled Espelho/Mirror. One of the first works you made during your student days in London was the work Untitled from 1979, which is shown on the ground floor of the Galeria do Torreão Nascente. It features a number of mirrors on a grid drawn on the wall. The arrangement of the mirrors causes the fragmentation of the space and also of the viewer’s own body. Is it true to say that this work resulted from your interest in Bruce Nauman’s work and the behavioural art that was being done at the time? Or did it result from a different focus?

[RS]
Bruce Nauman was an important influence on my training, but I don’t know if any direct connection between the piece in question and Nauman’s work can be made. Nauman was part of a group of artists I gradually discovered and took an interest in. This particular piece is part of a series and these things sometimes have their own pragmatic reasons for being. I had a studio at the school, together with other people. And suddenly the school moved to a new building and I was given a studio of my own. The fact I was there alone and was able to use the whole space as I wanted, allowed me to do that kind of work. In other words, I began to deal with the space itself in a more direct way; I no longer had just a corner of a room, but a whole room to myself. So, the presence of the architecture became much more evident, and I felt like doing things that had that connection to the architecture. It’s funny you should talk about Nauman. I remember reading texts about him where he said, when he finished school and went to a studio, “and now what am I going to do? I am here and now I am an artist. What am I going to do now with this space and with my body?” And he began making a series of things that spoke to what an artist does in a studio: “if all an artist does is make art, what am I going to do now?” And now, if I recall correctly, it was indeed the same for me. I had a space where I could be alone; so: “how am I going to deal with this space now?” In a way, it forced me to think about the relationship between my body and the architecture differently, and maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do that in a different space. So that was, in part, the driving force behind that work.

[PG]
The work in question, and three others dating from 1978, are being shown for the first time since your study period in London. Why were they never shown again before his exhibition?

[RS]
There you have it, this has to do with curatorship. It was Delfim Sardo who thought it would be interesting to show those works. To me they were student works, and perhaps I wouldn’t have had the courage to show them. But he made me see them in a new way. It could be interesting to perceive them as a starting point to other things I have done over the years. And so, we decided to show them. They only existed as photographic records and those photographs were used on the invitation and the save the date. So, we decided to make them again. And I was very happy to have that opportunity.

[PG]
Gesture and action are very much a presence in your work. It is the initial acts that determine how your sculptural work develops. The cut you make in the first plywood disk, in some of the works exhibited here, for example, dictates how you proceed with superimposing the following disks. Do you think that this more procedural side, which confers great importance on the gesture and the action, is one of the most constant elements in your work?

[RS]
Yes, clearly. All my work is connected to the studio, to a certain confusion that exists in the studio. There are things that happen without them being planned; in other words, there is a whole process going on. It is as if, for example, a person is writing at a desk at night and then goes to bed; and the next day, when that persons comes back, the pen is in one position, the book in another. There is a spatial organisation that was created by the action of writing, as well as by how the person uses the space, that is registered in that still life that is created, but it is not thought out in advance. It has to do with the person writing in a certain way, adopting a certain position at the desk. The same thing happens in the studio. I sometimes enter the studio in the morning and find configurations of things I would never have thought of doing, but they have remained as they were. In other words, the works never come out of nothing, they come from things that were done beforehand. There is a kind of machine that is in motion and suggests new things to me. It has happened that I have moved studio and had to start from scratch, that’s horrible… Getting there and having to throw things on to the floor, in order to create a work environment. I cannot work in a completely clean space; so, there is that work process. I am very regular as far as my work habits are concerned. I go to the studio every day. I don’t work at night. I go back home when it is six or seven o’clock in the evening. That is my routine. Even if I don’t go there to do anything in particular, I still go at least for a few hours, to look at the walls, read or just listen to music for a while. So, that routine defines the procedural rhythms in the studio. My work thrives on that a lot, lives off that constant day-to-day process.

[PG]
Given the title of the exhibition and the use of the mirror in a number of your works, what symbolism, what connotations does the mirror represent in your work?

[RS]
That is something we could talk about forever. The mirror is so many things, isn’t it? And it is nothing. It is a surface that has nothing itself, it only reflects. We cannot know what a mirror is; only that which is reflected in it. It is a completely chameleonic thing; it lives from the context. If you were to move the work to another spot, it would have a completely different effect. So, it has that very seductive aspect of being something that will always surprise us. And then there is that magic of inverting images, of projecting us beyond the mirror, like Alice. So it is that world of the beyond, that creates effects of a void, a hole in the space. One can, and indeed one has already, create books on mirrors, exhibitions on mirrors; it is an endless source, all the representations of mirrors in painting, the use of mirrors in painting. A great number of artists use mirrors and there are many ways of using them. Finding a new way of using them is always possible.

[PG]
As already mentioned, the mirror was first used in works you executed as a student in England and the USA. On several occasions you have reported on and described the modifications that the artistic production you encountered in these places have had on your career path. What was it like to return to and begin showing in Portugal? Was the work you were doing at the time well received?

[RS]
Yes, I mean, the Portuguese scene at the time was nothing like what it is today. I came back to Portugal in 1982 and the Portuguese scene was a lot smaller, with fewer artists, fewer galleries, fewer exhibition spaces, fewer everything really. It was very easy for people to get to know each other quickly. Although I did not attend the Lisbon School of Fine Arts, I quickly got to know half a dozen people through friends. People always end up mixing with people with common interests. It was all relatively quick. I had studied at Ar.Co for a few years. I had a good relationship with the people who ran the school – Manuel Costa Cabral, Graça Costa Cabral. When I returned, they suggested I teach classes there; I began shortly after I returned from the United States. Through Ar.Co I also got to know other people, both my former colleagues and professors, and people connected to the school in some way or another. This was all relatively quick. Obviously, I had come from a very different scene, hadn’t I? United States, Lisbon, Portugal. I had a certain way of seeing art, so it took me some time to understand what was going on in Lisbon. I think there weren’t many people working in the same type of language as I was. This more constructive, more constructed, tradition is not something so common in sculpture in Portugal. If you look at the most influential artists from previous generations, in terms of sculpture – Alberto Carneiro, Ângelo de Sousa – who were people I looked to before leaving for the United States, that was a different kind of tradition. But I think it was all integrated pretty quickly.

[PG]
This period was also when you were linked by art historians to Post-Modernism. The literature on art that has been written since then focuses primarily on a supposed return to painting, and also on photographic art in connection with the “Pictures Generation.” Do you think sculptural work was relegated to a secondary level?

[RS]
There were many points of view. Where I think this story about Post-Modernism went wrong was in trying to create a very linear narrative, as if, suddenly, in the late 1970s, people had had enough of conceptualism, minimalism, very dry and very intellectual things, and so on, and now we were going to go back to painting and sculpture. Of course, there was also a truth to it, but that doesn’t mean there didn’t continue to be other things, all done in many different ways by many different people. So, those figures that appeared on the scene seemingly more prominently in the early 1980s did not last very long. Some of them did. Perhaps [Georg] Baselitz, who was a typical figure at this time, did make a return to sculpture “really”, a return to the object; he began working in wood, before going on to bronze. There was that return to sculpture and to painting. But figures such as [Julian] Schnabel or Sandro Chia, who were major icons at the time, became much less important. That side of Post-Modernism – on the one hand anything goes, but on the other… The figure of the artist was looked at again in a way similar to that of Romanticism – a special being, anointed by the gods, who can do whatever he wants. That was a relatively short period; it was something I never identified with and so, I did not feel comfortable with it. When I came back to Portugal that manner of being was very much present. Shortly afterwards there was an exhibition, Depois do Modernismo [After Modernism], in 1983 at the National Society of Fine Arts, and it very much endeavoured to establish that kind of situation in Lisbon. But then I think things opened up a lot. I have to say, Lisbon and Portugal went through a closed and isolated situation, after a period when politics was at the centre of everything, the PREC [Revolutionary Process in Progress], that whole post-revolution period. Then, in the early 1980s the opening up to other fields began, in terms of culture and the arts. The field of visual arts started out very much focused on the conception of Post-Modernism. In architectural design too, there seemed to be a strong presence of architecture based on formulas, one of the most prominent examples was Tomás Taveira. And then it opened up. We began to see greater diversity of positions, which overcame that situation.

[PG]
Your three-dimensional works are executed on a large scale. Even smaller-sized sculptures are elevated to the level of the viewer’s gaze by means of placing them on plinths you make especially for them. How important for you is the body and the position of the viewer?

[RS]
Hugely important. Works of art function as a kind of interlocutor or mediator. Essentially, one of the things that sculpture does, or I hope my sculpture does, is to make the viewer conscious of his body, his presence in the place he is in. I am interested in the idea that it is a unique, unrepeatable moment when one is looking at a certain sculpture, I am interested in the way in which a person moves in the space, the notion one gets of the architectural environment one finds himself in, and where the sculpture also is situated. So, there is a kind of dialogue that is created, almost like a choreography that is created in the space, at the same time for the sculpture and for the viewer’s body. A sculpture triggers the viewer to make certain movements, move in the space in a certain way. Therefore, when the viewer becomes more conscious of the notion of spatiality that we have, that is a notion that is built upon throughout life; through the references we receive, we construct a mental space, a notion of spatiality. We become more aware that we have two feet, that we stand upright in the space. We have two eyes at a certain height. We have a back, a front, a left and a right. All of our body determines how we understand the space, and sculpture also serves as a mediator in this.

[PG]
You have also used everyday objects in your works from the late 1980s, such as light bulbs and fishbowls. Why did you progressively abandon them?

[RS]
Ah, there was no abandonment. I don’t see it as me abandoning them in a significant way. I think there was a use of things that already existed, that normally served another purpose. The fish bowl normally serves for housing a goldfish, and the light bulbs to provide lighting, but doors also serve for passing from one space to another, or a certain type of material serves for building cupboards or for making rims for architectural elements. I mean, the most common thing is the use of things that normally serve a different function in other areas. When a person looks at a PVC pipe they think of tightening rings and sewage outlet pipes and things like that; but I only use them for something else, for another purpose. And I think that has remained more or less constant.

[PG]
In recent years you have at times used bronze that was painted white to make it look like gypsum, thus dissimulating a material that is traditionally regarded as dignified by means of one that has poorer associations. However, in your most recent work, Os espaços em Volta/The Spaces Around, from this year [2019] you use gypsum itself. What was the reason for this change?

[RS]
I use gypsum and I use bronze that is not painted in my last piece too, in that suspended sphere[2]. Gypsum is a material I have been rediscovering. I haven’t yet managed to work directly with gypsum how I would like to, but it’s one of the things I want to try and explore more. That gypsum piece was first modelled in clay and then I asked a specialist to make it in gypsum. I sometimes like to use these kinds of traditional sculptural techniques. There are still people who do this kind of work. The form man who executed it is eighty years old and still works away.[3] He worked with Leopoldo de Almeida for years and is thus somewhat of a relic in Portuguese sculpture. Now, there is someone who should be interviewed and whose memories should be preserved, because he has incredible experience. But I think it’s about switching things up. The bronze used for that sphere is “real bronze”, because I wanted the sphere to have an almost spiritual side to it, that came from above, with which we can associate an almost liturgical situation, while at the same time giving it a more prosaic meaning – the carpenter’s or bricklayer’s plumb line, a clock’s pendulum, things like that. Foucault’s pendulum, all things that are more prosaic. So, it is important in that piece that it is bronze and perceived to be bronze.

[PG]
In this exhibition, the first works on the ground floor of the Galeria do Torreão Nascente are works from the late 1970s and one you made specifically for this show. Their arrangement, while allowing for each one to be contemplated individually, ends up placing them in a dialectical situation. How do you see the time arch that separates them? What dialogue can be maintained between the two?

[RS]
I think they get along very well together. I think this is what we spoke about at the beginning. That possibility of viewing in the same space works that were made in completely different periods is really interesting for me, and for any artist, I should think. It is good viewing them this way… It is something that is very evident. I think this exhibition is very clear on this matter, that this is the relationship between pieces from different periods and they go very well together, they are from the same family; there is nothing strange here. A person can go through the exhibition from start to finish, and even though the things were made with a difference of forty years between them, there is nothing that would make someone say: “eh, how strange! This doesn’t seem to make sense here; what is this doing here?” And that’s a good thing.

[PG]
In closing, and to go back to the initial question, after seeing your works in this anthological way, has it given you any ideas for your next works?

[RS]
It’s too early to know yet. For now, I am still in shock at seeing all the pieces here, and at finishing the installation yesterday and everything now being ready. I’m still in a climax phase after that work. Now, gradually, I will see if this opens any doors to new things or if it is a kind of stocktaking moment and then life goes on as before.

[1] Reference to the works: Triangle (1978), Cube (1978) and Circle (1978).
[2] Reference to the work Sem título (Espelho)/Untitled (Mirror), 2019.
[3] Venâncio Neves.

Related Exhibition

Date
Title
Artists
Curatorship
Gallery
29.09.2019
– 12.01.2020
Mirror
Rui Sanches
Delfim Sardo
Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional