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Santiago Reyes

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Apr 04, 2008
Location: France
Topic: Interview with Santiago Reyes
Interviewer: Alexis Moreano Banda


Beds, streets and other windows.

I’d like to begin by asking what prompted you to let us interview you about Sin Tí­tulo (Eric et moi dormant) [Untitled (Eric and I sleeping)], henceforth Eric and I...]? Of all your works this is the one that has sparked the most reaction. What can you add to what has already been said and written about this piece?

Santiago Reyes:  Actually I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about this work outside Ecuador, and I think an interview could be a way for me to consider this more. But I’d also like not only to respond, but comment on some of the things that have been said. For example, I’d like to point out that the Municipality (of Cuenca) is not the only entity that can boast of having principles. Secondly, I don’t think it’s legitimate to call on them to justify censorship. I have principles too, and I very much take them into account when doing my work. In this art piece everything was highly restrained, particularly because I’m aware of the peculiarities of the context in which it was to be shown, and also because I often think of the public. So, in fact I placed my own boundaries on the piece so that it wouldn’t be "censurable".

LatinArt:  In view of the curious fate that befell this image, do you think you’ve changed the way you represent your work?

Santiago Reyes:  That particular work has a strong bearing on my personal life, the relationship I had with my partner at the time, and my work already changed a lot just because of that. Besides, I did the painting with the intention of exhibiting it in Quito, but that fell through and the idea of showing it in Cuenca seemed like a good option, since the idea of displacement, of having it travel with me, was part of the work from the outset. Furthermore, as you know, the city of Cuenca has played an important role in the gay-rights struggle in Ecuador for some years. The fact is I never imagined the piece would have such an impact, much less that it would be censored, which is why we didn’t even bother to prepare a legal defense. What I think is a shame is that in the end the work didn't serve the purpose for which it was intended. The work is not the photograph: it's the image placed on a billboard, on view for a public that hasn’t asked to see it but may be elicited to see it, right now or in twenty years’ time. If it’s exhibited only to a limited art public it’s not accomplishing its aim or really expressing its meaning. Nevertheless, the work exists, although it went through something of a trauma. It didn’t have the life it was supposed to have, but at least it was there. González Torres’s piece (Untitled, 1992, to which Reyes’s work refers - editor’s note) is permanently on show on billboards in New York, and it’s still there, fulfilling its role, living through the viewer’s gaze, just as it did some twenty years ago. What’s paradoxical is that censorship got people talking about my work, but only in its condition as a work of art, so it hardly did it any favors.

LatinArt:  Both the censors and most of the people who have written about your work have tended to make the system of representation revolve around your sexual orientation, so the image has often been interpreted as an affirmation of your homosexuality and a vindication of a difference (primarily sexual, but also national). But if we stick to what is in fact in the image, that approach seems highly reductive.

Santiago Reyes:  It’s true that that interpretation disguised other levels and other themes, but the problem is not so much that the work has been reduced to a gay representation, but that that interpretation went hand in hand with an intent to judge. It’s legitimate for someone to want to emphasize one aspect over another; the problem is being judgmental, negatively judgmental, particularly when city authorities are making the judgments. In fact rather than judging what they did was to succumb to prejudices and validate them by saying that I was representing something wrong that children mustn’t see because it’s unhealthy, depraved, and sinful... The worst thing is that this act of censorship hasn’t really ever been questioned, nor have the censors ever been questioned.

LatinArt:  Let’s talk about the other aspects of the work. I think little attention has been given to the fact that the image is a constructed scene. Eric and you aren’t sleeping; you’re posing, acting for the camera. The bodies are laid out, not for lovemaking or resting, but to tell a story for the lens. What can you tell us about the way the image was made? Can you tell about the setting and the relationship of this piece to your previous work?

Santiago Reyes:  Several people have told me that what they found most disturbing was the yellow T-shirt. Somebody in Cuenca said they thought the color of the T-shirt was garish, as if violating the peace of those white bed sheets. I’m pleased that this chromatic intensity took precedence over the jersey’s reference to our national football team or to patriotism, although this is just another interpretation that can be read. For some, the T-shirt is there to play up the fact that I’m Ecuadorian, for others it means my photo is showing an Ecuadorian-ness in all its aggression and bad taste. As for how this piece relates to my previous work, about eight years I took a photo in which I’m also in a bed, but this time alone. I’m a lot younger, wearing a pair of blue Otavaleño pants (the traditional pants worn by the Otavalos, an indigenous people of Ecuador’s northern sierra) and a sleeveless T-shirt with the Plaza Grande on it (an emblematic square in Quito that has been the site of the central Administration -now the Presidency of the Republic- since the colonial period). The photo was supposed to be used as the invitation for an exhibition to be held in Quito, and was also going to be published in a gay magazine in Paris.

LatinArt:  In both Eric et moi... and the photo you’ve just described photography is not altogether removed from performance. This is similar in a way to some of your recent work, in which drawing acts as the memory of a preceding activity. Tell me a little about the role photographic stills play in your work.

Santiago Reyes:  The main consideration has to do with space. There are works in which photography cannot translate or reproduce a movement; it can reference the idea, but not the time and space where the action took place. The idea is not to make a register of the work, but for viewers to know that it took place there, in the same space as they were. In such cases the image has no value in itself, only in regard to the life that engendered it.

LatinArt:  You have another piece (R.E.M. Romantic Eye Movement, first shown in 2003), in which your body is perfectly still and we just see your eyes moving, enlarged on a screen, while some gut-wrenching love songs fill the room. Then when a song stops your eyes cease to move and time itself seems to come to a standstill. The halted movement suddenly brings us back to reality, expressed in the rigidity of your still body. In another of your most recent works (Clément, 23/01/2008, 03h45), you draw your lover’s silhouette on the wall of the site where you just had sexual relations. The viewers are not privy to any stage of the performance, just to the drawing.

Santiago Reyes:  I also have a series of photos of myself prior to beginning a performance, in which I am completely immobile, waiting for the action to start. The series is called Il va se passer quelque chose (Something’s going to happen). Not long ago I was talking to someone about the difference between drawing and drawing right after an orgasm, during that lapse when you can’t have an erection. Well, the moments right before a performance are also moments in which I couldn’t possibly have an erection, because I’m a bundle of nerves, apart from which both occasions are very private. Going back to the artwork in Cuenca, I’ll tell you something that isn’t common knowledge; that that was the second photo I shot that day. In the first Eric and I are next to a big motorcycle - a kind of extension of the sex organ. I had already made photos in which I also play with the public representation of private life. So it certainly is staged: I chose sheets that seemed appropriate, we did a series of tests, and it’s obvious we weren’t sleeping.

LatinArt:  As for the reference to González-Torres in your image, I think it’s important to point out that the comparison is inevitable but not readily apparent. To see the bed empty, the couple have to be removed first. So the reference has already been made through the story told by your photo. Going back to the elements that effectively make up your image, and that have hardly been talked about, to me it’s interesting that Eric is holding your arm, rather than the other way around. Then there’s also the fact that both the lamp and the mattress are on the floor, which, rather than pointing to an "informal" lifestyle, so to speak, to me materializes the relationship, brings it down to earth, whereas González Torres’s bed is almost ethereal. Furthermore, his is a bed in a hotel; a "non-place" as defined by Marc Augé, whereas yours takes us back to the reality of a lived-in place. I also find the uncertain position of the bodies under the sheets interesting. It looks like you’re touching Eric with your legs and he’s reciprocating, but all this is mere speculation. The fact is that although your intimacy is made public, what is happening under the sheets remains private. Finally, while Eric’s position is manifestly that of a man sleeping, yours makes me think of a lifeless body.

Santiago Reyes:  What I was really doing with this work was to pay tribute to my relationship with Eric. I think there was also an element of performance in asking him to take part, and that doubtless has to do with death, with the end of a story. Marí­a Fernanda Cartagena is right (in Global flows, local prejudices: image censorship by the media as a whole ) when she says that more than making a reference to González Torres, I was experiencing the situation described in that work: I reappropriate the space that he opened and left empty. It’s a scene of a shared life, not just of an amorous encounter. In a way, its equal parts documented fact and fiction, supposing that fiction and fact can be separated, though I’m not sure that they can be.

Logically enough, chance also played a part in shaping the image. I’m a strong believer in chance, although I always try to address the different layers --not just conceptually but above all formally - that overlay it, because they are what provides us with an initial understanding of the work, even before we become fully aware of what we’re looking at. The lighting is also interesting in that regard: on taking the photo I combined natural light with a flash to make it all look even more artificial. We took several photos, and in each we varied the gestures and improvised our poses under the sheets, using just the sound of the flash as a cue. After taking different shots I chose one, just like a theatre or film director chooses the scene he or she feels is best.

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