Interview with Santiago Olmo

While I was writing this text, travelling between Madrid and Mallorca, Javier Riera and I exchanged several e-mails, with the intention of reflecting together on the project that was to be held in Valencia. Our conversations basically became a questionnaire that revealed illuminating fragments of the artist’s experience, and become a parallel text.

What was the step like from painting to interventions in nature and photographs? 

The way I understand painting has always been linked to nature for several reasons. Firstly, the paintings I saw at home during my childhood were seascapes and landscapes by my great- grandfather, a Basque painter. Besides, I think that the landscape you experience during childhood is a determining factor, and I say experience because there is more than just seeing in the relationship a child has with the landscape. In Asturias, the landscape is also an incessantly continuous weather phenomenon with its drastic changes and full of qualities that seemed amazing to me. I understand art as the depiction of a natural phenomenology that when it is seen from afar affects everything we are and gives us the chance to understand it better.

From these standpoints the step from painting to intervention work in nature is very coherent, just as it was for the Land Art artists who were painters in their beginnings. They came from action painting or abstract expressionism. Both trends conceived paintings as an experiential space, for a physical / psychic action which in the case of action painting would be comparable to the act for someone who climbs mountains and whose literature and imagination are clearly rooted in romanticism. The step from canvas to intervention in the landscape is absolutely natural in artists such as Robert Smithson, but at the same time it is an irreversible change of quality. Land Art is conceptual art due to its dependence on photography. There is a certain revocation of the object whose transcendence is not only commercial, but also eliminates an emotionally involved intermediary between the experience and the viewer, which in this case would be the painter. Part of the self of the artist, refuses to appear and is sublimated, refuses to exist, it is sublimated in the new process in favour of another quality of transparency. In my case, I would say that in the last few years my painting was becoming more of an image, losing interest in the traditional pictorial qualities and in the object and of course losing all interest in emotional expression in favour of a more suitable perception of reality. I think that my painting was approaching something closer to theory, ideas or concepts, more intellectual and immaterial and at the same time naturally structuring. The physicality of the creative experience moved from the materiality of painting, which depended on my action on it, to the physical reality of the landscape, a physical reality that already existed without any contribution by me.

Compared to painting, photography has the quality of transparency, the “thickness” of the transmitting media is thinner. Of course the photographer’s gaze selects a frame and the light in landscape, but the painter’s gaze adds brushstrokes to this which express his/her mood and psychology, a gesture, more or less quantity of matter, more or less chromatic harmony, freshness or pictorial insistence, degrees of realism and many other significant elements than can be achieved with a camera, whose possibilities for objective capture of reality are, obviously for a painter, comparatively greater.

Land Art depends since the beginning on photography, and without any conscious intention, creates a photographic genre, where I can position myself: halfway between the documentation of actions and photography in itself, halfway between the recorded intervention and photography as such.

The projections seem to move away from painting and offer a reading which is halfway between sculpture and intervention / installation. How do you situate them?

Labelling them is something I am not overly concerned about, but from the start with this work I have felt that I am painting with light and my look is necessarily frontal because of the point of view from where I project, which I would situate within a similar scope to that of painting or drawing, but they effectively acquire very significant volumetric qualities which converts them in sculptures.

The thing I am most concerned with is the spatial experience, the geometrical figures that I project I have tested in different places, and I am above all interested in the aspect that they acquire in a specific space. That, I think, is the most important step for me, moving away from the two-dimensions of canvas to real space, that is the priority in my motivation.

How does this work affect in your relationship with nature? 

I try to echo something that is already in nature, which in some way comes through my interventions, which seem to me to reveal qualities and dimensions of something hidden within the spaces where I work. Then when I turn off the lights, everything goes back to its original state. Geometry for me is something like an energy key. I feel great respect for nature, I believe that the natural environment is more important that the welfare state, I believe that animals are extremely important, and I accept that my work accounts for a temporary disturbance.

On the other hand, this work takes me away from the sublime, the romantic feeling for landscape is, in my opinion, the time when the West, with the information available at that time, accepted the vacuum, the infinite, the fact that man is not the centre of the universe and it was accepted with great shock and awe. While contemplating the traditional Taoist paintings, we can see that as in romantic pictures, small sized people are depicted submerged in the immensity of nature, but they are not afraid, because their relationship with nature is not antagonistic as it is in the West. In Burke’s texts, the soul is held in suspense before the experience of terror, which does not mean that there are not any other ways to reach this state. What is sublime is the falling away of the wall of conscience and we are now working with what can be seen behind that rubble, which today has mostly been removed. Working in the landscape like I do, means elaborating with those new aspects that we can glimpse, and which in reality it just confirms what physics and other sciences have proven, that the universe is much bigger and more complex than we could possibly imagine and nevertheless it is made up of small basic principles or particles. That was something the Romantics did not manage to feel: that the key is in the type of order that things acquire.

As a painter, and in view of this work: How do you value the landscape, the valid function of the pictorial genre? 

An honestly painted, natural landscape is something very valuable for me. It is not easy to do nowadays because it requires great dedication and painters have be capable of not falling into the thousands of pitfalls that the profession makes possible and which the market requires them to make. But landscape for me is the place of origin and the place to return to, although only temporarily, for painters today. There are things that will never cease to make sense, as if the whole cultural finesse on them never actually reaches them: a man who climbs a mountain, a painter who sits before a landscape and paints it…

What is landscape? 

Landscape is, above all, a way of ordering space, construction. An outdoor space on which cultural and emotional projection is made. That is why our view of landscape is never innocent, but it is one comprising successive layers of interpretation and assessment of its qualities, layers that have become sediment in our views like the layers of earth.

Paradoxically however, landscape is the space for innocence, where we are able to remember primitive, animal instinct.

Images of landscapes are somewhat removed from the experience that we have of them. We do not feel cold when we see a snowy landscape, the image is completely removed from the rest of the experience and for me that is fascinating because in the end, the image is for the mind, which is something that basically functions with images. At the same time landscapes comprise their image, what we see with our eyes, which once again leads to another paradox, the abysm between the final result and the process to reach something that is sometimes completely distant, for want of better words, something that happens completely independently, each of them back to back.

What role does the ornamental and spectacular play in your work? 

My projections have a component of contained spectacularity, I mean that I use a projection method from spectacular processes, but, although disappointing for some people, my geometrical projections do not move, nor do they change colour or shape, in a way that makes them spectacular but they do appeal to a meditative experience of living with what is being seen.

The ornamental does not scare me, let’s say it like that, but neither does it interest me to any great extent. Geometry has the quality of representing the driving forces of nature that are not visible, the immaterial design of things, the origin of energy of matter. That is how I work with aspects of geometry that I feel meet these qualities, which can undoubtedly be seen as ornamental items by those who miss those aspects.

This is the first time you have carried out a public project. How do you visualise the relationship with the public? 

The public you find in parks is varied and therefore from the reactions I observe they see something that surprises them and something they are not expected to show any previous knowledge about. It is not necessary to understand art to be able to enjoy this work, which is something that pleases me enormously, and perhaps it is not even rated as art. I want it to be something special for those who see it, for it to have a beneficial effect for the spectators, for it to take them, as far as possible, to a place they have never been to or where perhaps they have been but without really being aware of it, they want to go back. I want it to affect their consciences without it representing a status of narcissistic disturbance, but rather representing a bridge towards something positive and necessary, that is inside them and that is not always easy to get to.

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