by Amy Bell
photos by Bárbara Velasco
With a diverse practice spanning dance, music and video Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld shared with me his passions and reservations about the personal and the political in art making, and his ambivalence towards the figure of the Reina Sofía.
Amy Bell: During Performing Gender Bologna workshop leader Peggy Olislaegers proposed that the artists should start this project from the personal. There are many big discourses suggested by the project that are already very well worked and that you can get lost in as an individual, so I suppose she is suggesting that a way to open out something that’s meaningful for you and can then maybe become universal, is really to begin with something personal. And I was immediately thinking about you, because you were explaining that it’s not your way or your interest to work like that. Do you feel you are challenging your resistance or your disinterest in starting from the personal in some ways this week?
Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld: I guess I am because I’m here. And also I don’t think it’s possible to work with gender, at least from an artistic point of view, if it doesn’t touch you personally somehow. I guess you can write about gender and theorise and make academic work about it without being [personal] because it can be very referential, there’s already a history, there’s already a lot of texts and a lot of information to work from. But artistically, at least from what I understand, it’s an artistic need [to draw from the personal]. I guess if I’m here it’s because somehow I want to relate to ideas of gender, sexual diversity, feminism, queerness or whatever, from what I am. I don’t think I can do otherwise. Maybe I’m here to put myself maybe in a position that I will never put myself otherwise.
AB: I suppose it’s then you can still accept the possibility of saying actually no, you’re not interested in working that way.
PEL: Totally, it’s a possibility to say, ‘No, I’m not interested’. But I’m discovering that I have a very strange relation to this [question] because I really like some artists who work from a very personal starting point, really embodying these problematics and really full-on going there. And I love it, it’s not that I’m not interested in general, but for my own process I’m still trying to discover if I’m not interested, if I don’t know how to do it, or if I’m afraid to do it, because it’s too personal, you know?
AB: So then the question is, and maybe this changes through time and in different contexts, whether to respect your unwillingness to work in a certain way or whether to challenge that.
PEL: Exactly, that’s a very good question. If I don’t do it because I am afraid or because I don’t know how to do it, doesn’t mean I have to force myself to go there. I also think the fact that I’m here and thinking about these topics is already changing something and maybe it won’t happen now but in five years. So I think it’s also good to respect the rhythm of things. But I know in a way that actually I am interested because I know that properly translated biography, personal history or intimacy is very fascinating material to work with and I just think I’m not in the moment for that now, but probably it will come.
AB: I think in actual fact you carry your personal history and feelings with you and in your work anyway. You can’t escape it, it’s just there. But I guess it’s whether you make it an explicit material of some sort, or how explicit you make it. For example this makes me think about the three levels of manifesting content that the queer author Lawrence Schmel outlined to us the other day: it could be the sole content, the secondary content or purely incidental.
PEL: Exactly. Because if I think about my work, of course it’s gendered, of course it’s sexed, because of course I am who I am, I work on what I work on, I’m a person, I have a body, I have a history, so it’s anyway there. But as you say, I probably don’t put the focus there. In my last two pieces sexuality is not very present but in the ones I did at the beginning it was actually very present but it was very incidental, it was not the main thing, it just happened. So I guess in a way maybe I can make a cross in the ‘I am afraid’ option.
AB: Why are you afraid of it?
PEL: I’m totally not afraid of talking about my sexuality in my life but maybe I’m afraid of exhibitionism. That’s what I don’t like and that’s maybe my big prejudice. I have a problem with exhibitionism, especially when you use it for art. I really don’t enjoy it when I see people abusing their own history.
PEL: Well it has an impact if you tell me in a performance, for example, that you’ve been raped. It has an impact. But my reaction is that I disconnect with you because I feel like you want to create an impact on me. It depends how it’s told of course.
AB: You don’t appreciate the feeling of manipulation?
PEL: Yes exactly and I know that sometimes I get the feeling that biography or intimacy is used in this way and I’m really afraid to go there because it’s really not what I want, not the way I want to relate to it.
AB: But I suppose that starting with the personal doesn’t necessarily mean arriving there or being manipulative with it. In a process maybe you go off in another direction or you transpose elements of things in a more indirect way.
AB: Other starting points are perhaps this institution, the architecture, the politics of this particular museum, or the idea of the museum more generally. Have you been able to take any of that with you?
PEL: Yes for sure, because we’ve been here for a week now and as you just said, maybe you start with that and then it will develop into something else. It’s a huge institution and you can feel the politics of that in a very practical and simple way. For instance the bodies [of the visitors] are totally controlled here, they’re controlled and under surveillance. It’s crazy. So this is very present but at the same time you walk around and you see these windows, which are the art works, windows to realities which are very interesting. They are also here. But in a parallel sense I also feel that I need a lot of time to process this situation. It’s so complex in so many ways that it has an impact on me but at the moment I’m just a receptacle for this I don’t know how to react to it, I don’t know how to relate to it. So I think that any reaction to this now would be too childish.
AB: But right now you’ve been quite inspired by the figure of the actual Reina Sofía herself.
PEL: Yeah, the other day I was searching for the words of the actual Reina Sofía about abortion, homosexuality and domestic violence and she’s hugely conservative about these issues. I mean it’s so obvious, we’re working in the Reina Sofía on gender and her name is our umbrella, we are working under her name but her particular vision is so against the philosophy of what we are doing! So of course my first reaction is, ‘Oh, I have to work with this’ but then it’s like, wait, it’s actually a complex relation because, like you said the other day, some parts of the museum are inviting us to work on this which is a progressive gesture, but a big part of it doesn’t even know what we are doing here, let alone the Reina Sofía herself! So it’s very complex and I don’t want to…. Well I could go, ‘Urgh! Look what the queen says!’ You know? But so what, you know, so what? It’s maybe a bit childish. So in a sense I think one week is such a short time to relate to the collection of a huge institution with huge pieces of art under the focus of gender which is also a very huge topic. Everything is overwhelming. Also I’m from Madrid. I’ve been coming to this museum since I was small and I return every year like a ritual and of course I also have a history here. Really I feel like a little paper boat in the sea, which is ok. I’m not frustrated, I just need time to relate to all this. I can’t just suddenly make a piece, you know?
AB: Yeah but I guess it’s also why there’s a year in between so you can continue to process.
PEL: Yeah, exactly.
AB: Another thing that was interesting to me was your perspective on language and the possibilities of language to create an idea of something, like this point from Foucault that if it’s not named then it doesn’t exist.
PEL: Yeah I guess if something was very revealing this week to me it was the talk from [anthropologist] David Berná and the walk of the museum with [performance artist] Regina Fiz. These two things have been very important. In the David Berná talk he was making a history of how homosexuality and therefore heterosexuality were invented in language, as though they didn’t exist as such before. I guess I am very attached to a post-structuralist way of thinking or a process that is based on this idea of language as a creative, or as the only way we can know the world. And I think it comes because I studied audiovisual communication at university. I’m not so interested in linguistics but I’m always turning around what a sign is. So yes, I think that of course we communicate and we create and we live and die and do things in this ecosphere of images and also this macrocosm of signs and this is very important for me and this is how I work. That’s why I work with the body because it’s a weird sign that is almost close to not being a sign. It’s really a problem for me in terms of how all these theories look at the body because as a sign it’s not very clear and it’s never definitive and it really opens a big crack.
AB: And why do you think that is? Do you think it’s that within the body there’s both the subjective and the objective experience?
PEL: Totally, yeah, because the body somehow happens before all that, before language. And the possibility for objectivity in the body is something that I’m definitely busy with.
AB: Objectivity of your own body or in terms of looking at other bodies?
PEL: No, in more of an abstract sense. Well, actually it doesn’t matter because if we talk about objectivity it’s not about the subject anymore, so it’s not important if it’s my body or another.
AB: Well, except that it becomes more complex if you’re trying to be objective about yourself, as we often do if we perform in our own work. That’s implicitly subjective!
PEL: Well, it’s very delicate. Conceptually I know this might be wrong but that’s why I like it, but I believe, and I use the word believe, that in the body there is the possibility for being. Not being for, or being according to, or being in relation to. Of course this happens before language and so it’s very difficult to talk about. So then when I say I’m interested in objectivity in the body I mean spirituality, I mean a common thing, a very strong sense of collectivity and I’m interested in that because I think that working with or through the body doesn’t necessarily mean that we cannot think about it. All these separations we create when we talk because we need to create separation by logic, diminish and shrink this sense of collectivity and that’s what I’m searching for.
AB: To expose that sense of physical collectivity in your work?
PEL: To create that, well not to create it because it’s there anyway, but to put an attractor there. I like fractal theory and I really like the idea of the strange attractor.
AB: The way that out of chaos phenomena circle around something, zeroing in on a point but never fully arriving.
PEL: Yes, it’s not definitive but in this chaos [there] is a knot where things have a tendency to go. So I like to think not in terms of creating, because really I’m not the creator, but of just putting more energy in certain matters travelling around. I think there is then a gate for something that is important, not just interesting artistically but really important for me, which is this gate for a universality or an objectivity. I know that those are big words, but I’m very humbly interested from my life, from my practice and my beliefs to create the conditions to see how I can concentrate some of these things happening within the body. I think it’s a gate for something that’s important for me nowadays, I don’t know if it’s important for the universe [laughing]. But I’m very naive and I’m ok with that. I know that these words sound very… but for me New Age and togetherness are totally fine and I’m not afraid of those words.
AB: Well just let’s say people have judgements about them.
PEL: But we’re not talking about gender though, shit!
AB: We don’t only have to talk about that. We’re talking about the body and the artistic process and that’s also what the project is for. One of the issues that the artists have to contend with on this project is the expectation created perhaps by its name (again the power of words) that makes you feel like you have to be talking about gender all the time, like the work has to be really, really about gender and an audience is going to be only looking for a clear discussion of gender. But I think really it’s more lively and freeing to see how gender and sexual identity cross with other areas you’re preoccupied with, because anyway as soon as you talk about the body you are talking about gender and sexuality. So I think it’s not a useful pressure to think, ‘Oh this has got nothing to do with gender’ because talking about it anyway so it doesn’t mean we have to have such a constantly tight grip on it.
PEL: No, no and I totally understand. Maybe what you call pressure, which is the pressure of the name Performing Gender, maybe that’s why I still don’t know what my approach is to those things because maybe I’m too concerned with the weight of this name, of these two words. If it was called something else maybe I would end up working on gender in my way anyway, I don’t know. But for me it’s the same as if I am in a project called Political Art because then I would be like, ‘Fuck! I have to do something political!’ Then I would be very blocked. But then it’s the never-ending question: everything is always political anyway, everything is gendered anyway so then what’s your focus? I can sit down and talk about it for hours and I love to do that, I really like it but in my process or in my artistic life I realise that it’s all totally incidental. I try to be aware and I am very interested in what’s going on and I’m super critical about a lot of things but then I will never, at least now, I don’t think to make a statement in a piece like Angélica Liddell [does], for example.
AB: Why not?
PEL: I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious but I feel closer to the view of a philosopher because I have a tendency to be concerned with the big picture. I know that I have to build something finally at some point and conceptually I am concerned with the big picture. My aim in a way is not to understand but feel what this thing is, you know? Why are we here? But then again in my work I know that actually I am doing politics because I’m very often dealing with topics of representation, perception and communication and of course that is politics but in a very tangential way.
AB: Well I wonder if this relates more to what Regina did here in the museum because it’s, yes, having a position and connecting to political discourses but rather opening a space than filling it with a stance or a statement.
PEL: Yeah, Regina’s walk was really touching for a lot of things and in the end she was reading these quotes and they were really clear and really direct, Harold Pinter and so on and I loved it. It really gave a different reading on everything that she had done. It’s not that I have a problem with those kinds of statements but suddenly she gave a very clear political reading on what she had done and I would never do that. I don’t know why I would never do that, if I love it! If I love to experience it and I love it when other people do it, why don’t I? I don’t know…
AB: But I guess this for me this has been a big, very obvious, but useful distinction to make for myself, to notice the things that I love, that are very dear to me when I see them in other people’s works but that are just not part of what I would do.
PEL: For sure. But I feel so responsible that in a way these big issues that are so important to me, I feel like I have things I can say about them but I don’t know if I can… I guess it has something to do with compromise and for the same reason I wouldn’t, at least at this moment in my life, be a member of a political party.
AB: You’re not?
PEL: No, I’m not because I always find in every discourse a yes and a no, you know? I find a lot of them beautiful and very well articulated, especially amongst young people who are doing amazing things in Spain now. But now I’m going to make a discourse that I’m really scared of which is, ‘I’m an artist, I just make questions, I don’t compromise, I’m just here to open holes.’ That’s a very delicate position and very postmodern in a bad way, like, ‘No, I’m not linked to anything or anyone, I just do my thing.’
AB: Which is perhaps an avoidance of responsibility and it’s anyway not possible to operate in a vacuum.
PEL: No, it’s not possible and anyway I don’t believe in that. So I’m really in a really weird place because at the same time I really believe that we need to get together because I am really concerned with the idea of collectivity in a really intimate and basic way, as I said before even in a New Age way of thinking because I don’t think it’s possible to separate politics from spirituality. And sometimes it’s so socially important to scream at the same time, in the same rhythm at a demonstration for example and this is a spiritual act because of course we scream at something but this is breaking apart ideas of individuality and impossibility and it’s creating power you know? And course it’s very political but it is spiritual and it’s bodies moving. I guess in a very personal way I’m interested in that and that’s also why I would be scared to say, ‘What we have to do is…’ And it’s not because I don’t care. On the contrary, it’s because I care so much and for me it’s so delicate, and I guess it’s this delicacy that I am trying to work with.
Performing Gender, Madrid, November 2013