Interview with Paulo Reis
Encounter with Art 2005, Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Paulo Reis: Descartian Illuminism seeks to separate reason from feeling. Mankind lived through a moral period when science was the major driver of discoveries, when even the idea of a supreme being, God, had to be abandoned. Since the Renaissance, passing through the conquests of the vanguard movements, art was the only territory where Sense and Sensibility have been able to come together. But the post-vanguard era anesthetized the artists in search of a formal essentialism, such as occurred with Minimalism and even part of Conceptual Art. Today, the social and the esthetic are moving closer together without the spectacularization fostered by Pop Art. Do you agree that artists are now paying more attention to social phenomena and are promoting this debate through their work?
Charif Benhelima: Human being is by nature a social species, what makes that in a way or another we end up turning our questions to issues related to society. I would rather say that in general artist were and still are paying attention to it, the difference is that there are no longer great matters in terms of a macro society - such as the II WW or the Great Depression - so we turned ourselves even more to the micro, to our own experiences...maybe it could explain the absence of artistic movements ...
Paulo Reis: Historian and curator Harald Szeemann, in his latest exhibition, "The Beauty of Failure / The Failure of Beauty", sought to make political sense out of 20th century art, from the great utopias to the search for "total art work", (Gesamkustwerk) as a political concept. In contrast to this idea, we have art from the current generations that are suspicious of the utopias and choose an individual experience, where concepts of love, life and death are preeminent in their work. Without participating in movements, these artists criticize society through their experiences, since there cannot be art without roots. What is your position as an artist in the face of works that challenge society?
Charif Benhelima: Our particular experiences represent the experiences of a certain group of people, to challenge society with our questions is an attempt to establish a dialogue between them and the whole.
Paulo Reis: Life today can be exemplified through the following geopolitical picture: the contradiction between the utopian vision of the individual, of the artist, of present ethics and the art that emerges from an individual who expresses what he feels, including his manner of relating to people from other cultures, and that questions multi-culturalism and globalization fostered by the arrogant perspective of the Western superpowers ˆ political totalitarianism through to religious fundamentalism, through to the economic, political and military ambitions of some countries. What contribution can an artist make towards greater awareness?
Charif Benhelima: As I said before, our micro questions have a macro perspective. If I am researching my Arabic-Jewish background and the feeling of being a foreigner, I’m exactly relating to the issues of belonging to diverse groups and no group at the same time. If we talk about our experiences it is to relate to the whole.
Paulo Reis: Today’s artists are much more interested in the physiognomy and behavior of peoples. This also has something to do with the fact of their intensive circulation of their art on the international market. There has been an increase in exhibitions created by curators whose training has been in fields such as sociology, anthropology and communication. However, some artists are afraid that their work only serves as illustrative material for foreign ideas. A work of art can survive different ways of reading it. What do you think about this?
Charif Benhelima: A baroque oil painting does not have exactly the same meaning in its time and nowadays. Of course context can beneficiate a certain understanding and some previous knowledge is necessary, but I believe that a serious, strong-based work in any art field ˆ from literature to cinema ˆ can survive time and its particularities, having its basis or its essence maintained.
Paulo Reis: Returning to Szeemann, who says that he‚s only interested in the intensity of a work of art or an artist, do you think is it possible for an artist only to be interested in the intensity of his work and to forget other questions that are foreign to it?
Charif Benhelima: Well, I believe intensity in this case means the truth and the power of a work to communicate not mattering its subject and issues. These are indeed in the essence of the work, and with which we have to deal from the beginning to the end of our process, but of course, for us as artists it’s never disconnected to our personal research questions.
Paulo Reis: The model perpetrated by today’s market is of the success of the art magazines and the mandatory occupation of artwork in the art gallery stands at the large fairs. What could be the institutionalizing role of a large magazine in the work of an artist?
Charif Benhelima: To provide space to publicize and debate our issues.
Paulo Reis: An international exhibit should be the space where common points are established between local production and what comes from outside. Can it be a place that challenges artists by confronting them with other ideas?
Charif Benhelima: Absolutely, we just can grow with the exchange of different points of view.
Paulo Reis: Speaking of challenges, Merleau-Ponty enunciated that the world is that which we see. To see is to be in the world, in the phenomological sentence of "here and now"(hic et nunc). We are living the digital world. How much has digital technology contributed to expand the concepts and limits of your work?
Charif Benhelima: I’m not against new mediums but I don’t follow trends either. Certain works can find their way using digital technology, some experimental uses as well, but the simple adoption of it can be a really wrong path, even a limitation. I could say that, somehow my work goes in the opposite direction as I’m since 1998 working with the Polaroid 600, an instant film and camera that doesn’t allow much technical control, what challenged me a lot (before I worked with a Contax) and led me to a new step in my process. So in Harlem on my mind - I am, I was, for example, I manipulate perception to question a certain reality, dealing a lot with signs of time too. It’s a work that talks about transition past and present get confronted. In Semites, the idea of time is again present, but I dealt with it in a totally different way.
Paulo Reis: Today, the artist is a seed open to experimentation, a being who is free of the singularity labels that formerly were placed on him; today he can sculpt, photograph, create objects, make films, put on performances, execute an installation ˆ that is, create an artistic object of great fruition without clinging to the means. Does this seem to you to be something that ties you down or rather is a key to freedom?
Charif Benhelima: Honestly, it doesn’t make much difference to me.
Paulo Reis: From point of view as curator of the "Sense and Sensibility" exhibit, the central concern has been precisely to exhibit the relationship existing between admiration that art stimulates, its sensibility, the thinking behind the work of art and sense. We know that art is one of Mankind‚s supreme assets and that everybody has the right to learn about it. If, on one hand, we have the great exhibitions, there also is a constant complaint: that the public does not understand most of the work that is on exhibition there. What is needed in order to make sense of contemporary art, besides sensibility?
Charif Benhelima: Sensibility is important, but art is also a code, it has to be taught, stimulated. The public is to be formed, it’s part of ones culture as reading. We cannot say there is no interest from the part of the public otherwise there would be no complaint for not understanding.