by Dominique Suberville
Dominique Suberville: Social and political activism has led us as a society to recognize different causes and rights; but at the same time, it has led to an era of hypersensitivity and excessive political correctness. What do you think of this duality?
Eugenio Merino: Hypersensitivity may have to do with the expulsion of the different of which Byung-Chul Han speaks. Political correctness is a new way to eliminate or censor the different, causing society to lose its capacity to be critical. It is undoubtedly a reaction to social and political activism and another element of the “control society.”
DS: Currently, there are currents of thought and economic philosophies, such as anarcho-capitalism, which point to the government as the main problem of the current humanitarian, political, and social crisis. Where do you think there is a bigger problem? In the capitalist economic system, or the political conflict between the left and right?
EM: Deep down, we are talking about the same problem. Capitalism works because there is a state co-opted by that same system. It is not a strong state representing the power of the people rather one at the service of capital and its interests. Political parties, with some exceptions, participate in revolving door interactions through which a transit between the public and the private is generated. This interaction is true for both the right and the left.
DS: What does art offer in terms of fighting various systems that translate into social injustice? What differentiates it from other professions, means of expression, or living?
EM: Art can have many functions, but the tool for social transformation is the one that interests me the most. I think symbolic language can be powerful. If propaganda does intervene in everything that has relevance in the social sphere (Edward Bernays), it’s conceivable that art (which has been the clearest reference in advertising), and its different channels, is capable of influencing the collective mind. It all depends on what the artist’s goal is. Mine is clear to me. There is a definition of culture that appears in Terry Eagleton’s Culture book, which is very clarifying about the role of art: culture is biting the hand that feeds you.
It is the capitalist world that feeds us, but we must analyze who benefits from this system and how many people are harmed by it. Art is a struggle against the phrase there is no other alternative, one that is exploited by neoliberal parties since Margaret Thatcher recited it in the 80s.
DS: Historically, politics and religion have been allies in the race to gain and maintain power; both have the power to manipulate the masses. On the other hand, you’ve given the artist the same treatment as you’ve afforded the politician or clergy member. Do you think art has that same scope of manipulation?
EM: The artist I criticize is the spearhead of the capitalist system that has elevated a way of doing and (not) thinking that they are the opposite of social transformation. They are artists who are part of the status quo and who propose an empty spectacle or decorative-only art. There is no transgression except the one generated by advertisers, as was the case of Sensation and the role of gallery owner Charles Saatchi. They are products for the market of speculation and investment.
With regard to the manipulative scope of artists in comparison to that of religion or politics: they fulfill the same function as they are all at the service of capital.
DS: The people you represent are already immortalized in history and in the vast documentation that exists about their lives. I am curious to know the process of choice and production of the characters in your sculptures—each with that great attention to detail in their face, dress, hair, nails, and body.
EM: There is a tendency to lean on the power of history when the victors construct history. That is what has happened in Spain with Franco. A dictatorship based on terror, repression, control of education, and its alliance with the Catholic Church, which rewrote its own history and has left a smell of incapable sociological Francoism incapable of condemning the dictatorship. I’m speaking of Always Franco, the dictator in a Coca Cola fridge. Of his presence in our society, in politics, in justice, and institutions. It is an allegory of that sociological Franco.
The choice of characters logically depends on the idea. The process is similar in all sculptures. These hyperrealistic representations have no intention of commemorating the character or “hero.” The materials used, silicones, resins, and plastic do not enlarge the figure but denigrate him. Satire and criticism are present from the choice of materials.
DS: There is something scary about the idea of making Murakami, Margaret Thatcher, the Dalai Lama, Osama Bin Laden, or any other. They are not just people we see in newspapers or television, but characters that somehow take on another life the moment when you manipulate them and make them yours, that is your version of them. What can you tell us about it?
EM: I don’t think any of my pieces are intended to be scary, but it’s true that hyperrealist sculptures fall within the Uncanny Valley theory, which states that when anthropomorphic replicas get too close to the appearance of real human beings, there is rejection in the observer.
I have the opposite reaction. These sculptures intermingle with elements of our popular and political culture and thus become closer and more alive. For example, Bin Laden dancing Staying Alive by the Bee Gees (Staying Alive, 2007): it’s not that he comes alive, but like other characters that I use, he is alive in our collective memory. They are important characters that we associate with transcendent events.
DS: Your piece For the Love of Go(l)d was very controversial. With it, you allude to Damien Hirst, a respected and “unquestionable” artist, but also famous for playing with the very rules of the art market. Hirst continues to be part of that elite because he uses its rules in his favor. I can imagine that this is one of those pieces with one and a thousand interpretations, but maybe you can explain in more detail why Hirst commits suicide immersed in one of his glass vitrines.
EM: When I previously explained why criticism of certain artists, I was referring to the enthronement of success, the spectacle, and the empty provocation. Over the years, Hirst has become the primary reference in this art-market art that interests collectors so much and has made him part of that elite.
For the Love of Go(l)d was a 2008 production that hinted at the auction that Hirst did at Sotheby’s that same year and for which he obtained almost 200 million dollars. I don’t think we can consider it a conceptual work but a clear example of commodification and speculation in art.
Represented in the piece, which was presented at ARCO, 2009, in the ADN Gallery, is Damien Hirst’s latest work. This one conceptual, he appears inside one of his glass vitrines with a gun and a shot in the temple. Hirst commits suicide because it is the fastest way to get him to maximize the price of his work. It is a piece that refers to that market atmosphere that conditions the production of culture and prevents genuine thinking and creation.
DS: In a YouTube video —in which you comment on the exhibition you made in 2018 at the Unix Gallery and which was titled Here Died Warhol—, you point out how there are iconic artists, whose image ends up being an element that cities exploit almost like an attraction tour. I think it is very relevant that you have commented on this “distortion” because art and some artists are perceived in that way. Tell us a little more about this.
EM: Artists in the United States, more specifically in New York, have been the first to open the way to real estate and higher incomes in the process of dispossession. The concept of gentrification appears in the hands of Ruth Glass in 1964, and since then it has perfectly described the process of return of capital to urban centers and the expulsion of lower-income households.
The idea is described in Rebel Cities (David Harvey, 2013), where the right to the city is reclaimed. Meaning, that it shouldn’t be for private gain and exploitation, but rather a collective right.
Without a doubt, the artist who has best shaped the relationship between gentrification and art has been Rogelio López Cuenca in his Ciudad Picasso (Picasso City). Currently at the Reina Sofía Art Museum in Madrid, in the work he describes the Picassization process of Malaga since the Picasso Museum first appeared in 2003.
It’s curious that those behind the Malaga gentrification have called an area of the city near the museum of contemporary art, SoHo (South Houston). They aim at creating speculation with the area and using the symbolic capital of a mythical neighborhood of Manhattan for spurious purposes. In these processes, they are looking to increase that symbolic capital ratio of the cities/brand so they can compete with other cities/brands that offer authenticity, particularity, and specificity.
There’s the case of Andy Warhol which is a little more subtle. However, the city of New York has benefited from the symbolic capital of its artists, writers, among others; the creative class that has populated the city since the end of the 20th century. Everything that can be absorbed and commodified by capitalism has been.
In the Here Died project, curated by The Auditors, the idea is to use the most exploited art figures of capitalism to reflect on their instrumentalization by capitalism.
The project has so far consisted of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, but we are currently in the process of producing Here Died Frida, another of the figures exploited by the system.
DS: And lastly; artworks by living artists, even when the authenticity of a piece is doubtful as is the case of Salvatore di Mundi, break historical records in each auction. The high figures are incredible! Do you think that this strange behavior in the art market, schizophrenic almost, is a reflection of a sector in the economy or of society itself?
EM: To speak of figures and records is to talk about the language of capitalism. It is to rationalize art and make it about profit and cost figures. I don’t believe it’s schizophrenic but entirely reflective of the market logic in which we live. Ideas and concepts can be problematic, while numbers are objective and precise.