The Awakening of the Self
The Awakening of the Self, by Natasha Christia
for EYEMAZING, Spring issue 2009
The encounter with Portuguese photographer Gonzalo Bénard brings to mind the ephemeral, yet deeply mystic moment of “epiphany” that accompanies any artistic creation. Contrary to what one wants to believe, being an artist does not merely involve aesthetic assertions and compositional skills. It actually goes far beyond this, as a double-faceted integral state –a blessing and a curse at the same time– that brings the collective consciousness closer to what Kant once described as the feeling of a universal aesthetic. Being an artist is all about an inventive gathering of impossibilities. Lyricism and poetry spring out of blood and suffering, and, miraculously, ideas flourish under the storm. Even if confined within the four walls of a house – their hands and legs paralyzed, their spirits and souls tormented – all artists are capable of making their way towards the sensorial, as long as they can aliment their ultimate need for self-expression. Nothing else matters; neither risks, nor deep waters. When the world seems to fall apart, artists rise out of their ashes and articulate their discourse. The unique ability of switching between death and rebirth seems to be exclusively reserved for them.
Hybridization, deconstruction and regeneration… Gonzalo Bénard belongs to a very special category of humans; those whose lives are comprised by many storylines. “Reborn” in various occasions, Bénard has been, properly speaking, a bit of everything in life: beginning as an art history, fine arts and computer science student in the late eighties, he went to pursue the career as editor’s coordinator in the cultural Centre of Belen in Lisbon, gained notoriety as editor’s coordinator of the Pavilion of Portugal in the 1995 Venice Biennale, left everything for a three-year residence in the painting school of a Tibetan monastery, came back, became a painter, finally ending up an emerging photographer. In his convoluted biography, everything assumes the dimension of a seemingly unreal, yet so extraordinary revelation, whereby the natural and the organic give shape to a body made of clay, earth soil and light.
Bénard’s encounter with photography could not have been more sudden and intense. Likewise, the amount and quality of the body of work the artist has produced within an extremely short period of time, could easily make many of today’s alleged fine art photographers burst with envy. For Bénard is nothing less than a genius, and as such he can be all and nothing at the same time; human and God, significant and insignificant, tangible and intangible. His eyes lie wide open as two gates to the mystery of life and his story contains all the elements of an epic-like narrative in which a deeply rooted humanness is intermingled with a constant challenging of obstacles. Facts do not simply happen to Bénard; they rather happen as to provide the stage where his artistic play can unfold, prescribed by a mysterious destiny.
An “intruder”, still unknown to the photography world; this is how one could describe Gonzalo Bénard. Apart from a prize he won as a 13 year-old child for his work with an automatic camera, his interference with photography remained scarce until the age of 37. Within him, there had been absolutely no longing for photography. During his three-year reclusion in a Tibetan monastery, the only contact he had with a camera was a light box. He was there to train as a painter rather to take pictures! But the right moment was about to arrive…
The shutter of the camera opened for Gonzalo Bénard the day other doors seemed to have been shut forever. One morning, Bénard woke up blind, due to an allergic reaction to a cat. Two highly complex operations helped him recover his vision fully, but, in the meantime, his health had been for once more under serious threat because of a motorcycle accident that left him with a serious rupture of the spine. Six months of physiotherapy were to follow. Being in intolerable physical pain, Bénard was forced, during this period of time, to suspend all his upcoming shows, adjust his needs to those of a disabled person, and most importantly, reinvent his whole artistic practice. “It became impossible for me to paint because my vision was lacking depth and volume”, explains Bénard –his voice calm while he brings the story from memory to words. “Still, I would die if I did not create. I had to create”. So, he resorted to the camera he had been using before, to document his paintings. From then on, photography was rendered the catalyst through which he could canalize the stream of his everyday emotions. It became “therapy” and “energy”, accompanying him throughout the whole healing process and conferring voice to a very personal and intimate universe. Since then, two years have passed, two sole years that have been enough for Bénard to generate a masterfully arranged set of work of an astonishing quality, as if he were always in photography, as if the “photographic” were always a part of him.
In terms of references, Bénard’s photographic practice resides on the knowledge and the maturity he has inherited from his years as a painter. Yet, although one could easily attribute his accomplishments to his fine-arts background, neither the subject of his photographs nor their style approximate in the least the surreal paintings hanging on his living-room walls. Whereas the dreamful mood of these artworks makes a clear allusion to the human subconscious and to a world compiled by infantile reminiscences of the past, Bénard’s photography turns to the real world of the present and the flesh. Following a very intense period of his life, his photographs speak of the “now”; what’s more, they reflect a process in which personal demons are exorcised and a creative liberation takes place.
Black and white has become the means of expression in Gonzalo Bénard’s photographic practice. Bénard avoids the exuberance of colour and prefers to limit his vocabulary to the basics. The path towards personal truth is always ascetic and so is his photography. Juxtaposed with earth symbols and animals and deprived of any clothes, the body is introduced to a nexus of complex symbolic connotations, alluding to myths and pagan legends. Bénard’s vision emanates from a nature outside the context of western culture. His spiritual journeys have brought him close to tribes and cultures as much diverse as the aboriginal voodoo and Las Madres del Santo in Brazil. In this search for the intangible, the body and the soul proclaim relevance as vehicles of a non-verbal entropic narrative that resides outside the margins of history. In this respect, Bénard’s self-portraits defy any notion of the ego. They operate as non-portraits, within which the artist is a rendered part of the form and the medium. His inexistent corporeal ego becomes subordinated to the soil of the land, the way rocks and animals do. In its primordial essence, this very same body, in all its plastic qualities, breathes an unforeseen sensuality, which, however, can in no case be described in terms of a cultural eroticism, incited by the voyeuristic gaze. On the contrary, Bénard’s images point to a natural sensuality beyond conventions, stereotypes, cultural canons and behaviour schemes. Following this, it is upon the viewer to come out of the social constructs, recognizing himself as part of an unmediated nature.
A body, a room, and plenty of natural Mediterranean light coming through the windows… For those who are after the secret of Bénard’s technical perfection, there is no more to this. Depleted of lights and sets, Bénard’s studio is his own house, accommodating the whole world. Comparing to Diane Arbus and her fragile marginal creatures showing us the “other” side of life, Bénard speaks through his personal intimacy for the dignity of the body and the soul, as if the truth of the whole universe resided not far away but right there, beneath the skin. Such a universe defies any notion of beauty or ugliness. By enacting its own corporeality, the body becomes the key of exaltation and revelation for all objective and universal truths; it becomes the ultimate incarnation of spirit.
Growing therein as a remarkably broad and sustained body of work, Bénard’s photographic oeuvre assumes a novel dimension. It is not just a mere conceptual proposition, but, first and foremost, a work connected to the heart. Bénard always takes his self-portraits in the morning, while the body is still connected with the unconscious. “There are good and bad nights”, as Bénard likes to emphasize, but what remains is the body, the very same body, coming out of the world of dreams. The wrinkles of the sheets drawn on the skin, the self before the camera, a black sheet as a backdrop, no furniture or mise-en-scène. Just some abstract sketches on the wall; a primordial vocabulary unfolded within an uncanny universe of personal exorcism and truth; an immediate forceful act of self-awareness. It is impossible not to be honest at the moment of waking up!
And the creative river bursts on with such rage, making up for the years of silence and the creative repression experienced during childhood. Bénard recalls himself as a ten-year-old child back home. He was brought up and raised as a strict Catholic by a bourgeois Lisbon family who would dream any career for him, but that of an artist. He remembers drawings being torn –he should be a doctor, not a painter! He remembers his footsteps sealed –a man should walk, not dance! He recalls his lust for the two pianos of the house –pianos are meant for ladies, not men! Sheets of paper forever torn and non-played scores pilled up on the big traumas of a childhood… Nowadays there is no uneasiness left for all this repression; solely the need from time to time to shut the curtains and dance in the darkness under the sound of the piano. Yes. In Bénard’s studio, there is always a piano playing; a piano embracing the day-to-day creative process; a piano recompensing for the loss of time. Over the years, Bénard would leave behind all unnecessary burdens and track his own path: he would switch from cultural management to painting, then from his hometown Lisbon to Barcelona, and finally, from Catholicism to Buddhism –he is the first renegade of the Catholic Church of Portugal. There was no need for a revolution within someone who had been carrying his authentic self in his toolbox from the very beginning, but the need to cut the ropes off …
“A father and a mother of myself”, this is what Gonzalo Bénard claims to be. Protector yet solitary and profoundly independent at the same time, he encounters his ultimate spiritual companion in the figure of the eternally nurturing wolf. His eyes exalt a lust for creation, the lust of a highly sensitive as well as dynamic creator, intensely committed to authenticity, who has managed to transform a parenthesis in his life into a unique relentless journey towards self-recognition. When referring to this aspect of his work, Bénard rightfully identifies himself with the introspective universe of US based photographer Misha Gordin, who he feels a profound admiration for. Both artists experienced a creative explosion through photography. Photography was what finally gave them a push -on the one hand Gordin, a Lithuanian émigré after the Second World War, and on the other Bénard, an artist many years in creative exile – to cut their roots and reinvent themselves.
Bénard has conquered photography. Now he dreams of the convergence of his three big passions; photography, painting and poetry. In the meantime, a new genre gradually manifests itself within his artistic practice: video. Paradoxically, Bénard’s videos are less movement and more stills, driven by an insatiable desire to capture the moment and to investigate the density in suspension persisting these portraits. Time helps the body to unfold its secrets and the underlying spirit to emerge. In the aftermath, it is for the lyricism of the written word to come in the form of verses, sealing a universe of complicity. For Gonzalo Bénard is a poet as well! An intransigent romantic poet of the 21st century, who is there to remind us that Art is a gift and a reason to fight for, fight well, fight honestly…
Text: Natasha Christia
All Rights Reserved
Published in Eyemazing 01/09
Some other essays that made 2HeadS even better:
Un Soir Place de la Bastille;
The Self, the Mirror, our Shadow and its Fear;
How to Cook Humans;
The Hard Softness (NSFW);
The Awakening of the Self;
An Interview With The Incredible Photographer Gonzalo Benard for MutantSpace;
Pain should never be an excuse, but a tool for you to create with;
B Shot by a Stranger: Beyond Loneliness.