Un Soir Place de la Bastille
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu
It is a cold Sunday evening in Paris. The tree-lined avenues and their pavements are covered with snow. Gonzalo Bénard sits in his modest flat, situated in a private courtyard atop a steep spiral of stairs in the ancient district of Le Marais. He has just returned home and removes a worn, black skullcap from his head. He isn’t used to Parisian winters, and the current temperature is negative six degrees Celsius. “Walking through boulevards for forty-five minutes in ten centimeters of snow,” he says, “is kind of a mix between skating and yoga just to keep my balance. I’m still in a defrost process.” The cold will take some getting used to. It is a far cry from his accustomed Mediterranean climate.
Gonzalo is from Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal and the oldest city in Western Europe. He was born in 1969 into a conservative Catholic household. Prophetically, his father took a passionate interest in all forms of art—he was the curator of Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art and a part-time photographer, capturing on camera the most sacred artworks of churches throughout the region. Always at his side was a youthful Gonzalo, closely watching and constantly learning. His father was the earliest inspiration for everything that happened since. “He was always proud to show me his work and his world,” says Gonzalo. “I remember being challenged by him; when taking walks through the forests, we would carve pieces of wood found along the way, or once at home we would draw everything in sight in a competitive game between the two of us. And when I was too proud of my work, he would say smiling, ‘Nah, you can do much better. Don’t be proud of that.’ Even if he was just as proud as I was, he reminded me that I could always do better.”
At the age of thirteen, Gonzalo obtained his first camera. Photography was the route to self-expression, he says, but became as pricy vocation for such an unemployed teenager. Paints and pencils were less expensive than developing film, so he left photography for the time, but with no doubt that he would return to it in the future. “I was always drawing or writing. Both were very personal and intimate to me—they were my escape. I would spend all of the money I had on batteries for my torchlight, and at night after praying, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would hide under my bed with the torchlight and draw from art history books, practicing on Greek sculptures. Painting, drawing and writing, I felt, were the fundamental base for me to become a creator.”
Gonzalo and I have decided to brave the cold. We walk a few blocks to Place de la Bastille, a giant roundabout straddling the fourth, eleventh, and twelfth arrondissements of Paris. A golden angel, August Dumont’s Génie de la Liberté, surveys the bustling square, spreading its wings at the top of the July Column. Along Rue de la Verrerie, we stop at a crowded brasserie with burgundy awnings, where Gonzalo tells me they make his favorite pizza. Seated half in, half out on the veranda warmed by heat lamps, we order two pints of Heineken and one pizza for each of us. Gonzalo reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves a small, antique tin decorated with an illustration of a dandy gentlemen smoking a cigarette. In it is a packet of fine-cut tobacco and rolling papers, and he assembles a cigarette for both of us. I ask him where he found himself after leaving home at the age of seventeen.
“At that time, and throughout my youth, I had deep existential doubts. I was studying at the best private school in Lisbon, ruled by Jesuits, having a very conservative education from both the school and my parents. Nothing there made sense to me; the dogmas, God, the Bible, Heaven and Hell—were not for me at all. I read a book about a Jesuit who spent time in Tibet studying Buddhism and I felt that I understood it better than Catholicism, even if Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion. I knew from a young age that I wanted to visit Tibet as the Jesuit in my book had done, but I had to continue studying and start working on my own.”
Once he finished school in Lisbon, Gonzalo worked for an auction house called Sotheby’s, restoring old photos, engravings and books. “I wanted to open a documentation center,” Gonzalo says, “so I proposed the idea to Lisbon’s main cultural center, Centro Cultural de Belém, and immediately they hired me to do it. I quickly became a workaholic, working eighteen hours and more a day. After three years of working as their editorial coordinator, I had a lot of money but no time to enjoy it. The president of the institution asked me to stay indefinitely, but I declined the offer. I wanted to enjoy life.”
The separation from Centro Cultural de Belém was the liberation Gonzalo had long anticipated. With no real plan, he retreated at last to Tibet and found, perhaps by divinatory coincidence, a monastery school of art and philosophy hidden high in the mountains. He was accepted into the school and attended for three years, meanwhile preserving local temples and even teaching art and English classes. After returning to Portugal, Gonzalo knew that he couldn’t also return to the same way of living. “It took me much more time to adapt when I came back to Western civilization than it took me to adapt in Tibet.” He continued to work, and with so many of his exhibitions taking place in Spain, he made the decision to move to Barcelona.
As we sip soberly at our pale ale and eat our pizzas, mine topped with eggplant and his with a smathering of tuna, Gonzalo is candid about his vicissitudes: his triumphs, his difficulties and at times, his suffering. He speaks freely and honestly; unfiltered. He tells me of the motorbike accident that left him with a spine hernia during his last year in Barcelona. At the time he was painting large scale and exhibiting his work worldwide. “I bought a camera before the accident in order to take photos of my paintings to send to art galleries and overseas clients. Once I had the hernia, I had to stop painting large scale for six months during physiotherapy, but I couldn’t spend six months without doing something creative. I really enjoyed painting large scale, and to go back to small size would be like going back underneath my bed with the torchlight; doing small things, trying not to get caught. I couldn’t go back to that feeling—I needed big. So I returned to photography, starting with self-portraits, which I thought would be the best way to express what I was feeling.”
The photographs at that time emanated a much darker, ominous tone, derived from a state of deep depression, often involving smoke as a representation of the soul. “But they were honest,” Gonzalo says. “I was emotionally unbalanced. I felt very caged in and physically restricted.” The confines of his somatic imprisonment only made him weaker. “I was so distressed with everything that was happening; not being able to create or live my life as I wanted. I was so tired of fighting against everything that my body decided to give up. I think it was me kind of testing my body to its limits; self-challenging. My body stopped circulating blood; my stomach went dry and my brain was deprived of oxygen—everything stopped. I managed to make it to the hospital before I went into a coma. The doctors told me later that I was in a pre-coma for ten hours, which I remember very well. It was the most amazing experience, although a hard experience, with no concept of body—only the subconscious fighting with consciousness. You are levitating above a cliff—if you move one finger, you will fly and therefore survive, but if you move a different finger you will fall down and die. It took me ten hours to decide which finger I would move and what would happen if I did. Then I realized that I didn’t even know where my fingers were, because I didn’t have any concept of body. Even if I wanted to move the finger, I didn’t know how. So it was a crazy battle for ten hours, deciding to survive or not. In the end I thought, ‘I guess I need another chance.’ I gave up fighting, and that’s when I went into the coma.”
Gonzalo woke some days later having lost most of his chronological memory. “A clean mind,” he says. The process of restoring his memory was like building a puzzle. “When you find the right piece, suddenly you have everything.” But the chronology was something lost that Gonzalo had no desire to go looking for. With new perspective, the when and where no longer mattered. Time, the sequential relations of events in indefinite and continuous duration, is a concept considered by many to be nothing more than a theory; a concept that society as a whole has plainly accepted. Essentially, there is no clock ticking outside the cosmos. There is the past supporting the present which helps build the future. All of these are simply a collection of moments; moments with no time creating one singular, major moment: life. “I needed more than a moment,” Gonzalo says. “I needed time to reconnect with real life.” He found a wooden house in the middle of a forest near the sea to take a sabbatical year, knowing that self-fulfillment would come only once he had withdrawn himself from everything familiar and pursued on his own a sense of oneness with nature.
Earlier in his apartment, Gonzalo retrieved a long storage tube and unrolled in front of me a large sheet of thick, glossy paper, revealing a black and white self-portrait: an image of a floating head obscured by a curved bull’s horn from his series entitled Oneness, the culmination of his convalescence. Photography was the most vital aid to his recovery, as the realization that painting would always connect him to his past became clear. “I became obsessed with putting an end to my past or to what was still affecting me from it. In revisiting photography, I was subconsciously expressing the ‘now’ instead of the past, as I had done in my painting and drawings. The last paintings I did were an attempt to rid myself of the trauma and everything I carried with me from my past, and suddenly, photography became my present. I felt closer to myself. I stopped everything to listen, to feel and to live. I listened to the sheep bleating in the woods and crawled among them on all fours. I broke those boundaries to be in oneness. Then something happened: one of them began to give birth beside me. I helped the mother and the baby, giving life to a new life. Participating in life. And finally living it again.”
It was then that Gonzalo took his final, cathartic step: to return to Lisbon and request an apostasy from the bishop, essentially deleting him from the baptismal register. He was the first person ever in Portugal to ask for it, he says, and once the cardinal excommunicated him, the story was in every newspaper and television channel. Now an apostate, Gonzalo has officially abandoned Catholicism, yes, but despite the term’s pejorative connotations, he has by no means experienced a withering of faith. “I received the final letter from the cardinal on my birthday,” he says, “which I found to be a rather symbolic coincidence. It was my re-birth. As I read the letter I expected something very medieval, waiting for threats of burning me with fire or something. But I was very relieved; all of the trauma was released. I was no longer baptized, I was no longer Catholic. It was a very, very important time for me.”
The resurrected Gonzalo became an observer. He didn’t miss the everyday interactions with people, he tells me, but rather the ability to study them. He started social networking and meeting new people. “I wanted to understand people and society in the world, but at the same time I didn’t want to be a part of it yet. I was completing the process of Oneness, still on defense towards the world and full of questions. I needed to see other people, to understand them, but as a voyeur, safe in my own space.” Late one night, Gonzalo stood at his balcony, fixed opposite another apartment building across the street, staring like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the people in their windows—lonely, living separate lives but somehow all part of each other’s, linked together in the same concrete block. “It was like a theatre. I was watching a play in its different acts. I always wanted to represent that somehow. With Oneness I had shot all of the animals I could, I shot all of the plants, I shot all of the self-portraits. I missed shooting people. I had been connecting with new friends through Skype, and I realized that I could take a shot of the screen.” The computer screen was a window, bringing Gonzalo to his new digital world, a reminder of the captivating view from his balcony. His friend was forced to cancel his plans for the evening, feeling lost facing his own loneliness. Gonzalo had a proposal for him, and the project B Shot by a Stranger commenced, a play on words of the term “plan B.” “I couldn’t spy on apartment windows without being intrusive, but I could photograph volunteers—anonymous and mostly long-distance—to express the same feeling of loneliness. Loneliness has been described as the illness of this century and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to portray vulnerability, nakedness, the unprotected being.” A study of the fragility of humankind.
And what did Gonzalo learn about himself through this study?
“As observers, paying attention to details, to human nature, we always end up learning new things. And in facing new things we have new reactions, some unexpected, and all of these experiences help to build our own personality.”
At the end of our meeting, Gonzalo and I walk across La Seine toward Hotel de Ville. There is a smell of freshly baked bread in the air and the streets are full of people hurrying home with long, unwrapped loaves under their arms. In the distance, Notre Dame is illuminated and looks as light as a dream on its stone island. Enveloped in the city, the street lamps’ reflection glittering in the water, I ask the now blatant question: Why Paris?
“Barcelona, well, Spain in general – I didn’t like. It’s a very superficial society and culture. It’s the energy that I didn’t like. Paris is different. What I love is that Paris has a cultural energy that just doesn’t exist in Barcelona or anywhere else. It’s an energy that makes me more focused; on photography, on writing—all of my projects. It is the only city where I truly feel at home. Everywhere else I have lived, I was taking refuge at home and never going out. To feel home, I had to literally be at home. But here in Paris, I feel at home everywhere. I feel at home in the streets or walking by the river or going to parties. I feel so good here, it doesn’t matter if I’m at a stupid party or wherever I am. It’s completely different to feel the cultural identity. And it’s funny that it’s here that I’ve begun writing again, and more publicly. When before, writing was private and intimate, now the intimacy is public, because I’m comfortable. I’m at peace.”
Related essays you should read:
How to Cook Humans;
Studies On Light Nudes (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;
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