Nude Thoughts with Gonzalo Bénard
I was recently interviewed by Julia Matcovschi for Wearona, and as usual I post interview here after some time. Sometimes interviews can be a bit boring, sometimes they are more interesting and unusual, like this one:
“Nude as in honest-in my posts there is no judgement, no masks or fancy make-up”
When photography was still a new medium, people said if you took a picture, it would steal your soul. Well, Gonzalo Bénard might not be stealing souls, but he is certainly unraveling them through his photos and literary commentaries; all of which you can find on his existentialist blog- 2HeadS.
It never ceases to amaze me how the human being is constructed. You sit somewhere, thinking that you are all alone and misunderstood; and then all of a sudden, you find a kindred spirit, someone who shares your taste in music, literature and art. Gonzalo Bénard, the founder and curater of the 2HeadS photography blog, is one of these persons, able to connect with all the facets of the human personality, and managing to make art out of something so utilitarian as an e-mail. So pour yourself a glass of wine, play some jazz and enjoy the raw and uncensored thoughts of Mr. Bénard on beauty, culture and losing yourself in nothingness.
Tell us something about yourself and where do you currently live.
I was born in a house with 2 pianos that I couldn’t touch because in a catholic conservative family, piano was for girls. Right now I’m in the country house for a couple of months, listening to piano or to silence, working on some new projects and exhibitions, reading and writing.
I’m very European, and I’ve been living between Lisbon, Barcelona and Paris. In fact, I always felt more Mediterranean, as it might be the warmest place on earth, culturally speaking. I don’t have a good relation with cold, even though I recently visited (freezing) Dublin and found the people genuinely warming. But I couldn’t live without some escapes to the country house (at the southern border of Spain and Portugal) or to Morocco, to find some peace of mind to focus on creating. It works as compensation, or balance, between urban life and nature, social life and solitude. I love my work, and creating has been always part of who I am. Like observing people and traveling through different cultures. Like solitude, as you never feel lonely as long as you have good books to read. Or a busy creative mind.
Personally, I am curious why out of the multitude of mythological creatures, you chose the Roman god Ianus to be the “patron” of your blog. I read the explanation about the future and the past, but would you mind elaborating on the subject?
2HeadS started when my father died and when my work started being lectured in several universities around the world, especially the “B Shot by a Stranger” series focused on loneliness in youth. I remember my father always talking about a great-grand father who had the German surname Haupt (German for head), and when he died, his son kept building the silver flutes but adding a second haupt to the previous logo, a Moorish head as it is represented in heraldry. Being a blog that was previously done to help and guide students and teachers, 2HeadS like Janus, looking to the future and past seemed to me quite logical: teaching what we’ve learning from great masters. And we learn a lot teaching as well. Janus is also the keeper of the main treasure, and what is a greater treasure and has more value than (shared) knowledge through generations?
Your blog is called “Nude Thoughts on Photography”. Why the “nude” part? Is it a kind of challenge to society?
Even though I find choosing the right clothing more challenging, in the society we live nudity became a challenge in itself, which is awkward, since being nude is our original state. But in this case, Nude Thoughts are also related with the rawness of mind: in my posts there’s no judgment, no masks or fancy make up. Nude as in Honest. And honesty can also be a challenge to society. I’m terrible in terms of labels, especially human related. Not having a sponsor can also give me some freedom on what I write and post. I can post without censorship.
Looking through your photo archives, I couldn’t help but notice that you are attracted to the more macabre side of life, the side that people don’t always want to look that. It kind of reminds me of Nan Goldin. Is there a reason why those visuals are so attractive to you?
It is a common saying that the best cure for a wolf’s bite is a wolf’s lick. Most of what people may call macabre has been part of our cultures and lives since always, like the rituals of life and death. The weepers that I represented in self-portraits for the series “Oneness” are still a tradition in some places, women who are paid to cry and scream over the dead person. The shamanic rituals as well, which you can find in several cultures, including voodoo. I’ve always been attracted to these relations between humans and nature, the knowledge that we can take from that. Life as a much higher stage than what we call life itself.
Since the Paleolithic, in almost every culture, going through Greek or Egyptian society you can see humanity bringing the power and skills from animals, communicating with death, asking for help from the spirits or the “under world”. Or even to the “upper world”. My connection with this has been always part of the process of my creation, as a healing process, to show the world the beauty or healing methods, in a deeper way. Both body and mind related. One of the projects I’m working at is a residence in Mexico where I’ll be living for 3 months with genuine, old shamans and healers in the mountains, to learn their Aztec and Mayan rituals, so I can represent or even project myself in them. Their culture is as rich as Tibetan or African in this approach to life. And I need that with gluttony and lust, almost as much as I need dark chocolate in my veins. It’s called gnosis of the spirit, or of the body when chocolate related. Also in Mayan culture there’s that dark chocolate cake with chili…
You’ve spent some time studying in school monasteries of painting and philosophy in Nepal and Tibet. Personally, I find this an extremely bold move and scary too. What was your psychological state then and where did you get the courage to do a thing some only dream about?
I’ve studied in a private school run by Jesuits, and Catholicism never made any sense to me. Since I was a kid I had a more Buddhist approach to life even though I had no idea about what Buddhism was. So when I was a teenager I discovered Buddhism, I wanted to go to Tibet, to the origin, to understand it and live it. I tried to escape from it though, for several years, knowing that I was just postponing, and after few years working in the Cultural Centre of Belem, and after doing the editorial coordination of the Portuguese representation at Venice biennial, I decided that it was time to go and get lost there.
I wanted to understand, to feel, to be part and go deeper. And it was such an overwhelming experience that few years later I had to come back, and I’m still digesting some parts of what I learned there. And this mix of psychology and sociology personal research has been always the base of my work. As in sharing experience or knowledge. The monastery was also a martial dance school, but I ended up trekking and traveling a lot through Himalayas, learning their rituals and rites of life and death, the dance, music, magic and culture.
What made you decide to you photography as your primary medium of expression?
I learned photography when I was a young teenager, and always helped my father at his shootings (mostly carrying his gear) while watching him. Or learning with him. My first job, when I was 13, was to get money to buy a camera. However, only after many years I turned to photography, leaving back modeling, painting and drawing as I was working on a large scale and a motorbike accident made me “stop” for a while. Photography came back then as I had the need to keep creating and expressing myself. Photography has been always the expressing of the now, while painting was healing or exorcising the past, so maybe it was time for me to start working myself on the present. And writing, which I always did maybe more personally, has been somehow always related to future. But photography is immediate; it’s the moment I live in. This is most needed.
When I work in conceptual photography using myself as model, the photos are often done in the morning, so the consciousness is still in the awakening process. But indeed photography is more immediate so it can also be helpful to represent the now, my own inner doubts or worries at the time. Maybe more honest, since any other medium requires more time to finish.
In the essays accompanying your photos you often touch on the theme of nothingness. There is this one quote by Sarah Moon that I particularly like: “For nothing to happen, something has to happen first”. Why does this idea of non-existence appeals to you?
I’m sure that if I were not this sociologist/artist that I am, I would have been an existentialist philosopher/artist. Or maybe I’m both. Sarah Moon is right, and it’s easily understandable in her wonderful body of work, her nothingness coming up for the existential. My loss of identity, both physical and metaphysical, happened few times. There was a time when losing your ID or passport was normal, but when I was arrested in Moscow, they made clear that I didn’t exist. In Tibet or when you travel to distant and lost cultures, the best you can do is forget who you are and live there with them, so you can fulfill yourself more, without pre-conceived ideas that we all end up having no matter what.
Sometimes non-existence or at least not existing the way we know ourselves can be important to our growing process, because whenever you live a safe life and simply existing, you might be losing something important. But you do need to exist and let it happen. So you can get rid of your own existence once in awhile and allow yourself to get lost. The time in coma was great for that as well, once when I was “resurrected” 3 days later, I felt somehow starting again into a new existence.
A few years ago I had to work on a project at a XVIII century castle in France, a portrait of the owner and his family, for which I spent a week there. Like an XVIII century prince, which can be very stressing, with all the timetables and changes of clothing. The week after, I was literally sleeping with goats in the Atlas, shooting a series for a Moroccan client. On one of those spare days there, I decided to take the jeep and look around and I ended up in a 3 houses’ village in the middle of nowhere, and the only place I got to sleep was with the goats. Quite warming I must say, but I still prefer my own bed though. With my own existence.
These days we are bombarded with countless stimuli telling us what is beautiful and what is not. What is your personal meaning of beauty?
That’s the main problem now: we are always being told what we should think or not. And the beauty of life is our own differentness. The more you travel, the more you learn, the more you share; the more you respect and learn from other cultures, the more you get to built your own personality. Beauty lies in our own personality. In others. Sometimes more in our openness to learn and listen from others. Being humble can be as beautiful as being proud.
Differentness is beautiful, as it is for example the mix of races. The mix of styles. The mix of culinary spices. You can find beauty in someone’s natural honest smile, as you can find deep beauty in someone else’s tears. I never cry, and whenever I see someone crying I don’t understand, I only stare at their tears and just want to lick them. I find it beautiful to see people crying. Shamelessly expressing their feelings no matter what they are. Beauty is differentness, without any judgment. Beauty is fearlessness. And death can be beautiful as well.
I assume you’ve had some classical training as a painter, so-do you believe in conventions?
I do believe in conventions as base of a learning process so we can rip it off and break them. To break them you need to know them, as in any laws by men or by nature. As a young boy I used to take naps in the National Museum of Ancient Art, in front of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch… a breaker. I don’t need to say much more when you grow up in front of such amazing worlds.
My learning process was a mix of history of arts and fine arts, and I started with sculpture and painting, learning with academic masters. If you ask me which are my biggest references in art, from cinema to photography, I’ll give you a list of breakers. Peter Greenaway, or Joel-Peter Witkin. Francis Bacon, Jean Cocteau or Giacometti. El Greco or Jan Saudek. In literature it is Rimbaud or Sartre. But my deepest source of inspiration is no doubt literature and music. Jazz or contemporary pianoplayers like Hauschka, whose piano was present in the background while I was creating the Oneness after the coma to come back to nature. Or even the non-sense humanity by itself. In art-fashion we had the wonderful statement-creations by Alexander McQueen, or before him, in a different context Jean Paul Gaultier or Galliano.
If you could pick a photograph that would represent your persona, which would it be and why?
Maybe not my self-portraits, from the series Oneness for example, or any others from my series are representing myself, as I don’t see myself in them since I’m there only representing a concept. Even though they’re me, or the concept created by me, I would probably choose another. The “Horned” it’s me though, and maybe that’s why it took me sometime to like that photo, but it’s me as I always faced life like one should face the bull by its horns, hence why is the cover of the book “Oneness”. But as Oscar Wilde said: “Every portrait that is made with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” So even the photograph I took of a steady rock getting hit by the ocean waves in Morocco is a portrait of me.
Throughout your life, you’ve lived in several cities. Which one is your favourite and why?
I’ve been always a traveller, almost a nomad, and each city had something wonderful to teach. Each one is a favourite in something. I always loved Vienna, since I was there for 3 months, but never lived there. It’s civilized, no matter what civilized can mean. Paris has this wonderful and deep cultural energy that I love so much. Culture flows there along the Seine. It’s natural and deep, like people in there. But they play it safe, not like in Barcelona, more open minded and warmer being Mediterranean. In Madrid they can be challenging as well, on a higher level: living in Madrid can be overwhelming in their private parties. Also if you like to see something art challenging, you should go to Madrid’s Ar.Co, not to a Paris art fair. But Spanish cities or culture can be more superficial than French. Lisbon is a beautiful city, not a very easy one, with its hills up and down; but it has that light on the streets in which you can have a glimpse at the river. I’ve never felt home in Lisbon though, even if I was born and raised there, but I do feel home in Paris. Also Paris has such a natural cultural diversity, different from London, where I never lived and to which I never felt attracted.
Let’s say I come for a visit, where would you take me?
Can I take you to an utopian city where there’s the cultural energy of Paris, the genuine kindness of Dubliners, the Barcelona open minded collective energy, the private partying of Madrid, the Moroccan weather, Lisbon light and Italian-French architecture with Mediterranean food?
Sure, that sounds lovely! If I wanted to get some sort of token from this borderline psychedelic city, to remind me of this place, what should I buy and from where?
In Paris: buy cheese, red wine and chocolate fondant if you want to go back home and delight yourself with a night digging in intimate pleasure for the body and mind. Or get a French lover and share all of that with them.
What is the place for an art lover to visit when it town?
Paris. Just get lost there in Pompidou where you can see their collection and their temporary exhibitions. Palais de Tokyo, in case you’re more into contemporary art installations, etc. But in Paris you should get lost and find out the art centers, galleries, museums, etc. Every place is a space of exhibitions, from Maison Européenne de la Photographie to the street itself.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve worked for some fashion campaigns. In terms of advertising campaign, which five brands do you admire the most?
Fashion related, I only did photography for Valentim Quaresma, a jewellery designer who worked many years with Ana Salazar, very organic, most of his works reminds of some sort of exoskeletons. In fact I like jewellery more than clothing: people should wear only jewellery on their skin. But maybe the fashion campaigns that have been caught my eyes were Diesel (some years ago), Dolce Gabbana, Lanvin, Chanel and McQueen. Or some editorials by Annie Leibovitz, Erwin Olaff or David laChapelle.
I would love to see a real art photographer doing an important fashion campaign, instead of fashion photographers with an approaching to art photography, but that would be challenging fashion. Sometimes fashion goes too much into the obvious; “the catalogue” instead of “the concept”, and that makes a huge difference to art-photography. In fact I always heard fashion people imposing fashion as art, instead of being proud of fashion itself, as it is a different world. Fashion can be more immediate, more seasonable too, while art can stay for “eternity” once it’s more conceptual. Art has been always great representing fashion, and history of fashion, even in classic portraits, but in fact the only fashion designer until now that I can relate as being artist was McQueen.
I keep using black and white and nudity in my photography, as once I’m working in more conceptual themes, color and clothing can be distracting. Imagine if I’m wearing an orange jumper: if someone doesn’t like orange color, they would never be able to go through that and reach the main concept, as they would be stuck in the color that they don’t like. But I would take as a challenge for sure if one day I’m commissioned to do an interesting fashion editorial. Being a naturist myself, or wearing the same grey classic clothing since I know myself. However, a curious thing was that when I was a kid I collected all the catalogues of jewellery and watches, from Van Cleef and Arpels to Cartier. Me, who never had the concept of time or wore a watch myself. I might still have a trunk with all those catalogues at my parents’ basement though. I do like gold over naked skin. And that is what I like to wear.
If after reading this, you feel the inexplicable urge to go to Paris or Lisbon or Dublin, to see for yourself all the wonders for yourself; take a look at the Paris Trend Guide according to Mr. Bénard’s recommendations and Bon Voyage!
Interview by Julia Matcovschi for Wearona.
some more articles you want to read:
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.
For any other contact about 2HeadS or my Photographic Work, from Art Galleries, Curators, Art Collectors, etc, please use the GBénard/2HeadS email. Thank you.
Feel free to comment, ask or share any article on 2HeadS everytime you feel that you can add something interesting and positive to the articles.