interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist
HANS ULRICH OBRIST Tell me about the work you recently presented in Basel, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, which is related to your childhood. I thought the emotive dimension was very strong. What prompted you to revisit the bar your parents owned in Spain to develop this reconstruction?
SIMON FUJIWARA Initially, I wanted to work with my parents’ history as the owners and managers of a bar and hotel in Franco Spain. I started thinking of it as a potential novel, so began research into gay writers published in Spain at that time. Of course, I found nothing, due to the censorship under the dictatorship, and so I convinced myself that I could write a unique gay erotic novel set in Franco Spain—and use my parents’ life story to do so—in which my father is the gay protagonist trapped in a repressive regime. As I could never finish the novel, I started to talk about it, making it first into a performance and then into an installation in which I’d perform.
The process of writing the novel created huge inner conflicts— as you can imagine, family and gay erotica are not happy bedfellows. Over the years, I have started to lose track of how much is invention and manipulation of facts, and how much emerged from a deeper necessity to understand my personal situation in relation to my parents’ role in the dictatorship. For some reason, every time I reach the climax of the performance, I start to well up—it’s like reading at a funeral. I know I’m acting in one sense, but then the material is my own and I feel deeply moved each time I reach a certain point in the story. The first time I performed it, many members of the audience had tears rolling down their cheeks; they were openly crying, and this set me off. It was the audience that made me, in the first place, realize how affected I have been by the process of making the work. Perhaps I’m a closet expressionist! If so, this first performance was a kind of coming out…
HUO What is the first work you created that you consider valid? Did you have an epiphany?
SF The “epiphany” never really happened to me. Because my work has emerged from my own biography, it feels more like regression, like repairing. It comes from a restlessness or dissatisfaction with the way certain histories have been scripted, with what was missed the first time around—like the fact that my parents never mentioned homosexual oppression under Franco, because they were not implicated in it personally. Like everyone, I am trying to better understand myself and how I am perceived. Why do I feel partly Spanish, for example, when I never lived there myself? Why am I so concerned with exposing the injustices of Franco, a time before I was even born? I start to work through these questions by distancing myself from my life. I look at myself almost anthropologically, or like a character in a fiction, and ask, “What would a gay, mixed-race child of parents living in Franco Spain want to say about that time?” And then the story begins to emerge…
HUO Is it auto-fiction?
SF The best way to describe my work is to think of it as a drama that I am writing, directing and acting in all at once, where the source material is often my own biography. In that drama, I play many characters—architect, anthropologist, eroticist… The artist is a kind of puppet that I am controlling. This distance gives me freedom to talk about a broad range of things. After every performance, I can almost always guarantee that someone will ask me which parts are true and which parts are fiction. The only honest way I can reply is that it is all real—in that it forms a reality. It’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, but the proposition in my work is that everything—reality itself—is fiction, a construction. How do we ever know how much in our lives we have invented for ourselves, how much we have staged? I’m not interested in revealing “truths”; I’m interested in how and why we humans still believe there is such a thing, why we need it, and how we try to show it or hide it.
HUO These “multiple characters” of yours bring to mind one of your current projects, The Personal Effects of Theo Grünberg.
SF Yes, the project is about a 136-year-old man named Theo Grünberg who, in his long life, has seen the entire history of modern Germany play out before his eyes. In March last year, I discovered in a Berlin flea market some first edition erotic books in German. I got to know the seller and found out that this was just a part of his grandfather’s book collection. The next day I went to his home and ended up acquiring the entire library—almost one thousand books, diaries, records, and a lot of personal material.
HUO But who is Theo Grünberg?
SF Well, this is the question! His grandson purported to know nothing about him. Through the Internet and city records, I came across a number of Theo Grünbergs who together have formed a substitute identity for the missing book collector that I was seeking. The first Theo Grünberg was an Amazonian explorer and anthropologist who died in 1924, so it could not possibly have been him. The second Grünberg was a sexual health professor who collaborated with the Nazis before being persecuted by them when he was “discovered” as a Jew. After he survived the concentration camp, he was tried as a War criminal, denazified, and continued his taboo-breaking practice in sexual medicine. He died in the 1960s; again, not the right guy. Together, these men and others formed a single man in my mind, a man I call “The C20th Man,” as he comes to represent the last one hundred years of Germany history— from new world exploration, through fascism and war, to sexual liberation. I became so consumed by this idea of merged identities that I started retracing the other, counterfeit Grünbergs’ lives. That was how I ended up on a 300km expedition into the heart of the Amazon rainforest—to find the explorer Theo Grünberg’s grave.
HUO So chance plays a big role in your work?
SF Certainly. I approach my work and life very analytically, so these seemingly accidental leads are important for me to break out of myself, my routines, the paths my mind is accustomed to taking… For instance, I would never have gone to the Amazon if it weren’t for Theo Grünberg. I’m not really a nature person. This was one of the “personal effects” Theo Grünberg had on me.
HUO In our society of fragmented knowledge bases, art suddenly seems to be the last generalist position. I am interested in this aspect of the “renaissance man” with respect to your work.
SF I am a generalist. I studied architecture, and an architecture education leaves you with competence in many things, but expertise in nothing. However I relate more to the Baroque ideal of striving for a synthesis of painting, architecture, sculpture, narrative and light, which are all employed for dramatic effect. In Baroque works, you always have this sense of façades peeling away, of forms shifting…
HUO Can you tell me about your play The Mirror Stage, for which you hired an 11-year-old child to play you?
SF The Mirror Stage was a dramatized, caricatured version of this epiphany you talk of in an artist’s life. In essence, the play restaged my first encounter with a piece of modern art in the Tate St Ives in Cornwall, where I grew up. The protagonist, however, due to his pubescent age, has a sexual reaction to the painting he sees, rather than a spiritual or intellectual reaction. The irony is that the artwork in question is an abstract expressionist painting, with nothing bodily in it at all. I wanted to see if it were possible to eroticize abstract painting through a personal narrative. So the boy who plays me at 11 sees the painting and is so liberated by the fact that it has no gender, he experiences an impulse to come out.
HUO All roads seem to lead to St Ives right now, where all your major works will be reunited in your first ever survey show at the Tate. How do you approach the format of a large monographic exhibition, and can you tell me about St Ives, a former artist colony for pioneering artists such as Ben Nicholson or Patrick Heron, and the region where you spent an important part of your childhood?
SF Over the last years of making these performances, I’m starting to understand my whole output as a single, unified biography. And if I can indulge in this conceit a little further, the individual performances and installations would be chapters, the sculptures and texts, paragraphs and quotes. For Tate St Ives, I want to present my entire biography as one piece and show all of my works as a “walk-through biography” that progresses chronologically throughout the museum building. I grew up in St Ives; I saw the museum being built. It is a part of my formation as a human and an artist. As part of the exhibition, I will be curating works by the St Ives School artists that you refer to, which is natural, because they did directly influence me. Perhaps not so much their work—as I never connected to the formal tradition nor have I ever been interested in landscape or expressionist painting. However, the biographies of the artists were local folklore, although the gritty personal lives of the St Ives school artists are generally presented through a nostalgic, bleary-eyed lens. At primary school, we were taught never to smoke because Barbara Hepworth died smoking in bed. Unfortunately, this didn’t deter me from the habit…
HUO What are your other important influences?
SF As a teenager, it was all about Shakespeare’s late plays—The Winter’s Tale, Pericles… fantastical, epic narratives about loss, illusion and the passing of time. Later, it was Bataille and after that, my best schooling came from reading The Paris Review Interviews with writers.
HUO That is also my big influence! It was because of The Paris Review Interviews that I myself started doing interviews.