ET IN ARCADIA EGO
Oliver Eglin in conversation with Gita Cooper-van Ingen
Der Greif, October 2018
Gita Cooper-van Ingen: Tell us about your most recent project
Oliver Eglin: My most recent body of work centred around the subject of bullfighting in Spain. I was interested in exploring the role of spectatorship, and specifically the prevalence of violence within our cultural history. I began by making photographs in Madrid, before travelling south into Andalucía. The work culminated with a stay in Seville during the ‘Feria de Abril de Sevilla’, which is a two-week long fair held annually celebrating the beginning of Spring. Bullfights are staged there nightly in the city’s 18th Century bullring. My work looks at combining the spaces used for bullfighting with the ruined remains of an ancient Roman amphitheatre on the outskirts of the city.
GCVI: What were some of the specific sources of inspiration for your new work?
OE: I’d been living in Paris for a residency at Cité Internationale des Arts and I was given a free pass to all of the city’s museums and galleries. With the Picasso museum practically on my doorstep, I started making frequent visits. A series of photographs fascinated me; shots of Picasso attending bullfights in the South of France at Nîmes. He looked so completely mesmerised that it intrigued me; I’d obviously seen his depictions of bulls and matadors, but I hadn’t thought about him as a spectator before. The museum’s display incorporated the full contact sheets so you could really see how enraptured he was. It left such an impression on me that I then started to think about how I might explore the subject. From there it just became part of a research process where I am pulling in ideas from different sources and trying to hone that into something like a blueprint for a body of work.
GCVI: In what ways do you feel that explorations of spectatorship are central in your work?
OE: It was important for this series and maybe its something I have touched on less directly in previous work. Bullfighting is built around the spectator, the whole aesthetic has been pre-planned and carefully curated. There is an idea of death as spectacle and I wanted to explore what makes that a compelling subject. My thought was of considering the role of spectatorship by implicating the viewer somehow. If you think of the representation of bullfighting in art, it isn’t only Picasso, it’s a subject that has been studied by many artists, such as Goya and Manet. I liked that I was dealing with something canonical and I was interested in the idea of making an intervention into a pre-existing depiction.
GCVI: How much does writing have to do with your practice?
OE: Writing is important to me, although it might not be immediately self-evident in the work. As I said I’m interested in the narrative potential in sequencing works and my influences for that often come from literature; Raymond Carver, Hemingway and Faulkner, these are all writers who experimented with structure and perspective, such as using a multi-focal approach and layering over a story. That’s something which feels quite appropriate to my way of working. With Et In Arcadia Ego, I was thinking a lot about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and this sense of violence incarnate. The narrative is one of complete desolation, yet the language is some of the most beautiful prose you could ever hope to read. I’m interested in that contrast, how we reconcile with our negative impact on the planet and the possibility for beauty to survive in a landscape of destruction.
I enjoy the act of taking the photographs more than anything else. There’s an element of pre-planning and research which I enjoy, but there is a kind of liberation in actually making the work. It’s a point of no return, where you’ve committed to something and you just let your intuition guide you. I enjoy the anticipation whilst I’m waiting for the film to be processed, but then as soon as I have the contacts back I’m almost ready to move on to the next idea. There’s a kind of cathartic effect where I almost don’t care too much about the end result, it’s just the process of losing myself in the work which I enjoy. That tension between something and nothing, submitting to your unconscious.
GCVI: Can you share some specific examples with us, perhaps illustrating the contrast between the narrative and the language in which it is told?
OE: With a work like How Often Have I Lain Beneath, it’s a depiction of a group of bulls waiting in the corral of Seville’s Maestranza bullring. There is a symmetry there and the bulls are so stunningly posed that it appears quite serene, yet the subtext of the image is that these animals are a few hours from being put to death. The title is a quote from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is this beautifully tragic tale on the inescapabilty of destiny.
GCVI: Can you talk about how you’ve decided to install this recent work?
OE: I want to try and adapt the display to enhance some of the framing devices used within the lens. By including the physical border of the negative for example, I felt it gave the work more of a cinematic feel, which was another way of making reference to the stillness of photography and perhaps questioning to what extent an image has been composed or even staged. Certain images function only at a specific size; there might be small or obscure details which could otherwise be overlooked, therefore it’s about pacing the work and using scale and spacing to create a narrative.
GCVI: Do you find the contrast between working alone and collaborating to be productive in how you then chose to ‘play’ with the final body of work? Is there even a final body of work, or are your series open-ended and continuous?
OE: Maybe I’m just not very good at finishing things. John Berger wrote that a painting “only has a beginning and an end insofar as it is a physical object.” Often I work in single images, which can then be grouped as a collection to form some new meaning in the work. There are forces at play like geography and time, which impose certain limits on the work, but ultimately they can be broken too. As you can see with Et In Arcadia Ego, I couldn’t help but to wander off and discover these Roman ruins on the edge of the city. So it’s about keeping the associations loose and being guided by the work.
GCVI: Finally, can you perhaps share some single images you made in the past which have influenced your current body of work and describe those processes?
OE: When I first went to Sicily I made work about the engravings on trees in Palermo’s Giardino Garibaldi. The location for these trees is actually quite loaded, the garden was once a site of public executions and just opposite the square sits a former prison for heretics held during the Spanish Inquisition. There’s something quite violent in these contemporary engravings, like the tortured scrawls of prisoners on a wall, yet there is this universal idea there about leaving a mark. Although we are trapped within our own mortality, its through language, through art, that we can perhaps transcend that.