A conversation between Edi Muka and Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena

May-June, 2010

EM: So, Juan Pedro, let’s take it from the beginning. Tell me: how did it all start?

I mean how and where did you come into this world, who was around you and what did they tell you, and how and why did you move to this very far away part of the world?

JPFG: I can start from the very beginning: I was delivered in a hospital at the same time as a girl whose mother stayed in the bed opposite from my mother. The nurse got us mixed up and after some nervous minutes the woman holding me was the first one to yell (which is something that still haunts my mother): “There is something wrong here! ... This is not my child!”

After a quick check-up they realized their “mistake” and we were put back in place. This has sort of become a recurring theme in my life: geographical displacements.

EM: Unbelievable, but also funny. I thought such things only happened in the movies. As you say, this sheds some light on this recurring theme in your life, but before getting into that, I’d like to ask if this “displacement” also had something to do with you ending up in art? Or, if not, how did it come about? I know that you actually started to study art when you were back in Uruguay, after you had expe- rienced your first “geographical displacement,” is this correct?

JPFG: Yes, that is correct. My first real encounter with art was when my family returned to Uruguay after five years of exile in Sweden. In our new neighborhood, the Uruguayan artist Gustavo Vázquez King had his studio, and I started to spend time there. For me this was a revealing experience! I suddenly understood the possibility to immerse myself into a different world, a place where I could ”hide” or become someone else. Gustavo Vásquez King was my first mentor.

EM: Then you went on to study painting for many years, also in Stockholm. However, I have never seen a painting from you, and I doubt anyone I know would think of you as a painter in the literal sense of the word. How did you decide to jump to other means of representation, such as photography and video? What role did painting play in your works, and what did you bring with you from your education?

JPFG: My “sensibility” as an artist comes from the world of painting and at one point I started to use the camera as a way of taking “notes”. I always used photography as a starting point for my paintings; I have a huge collection of “notes” for paintings, in the form of slides. For many years I would take a picture and make a painting out of it. At one point I realized that the photos had started to live their own lives, and I did not feel the need to make a painting out of them. However, once I started to take pictures I still would be obsessed with the painterly qualities: light, composition, format, colors.

EM: What interested you when you were taking your “notes,” how did you choose your field(s) of interest? Was there any particular artist or period that influenced you more than another? Does this correspond with different periods in your creativity?

JPFG: I have a very vivid memory of seeing the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch as a kid, and that touched me profoundly. This was during the most violent phase of the military dictator- ship in Uruguay. The faces and scenes of despair in the paintings and what I was experiencing around me had a traumatizing synchronicity. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, this must have been the single most influential event for me. During the years I took ”notes,” (1997-2004,) the focus was the landscape, mostly the urban landscape, and there are no human figures at all – just buildings, structures, signs.

EM: Actually, when we started to work on this project and you told me about your initial ideas, I also had this strong image of the famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch in my mind. However, the aesthetics of your works were for quite some time of a different nature to those that one encounters in Bosch’s work. One could say that mysticism pervades them, but there is more of a romantic stance in your early photographs and videos, than the brute “terror” present in Bosch.

JPFG: I like to think of my work from the last eight years as just one body in transformation. First, I dedicated a lot of time to the surface; the surface which was about aesthetics of the mediated images of violence and destruction. In my mind, which is a painter’s mind, there was an interest in the landscape and the National Romantic image and what it conveyed or would relate about a certain place or time. When the war in Afghanistan started in 2002 we became flooded with war pictures, and on the one hand I felt a complete powerlessness in the face of all this violence, but there was also a fascination with this cult and aestheticization of violence that Hollywood and other media dedicated themselves to, and I came to ponder what these images actually conveyed. I tried to understand how this whole world of images could be constructed by such few, simple concepts, which all focused on the refining of the destruction and killing. What was in these pictures that made them so attractive? Was it how they were presented, or was it, perhaps, an echo of something else, something deeper and psychological? To me it was so clear that this was about a specific aesthetic, and I wondered if aesthetics alone could carry the key to this medial and sublime image of war?

I started to produce my own images, and I was very soon caught in a surface where a very strict approach to composition, lighting and color came to guide me, and to slowly but surely, become added to by other, complex layers. Somewhere around this time, I started trying to draft an update of National Romanticism. After years of this, I came to a point where I did no longer see any development in my work. The fascination of this world, by contrast, had not decreased but was, if any, augmente. Somewhere along the way I came to understand that I needed to view this from another perspective, in another way. I had to dig ”down,” inwards. It was as if I had managed to keep my hands clean, I had managed to distance myself so much by this aesthetic point of view that there were no longer any traces of myself, which simply became barren and uninteresting. 


With this exhibition at Röda Sten, I am pursuing something I started last year, which is about the need I now have to unravel, expose and blow up the world, or that surface. I somehow have to come clean. I have to show who I am. The large installation at Röda Sten is a first attempt in a larger context to split open all of my imagery in all its various layers for the viewers.

It is also an account of how my imagery works, how I connect different images, how they activate my ideas and eventually are integrated into a larger whole. One can see the entire installation as a digestive system – artistically speaking. It might become very pedagogical, which is something I hate, but I feel as though there is no other way to go for me. It is as if I have to teach myself to become an artist again, and to do this, the best way is to start from the origin of the process, and openly show how it works and what it in fact contains. This work will most likely be much more tentative than anything I have previosly exhibited, but I am also certain that it will have an immanent, subtle core of dark matter, which, if one comes too close, one is hopefully sucked into.

I may have a larger need for this darkness than I, prior to this, have wanted to admit. It might be that I now finally can bring myself to, or have the strength to, approach my first, shocking experiences of El Bosco [Hieronymus Bosch, translator’s note]. I need to start to rely on the aesthetics again; this is an illness that I cannot rid myself of. However, now the content can become much richer, much messier, much darker, and I do not exactly know what it will all look like until we are completely installed. On the opening day, I will be just as surprised by what we see as everyone else.

EM: This makes me think, or better say, imagine that your project at Röda Sten will be some- thing in between a Gesamtkunstwerk, an Artaudian Theater of Cruelty and symbol laden cult films. Yet your obsession with the “world of images” seems to evade them all and it seems more like an attempt to avoid the consensus of language and semiotics, upon which our daily life and society is built. It is like an attempt to use what Pasolini called “a dictionary of images” instead of a dictionary of words. Cinema is a powerful, dominant media today. Is there some director that has impressed on you in a similar way that Bosch did? You once mentioned Jodorowsky?

JPFG: Yes, there is something to that – especially Pasolini’s ”dictionary of images” is some- thing that I feel close to. It feels close because of its strength, that it is a mass that could possibly be able to create momentum. I must refer to another important place for me, and that is the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This museum is the museum of museums. Everything you want a museum to convey is conveyed there. When you enter it, you get the feeling that you are the first to view these objects, as if the place only opened five minutes ago: nothing is finished, many of the objects are not yet classified, many items are on the way out or into the collection, and as an extra, almost theatrical plus to this, there is virtually no artificial lighting in the space because of the sensitivity of all these artifacts. This makes you wander around in some sort of twilight, which enhances the experience of oneself being the first to recreate contact with these objects.

The collection consists of key points and important historical artifacts, but there is a large gap in what should be communicated and how it is actually conveyed, since this communication is virtually nonexistent. This provides an opportunity for the viewer to create his/her own logic, their own reasoning and thus a personal experience of the objects. Here, the viewer creates his/her own story.

Back to the films, there are many important points of reference such as Kurosawa, Renoir, Jodorowsky, but they function more as back drops, none of them have affected me as much as an image of Bosch or the centrifugal force of the Egyptian Museum.

EM: Pornography starts to appear in you work as of late, as does sound. You also use collage a lot, thus further mutilating the images, or the exposed bodies in the porn images. What brought this on? Are you aware of “war porn,” a phenomenon coined after an increased publication on the Internet of mutilated bodies of fire arms or explosion victims, published initially on porn websites by the US soldiers or the mercenaries of private military contractors?

JPFG: My interest for the pornographic imagery started in the same way as the war images. Both point to a primitive part of the brain where our fascination/repulsion runs amok. It has been a difficult process to manipulate and make these images interesting in an artistic sense. It is a challenge, since I am an idealist who believes in the abilitity of art to transform anything and making these things manageable, but at the same time this was one of the most emotionally taxing projects I have done – both for me and those close to me.

I am aware of the Internet phenomena of American soldiers who posted war images on pornographic websites simply to be able to access them. was the first of those sites, and this was also where the largest archive of images was gathered from an ongoing war. Combining porn and violence, putting the two together, is nothing new, but the magnitude and crudity is probably unique to this instance.

EM: What does “nature” mean to you?

JPFG: Nature has a meditative element in my world. It can also mean total destruction.

EM: What does “culture” mean to you?

JPFG: Culture means action, movement, transformation.

EM: What does “history” mean to you?

JPFG: History is putting facts/anecdotes in relation to each other.

EM: What kind of music does Juan-Pedro like to listen to? And what attracts you to DJ:ing?

JPFG: ”Juan-Pedro” listens to many different records, but there are some that I must point out as defining for my artistic practice, these records had a very active role in producing a chain of images/ideas:

Wu Tang Clan - Enter the 36 chambers Brujeria - Matando Gueros

Lyle Mays - (first solo record)

Joni Mitchell - The Hissing of Summer Lawns Miles Davis - Pangea

DJ:ing means you have a lot of people dancing and hopefully meeting.