INTERVIEW: Carolina López on ‘Metamorphosis’ – the exhibition

The more we try to rationalise our world, the more we crave the weird and the wonderful. The exhibition Metamorphosis lures us into the interconnected worlds of two individual and one ‘twin set’ of artists, all of who work or worked on the fringe of film and animation. The exhibition, that took 10 years to find its moment, was put together by the curator and animator Carolina López Caballero in close collaboration with artists Jan Švankmajer (1934), Timothy and Stephen Quay (1947), and Irina Starewitch, the daughter of stop-motion animation pioneer Ladislas Starewitch (1882-1965). As Ms López explains, these unique artists play the protagonists, the puppet masters and our companions in the sort of show that you go into but never really come out of.

Metamorphosis (from Kafka) by the Quay Brothers. Photo Alx Phillips.

Carolina López: These four artists are really well known in the ‘creative animation’ world yet their association with it is restrictive. They are ‘artists’ in a more unclassifiable sense: they make films, they work with their hands and they draw on a myriad of references. I wanted exhibition visitors to engage with these artists, yet to do so I needed to make the right connections, to link their work with more familiar worlds to us – through literature, art and science. They are all inspired by a time when art and science run together. From the Renaissance through to the 18th century spirit of discovery into 19th century Romanticism, with its fascination with feeling and the darkness of human nature, through symbolism to surrealism. I think nowadays there is a greater sensitivity towards the irrational, the poetic, the magic in things. After all, in order to discover, even in science, you need imagination.

Carolina López Caballero, the animator and curator of the show Metamorphosis at Barcelona's CCCB / Madrid's La Casa Encendida, 2014.

Carolina López Caballero

Ladislas Starewitch was Polish and he held onto his Polish passport despite moving around and eventually settling in France in the 1920s. He spoke six languages, and you find as many Russian and Polish elements as French in his films.

Jan Švankmajer is from Prague, he’s 100% Czech and his art is inextricably linked with the city, the so-called ‘magical city’ of André Breton.

Timothy and Stephen Quay are American. They studied graphic design at the Philadelphia College of Art where they came across some amazing posters by Polish artists and became absolutely fascinated by them, by the designs but also by the worlds they discovered within them, the worlds of theatre and art. This was, of course, the pre-Google age. They moved to London and enrolled at the RCA (Royal College of Arts) and almost immediately upon arrival they took a trip to Poland.

So while they are from very different places, they meet in the same place: Starewitch’s Polish origins, Švankmajer’s immersion in the Czech, the Quay’s fascination with Eastern European imaginations and emotions … and their united desire to transform it all into something coherent, complete, aesthetic. Transformation as the essence of metamorphosis.

Ladislas Starewitch. Image from the exhibition Metamorphosis at the CCCB Barcelona August 2014. Photo Alx Phillips.

Ladislas Starewitch

How did the show happen?

Švankmajer told me that he had to struggle for years, decades, to find funding and an audience for a project. Comparatively, I became obsessed with the idea of organising a major show in an art museum in Spain nine years ago after a trip to Prague – but back then I found every door closed to me. It wasn’t until Rosa Ferré was appointed the new head of exhibitions at the CCCB in 2012 that she, without being aware of my stalled project, mentioned that she’d always been interested in literature and animation. So, we began to talk about Švankmajer and then about bringing in the other artists in to draw analogies between them. None of these artists actually need the others: the Quays had a solo show at the MOMA at the time, Švankmajer curates his own shows – it was the CCCB team who made it possible – and to the highest standards. It had never been done before and it will probably never happen again.

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer by the Quay Brothers. Photo Alx Phillips.

Themes: The Cabinet of Curiosities

Švankmajor considered his collection his masterpiece. He wrote me a wonderful letter saying that he envisaged the show like a huge cabinet of curiosities. He said, ‘at museums you learn things, but with a cabinet of curiosities you experience them’. While museums tend to impose a ‘rational’ order on exhibits by putting the same sort of things together we wanted to juxtapose different kinds of objects: a Goya print with a creation of nature, such as a shell; a painting with an anthropological artefact, such as an African mask, inviting imaginative narratives between them. There is a thread through history that begins, perhaps, in the early Renaissance with this cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer… So, on my request, Švankmajer created his own cabinet of curiosities for the show, bringing 150 objects over that represent some 10% of his own collection! It is the first time that these objects have left Bohemia.

Jan Svankmajer

Jan Švankmajer

Forests and Fairy Tales

We start with literary references and a forest – a place where we start and end, as The Quay Brothers own installation is what they call ‘a forest within a forest’. At the beginning, the ‘simple’ fairy tale narrative is introduced by Starewitch and from there the discourse gets increasingly sophisticated, moving into what you might call the ‘anti-fairy tale’, the anti-narrative. Almost all of Švankmajer’s literary references are Czech, Kafka, of course, is prominent. But then also Edgar Allen Poe and (Goethe’s) Faust. The Quay Brothers draw on a vast resource of references, the Polish writer Bruno Schultz, Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten that inspired their film Institut Benjamenta (1995). There is a line at the end of the film that goes, ‘…am I living in a fairy tale?’ which brings us back again to the beginning of our show.

Venus (with necklace) from the Museum of the History of Medicine of Catalonia. Photo Alx Phillips.

Science and Imagination

All artists touch on science in different ways. Starewitch was an Entomologist yet brought his dead insects alive. Švankmajer loved the ‘moment’ of alchemy; the ‘spark’ of transformation. The Quays are fascinated by anatomy and museums of medicine, and also disease – defying the push for perfection; half their book collection is on anatomy not art and they’ve made three ‘documentaries’ on the theme, two of which are on display. Rather than bring anatomical pieces all the way from the Mütter Museum (College of Physicians) in Philadelphia, we decided to find pieces that we thought the Quays would like from here. We worked with the Catalan Museum of the History of Medicine where we found that beautiful ‘Venus’ with the necklace. We knew they’d love it – and they loved it! At first I didn’t want to impose on their world, but they were like: ‘Got any more?’ and I said, ‘Of course!’ so we started showing them more and more pieces.

By the Quay Brothers, from the exhibition Metamorphosis at Barcelona's CCCB / Madrid's La Casa Encendida, 2014.

Art and the Unknown

The Quays were really into the ‘Monsù Desiderio‘ painting (Les Enfers, 1622) they had a postcard of it and I asked them if they’d like the original and they said, ‘Wow, yes!’ So we got it from Besançon (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie). In fact, when Jan saw it he started gesticulating like mad, we got the translator and he said ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ it turned out to be one of his favourite paintings and he’d never actually seen it in real life before. I mention here just a small part of a whole dialogue of references on show, that also incorporates Spanish works previously unknown to the artists: the Goya’s, yes, but also the photographs of Joaquim Pla Janini and Josep Massana that were a discovery for the Quays and that fitted in with their universe.

What sort of experience is this for a visitor?

These artists are used to working on and in their own uncontaminated world, their vision is intimate, unique, a ‘world on a table top’ as the Quays put it, so my challenge was to incorporate the visitor into that world while remaining faithful to it. I went into their studios and had a talk with the artists and filmed that to draw the viewer into their personal worlds. With Starewitch it was through his daughter, Irina. Švankmajer was amazing the way he talks about sometimes very abstract and complex issues in a simple way. The Quays are incredibly intelligent and not at all pretentious. As with anyone, if they’re treated with knowledge and respect they respond in the same way.

Still from the CCCB film about the Quay Brothers. Photo Alx Phillips.

The exhibition itself is necessarily highly structured and its inner architecture crucial to the way its ‘story’ is told. Yet I worked hard that its structure be invisible so that viewers feel they enter a world and are discovering it for themselves. The exhibition is labyrinthine but linear. We’ve introduced each artist in turn and provide the clues to enable a visitor to make her or his own connections. Information is provided but we keep it minimal and out of the way. New themes are presented with a written quote from the artist.

Barcelona and Madrid

In each city the show morphs into the galley space in a distinct way. While in Barcelona’s CCCB it’s spread over one vast floor, in Madrid’s La Casa Encendida it’s separated into five different galleries, with Švankmajer’s cabinet in a small separate room. In both locations we go beyond the space itself, however, collaborating with other museums whose collections fall within the universe of these artists. In Barcelona, the Quay Brothers selected pieces from the collection of Frederic Marès, placing them in a cabinet on the third floor of this extraordinary museum. In Madrid, we’re working with Museo Lázaro Galdiano which also has an amazing collection, and also the Museo del Romanticismo (Museum of Romanticism) and the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Museum of Natural Sciences) who are really excited to be involved.

Jan Švankmajer. Image from the exhibition Metamorphosis at Barcelona's CCCB. Photo Alx Phillips.

Metamorphosis – Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers
CCCB – Barcelona – until 7th September 2014
La Casa Encendida – Madrid – 2nd October until January 11th 2014

Also published in El Pais blogs & Barcelona Metropolitan