A belated review and interview
Words by Pamela Peter-Agbia
Originally published in Nom de Strip, Issue 2 / Right here, Right Now.
’ My work is not autobiographical, it is about autobiography as a concept, and the fact that I often use my own biography as material just complicates the matter.’
People often experience vivid memories when they hear significant, or catastrophic, news. Psychologists call these ‘flashbulb memories’. They are recollections of the circumstances in which we first learn of a surprising and consequential event.
I can remember, with an almost perceptual clarity, where I was when I heard that Michael Jackson had died. I was at Glastonbury, in the Old Queens Head, and it was a Thursday. We’d just watched the scary, shouty but interesting Kap Bambino and were waiting for Metronomy to come on. Breaking news of Jacko’s death reached my friend Adam by text. He showed it to me, then someone else read the message over my shoulder, announcing, ‘Shit! Michael Jackson’s dead.’ The news travelled very quickly with multiple gasps, and the occasional scream, making their way through the tent like a Mexican wave. And then Metronomy came on. It was so weird.
So, too, I remember my trip to St Ives in February to see Simon Fujiwara’s first solo UK exhibition, Since 1982, at the Tate. I remember being late for the train, as I often am, being bored on the train, then getting to St Ives and feeling a renewed rush of excitement. I had never been there before. I remember the seafront, visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum and the mussels I had for lunch – I can almost taste the white wine sauce that they were dressed in. At the Tate, we met the loveliest exhibition guide. His name was Stephen. I remember the powder blue suit, gold earrings and heavy cologne he was wearing. I also remember the David Shrigley postcard in the gift shop that I really wanted to buy but didn’t and still regret to this day. These memories are very concrete in my mind. I believe they are true. But can a memory etched in stone be wrong?
Much of Simon Fujiwara’s work is about that question: the veracity of memory. He believes that none of us can truly certify our memories of a particular thing and are therefore free to invent our own versions of the past. ‘Politicians do it to manipulate history in their favour, freeing themselves from blame and maintaining power, individuals do it to free themselves from pain and maintain sanity.’
In the exhibition, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, is an installation which replicates a stereotypical Spanish bar. Fujiwara’s parents lived in Spain during most of the 1970s, running the Hotel Munber in a tourist town on the Costa Brava in Catalonia. There, they encountered the charms of the Mediterranean world while witnessing the oppression and violence that was commonplace under the regime of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Fujiwara grew up around personal accounts, photographs, and memorabilia of Francoist Spain, and this period of his family history became a fundamental part of his mindset.
Welcome to The Hotel Munber offers a kind of flashback to the period just before Fujiwara’s birth. The information panel on the wall, written by Fujiwara as part of his work, plays with the mixture of fact and fiction that runs throughout the exhibition. It records his assertion that his early life in the hotel has strongly influenced his art, while at the same time claiming that ‘accurate historical research’ has shown this could not have happened as he was born after his parents left Spain.
Fujiwara’s personal history, fused with grand socio-political or historical themes, are another common thread in the exhibition, as are big installations. He grew up in Carbis Bay, a mile from St Ives, and it was a chance meeting with Martin Clark, Artistic Director of Tate St Ives, on a home visit to see family that led to the exhibition. ‘We had a great conversation and by the end he had offered me the show.’
The opening room of the exhibition juxtaposes eight seascapes by the late, great, Cornish artist, Alfred Wallis, with Fujiwara’s towering, child-like, sculptural renderings of their depicted lighthouses: a lighthouse visible from his window was supposedly one of Fujiwara’s earliest childhood memories. The dancing light, playing across his bedroom ceiling, was fundamental to the development of his imagination.
Before art school, Simon studied architecture at Cambridge University. Evidently, this has also influenced him. ‘It is true that much of my work is in the form of physical environments. However, what is perhaps more “architectural” about my work is my approach to a narrative or logic,’ Fujiwara explains that ‘in architecture, everything you design needs to be explained, rationalized and set within a narrative of economy and usability that will allow, eventually, for a building to be built. This applies to the form of the building, down to the door handle. The way that some of the props and installations in my earlier works function is in this manner of “visual props” to a narrative. However, in my work the narrative has no clear aim or desired outcome and often the props contradict what is being said or are intentionally misleading. In this way I like to use the tools of architectural logic to manipulate what an audience experiences through my narratives.’
Now living in Berlin, I ask how Germany’s cultural capital compares to the quiet environs of Cornwall. ‘Berlin is a great city, but it is a hard place to live for artists and I have been lucky. There is little or no work, there are more art producers than consumers, and more galleries than visitors. A lot of my work is about reacting to a place, time or memory, and Berlin does not inspire me to do this. What it does offer is a quiet city to return to and reflect.’
‘Working in Cornwall is something I never did, as I was a child then and sought to escape. Many artists come to Cornwall from another part of the UK and that is very different to having grown up there. It is stunningly beautiful, a calm place and softer than the brutality of the city. There are many ways to be an artist, despite the dominant narrative of art being an urban phenomenon – I think it’s very brave to live in the countryside – I’d like to try it again someday.’
A childhood living by the sea and the perceived autobiographical nature of Fujiwara’s work combined with a prolific rise to the centre of the art world have drawn comparisons to Tracey Emin, but Simon thinks these are lazy. ‘My work is not autobiographical, it is about autobiography as a concept, and the fact that I often use my own biography as material just complicates the matter.’
Simon Fujiwara at Tate St. Ives: tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-st-ives/exhibition/simon-fujiwara-1982