A bottle of Jack Daniels, a box of antidepressants showing its empty blister packs, rolling papers and cigarettes, all on the table as a kind of first aid kit, becomes a self-portrait of Yann Leto in the doldrums.
This painting, Knock out, despite occupying a modest place in his current exhibit, The Round, gives some emotional intimacy to a set of works in which the quadrilateral is the leitmotiv of a confrontation between two bodies or two minds that, often, they come together in a single drama, tragedy or tragicomedy. A chess board, a ring, a skating rink, a poker table… or even the nightstand serves as a field of forces that exceed the threshold of the game.
Joyce Carol Oates called “metaphysical parenthesis” that semiconscious, knocked out state, during which the boxer leaves transiently “real time”. Leto expresses the human attraction towards that parenthesis, both in sport and in life, when the fist-fight is also undertaken against oneself.
In her essay, Oates wrote that boxing was contrary to nature because the boxer must not only act against reason but also inhibit his survival instinct. Death is real and is ever-present. But, the death drive is a natural instinct so much as the live drive, said Freud. Is art a tool to channeling these interior contradictions? Would the canvas be a quadrilateral, continuing with the metaphor of sport?
Yes, or I would say that more than contradictory those impulses are complementary. The individual always faces his death, unconsciously, and I think that it is not a matter of fear of death but of how to live with it … (without being killed). The fact of knowing that you are going to die reminds you that you are alive. Artistically speaking, death is not an issue that I deal with in depth, but in my personal life I have it in mind, I respect it and sometimes, I see it approaching me and then moving away, like in a boxing match, where in a matter of seconds you have to develop strategies to knock down the other or avoid being dropped.
In fact, we can think of the quadrilateral as a physical space, like the canvas, but above all I decided to depict boxing because in it and in that metaphysical parenthesis that Oates talked about, four elements of human nature come into play that interests me because they make us weak and strong at the same time: fear, respect, vice and challenge.
The bulb-eye of Picasso’s Guernica illuminates the chess board in a painting in which one of the opponents plays with a white glove. Considering the colloquial expression about robberies with a white glove, could we think about killing without getting your hands dirty? Sometimes the mind is more dangerous than the fist.
The mind is always more dangerous than the fist, and more than dangerous is more powerful. Psychic violence serves to command and to manipulate the weak being. I am more interested in the example of an armed robbery, that is, acting without thinking about the consequences that your actions may have: I have always worked, as well as an artist and as a citizen. In French, it is said agir sur un coup de tête and I love this metaphor because it evokes the irrational: the blow and also the head. I believe that my duty as an artist is to bring to light social, political and cultural issues that make me angry, showing them naked to the viewer. As happened to Martin Kippenberger, I believe that I am not able to dissociate my art from my personal life. My life is my art and my art is my life.
Chess and boxing, the main protagonists of this series, respective paradigms of mental strategy and body-to-body, contrast two types of confrontation, which could again be interpreted in an artistic key: the Duchampian model (art as idea) and the physical fight with the matter. Is it like that for you?
I do not see so much difference between playing a game of chess, participating in the Olympic games, playing table football or doing archery. All of them are the same challenge of one against the other but it also represents a personal challenge. Duchamp understood it and made chess his more extensive work over time and suddenly he transformed the ephemeral work into a lifestyle. Perhaps we should remember Duchamp’s artistic performance as the purest and most authentic. People who pay for a ticket to attend a boxing match or a football match live a unique experience. It’s not just about seeing two people fighting or people running behind a ball, as many detractors say, but to absorb and imbibe an environment, cry, scream, be part of a violent, passionate moment and in some way, be participant of an authentic performance, a real and palpable one, not like those elitists and mostly devoid of authenticity, that we can find in the museums.
The Round moves away from previous works where spectacularized violence, sectarianism, idolatries and fetishes, dissidence quickly assimilated by the media, fanaticism … ultimately, the pornification of life … they were displayed in variegated compositions. Although in The Round, are not the combat, the adrenaline and the spectacle still basic ingredients?
This word, “basic”, is essential in my latest work. It was interesting to create this series because I wanted to put myself in an athlete’s shoes, and in fact, like an athlete or a high level fighter, I got help from my artist friend Almudena Lobera, who acted in a certain way as “personal trainer” and guided me during the process of creating and, in the final stage of the production of some works, changing the focus, participating in their evolution and orienting me towards a different work routine. The crowded scenes and the multiplication of details are over. In this series, I have chosen to leave empty areas and focus on the essentials and the basics, as you said. The mental violence, the strong blow, the color, the impression of movement and the structuring of the painting.
It strikes me that in a sport traditionally so masculine as boxing you have represented women. Can we extrapolate it to a vision of women as fighters in everyday life?
Quite simply, this sport is practiced by men and women. Another thing is that the media are interested in spreading it. While there are athletes like Rafa Nadal that justify that women earn less in tennis, we can not change anything. It seems difficult to change the way people think and to normalize something that should be already settled. Obviously, there are many examples of women who have managed to be recognized for what they do, but unfortunately, in many cases, the media system, whatever they do, makes them a model of beauty (or ugliness) by ignoring their sporting, intellectual or artistic achievements. So, my intention wasn’t to show the woman as a fighter in everyday life, but as an athlete like the others (amateur or elite athlete), being able to practice all kinds of sports, like men or even better, in many cases.
Interviewed by Anna Adell
Solo exhibition from Yann Leto The Round
can be visited in T20 gallery, Murcia
until 31th July 2018
Yann Leto has been one of the winners of The Guasch Coranty International Painting Prize 2018. Tecla Sala Art Center will host a group exhibition with the finalists and awarded works. Likewise, Yann Leto celebrates a solo show in Zaragoza’ DKV Space (June 28th).