Mexico City, Mar. 2013: In the history of Western Art, religious and sacred themes have been the predominant subject matter since time immemorial. However, somewhere along the lines of the last 200 years, following suit with historical precedents outside of the realm of art, religious themed art, and an emphasis on the sacred or even the sublime has lost its importance and for many contemporary artists and viewers seems outdated. So much so that today, in an era of conceptualism and post-conceptualism, it is almost a dirty word to talk of the sacred, the spiritual and the divine. The work of Txema Novelo, although inextricably of a contemporary lexicon and aesthetic, indicates that it may be a naive if impossible task to remove these timeless attributes from human existence; the sacred and devotional can never be far behind, though it may manifest itself in different forms.
I sat down with Txema in Mexico City to discuss a staple foundation of his work—the relationship between rock and roll, mysticism and how the aesthetic experience is a divine experience.
Txema Novelo, The Times They Are A-Changin' , 2010, Mixed media,Variable dimensions; Courtesy of the artist
Peter Dobey: Lets start with the basics. Where were you born?
Txema Novelo: Here in Mexico City to a Maoist dad and a chemist mother.
PD: One is a philosophy and one is a profession. Theory on your father’s side and practice on your mother's?
TN: Well you know how it goes with love… And actually my mother is a Christian chemist and Maoists are of course absolutely agnostic. So in this way it’s even crazier.
PD: Agnosticism is the inverse of Gnosticism, something I know is important for you and how you connect rock and roll to the divine. What does Gnosticism mean to you?
TN: Well, Gnosticism is knowledge; at least that is its etymology. Gnostics realize divinity as more of an algorithm than a position or truth. It is a system of knowledge more than anything else. The two truths and principles of Gnosticism are that every human is divine by nature, but are divided from the spiritual world by "The tramp of the world", the nightmare who divided us forever. It is the Christian mythos of the world as a structure. In this way, divine and divide are one in the same thing.
PD: So this “Tramp of the world”, it's similar to how Adam and Eve structures the foundation of existence. How we are divided from God because of this?
TN: There has to be humor and humility to live life—it’s the only way to survive the division. I have this bigger aesthetic idea that since “divine” and “divided” have the same root, and I’m obsessed with mystics and rock and roll, I have this figure that I call “joy division/sad divine” just to remind myself of the divided algorithm. If this were fixed it would be “joy divine sad division.” To me it’s always a reminder—don’t get too comfortable in the world, don’t ever get comfortable in the world.
PD: What I think is especially important is how you describe Gnosticism as a system of knowledge more than anything else. Do you think punk rock and rock and roll is also a system of knowledge, and if so what is to be known through it?
TN: Rock and roll is a representation of a mythos. It has a particularly spiritual soul to it in how personal it can be to the listener; one really comes to know one's own world through rock and roll.
PD: Is that what you mean by the word algorithm? What do you mean when you say “algorithm?”
TN: A mathematical formula that expresses itself. To express life in a mathematical way, for it to express itself through numbers. So to me a good example of an algorithm is insects, bees in the hive, it’s a great system. Bees are like robots in nature, but what they express is pretty damn good. Honey is the only food that doesn’t go rotten, and whatever these motherfuckers put out is good for you. There is a theory that without bees civilization as we know it will crumble.
PD: Bees have a very regimented, ordered social system—but you also say they are mechanical robots. They follow their program, their algorithm, and that’s that. It brings to question this idea, are people more affected by their individual existence or their social algorithm? And I would argue to be an artist is a particular way to live, how to live outside of this massive colony of bees, this algorithm.
TN: But the way an artist tries to relay messages to the world is through society. Our cry for independence is also a cry for attention...
PD: The art world is for sure a beehive, but like all beehives it is also a system of knowledge, a particular discourse. And rock and roll has its own particular discourse as well. I believe that rock and roll is profoundly different than say Beethoven, because something like Beethoven seems timeless. We know that it comes from a certain era and may be of a certain musical style, but I feel popular music speaks to you personally precisely because it’s of your era, your epoch, your generation. Something of oneself is heard in it. The language of rock and roll is less abstract than the pure sublime nature of Beethoven, so it’s interesting to me that in your work it seems you make the fleeting nature of popular music, here today-gone tomorrow, into something eternal and sacred.
TN: What makes classical music so effective and so incredible and indeed sacred is that it’s pretty much a download from heaven, and since classical music was so very complex and beautiful, rock and roll is a downgrade in comparison. Rock and roll is a communist system to put that divinity in a more democratic structure. And in this way rock and roll is somehow trashy.
Txema Novelo,“Magick Dance”, 2011, Vinyl dance-steps, album, record player, photos, Variable dimensions; Courtesy of the artist.
PD: It’s a downgrade, but that’s also what makes it so important because we are less than the divine. We listen to this music which is great not in the sense of the magnificent and the sublime, but because we can relate to the little silly, quotidian details in it. It helps us see and create our own personal mythos.
TN: Yes and somehow in turn we think we have a responsibility with this personal divinity to put it out there, to share it. The beautiful thing about Beethoven and Mozart is that it’s more accessible than any rock and roll song. It is such a pure algorithm, that you could never say that classical music is for certain elitist people. What makes it so amusing is that it can be experienced by every human being; I would even say every living entity. Nevertheless we have sacrificed skills compared to the classical painters and the classical musicians, and somehow we have turned now to concepts and experiences.
But really, don’t you think it’s the same algorithm that William Blake wrote a hundred years ago? In “Augeries of Innocence” he wrote:
“Every night and every morn, some to misery are born, every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night."
And then a hundred years after, you get Rod Stewart singing:
“Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain, some guys get all the chicks, some guys do nothing but complain.”
To me that’s the way that rock and roll is some sort of medium for gnosis in the sense of putting out the same divine algorithms, but in a popular and mystic fashion. In this form it’s also a religious system that has its own saints and everything; the algorithm works pretty much as the saints from the Bible.
PD: When you put rock and roll in the gallery (and there is a history of this in Mexico City), what changes? Because Punk and rock and roll is another way to know the world, but it is also a way to say fuck the world. It risks coming across as very uncouth to the art crowd and maybe too bourgeois to the punk ethos.
TN: Absolutely, I think that’s exactly it. You named it perfectly in the sense that putting rock and roll in a gallery is already a kind of conflict and problem. It's already divided, in the whole sense and even in the biblical mythos... The only thing that makes my work true in a way is that I’m obsessed with music, I spend two thirds of the day listening to music. In a way it’s a trick, because when you put rock and roll in a gallery, how does it work? It works awfully, in the sense that it’s fundamentally a contradiction. Putting rock and roll in the gallery does feel wrong. When it happens, I am satisfied with the work, but I also feel like it is wrong to be there.
PD: But wrong may be precisely the right thing, and I say this in a Christian sense, because you could be putting rock and roll into a gallery in order to attract more people, or to be seen as “cool”, but in a way you are doing the opposite—the Christian idea of turning shit or raw energy into something divine and glorious in that sacred space we call the gallery or studio.
TN: And this is holy—absolutely. Going back to the figure of the algorithm, that’s making something worldly divine.
PD: There is this incoherent, conflictual nature to your work, that the essence of punk and the sacred are enemies and so on, but I think one thing that contributes to the surrealistic feel of Mexico City is the idea of conflicting ideas coming together, shiny new buildings going up on the same street that vendors have created wonderful stands out of scrap metal, a serene feeling walking down some of its streets, all with an undertow of violence always close by and ready to bubble up. The sacred right next to the profane at all times. And for example one of my favorite things to do in Mexico is to go to the Catholic churches. One of the best I’ve ever been to is one in Veracruz. The cathedral was just falling apart, you could only see the rebar, but people had stapled and nailed and glued pieces of garbage to the side of its interior in memory of their family members who had died. And so a Coke can becomes a memento mori or relic. It's like when you put rock and roll in the pristine cube of the gallery space. So this Christian idea of dirt and blood and sweat becoming something holy, do you think that’s something similar to what we do as artists? Taking something that is totally shitty, and put it in a gallery, and it becomes divine in a way. Its whole ontology shifts.
TN: Absolutely, but it depends also on the truth or the output of the algorithm of the artist. Let’s say Joseph Beuys, when he came down on the plane, and the people covered him with whale fat, when he did it in Dresden, with the buildings, where he put big chunks of fat on the buildings. It was beautiful. It was like, this healed me, so we can heal Germany with this, we can fill the holes of our illness. But it really depends. In my vision, when I see rock and rollers as saints, and some artists as saints—he is of course a modern saint to me, Joseph Beuys—the idea is to unify, its very clear that his algorithm is divinity and it’s union, it’s healing.
PD: I have heard stories that Beuys was somewhat of a hypocrite, which I find very amusing. My understanding is that even though he was famous for bike riding everywhere he would sometimes drive somewhere and take his bike out of the trunk of his car and ride to the gallery.
TN: Nothing is perfect. The varieties of algorithms are one, but they are represented very differently. For example, the Soviets represent Marx as good, as the Vatican represents Christ. That means Marxism is a beautiful thing, but the way the Soviets put it out was not. Christianity is a beautiful algorithm, but the way it is often practiced is not.
PD: What an artist does and the world he does it in are two different things it would seem. And the same goes for the foundations of institutions and how they change in practice. But at the core these grand philosophies are pretty solid. There truly is something sacred to these ways of existence that very good artists and musicians have, these algorithms, as you would say, that is brilliant and beautiful in their pure states.
TN: One of the most incredible algorithms is that of Giordano Bruno (the 15th century Italian Dominican philosopher and mathematician). He is this great totem, the greatest saint!
He was burned at the stake because some people thought he was a saint and some thought he was a devil. He acknowledged that the stars are many suns, each with their own planets, and maintained this was congruent with pure religion and Christ. And then he got called up by the Roman Inquisition, and they asked him how he could dare to suggest that there could be life on other planets, because where does that leave Jesus, and he said whenever there is life on another planet there will be a Jesus.
Txema Novelo, God is Seven, 2011,Vinyl wall text,Variable dimensions; Courtesy of the artist.
He was the most sophisticated Christian of all time and the holiest Gnostic of all! He was one rebellious motherfucker, and I think an artist should be rebellious in this way. Rock and roll, of course, is all about this. So for example I see rock and roll as a counter act of the original sin. Because the punishment by God for eating the apple was work. So what I find incredible is that rock and roll somehow is really “situationalistic” in the sense of never working. If you are making a living from rock and roll, you are certainly not paying the Romans their taxes or their punishment of work. So rock and roll has for me in a way this divine algorithm—it is one of the most paradisiacal expressions. Because you have really abolished the punishment. "Man, do I really get paid for playing guitar and getting fucked up?" In its dumbness and its silliness, it’s very divine. It is really as humanity was meant to be.
PD: So there is this divine algorithm to rock and roll, but the art world has become an algorithm of living as well. You and I are skeptical of the art world and our complicity in it, as are many, with its exploitations and temptations, but we are not skeptical of our punk rock upbringing, which is also a distinct system of living. What’s the difference here?
TN: I think it’s a question of the original divide again. We felt closer to the divine and didn’t question the feelings we got when we were younger with this upbringing of punk rock and rock and roll, because what we got from these certain sounds and certain movements, it was really direct to our souls, very religious. We experienced that as an aesthetic experience, like going into a museum or holy place, so we really based ourselves on our intuition, we created this totem somehow. But like falling in love when you are a teenager, you have to experience the first time someone breaks your heart, you have to experience going from being divine to being divided. This is holy. With the art world we doubt this Church. We don’t believe our Popes, we don’t believe in our senses, really, the only thing we can relate to is our intuition.
This is why it’s so dull and so boring sometimes with conceptual art, that you need to read some fucking shit on the wall to understand the piece that is in front of you. Aesthetic experience has been sacrificed to the senses. We have sacrificed skills. And in this way we have to press to bring back the aesthetic experience as being one of the greatest totems of art. I want to go to a show where I can be moved by the aesthetic experience alone.
PD: I think that today aesthetic experience and to be moved, beauty as such, is considered to be not smart enough, not academic enough, and I think this is very naïve.
TN: Well we have to fight against that, because we are getting absolutely humorless when it comes to that shit. We have somehow gotten super anal and stupid with one of our biggest gifts, and that is the senses. Its as Nietzsche says; you know what motherfuckers, you know why philosophy ended? Because Heraclitus was the last philosopher to praise the senses. And after him, what we have all been doing is fucking mutilated. Don’t give me any shit about any philosophy that doesn’t praise the senses.
Senses are our greatest gift, everybody knows this, and art should omen, praise, and realize this. Think about aesthetic experience as flowers. There is a Love and Rockets song called “No New Tales to Tell” and it goes like this:
"You cannot go against nature, because when you do go against nature it’s part of nature too. Our little lives get complicated, it’s a simple thing, simple as a flower, and that’s a complicated thing."
ArtSlant would like to thank Txema Novelo for his assistance in making this interview possible.