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Artists’ Artists: Interview with Oriol Vilanova

Portrait of Oriol Vilanova

In this new series of interviews we dive into the private collections of artists. Whether these collections are of bought or exchanged works, we get a glimpse into what inspires artists when they are not creating. The 'artists’ artists' is a term that refers to an artist that may be overlooked by the market or art historical canon, but who is highly respected among peers. Join us as we discover the unique connection between collecting and the creative process.

Oriol Vilanova is an artist living and working in Brussels who defines himself as a Sunday collector. His installation practice stems from an archive and collection of postcards that he has been expanding over many years. His works speak to the role of the image and the creation of value through extensive collages and the circulation of objects in contemporary society. His work has been exhibited at the Antoni Tàpies Foundation (Barcelona), CA2M (Madrid), M Museum Leuven, The Buffalo AKG Art Museum, and the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), among others

Evrim Oralkan: Oriol, your work often involves the recovery and re-contextualization of cultural artifacts, particularly postcards. Can you tell us about the moment you realized that these seemingly mundane objects could serve as a medium for your artistic expression?

Oriol Vilanova: I like to think that I was a collector before I was an artist. When I started collecting postcards I did not yet have an artistic practice. I went to the flea market in Barcelona to look for second-hand books, there I also found postcards. In an intuitive way I began to accumulate them, and after a certain time to collect them in a more conscious way. When I began my artistic practice, I had already been collecting for years, and postcards naturally became part of my language, they were gaining more and more prominence. They intrigued me and still do. The methodology has not changed that much, what has changed is the quantity.

EO: Your collection of postcards is vast and varied, with over 75,000 pieces. How do you find them when you need them?

OV: I always need more postcards, collecting is always more than necessary. It has something irrational, it only makes sense because it doesn't make sense. Feeding the fire with more fire to rethink the collector's practice. The collection is constantly growing, to be precise, to date (August 20, 2023) it has 166,336 postcards. I buy whenever I have the opportunity. Several times a week. At flea markets, second-hand bookstores, museums or souvenir shops. Although my main source is the Jeu de Balle, the market in Brussels.

I see myself as a gardener, I dedicate myself to taking care of the collection, to watering each one of the series, so that in the future they flourish and can be shared with other people.

The collection grows like plants do, very slowly. Postcard by postcard. I see myself as a gardener, I dedicate myself to taking care of the collection, to watering each one of the series, so that in the future they flourish and can be shared with other people. The collection has its own rhythm, it takes years to gather a sufficient set. For this reason, it is very important to maintain control of the economy on this side of my work, without depending on third parties, or being subject to strict deadlines. Since the postcard is a common object, with a low price, it allows me to generate large installations within a sustainable economy.

EO: How do you approach the process of organizing and classifying these postcards?

OV: I do the selection process in situ, at the flea market or wherever I find the postcards. I spend a lot of time looking at pictures. It can be hours. I do not buy lots, even if it is imperceptible in the final result, they are chosen one by one. Selection time is very precious, without interruptions, without phone calls or emails, I am in a kind of limbo. The gaze and the hands are educated and work alone. These have become movements that I do automatically.

Once I get home I do a thorough inventory, classify them, count them and put them in their box. This reviewing moment is another time of pleasure. The collection is arranged in handmade cardboard boxes. I like the contrast between the systematization of the collection and the realm of disorder that is the flea market.

Small antique objects are placed on rectangular fabrics in purple, blue, lavert and green.

Photograph from the Jeu de Balle flea market in Brussels taken by Oriol Vilanova.

EO: What criteria do you use to determine their placement within your collection?

OV: There are more than two hundred different classifications. I make categories based on themes which are poetic, political, comic, critical or symbolic. To specify a few, they range from: museum interiors, snow, closed doors, beds, the Vatican, the night, the crowd, monuments, Swiss flags or snake charmers. The most important series at a methodological level is “unclassifiable rares.” They are all those postcards that have not yet found a group, their pairs. In my willingness to think with the images and not from the images, I don't decide the series in advance, but I follow the path that the unclassifiable rares are leading. For example, if I see that there are about twenty postcards with images of sheep, it is enough to start a new independent classification. Once a postcard is part of a specific classification, it is very strange for it to move from there. There are as many ways to classify the same image.

EO: As you know, Collecteurs’ mission is to give the public access to unseen/hidden private collections. In your work Secret Collection (2022), which was on display at Phenomenon 4 in Anafi, you display a collection of postcards in a domestic drawer, a natural space for a forgotten collection and in Old Masters, Greco (2022) a worker’s jacket hanging next to the drawer. I understand that this is the jacket you wear when visiting the flea markets from which you collect your postcards. Can you elaborate on the significance of this setting and your thoughts about the concept of 'hidden' or 'forgotten' collections?

OV: The way of displaying the collection is as important as the collection itself, it is inseparable. Strategies such as hiding or camouflage offer other types of gazes that are less obvious. These modulate the visible, creating opacity, intrigue and mystery. It shows the importance of not seeing everything and of not showing everything.

Old Masters (Greco) and Secret Collection were on display in an uninhabited house, a setting far away from the White Cube. With a minimal and contextual intervention, I used two of the few objects that remained in the place as a display: an old coat rack and the central piece of furniture. The two interventions went unnoticed due to their integration.

There are natural spaces for memory. A storage room, a basement, a closet, a trunk, a drawer, a shoebox or a pocket. Objects rest there for days or decades. Sometimes forgotten, hidden or punished, which are reborn the moment someone finds them and sees interest in these objects again. Most of the time these items have to make it to the flea market to have a second life.

Concerning hidden collections, I believe that a collection exists when it is visible. A collection is always shared with the one who makes it, who looks at it, who desires it, who buys it, who maintains it, who takes care of it, who exhibits it, who explains it, who criticizes it, who copies it, who steals it, who photographed it, who reproduces it, who distributes it, who dreams it, who needs it, who invokes it, who hates it, who restores it, who sells it, who remembers it.

EO: In addition to the postcards, do you collect/have works by other artists in your collection?

OV: I don't collect works of art yet, although I would like to do so in the future. I am postponing it, because I am aware that once it starts there will be no going back. At the moment, I am happy with my collection of art postcards. I have Sturtevant, Broodthaers, Lawler, Picabia, Cranac, Goya, Darboven and Duchamp. From some famous works, like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa I have 87 copies, while the Louvre Museum only has one.

EO: Your work, Anything, Everything (2016-ongoing) prompts viewers to consider how museums influence the interpretation and value of the objects they display. Can you elaborate on this concept and how it has shaped your approach to your own collection?

OV: Museums produce postcards of their best works, their must-haves, photographed in the standard way and sold in the museum's shop. Our relationship with artworks involves reproduction, be it through a screen, a book or a postcard. The direct contemplation of the work is a moment of exception, in the case that happens.

Anything, everything, is a collection of collections. The operation consists of ordering the postcards by the background monochrome color and not by the main object. Giving visibility to what was thought to be secondary and invisible. In this world-collection, museum treasures are mixed with images from popular culture; a Chinese funerary figurine, a Siamese kitten, St. Edward's crown or a B movie actor. The postcard is a mass object, it approaches everyone in the same way, without elitism.

EO: You've been known to visit flea markets all over the world in search of postcards. Can you share a particular find that has significantly impacted your collection practice or your artistic practice?

OV: Every day is carnival at the flea market. It is never the same. The infra-ordinary is mixed with the unrepeatable event. In Brussels, it is open every day of the week, for better or for worse. There is commercial movement and the material is constantly renewed. Sometimes it's hard to believe what you see, what is a glider plane doing here? Who is going to buy it? The next day it is gone, someone decided to believe in it.

I consider the flea market as my studio. I'm interested in everything from the flea market; its merchandise, its merchants, its theatricality, its informal economy, its socio-economic mixture, its architecture. It is an open-air museum, a city archive.

I consider the flea market as my studio. I'm interested in everything from the flea market; its merchandise, its merchants, its theatricality, its informal economy, its socio-economic mixture, its architecture. It is an open-air museum, a city archive. During the visits I take notes of the conversations, I transcribe the negotiations between sellers and buyers, they constitute the Economical Poems (2022). I also carry a camera with me, with which I fix the fleeting compositions that the sellers build, they are artists.

EO: Your work emphasizes the persistence of the analog in a digital world. How do you see the role of physical, tangible artifacts like postcards in our increasingly digital culture?

OV: I believe in material memory, somehow objects are capable of containing time. We share our lives with them, our secrets and our nightmares. It’s said that technology listens to us, but analogue objects also do. Perhaps in a few years there will be a way to decrypt their language and it will be a source of unparalleled knowledge. Imagine all the lives that an object from Mesopotamia has lived, from the First Dynasty of Ur around 2600 BC, until nowadays in a European museum vitrine. If it could tell us all of its exploits it would be a great adventure novel.

EO: Your practice encompasses multiple forms and formats, including architectural intervention, performance, collaborative projects, photography, video, and text. How do these different mediums interact with and influence your postcard collection?

OV: I use different mediums to talk about the same topic, collecting. I understand the collection of postcards as a thinking machine, from practice, obsession, and control. I also like working with other collections, whether public or private. I like to know how they have been built and why; its successes, its mistakes, and its gaps. I enjoy investigating what they exhibit and how they do it. In this way, ideas appear that I could not develop with my own collection, but which complement each other. I have also developed a series of works where collectors are the protagonists, displaying their psychology, their writing, their voice and their movements. There is empathy and understanding there.

EO: Your work critically reflects on issues such as the role of images in transmitting culture and cultural values, and how worth is established in the art-world’s economic micro-system. What are your thoughts about the role of collectors today and how the next generation of collectors can contribute more effectively?

OV: The collecting spirit is part of the human condition. Without this drive to keep objects, we would not be able to enjoy museums of all kinds today. Each collection has a different biography, with its social, political and economic context. I believe in the collector as someone very important in the chain, but she/he needs to create their own intention and attention. The collector has to go against mainstream trends and find their own voice. The collector that interests me does not buy money.

The collector has to go against mainstream trends and find their own voice.

EO: Your work examines how ideas themselves are subject to subjectively determined processes of circulation, categorization, and elimination. Can you expand on this idea and how it relates to the collecting practice in general?

OV: A collector is an editor, we discard much of what we see and include only what interests us. Of all the postcards I see, millions remain outside, the vast majority. If I have doubts about a postcard, I don't buy it. An object in a collection is never alone, all other objects vouch for it. They have to be in harmony or in antagonism. Each item enters for a reason, or for several. The collection creates value when it speaks in plural. Perhaps a single object doesn't say much, but instead, a collection of objects can fill volumes.

EO: Lastly, as this series is called "Artists’ Artists," could you share with us a few artists who have interesting or unusual collections that you think our readers would be interested in exploring further?

OV: Pierre Leguillon, is a French artist based in Brussels, his house is the headquarters of the Museum of Mistakes. In the tradition of artist museums, he gathers all kinds of objects that allow him to develop his own reinterpretation of art history, examining artists like Ad Reinhardt or Diane Arbus, as case studies, always with humor and erudition.

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