What Time Leads The Willing Body To Do. Installation view. Image: René Lazovy
Like certain events, people, or circumstances, there are books which divide our lives into before and after.
Once a month, I pick up Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) by David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992), an American interdisciplinary artist, writer, filmmaker and AIDS activist whose words speak to me on a particularly visceral level. It is such a phenomenal piece of writing with so much fury and anger but also empathy and tenderness that in my copy of it, almost every single line is underlined, highlighted or annotated. In one of those, Wojnarowicz writes: “When they invented the car they invented the collision and the darkness of what time leads the willing body to do.”
What Time Leads The Willing Body To Do is also the title of the first solo show of Venezuelan artist Daniel Rey (b. 1990). Intrigued by this connection, I take my companion - the memoir - by the hand and head to Rey’s studio at KOPPEL Project in Chalk Farm, just above the exhibition, to discuss the inspiration behind it.
Daniel, congratulations on your first solo show at KOPPEL Collective, titled What Time Leads The Willing Body To Do. Before we delve into the show, could you share how your cultural background and personal experiences have shaped the themes and narratives in your artwork?
Yes, of course. I come from Venezuela, which is a beautiful country. Yet, growing up in Venezuela as a very delicate and sensitive child was difficult. I knew that I was gay since I was little. I remember seeing guys playing basketball on the street, and I wanted to hug their hairy legs [laughs]. So I could never fit in in the way that was expected from me. I grew up surrounded by my mother and her sisters, and these women had a massive presence in my life. At the same time, they were encouraging the machismo, you know, like asking me, how are the girlfriends? And when are you going to find one? I had to fit into a specific category according to my gender, and I always felt that I needed to escape to be myself. These experiences are behind what I do because I want to share my story and those of people like me. I want to discuss queer experiences and how queer individuals connect, particularly when leaving their countries. Because when I go back home now, it doesn’t feel like one anymore. It sits somewhere in-between.
Does London feel like home to you?
It’s also somewhere in-between. I don't feel like London is entirely home, even though I've been here for seven years. I guess, I see home more as a mental state.
I can relate. Your background in architecture is also intriguing. Could you elaborate on the connection between your architectural training and the exploration of identity in your art practice?
I studied architecture in Venezuela and fell in love with the discipline. I'm happy that I did it because it gave me structure and a very interesting conception of space. And what I'm doing now is connected to it. In architecture, you focus on the spaces, even if they relate to the human body, human proportions and dimensions. At the same time, there are no bodies, no flesh, you know, in all these architectural images. There are structures and materiality, but the body is left out. I'm interested in the flesh, bodies, feelings, things which make us feel. There's beauty in materiality and all that is very present in my art. But I want to focus on what we’re made of, on the things that make us vulnerable and make us connect as humans.
It makes me think of the relationship between private and public. The title of the exhibition comes from David Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives, which reads like a testament to this relationship. How did you come across this line?
I first discovered Wojnarowicz’s work in 2020, during the pandemic, and it was eye-opening. Reading about the queer experiences, about the anger and the ignorance from the government during the AIDS crisis, about his diagnosis and his friends and loved ones dying. I felt that he was so close to me and my community and that it could have been me if I had been born in those years. He gave me so many ideas. That line resonated because I was thinking about the bodies and how they connect. But there’s also something so visceral about the crash and the machine. There’s a lot of movement and energy in the paintings [in this show]; it’s almost like a crash of bodies which you can’t pull apart. You see what they are, but you don’t really understand what’s happening. I tried to emphasise that with how I painted them, using my whole body. Then there’s time, which is another concept I like to play with. That’s where the title comes from, as I’m dealing with the body, flesh and time. The movement in the paintings mirrors this idea of a crash. But then there’s also a very soft, tender movement in the documented performance, Collective Cuddles (2023), initially selected for New Contemporaries. Could you tell me a bit more about it?
Speaking of Wojnarowicz, I think he was very lonely. And I also feel very lonely sometimes. When I lived in Milan, my friends and I would sometimes just sit on a sofa and cuddle, which was very therapeutic. The idea of bringing something very intimate and private into the public, done in a subtle way like in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ (1957 - 1996) work, always appealed to me. That sense of intimacy for me is so transformative because, in my community, you don't always have that intimate, soft connection. The performance [with five male performers lying on a large cushion and engaging in gentle physical contact] was trying to achieve that.
In Untitled (1991) by Gonzalez-Torres, which inspired some of your work, there’s a clear sense of absence, whereas there are bodies in your paintings and the documented performance. Was it a conscious decision?
It's a response to everything I lacked in architecture, with the body missing. I want to embrace finding each other, connecting, and celebrating the body. Of course, the documentation of the performance [presented at this exhibition] is still not the same as the actual performance [that took place at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool]. But you can still emerge yourself in its world, and be a part of it, even if you see it on a monitor; it’s also lying on a cushion, so you experience it from the same perspective.
Have you ever thought about inviting the public to be a part of the performance?
I tried it once in an environment that was very experimental. It was a festival at Central Saint Martins, where I did my MA, and I invited the public to join. Of course, it’s not the same as giving free hugs, for example, which is very limited as an act. In this performance, you actually have to lay down and cuddle and kind of give yourself away completely. I wanted to test that sense of giving yourself away. Some people joined, but they were mostly my friends. I was also thinking about how during the actual performance at Grundy Art Gallery, some visitors engaged with the performance while others purposefully chose not to, walking and looking away instead. So it must have had a strong effect on them, seeing five men cuddle and be intimate in this way.
Collective Cuddles (2023). Performance. Selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2023. Image: René Lazovy
It’s confronting, which is what art is supposed to do, I think. Would you agree? With regards to your practice in particular, and considering the current political climate surrounding it, what is the role of art in telling the stories of and advocating for marginalised voices?
I think it's very intrinsic to the whole definition of art. One of the main reasons I do what I do is to highlight the voices of the marginalised communities that I identify with and start these conversations. We're living in very strange, bizarre times. As an artist, you have a voice, and you need to use it to make a change. And art spaces need to present works that make people question things. There's so much evil happening in the world right now, which is overwhelming. I like the mindset of nurturing your own garden and focusing on what you can do because you cannot solve everything. But if you focus on at least one thing you can do, it can improve and get better. I think that's important.
In spirit with the show, the conversation with Rey felt like a much-needed hug. I left the studio and the ‘picnic kind of situation’, as we kept calling it, with the comfort of knowing that we’re never alone in seeking comfort, intimacy and connection. Sometimes, it means giving ourselves away completely. It’s confronting, but worth it.
What Time Leads The Willing Body To Do is on view at KOPPEL Collective until 15th December 2023.
Cover image credit: Park Sandlers
Nastia Svarevska is a London-based curator, editor and writer from Latvia. She holds an MA in Curating Art and Public Programmes from Whitechapel Gallery and London South Bank University and writes for an artist-run magazine, Doris Press. Her poetry has been featured in Ink Sweat & Tears, the Crank and MONO Fiction. You can find her on Instagram @ana11sva and her website anasva.com.