December 07, 2021

Paul Cupido: interview

By 1605 Publishers
Interview, Photography
"An empty room will be filled with light because of its emptiness" - with these words by the Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi⁠ starts our inspiring conversation with one of our favourite Dutch photographers Paul Cupido

In his exclusive interview for 1605 Publishers, Cupido reveals how to grasp the right mood that puts you on a creative path without surrounding yourself with cluttered inspiration. On the contrary, eliminating the unnecessary is the key to efficient workflow. "An empty soul is always seeking something fresh" - Paul adds, giving as an example his recent 2 books: "4 a.m." and "Mukayu" that were created when the artist emptied his mind and found himself in a quiet place where nothing is done but yet, the whole universe is being born out of gusts of wind and whispers of the moon. ⁠

Alex Blanco, the photographer and content manager of 1605 Publishers sat down with Paul to talk about life, art and the current pandemic scenario which directly and indirectly affects our existence. Enjoy the read!  

Since we last spoke, you have created 2 more beautiful books: an artist book "4. a.m." and "Mukayu". Congratulations! In "Mukayu", apart from visually describing your journeys around Japan, you also refer to "non-existence", "not having a purpose", "leaving things as they are". Why does this concept inspire you and, in your opinion, what is the purpose you mediate through art?

Thank you, Alex. It’s nice to talk to you again! On my last trip to Japan just before the pandemic, I stayed in a small, remarkable ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), called Mukayu. Its name essentially means "non-existence", or "in a natural state." "An empty room will be filled with light because of its emptiness" - these are the words of the famous ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who lived 2,300 years ago. His words communicate that a mind entirely free of everything exists in a place of nothing – a place that belongs to nowhere.

In Japanese, Mukayu no Sato, (or "mukayu" in the countryside) evokes the idea of an unadulterated utopia, a place where nothing is done and that transgresses nature. Of course, this name with the word "Mu" contained within it immediately caught my attention. The owner of the hotel, a very gentle tea master, explained to me that to relax at a ryokan means to empty the soul and wash away what stains the body – to fully embrace and enjoy time with nothing to do.

On the other hand, an empty soul is always seeking something fresh. And when this happens… something starts to emanate from the bottom of the soul. A good comparison is going on holiday and leaving all your worries, obligations and things behind. Suddenly everything begins to flow again because you let things take their course. You can consider the time that remains as an empty space in a busy agenda. It is in fact time filled with freedom, due to the very fact that it is empty. It is the peace of mind found in the shade of a large tree that had initially appeared useless. Such are the thoughts and feelings that reside in my work. On a journey like this, I just let everything come to me as it is and I move and respond with what arises. You see that reflected in the book "Mukayu" and the exhibition. 

Pau Cupido

In your work, you refer a lot to Japanese culture and the culture's, and of course, your personal - praise of shadows. When one looks at your work, it seems like the Industrial Revolution hasn't polluted our lives and we live in the world of warmth, calm and repose. Could you elaborate more on your relationship with quietness and darkness and how does this affect your workflow? 

On your point about industrial pollution, I too often wonder how did humanity get here? In some ways, my work is an escape from this, and it is perhaps even a form of activist protest through the expression of an idealistic character or place. In any case, it shows the fragility and wonder of nature and the poetic and soothing beauty of it. One can indeed find calm and repose there but beware – nature is certainly not always calm, it can also be threatening and disordered. I think you can see that come to life in my works, interspersed with moments of silence. It is mostly all existentialism. The shadows are Mu. The space where your imagination takes over. It’s exciting.

Your latest artist book "4 a.m.", inspired by the haiku of Matsuo Basho: “Moon woke me up nine times — still just 4 a.m.” What, in your opinion, does the poet want to communicate with this verse and why it spoke to you and led to the book creation? 

Haiku is "the art of reducing the infinite pleasure of emotion to its essence" (Yamata). Moon woke me up, actually contains the essence of everything. At least this is how I felt it. To paraphrase philosopher and music theorist John Cage, it refers to eternity, to the hyper-consciousness, the smallest reaching the largest through the "emotion of tranquility". It captures a lived moment, a truth. There are many "tangibles", things you could touch and sensory objects in haiku. Through it, you feel what is inside you. If you feel warm it means you are warm from inside! There is an element of truthfulness and that something really happened. In "La Preparation du Roman" by Roland Barthes, the author makes several references to haikus as the best form of interpreting the present.

Tell us a little about your search for inspiration. When, where and around who do you feel the most inspired? And how does your inspiration and also, motivation to create new work got affected by the Covid-19 Pandemic? 

There are many ways to let the inspiration flow. It may sound like a cliché, but once you push beyond your comfort zone, you can take steps forward. It does not have to be physical, like a trip to an unknown destination. Outside your comfort zone could also mean photographing a portrait of your mother for example [like you did Alex!]. For some people, including me, that can already be quite confronting.

Due to the pandemic, I photographed a lot of my recent work in the Netherlands. I found the silence and the empty blue skies at the beginning quite fascinating. Like many people, I went through the same curve of emotions, and in the end, I felt a strong urge to see others again and hold an exhibition with a lot of people. We are social animals after all. The book "4 a.m." was made during the lockdown. Luckily I had many photographs from my last trip to Japan. Now I can't wait to go back. If you are struggling with inspiration, you should actually just go out and start. This may sound like the opposite of "Mukayu", but in fact, they can go hand in hand. Just take your camera and walk. Days can go by with nothing, but when you’re out there and open, you’re in the right place to discover and embrace that moment of inspiration when it comes.

Paul Cupido

Are there any important professional future goals that you have established and wouldn’t mind sharing with us? 

Yes, definitely. I would like to start a sustainable artist-in-residence location in the (near) future, on the island of Terschelling where I come from. I envisage an open atelier between the elements and the tides with a high-quality gallery space based on a non-profit model.

You talk a lot about your inspiration with haiku. And what about your inspiration with visual art. What artists/photographers/designers or architects feed your eye? 

There are so many! Tadao Ando, the famous Japanese architect fascinates and inspires me, as well as James Turrell and Anish Kapoor. The recently wrapped Arc de Triomphe in tribute to Christo is also something I find interesting. I read a piece recently that argued that in fact there is no difference between the art of that scale and something produced by a corporation like Disney for example. It is more entertainment than art. And if you have to carry out such projects, what is the effect on the environment? Fortunately, I believe in this instance, the materials were sustainably produced and fully recyclable, but in any case, it triggered a debate that I believe has value.

I’m also inspired by Steve Jobs as he was back at the time when Apple was truly a rebel company. I find Char Davies fascinating, and I recently also discovered Filmmaker Maya Deren (The Very Eye of Night). I can continue forever… There are of course film directors David Lynch and Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba), Niels "Shoe" Meulman, the inventor of calligraffiti (a wonderful combination of graffiti and calligraphy), Boris Tellegen (Delta), Kensuke Koike, Studio Drift, Irma Boom. The list is endless!

Because of your fascination with Japanese culture, I am curious to discover your opinion on the work of renowned Japanese masters like Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama. Do you think their work shows the essence of Japanese culture? What is your view of their oeuvre and does their work speak to you directly?

Daido Moriyama is a living legend and leading member of the Provoke movement. His book "Bye Bye Photography" radically changed photography. Oh, what freedom there is in that! This book, together with "Ravens" by Masahisa Fukase and "The Map" by Kikuji Kawada, very clearly shows the essence of Japanese photography, as well as the zeitgeist of that time. These books have been very influential on me.

Japan is a country of contrasts – quite literally, especially when it comes to photography with its high contrast black and white aesthetic. Araki’s work is also an example of this contrast. The kinbaku-bi (the beauty of tight binding) that he explores is actually only a very small part of Japanese culture. It is seen as an art form with rituals and it carries a form of dedication. Araki is a visual genius with immense output. Despite this artistic freedom, I feel uncomfortable with the flat male gaze and its highly sexual perspective. Can you imagine that when I grew up, the main male role model was James Bond with all his Bond girls! In photography and art in general, I think there should be respectful harmony and consensus between and the photographer and the subject regardless of their genders, with the understanding that the image is created together. 

Paul CupidoNow, a question from a publisher: could you tell us about the book creation process. You divide your publications between books and artist books. What is the main difference between the two? Do you equally directly participate in the process making of the book and the artist book? Why do you think it is important for an artist to have the two genres in their portfolio and finally, what is your favourite part when it comes to the book-making process?

I really want to emphasise a certain distinction with this subdivision. My premise is always to create something very special. The artist books are made as stand-alone artworks, but "Searching for Mu", "Continuum" and "4 a.m." also form a whole. With these books, I published and financed everything myself in order to guarantee complete artistic freedom and not to have to make any concession from an artistic or materials perspective. As these books would not be commercially viable due to the design and a limited number of editions, they are not interesting for a publisher.

Aside from the photography itself, my last book "4 a.m." also took two whole years of work: making edits and sequences, making dummies, making new dummies, turning everything over, and then making another new dummy, looking for special paper, making tests, making experiments, etc. This was all done closely together with the Japanese designer Akiko Wakabayashi. The process itself is my favourite part of book-making.

With the other books, there was a clear collaboration with a publisher. Of course, I also fully participated in making these books, but inevitably there are more people involved who bring their own sense of identity and opinions with them, and there is also greater time pressure. By keeping everything in my own hands, I managed to come up with something that comes very close to what I would like to show and give. But please understand, I’m grateful for all publications, I just want to be fully clear by labelling my catalogue this way. 

Paul Cupido

Another question related to your book "4 a.m." - a unique experience divided into several layers of colours: black and white, deep green, a few pages of bright colours, then a fade to quiet blue and the ending crowned by black and white again. What is the meaning of colour in your work? And what do these specific colours used in the book communicate to the viewer?

"4 a.m." is about the moment in the night when the dream world and the real world overlap. The colours represent the night in all its forms. You make a journey through the night and the spectrum changes as time passes. At the blue part, you suddenly come to a page where abruptly the day begins and the journey continues in the "real world" where I’ve even included some documentary photos to make that contrast. The page with the blue and white is my favourite as it captures that transition from a dream to the day. I received a very nice comment about the use of colour in the few photos in the middle. "It reminds me of what someone once told me about a Japanese composer (whose name I unfortunately never remembered) who saw his compositions as Japanese gardens. Loaded with a lot of pieces of emptiness, silence, peace and then here and there a composing complete piece and then fall away again in peace." I want to share this as something beautiful to take with you on your way, whether it’s putting together an exhibition or as an attitude to life. 

And finally, what are your criteria for starting a new project? How do you know that something ongoing has come to its end and something new is about to happen? 

I think you should listen carefully to the spirit and mood of the time and to your instincts. Also look at the history of fashion, music and other parallels. Sometimes everything makes sense, and sometimes you know something has missed its moment. For example, because of the pandemic, a number of my works were really presented too late and I feel they were not in sync with the emotion [mood] of that particular moment in time. For me, the book "4 a.m." is exactly right, as it’s truly a reflection of the present moment.

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