> Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant

Manuel Franquelo / Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant

August 2017
Interviewed by Claire Holland

Since the late seventies, Manuel Franquelo’s main artistic practice has been painting. In more recent years, however, he has been working with other media, including photography. In 2012, Franquelo embarked on a three-year photographic project in which he created an inventory of the everyday things in the room where he works. The resulting series – Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant – deals with the themes of time and memory, the unconscious and the insignificant, and the relationship between photography and truth.

Powdered with dust, and often photographed in the same place a second time months or years later, the remains of insects, bottles of pills, endless plastic detritus and an assemblage of scrap materials and tiny throwaway trinkets are the myriad subjects of an unorthodox series of still lifes. With their allusions to time, mortality and ruin, the images slip between forensics, sculpture and fine art photography. 

Below, Claire Holland asked Franquelo about the background to these intriguing images, on show in his recent London exhibition at Michael Hoppen Gallery. 


Claire Holland: When did you turn from painting to photography, and why?

Manuel Franquelo: I have been involved in photography, both in artistic and technical ways, since the early nineties but Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant is my first important project on this medium. On this specific occasion I turned to photography because, with independence to authenticity, this medium always recalls the “having-been-there”-ness of the trace and this was of importance to the conceptual framework of the project. At the same time, and on a very different level, I really wanted to stay away from the idea of manual skill as art. People were starting to interpret my paintings in this way and it was not really how I wanted to be seen.

CH: I don’t want to get too caught up in technique, but how much are you prepared to give away about how you produce your works?

MF: I think that nowadays, to discuss how art works are technically made is unproductive – unless the making can be seen as part of the meaning. The reasons are threefold. On the one hand, even the most complex practice by the most sophisticated artist of our days, is mere child’s play compared to many aspects of photography as employed outside the field of art. It looks like our relationship with the photographic technique has become a sort of dichotomy – either trivial, at the user’s level, or extremely complicated, at the level of the developers – with not much worth of discussion left in between.

On the other hand, contemporary art has totally steered away from technique, which has shifted its old important role to that of a mere instrument.

Finally, technical matters have been rightfully accused of being a distraction for the audience, who tend to see it everywhere to the detriment of a truly creative interpretation of the work.

CH: Can you talk about the prints and how they were created?

MF: In this project, I have avoided the typical biases that make us identify an image as a photograph in the context of our own culture. The printing process is not a determining factor in this sense – other issues related to colour, tone, scale, resolution and depth of field are much more significant. Still, I have stayed away from that predictable aspect that characterises a photograph as an object: a piece of paper with a standardised surface that has an image printed on it and is usually adhered to a rigid base; therefore, I have chosen an unusual and slightly less mechanical surface. Due to a number of reasons related to the preservation of cultural heritage, 16 years ago I experimented with flatbed inkjet printers, printing onto non-standard materials –in 2002 I designed and built one of these machines. The images of Things in a Room: An Ethnography of the Insignificant has been printed using an Epson 11880 that has had its roller mechanism replaced with a flatbed one. They have been printed directly on aluminium plates coated with traditional white gesso and then polished with wax.

CH: Your work invites close inspection and prolonged engagement. Slow and sustained looking versus quick, casual consumption of images is something I’m curious to hear your thoughts on.

MF: The quick and casual consumption of images has become pervasive in our society. We feel forced to do this constantly and not exclusively with images but with sounds and words too. Obviously this is not the kind of activity that concerns me now. In my work, I am interested in a different kind of relationship with images opposed to a fast visual impact or explicit iconographic contents. The organising logic of my work is not just the logic of the visual aesthetic taste; I am more concerned with complexity and multi-layered subject matters. My pieces do require careful observation but, at the same time, they are not intended to be appreciated with the eyes alone; their reception certainly requires engagement on the side of the audience

CH: Due to the sheer volume of images we are subjected to on a daily basis, we see so many photographs of things as opposed to photography about things.  What are your photographs about?

MF: A recurring theme in my artistic practice is the interpretation of the world through the insignificant – the unnoticed side of the everyday. On this particular project I have often been thinking on my own pieces as a sort of landscape of memory. Sections of a postmodern ‘Wunderkammer’, if you like, made out of fragments, ruins and remains. Things whose associative values send the viewer back to the familiarity of his or her own past, the home place of all that cannot be described in words. ‘Things in a room: an ethnography of the insignificant’ addresses a variety of themes but, in a fundamental way, it is an inquiry into the complex symbolic relations that we human beings have with ordinary things.

CH: Which other photographers do you admire, and why?

MF: My strongest influence in photography comes from scientific imagery. From the work of E. J. Marey, S. Ramón y Cajal and C. F. Powell to the most recent panoramic views of the surface of Mars, I have always been fascinated by the rich and deeply poetic self-imposed mission of making the invisible visible. Besides being an exceptional witness on the interactions between the history of art and the history of science, scientific imagery relentlessly poses questions that problematize, in fundamental ways, concepts like objectivity, evidence, perception, and observation.

CH: Who are your heroes outside of photography?

MF: I have always been deeply interested in that trend in culture which for many decades, and from different fields, has been drawing attention to the importance of everyday life and the ordinary. On this regard, my interests range from Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, in the social sciences, or Fischli & Weiss and Sophie Calle, in contemporary art, to the work of Georges Perec, in literature. I am concerned with the ideas about chance and self-imposed constraints, by the members of the literary group OuLiPo, and with Christian Boltanski’s and Susan Hiller’s bodies of work related to memory, oblivion and the unconscious.


Manuel Franquelo: Things in a Room was exhibited at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London 7 March – 3 May, 2017.