Corinna Ferros in conversation with Croatian sculptor DESA VLAHUTIN on Old Brompton Road on 16th October. It’s tranquil after the happy-hullaballoo of selfies and Prosecco at the earlier opening of Desa’s sculpture exhibition at Old Brompton Gallery. Now her sculptures have a chance to take on the sun and create shadows with it, to breathe in the autumn light and speak through the silence.
I HAD A normal childhood, though my ‘normal’ may not be normal for everyone. I mean that I had a happy childhood, which I consider a good basis for creativity: when you are happy you don’t have any worries. Actually, I was reading a book about this recently. When you have worries, you try to solve those problems and so you don’t have time for creativity, whereas when you are without worries, you have room, so you can be creative. On top of that, I was curious – that is the main thing you need for creativity. I had a loving family and my grandfather had made a wooden boat, which we went out to sea with every summer. We caught fish and octopus, which we then stretched and pulled apart – horrible for the fish! I felt free and I didn’t have any worries, which is something most people can’t say about their childhood.
I always liked art in general, already in primary school. I realised I wanted to do nothing else in my life. I thought I would become a painter. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I showed a professor my paintings and he said, “These are sculptural paintings!” So I became a sculptor after doing the foundation year at the Academy for Fine Arts in Zagreb. I can always paint, I thought. I was always painting then too throughout the academy, but my main interest became sculpture. I just listened to his advice and had faith. I could always go back to painting if things didn’t work out. I wanted to learn to make and use forms. My first exhibition was using the forms I still use today.
My mum is very sad that I don’t paint anymore because I’m a good colourist! I don’t know what led me to painting in the first instance. My mum said I was a horrible pupil, incapable of learning and maybe ‘mentally challenged’ when I was in primary school! In year 7 we had to be good at school in order to get into the high school you wanted to go to. I decided overnight that I was going to be an artist and so I knew that I had to get good grades from now on not only in my primary school at the time but also at high school if I wanted to go to the Art Academy. But I didn’t just want good grades, I wanted the best grades at high school so that I wouldn’t have to do the final exams (which you were exempt from if you got very high grades). I just decided in an instance and that’s what happened: I went from being a pupil who didn’t care about school to one finishing with the best grades four years later! I actually came second on the list. I had a high temperature on the day of the exam so I didn’t meet the first deadline; I lost my voice and went completely mute. There were even open wounds on my neck…
My mother, grandmother and aunt are all creative. All the women in my family, basically. They had an atelier on Stradun, which is the biggest street in Dubrovnik. They made jewellery from Murano glass as well as purses and belts. All sorts of things. I grew up in different surroundings from today: women today don’t know how to sew a button onto clothes or repair a zip; they pay someone else to do that now. In my family we all patched holes and found creative ways to mend something. I watched them saving old things to use for something else later on. I think I have passed that attitude onto my children as they see me replacing things, never throwing things away. They also see me and my husband working in the garden and making it beautiful, wherever we have moved to. That upbringing must have informed my decision to become an artist.
I like simplicity in sculptures. When something is so simple it has to be perfect. I am a perfectionist. There is nothing spiritual about my art though I am a very emotional person. I think that is why my sculptures are very unemotional and mathematical. Despite my emotional side, I live my life in a very disciplined way. I think this is very contradictory about my life: I am very sensitive and emotional, and yet I lead this life that is very organised and strict, and my sculptures are very cold, by which I mean they are emotion-free; they are rational. I am attracted to rational things probably because they are not part of my character. I need things to appear ‘normal’; I am not eccentric in that way that people sometimes think about artists. A friend of mine says my cookery book epitomises who I am: when you open it I have laid out the contents section at the start of the book, and if you flip the book round to the other side, all my recipes start from the ‘back’ of the book. Is that different from other artists? I don’t know!
When I start something it just grows and continues. I still play with the same ideas as I did as a student, which is the Fibonacci sequence. It happened while I was studying: we were exploring the golden ratio and it really fascinated me. When you look at nature, the human eye might recognise something that is beautiful, and whether we are looking at a flower or a human being, they all contain the golden ratio; our eye recognises that as beautiful. The golden ratio is a number close to 1.618 usually known as ‘phi’. The Fibonacci sequence is created by adding two numbers to create the next number in the sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 etc.) When you now divide each number by the next (1/1; 2/1; 3/2; 5/3 etc.) each number comes closer and closer to the golden ratio of 1.618. So I thought, what if I make this in art? It is not something new; it was done already during the Renaissance. For me, the beauty in the Renaissance period is this mix of science and art. It is very calculated. I always produce a whole series, not just one work. They are often connected with the Fibonacci sequence or golden ratio. I choose the material and dimensions and make similar forms. I have only ever done Fibonacci series – my first exhibition as a student and my most recent one in London are all based on that. A colleague once asked me, “Aren’t you sick of these squares and sequences?” I said, “No! There are so many variations to play with.”
Mostly my triggers are spontaneous. Many artists I know work every day in a studio. I don’t work for months or even years, but when I am creating a new series, I work all the time: I don’t cook; I don’t clean; I don’t communicate; I just cut myself off from the world and focus. It is not easy when you have a family but they know when I am in a series and need to be left alone. They respect and understand that, and don’t disturb me with questions. They can see that I am in another universe, completely away. A friend of mine once came to Prague when I was in the middle of working on a series and said, “I didn’t know you were doing drugs!” She saw it in my eyes – I feel very focused when I am immersed in my work. It feels as if my brain itches, as if my head is about to explode. It is a strange feeling, not normal, but it isn’t mystical.
I work with engineered wood and metal. I have the pieces I need cut to exact measures in a factory. The same man has been working for me for fifteen years now. I play with the pieces beforehand as if they are Lego pieces, making connections between them. I would like to work with materials like stainless steel, bronze and different types of wood, but they are very expensive. Most of my series are white. The shadows and light are very important. I did make some series in reliefs with different colours, for example black surfaces with white sides, or one was in red and white. But I mainly just do totally white reliefs and sculptures. I paint them so as not to see the brush strokes; it should be the most perfect coverage possible.
I dream a lot; I have recurring dreams and think about them. I think sometimes they are like a warning: I have had plenty of premonitions in my life. I used to think it was just a case of ‘bad luck’ but then I started to believe in these warning signs. If you think about a car, it has a suspension to protect the passenger from the bumps and bends in the road; I think dreams – or the premonitions in my life – serve a similar purpose. They are linked to my sensitivity. Before my father died I had some premonitions linked to that, so I was more ‘prepared’ for when he died – without them I don’t think I would have coped.
Aside from the Renaissance period, minimalism of the 60s and 70s has had a big influence on me. It tends towards perfection; it wants to be perfect, and so it attains that intention. There is no emotion. Today everyone is too expressive in their art. I feel as if art is used as a way to draw the necessary attention to oneself or ‘the piece of art’. It can be too much. I don’t want to talk about war, hunger, poverty… you can see that on TV. I want people to rest from the horrible news and to see something else. We’re all surrounded by ‘breaking news’ about terrorists, children dying… you can literally become ill from listening to this. From time to time we need to see beauty. Beauty means something that is …. “shesno” in Croatian, which refers to something that is right, that does not upset you, something that pleases you. If I can’t find beauty I have to make it. I don’t find it just in one thing but in the little things – a smell or sound… but I can’t tell you that one thing Is Beauty to me. Every time we move house, the first thing I have to do is put up the paintings I have always had since moving from my parents. When we arrived in Prague I was not very popular with the neighbours because my flight landed at midnight and I insisted on banging nails in the walls to hang up our pictures that night. Because we have moved a lot, I have to decorate each house as if we are going to stay for ages. That’s another way of having beauty around me.
As told to Corinna Ferros
November 2018 MONK