Vicente Todolí: “Creation comes when you ask the right question”

The sun is truly Mediterranean today. It is beating down mercilessly on the land where Vicente Todolí grows 250 different species of citrus fruits. Where he produces his own oil. Where he lives when he is not travelling, surrounded by hundreds of books.

The Valencian welcomes Toni Segarra, Jorge Martínez and Enrique Gracián into his house. The team from The Table is exploring the depths of creativity. This time they are talking to one of the best known figures in contemporary art. He is the Spaniard who ran the Tate Gallery in London, the Valencian Institute of Modern Art in Valencia and the Serralves in Porto.

On the terrace there is a giant wooden table and some chairs. That is the setting of the conversation. The man who knows so much about art and associates with the best museums in the world asks them to close the front door to keep out the flies. He offers us water and freshly squeezed juice made from oranges grown in his own garden.

We’re saved. There is shade.

Jorge Martínez: We are fascinated by the idea that Ferran Adrià was a researcher and elBulli was a laboratory. But we are still not completely clear about it.Do you think that Ferran is a researcher, a creator, an artist…?

Vicente Todolí: Richard Hamilton said that Duchamp made art as if it had never existed before. But he was able to do that because he had such an extensive knowledge of art’s history.And this also applies to Ferran Adrià.

In order to reach that kind of freedom, first you have to study and research. And from there you take a leap into the void. That’s when you can transcend what you were doing and reach a “before and after” moment. That’s what happened with Ferran and cooking.

J. M.: Hence Ferran’s obsession with research and experimentation…

V.T.: From asking himself questions. From asking himself the right question. And to ask the right question, first you have to know that you’re formulating something that has not been questioned before.And for that you have to know what has been asked and what the response was.

Another important thing is the model concept. Models cannot be fixed in place. A model is something you always have to test and apply to reality. Once you use it you need to move on to something else. Ferran has always been building models, and once they are complete he puts them aside and moves on to the next one. There are people who take a model and dedicate their whole lives to doing the same thing. In art that happens a lot. Then there are other people who find a formula and move on to the next one. That’s the most risky step and it means they are never walking on firm ground. They are always taking leaps and when they find something they can lean on, they leap again. 90% of creators take a leap and then say: ‘I’m staying here’, even though that should only be the beginning of their career. They should be asking themselves where to jump next. Backwards? Forwards? It is all down to questioning yourself and never being comfortable with the idea of a solution.

It is all down to questioning yourself and never being comfortable with the idea of a solution

The solution has temporary authority. And while we plan for it to be valid forever, in a year it will probably be obsolete.

Recently a government minister said he would only support productive research. What does that mean? To get to productive research there also needs to be unproductive research. Without the unproductive research, there is no productive research. It’s impossible.

Toni Segarra: There was a moment in which Ferran began to research systematically. He closed the restaurant every six months and set up a research apparatus. He was not conscious of it, but he ended up attacking the restaurant. He went as far as to eliminate the diner. He didn’t leave the diner any freedom.He eliminated the bread, eliminated the menu, eliminated everything… Does this idea of working against your own discipline have some connection with art?

V.T.: Yes. There are many artists who only get moving when they have an exhibition. In this occupation time is essential. You have to give time to time.Picasso said that inspiration comes when it comes, but ideally it would catch you in the studio.

For me, creation equals freedom. It’s not like a seed you plant. It may or may not occur. Freedom is having time without any hindrances and being able to listen to yourself.

Creation equals freedom

T.S.: So the restaurant was a limitation…

V.T.: Yes. A restaurant is like a play that you haven’t spent much time rehearsing. In American repertory companies they devote time to rehearsal. Then they go to small theatres to keep improving the play and, in the end, they arrive at the main showing on Broadway with some experience under their belts. That’s what Ferran did. The research for the menu occurred during the six months when the restaurant was closed, and in the first weeks after opening it was refined.He followed the same steps as North American theatre companies do.

J.M.: Do you think this model is replicable in other industries?

V.T.: What is replicable is the spirit. The format is short-sighted. They say a fool, when shown the moon, looks at the finger. You should always seek the spirit behind models, and not their application to a particular discipline. Those are mechanisms that become fashionable and eventually invade other areas. Art, for example, is full of terms from the world of economics or business. I think that’s a big mistake.They are like false crutches.

One has to explain what one sees from the spirit and from its context. Context is key. You need to have one foot planted firmly on the ground while the other is seeking. One needs to be rooted while the other explores the universe. In the end it is about being unique and unrepeatable, and not doing something the same way a doughnut factory would. That’s the goal of a creator. You don’t need to apply the shape of the doughnut, but to invent its spirit.

And the language you use is also important. Many people believe it is just a way of putting things, but it isn’t. It is vital to ask yourself questions. Ferran took this into account and decided to start at the beginning. Having reached a certain point, he has decided to begin again. What is important is always to question things. This is the basis of everything.

Enrique Gracián: Does an artist, when creating, know that it is being done for someone else?

V.T.: An artist creates for him or herself.Juan Rulfo only wrotePedro Paramo, and when asked why he had not written more he said that it was the book that was missing from his library.Artists can also write for their peers, for the cultured public and, ultimately, the general public.

For me, true artists are those who create for themselves, and after them, those who create for their colleagues and peers. Of course there are very seductive elements like fame and recognition, but all that is a matter of ego.

The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce raised a very interesting question. If a person writes a novel and never publishes it, can it be a work of art? We don’t know. I think there needs to be at least one recipient. It is important to share a piece to know what the reaction is.

E.G.: So here we get into a thorny issue: certification.

V.T.: Value is what is established by the circle of critics. There is one value in the short-term and another in the long-term.Best sellers  are those that sell the most at any given time (those now reaching their peak, to be forgotten tomorrow) while the long sellersare those that endure over time.The great artist always transcends.

Art is essentially useless. An Italian artist says that it is indispensably useless. Centuries ago, however, it was used to spread messages. This was done primarily by the Church. They ordered hundreds of Stations of the Cross to be made. Many disappeared, but some have survived to this day. Those are the ones that transcend and break free of the corset of convention. And that is what art is.

At elBulli something like that happened. You didn’t go there because you were hungry. You went there the same way you would go to the opera or a play. It transported you far beyond the mere act of eating. That is the difference between art and craft. A craftsman is not asked to transcend. An artist is.

J.M.: The purpose of elBulli was to exhibit their creations.Now that it is not a restaurant and has become a laboratory, where does all that lead?

V.T.: elBulli very quickly stopped being a restaurant. It was something else. In a normal restaurant you’re talking or you’re distracted, and eating is almost a reflex. At elBulli, the focus was absolutely on the plane of the table, and the conversation revolved around the dish. It’s like when you go to the opera.You are only focused on what is happening there.

J.M.: Will there still be tables at elBulli?

V.T.: It can’t disappear. The artwork has to be there. He’s like an artist who stops selling his paintings. Even if he doesn’t sell them, the studio is still there and from then on he can give his work away to anyone. Artists may decide not to be subjected to any more criticism and to choose with whom to share their creations.Now he can do what he wants without having to serve anyone, unlike the situation in the restaurant.


T.S.: What motives lead an artist to set up a foundation?

V.T.: At first foundations served as a vehicle for artists to exhibit their work. But that’s short-sighted and not very generous. It’s just a monument to yourself. After that they discovered that they could also do research there and promote the work of other artists. At that point they became centres for showcasing art. There are also foundations that are dedicated only to awarding scholarships.Their function is to assist artists in their training.

T.S.: Are there any foundations set up by creators to research their own work?

V.T.: No. Ferran is not researching his own work.He is researching his craft.

T.S.: His craft and also his work…

V.T.: The work was researched while elBulli existed. After that he went back to the question of how it all began.And in this sense, it goes well beyond his work.

T.S.: Ferran fell into a stationary discipline: gastronomy. Perhaps it would have been more difficult to innovate in fashion. It’s not easy to be a chef after Ferran.And indeed, many of them reject Adrià.

V.T.: That happens a lot. To kill the father and support the grandfather.Harold Blomm wrote a book entitledThe Anxiety of Influencein which he says that great artists purposely misinterpret their influences.In order to grow and find their own way they have to kill the father.

J.M.: Who is the most disruptive artist?

V.T.: The most disruptive was Marcel Duchamp. He acted as if art had not existed before. He was disruptive in concept, more than in his methods, and this led to enormous changes. This Frenchman opened new paths. His work is very intellectual. It’s almost Platonic, and also pragmatic.And, at the same time, it takes things to extremes.

Is it possible to cook after Ferran?

T.S.: Many times I have wondered if it is possible to make art (contemporary art, I mean) after Duchamp. Is it possible to cook after Ferran? These are people who devastate.

V.T.: Yes.They devastate, but they open many paths that others can follow.

E.G.: Can creativity be turned into a method?

V.T.: No, there is no method. There are no formulas or recipes. Those are contrary to the creative process.Each individual has to find their own formula, which is personal and non-transferable.

The sun is still beating down mercilessly. The light indicates that the time has come to have lunch and rest. That, in the Mediterranean, is a religion. We are not here to blaspheme.