Inês Neto dos Santos

Interview: Joana Jervell

Nowadays living and working in London, Lisbonite Inês Neto dos Santos moves between the worlds of art and of food, giving life to performances and installations that awaken our senses while inviting reflection and debate and promoting union and sharing. An always unique and challenging approach to food, people and spaces that leaves no one indifferent.

Given the range of projects you work on, how do you like to be seen? As an artist? Or as a chef?

First, as an artist. Then as a chef. What I do is dance between these two professions, but my approach is mainly artistic.

How has your background in graphic design and illustration influenced you and led you to what you do now?

My academic experience exposed me to methodologies and certain aesthetic concerns that, in one way or another, can be seen in my current work. There is always a critical approach to any aesthetic or conceptual choice we may make. I think that is still what I do artistically. I studied at and left university surrounded by friends who are also amazing graphic designers and illustrators, and who inspire me a lot, although their influence may not always be obvious. For me, creating a new work is synonymous with creating (and illustrating) a narrative.

How would you describe your work to those who don’t know?

I usually say I work with food, people and spaces — those are my materials. These are what I use, in much the same way a painter uses paint and a sculptor uses marble. I use them in installations and performances. I use them metaphorically: that is to say, each item of food, every gesture and space “symbolises” something greater.

What are you trying to say with your creations?

The importance of collaboration, of community, of equal access to opportunities and knowledge. The intrinsic connection we have with our surroundings, from the macro to the micro scale. I try to expose the important impact of our food choices on society and the way in which they are loaded with political meaning.

This collaborative spirit and sustainability that you mention are issues you promote through your work. In the unprecedented times we are living through, and the urgent need to change our behaviours (the way we consume, how we use resources and how we live in society), does it make even more sense, to you, to address these issues? Do you encourage this reflection?

Yes, it has and continues to make sense to address and expose these issues, right up until we have implemented solutions and resolved them. There is so much wrong with our unbridled consumerism and how we relate to our surroundings. But I am sure we have within us the tools and the skills we need to improve our choices. This global crisis has only heightened the massive social and economic differences affecting humanity and the urgent need for the political and social systems to care for and repair them. We must understand and internalise the fundamental link between humankind and nature. We are just a small cog in the machine: we are not in control.

Is there a method to how you work? Do you have a theme as a starting point?

It depends. Sometimes a project will emerge from a book or article I am reading, or from a conversation with friends or colleagues, or an ingredient. I write a lot. I make a lot of lists with phrases or single words that I then turn into texts. I have recently been focusing on fermentation, so I’m reading about it and developing ideas around this process.

Have you done any particularly challenging projects?

Tender Touches in 2019, which was part of the Open Space annual programme. Commissioned by myself and the curator, Huma Kabakci, it was probably the most ambitious project I have ever worked on: an exhibition that I managed and where I cooked every day for six weeks. The exhibition was itself a café that was open to the public, in which every object – the furniture, the dishes and the food – was made by an artist. It took almost a year to plan. We worked with around a dozen artists as well as designers, actors, performers and photographers. We got support from local businesses and, with a lot of effort and dedication (and very little sleep!) we opened a café-exhibition that challenged the usual dynamics of exhibition spaces. It was a year of intense preparations, working in the spare time between other projects. But it was all worth it, despite the setbacks and all the effort involved in making it happen. We are now working on a book about the exhibition, which will be published very shortly.

What can you tell us about your recent projects, your artist residence in Villa Lena (Italy)?

The residence in Villa Lena was a magical experience. Artist residences give me two things that are absolutely essential: space and time. Despite its virtues, living and working in London deprives me of these basic elements. At Villa Lena, in Tuscany, I spent six weeks testing ideas about longevity and permanence, pondering what these two concepts mean within my work, which is very ephemeral. Inevitably, I went with the intention of thinking about fermentation and all its metaphors, especially the way fermentation is a kind of “stretcher” of time. I had a daily routine: I brought my mother dough and made bread every day, which I then shared with the other artists, keeping a slice from each of them. Then I took a piece of each slice, by now dry, and added it to the dough for the bread — condensing six weeks of conversations, sharing, and experiences around each loaf into one. The “loaf of loaves” is itself a metaphor: representative of things that are much greater than it.

What do you love most about being an artist and what you do?

Noticing the poetry of small things. Eating things that are so good it makes you want to cry. Meeting people I would not otherwise meet and exchanging views and thoughts. Seeing the effect my project has on others, as it happens, while they touch it, taste it, listen to it.

Do you have any goals you would like to achieve some day?

I would like to have a permanent studio that is also a café. A space for artist collaborations and residences, performances, exhibitions. Where all the ideas are communicated through the food that is served. All this happened in condensed form with Tender Touches, the café-exhibition that I organised and managed with Open Space in London in 2019. It is quite likely that this will rematerialise!

When you’re not working, where can we find you and what will you be doing?

Probably in the kitchen. Or somewhere drinking a coffee, or in a restaurant. If you’re lucky, you will find me on the balcony reading in the sun (which is rare and precious in London).

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