Cecilia Azcarate is the cheekily subversive internet artist constructing images that pair classical artworks with pop culture
Memes are important. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either old or not worth your time. They’re especially important to Spanish-born, New York-based internet artist Cecilia Azcarate, who believes they even might lead us to “world peace”. Azcarate is the brainchild behind B4XVI, the web-based visual art project which juxtaposes medieval and pre-16th-century paintings with modern-day images of pop culture moments and the stars that make them. It turns out Young MA’s Cait Oppermann Fader photoshoot bears a strong resemblance to Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man.
The genesis of Same Same But Different But Still Same, aside from its origins in James Franco’s lines in 2014’s The Interview, primarily comes from her childhood experiences. “The idea of very different and contrasted things living side by side, telling similar stories, was always very present in my life since my childhood,” she says, “I grew up playing the baroque violin wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. Lots of beauty coming from very different places.”
Below we caught up with her to talk about the timelessness of swag, unlikely sources of compassion and doing it for the lols
Why did you start creating these?
Cecilia Azcarate: My mum always had great art books and the images were very important because of their directness and because they were accessible to everyone. There was no need to learn anything, there are no systems like with reading or music: everyone can look at them. Then the internet arrived and it all changed; the parties and the drugs and all that was great. You never know where the beauty and the lols could be hiding. How B4XVI first started was when I went to the Met in NY. They have this one old painting on the medieval floor with a red hat that really looked like some sort of cap with gold letters. Then I just started pairing stuff, sort of as a joke or observation, just for the lols really, and then I continued because I really like looking at all that stuff. It’s very calming, the universality (and) it’s very beautiful to realise we are all quite similar.
Can you tell us about your process of creating the images and pairing them with art history?
Cecilia Azcarate: I have a folder with all kinds of stuff called “OLD ART IS GR8”. I find images on the Google Art Project website or on the Met and then Google the artist or the other way around; I find a picture that has something and put it in the folder, mostly on Instagram too. Then I post stuff I find interesting on my Old Art Instagram, make observations in the comments, put them in an InDesign file and complete it a little bit like a Panini book. Then my dear friends at Unfun made this beautiful website to bring all that research from the last three years together. I’m really happy that they designed the website because they make all the stuff for all the weird German musicians and clubs: very contemporary and underground. They’re in Nuremberg, their studio is walking distance from (Albrecht) Dürer’s house, which I think is so great and such a nice peaceful contrast.
Your work has a sense of humour and it is clear that you appreciate art of all kinds and all forms in a really unprejudiced way. Do you ever face criticism about the way that you choose to create art, for example, because they’re memes?
Cecilia Azcarate: Not really, no. I think people understand that it is not so serious. I did get a lot of advice to try and bring all the pieces in one place, more long lasting than the Tumblrs, Instagrams, etc., which is what the website is. I’m very grateful people take interest and want to see more and are curious about all of this.
“I’m just here for the beauty and the lols” – Cecilia Azcarate
What are the parallels you find between rap music and hip hop artists and art history? You say that hip-hop indulges in its own self-aggrandising and creates its own concepts of what is swag. Are these just very, very old tropes that have resurfaced, or is it something more extreme?
Cecilia Azcarate: Oh, I have no idea! I never studied any of this stuff. Maybe there is a timeless iconography of swag, perhaps there is a part of our brain busy with that, like the part that takes care of our sense of direction or tells us when we are hungry? Maybe. I have no idea. It’s all about creating beauty and power. Maybe that’s where timelessness and universality lies and similarities emerge, and that creates iconic stuff you want to post on your Instagram for people to smash that “like” button in their free time?
You said in an interview that these days we have iconography that's simple to understand in the same way that a dog in a 15th-century painting symbolised faithfulness, or certain gestures meant something, the same way emojis convey meaning. With things like memes and reaction gifs, have we managed to create a complex language derived from pop culture in that same way? Are memes art?
Cecilia Azcarate: Yes, yes, yes, yes! All the memes are so important! The most important! (They are) changing language, our brains and all our relationships, and also the idea that we are all the same. To me, that will help with world peace, ‘cause memes create compassion, maybe. And compassion will help us to not want to kill each other maybe? Same same but different but still same. I really like the idea of making beautiful memes and elevating them, giving them a beautiful platform or keeping them all in a nice little house or website or book. It’s nice. Look at the Gucci thing. I know some people are hating, but this idea of beautiful memes...I really loved it as an idea.
Will the iconography of hip-hop be immortalised in the same way that we have medieval paintings and portraiture to look back, or is modern pop culture always obsessed with the new and what’s trendy to the point that it’ll disappear and get ignored?
Cecilia Azcarate: Oh wow, I have no idea. I’m just here for the beauty and the lols.