In the world of Felix Semper, things are not as they seem. At first glance, one might easily think that his sculptures are made of materials such as stone, plaster or wood. And it is not until the artist unfurls them like an accordion that we realise they are comprised of thousands of sheets of paper. This is why he is frequently said to have redefined the concept of sculpture as we know it.
“For me, a sculpture is not something static or boring – it’s something alive, moving,” Semper tells us during a visit to Barcelona.
As incredible as it may seem, and despite his passion for art from a young age, this paper master, born in Cuba but raised in Spain and Miami, and now living for the past 18 years in North Carolina, never made this into a profession until as recently as five years ago. After working at a printing press, and later starting a home construction business, the crisis of 2008 arrived. Banks did not want to finance him and his debts were piling up, so he had no other choice than to file for bankruptcy.
“That was when I started thinking about what I was doing with my life, because I had a family to support,” he recalls.
At first, he began drawing as away to escape: “Drawing submerged me in a fantasy world where I could escape from real life.” But the real push came on a day of heavy snow, when Semper, bored at home, went outside to make a snowman as he’d seen in the movies. The result was so impressive that he told himself he had to strengthen his natural talent.
“I began taking sculpture classes at the weekends, but I could see that, given my age, if I wanted to impress I had to do something different.”
After much experimenting, and thanks to his time at the printing press, he came up with the idea of sticking pieces of paper on top of one another to form a block. Then he carved it, and slowly discovered that he could move it. And so Read Head was born, a tattooed-covered bust with a cigar in its mouth, whose head could be opened up. To complete the experiment, Semper took to the streets of New York, where people quickly pulled out their phones to capture the moment and share it on social media. The phenomenon quickly went viral.
Since then, the Cuban artist has made hundreds of elastic sculptures, including busts of singers The Notorious B.I.G and Bob Marley, artists Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the writer Ernest Hemingway and the mythological Daphne.
For his sculptures of the artists Picasso and Van Gogh, and the actress and singer Marilyn Monroe, he used stacked biographies of the people themselves, while for the singer Jimi Hendrix he used his vinyl records. His sculptures are so realistic that you would be tempted to take a bite from his hamburgers, cakes, pizzas, cereals and fries, or take a drink from a can of cola. Some of his most popular works, valued at thousands of dollars, also include sneakers, which seem so realistic that during another of his sociological street experiments there were even people who wanted to buy them.
Behind this impressive and entertaining art works, made for both individual clients and companies, lies a complicated technique. First, the sheets are stuck together, like an accordion. When creating the busts, 7000 sheets are used, meaning that the process can take over a month – Semper now has a company to help him with this part. Once the block has been formed, he sculpts it as if it were a plaster sculpture, using scrapers and knives among other tools. Finally, he paints it.
“There are no rules. And that was something very important to me as an artist,” he says.
Asking about his next project, Semper doesn’t hesitate for a moment: “I want to create a painting that hangs on the wall and can be moved by remote control.” His mind is truly always scheming to come up with new forms of expression. “I constantly see things around me which could be a sculpture. Sometimes I have so many ideas coming to me that I forget them,” he laughs.