Katy Diamond Hamer in conversation with Adrián Villar Rojas
Exactly one year ago, those in New York were able to see new work by Adrián Villar Rojas in an exhibition titled Two Suns, at Marian Goodman Gallery. On view from September 9th through October 10th, 2015, it was visually understated and aesthetically impeccable, not only through his universal reach, but dynamic exploration as well. Last year alone, Rojas had solo exhibitions at the Moderna Museet, Marian Goodman Gallery, Sandretto re Rebaudengo in Turin and had one of the most alluring (if difficult to access) projects of the 14th Istanbul Biennial curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargie. Born in 1980, he is, without questions, one of the most interesting and important artists working today. Based and raised in Argentina, he makes extremely subtle, poetic work that comments on humanity and art history, in a very visceral way. Working in a variety of mediums and spatial formats, Rojas often uses recognizable forms to instigate dialogue within the realm of contemporary art and beyond. His work is infused with art history, carrying the invisible weight of the past, installed on present ground. His shapes are relatable and often in human scale (animals, shells, sneakers, etc.) but reconfigured into new forms that may at once seem ridiculous and in the next breath, be identified as part of a larger contemporary archive. Similar to that of a fingerprint leaving a mark in a particular moment of time, his artistic journey has a way of capturing our now with an approach that is all his own. Katy Diamond Hamer interviewed Adrián Villar Rojas, discussing his inspirations, artistic psychologies and personal views of where and how art exists in the 21st Century.
Katy Diamond Hamer: Your work directly relates to humanity however functioning almost as an amputation; something that can be removed yet is crucial to an art dialectic. Let’s start here. Can you talk about your relationship to the human body in your sculpture?
Adrián Villar Rojas: For me, a sculpture is a record of the action of a body. I seldom have a clear and definite idea of what I want; it is more an exploration based on what my collaborators think I want. There is an emerging common language − sculpture − with its own vocabulary.
You talk about humanity as an amputation. You may be referring to this idea I have been having about the post-end as a moment of silence and emptiness of meaning. If in art everything has been said —if there’s nothing relevant to talk about after Duchamp, if there’s no place to run away and find shelter— then I’m interested in reflecting or speculating on who’s going to say the last word, on who is going to say something for the last time. This entity [captured by] Duchamp, was so perfect, that nothing was left for those to come. We are still biting and chewing his bones. There’s something so cruel about this. I obviously understand he opened innumerable lines of thought, but at the same time, he drew the sketches of those steps which would finally be completed by the [subsequent] generations. He was a prolific and minimal artist, and in every little gesture he made, there was the seed of everything that would be done later. Thinking of the end of humanity and of the last art work —no matter how good or bad this last art work could be— brought me some relief. Moving all my practice to that post-end space, to that edge, definitely gave me a [sense of] refuge.
KDH: Last year in Stockholm, you exhibited Fantasma at the Moderna Museet. The exhibition, in part, consisted of a large, well, what could be described of as a plinth however spanning nearly the entire breadth of the room it was in. At an awkward height of about five feet, visitors could peer onto the surface filled with strategically placed sculptural combines utilizing familiar objects forming something completely new. The installation along with these sculptures, consisting of shells, sneaker parts, and other ephemera also felt nostalgic. Can you talk about your personal experience with memory?
AVR: I think our personal relation to memory varies over time and depends on context. When I did What Fire Brought to Me, for instance, I was alone in Buenos Aires and I had a studio for the first time in my life. A few months prior, my grandfather had died from cancer after fighting it for five years, and in that context, my shaping clay desperately and obsessively was no doubt connected to a mourning of my entire past. These days, I’m not having as strong a relationship to memory, as I was in 2008. Moreover, I’d say I’m living in a sort of absolute present, as if I was the most basic animal to ever exist on Earth. It’s like I’m lost in a dense cloud of continous present.
KDH: Is this sense of memory or connection to the present something you disregard, or impose on the viewer?
AVR: My work deals with the memory of what we —as humanity— will leave behind. I mean, is a Brancusi sculpture and a high-tech robot the same? Is the representation of a fossil and that of an iPod the same? Are cement and coral the same as pepper and soil? It is all moving towards the handmade, absolutely horizontal version of the Earth, with all it has inside, straight to its core.
Since nearly the beginning of my practice, I have tried to imagine what it would be like to watch planet Earth and human culture from the perspective of an alien. From this point of view, absolute horizontality and total lack of prejudice are the axis of my approach, in fact the columns of my framework. Regarding references, there are no scales of values, or preferences, but instead commitment to a deep state of detachment and distance, which is also reflected in the use of time: remote future and absence of humans; remote past and origins of life. This ontological choice has determined the paths I have followed for almost a decade.
KDH: In Two Suns at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, a fallen version of the David (Two Suns (II), 2015) based on the infamous sculpture by Michelangelo, lay splayed on two cement blocks the back room of the gallery. Having an expansive presence and weight in the gallery, there was a somewhat apocalyptic resonance to the piece. Can you speak on that apocalyptic quality?
AVR: Let’s talk about Michelangelo’s David. I think it’s important to mention that I needed a problem for the exhibition at the gallery and Michelangelo’s David represents a big problem. It is a reference, compromising the conceptual integrity of the project, because there is nothing more rude and more dangerous, than to mess with the icons —even more so with the saints— of art, right? Specifically with someone like Michelangelo, there is a violent cliché. I enjoy deactivating these cliché’s, analyzing them, reversing them, changing their polarity from a resounding ‘NO!’ to a hot ‘YES!’. I think Michelangelo’s David is already completely out of human history. I wonder if the 21st Century human has been born with this image already in his or her brain, even before Googling it for the first time. I think David is post-apocalyptic, as it has become an object which only serves to confirm our existence. If I stand in front of him, my physical presence coupled with his, I confirm that I exist. There is still a huge need to continue sucking at the breast of Western and white culture. How well modernity worked! How forcefully it imposed it’s references, with blood, tears and seduction! Yes, David represents us, but who actually resembles David? We all want to see ourselves in that mirror. No matter if China owns US foreign debt, or if Evo Morales is a great president, we all want to see and recognize ourselves in the beautiful semblance called David. In fact, there is a quarry in Florence that makes copies in bulk. They are perfect copies, and most are sold in the Middle East to decorate billionaires’ gardens.
KDH: You are one of the few young artists making work today who is attaining aesthetic and conceptual balance, not an easy task. With each respective project, there is both an accessibility and inaccessibility that I find myself attracted to. How has art history influenced your work? Is there a particular movement you are most drawn to?
AVR: I don’t feel the history of art generates a decisive influence on my practice. Let me better explain this point.I am very aware of art history; I understand it as a map of action on which I work everyday, but I prefer to rely on mostly minimal, unique stories. In this sense, my parents are my deepest obsession, not as a vulgar pseudo-Freudian concern, but as a way of exploring certain ‘secrets’ that build my identity: how they started a family, how I was raised, how they were linked to their own projects and work ethics. I think this history —their story— is what traverses and influences me the most: the one of a couple of youngsters who loved each other to the marrow of their bones. He was Peruvian, Catholic, and a psychology student; she was Argentinean, Jewish, and a student of medicine. The universe loved them and blessed them through their meeting. In that minimal gesture,everything became condensed, and contains all I want to say. It is a small, domestic history, and it is the politics of the intimate.
KDH: In your projects at dOCUMENTA(13), 2012, and in the 14th Istanbul Biennial (Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms), 2015, performance is involved. Literal performance in Kassel, while in Istanbul, it’s almost as if the viewer performed by accepting the task at hand needing to venture out of the city to view your artwork, requiring time. Is this something you’d agree with?
AVR: Today we can hardly talk about anything other than experiences. And if we talk about experiences, the viewer is nowadays more active than ever. I mean, the viewer is always an active entity, this is a no-brainer, but experiences today comprise —and thus deal with— a far more complex, multi-channel and versatile viewer. The field of experience is no doubt all I’m interested in exploring. And regarding performance, I think we should extend the problematic to an even more comprehensive level: human activity. I am interested in humans; and their activity is incessant, rebellious and violent; all my work is traversed by the study of it.
Adrián Villar Rojas is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, kurimanzutto in Mexico City, Galeria Luisa Strina in São Paulo and had a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London as well as participated in numerous group exhibitions including at the Highline in New York.
Katy Diamond Hamer is the Founding Editor in Chief of Eyes Towards the Dove. She has been writing on contemporary art and culture since 2007. For more, follow her on instagram @katyhamer