At a recent talk concerning his exhibition ‘Autoconstrucción’ (Autoconstruction), the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas played a recording of Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land is Your Land’ (1940). Its closing lines describe how exclusion and poverty can be reconsidered as an opportunity: ‘As I went walking, I saw a sign there / And on the sign there, It said ‘Private Property’ / But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing! / That side was made for you and me.’
The relevance of Guthrie’s words to Cruzvillegas’ life and work is made apparent in the exhibition, which he explains ‘was inspired by my parents’ house in Mexico City, an improvised and almost useless place made without budget, ideas or plans: chaotic, ugly and definitely unfinished’. Cruzvillegas was brought up in a neighbourhood called Ajusco. Built on volcanic rock, the area was previously believed to be too difficult to inhabit. It was settled by rural immigrants from the south, who constructed their homes gradually and in collaboration with neighbours.
This background informed Cruzvillegas' new works, made over the last six months in Scotland, while the artist alternated between the rural setting of the Cove Park arts residency programme and the city-centre terrain surrounding Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. In the first room of the exhibition Cruzvillegas displays the improvised sculptures he made while working in his Cove Park studio, on a peninsula overlooking Loch Long.
The works have been rendered with materials found there: ‘wool, sheep shit, chicken wire, discarded furniture, cardboard, stones, grass and my own hair […] They are unplanned assemblages, made to test new dialogues between odd and contradictory objects and prime matter.’ These recent sculptures have a stark and mystical quality – as humble and as articulate in their way as Alberto Burri’s painted sackcloth works like Sacco e rosso (Sacking and Red, 1954). Cruzvillegas’ splinters of wood and clusters of sheep droppings strung on wire possess a weird grace – they have become something else.
Perhaps it is the case that in his hands the uselessness of detritus is marshalled into poetry: as in Blind Self Portrait (2008), which consists of scores of scraps of paper he has come by locally – such as leaflets, ferry tickets, receipts and so on – that he has painted red. Each piece of paper is pinned to the gallery wall by two thin black pins, the writing side resting against the wall. Like the blank side of Guthrie’s ‘private property’ sign, this nothingness expresses both the freedom and frustration of exclusion. On the walls of the second, larger gallery Cruzvillegas has handwritten the lyrics of 18 songs he wrote while in Scotland about his formative experiences in Ajusco. Eighteen electronic, post-rock, folk and punk versions of these songs by Glasgow bands were broadcast by Cruzvillegas through the streets and squares of the city during his stay, using a mobile sound system inspired by those of Mexico and Jamaica.
A.C. Mobile (2008) was made in collaboration with John O’Hara of The Common Wheel project, which provides bicycle repair work for people suffering from mental illness in Glasgow. Although this mobile sculpture chimes with the history of do-it-yourself activity in Glasgow, the points of contradiction between Mexican and Scottish attitudes are also emphasized in the exhibition by the presence of the vehicle, a wall covered in fluorescent Sonidero posters (a Mexican variant on Colombian cumbia music) and a film shot from Cruzvillegas’ point of view as he cycled his fantastic cart through the dark, rainy streets.
In the gallery the recording of the songs plays on a constant loop, providing charming incongruities such as on ‘Rock’, in which Eilidh MacAskill delivers a lilting and somewhat improbable exhortation to ‘break, move and lick’ volcanic stone, or Foxface’s slightly puritanical version of ‘Tortillas’, which omits Cruzvillegas’ lines concerning the ‘black, round, enormous and thick nipples’ of the girl behind the counter at the tortilleria. Perhaps the most affecting of the songs is Big Heat’s version of ‘Aprons’, which quotes Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: ‘It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees’. Those words lose nothing in translation.
First published in Issue 120