Organic Systems

Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas talks to Kathy Noble about creating with clay, sculpture-as-film and team-work

Kathy Noble You are best known for your sculpture – in particular, the way you work with clay. What initially drew you to working this way?

Adrian Villar Rojas This sounds odd, but clay just appeared. I had my first studio in Buenos Aires, in 2008. Whilst I was preparing a show I realized I had five kilos of clay sitting there in a bag. I don’t have any traditional training in sculpture or construction and never had any special interest in making art this way. I have no skills with my hands. 

KN     So the clay just appeared?

AVR     It just happened to be there. Up to that moment, I mostly made installations in multiple media, as a device to connect different disciplines, such as drawing, video, painting and sculpture.

KN     So medium is not important to you?

AVR     Not at all. My main interest is the occupation of space. So, there was this clay and I re­called a work I had made the year before: a huge table covered in hand-made objects. The idea was to represent a portion of the universe as a constellation of consequences, where one thing leads to the other. It was a representation of a moment in the life of a character where one element effected the next, leading this person to kill himself. 

Now I Will Be with My Son, the Murderer of Your Heritage, 2011, installation view in Argentine Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photograph: Oliver C. Haas.

Now I Will Be with My Son, the Murderer of Your Heritage, 2011, installation view in Argentine Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photograph: Oliver C. Haas.

KN     So a kind narrative formed from cause and effect?

AVR     Yes. And in that project I made a small whale out of clay.

KN     Did you enjoy making the whale?

AVR     Yes. The clay was so easy to use, so approachable; it performed in my hands.

KN     So it was an intuitive, tactile act? You didn’t have an image prior to this of something you wanted to make?

AVR     It was the opposite of the highly conceptually elaborate projects I was making at that time.

KN     I was thinking about performance and theatricality in your work – the idea of ‘performing’ through the clay. Was this a form of intuitive performance, via the object you were creating?

AVR     I felt the need to escape thinking; I wanted to have a blank space, and one discipline to face every day, as if I were a painter. You wake up. You go to the studio. You grab a piece of clay and you work. I wanted to clean my brain, perhaps clean my soul. It’s funny because, apart from my former girlfriend, I was alone and the only resources I had were the ones I could do myself. So clay appeared as a device to produce things.

KN     So it provided a kind of pure way of connecting what you make with your ongoing thought processes?

AVR     Yes. I had to reconnect with myself, in solitude. But it’s funny, because isn’t that what having a studio means?

KN     Yes, that’s a traditional way of using a studio. You formed a daily practice for yourself, where it became about the process, rather than an end result.

AVR     Absolutely. After the small whale, I created an exhibition where I used tonnes of clay. I bought 300 kilos of clay every week for two and a half months. I had no technique. I would just pile the clay until it was done. The pieces were super heavy, so once I was finished I would just leave them there.

KN     So being alone in a studio was a major factor in the way your art progressed?

AVR     Yes. And, in a way, I went back to the origins of creating images.

KN     You say images but do you mean objects? When I recall your work, I often see it as a series of images.

AVR     Well, an object can be an image.

My Family Dead, 2009, installed as part of Biennial of the End of the World, Ushuaia, Patagonia. Courtesy: kurimanzutto, Mexico City

My Family Dead, 2009, installed as part of Biennial of the End of the World, Ushuaia, Patagonia. Courtesy: kurimanzutto, Mexico City

KN     You now make work with a big team, often on a huge scale. What is the shift that occurred between working in the studio, with this automatic flow between your brain and hand, to making these large productions, where the detail is not created via your own hands.

AVR     It’s funny, as now I barely touch the sculpture. I take the position of a director. I assemble a team and direct as if it were a film crew.

KN     Do you not feel a loss of the initial excitement that you had, with clay in your hands?

AVR     The part I like to do now is the heavy-duty stuff, when we have to carry huge sacks of cement. But the details, like little faces, is where I feel I am unnecessary now.

KN     Do you choose the people you work with for their specific skills for this detail? As there were moments of such particular style and fragility in your dOCUMENTA (13) installation Return the World (2012), it could be assumed they were made by the hands of the artist. How does that detail go from your brain to reality via another person?

AVR     I have supporting images.

KN     Do you draw them?

AVR     Sometimes. I take pictures everywhere I go, which I use. But what I do most is talk. I don’t like to have too many images; if you give too many images, you constrain the imagination. I like this gap in communication, where my team doesn’t fully understand what I am asking. I love that moment.

KN     Do they interpret it in their own way?

AVR     Yes, and I love arguing.

KN     Do they argue with you? Even though you’re the boss?

AVR     Yes! I live for that space. It’s beautiful. They say, ‘I don’t like this object, this is not what I think we should do.’ And I ask them, ‘How would you make it better?’ So we have discussions. Maybe they have a better idea!

KN     So making things now is a collaborative project. How do you credit the work?

AVR     It always comes back to me to say yes or no. I am the one who had the idea that created the whole system, who has responsibility for what will take place. However I have a huge credit list for every project; it’s not just my name. My name is not even on top. I put myself as ‘project design’, or something like that. Then we have ‘engineer’ etc.

KN     Similar to working as a theatre or film company?

AVR     Yes. It’s an organic system. It creates knowledge.

KN     Your work is quite cinematic. I felt like I was being led through a series of scenographies, or tableaux; a physical journey and a fictional narrative.

Lo que el fuego me trajo (What the Fire Brought Me), 2013, film still. Courtesy Galieria Luisa São Paulo

Lo que el fuego me trajo (What the Fire Brought Me), 2013, film still. Courtesy Galieria Luisa São Paulo

AVR     For me dOCUMENTA(13) was like producing a film. I don’t do what I want, I don’t do what the place asks, I do what the space deserves. And by saying what the space deserves, I mean that it is a negotiation between what my interests are and what the space allows me to do.

KN     Did you choose the site you used in dOCUMENTA(13), the Weinberg Terrace?

AVR     I was initially offered a place in the Orangerie gardens. Yet I had a fantasy that Documenta artists could choose their own spaces. But I was being totally naïve. When I arrived and they proposed a site I was disappointed as I was deprived of my fantasy. Being in Documenta was my fantasy.

KN     In terms of your life and career?

AVR     Yes, Documenta is something I hoped would happen in ten or 20 years. My work doesn’t talk about the ‘now’. I feel like I could finish everything this year.

KN     Give up making art?

AVR     Yes. Anyway, I wanted to find a space that I could activate. A new space. They proposed a big park above where the work ended up. But I was done with nice parks, after working in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris on Poem for Earthlings (2011). One day we were walking through the gardens in Kassel and spotted people working on the terraces below. I wanted to know what the place was. We went and talked to them and found out that the city wanted to recover the land, which had been a vineyard and owned by one man. The space had a tragic story.

KN     What’s the story?

AVR     The owner was one of the main weapon contractors during World War II.

KN     That’s interesting in relationship to Kassel’s role after the war and the history of Documenta.

AVR     Absolutely, which is why I was so happy. But I was still being totally naïve to want to attach something to the history of the city, the history of Documenta.

KN     I don’t think it was naïve, more a feeling that place is important.

AVR     This man was a millionaire and probably one of the main people to blame for the destruction of Kassel. This site is 80 years old; the most recent Documenta was the first time it was open to the public and it’s been open ever since.

KN     Were you thinking about this history when you were conceiving the work?

AVR     No, I was thinking I should be responsible.

KN     There was something apocalyptic about the work you made. It seemed like a kind of mythological end of the world.

AVR     My main feeling was that I should be careful not to make connections to the place that were too strong.

Return to the World, 2012, installation view at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photograph: Jörg Baumann

Return to the World, 2012, installation view at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photograph: Jörg Baumann

KN     To avoid doing something overtly, or literally political?

AVR     I am not that type of artist. I think my work has political aspects if you want to see them.

KN     But it’s not something that is on the surface.

AVR     It has many different layers and there are different entry points. The cultural products I enjoy the most are the ones you can approach in multiple ways: friendly, political, artistic, popular – hence my interest in cinema. When I was an adolescent, I drew comics. I wanted to study movies before art. When I saw the layers of the space in Kassel, I felt I could create a form of ‘film’, in the sense that when you were viewing one layer, you could not see the next.

KN     It felt like a series of performed scenes that I was being led through.

AVR     I also like the relationship with video games, going from one level to the next.

KN     So in terms of subject matter, was it something that you were thinking about prior to this?

AVR     No, it happened through being there. I write a lot and have many notebooks, but I never arrive with an idea in advance. They occur when I am in the space, to keep an organic feeling to the work. I also like to think about the blind spaces of the institution or site. The projects are a kind of devolution of the institution.

KN     You want to reveal the things that are not normally revealed?

AVR     Absolutely. The same thing happened in Paris, in the Tuileries Garden and the Venice Biennale. My most successful projects are the ones that address these ‘blind spaces’. In Venice we had to build the installation at night, as we broke every security measure. In Paris it was the same. The bureaucracy was so tight. If they had realized at the start that they were going to have 50 workers from Argentina in the park, they would have immediately said no.

KN     Most art institutions aren’t set up for actually making art.

AVR     I am the opposite; I believe in the process. I don’t believe in the factory. I enjoy the community it creates. I might have started working alone with clay, but it became necessary to be with people. It’s like building a family. When I recently made the short film Lo que el fuego me trajo (What the Fire Brought Me, 2013) in Sao Paulo – for the exhibition ‘O interior ésta no exterior’ (The inside is on the outside), curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Casa de Vidrio de Lina Bo Bardi – I made it with, and about, my team. This was one of my oldest dreams, to do a movie. I couldn’t do a love movie, or a war movie.

KN     Did you script it, or is it more like a documentary?

AVR     I scripted activities and places – my team acted.

KN     What happens in it?

AVR It’s a kind of fictive work space, in which you see people working like ants. There are two main characters and the rest are building the artefacts that provide the structure for the film. The engineer who is the most important character in all my projects, is in a kind of fictional state and speaks to them like he is a ghost.

KN     How do you arrive at the scenes or content of your work? And what is the place of fiction in this, versus your lived experience?

AVR     It is incredibly difficult for me to explain, or verbalise, how I work with images. It is mainly intuitive.

Poems for Earthlings, 2011, commissioned by SAM Art Projects as part of FIAC; installation view at the Tuileries Gardens, Paris. Courtesy: Galeria Luisa Strina, Sao Paulo; photograph: Marc Domage, Ariel Torti, AVR

Poems for Earthlings, 2011, commissioned by SAM Art Projects as part of FIAC; installation view at the Tuileries Gardens, Paris. Courtesy: Galeria Luisa Strina, Sao Paulo; photograph: Marc Domage, Ariel Torti, AVR

KN     Was there a starting point for the dOCUMENTA(13) work, Return the World (2012)? Do you start sketching things out with the team, with the clay? And then place them?

AVR     I had an image of bells, like an apparition in my mind. Bells are easy to build and are straightforward for the engineer.

KN     The bells and the dead deer lying in the grass felt slightly religious.

AVR     I like the slightly religious aspect of my work. I am attracted to religious stories for the pain, which they express so well and also to characters who express pain well, like Kurt Cobain. The bells were a good solution for the space – a mixture of the conceptual, visual and practical. I like it when all these things collide. What this object did was create time for me to think. They built 25 bells.

KN     What did you do next?

AVR     I started to understand that I wanted to evoke this cinematic feeling and that each layer that the audience had to walk through functioned as a series of ellipses. This idea was very interesting to me in relation to how I conceive time. As such, even the fact that people had to walk from one layer to another meant they had more time with the work. It was important to be immersed, even to be bored. I am demanding in terms of what I ask from the public, such as asking them to climb staircases and to invest time. I want to try to translate what an audience might do in a play or by reading a book into the context of visual art.

KN     I wanted to ask you about spectacle, and in particular scale.

AVR     In order to immerse people I need time, and to have time I need space. Time is created by space, which often effects the scale of my work.

KN     Part of the reason I am drawn to your work is that it doesn’t look much like anything else being made today. There is something otherworldly about the things you make, like ruins from another time. It also reminds me of history painting.

AVR     I always aim for an uncomfortable feeling, or to do something that is ‘wrong’.

KN     Do you want the audience to be uncomfortable?

AVR     Yes. It is important.

KN     You convey a lot of emotion in the work though, in terms of the sense of ‘affect’ it creates or produces. Is that something that you think about consciously?

AVR     What kind of affect?

KN     I am interested in the staging of affect in art. For example, in Tino Sehgal’s recent Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern, These associations (2012), there was a part of the piece, which to me was a form of staged affect. The performer would tell a story from their life to a member of the audience, which was simultaneously real and staged, in order to provoke a conversation, or a feeling in the viewer. Some participants told tales that provoked tears. In relation to your work, there seems to be a similar transaction, or transmission, of affect taking place in the situations you create between viewer and work.

AVR     Music is a very big inspiration for me in relation to this.

KN     Pop music is the most common form of staged affect. Most songs are love songs.

AVR     The other day my friend said something beautiful about this. She said: ‘Songs create a space in which you can deposit feelings and affection.’ It creates a moment in which you can feel something else.

KN     It’s true. You can listen to a song and immediately re-experience a moment, or feeling, that you have lived previously, as a kind of injection of affect.

AVR     I have always been interested in the role of affect in pop songs. I wrote a text for the Map Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery in London [in 2010] on this. But again, this is me being totally naive. Believing that art can create emotions.

KN     Surely this is what most cinema does – to lead viewers through the emotional arcs and experiences of characters or places – creating a form of affect that is completely constructed?

AVR     The emotional side of my projects is so important. I want it to provoke a sense of anxiety. 

KN     Do you worry that this can verge on cliché?

AVR     I totally believe in clichés.

KN     As a form of language that is universal?

AVR     If you use them wisely, you are able to penetrate or inspire emotions. Particularly when you’re aiming to a general audience. I have to use the tools that exist. And I like the fear many people have of art being clichéd.

KN     It’s one of the taboos of contemporary art.

Adrián Villar Rojas lives and works in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2011, he represented Argentina in the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy. In 2012, Villar Rojas had a solo show at the World Financial Center, New York, USA, and his work was included in dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany; the 9th Shanghai Biennale, China; and ‘The Ungovernables’ at the New Museum, New York. In 2013, Villar Rojas has solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London, UK, and MoMA PS1, New York.

Issue 155

First published in Issue 155

May 2013

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