Entrevista con Pedro Reyes 2017. Esculpir a la antigüita.
POR EDGAR ALEJANDRO HERNÁNDEZ
NUEVA YORK.- El artista Pedro Reyes (Ciudad de México, 1972) ha trabajado desde hace tres años con la escultura en piedra porque, asegura, es la forma más placentera que ha encontrado para “hablar con los muertos”.
Al esculpir directamente con piedra volcánica, mármol, cantera y concreto armado el artista busca entablar un diálogo con la historia de la escultura universal, ya que tiene oportunidad de abordar lo mismo la obra del italiano Amedeo Modigliani, que del mexicano Germán Cueto o del arte en Mesopotamia.
Reyes, quien en la última década ha obtenido visibilidad internacional por sus piezas de arte colaborativo, hace un alto a su producción artística vinculada a la crítica social para girar hacia una exploración más formal de los materiales, a partir de la escultura y el dibujo, cuyo resultado presenta desde el fin de semana pasado en la galería Lisson de Nueva York, en una muestra inaugurada en el marco de The Armory Show.
La primera exposición individual de Reyes en el recinto neoyorquino (el artista expuso en 2013 en la Lisson de Londres su exposición Disarm) muestra más de 150 obras en piedra y dibujos en papel que literalmente cubren toda la galería, en el barrio de Chelsea, con imágenes que lo mismo retratan a pensadores griegos como Sócrates o Platón, que a artistas latinoamericanos como el Dr Atl o Juan Downey.
¿Concibes esta exposición como una síntesis de tus preocupaciones formales e intelectuales, porque está tanto tu trabajo arquitectónico como tu investigación con pensadores universales?
Podría verse de esa manera, pero básicamente la exposición tiene dos líneas muy claras, los dibujos y las esculturas. Desde 2014 empecé la talla directa en piedra, porque si bien desde hace mucho he trabajado con cuestiones escultóricas, creo que a estas alturas he ganado la confianza suficiente para realizar la talla en piedra. En México tenemos una historia increíble de grandes escultores que he estado procesando. Luis Ortiz Monasterio, Rómulo Rozo, Ignacio Asúnsolo, Jorge González Camarena y Oliverio Martínez, por mencionar algunos, son artistas que marcaron una etapa de la escultura moderna de la cual me he enamorado, porque corresponden a ese momento previo a cuando el discurso escultórico cambió hacia formas más concretas y experimentales, sobre todo por la influencia de personajes como Piero Manzoni o Yves Klein.
Digamos que todo ese momento previo a la abstracción, que tuvo un desarrollo de la escultura a partir de la forma y el estilo, de alguna forma ha estado medio cancelado para los artistas contemporáneos, pero es algo que ahora me resulta muy atractivo, porque me resulta muy placentero y me permite dar un giro a mi propio trabajo.
Hace tres meses hice este performance en Estados Unidos llamado Doomocracy, que es básicamente una obra muy política de crítica a la sociedad estadunidense, y de cierta forma siento que eso me da la oportunidad de abrir otro frente en mi trabajo que no necesariamente vaya al mismo lugar. No todo tiene que se político, participativo o de activación con la sociedad. Hoy más que nunca nuestra vida está secuestra por los asuntos de la actualidad. Nos despertamos con Donald Trump y nos dormimos con Trump.
Entonces, me parece importante, como artista, poder salir de esa agenda y dedicarme a cosas simplemente porque no me aguantaba las ganas de hacer.
Quería usar mi tiempo en temas formales a la antigüita y abrir un espacio de producción en la que se pueda hablar con los muertos, porque cuando están trabajando la escultura, sobre todo con problemas formales o de estilo, en realidad hablas con toda la historia de la humanidad. Yo cuando veo un Modigliani, en realidad lo que me encuentro es toda su búsqueda alrededor del arte de Mesopotamia. O una escultura de German Cueto, ahí está también su influencia de las máscaras populares mexicanas o su investigación de la escultura maya. Muchas de las grandes transformaciones del arte moderno tenían que ver con cuestiones de la escultura antigua o del arte popular. Cuando estas trabajando en la talla directa de alguna forma usas a otros artistas del pasado. Hace poco hice piezas en concreto y estaba pensando en Federico Silva y en Lynn Chadwick, pero lo mismo me pasa con la voluptuosidad de Henry Moore o en la llamada geometría del miedo que hubo después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y que generó obras con esos ángulos mucho más agudos. En general, es mucho el gran placer de utilizar a otros artistas.
¿Iconográficamente esta exposición reúne a aquellos pensadores que has utilizado para otras piezas más performáticas?
Me interesa mucho trabajar con el retrato como un proceso en sí mismo. Por ejemplo, en la exposición Domingo Salvaje, que presenté el año pasado en La Tallera, en Cuernavaca, utilizo al filósofo Epícuro para abordar el tema de las drogas. Por supuesto que me interesan las ideas de ese pensador griego, las utilicé para generar otro tipo de discursos (a Epícuro se le vincula más con la comida o lo sibarita), pero aquí lo que me importa es pensarlo en términos del retrato y la solución que encontré fue tomar varios elementos que sintetizaban la escultura de Manuel Felguérez. Lo mismo pasa con Hannah Arendt, que ahora está muy de moda por todo el tema de los totalitarismos y el fascismo, su retrato es una mezcla entre Modigliani y Cueto.
¿La exposición puede verse como un archivo mental en el que el visitante puede hacer una relación libre entre las diferentes figuras y personajes?
La exposición está pensada mucho en la solución de retrato que tenían los grandes caricaturistas como Miguel Covarrubias, Ernesto El Chango García Cabral o Marius de Zayas, quienes buscaban lograr expresar los rasgos de una persona con los mínimos elementos posibles. Es un ejercicio mental que a mí me pasó, tenía que repetir el mismo dibujo varias veces, y la cuestión era recuperar el trabajo íntimo del dibujo. De alguna forma lo que ha pasado con la producción de muchos artistas contemporáneos es que terminas fabricando mucha obra con otras personas y también utilizando más estructuras narrativas que plásticas.
Lo que quería era recuperar ese trabajo directo, porque muchas veces tu trabajo como artista se convierte en coordinar de correos electrónicos o en coordinador de procesos que son muy complejos y con muchas personas involucradas. Quería hacer una exposición como se hubiera hecho hace cien años, es decir, basado únicamente en el trabajo de dibujo y escultura.
Texto publicado el 9 de marzo de 2017 en el periódico Excélsior.
Promotora Cultural Cubo Blanco A.C.
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Interview with Pedro Reyes 2017. Sculpting the old way
NEW YORK.- The artist Pedro Reyes (Mexico City, 1972) has worked for three years with stone sculpture because, he says, it is the most pleasant way he has found to “talk to the dead”.
By sculpting directly with volcanic stone, marble, quarry and reinforced concrete, the artist seeks to establish a dialogue with the history of universal sculpture, since he has the opportunity to approach the work of the Italian Amedeo Modigliani or the work of the Mexican artist Germán Cueto or the art in Mesopotamia.
Reyes, who in the last decade has gotten international visibility for his collaborative art pieces, makes a pause in his artistic production linked to social criticism to turn towards a more formal exploration of materials, starting from sculpture and drawing. He presents the result of this work from last weekend at the Lisson Gallery in New York, in an exhibition inaugurated within the framework of The Armory Show.
Reyes' first solo exhibition in the New York venue (the artist exhibited his Disarm exhibition at Lisson in London in 2013) shows more than 150 works in stone and drawings on paper that literally cover the entire gallery, in the Chelsea neighborhood, with images that portray Greek thinkers like Socrates or Plato as well as Latin American artists like Dr Atl or Juan Downey.
Do you conceive this exhibition as a synthesis of your formal and intellectual concerns? because it involves both your architectural work and your research with universal thinkers.
It could be seen that way, but basically the exhibition has two very clear lines, the drawings and the sculptures. In 2014 I started direct stone carving, because although I have worked with sculptural issues for a long time, I believe that by now I have gained enough confidence to carry out stone carving. In Mexico we have an incredible history of great sculptors that I have been processing. Luis Ortiz Monasterio, Rómulo Rozo, Ignacio Asúnsolo, Jorge González Camarena and Oliverio Martínez, to name a few, are artists who marked a stage in modern sculpture with which I have fallen in love, because they correspond to that moment prior to when the sculptural discourse changed towards more concrete and experimental forms, especially due to the influence of characters such as Piero Manzoni or Yves Klein.
Let's say that all that moment prior to abstraction, which had a development of sculpture based on form and style, has somehow been half canceled for contemporary artists, but it is something that is very attractive to me now, because it is very enjoyable and allows me to turn my own work around.
Three months ago I did this performance in the United States called Doomocracy, which is basically a very political work of criticism of American society, and in a certain way I feel that this gave me the opportunity to open another angle in my work that does not necessarily go to the same place. Not everything has to be political, participatory or activating with society. Today, more than ever, our life is hijacked by current affairs. We woke up with Donald Trump and fell asleep with Trump. So, it seems important to me, as an artist, to be able to get out of that agenda and dedicate myself to things simply because I couldn't stand the urge to do it.
I wanted to use my time on formal old-fashioned topics and open a production space where you can talk to the dead, because when they are working on sculpture, especially with formal or style problems, you actually speak with the entire history of humanity. When I see a piece of Modigliani, what I find is all his search around the art of Mesopotamia. Or a sculpture by German Cueto, there is also his influence from Mexican popular masks or his research on Mayan sculpture. Many of the great transformations of modern art had to do with questions of ancient sculpture or popular art. When you are working in direct carving you somehow use other artists from the past. I recently made specific pieces and I was thinking of Federico Silva and Lynn Chadwick, but the same thing happens to me with the voluptuousness of Henry Moore or the so-called geometry of fear that existed after the Second World War and that generated works with those much higher angles . In general, it is very much a pleasure to use other artists.
Does this exhibition iconographically bring together those thinkers that you have used for other more performative pieces?
I am very interested in working with the portrait as a process itself. For example, in the exhibition Domingo Salvaje, which I presented last year at La Tallera, in Cuernavaca, I uses the philosopher Epícuro to address the issue of drugs. Of course I am interested in the ideas of that Greek thinker, I used them to generate other types of discourses (Epicurus is linked more to food or to the gourmet), but here what matters to me is to think about it in terms of the portrait and the solution I found was to take various elements that synthesized Manuel Felguérez's sculpture. The same thing happens with Hannah Arendt, who is now very fashionable for the whole issue of totalitarianism and fascism, her portrait is a mix between Modigliani and Cueto.
Can the exhibition be seen as a mental archive in which the visitor can make a free relationship between the different figures and characters?
The exhibition thinks a lot about the portrait solution that the great cartoonists had, such as Miguel Covarrubias, Ernesto El Chango García Cabral or Marius de Zayas, who sought to express the features of a person with the minimum possible elements. It is a mental exercise that happened to me. I had to repeat the same drawing several times, and the question was to recover the intimate work of the drawing. Somehow, what happened with the production of many contemporary artists is that you end up making a lot of work with other people and also using more narrative structures than plastic ones.
What I wanted was to recover that direct work, because many times your work as an artist becomes coordinating emails or coordinating processes that are very complex and with many people involved. I wanted to make an exhibition as it would have been done a hundred years ago, that is, based only on the work of drawing and sculpture.
HERNÁNDEZ, E. (2017). Entrevista con Pedro Reyes 2017. Esculpir a la antigüita. Retrieved 21 October 2021
Mexican artist Pedro Reyes assumes a mantel that feels at once familiar and utterly unique. In a contemporary-art moment that is pronounced for its lateral reach across non-art-related fields (its liberal borrowing of adjacent disciplines and knowledge, its vague political claims), Reyes provides an example of the dubiously-termed genre of “social practice,” and yet he’s pronounced for activating actual social change. While he fingers vogue and protean spaces – like the interstices between architecture and sculpture (his “object” being, more often than not, manifest in social activation and game-theory experimentation) – he is, essentially, an artist invested in proposing solutions, not questions, to our troubled social state.
Reyes (b. 1972) trained as an architect in the early 1990s before shifting to the role of curator, founding Torre De Los Vientos, an experimental artist-run space that manifested in a concrete husk of modern architecture in Mexico City. Between 1996 and 2002, Reyes curated and installed more than forty exhibitions. Soon after the institution shuttered its doors, he assumed the role of artist himself.
Over the course of twelve years, Reyes has consistently produced work that reaches for social change through measures both chimeric and concretely utilitarian. In one of his most successful efforts he produced Palas por Pistolas(2008), a still-touring project that began as a campaign against Mexico’s trade of small weapons. Through a series of TV ads and radio announcements, Reyes encouraged the exchange of firearms for vouchers and electric appliances. The drive successfully broke the national record of voluntary firearm donations. These weapons were, in turn, crushed by a steamroller, melted, and re-moulded into over 1,500 gardening tools. They took, in part, the form of shovels that were utilized by art institutions and public schools, from Vancouver to San Francisco, Paris, and Marfa, to plant thousands of trees in a demonstration of how “an agent of death can become and [an] agent of life.”
Reyes’s social probing has since extended to more participant-based projects that pull from discourses including psychology, sociology, theater, Fluxus, and ritual. Sanatorium (2011-ongoing) presents, for example, a temporary clinic that offers its participants “short and unexpected” therapies. First installed in Brooklyn (with the support of the Guggenheim), Reyes’s utopian clinic tenders a salve of “topical treatments for inner-city afflictions,” such as stress, loneliness, and hyper-stimulation. The clinic was presented in dOCUMENTA (13), and – like much of his work – continues to tour.
On the occasion of Reyes’s recent residency and lecture at OCAD University, MOMUS sat down with Reyes to discuss the cliché of failed-modernism, the benefits of art over architecture, and the potential danger – or responsibility – of communicating a firm political position, amidst so much gesturing at change.
Your one-week residency at OCAD University has you developing a board-game with your students, in which the “game of life” is brought into concrete terms. Can you explain this work and how it functions?
It comes from the “goose game,” which was very popular in Medieval times right up until the early twentieth century, though it dates back to the Greeks. It’s basically a kind of spiral that shows the path of life. It has 63 squares which probably in ancient times was a high life-expectancy, though has now been extended. What I asked the students to do was draw a spiral with 63 squares and make a lottery, in which they draw-out certain numbers that represent certain ages. They had to recall an experience they had at that age – or if it was an age higher than their own, think of someone else’s story and visualize themselves at that age.
The game is a pretext or excuse for social activity that has to do with sharing personal stories. Your first black-out from drinking, say, or your experience of lying at the age of nine; your childhood blues. You’re playing a game of life. It presents people with not a script but an opportunity to share anecdotes. It creates a certain social dynamic that has to do with putting people in a situation where they have to talk to one another under a certain rouse. I told the students, “think of this as a group show on a piece of paper.” Come up with several drawings and small texts, and we’re going to build this together, as a group. It’s a way to be very personal about your own experiences, but also [presents] a collective process to talk about evolving in life. What does it mean to grow up, have a mental age versus a real age? To have goals? How do we change?
You mention group shows. Considering the collaborative tenets of your practice, when you’re positioned in a group show, do you find there to be elements of “collaboration” at play? I’m made to think of your presence in the Carnegie International (2013), where you were positioned next to Bidoun Library in the Hall of Sculptures. How do you regard these kinds of pairings, and the activity that’s produced in the space between?
Well in this case, I had created a kind of battlefield of sound. And positioned next to Bidoun, which is a magazine I like very much, I was worried at points that the sound would make it distracting for people trying to read their books. [laughs] There was a series of photographs, also, of utopias, in that same room. My project is also utopian, to a certain degree, suggesting that we should transform the defense sector to a kind of rescue force for humanitarian needs and managing environmental crises rather than waging conflict. That’s a very utopian idea and it was in tune with the others, for that. Definitely there was a dialogue between the works.
In terms of construction – both in terms of the identity and the presentation of a practice – at what point did you stop considering yourself an architect, foremost, and call yourself an artist?
It’s curious because when I finished architecture school, I started running an artist-run space, squatting in an abandoned concrete tower that was a kind of monument made in 1968. We used it as a laboratory for artist installations. I didn’t have an art education but somehow, in curating other artists’ shows, I realized that when you curate, you work as hard as the artist to get a show up. I realized that if I wanted to do art, I needed to put my energies into my own work. It was too difficult to do the other thing, at some point. I closed the space and began practising as an artist. The curating, curiously, was my transition between architecture and art.
That makes a certain kind of sense, since to curate is to implement a structure onto artistic practice and form networks. And so it carries something of architecture, in that sense. Is that how you see it?
Yes, yes. It’s curious because curators now study to become curators but it’s a recent phenomenon. It used to be more organic, a dilettante and an empirical thing you do. It was a practice, first, then you theorized. Now curators do a lot of theory before they plan a show.
I did it in a kind of wild way, asking people whose work I liked, to show, and asking them to do whatever they wanted. The conversation started there; not from an idea, but an attraction. It was helpful to have that one-on-one conversation, and then another, and then another. That was in the nineties, where it was an exciting moment for my generation. Everyone was running a space, a lot of alternative spaces. Museums have, since then, caught up [in Mexico City], with more than 25 museums now showing contemporary art. But twenty years ago, it was not the case.
What is art capable of doing that architecture isn’t, in your experience?
In architecture, you have a client, and the client has a series of needs that you need to build into a program, and from that program, build into a design. As an artist, you need to come up with that program yourself. What a collector or curator or museum asks the artist is, what is your wish list? In art you work with a curator who is a kind of midwife, who helps give birth to the idea. That doesn’t occur in architecture.
Sometimes I do sculptures that look like architecture, but I often think something so simple: if they don’t have plumbing, they’re sculpture; if they do have plumbing, they’re architecture. [laughs]
What about ideologically, what is the one capable of that the other isn’t?
Architecture is hardware, and art is software. Architecture is mainly built elements that create an environment. However what happens in that environment is art – a group dynamic, an idea. I think mostly about activating participation from the public, and in that sense I think of what I do as software. I set the rules for people to have a certain interaction but I’m but not certain about what the outcome will be. So I use the same metaphor for this – there’s hardware (sculpture, rules, perimeters) in what I do, and software, too.
I wouldn’t immediately think of you as an artist born of the relational aesthetics movement, but I wonder if you do. Are you including yourself in that camp or do you see yourself apart?
Well, I’ve never read [Nicolas] Bourriaud’s books, so I’m not sure what relational aesthetics means, exactly, but I’m often invited to conferences and shows that deal with social practice. The thing is that most of my resources don’t come from art but other fields that have studied group dynamics. I draw tools from theater, mainly rehearsal exercises for actors – what happens for the training of the actors, rather than on stage; and I draw from many schools of psychology, but mainly psycho-drama, Gestalt psychology, hypnosis, and exotic brands of therapy. And I draw many resources from anthropology, like rituals and folk. I draw a lot from game theory, experimental economics. So really, where my ideas come from is not art history but other fields that have studied and practised how we interact with one another.
You’re working within a generation of artists who are practising similarly democratic and lateral methods of research and demonstration, pulling from something adjacent and housing it within a thing whose aim is to be art. Its sources are fragmented and agitating, but nevertheless result in something like an artifact. How conscious are you of the “final product”? Are you truly unsure of how your experiments will manifest, or do you have some sense of the artifact, the object, you’re endeavoring to produce?
It’s a very good question. I think for the results to be interesting you have to start in the middle ground. If you have a scenario where you have a white wall and pencils and you ask your participants to draw what they want, the results are not going to be interesting. You have to create a certain number of constraints, because with no rules, it’s not a very interesting game. But you can’t have so many rules that you know what the result will be. That’s why the experimental factor has to be one where the emergence of the result brings something unpredicted.
The interesting part of problem-solving or conflict-resolution is not to have one answer but a spectrum of different answers, a contra-factual process where you have one “what if,” but you have many “what thens.”
I’d be curious to know if your artworld audience typically produces a more determined response, by comparison to your more lay-person audience (like the emerging students who participated in this OCAD project). Have you witnessed any difference between the two?
I believe that if the instrument you’re using is good, it should work for every group. Often I’ve found that, at least with the techniques I use, they work best with high-school students or those with a degree, though regardless of nationality or context. I’ve done work in New York, Germany, London, Toronto, Miami, also in the Arab Emirates, Iran, Brazil, Mexico. The procedure was equally effective in all contexts. I think that must mean it’s successful.
Many interviewers and critics have linked your practice to the “failed project of modernism,” though I’m not sure I see it that way. Your work appears more as one linked to postmodernity, with all its associative meaning and borrowed disciplines. You’ve said, in this regard, “classics are those works that are often quoted, and the more they’re quoted, the safer it is to quote them.” I don’t see you doing something particularly safe. How do you regard the associations that are made between your work and modernism? Do you agitate against this connection?
Well I think [my work] does present a kind of reaction against the cliché of the failure of modernism, because I think that the modern project had a lot of successful moments. It created institutions like state-sponsored schools and hospitals aimed at the general good, things that have been dismantled and continue to be privatized in the second half of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. So this is what I mean by the cliché – it’s been too reduced.
There are many different modernisms. Talking about architecture, for instance, with modern architecture in Mexico, many of the iconic modern features were, at their time [of construction], anti-modern. In the golden years on modernism in the forties, for instance, there were already critical moments that were trying to create a more complex, sophisticated, contradictory fusion of modernity and tradition. In Mexico we’ve always had this fear of losing our identity, we’re terrified of it. So we’ve consistently tried to mix tradition and modernity – in music, dance, literature, architecture; it wasn’t an embracing of the modern project as an erasure of the past.
We have to be more sophisticated in avoiding generalizations when we talk about modernity. We say it like an automatic pilot and it means nothing.
But in many senses I am anti-modern, like in the sense that I’m very much fighting the enthusiasm for technology. Not in art, but in architecture and design, generally in society, an enthusiasm that is fetishistic. We need to have a critical position onto it.
That’s interesting, given that a lot of your work stems from machinations, technologies, or systems of a certain kind. Where do you draw the line between new and old technology?
I use technology where there’s a reason. What I’m interested in is creating non-technological spaces. We are attached to our screens that are highly addictive, but we need to create spaces that are interactive and not mediated. I believe that for everything that evolves, there’s another thing that’s atrophied. We need a rearview mirror for every new device we produce, because every new thing will render useless something existing. I think technology should be viewed as having a neutral value; not something inherently good.
I’d like to ask you about political pedantry. How do you create work that creates systems, commentaries, but falls just to one side of didactism, righteousness, heavy-handedness? I’m sure you’re negotiating this with some consciousness. Where is that line, in your opinion, and how do you work to stay clear of crossing it?
It’s suspected that all art has to be open-ended, no? That all art has to ask questions but not answer them. That if you take a position you are considered messianic, patronizing your audience. I think that’s a kind of cliché that is preventing a lot of artists from taking a stand. It limits the agency that cultural production has. It’s okay to have a position, and it’s okay to say you stand for this and you want it to change in a particular way. That’s part of the production of meaning. And if you’re not taking a position, you’re creating meaning anyway.
I don’t want to have an open position about gun control. I want to say that people who invest their money in companies that produce weapons should be culturally rejected like those who invest in child pornography. I think that there are many opportunities. That said, I don’t believe all art should serve a purpose. But if you want art to take a stand, there should be that option. If you want to take action, you should be allowed to do so.
Are there any upcoming projects you want to highlight?
The theater director Augusto Boal said something, once. He was discussing what he called the “Che Guevara syndrome,” how Che Guevara wanted to do a revolution and so he went to Cuba. And he succeeded, and within a relatively short time. So then he said “I’m going to continue doing this.” He goes to Angola, then Bolivia, where he eventually gets killed. Boal was saying, you have to be careful how many revolutions you undertake. There’s only a number of fights that you can pick.
Right now I have several projects that are touring, for instance the Sanatorium, and the Peoples’ United Nations, that was made at the Queens Museum and is now going to LA. There’s a sound project now in Brazil and soon Venice. The Permanent Revolution that is touring. And at the moment I am somehow asking myself whether I start another big project or whether I continue managing the existing ones. I am often asking myself about the Che Guevara syndrome. [laughs]