Mercedes Mac Donnell.
Between Europe and Latin America
—Let’s talk about your childhood, not just because that is where all stories begin, but because this is a key area for you in your work. Just before your first birthday, your parents moved to Rome. What do you remember about those early years?
—I have many childhood memories which become more vivid over the years: smells, tastes, sensations… My parents were very young at the time and their errant and wandering lifestyle is very much a thing of the present: we toured the whole of Italy and most of Europe in a small car and I always carried a little pillow with me so I could sleep while they drove… that pillow was like my home, it was my world. In fact, I travelled with a pillow until about fifteen years ago.
My zest for adventure must have come from my nomadic childhood. I always wanted to be like Indiana Jones, because of the mix of research, observation and challenges in his adventures, but also because of a driving curiosity that led to discoveries and finding new things that struck me or piqued my interest… and in a way I did turn out to be rather an adventurer. Without a doubt, that wandering life and constant mobility must have crystallized my particular personality… my ability to adapt and the mental flexibility to change direction quickly—or not—which is one of my strongest characteristics.
I grew up in an environment where art and culture were a part of normal everyday life, not something imposed from outside. There were always friends of my parents’ at home and I used to enjoy watching them and listening to what they said… the distance I felt between myself and them was huge…
At the time, I used to play with my brothers with a cardboard puppet theater complete with curtain and marionettes made by a publicist friend of my parents which I was given one Christmas. Looking back, I think that in some way, even at eight or nine, when I watched adults talking to each other, what I was really doing was to separate me from myself and observe them, just as if I were playing with that fabulous theater. I also remember how I used to look at my skin, how the veins underneath would catch my eye… I remember this microscopic fascination which set a distance between me and what I saw.
Among my parents’ friends, there were several with whom I got on very well, like Ezequiel Martínez Estrada or María Esther de Miguel… María Esther’s eyes, unmistakable, so green and beautiful, full of life and laughter, are a very strong memory from my childhood. She had the same eyes as my grandfather Roque, and I rediscovered that color when I travelled to the East. María Esther got on very well with children, as did my grandfather, both of them would invite you into the world of grown-ups with just a gesture or a look.
Beatriz Guido was very similar in her approach. One day, when we were visiting an antiques shop with my mother, she presented me with a little French music box that I had become totally fascinated by. She asked me if I liked it and straight away said, “It’s yours!” I’ve moved house hundreds of times, but wherever I go, the little box comes with me. It’s on the bookcase by my bed. The feeling I have when I look at it is that time has stood still, or rather that many things may have happened but basically nothing has changed. That little box practically stands for eternity in my eyes… and when I wake up, I glance over at it. I really do, when I wake up in the morning, like so many other objects that I have and take with me.
Other characters from my childhood and teenage years and, in fact, from all of my life (because that’s the way it is, isn’t it? You collect people that you care for, adopting each other mutually, finding affinities…) are Falucho and “Negra Luna,” and their daughters, who are like my sisters as they’ve been close to me and my work for as long as I can remember. Perhaps because of our wandering lifestyle, my friends have been and still are very important, almost like anchors. I have two very close friends who are part of my daily life. I always say I have brought many families into my life: Italian, French, Mexican, an English sister… It’s like a treasure I have, which I try to take care of, but sadly, in these rushed times we live in, sometimes I’m not as close to them as I would like. But I know they’re there… and they’ve been there for me when things have been hard, we’ve enjoyed ourselves like children, they’ve helped me with my work, they never stop encouraging me… because the path I’ve chosen is hard and selfish, at times autistic and extremely lonely… and sometimes daily life throws you off kilter…
—Did you visit Argentina often?
—I used to visit Buenos Aires as a tourist. My grandfather would take me on the subway to visit Plaza de Mayo…. I still remember with total clarity that the Casa Rosada looked like a gigantic wedding cake… and it still does! My grandfather showed us the city, told us its history and emphasized our sense of patriotism. We used to laugh a lot on those walks, which always finished up in some typical tea house in Buenos Aires eating strawberries and cream.
I also remember well those deadly-long siestas in the house of my Basque grandmother Eulogia with my brothers Javier and Santiago and my cousin Alberto. We used to peep at each other and giggle quietly while pretending to be asleep. It was a really sweet game of complicity which we still enjoy to this day. I still have the feeling, from those siestas, even though it obviously isn’t true, that time never passes, that it is eternal, a siesta that never ends…
—From Rome, your family went to live in Lima as your father’s diplomatic career progressed. What do you remember of Peru, where you lived until you were a teenager?
—My strongest memories are from our visits to different archaeological sites. My mother was then researching different Paleolithic settlements… something which has thankfully changed and she is now into textiles, which are so much more delicate and beautiful!
Once we went to a huaca, a pre-Columbian cemetery, totally isolated, hidden on a dry river bed sown with sharp stones and thorns. I slipped and fell, and when I got up, I had little lumps of turquoise embedded in the palms of my hands. They were parts of a necklace made from pre-colonial beads, really wonderful. I remember feeling on top of the world for finding this treasure and the sheer joy it gave me… even though my body was covered with thorns and prickles… I’ll never forget that sensation of absolute happiness, and I still have a necklace strung with those pieces I found. I also remember walking along the beach or up a mountain and feeling the wind in my face, like an edged caress. That feeling still makes me feel alive even today, it was my place. I was totally at one with nature.
I often reencounter that sensation in my workshop, when I’m by myself, working, thinking or reading at nighttime. I have a very special relationship with the night, that’s when I feel most at home. Night has a timeless quality to it, it’s safe, which is why I’ve never felt alone at night in my workshop. It’s as if all the people whom I love were with me, even though they’re not here right now.
There is no fear at night. This is where I can make the most of my silent voice… it’s as if I were able to hear in silence.
—Was it in Peru where you discovered the value of popular culture?
—With my parents, we used to visit Elvira Luza’s house quite often. She was a great collector of popular art. She was also a wonderful person and her house was full of color, musical elements, sacred art, tableaux, toys and little boxes. I was fascinated. I’ve always felt a strong attraction for certain objects; I couldn’t live in a world where they did not exist, they are a point of reference for me, like Beatriz Guido’s small box or the little pillow I used to take in my parents’ car when I was a child. I know I have a selective vision which is probably something influenced by all those visits to Elvira’s house, because I’m immediately very aware of which objects I like. There can be millions of them, but I know in a flash which is the one for me, which is the one waiting just for me. It’s magic, like Baudelaire’s correspondence.
I love fairs, have always done, for their vitality, blaze of colors and aromas, their informal buying and selling system which is also so attractive and so much fun, despite being povertyridden, and so typical of Latin America and, in fact, of all the world over time. There have been fairs and markets since the beginning of civilization and they always work in the same way, in open spaces, fostering direct contact between people and their daily lives, a unique exchange and dialog where things turn into an excuse for what’s really important, which is sharing and communicating.
I’m the kind of person who can walk into any fair anywhere in the world without fear, I never imagine something could happen to me, in fact quite the reverse, I feel safe and very comfortable. I feel this sense of freedom and fun, I appropriate that space because I feel I am part of it and that it is part of me. In Chichicastenango, Guatemala, you can see people in their wonderful traditional dress talking on cell-phones in mayaquiché! You can’t learn popular culture; you just have to live it. Their objects have a profound ingenuity as they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, and that is where their honesty and charm lie…
Of course, in addition to its splendid natural endowments, Latin America has another side to it, which I experienced as a child and teenager: natural disasters, such as earthquakes. The sea retreating slowly, window panes blooming into webbed cracks, the strangeness of the weather just before it happens, that unique silence in the air, the fear taking shape… and nature itself, which makes you face your own vulnerability.
We used to listen to the radio a great deal in those days and, in particular, the messages and requests from survivors: so-and-so is alright, please let somebody in such-and-such a village know… They were messages directed at only one person but we all listened carefully. I remember that radio hams played a vital role at the time. The general feeling was of tremendous sadness, of mourning; there was also a terribly dramatic incident when an Argentine aircraft carrying aid crashed into a mountainside.
These experiences gave me much to think about: the certainty that this is about something over which we have no control, which draws a line. You take a step forward and everything falls to pieces. I have lived through critical situations at different stages in my life, like everyone has. I have experienced the fragility of existence time and time again, from the days following the earthquakes in Lima to the terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, to the upheaval of December 2001… feeling that this would destroy everything in its path, a veritable catastrophe… Fear… I often felt engulfed by fear as a teenager.
Many years later, when I was living in Buenos Aires, I was in the Florida Garden cafe and when I felt the ground shaking as the subway train passed underneath, I fled like a maniac… Fear stays in your blood. That’s why, in my mind, Latin America is nature at its most beautiful, but also at its most extreme… a duality which I have always sensed.
Art and life, games and art
—Art and playing were always synonyms in your work.
—Art is play. The artist creating his work and the child playing share a moment of absolute concentration, experiencing time in a unique and unrepeatable way. All children have the power to create a parallel time line, a reality which only exists in their imagination, which is something they lose over time. I wouldn’t wish to err out of pride, but I believe that the artist is a child playing, in the sense that he has been able to recover that quality of time which passes in a different way, often achieves this recovery of sorts in the process itself, without even proposing it to himself.
Within the act of doing there is a moment which I find very interesting, albeit chaotic. The laborious making of one’s way into the work is as important to me as is the way it is objectified, and therein lies the key: obsession. For artists, obsession is the driving force, the core issue… which at the same time demands its own form.
—How do you reconcile the artist’s experience, concentrated like a child’s on the works of his imagination, but which at the same time interacts with the world around him and adult life?
—I walk out of my workshop and I’m exactly the same. I will say that it involves a mental effort to leave behind the concept I was working on… and I’ve found that doing some domestic chore, such as washing, helps to relocate me. Strange, isn’t it? But I have never experienced my life and work as two separate things. Art and life are the same thing for me. When my children (Manuel, Matías and Benjamín) were little, they were always with me and had fun painting and playing with different materials; if I was sanding something down, I’d give them something to sand with too, they would spend hours drawing next to me… and today, now that they are grown up, I think that the same thing happens to them.
—What influence has literature in your work?
—A huge influence… I regret not having all the time I would like to read. I always loved to read stories, when I was a child I adored Italo Calvino’s Rampant Baron and at home they used to say that I looked like Agatha, the sister who used to feed him mouse kidneys. That was because I would be after my brothers to read them Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, another story which fascinates me… But it wasn’t to frighten them, or not much at any rate, I think; I used to chase them because I was too scared to read by myself… Books have always been my faithful companion, helping me to think, imagine and wonder. When I was a teenager, my favorite was an anthology of fantastic stories with a marvelous foreword about the imaginary reality of Roger Caillois. I go back and read it every now and then and it never fails to amaze me… just like the popular tales by Calvino, Pirandello and Primo Levi; The Tartar Steppe… Another book I re-read a great deal is Real Presences by George Steiner, but also Arguedas and all Latin American literature, poets such as Olga Orozco, who was a friend of my parents’, Ángel Bonomini, Huidobro, Silvina Ocampo, Saer… there are so many… the owners of le mot juste!
To be able to write just one thing as marvelous as Pedro Páramo or the Letter of Autumn by Neruda (which I often remember when I feel a stranger in far-off places) or a phrase by the fabulous Mafalda—if only that! I remember an autobiographical poem by Olga Orozco or a description of the desert by Saint-Exupéry in Wind, Sand and Stars which I’m re-reading these days and cheating myself so that I don’t get to the end… I owe literature so much! And the images which accompany and watch over me are so many and so marvelous… My cat is called Berenice after Poe and Olga Orozco, and we also had a dog which was a real character whom we called Amaranta because she used to eat earth (although she never levitated). She was adorable, just like her namesake in A Hundred Years of Solitude. But I always had the unshakable belief that these storybook characters took shape around me, as I said when I told you about being alone in my studio at night, and feeling that I am surrounded by my friends, my grandparents and the people I love who are no longer around, or far away… and I feel the same about characters from fiction. Strange, isn’t it?… I have the sensation that they are by my side when I work alone in my studio late into the night… that’s why, when my cat Berenice sidles up to me all of a sudden, I look at her and laugh and say to myself, Just as well you’re not the one from the storybook!
—How would you define the way you choose themes in your works?
—Choose them? I think that they choose me! My subjects are those moments of reality which I live, which we all live. But I also enjoy those artists who do not necessarily transmit their meaning with clarity but who generate communication from sensitivity and feeling, from painting itself. In my case, subjects come and go, they are just an excuse—or perhaps not—to do something. Before, this process was more intuitive and less conscious. However, over the last few years, I have realized that I am choosing to be understood, and I wish increasingly to be better understood. Perhaps it has to do with the artist’s ethic in which I believe, with the mission I think art has in the world. If not, I don’t see any sense in it.
Perhaps we artists should take care not to forget that we are responsible for opening a dialog with the rest of the world, and my works are my way of creating exchange, I am extremely clear about that, either way. I regret not being musical, because I believe that to be a greater art, a universal language, marvelously expressive and emotional. But we plastic artists can use other elements with the same end in mind: to express, communicate, build bridges and dialog with others.
I think that at the moment we are living a process of deeprooted demystification, in which we are questioning what is art and what is not, a profound lack of direction which will doubtless be positive in the long term. On the other hand, there is an incredible overvaluation of art in which if you do not understand the current trend you have no means of access, you’re out. It’s neither about emotion nor communications. It’s a real contradiction, which governs contemporary art, because, in fact, shutting art away from the vast majority is a form of power, very Manichean. I don’t see it as something good.
I believe sincerely that it is appropriate and fair for other people to understand me… because I think art is a meeting point. When the artist shares what he does with his audience, both he and they are enriched. This exchange, which is what allows the work to take place, fascinates and moves me deeply… But all these things we are talking about don’t exist when I’m working! Or, at any rate, they only exist when I am choosing which work to exhibit.
—How do you prepare your shows?
—Choosing which work you are going to show is like the poet who selects the words for his poems. If I have to choose between exhibiting three works which are considered hermetic or cryptic for most people and three that in some way build a bridge towards them, I choose the latter because I’ve always been interested in the exhibit working as an idea… There are works that say little on their own, but when you put them in the vicinity of others they gain power… and there are others that are forceful in themselves. It’s both strange and magic.
—Do you seek to establish a dialog with the spectator?
—Of course! Once I inaugurate a show, I focus on how the exhibit as a whole will be received as well as the way an idea took shape in each work… but above all, I enjoy it, I so enjoy each show! I am fascinated by the dialog with the visitors, because I have been shown things in my works through the eyes of a stranger who pointed them out to me. I have a very dear friend whom I met because he stayed behind in the gallery for hours looking at my works, waiting to tell me how moved he was. People always come up to me when they recognize me and talk to me, for which I am profoundly grateful. It has been of immense help to me… I have their gaze uppermost in my mind… whether it belongs to an intellectual, a critic or somebody who is seeing an exhibition for the first time and who looks at the works with innocent eyes, or somebody who is familiar with my work and somebody who is not… I am interested in everything. What my friends tell me, my son, my husband César…
—Your first show was in 1986 in the Baron Gallery in Buenos Aires. For nearly a whole decade you worked with watercolors. Did you think like that then?
—No. Everything was far more watered down, more malleable, there was no driving idea behind the work itself. These were drawings like snails, aqueous marine forms, stones and flowers, all pretty ambivalent. They also had a peculiarly venous, uterine quality, like some kind of internal cavity. There was something that wanted to bloom but couldn’t in a watercolor medium.
When I look back, it is clear to me that watercolors were merely a stage. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t me. I remember once I went to Paris and saw a major exhibition of works by Henri Matisse which seemed absolutely glorious to me… they were so forceful.
Watercolor is a very subtle technique, and I wanted to say certain things, I was eager to express myself and be very clear. So I came to the point at which I stopped and put watercolor behind me, although it was going well, I was getting good write-ups and exhibitions. But I have always been honest with myself, in fact many artists are like me, I think we are in the majority. I didn’t care about the price I had to pay: I’m quite the rebel, I like to turn things upside down, that is fairly typical of me. I make no concessions when I’m sure of something. I make enough concessions as it is, but on this issue, no way!
There is a childhood anecdote which describes me off pat: I was sent to my room for something naughty I had done. After a while, they came to have a see what I was doing as the silence was somewhat suspicious. And they saw me playing happily by myself, content to be alone in my room, something which in principle is bad, but not necessarily if you have the capacity to transform and change it. This is part of the ability I have to adapt which I told you about earlier. Once, the critic Albino Dieguez Videla wrote that I was an artist who never accepts reality at face value, and I really think he is spot-on. Either I couldn’t see this clearly enough or perhaps it wasn’t yet time to understand it… the development of one’s own language is a lengthy task.
—In your work there are few human figures. Is this because you were always drawn by abstraction and the formal exploration of visual resources?
—Henri Matisse used to say, “I don’t paint women. I paint pictures.” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t believe in all this “figurative” or “abstract” business. It’s an invention, a limitation which in practice doesn’t really exist… I know of no contemporary artist who sees his work in those terms. If I need a figurative resource I will use it, even though it may be seen as something abstract. I believe firmly that art is a medium of expression and what I want to do is communicate. Whether my style is figurative or abstract is not relevant.
—What goes on between one exhibition and the next?
—This is a long process which has to be undergone and you have to learn how to enjoy it. Usually this period follows the end of an exhibition and is a tough process.
It’s like some sort of no-man’s land, a time of reiteration, study and essay, and one which I ultimately have a lot of respect for because that is when the work picks up the baton and I have to wait for it to be ready. It’s a time for returning to observation, to hone my gaze and be alert. Usually I study the works of a great master, just a small detail, a few centimeters of a work. I seek what is behind it, I research it, I examine small fragments of a tempera work by Batlle Planas or some detail by Xul Solar or Aizenberg… or some object that struck me… I trust my guardian angels… I know they are guiding me… but all based on the premise of hard work: 99% work and 1% revelation!
Latin America / Argentina
Buenos Aires / Latin America
—As from your show Juguetes (Toys, Recoleta Cultural Center, 1994), a change in your work becomes visible. Your phase as a watercolor painter has come to a close, and with these pieces you find a path back to childhood and to popular culture.
—Although there are many works from that time that I continue to enjoy, it’s clear that I still didn’t know what I wanted to say, or wasn’t ready to do so. My language was taking shape, and perhaps because of that it was so introspective at the time. I don’t know… I can’t really say. It was only with the toys that I could face myself, choose which path to take and begin to talk about what I know.
Toys have something incredibly explicit and direct about them. Over time, it’s as if one became blocked, or filled with prejudices. The toy is something intimate and playful, that’s why there are hearts among my toys… is there anything more direct than a heart to speak of affections? Also, all the toys have wheels, because I believe you bear your childhood with you all your life, those early memories which are as sweet as they are awful remain with you for always.
They are ensembles of wooden cut-out pieces, which is a typical technique in popular culture, not only in Latin America but all over the world. The construction that comes after is both intellectual and playful. María Inés Pagés, an art historian who has followed my work closely since the beginning, found a marvelous quote by H.G. Gadamer, which provides the intellectual part that I wasn’t clear about as an artist. He writes that “…the work of art is a game, because its real being cannot be separated from its representation, and it is here where the unity and sameness of a construction emerge.”
—How did the idea of making toys come about?
—I realized that something was filtering through, in the sense that within that concept of “popular culture” there was something that I wanted to say. The leap came when I realized that I had to talk about what I knew, felt and remembered, about my story which could also be the story of many people…
There was another major catalyst, when an anthropologist friend of my parents, María Ruiz, came to visit, which made me remember many things about my teenage years in Lima. She was a great storyteller, a marvelous “teller,” and through her words I started to remember many things. Although everything she talked about was something I have experienced, remembering it with her was a different kind of experience. That’s when I said to myself, but how can I not talk about it, if it’s what I know, what I’m familiar with, what I am?
During this phase, I also worked with the box-tableaux concept. It was a way of returning to the past and rediscovery. The tableaux reminded me of my life in Lima and, in particular, one day, at midday, with an incredible cerulean sky overhead in Ayacucho, when we went to visit a family of craftsmen who made these box-tableaux. Everybody was involved, from the grandfather to the children, everybody had a task. They were extremely generous with us and their tableaux were very beautiful. I believe that there is something refined, candid and yet subtly strong in popular culture in general. Silvia Ambrosini wrote a very moving piece on this. Something different where the mystic, intimate and popular fuse together, as they do in the box-tableaux… the mere fact of opening those doors… is magic.
I recovered all those memories years later when I travelled to Bolivia. When I returned I began to make box-tableaux and found not only the idea exciting but also making it happen, as at that time I was curious about how to incorporate painting into another support material. As with the toys, I allowed sentiment, emotion and the feelings evoked by memory to take over when I was working. As if I wanted to recover my childhood, through art, for all time.
—With the toys there seems to be an intention to relocate the concept of art in another dimension, closer and more popular, in the domain of everybody’s childhood.
—Yes, putting the toy in the center and focusing everything on it was the base. In Torres García this is very clear, because the idea was to aim far beyond the playful and put the viewer to the test. I worked hard on the shapes, the circles, rectangles, charged with meaning, with that powerful concept of childhood as a place of happiness and freedom but also of fears, many, many fears.
This was a really special show. People touched the toys and had fun. They crossed the line and vaulted over the “sacred object” status of art. I remember the critic Julio Sánchez who was looking at a paper kite, and suddenly started moving it so it would spin round. Laughing, I said to him, “Careful, you’ll break it!” and he answered, “But you started it!” And he was quite right, because that was what I was talking about: redefining hierarchies, demystification, playing. That was one of my objectives, because toys are popular and popular is what we live, what is not dead. The popular is what we sing, eat and dance to, it’s an intrinsic part of our daily lives.
Returning to the issue of the influences that you asked about earlier, the toys were also inspired by a phrase by Paul Éluard, which I wrote down later as part of one of the collages. He talks about what utopias are for and says so in a wonderful way… He says that however much one walks towards a utopia which one never reaches, that’s what they’re really for: to keep on walking. This is a very profound concept, one of those true meanings of things… and I always linked that to my toys. I gave them little wheels, because however much they may prick, turn, bleed or be bandaged, these little wheels bear us along, or we deceive ourselves by believing that we are driving them, right? Yet they always come with us and go where we do. I must insist, however, that I am only aware of this now… because basically my enjoyment is centered on making them.
Hair combs: beyond a historical anecdote
—Following the lines of popular culture, you reached the hair combs. But this was through another object which you had also worked on a great deal: the comb.
—That’s right. It was thanks to Elvira, the popular art collector whose house in Lima was a source of such delight to me. She gave my mother a present of a comb which said, “I love you for being pretty.” These inscriptions are typical in daily popular objects. When I remembered that comb that I loved so much, it was like a catalyst which set me off in the direction of the theme of tenderness. And I started playing with the theme of the comb, with its teeth, its decoration, and little by little, I got to the hair comb.
The turning point was when I had a vision in Arroyo Street. That was when I began working on the hair comb with total enthusiasm and dedication. One day, when I was out for a walk, I saw this typical porteño girl, slim, in jeans, her hair screwed up into a bun and fixed with two Chinese chop-sticks… I looked at her, and away, and I remember saying to myself, “The porteño hair comb.” This was what I was looking for. Right away, I took a taxi home to find all my books and plunge into the subject. I wrote everything up, I read everything, I found the amazing story of Mr Masculino… I fell in love with that symptom of excess which makes us so uniquely us. “Paint your village and you will paint the world,” right?
—The hair combs offer a huge variety of subjects and resources.
—They helped me to open up an array of subjects and explore different things that interested me. At the same time as I was carrying out a dense historical investigation and analyzing, almost from the sociological point of view, what we the Argentines are really like, I was also researching the right materials with which I could do this.
With the comb I had been studying the universe of the feminine, and I used to watch a woman’s TV channel to see what women were up to (I still do). It’s something which has alway interested me, popular culture and the universe of women as a whole. At the time, cartapesta (a form of papier-mâché) was in vogue and I found this technique immensely interesting as it allowed me to express a great deal through this medium. Many people think that the hair combs I made are of plaster, and it is true that they do look like fake plaster casts. But that is exactly what cartapesta does, it has the appearance of beauty, and it wants to look like a sculpture when it is in fact paper, but the way it’s made is always poor as it’s cheap, because in those popular TV programs the materials have to reflect reality. Before it was cartapesta, then came candles, now it’s bits of cloth and design…
This prompts a deep tenderness in me. I made the hair combs enveloped in that feeling which was about that unique way that we women have when we decant reality, adding layer after layer, until the paper is transformed, from an apparently ephemeral material, so basely noble, into a hard, resistant material. Rosa Faccaro explained this to me very well when she told me the works had a totally feminine attitude, in the way they were layered… and that’s the way we are too.
That comb that said “I love you for being pretty”, that very phrase in particular, marked me. If you pay attention, this selfsame object puts the woman who combs her hair on stage, as well as the man who gave it to her, and perhaps other women like myself who look at the comb… There is also the sense of a caress, but also of tearing, when you pass the comb through your hair.
The small-sized hair combs are covered in writing and inscriptions, mostly taken from the work by Borges and Bioy Casares Libro del cielo y el infierno (The Book of Heaven and Hell). There is an ambivalence between the popular and the “cultured” (not only because of the hair combs per se, but also because of the way they were made) and the number of texts that I wrote by hand on each one. I deliberately worked on all the pieces at the same time, coming and going in a continuous flow between what I was doing and what I was reading, because I was interested in endowing each image with all these ideas and meaning in order to communicate even more.
—What you wanted to transmit went beyond historical anecdotes. In fact you said as much in the title: Peinetones: voluntad de desmesura (Hair combs: Indulging in excess).
—This concept of excess identifies the Argentines: we are all like that, and I feel it too, given to bouts of excess. We Argentines feel, according to a former president, “condemned to success”… I think that phrase defines us so well! It is like a paradigm of our thought. On the one hand we are doomed, and on the other, so successful… This idea of excess was picked up by Juan Forn and he wrote about it in an article which was published in the cultural supplement Radar of the daily newspaper Página/12. Beyond the anecdote, it actually tells us about who we are, because we are a society unable to recognize itself which takes refuge in appearance rather than accepting itself as it really is. A society which does not see itself as ridiculous but which nevertheless is, like those women in the last century with their huge hair combs.
There is something fierce in not recognizing yourself and persisting with this attitude… but at the same time that ingeniousness cloaks you with tenderness, even when it is so ludicrous. We do not accept responsibility for who we are, even when we carry this contradiction balanced on our heads. We cannot, will not, see it. Hipólito Bacle, who sketched caricatures of this phenomenon, was flung into jail by Rosas when he produced his series of prints of porteño Extravagancias (Extravagances). That total lack of sense of humor and attitude of denial has always characterized us and will continue to do so.
In their upper panels, the hair combs are richly striated with blood-bearing veins and an element that I use a lot also makes its appearance: the bandages healing the wounds, but at the same time drawing attention to them. Because life is like that. It’s wonderful but fierce.
This was a very powerful exhibition. There were two window displays with a collection of period items, stamps, Bacle’s prints and even a huge hair comb generously lent by a collector, inscribed with “Long Live the Argentine Confederation” and which highlights so clearly this duality which we Argentines have, never able to strike a happy medium… ever.
—The hair combs series is divided into two: many are small, playful and ironic, while four are large, white, unique, and very different to the others.
—These combs were different. In the exhibition I showed four, and of these four women there are only three left because I destroyed one. They were inspired by a visit to Tunis and the incredibly strong impression made by the funereal when I went to visit a Byzantine tomb made of alabaster which was almost art deco, fabulous, so beautiful. They are all white, and this reference to death is also related to that necrophiliac tradition which is so deeply rooted in our society, as shown in the myth of Evita and many others. Did you realize that we celebrate the anniversary of our rulers’ deaths? Not their birthdays?
Another interesting quest for me was how to present and frame these combs. The solution I found was to put them in dark grey cases which looked like a very subtle shade of black… I wanted to transmit this idea of the collector who puts an insect or butterfly in a case, transfixed with pins to keep it perfect for ever, throughout time.
These are unrelenting works. Each beared the face of a woman, veiled, covered up, ribbed with nerve-endings. The one I destroyed had the image of a woman either asleep or dead, covered with a veil, her head resting on a corner of the hair comb, unsupported. As if she were resting from all her pain but apparently unaware of doing so. I made them happy, in the best of all possible worlds, drawing pleasure from the act of making itself, as I had done when I made the toys and cut out the wooden shapes. I remember the joy I felt when I discovered that cartapesta was the material I needed to express myself, but when I’d finished and stood back, I was frightened. Is that me too, I asked myself. I found this reflection frightening, so much so that I put off the inauguration because I could not find a way to accept them. For a whole year I had them facing the wall because I couldn’t bear to look at them.
However, one day a friend came round and she said to me, “Did you read the paper? Did you know they are eating cats in Rosario?” I’ll never forget that. And I thought, “How can I possibly not take responsibility for what I made, how can I be scared of this, if reality is so cruel, if what is happening out there is so painful? For goodness’ sake!” It was such a strong wake-up call. And that’s when I decided to hold the exhibition. Today I felt I came through, for myself and for everyone else.
—How did the viewers react?
—When the show opened, there were people who hung around looking at the small hair combs, and when they got to the large ones, they walked right on by. In that sense, the show was a total success. Beyond the final result, the work itself did not allow you to remain indifferent, you came up to a work and were swallowed up by the image or rejected it out of hand. You couldn’t not react. Those who wanted to understand me did.
—The subject of pain, literally wrapped in cloths which cover the wound and cure it, is very present in many of your works.
—I believe that everything around us is begging us for mercy, sorrow, shelter and refuge. Of course, mercy is one thing, compassion is another and charity yet another. These are words that are often used together but they are different. Mercy is a caress at just the right moment, watching out for just this point in time. He who seeks will find what he is looking for in mercy. It has to do with tenderness.
I think we artists should be merciful, which is something often forgotten. It is part of the composition that we as artists should have. It’s fundamental. We live in a pitiless world, which has forgotten how to be merciful or lick its wounds, pull itself together and evolve into something better.
This is a very interesting subject for me… I would like this to be noticeable in my work. The mercy I am talking about is mercy unto oneself and society. The word tends to have religious overtones and when we say “mercy” we are usually referring directly to the image of the Virgin holding her son’s body across her knees, the pietà. This is fundamentally human. I saw this very clearly when I was working with the AEDIN Foundation (an organization which works with children suffering from neurological disorders), when I saw all those wonderful people surrounded by so much pain and yet working with such joy, day after day, in silence… It’s like going beyond a limit… refusing to give up. What seems tiny is in fact huge.
Another new series, also made with cloths and related to pain, at least in terms of its visual result, is the series I made with hoops, which I called Los pájaros (The birds). Matías, my musical son, one day gave me some rims from his drumskins, saying, “Mum, this might help you…” And there are the birds!
But with the big hair combs, I had truly reached a place in my work which I had to put behind me. This was a choice, as I could have continued with this thematic line that was so successful, settling down in that effect-driven place. However, if I had continued down that route, the path of provocation and the search for that incredibly painful and harsh expression, it would ultimately have been too facile. A fatal trap. I gained a great deal of freedom from exploring this area but I also got to the point where I said, “This is as far as I’m going.” End of story. I’d said something about myself and other people, rewind and start over. The best kind of challenge!
The strange thing is that I did them at a boom time in the country’s fortunes, at the better end of the 1990s. But I remember sensing the serpent’s egg, that something was growing and pulsating beneath it all. And you could see that, if you really tried.
But I chose not be ferocious and came out doing something that was completely opposed. From a plastic and creative point of view this was the only way. If up until then I’d been working with circular forms, it was time to introduce straight lines and start investigating…
Cities and boats
—The city, as defined by lines and straight-edged shapes, symbolized by buildings and towers, has been a characteristic feature in your work for many years. When exactly did the cities make their appearance?
—Cities have been present in my work since I was making toys, and there are also toys in the cities. But there is a point at which they start to become more concrete and specific. I project the city as a concept when I’m making jewelry. A very lineal, straight design: there were some brooches which everybody said looked like cities, buildings. And I could see them but as amazed that other people could as well. That was when I began to put them together.
The show was about collages, objects and silver lapel brooches, which were actually cities. The idea was that people would pin them on their breast, over their heart. That was when the cities became alive. It was like showing off your city pinned to your heart.
An interesting aspect of this work with the cities was the search for a kind of material that could convince me. I thought of aluminum, metal, but I realized that it had to be a nondurable material, something that would talk of poverty but give it a certain hierarchy. Once again I was on the look-out for a material that would work for me conceptually, as was the case with the hair combs. The cities, as I saw them, could be given a hierarchy from the intrinsic poverty of a piece of cardboard. So I began working with this kind of material, cardboard, bits of wood, tags… Although the idea of working with silver was very attractive, for Argentia (Argentum) and the founding myth, it is one thing to bear the silver on your person, near your heart, humanizing it, and quite another to make a city out of cardboard. Because that’s who we are.
The collage on canvas series called Broches circulares (Circular brooches) is from then. This is when I retreated to the circular form, which I have always explored and with which I feel comfortable. When I made this series, I studied the Concrete Invention Art Movement and in some way the series pays homage to them all. I made a tribute to Alfredo Hlito, La ciudad de Alfredo (The city of Alfredo), in which the cities fuse together along the straight line in red and gray bands, or cobalt blue. They all have something of the abstract nature of the hair comb, a softened angle which represents the comb, which I have played with continuously since then.
Another series I worked on at that time were some collage canvasses in which I use crimson red a great deal. When Regina Root, an art researcher studying my work, saw them, she at once said, these are national insignia. But I always thought of them as cities seen from overhead. I had already worked in cardboard using the idea of fragmentation, where these fragments, in my work in general, tend to go on the ground, as a base to the city. I was keen not to lose sight of the horizontal, as our city is horizontal, and the fragmentation makes up its foundations.
This fragmentation which I worked on for a long time is hardly ever spread out, it is more of a contained fragmentation. I have only spread it out a very few times, I find the prospect terrifying. My cities are always contained, subjected, held down, even though this can happen on the same plane.
—Do you draw a parallel with playing in your cities?
—Of course. Not just through experimentation, collage, materials and colors, but because, conceptually, I explore the cities in great depth and derive a great deal of pleasure from this. I really enjoy making them. There is joy to be found in cities, as well as innocence and vitality. I loved drawing the river with its little fishes, with our River Plate dolphin and lost baby octopuses (I think I was even drawing myself as lost in the river). But pain is also part of playing. For example, in Las amenazadas (Under threat), the city is surrounded by nails, under siege…
When I make cities there is always joy as there is always pain, and I think this comes across.
My cities have a strongly architectural quality which gives them a linear structure and which in some sense became a global trend. Another issue is the color. I always used red with the cities, I related it to blood, with the blood in my city, with bandages, the pain of wounds that can be covered but not cured. Red is blood, life, veins. Red is quite the in thing at the moment, there is a sort of global aesthetic trend, a fad for Chinese lacquered red, as well as black, fused with the opaqueness of an almost deathly-dark West.
In my case I have worked a great deal with color, the covered hues of grays that are not really gray (optical grays), but a deep cement green; black which is not really black but an opaque dark green. I’ve always been interested in the hues of colors, the communicative and emotive value of a color. There is a blue I use a lot which is the blue of the computer screen, although mine is warmer and perhaps even more utopian, but it’s a color I associate with the idea of the future and hi tech. Perhaps because the first time I saw it, and I am a bit of a dinosaur as far as technology is concerned (I’m amazed each time I press the electric door opener), was when one of my children switched on the computer and, oh surprise, that blue appeared…
The first time I exhibited them was with Ciudad y río (City and river), a series of 50 small collages 15 by 15 cm, full of references and tributes to Marechal, Borges, Arlt, Scalabrini Ortiz and Cortázar. I was re-reading Cortazár’s 62/Modelo para armar (62/A Model Kit). I found the title amusing, as it was about what I was doing, because I was looking at a city which to me was a model kit… and I still think so, our city is indeed a model kit… I remember that Italo Calvino has a very poetic text on cities —Invisible Cities— which relates that Marco Polo, when he found himself in the legendary city of Tecla, asked its builders why construction was taking so long, and they answered, “So that the process of destruction does not begin.” And then he asked them about their plans, and as the sun set that day, they pointed to the sky and said, “Those are the plans”… Isn’t that marvelous?
I did the Ciudad y río series in Colonia, Uruguay, where I had gone to spend a few days with my parents and my husband, and I continued it in Buenos Aires. I made it with whatever I could find: pieces of wood, cardboard… To be able to see the city from over the river, to objectify it with the hues of the River Plate that never lose perspective, see its straight lines from afar, allowed me to objectify it.
—From 2001, particularly with your show of Ciudades in Tucumán, your commitment as an artist appears stronger. Would you say that over the last few years your art has taken a decidedly more political direction?
—No, I believe that the political element is already pretty strong in Peinetones… but beyond the actual moment in which we live, as a social observation of what we are and yet refuse to see. I believe that in the Cities this observation is perhaps more specific, and in fact, now that I think it, it sounds rather like a paradox that the first big exhibition of Ciudades was in Tucumán… At all events, I don’t think it’s just political… at least I hope not. That would be rather limited. I believe a work should transcend that sphere, be much more.
—There is a large part of your output that involves working on wood, with sculpted forms like shields or the vertical cities. As if the work were struggling to take shape, to reach a level of eloquence in three dimensions. Do you consider yourself to be a sculptor as well as a plastic artist?
—I don’t really think about it. I’m content to be a plastic artist who sometimes works with large volumes, that is part of the game. Sometimes I make objects that are like sculptures, but I can also make a work on paper, a jewel or a steel hair comb. I love the ins-and-outs that a work gives you and the different challenges which the materials provide you with in themselves.
There is something, a far-off point which only the object can give you as neither painting nor sculpture can. The object is close, you can live with it. It has a human scale to it which draws you in. The canvas imposes a distance. I found this out with the toys, something tactile, which, in the case of this exhibition, was doubly de-hierarchized, because they were only toys and people would go up to them and touch them, something they would not have done if they had been painted or sculpted. It’s that sense of closeness…
In my work during those years, a very specific need arose, I found I had to work on space using volume, to pull out the hair combs with their teeth pointing outwards. I needed to invade space that way. It was then when I was invited by Issue, and it was terrific to do some work on that train of thought which I had not perceived before in the hair comb.
In all cases, it is always about trying things out and looking for the best way of expressing what you want to say. To try and work it out conceptually and use your resources accordingly. The dresses, for example, which are a later work, I began making on painted cardboard, a highly absorbent material which was incredibly hard work, I had to sand it down, I had thought of it as a large-scale work. But then I decided to do it on paper, a small-scale work, which is such a magical size. I didn’t want the effect of the large-scale format. Look at Xul Solar, those marvelous works, you could spend hours at a time just looking at one tiny little detail, you don’t need yards of room. There is something about the close-up effect which sparks people’s curiosity. When I showed them, one next to the other, people drew close to them slowly, looking at them one by one, giving each one time.
Global village, local gaze
—After 2001 you made several works which referred to the crisis. How relevant were these to your own experience of that time in Argentina?
—Before 2001, there was an atmosphere of catastrophe in the air, you could sense something was about to happen and in the end it did. In many of my works, this air of disillusionment coupled with a contradictory present had already made its appearance much earlier. In a collage series I worked a lot with the word “maldita” (cursed) accompanying the city, inspired by a poster which you could see on every street corner saying “maldita droga” (cursed drugs) with reference to Maradona. I realized that this defined a cycle, that this was the beginning of the end and that the excess inherent to society was taking over, destruction, the cannibalism of the national hero fallen from his pedestal. I played with the word and built the piece from a game… it was Calvino’s metaphor, my very own Tecla.
Also from that time is a collage which shows a skip where everything has been thrown in, where the absence of memory holds court. It’s called Señores, todos al volquete (Gentlemen, everybody to the skip). At a personal level, this is related to the feeling I had that all that tradition and links with culture were deteriorating when I found out that the entire archives of an important gallery owner had been flung into a skip without anyone caring in the slightest. I was told about it just after it happened and we managed to recover part of the files, which were sent to a foundation. But that’s what things were like at the time. Everything was being thrown away. I think that this comes across very clearly in the work.
Something similar happened to me when I named a city Peina tus ideas (Comb your ideas). There were horizontal works, in pairs, in one the city is surrounded by many moons and in another it is a rectangle with the same representation, the city on edge around it. I worked with that title a lot… from the city I went to the head, dresses… it is strange and fascinating how the same idea can be approached from another context over time.
—Over these last few years, the cities have been one of your main themes. Not only in terms of the global/local, but also with reference to the West. More recently, this gaze moved towards the Orient. Let us talk about the exhibition about the cities which you held in Italy in 2006.
—I have a Piedmontese great-grandmother, which is why, from the very first, the show meant a journey back in time for me, and in some way I felt I had done my duty by my grandmother. When I got on the plane, I was crying, and I remembered Antonio Dal Masetto’s novel Oscuramente fuerte es la vida (Life is Darkly Strong), with the immigrant grandmother that never goes back.
This exhibition was in some sense a way of doing my duty by her, returning something to the place from which she had left. In some way, I had been able to go back. I returned to Buenos Aires in a state of emotional upset and sadness as I thought of this harsh reality. The country betrayed and left behind in the dreams of the immigrants is something which I revisit time and time again. Could this be why there are boats in my works? I’m full of boats! I relate this to the idea that this comes and goes, as well as that of expulsion, because at some point the ship bears you away. I believe that in Latin America and Argentina there is always a moment of expulsion that is part of our identity… as if we had not truly settled in this land. We continue to believe in the myth of Argentia (Argentum), a land full of treasures… and in accepting this utopia, perhaps we still feel we are not in the country which corresponds to us. That thing which is the city-as-port, the place from which one leaves and arrives, is not only about Buenos Aires, but in some way embraces all of Latin America… sometimes it’s politics, different economic situations, poverty, or the mere idea of idealizing what is foreign to us, turning it into a “savior”… I have often thought that this had to do with our geography… as we are so much on the periphery of things, we are so extreme, and so… extremist! And also, with the vast expanse of territory, so wealthy… how can we not achieve a deep consubstantiation with our nature? In countries where nature is so beautiful, like Guatemala, Brazil and Paraguay, their people have a more harmonious relationship with their surroundings… but the theme of expulsion is still there… that cyclic idea of being expelled is unbearable to me…
—That same year you travelled to China as a tourist. But you did this in line with your work, with everything you as an artist had been developing in the construction of a personal vision of cities, the world and globalization…
—With China everything was very different, but at a personal level I discovered an extremely profound relationship which spoke of me as an Argentine and also a citizen of this “global world” in which we live. This is why China represented a boundary: my boundary. I discovered a completely different world which did not share my codes and in which I was the excluded party. I’ve never before felt this sense of exclusion— which I believe is a sign of our times, because our era is marked by exclusion—not even as a blonde in Latin America. Never. I felt as if that world were impenetrable, incomprehensible, and that globalization is not what they say it is. We imagine a globalization which does not exist on the level that we believe it does, don’t you think?
The exhibition I was working on to take to Italy was based on the theme of the global city, all black and red. After the inauguration, I travelled to Rome, where I had lived as a child, and, as I was still fired up by China, I went straight to the Pantheon, to the Ara Pacis, directly to the table around which the Pax Augusta was agreed. And I thought to myself, I am this. I belong to this, my roots are this culture. There may be many worlds, but this one is mine. I felt the boundary very clearly… and I felt that this globalization, so highly vaunted, was nonsense, and yet, also real.
The experience was also important at an aesthetic level. I marveled at the remodeling, the beauty of this crystal box in which they have placed the Ara Pacis. Although the Romans don’t like it, I found the harmony they achieved amazing, creating an elevated square which is entirely of light, without distorting the ancient, because it places the thought of that righteous peace of Augustus in a specific hierarchy. It was very moving to feel that righteous justice, the sense of justice preached in the West, and I thought that the West must create a good exchange without annulling differences, allowing access yet also open to receive influences and thus be enriched. But this is not going to happen overnight, and it is not happening at the moment, although it seems to be on everyone’s lips. Changes seem to be swift, but in fact they are very slow, what we see is just the external appearance. Now, it is clear that this globalization contains a great deal of transculturization and cross-breeding, it is far from being one great big homogenous market. On the contrary, minority groups are gaining more and more power, and this is as inevitable as it is interesting and enriching. At all events, I will continue to stand with one foot in the Pantheon and another in my Latin America.
Memories of a global wanderer
—After that trip, you began to work on your series on China. What was this creative process like?
—This was not a difficult series in the plastic sense, because I had started working with curves again, with the series of tributes to the artists I admire, and this was inspired by the experience of that night we spent at the foot of the Great Wall, buffeted by the sleet and the wind which was the leading protagonist. Circular, I remember it as one great big whistling thing, all-encompassing, profound and almost human. I remember that it reminded me immediately of the drawings by William Blake… it was the wind on the Manchu steppes… embracing everything and at times so strong that it became a physical presence… I felt this enfolding experience again when I was working on this series in my workshop, there was no sense of breaking off when I returned to my studio and started on the series which I called Viento de muralla (Wind of wall).
—Up until now, the series is composed of abstract works, straight lines and enfolding curves, like that wind at the wall, but there are also other works which are more figurative and suggestive, with insects, butterflies…
—The largest and most abstract works are painted in a color which recalls the Hutong houses in China, grays and lacquered reds… I loved that color. First it was blue and gray, which reminds me of that dazzling cobalt hue of Yves Klein, the blue brotherhood, full of life, of alchemy… and that gray which works with this blue like green… I still don’t know quite how those colors came about, I can’t explain it. But that’s how it happened. Afterwards I had great fun working with celadon green, that porcelain green so beloved of the French and which I think is still hugely attractive for the West… I’ve worked a great deal with this green and continue to do so.
With the other ones, something bizarre happened. I remember that that summer, after a fast-paced year of making images within the silent walls of my workshop, butterflies and many other insects began to make their way in… and I started to include them, one by one, into my work, and I thought to myself that we were certainly a long way off… but now… Perhaps with climate change, the animals are drawing closer to us… it was weird and funny at the same time. At one point I thought, “I’m a global wanderer! All these animals are confusing! Where am I?”… and that’s when things started to make sense…
I called this series Tatuajes (Tattoos). In these stories that unfolded little by little, I developed the idea of tattoos, embroidery… I even thought of embroidering these images on the canvas itself. There is a lot of hard work involved in the process of plastic creativity, the drawing itself traces a baroque sequence which reveals a wealth of detail. You can look and look, and you will always find something new, such as those ornate tattoos, there is so much invested there that begins to appear slowly, as you watch. In one sense, when I was making it, I felt as if I was embroidering or sewing… sewing memory.
This series showcases the concept of “good globalization” in the resources used. The Hutong red and gray of the middle classes and the artists, rather than the emperors, are there, and so are flowers, insects and nature, which is also like our Latin nature, leafy, sensual and baroque. But if you look carefully you can see hair combs, cities and phrases that identify us, engraved on the headstone of collective memory, as well as the Coca- Cola logo, which is an intrinsic part of our lives. Everything is endowed with humor, pain, emotion and drama, as if we were able to etch or tattoo it onto our skin… that’s what humanity is like at one level. That’s why I’m saying that bringing all of this together was a way of conceptualizing the positive aspect of globalization… There are many elements which appear in other works of mine, such as the stairway of the Sufis, with all the sense of spiritual elevation that this implies, or the Malvinas Islands, or even Dürer’s enigmatic engraving Melencolia, but these of course are imbued with new significance if I place them in another context such as the Orient, and even more so if inserted into typically Oriental scenery, painted in popular Chinese tones… It’s actually quite amusing because they seem to metamorphose themselves and you have to discover them in the complexities of the picture, in its lace-like web.
—This series transmits a highly intense visual joy. Could this be a celebration of diversity?
—Yes, that’s why it’s a tattoo. It had to be engraved somehow… in one way or another. I decided to assemble memories, works of mine, images of nature, everything that I don’t want to see crumble away but to stick together. I created this series slowly, working in two-hour stretches and then taking a break to think over what I had done. It was a slow and enjoyable process.
Masters, students and daily life in the workshop
—Before continuing this review of your work, I’d like to look back at the past for a moment. Let’s talk about what is an important part of any artist’s career: their masters.
—I had three masters at different stages in my life: Marta de Llamas, Silvina Cardoso and Víctor Chab. I’m very grateful to them. I now think that this business of never letting your routine go, to work every day and keep going, is something I learned from them. Also the part about hanging in there when things get difficult, destroying stuff if necessary, tearing up your work, but always aware that this is just a stage you have to go through. Of course, there are times when you think you will never produce anything worthwhile ever again… and that’s tough. But you need to hold on to the hope that there is a way out and that’s why you must keep working.
With time, I found and systematized the images I was looking for and that I considered to be something personal, images which are today part of my language. This was very introspective work which I had to face on my own, learning as I went the discipline of looking at myself and, at the same time, learning to enjoy the good along with the bad.
—How would you describe yourself as a master in your workshop?
—I sincerely believe that anyone can relate to art from a place of emotion and thought as well as personal and collective history, from so many places… I think that it’s fundamental that art not be limited to the confines and characteristics of museums. I don’t want my students to feel that they are coming to an “art workshop” in inverted commas, where I, the “artist,” teach them. That’s how I see it. Art must be lived, if not, it is not art. If you take it that seriously, as something so vast, like a work of art for a museum, if you work subject to that artificial imposition, what happens is that you lose your sense of fun, the fundamental joy of art when taken as a search and the exercise of one’s freedom. Many people actually prefer to buy that role and see themselves as artists in inverted commas, as if they were part of an elite, or as if they were thus able to access a superior level of being. I try to get my students to incorporate their work into their lives and yet also be fully aware that art is a practice which requires patience and constancy, as well as a knowledge of formal structures, because if not it would be an anthropology, a form of politics, and so on and so forth. Even today, after Duchamp, the plastic arts are fairly ambiguous and open to interpretation, but they continue to have their own formal structures.
The artist is not a superior being. Beyond the issue of status, prestige or social standing, we all share pretty much the same joys and sadnesses, as well as life’s big questions and little answers.
—As an artist, what does teaching bring you?
—I learn a great deal. It’s a perfect circle. That’s why I continue to hold workshops, and have been for the last seven years. It brings me great satisfaction to experience the level of communication we create as we work, both at an artistic and at a human level. I adore Kandinsky and I have always taken as a base the point and the line, as in the sketchbooks he used to make for the Bauhaus movement. But we also chat about life, sharing our experiences and the doubts we have about things we find in the works themselves… this is all part of the class even as each person is following the path of his or her own work. I am very demanding in terms of quality, and I spend my time pointing out to them the things I see and helping them to develop their own style. It’s extremely gratifying to find that each one has his or her own language and when this emerges it really is a victory of sorts. My job is guide them to that they can find it and enjoy it, learning to express themselves with it in their work, to follow their own narrative thread, or, in other words, their own personal idiom. This makes each manifestation something unique and recognizable.
The issue of teaching in art
—In the Peinetones exhibition, you made a leaflet for children in order to spur their interest in the educational side of the exhibition, along with Elsie Yankelevich. You also came up with the idea for the interactive show Juegos de artistas (Artists’ games) in the Children’s Museum in the Abasto shopping mall. When did this desire to educate through art come about?
—I don’t really know… but I have always felt that everyone has a right to art. Although this is also deceptive… don’t you think? Also, I have an unshakeable belief in the fact that nobody wants what they don’t know, which is fundamental in Latin America, where reality moves so fast, where yesterday’s news is quite forgotten by today… At a certain stage in your life you ask yourself, what can I do? For me, one of the answers is teach, according to the possibilities inherent to each one of us, particularly as far as children are concerned. This whole idea of mine and of other artists who have taken part in these shows was in the beginning fueled… by fear! The worst of the crisis was just around the corner, we held the first edition in 2001. To think that we inaugurated the show a week before De la Rúa fell! It was a spell of sorts, as if art provided us with a refuge.
As one of the most attractive things about childhood is curiosity (something which we as artists also enjoy), I believe that art as a teacher is on the right track… You can’t tell me that there isn’t something amazing about the fact that the whole subject of the hair combs was a social phenomenon which only happened in the River Plate area, encouraged by one Manuel Masculino (such a paradox) who of course got filthy rich in the process and also, so unbelievable to find out that a French journalist was jailed for satirizing the fashion set by porteño ladies of fashion… How could anyone, be it a child or an adult, not be amazed? That’s why we made a photocopy of the story so that people would learn about it, understand the historical context and, with blank spaces, also make up their own versions of the story.
We did the same thing with the toys in the Abasto, an irrefutable invitation to take part. But this was not very original of me… between 1920 and 1930, the desire to educate through the knowledge and dissemination was shared by numerous artists and figures such as Ricardo Rojas, the Guido, as well as the fabulous ornamental Viracocha leaflets by Leguizamón Pondal and Gelly Cantilo… a Latin American phenomenon which happened in Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and Peru, as did Elena de Izcue, a truly refined artist of our times.
—Is there any other project which interests you in particular which is also focused on education?
—I have for some time now been gathering up the courage to carry out this idea I have for an exhibition which I think is brilliant. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few years, and it’s about savings, a theme which appears in many of my works. But the project itself, as a teaching project, is still in process. The piggy bank is an object from our childhood, almost from another time altogether, but nonetheless not lost… it’s surprising that at the very moment when society seems to be so wasteful the piggy banks are back in toy shops, did you realize?
As a child, you place so many wishes in your piggy bank, a real bet on the future. I will never forget when I got off the boat from Rome that my grandparents were waiting for me, and one of the presents they gave me was a savings book… I remember the stamps and the joy I felt as they grew in number… I particularly remember my third grade teacher among all those who encouraged me… I’m so sorry I never kept it.
Naturally, this subject also prompted me to ask myself a thousand times, What happened to us? Because the piggy bank as a symbol is much more than the coins you press through the slit. They’re ideas, the accumulation of hopes, joys and the effort that this involves… In my search for answers I went to the National Library and documented everything I found on the subject. A friend introduced me to Enrique García Martínez, a well-known economist, a real gentleman who took the time to explain to me with great patience the economic ups and downs… I remember coming out overwhelmed and disconsolate… and of course, only understanding half of what he said.
I found some extraordinary information in the Library: for example, in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, a primary school teacher in an area struck by a terrible drought built a water cistern next to his school, a veritable water bank. The teacher was called Francisco Lezcano, and he inaugurated it in 1952 in the Andean highlands. There can be no other word for that teacher except that of hero. Without a doubt, you have to have a huge generosity of spirit and love for people to do something like that. The piggy bank represents all of these dimensions. It’s an exhibition I’m going to put on with many other artists who think as I do, beyond and in spite of reality.
—You were saying that, as well as this project, the piggy bank has already made an appearance in several of your works, at times in hiding and at others most visibly… Does it always come to mean this, a bet on the future, a gesture of hope? Or does the idea take on other characteristics in the cities
—It means something that George Steiner said in Real presences: over and above the minimal state of vegetative consciousness, our lives depend on our capacity to express hope. Perhaps, unconsciously, with the piggy bank I’m endowing the cities with a vote of hope, thinking of the future.
A little while ago, I read that an anthropologist, together with a group of architects, was experimenting in the public areas of shantytowns, in the squares where women carried out their daily tasks such as washing clothes, sewing and chatting, a well as other traditionally social contexts, in order to relate to each other in groups and in spatial terms. It seemed to me as sensible as it was simple. Public space, daily life: diametrically opposed to what we have lived through in the last few decades, which have created a terrible isolation, now exacerbated by the contradictions created by technology… where we juggle the marvel of being communicated with everyone at all times with the salient fact that life is passing us by. I believe that art has a role to play in all of this.
The shield series
—We have not yet spoken of one of your most important series, Escudos (Shields). All the works under this title seem to be bent on exorcising pain, on drawing across a veil of mercy and memory, given the themes and reasons which give rise to it.
—Las protegidas (The protected ones), Vestidos (Dresses) and Escudos share the same kind of atmosphere for me, which is why I presented them together at an exhibition in 2005 in which I emphasized the concept of protection, hence the title Escudos.
There is something we artists have which has to do with the fact that our work in some way protects us, exorcizes us, shields us. Life is very intense, as I am myself. For artists, that reality which we recreate, which transcends us and with which we imbue our work, also protects us from the world. This is why I sometimes feel that artworks often have an element of exorcism… In this exhibition (structured around numbers seven, three and five, which have something magical and mystical to them) there are groups of dresses, shields and pictures, with the different dimensions bestowed by paper, wood, volume and color. I thought of it as an installation, as something pictorial.
The shields also tell us about the porteño hair comb and the fragmented, or wounded city, and of the sense of belonging to something local in the face of the global village. The shields, like the dresses, and, in a more mysterious and less explicit sense, Las protegidas, tell us of protection and of the elements of protection.
True, there was this whole hidden element to the series which was impossible to see from the spectator’s point of view unless he or she knew the story, but that’s the way the series worked. While the dress-shields were very clear and obvious, on purpose, this was not the case in Las protegidas, where everything was hidden and they—the protected ones—were guarding the city in mourning for its dead and wounded.
In one of them, the surface is covered in little bits of paper which are like wings but in the shape of a hair comb, like real guardian angels. They were cut out one by one and placed in order, making a large pattern. This is literally a sum of the deaths brought about by the negligence of the state: the teenagers who perished in the Cromañón nightclub fire; the firefighters in the south of the country who died trying to put out forest fires, also victims of a state of affairs for which we are all responsible… and so many more. The spikes are like thorns which point to something as well as creating a visual rhythm. There is a duality in the tension between the beauty of the composition and the symbolic load that lies behind it.
Another of the works in this series, made out of paper serviettes, referred to a very well-known political scandal, the paradigm of corruption, which has become ingrained in popular memory. When we talk of serviettes today, we remember the figures involved. In some of them, on the back, well hidden, the verb “to be” is conjugated: “It was us, it was you, it was them, it was I”… We have to acknowledge our responsibility in this.
Another work is made of small pieces of paper in the shape of little white headscarves, because I was interesting in making a reference, at both human and world level, to all mothers and grandmothers… For are we not all mothers and grandmothers in the way we observe the state of affairs, the state of humanity in our times? Do we not spend our time admonishing our children to take care not to hurt themselves? All over the world?
All these ideas were expressed from the plastic point of view, with a strong desire for vindication, calling out for justice as well as healing through the works themselves. Not to extinguish pain but to heal it and learn to observe in order to prevent it. The series also includes the work Oír dentro del silencio (Listening within the silence), made with strips cut from canvas: here the phrase, which is repeated hundreds of times, is “No me olvides” (Do not forget me)… Isn’t that what we artists aspire to?
Ambiguity and duality; the visual beauty which can be either canvas or stones, this idea of simulation in which the theme of fragmentation also appears… The impact of the works throughout the series lies in their fragility and beauty.
—I’d like you to tell me about the ideas within the concept of the shield.
—Working with the shield is important for me. Many people tell me I’m naïve. But that’s precisely what protects me. What would have previously wounded me I now know protects me. My work is my refuge and my shield. I think I have exchanged ferocity for tenderness. I am licking my wounds. That’s what I saw in the big hair combs, which were cruel, and this was an issue which would have wounded me at a very intimate level. The work itself could do to me harm. I could have continued in this vein ad infinitum. Even as a form of playing, albeit dangerous but playing nonetheless. There are artists who can do this, superbly, like Heredia, artists who can and do create works that are painful yet absolutely marvelous.
I believe tenderness is a kind of nexus, which offers the possibility of reconciliation, even candor. This may seem naïve, but I think that this is the chance to be reconciled with oneself, to allow for the beautiful even in such a terrible world. Beauty must in fact be like a breath of fresh air, a caress to oneself and to others. A path in which the aesthetic is mingled with ethics.
For this show I also had four dresses, three circular canvasses. One red, which is the dress of tears, a blue one saying “Peina tus ideas” for here words crumble away, and another gray one which is fragmented, showing the Southern Cross symbolized by buttons. The fourth dress-shield is made from a steel hoop which my musician son gave me from one of his drum skins; it is a fragmented dress which reminds me of another story by Calvino, The Cloven Viscount.
—This fragmentation, this splitting into two… there is always this polarity between ferocity and tenderness in your work.
—That’s true. In the toys there was also something fierce. They told me this the first time I showed them. There is something dense in them. If I put the Malvinas islands in a dress or into a hair comb, I do so deliberately, so that this does not go unnoticed. It’s got to be seen and it’s got to be clear, I’m not concerned about subtlety at this level if I have something to say. I’m not giving a free interpretation of the subject.
But this was also part of the reality told by the dressesshields. From our perspective of Latin American reality, there is always something awful lurking in the shadows, even behind fashion itself, or those things which we think of as superficial. There is something moving below the surface. I’ve always expressed this in my work in different ways.
—When did the dresses appear in the Escudos series?
—Once, Regina Root said to me, when I was making jewels and thinking of insignias, and nationalistic ways of expressing the idea of citizenship or nation, “Don’t you realize? All you are doing is dressing up your homeland.” This was a revelation to me. Then I thought: I’ll dress her ex profeso, deliberately… and that’s how it began. That’s how the dresses came about. I thought that this was an idea I could execute forcefully. I was already working on Las protegidas and this seemed to me to be a perfect balance: the hidden and the obvious.
I began making the dresses working with the idea of simulation that is inherent to fashion. I realized that fashion is like a shield, a protection of sorts, because sometimes you protect yourself and at others you reveal yourself. There are times when you deliberately choose to have people see your wounds. Fashion offers this whole range of options and an entire sociological spectrum, which is what makes it so interesting. I made an extensive series covering many themes; I wanted to dress up everything that was going on around me and to me. At first I plumped for a kind of tunic, looking for a global mix, but not a kimono. I was looking for a design with a simple line, pregnant with meaning, so that its interior could support the area of feeling, the scenario where everything I wanted to say could take place.
—There are over forty dresses. What was the creative process like?
—I remember that one of the first dresses I made was black, studded with little Argentine flag pins, a dress which told of a nation in mourning. Then I made a tribute to artists such as Batlle Planas, Xul, and Heredia, where the range of themes is extensive. There are some mate gourds which also look like Spanish guitars, stuck together with string, which is something typically Argentine, but which also pays homage to Braque.
There are dresses with open wounds, sewn together: another with a stairway which refers to the Sufi concept of heaven… one I particularly like, because quite a few have a sense of humor, tenderness and even innocence… is called Me cansé (I got tired), which shows a pair of little angel wings hanging up… There is another dress with a folded pentagram, like a piece of origami, which is a homage to Astor Piazzolla and also a Japanese fashion designer whom I love, Issey Miyake, who designs all his clothes with folds, a true artist who transcends fashion. Another one was about ecology, with little dried colored leaves stuck on with pins.
When it dawned on me that I was actually making a series out of all these dresses, I naturally turned my focus to Las protegidas as a kind of counterpoint, because in the latter everything is much more serious and subtle, in which there are clues and things are said without being explicit. I came and went between the two series. I compensated for the subtlety with the counterpoint provided by the dresses. What I hid in the first series I came clean with in the second.
I developed all, or nearly all, of the themes which interest me in the dresses. There is one made of fragments of cigarette papers with a wax seal of the national crest, called Argentia, because these little pieces of silver paper represent the fragments of wealth, the idea of a rich country which is essentially a relative one.
Another one is made out of bus tickets and has a red ribbon upon which a dancer is balancing… because we are always trying to keep our balance, aren’t we? The ribbon is from a dear English friend of mine who always winds a piece of ribbon around the utensils at her place settings for dinner, which I think is such a sweet gesture… and which is why I used one for this dress as well as for others. There are so many… one of San Cayetano, with the stamp and the ear of wheat, another called Titanic, featuring a sinking ship, in which the city becomes mixed up with the hair comb.
Other dresses are about world fragmentation, in red; another in which I wrote the word “NO” in epoxy glue, which refers to street kids. In another, I ask myself ironically who are the others, the other “they,” which has become so bastardized… Another dress has various slits in it, sown up in different colored threads, which is a theme that I have repeated using different kinds of techniques at different times.
—One of the dresses is a direct reference to Santa Rosa de Lima.
—This dress I called Las jaulas del alma (The cages of the soul). Santa Rosa de Lima is astonishingly modern, not only because she was making collages at the time, but also because it is surprising that her message is still somehow alive in a certain way, although it is inverted. Because it is the body, not the soul, that is caged. This is what she tells us in the present, where her message is still very relevant, even though the concept of the body as caged, rather than the soul, has its roots in medieval times and was brought to America by the Spaniards. This body-soul polarity continues to have meaning for us today, for there are infinite examples of why the body is caged, imprisoned and distorted in our societies, in a very superficial way… without the depth of spirit and the mysticism of the Golden Age which Spain brought to America. The dress has the same heart as Santa Rosa cutout for her collages, but I added a third wing for my three children.
—How was this series received?
—I think that something strange happened with the dresses. Many people were disconcerted by them, although I believe they came to forgive me. They certainly found me too naïve. But that’s what I wanted to communicate and so I took the risk accordingly… and at the same time I was hoping to open up a number of new communications channels. It is no coincidence that I’ve enjoyed such a close relationship with so many people; with the dresses, the communication I had was marvelous. If I have to put up with being labeled naïve, that’s fine by me…
In fact, I am naïve. And I derived such pleasure from the exhibition that I would gladly put it on a thousand times, because I was able to express what I felt without betraying myself, and I feel that many people understood me.
The eye, curious people, the gaze
—All the dresses in this major series Escudos are framed in a circle, or an oval, which looks like a pupil. As if the contents were the reflection of the viewer’s pupil as he or she looks on the work.
—The idea of the eye is something I’ve been working on for a long time, in different ways and with different support materials. Many of my works contain moons, which are also for me like eyes that watch the city… eyes guarding the city as it sleeps. I have another series which I called Las curiosas (The curious ones) which is also the name of one of the dresses. This idea has been changing over time. When I looked back over my work, I realized that these moons had become eyes in themselves…
In another work called Mar de llanto (Sea of tears), there is an ocean of tears upon which rest moons which are really eyes, and this is where the idea of an intimate gaze takes shape. This was such a difficult task, molding each tear with resin… this long period of realization which was set by the self-same material served to swell my thoughts on this subject. This was a period of true introspection, of taking an inward look into myself. How I see things, how I close myself off in order to see… Today I’m basing myself more explicitly on this concept, focusing in what is perhaps a less playful way, more synthetic and more pregnant with meaning. I think I’m returning to the process that I experienced with Las protegidas… Our gaze is the first link with the thing we see or believe we see…
—How is all this expressed in the series Las curiosas?
—I turned myself inside-out with this series. On the one hand there’s me as artist, and on the other, I represent myself in the hair combs, as an observer of our identity. This is a series with a lot of movement, it’s very dynamic and at times even comic… From the plastic point of view, I took the paper and used resources such as curves, straight lines and flat colors… each curiosa is defined by a single color which is always symbolic. I am still working on this subject, as I am with the dress shields; first I make them to a small scale and then I project them into a larger space.
I owe the name of this series to a friend, the professor Ángel Navarro, who always tells me, “The thing with you is that you are so curious.” And I reply, “Yes, because we artists are curious by nature.” I believe we artists spontaneously seek to maintain that curiosity in order to watch, to experiment, to not lose our sense of adventure… which, sadly, sometimes we do lose notwithstanding.
—How does this subject appear in the cities?
—It’s very clear in the series Ciudad / La observada (City / Under watch). In the hair combs, the moon acts as a gaze. But this is a gaze of observation, it’s about objectiveness. I believe that in many of my works I take on the role of observer and incorporate the eye into the hair comb… This theme also appears in the series called Luna sobre mi ciudad (Moon over my city), where the moons are eyes, watching.
—Another series which features this gaze is Las comadres (The neighbourhood women).
—I think this series has a great deal of humor. Las comadres are another kind of game or toy, at least I feel it that way. When I finished the series, I laughed to myself, because I remembered the army of the Xi’an Warriors… that phalanx moving forward, so beautiful and yet so threatening… But these ladies, full of eyes, occupy this space not from a threatening point of view but from one of complicity, which is why I chose the name. There is a dialog between them… united, they are empowered. Although, in fact, thinking it over… a group of women who share both complicity and decisiveness, is always quite threatening, don’t you think?
Art and artists
—What do you think is the role of the artist today?
—I believe that today, as it always has been, the artist must say things. If not, there is not much point to art. Once, a great Colombian art critic said to me, “This is art in transit.” In fact, all art today is art in transit. I truly believe this. Because there are periods in the world in which nothing much goes on in terms of art, which you can appreciate with the perspective of time, something we don’t have. At a global level, the great art of this period has still not taken root. This will happen in the future, something which we will probably not get to see. That is why I believe that as far as art is concerned, we are like that Russian film where the ship is permanently adrift… But I have no doubt that something will change. We cannot see it yet. It would seem that we live in accelerated times, but this is not so: change is always slow. And if you look back, fifty, one hundred, two hundred years… are very little in the history of mankind, right?
Today, provocation and aggression, the exhibitionist takingapart of private life in its most intimate and sordid details are daily practice. There is a tendency to trivialize. Death, life, joy, love, all share the same tenor. There is too much effect, morbid fascination and commotion, all delivered in equal tones, which is why this is so dangerous. I believe in the ethical duty of the artist, in his or her responsibility to the work, to the role he or she has in society. And this is no mandate that has been imposed on me. To believe in beauty, in quality, in our profession, in values and responsibility, in the challenge to tell which every artist has… all of this is something which we take on, which all artists have the freedom to assume. Each of us makes a choice. Because we are children of our times, like it or not.
—You are an avid reader, you said you love music… did you ever fantasize about writing literature or making music?
—I love literature and I believe that music is a superior language. You go to a concert and are enveloped by the music. It’s marvelous and universal. But it’s also possible to listen to the silence of a work. Sometimes, there is a moment when it’s just you and the work. There is a special ambiance that is generated between the viewer and the work, an ambiance hitherto shared only by the artist and the work. That’s when it happens: when a piece draws your attention, your interest or liking, it envelops you, like a piece of music, but in silence. The silent nature of the work as a being gives it a new dimension.
—This is the key moment of a work of art: when it encounters the viewer. Because the work, when it casts its anchor from the artist, is just one more object in the world seeking a viewer.
—And therein lies the paradox of the spectacle, of art as a spectacle, which in fact turns the work into an object of consumption which inhibits that special moment, annihilating it because it does not allow for that particular silence… The work is only waiting for its spectator. It needs no more.