A conversation with Pablo Vargas Lugo spanning some of the interests present in the artist’s oeuvre: non-Western forms of knowledge, music, animism, anachronism, and the idea of the museum as a contemporary space of withdrawal.
New (neotropical) Vexilology: Lophocampa andensis (2011-2014)
Interview with Pablo Vargas Lugo by Natalia Valencia, conducted at the artist’s studio in Mexico City, December 17, 2014.
Natalia Valencia: Can you tell me about your interest in animism? In the series New (neotropical) Vexilology (2011-2014), which consists of flags made with patterns taken from butterfly wings, I find that there is an evocation of a political organization existing in nature, where butterflies could be seen as persons, as militants. In a way it is a shamanic vision.
Pablo Vargas Lugo: I think there are two things here: one is the animistic quality of certain works, animism in the sense of a golem: an object that has a life of its own, therefore it does not need to have a specific meaning attributed to it. The other is an interest in animate beings and their representation. I think there are works where this matter is very clear, from very early ones like the map of Japan in 1995 or the work Infinita compasión (1998), which is a smiling architectural crack. In the exhibition, Micromegas at Museo Tamayo in 2014 there is a very clear example: Snoopy (1993), which is a mask made with the architectural model of Apollo XI’s lunar module. These works share the characteristic of being objects that are not there for you to assign them any meaning but for you to present yourself to them. I am very interested in this inversion of the relationship between the viewer and the work.
New (neotropical) Vexilology: Halysidota striata (2011-2014)
New (neotropical) Vexilology: Lycorea Cleobacea (2011-2014)
NV: In that sense, I think perhaps you are inquiring into a hierarchy or an authority within the exhibition space and questioning our very relationship to nature. If nature becomes animated, then the question of morals is brought forward.
PVL: Definitely. I deal with the hierarchical position of human interests, vis-à-vis those of other living beings and their means of survival, which is a question being discussed at length now. You mentioned the works based on butterfly wings, which create visual languages and signs that indicate an affiliation to an ideology. They are very explicit, in the sense of debunking a symbolic hierarchy that places the patterns invented by human culture above those created by nature as a result of evolutionary processes. Another work linked to this problematic of hierarchy is the series Fortunas (2008), which is made with coins and constellations. These pieces emphasize a very intimate relationship between a natural object that has existed for millions of years, and other political and historical aspirations that are ephemeral, but which also use the star sign in order to steal some sense of permanence from it. I think it’s a very common political strategy: using the mountain, the ocean or the sun, and appropriating them as part of a symbolic language inscribed in a political order, so as to grant a fictitious permanence to an ideological system.
Detail of Fortune 10 (Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Lepus, Columba, Puppis, Monocerus), 2008
NV: In Archivo de finales (2010), an installation made with cardboard coffins filled with musical scores of symphonies from the Romantic and early Modernist periods, there is also a sort of animism – a conversation with the dead.
PVL: Yes, it is an archive of symbolic deaths. It is also a bureaucratic accumulation of lives, which points to the manner by which the government systematically collects all this data from people’s lives. This analog archive of paper documents tends to disappear nowadays and there is an interest towards rationalizing it, although it is still very much in use in Mexico and is part of the state’s politics around culture. These accumulations of archives are like cemeteries and this work is almost a literal translation of that. What gives poetry to the piece is its relationship to music. In that sense, it also relates to cultural practices whose relevance is in a state of crisis, such as orchestral or symphonic music. These represent a cultural apparatus that is already obsolete and lives only off inertia. Symphonic orchestras were used for a long time as symbols of a certain level of civilization or culture, although no one really cared that much about music itself. This for me is very personal because I am passionate about music and my concern around its decadence is also part of this work. This archive-as-catacomb also speaks of a death that is “larger-than-life” – a heroic vision of humanity and an “amplified individual”. That is why all these elements are present in the work.
Archive of finals, 2010
NV: In general I feel there is a sort of denial of language in your work, or an attempt to evoke the limits of language. This probably has to do with this interest in music.
PVL: Generally, when certain things appear in my work, they do so in a very oblique manner. Writing is an example of this. If it’s there, it will be either musical notation or Mayan script. I am not drawn at all to the use of written language in my work, because, willfully or not, we spend our time reading. So, introducing text in a discourse that is almost 100% visual (even though writing is part of visual culture) would prove counterproductive for me. I want to emphasize a relation to the image that doesn’t go through that process. Most importantly, the meaning of the work or its relevance does not need to be understood through reading. I personally loathe exhibitions where people come out and say: “I think I liked it but I must go back to read.” That is like turning a work of art into a kind of homework, which goes against the sense that I want to give to my work.
There is always a reference to writing. I am very interested in the symbiotic relationship between drawing, writing, and calligraphy. But I think I can refer to that without forcing anyone to read anything. Perhaps the point is this separation between writing and reading: the act of writing understood as a form of drawing that relates to language, always keeping the act of reading apart.
MS 1131 (Fig. D), 2011, Collage on paper, 60×60 cm
NV: Can you explain your fascination with mystical images? I feel that on the one hand, you try to approximate them by finding certain cracks in their systems. While at the same time, there seems to be a sort of respect or a will to remain at the limit of the immeasurability they represent. It doesn’t seem to be about decoding the images, neither is it about demystifying religion. I guess I am asking about your interest in spirituality.
PVL: There is always a distance. I am foremost interested in the way that this religious, mystic or spiritual imagery is the most emphatic representation of an aspiration towards greater meaning.
NV: But there is also a sort of resistance to this meaning.
PVL: Exactly, that’s where the tension lies. The work speaks of this search, of this aspiration for a meaning that surpasses us. But the work itself formulates that meaning from a series of conditions that don’t deny it, but which somehow expose it.
PVL: Yes, but it’s an enigma challenging its own depth. Due to its situation, its materiality, its title and many other things, the work always conveys a reference to a sort of transcendence that is enunciated in a lower tone and that joins other references, like in Stone garden (2014), the butterfly mandala. In this work, a pyramid composed of every state of being is brought to collapse. That is one of the possible ways to understand a Tibetan Mandala and its representation of the different states of being and obstacles that you need to go through in order to achieve spiritual perfection. In Stone garden, that pyramid collapses in a physical phenomenon resulting from the evolution of the universe. That is my interest in religious imagery. It’s not about criticizing it; it’s about putting it in a paradoxical relation to other forms of knowledge and representation.
NV: In that sense, Stone garden, the mandala exhibited at the Museo Tamayo, which is also a Zen Garden, is a compression of meanings.
PVL: Yes, because the Zen Garden represents an ideal state of stillness in nature: the stones, like mountains, symbolize permanence, and sand represents water, which can be understood as the ocean and as the symbol of time. It relates to the mandala, although the mandala has a more shamanic origin, while Zen Buddhism is a highly refined spirituality, free from elements of magic. Therefore, in this piece there is a mixture: the aspiration to inner stillness, along with the butterfly’s wing – a species belonging to the Caligo genre, that can be found from Mexico to Paraguay – which works as a turbulent evocation of the waves that are made with a rake in Zen Gardens. In the installation, these seem like a whirlpool enveloping the stones. Hence, two visions blend: the one where nature is codified as the image of an inner state of the quiet sea and the permanence of a mountain; and the other one, where nature is simultaneously camouflaged, disguised, and causes bewilderment. These two ideas come from very different places and merge in the museum space.
Stone garden, 2014.
NV: My last question deals more with an interest in anachronism. Georges Didi-Huberman suggests that the anachronistic image, while explicating a confrontation, also entails a form of continuity. He considers the anachronistic image as a sort of “unconscious of history”. Do you think you are looking for that “unconscious” component of time and temporality in your work? For example, in the works dealing with eclipses, which are confrontations between ways of measuring time: the immeasurability of astral time versus the finitude of human time.
PVL: Well, maybe it is more a speculation around a future that is going to happen or about a present that did not happen. For instance, in the case of the works involving quipus, I inquire into the relationship between space technology – a development that has been refining itself since the birth of Western culture – in regards to this other culture of the New World that was interrupted, lost its continuity, its foundations, its technological developments and had its written culture abolished.
Therefore, I try to speculate around the continuity of certain cultural expressions. For example, I suggest the use of quipus as technological communication tools with unforeseen uses that never developed due to the technology’s historical interruption. I am concerned by our current use of fewer technologies. Our communication is a binary chain of ones and zeros that later will be converted into who knows what. It is embedded in a process of technological refinement that is nonetheless narrowing our horizons. In these pieces, I am interested in the staging of that anachronism: the use of quipu as a tool of interstellar communication.
NV: Considering this anachronistic image discussed by Didi-Huberman, it is as if what he calls the “unconscious of history” could only be accessed through art.
PVL: Yes, in this case that unconscious is that part that was literally aborted.
NV: There is obviously the reality of colonial history and the cultural transformation of New World inhabitants. But don’t you think knowledge persists and somehow adapts to the contemporary reality in its cultural heritage?
PVL: No, it doesn’t persist, although the ghost of it remains. In Peru there are villages where churches hold huge quipus, with butlers taking care of them. They use them in their assemblies and community meetings, where they manipulate them as if they were reading, but we know they are not reading anything. They are only repeating a gesture that is inherited from generations before. These are forms of knowledge that were brutally interrupted, as was the Mayan script. It was completely lost, then somehow rediscovered; nonetheless, it never recuperated its continuity as a world vision, except in very small, marginalized and repressed communities.
Quipu 10 (après Sagan, Salzman and Drake) BsAz, 2013
In the case of the eclipses, the anachronism has more to do with a way of constructing images (the use of color planes) that interests me for a reason, maybe a slightly esoteric one. It is a technology that could have been invented six thousand years ago. It could have been the first way to produce moving images, long before the invention of cinema, photography or magic lanterns. It’s such an accessible technology that it does not require any type of projection or mechanism. Its recent invention never ceases to amaze me. It is only a hundred years old!
NV: There is also the fact that it’s used to transmit political messages.
PVL: But at the beginning it was something more banal, football fans invented it for cheerleaders in stadiums. I’m interested in the possibility of its continuity. If all technologies collapse, it’s something that may keep on existing. That is why it seemed as the most coherent way to represent an eclipse. Also, in the political implementation of this technique, when you see the stadiums in North Korea or in China, you realize that people use the technique to represent images of landscapes, mountains, and sunrises. This concerted collective action is therefore used to evoke the overwhelming feeling of a natural phenomenon. There is also a certain humor in the piece. You have this crowd representing something that nobody will see and that will happen in a future unavailable to our lifetime, but that nonetheless we can predict with utmost certainty and precision.
Still from Eclipses for Cholula, 2014
NV: So there is a specific ability within the language of art of blending these different threads into an ambiguous space of reflection. Can you imagine these images made into theory, does that interest you?
PVL: No, not at all. I must confess I’m a bit allergic to theory. A work of art cannot depend on the input of theory, neither can it acquire relevance because of its importance to academic debates. It must speak in its own terms.
NV: Maybe the artwork must then exist in the ambiguity of the image, in this space of indefinition. In a way, the image you create is a new icon. I mention this to go back to the idea of the museum as a contemporary place for knowledge and also for withdrawal.
PVL: I do not care so much to question the place of art as such. My works do not challenge the relation of art and life. They merely establish a threshold for you to cross. They exist in a tonality that you enter and then you exit. Outside there is another world. I am interested in maintaining that difference. It is very important to preserve the readability of the work both in that space and within that atmosphere.
Pictures are courtesy of the artist and Labor, Mexico City.