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Cristián Silva

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 01, 2003
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with emerging artist Cristián Silva
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  I enjoy your interest in the examination of geometry and line. Can you tell us something of your relationship and interest in the tartan design and how this influences your work?

Cristián Silva:  I think it has something to do with the fact that at times I have a very clear impression that everything we are used to seeing as a "city" is nothing more than a thin and fragile shell, some ten meters thick, attached to the surface of our planet; that is, a thin layer, a varnish, which can represent so much to all of us but which, on removal - for a multitude of reasons - leaves uncovered what in some cultures is known as the "pachamama" (an idea, you know, which has been generally misinterpreted by contemporary art, both by those in favor and by those against). Therefore, my research on tartan contains a small and fierce battle with regard to all this. Spaniards who arrived to our continent in the XVI century, precisely began building using a Cartesian grid; a square in the center with a projection of those lines towards the outskirts. From "block" to "rectangle", and from "rectangle" to "checkered cloth", which is what tartan is commonly called...We could say that the simple action of wandering through the center of a city such as Santiago de Chile, either walking or as a driver, is determined by straight angles. Speaking generally, the experience of moving through these cities imposes a certain absence of curves and, above all, of "short cuts". One day I found out that at the beginning of the 70s, a "Yagán" model Citroí«n car was produced in Chile, manufactured at a time when the precarious Chilean automobile industry had no machines to curve the metal body but could only fold it in straight could say that it was created especially to fit in with this Cartesian reticule of the streets!

In regards to the tartan, I have a deep desire to "drape it", to incorporate it into the landscape as an element having a certain sensuality. I remember that one night in mid ’91, arriving at my house in Santiago, there was a group of kids sniffing glue, and some were sleeping leaning against a bench. One of the ones who was sleeping very close to the door of my house wore a Scottish shirt, and it seemed very relevant to me that a body enveloped in this multicolor scheme of straight angles should be breathing, moving himself, feeling cold, hunger, dreaming, etc. At that moment I felt that the Scottish design could be representing a subtle cross between the impersonal-geometric and other more sentimental aspects. One of my reactions was to begin to study the Scottish clans and I found a book by the historian Eric Hobsbawm which is called precisely "The invention of tradition", which contains a whole chapter dedicated to the phenomena of Highland identity construction. This matter of tradition seemed very interesting to me, particularly the belief that local plants provided the dyes, which in the abstract, recorded significant meaning. Therefore, there is certainly a tribal, moral, ethnic and geographic aspect represented in this "abstract chronicle" of community achievements, epics, and politics. At the same time I realized that of all the Scottish designs dispersed throughout the world, only a very small part has this noble origin and the rest - those I call "bastard tartans", which are obviously those which interest me more - do not go back to any tradition or glorious past whatsoever, nor do they pretend to do so. These "contrabands" were simply printed in some workshop who knows where and are magnificent although austere representations of the fight between the vertical and the horizontal...a struggle in which chance, the will of the gods, the manifestations of Nature, intervene. In short, it appears to me to be a quite complete metaphor. It so happens that during the same historical period in which the tartan spread by sea and land from the Old to the New World, at the same time cocoa made the inverse journey. From cocoa to chocolate to chocolate bar, we once again r

LatinArt:  A central element in your work are certain ideas and elements which you call "Subjects in Suspension". Let's talk about that...

Cristián Silva:  What I call "Subjects in Suspension" is nothing other than a group of entities which I have isolated - in the sense that term is used by scientists - floating in the midst of a fissure. And which finally, mainly for this reason, become valuable. In this sense you will find that at times I use a numerous series of terms which are written the same in English as in Spanish (the so called homographic words: "visceral", "irregular", "vulnerable", etc)... Also the use of the color green (which we know if the mixture of the most circumspect color (blue- and the most invasive color - yellow). For example, tartan is in social terms an incredibly dynamic element. We also tend to associate it either with marginal contexts as well as with more aristocratic environments. The "social mobility" of chocolate is also remarkable; one can find the finest chocolate and also the most ordinary. As always, it is very refreshing when one begins to re-assemble history from a slightly more playful and capricious angle: mistakes and misunderstandings occur which hopefully reorient the discussion toward other areas.

LatinArt:  Can you tell us something of your educational experience in Santiago, and how it influenced your work?

Cristián Silva:  I studied at the Art School of the Universidad Católica de Chile, which truly has very little of anything Catholic. I would say rather that the main characteristic of this arts school is due to the moment of its foundation, based on architectural and design statutes. A Bauhaus spirit wanders through all its passageways (that is, as compared with the other important art school in Santiago, that of the Universidad de Chile, which belongs to a tradition of Beaux Arts). We were subjected to certain basic principles: non-exaltation, non-viscerality...everything "under control". It must be said that within the Chilean context, this is also an extremely privileged and protected space. Obviously, previous generations, mine and also those subsequent, have been absorbed in this restrictive atmosphere; what is interesting is that, at the time, this adjusted itself quite well to the repressive climate of Chile from the mid-70’s to the end of the 80’s... and is also very close to the idiosyncrasies of my people...well, in fact I would say that we are a little more "savage" and not as cool as the Bauhaus (laughs).

LatinArt:  This worldwide study of the abstract is very interesting...

Cristián Silva:  Yes, a short while ago José Damasceno was commenting to me on the drawings of inhabitants of the Brazilian jungle who, although they live submerged in the vegetation, tend to translate their experiences to geometry or to graphic ritual exercises full of hypnotic connotations. And I feel that the interesting thing about translating experiences to geometry is involved with a process which depends to a great extent on the imagination, on purification and decantation of specific issues.

LatinArt:  I see some references to Duchamp in your work, but I love the way you use chance and coincidences as a language for exploration...

Cristián Silva:  Yes, of course, Duchamp was a meditator and expert at chess, which is one of the few games in which chance doesn’t play a part. I love this connection. People who know me will say that I have a tendency to invent twisted stories with respect to daily life. There is a strong streak of paranoia in my character, and one can often find me speculating in a way which is sometimes completely lost and erroneous...but at other times I’m right on! (laughs) This humorous "ancestral" trait confirms and reinforces my tendency to "push" coincidences. Coincidences are elements that can be compared to the drape of the tartan, in the sense that they represent breaks and ruptures of continuity and that when they occur, it is like finding a diamond. Luckily, every once in a while I keep on finding little diamonds, and build my work net based on this.

LatinArt:  I am very interested in your association with the Jemmy Button, Inc group. Briefly, Jemmy Button was a Yagán Indian who was taken as a young man by the English and educated as an Englishman, and then returned to his people where he obviously realized that he had lost something of his identity. Can you tell us a little more of your participation with this group?

Cristián Silva:  We came together as a group in ’93 with two artist colleagues, Mónica Bengoa, Mario Navarro and with the critic Justo Pastor Mellado. We planned to productively activate this anecdote of Jemmy Button and, in some way, to utilize the story almost as a logotype. We acknowledged that we were privileged to have had an elite education, to have traveled and to have returned bringing information and "know-how" hard to apply in Chile. I believe that this is an old conflict that will continue for some time. Matters dealing with the transfer of information from one cultural medium to another in the terms of "progress" in the area of contemporary art, is a very delicate subject. There are many artists who, coming from peripheral spaces, spend two of three years studying in Germany or wherever and return with the language they learned, intact and fresh, ready to be "applied" in their own medium. What happens most frequently is that a break occurs, seen by the artist as mental narrowness, ignorance or conservatism on the part of the public, but which is nothing other than a delay in the adaptation capacity of that specific public to those specific codes. In my opinion, one should try to penetrate the earth by flowering through the plant (something at which Oiticica was a master). So Jemmy Button Inc. complies to a certain extent with this purpose, which is pretty idealistic, I won’t deny it, but, I still trust blindly in that the work one produces can and should be shared with any type of close, immediate, personal, affective terms and not en masse. I mean, all these post-colonialism issues, as old school as they may look right now, like it or not, will go on living in the back of our minds, just like if we were the victim of some painful adultery episode: it happened long ago, we did understand, we may have forgiven, but the thorn is still there. The present process based on the very gringo method of diffusing art - in which the work should supposedly speak for itself - is a pretty suspicious system that is apparently innocent and responds to the practical principle of pursuing universal goals and reaching the "great population", but which is basically based on the exercise of power. And whenever this happens indirectly, it becomes distorted and confused. So, I believe firmly on the "door to door" method, like a vacuum salesman would do, personally transmitting what’s interesting to a sensitive community that wants to share. Receive, filter and return.

LatinArt:  Let’s speak a little on the role of the artist from your viewpoint.

Cristián Silva:  Yes, let’s imagine a native American Indian sitting next to a streamlet, listening to the sound of the water, seeing how the leaves of the tree are moving in the wind, how the shadows of the clouds navigate on the mountain, how the stone becomes wet and changes color; that is, to imagine a situation where this "noble savage" is in absolute contact with his immediate surroundings. If this person should suddenly feel a desire to transmit something, he would only have to point with his finger. In this case, everything visible becomes a vehicle of communication, between one person and another or between a person and a community. I have imaged this when I have breakfast in the morning, with the trucks driving by and yet, my responsibility is for this same "ancestral" attitude to be applied here and now. This would be the "mystic connection" about which I commented to you a short while ago. It’s not the objects themselves, but the manner in which one relates them to the environment, how one makes use of these objects to communicate a certain idea or sentiment? I am disconcerted when at times my work is referred to as conceptual, post-conceptual or neo-post-conceptual...what is that?! As far as I’m concerned, oil on canvas would be much more conceptual than the things I do... the things I do are absolutely direct, so much that they are at times vulgar. I personally feel the fact of assembling an easel, buying a canvas, a tube of paint and applying it with a paintbrush on the canvas to be something very distant and strange. I don’t know where all this comes from; what I do know is that there is a tradition which we could call "Prehispanic" which recalls a culture of manufacturing objects, of weaving, of carving, of unfolding situations... but painting?

Well, here I am distancing myself a little from the subject, but I would tell you that the role of the artist is to flow as a healing agent and favor the communication between people. What I am saying is so obvious that it is often forgotten and we find ourselves faced by work which not only doesn’t communicate but doesn’t even try to do so, objects which close-in on themselves, works which "sophisticate" their codes to such a degree that they enter a place I would call perverse and weak. It is truly very hard to define the role of the artist, above all inside our current Latin American context, so full of gaps, so over-Catholicized, a medium in which any halfway sensitive artist would have to see himself all the time with his social conscience. A few days ago, listening to Daniel J. Martí­nez, I realized that this social conscience can be kept active to the extent that one simply does good work. It is not strictly necessary to form part of a social action or community aid group; it seems to be sufficient to maintain a decent moral position and do good work. This thought has brought me great relief. Of course, the results are not immediate; we are talking of long term projects that work through deferments, tangents or in indirect ways. In any case, it seems to be a concrete phenomenon. Before I felt something between amusement and tenderness on hearing colleagues affirm that they would produce art to make the world a better place... and now I am beginning to realize that this is a very realist position, that it is not at all ingenuous.

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