Date of Interview: Dec 01, 2003|
Topic: Darío Escobar: Irony as a Fine Art
Interviewer: Javier de Pison
LatinArt: The following interview took place at the Sol del Río Arte Contemporánea Gallery (http://www.sdr-arte.com) in Guatemala City.
How do you view art from Latin America today?
Darío Escobar: Analyzing Latin American art is complex because it's a baptism, with a name that defines it, a space which is assigned to it and a territory in which it should circulate in order to enter spheres of power. That space is the land of pity and criticism, the utilization of art as a vehicle more for social than for aesthetic construction. I believe there are more interesting areas to touch on in order to manifest this. That does not mean to say that the art (which I propose) leaves to one side certain important social preoccupations, but I don’t believe my work resides precisely in that space tailor-made for criticism and a conversion to a new faith.
LatinArt: But artists in Latin America have had a certain repercussion at a political level in countries where social problems have existed, by contrast to other places where their work has been simply absorbed by the market. Don’t you agree?
Darío Escobar: That is true. The problem I have with art of a social nature is that it stays that way, as a simple pamphlet. I consider it important nowadays to first define the workspace in which you plan to insert yourself. At this moment my interests are revolving around a theory of representation that functions as a work strategy and the finding of parallel spaces which have not yet been explored. For example, I am very fond of humor, because it is a way of controlling the situation. Learn to laugh at yourself and it gives you a dominion over all things, a recognized space. If our mission is to find the artistic, the only space which has not yet been covered is humor. Another interesting aspect is that humor allows you to convert the spectator into an accomplice without his being aware of it. I did an activity in the Biennial of Albania, in the middle of the war, in which some camouflaged birthday caps were distributed. It was interesting to see 3,000 guests at the inauguration with camouflaged birthday caps without their realizing what was going on; that is, they enjoyed themselves without being fully aware of the reference to the war. This action maintains a political line from another perspective; it is not the finger which points but a way of minimizing the terror through another type of space, whose criticism can be a slightly more caustic.
LatinArt: Where else do you utilize irony?
Darío Escobar: "Freeway", the piece I made for the PS1 exhibition in New York, proposes the idea of modernity. The infrastructure, the engineering in poor countries such as ours continues to be a Messianic dream and a space which has been denied to us. My purpose was to invent a parallel modernity: invent buildings, structures, roads, motorways, but with a completely distorted vision of the original sold to you by the politicians or the industrialists. I built a "Freeway" on which you cannot go forward, only jump; you cannot go anywhere but you can play, you can enjoy yourself rather than use it. I don’t see my work as being interactive, rather, what I produce utilizes the spectator. What my work does is to use people in a slightly perverse way because it seduces you, uses you, and afterwards "bye-bye darling". Afterwards you become aware that you were part of this game, but that comes later.
Once I did a project at the Contemporary Art Museum in Milan, a series of skateboards which had the hood ornaments of luxury cars, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce or Jaguar ($8 skates with an insignia worth $200). The 20 skates were in a large room and everyone played with them. For me it was another game: the game of who buys them and whom they belong to. I was always interested in these tensions and working with polarities: something cheap now becomes a cult; the cult which later becomes cheap. It’s a type of game that depends on a context and I find that manipulating contexts is very interesting, it is a space allowed in contemporary art because it is seen as an intellectual and educated language.
LatinArt: It is no doubt an interesting game, but how successful is it here in Guatemala?
Darío Escobar: It doesn’t work very well because Guatemala is a country where no licenses exist, where the work of art is designed for contemplation therefore it’s not easy to insert oneself inside. The trouble is that there is a lot of fear, but there is also a critical vision; the underpants embroidered with (the national emblem of Guatemala) in 24 carat gold were seen as offensive (to the national identity). But it never crossed my mind to offend anyone. My idea was to use the entire road to nationalism in order to generate a slightly stronger icon. I made some typical underpants with gold embroidery as they did in the XVIII century, and if it was offensive, well what can I do? I believe that the beaux arts give me the chance to work on this type of object in suspension.
I was unable to break away from my sculptural tradition, given my training as an architect, although I would love to do interventions and performances, but I find my body does not have the capacity to say what my objects can articulate. At the present time I am using industrial objects in my works which are easily recognizable. This approximation is precisely one of the reasons the objects I make are captivating, because one cannot mistrust what one knows. Another of the situations which interests me is the sensuality you feel when being familiar with an object that is at the same time attractive: "Ah, a skate, how pretty, how cool", which predisposes us to play. It proposes a dichotomy which you can’t face without it annoying you a little.
LatinArt: But you also use many traditional symbols such as Baroque imagery.
Darío Escobar: Yes, that’s where I start and to a certain extent it is where I’ve always begun. I realized that the great Guatemalan bourgeoisie was always closely linked to the practices of the colony and that the social structure is completely colonial. Many of the nouveau rich had to invent the ancestry they didn’t possess and they did it by acquiring antiques, buying houses in Antigua (the former capital of Guatemala). This is how they invented a lineage. And that was when I took up the mission of inventing a baroque for them. I began with a series of objects laminated in repoussé gold and silver work, but (instead of classic objects) they were basketball baskets, skateboards, fast food, garbage you throw into the street but which suddenly is worth a lot because now it is a work of art with gold etc. I have also played with the idea of pain with piece which is a Dolorosa (a colonial Virgin who carries a dagger buried in her chest) from the XVI century with two hoses in her eyes which are connected to water pumps from which two spurts of water emerge. It was trying to re-invent all the splendor of the Baroque (for a class) which wishes to cling to a power space it will not sacrifice. The most efficient way to do this was to invent a colony more splendid and more functional than before.
LatinArt: How were these works received?
Darío Escobar: Very well, because initially people never managed to see what they really signified. Now they are beginning to be criticized. At the beginning they were greatly applauded because they represented an entirely new handicraft displacement. One, for example, was a baskeball basket laminated in repoussé silver 2 grams thick by the best craftsmen. It was something totally subdued and splendid. You looked at it and said: "How lovely!" But they didn’t really know why it was lovely, and it was because it seemed so familiar. That is what the pleasure of incorporating the spectator is based on, not just nurturing the act of passive spectating. The value in these pieces is not the work itself, it is the act of recognizing them, the act of taking them home, the act of promoting them. You could manage to be happy owning a Trojan horse.
The pieces were more successful outside of Guatemala because the Baroque has this quality of having been the first globalizing movement, and they are therefore easily recognizable, and their sumptuousness is precisely the bait. That is what this first generation of objects, which proposed a new, familiar but a more perverted colony, were based on. Afterwards come the functional objects, a bit more naked, but with the same density of contradictory charges, with the same polarity games.
LatinArt: What works do you include in this second series?
Darío Escobar: The series of skates with the emblems of luxury cars, a series of normal skates which had blades inside which lacerated you when you skated. A version of the Mayan plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, consisting of 80 skates cut in pieces and joined together with hinges which, at the moment they were mounted, formed a modern sculpture which you could bring, use and displace. It was a piece which was nothing but many things at the same time.
LatinArt: An artistic breakdown?
Darío Escobar: Completely. The result was very artistic, like those typical sculptures of Lygia Clark. I wanted to play around a modernity linked a little closer to the consumer. Afterwards, I presented a basketball court drawn inside a museum in order for everyone to play, except that the hoops were not round but square. Nobody could win or lose. It was the perfect game in which competition is non-existent and only the effort remained.
LatinArt: Do you think that your present work, which utilizes functional objects, is more successful than your games with the Baroque?
Darío Escobar: I don’t know, it is something which confuses me because the Baroque was totally accepted since it proposed a resounding form of art: it was beautiful and nothing else mattered. My later works created more conflicts because they did not identify themselves as "Guatemalan art", they lose some coordinates of identity but, at the same time, they opened a more complex space which interests me more because it demands the most of me. I cannot stop being Guatemalan and you can see that from the work. Even though it is not completely recognizable, on seeing it you know that I am a Latin American.
LatinArt: Do you think that if you presented "Freeway" in New York under another name, anyone would think that it wasn't the work of a Latin American?
Darío Escobar: I think that if you put a piece like this on the dissecting table you will realize that it would never have occurred to a Belgian or a Frenchman, because it over-values something which is very naturally assumed. That is, there are motorways all over the world, but here (in Guatemala) there are very few. Carrying them as a pretext to a form of art is something that only an (American or European) madman would do.
LatinArt: Do you have a preconceived theoretical concept you work from?
Darío Escobar: I think that sometimes it is a problem when you know too much and don’t allow things to find you, although it is also an interesting way of producing art these days. Rather than a theory on art I believe I have a mission to propose an entire ideological structure, capable of intervening on its own within a space due to its quality and rigorously held objectives and not because of an assigned ideological space. That is something one takes for granted. As a Guatemalan artist you speak of your country or as a woman, one speaks of women. But I am going to talk about spaces that interest me. I believe that one of the great vices Latin Americans fall into is this work towards a national representation. At the present time I have a show in Costa Rica where I present a series of McDonald’s food boxes five meters high. There are going to be 10 macro-boxes inside the museum built with a metallic structure and then, much like the shacks in the slum districts, covered with cardboard, lined and painted with commercial logotypes by gang members. The work refers to the colonization process, to the colonized individual who imitates the colonizer and is completely happy with this dominion. It is a celebration and a space which opens and shuts you inside at the same time. I think that it is the responsibility of artists to assume a discourse for this purpose and with these characteristics.
LatinArt: But that is more conceptual than functional.
Darío Escobar: Yes, once I made a piece with similar connotations. It was a stationary bicycle, covered with eight layered repoussé silver sheets, on which I worked for six months. I think this is interesting in a context such as Guatemala, where the bicycle continues to be a basic form of transport, not for doing physical exercise. A stationary bicycle does not even have a function other than that assumed by the elite to mold their bodies. My art has a role in making it even more useless. I think that that is the point because I believe we are not conceptual, but post-conceptual. All our recapitulations are nothing more than formal exercises and pretty faulty re-visits to the dematerialization of the object despite our habitual returns to where we started.