Agujeros and Esquinas (Holes and Corners) are two related series of large-format color photographs made between 2007 and 2010 by Alejandra Laviada. In Agujeros the artist portrays a series of interventions in abandoned buildings: circular openings broken into the walls of empty rooms, through to rooms beyond. In this series, her camera records, in high detail, the surfaces closest to the viewer, as well as the textures and alternate colors of the walls of the adjacent rooms. In turn, Esquinas documents areas within these same buildings, but it focuses on colored walls that have chromatically contrasting linear moldings or baseboards.
Since 2005, Laviada has been working with several specific buildings in the historical center of Mexico City. These older structures, which include the renowned Hotel Bammer, are all scheduled for demolition or complete renovation. The artist was drawn to these spaces as evidences of the urban cycles of decay and rebirth that characterize this city. She began her particular form of urban archeology by recording the abandoned elements that remained in these buildings, traces of their former uses and inhabitants. She then started to transform these interiors into transitory studio spaces, where she assembled the materials she found, creating informal and often precarious sculptures, which she documented through photography. She then left these constructions, to be discarded or altered during the future transformations of the buildings. Laviada’s practice and conceptual interests recall those of several artists from the seventies, most prominently those of Robert Smithson, particularly his writings on entropy and the life cycles of urban structures. Smithson wrote on how these elements are in a continuous process of decay and construction; and on how artistic interventions in these spaces simply serve as registers or pauses within cyclical temporal flows.
Agujeros and Esquinas, the two series of photographs created in the interiors of the same dilapidated buildings, emerge from these interests. While in Agujeros, the artist continued with earlier manipulations in her work, in them she specifically engaged with the destructive activity of breaking holes in the walls. Thus, these works recall the cuts by Gordon Matta-Clark within abandoned buildings of urban centers such as New York and Paris. Unlike Matta-Clark ́s sculptural and architectural pieces however, and Laviada’s previous works, both Agujeros and Esquinas are distinctly painterly. These photographs construct a dynamic dialogue with the history of painterly abstraction, by calling to mind the large format Color Field Painting of the fifties and sixties by artists such as Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, or Barnett Newman.
These New York painters, championed by the influential U.S. critic, Clement Greenberg, emphasized the flatness of the canvas material itself, through the application of large areas of non-modulated, brightly colored paint. The compositions produced by Laviada dialogue with these historic works, through their engagement with strong, contrasting colors presented within bold shapes; the rough circles of the holes and the angled lines of the moldings in the photos of corners. Most intriguing however, is the manner in which these works play with flatness. Depth in these photographs is dynamically reduced. While each image in Agujeros displays the view of one space into another, the direct frontal position of the camera and the dramatic chromatic contrast of the walls of one room with another, flatten the image and highlight the abstract form of each hole. In Esquinas, the flattnes of the picture is enhanced by the position of the lines created by the moldings and baseboards. While the viewer is presented with the three-dimensional angle of a room, these lines are easily read as independent angled linear forms, which create an alternate plane that moves across the image, optically flattening the space recorded by the photograph.
For late-Modernist abstraction flatness was regarded as one of the defining characteristics of painting, during a period in which medium-speci- ficity was often seen as the main goal or ideal of art. By introducing these references, Laviada’s pictures provoke reflections on the medium of photography and its own essential characteristics. Traditionally, photography has been defined by its documentary function, the manner in which it captures a unique, encountered situation. The references to painting in Laviada ́s pictures, as well as the obvious interventions by the artist in the depicted locations, emphasize the constructed nature of these images, provocatively playing with the assumed borders and conventions of photography.
Tobias Ostrander, Curator
INTERVIEW WITH ALEJANDRA LAVIADA BY DAVID MIRANDA
David Miranda (DM):
Back in the 1970’s, the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark made a series of interventions in public spaces known as Building Cuts. He removed sections from the walls of New York State abandoned buildings, generating temporary compositions that existed only after the remains of each building was demolished by the government. These works remained in the memory of hundreds of people; but we still know about them because of the photographic documents that Matta-Clark produced as part of his projects. Back then, these photographs also meant an expansion of sculpture, because they were able to present a singular and ephemeral situation as an art object. A series of interventions in the skin of abandoned buildings in the city were presented as a counterweight to the industrial culture that surrounded them; do you identify your practice with this kind of interventions in city landscapes?
Alejandra Laviada (AL):
Yes, interventions are fundamental for both my creative process and my pictures. Nevertheless, an intervention might be done in many different ways, and I am interested in exploring this variety. Some of them reflecting the passage of time in a single space, while others are accidental or involuntary —perhaps done by someone who was there before me— but they can also be planned, the outcome of an act meant to alter the state of things…
I don’t like the idea of having to classify interventions as urban, or social, or as anything else; instead, I believe that interventions are a part of a creative process, one intervenes a place in order to create something new. It might be a public or a private space; in the city or in the countryside; a space or an object…When we intervene something we appropriate it, and that allows us to play with the way in which we perceive our surroundings.
I feel a very strong affinity to Matta-Clark’s creative process; and with other artists from that decade as well, such as Robert Smithson. Both were very interested in combining different disciplines in their work; Matta-Clark did it from the perspective of architecture, while Smithson departed from a mixture of geology and sculpture. Matta-Clark’s Building Cuts are hybrids: architectural sculptures that survive as photographs. The works by Smithson are some sort of earthworks or geological sculptures, which— to a large extent—also survive through photography. The common denominator in their process is intervention, while the part played by photography in their practice is what makes them different.
For Matta-Clark, Smithson and other artists from the 1960’s (here we could also talk about performance art), photography was just a way to document their work, a mere record of the things they did; which, eventually, replaced them as artworks. In the work of these artists, photography was the means, but no the end. Pictures were nothing but a document that came after the piece, and they did not pay a lot of attention to the quality of the image. We could say that, for them, the intervention was the end, and photography the means.
For me it is the other way around; interventions are part of my photographic process, they are just the means through which I construct an image. The image always substitutes the action, but in my work, the action is not complete without the image.
In the series Esquinas and Agujeros (Corners and Holes) that you showed at the Museo Experimental El Eco we find different compositions made through the observation and transgression of the inner walls of abandoned buildings in downtown Mexico City. These photographs are abstracted from the place where they were taken and the outcome is not documental, but pictorial. How are the languages of painting and performance related in your work? Who influenced you to do this kind of work?
I started my career as a painter, and my process as a photographer has been very influenced by that.
I like the idea of constructing an image, and not simply documenting something that is already there. To achieve this I use intervention or abstraction, and I always look for a way to transform everyday life.
I have always been interested in combining different art disci- plines in my work, and in trying to erase the borders between them. I admire the work of artists who manage to express their ideas through different media, or those who create hybrid objects that avoid definitions.
I am interested in exploring the relation of photography to other disciplines, such as sculpture or painting. In Esquinas y Agujeros (which is now called De-Construcciones [De- constructions]), there is a strong dialogue between photography and painting, especially with Minimalism and Color Field Painting from the 1950’s and 1960’s.
In my work, painting is more important than performance, but both influences come from my work as a painter. When I changed painting for photogra- phy, I missed the physical part of painting… (I think of Jackson Pollock as an example of this interaction). The act of painting might be compared to a perfor- mance, or to the act of making holes in a wall to create my De-Construcciones series. When I began to do interventions in the spaces that I photographed, I felt that I was being able to incorporate the “physical” part of painting to my photographic process.
How do you understand photography as a practice, as something that documents an ephemeral event or as an image that has been composed and constructed?
I believe that each photographer would have a different answer to this question; and all of them would be correct. The most important part for me is the construction and composition of an image. Most of the time I am not taking the picture of a moment, but creating some- thing I want to take a picture of. First I have an idea or I do an intervention, sometimes I plan it, and sometimes I don’t. For me, the challenge is: how can I build an image able to convey an idea? All the time I’m thinking: how can I transform reality? How can I intervene it and make it mine?…
When you construct an image, what kind of narratives do you want to produce?
It depends on the object or the space that I am making pictures of…but I want to change our perception of things, to transform everyday life, to express an idea through an image, to convey those things that we can not put in words through feelings, to have fun, to play…
What is your interest in the city and how do you get involved with the place where you work?
I am very interested in how the city changes and in the language that defines it. For each project, I look for spaces that are undergoing some sort of change (those that are going to be demolished or remodeled) and I use them as a temporary studio for an unlimited period of time. Sometimes I work with an idea, and then I look for a space where I can develop it. At others, I find the space first, and then I see how can it be intervened. I don’t have a fixed set of rules, because every space is different and I like to have the freedom to experiment throughout the process.
Recently, it is becoming harder to find the spaces that I want to photograph at the right time (sometimes its too late, and they have already started working on them); now the challenge is taking my interventions to other kinds of places and to go on exploring the ideas that I’ve been working with.