Revista Atlantica #53
Pablo León de la Barra
A conversation between Aldo Chaparro and Pablo León de la Barra
Pablo León de la Barra:
Aldo, is it alright with you to start our conversation from the beginning? I just came back from Peru, where I am preparing an exhibition at Centro Comercial Camino Real, which apparently was the mall of the eighties and is deeply rooted in the peruvian peoples’ collective imaginary ever since. The vast majority of the stories I was told included having grown up with the presence of Sendero Luminoso’s terrorism, especially towards a generalized fear and the social loss of public space. I imagine this to be the Lima of your adolescence and post-adolescence, which is very different to the idealized Lima I knew through Vargas Llosa’s novels, and later, Jaime Bayly’s novels. I would like you to tell me a little about that specific moment of your life, the kind of work you did, and how your involvement with Lima’s artistic scene began, the artists you thought with and if there was any kind of movement in Lima.
Between the Huaca and the Mall. I grew up in Lima in a neighbourhood named San Isidro, exactly two blocks away from the first luxury mall in Lima. It was called (still is called) Camino Real, right in front of the huaca Huallanmarca; a pre columbian pyramid, known as the pyramid of the witch. I spent my adolescence and post adolescence configuring an incipient social life at the mall and a personal life in that pyramid. On top of that pyramid I got drunk for the first time, had my first kiss, my first joint, among other things. The pyramid was perfectly visible brom my room’s window, and I am sure its volume deeply affected my perception of space forever.
During my formative years as an artist, Lima was a difficult city, far away from the rest of the world. Information was a precious good. I remember someone sent me a postcard from Europe once, with an image of George Baselitz. He was standing next to one of his gigantic wooden sculptures. That single image was, I believe, the strongest influence I’ve had in my work. An artforum edition was an absolute treasure, so our notion of the contemporary was based on assumptions on what the rest of the world must be like. Traveling from the South has always been problematic, and for many in my generation, once they left Peru it was forever, so information didn’t travel back with them.
Sendero Luminoso, Túpac Amary and several other terrorist groups had Lima besieged. Electricity would constantly be down due to them blasting the high voltage towers that fed the city with dynamite. In the worst cases I remember having access to water one day, then to light the next, all this in the middle of a brutal 11:00pm curfew. In the meantime we went on with our lives; we studied, we worked, we got drunk, we fell in love, and we danced. No doubt, this was a truly different Lima from Vargas Llosa’s amourous Lima, or Bryce Echenique, and more similar to Salazar Bondy’s gray Lima, or Julio Ramón Ribeyro’s obscure Lima. Our Lima back then was the Lima in Mario Bellatin’s stories, even Jaime Bayly’s Lima.
Lima’s artistic scene back then was strangely composed of young people, or not so young people with money (or at least their families had some). They had all decided to be painters, poets or sculptors. The eighties were being led by Hern’an Pazos. He was the undeniable star. He had the intellectuals and geniuses of peruvian postmodernism around him. All the best parties, the best openings and all the contemporaneity which came all the way from the far away world came through our small and privileged, cultivated high class.
There were some other options; some personalities committed to the dark historic moment we were living, like José Tola. In that same context was the Faculty of Art at the Catholic University (once the Pontificia Universidad Católica, now plainly Universidad Católica, due to direct orders from the Vatican). That’s where we all studied, except for people like Fernando Bryce, who did only one semester only to leave for Berlin. The style of the Catholic University was in a way torn apart, a sort of tortured expressionism that the students adopted without question, for in a city at war it seemed impossible to opt for a different subject.
Hernán Pazos, Rafael Hastings (his real name was Fernando Indacochea, we know nothing of his reasons behind the change) Esther Vainstein, Emilio Rodríguez Larraín, Rocío Rodrigo and some others were the stars. Hernán was my mentor. He provided me with a space in his studio, he basically taught me how to think for myself and part with the ridiculousness of a medium traumatized by its condition. Hernán showed me what a well informed and intelligent body of works of an artist was like. During my first years of university I had to decide what my specialty would be. Our options were sculpting, painting, printmaking and photography. Claudia Salem, the love of my life (back then) decided on sculpting, so my options were reduced to one; I would be a sculptor.
PLB: Then you moved to Monterrey. What year was that? How did you end up there? What was happening in Monterrey back then? Was that the moment of the mini boom? How did you feel, coming from Peru? Did you feel there was a dialogue between what artists there were making, the boom of painting of that time, what was taught in MARCO and your own interests? I think you may have been one of the first Latinamerican artists to migrate to other places in Latinamerica (as opposed to New York, like many from your generation). Was there a dialogue between other Latinamerican artists back then? And what kind of work did you do in Monterrey?
AC: I arrived to Monterrey in 1991, accompanied by my friend Moico Yaker. He was invited to participate at MARCO’s opening exhibition. The show’s name was none other than Mito y Magia en América en los 90 (Myth and Magic in nineties America), some sort of Les magiciens de la Terre, region 4. Monterrey back then was being supported by a not so small group of collectors, some of them belonging to families with several generations of collectors (dating back as far as Monterrey’s history allows). They had supported the scene up to the point I remember seeing Angela Westwáter Gian Enzo Sperone, Douglas Baxter, Annina Nosei, Jorg Immendorf, Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg and no other than Schnabel himself roaming around house parties and dinner parties, searching for new markets in the world when New York started to fade. The Mito y Magia exhibition was curated by Miguel Cervantes who, travelled all across America for more than two years in search for Latinamerican Magic, financed by these Regio families. That was why at that opening one could see a collection by artists from all over the world. It looked like a Unicef postcard!
But Monterrey had its one and only superstar, and it was a huge; Julio Galán. He was the only good and true thing of that time, the only one who hit hard, who lasted, who had sustenance and passion. After some (few) years, collectors had bought paintings (for it was all about painting) at highly inflated prices by artists whom we never heard of again, they stopped buying art and went right back to their true passions: wine, cars, horses, etc. But we had some good years. A lot was sold and the famous new mexican figuration was forged, through which a bunch of Chilango and Regio gallerists made good fortunes. MARCO had exhibitions with budgets that the big museums of the world surely envied. The MARCO prize was 250,000 dollars, and the Hugo Boss prize given by the Guggenheim (won by Matthew Barney) was only 50,000 dollars. The MARCO prize (just for painting) was won by Julio Galán (surprise, surprise) and Jörg Immendorff (????).
My work back then consisted of carved wood. It was all I had done during my last years of university. The content of my work had not changed much, it was still the same research on processes, surfaces and behaviour of materials. Back then my pieces were representations of objects found in the Vanitas paintings during the counter-reform. I was very interested in those paintings whose sole purpose was to remind us that everything in life is mere vanity; knowledge, food, music, even art itself, are nothing other than vanity. Monterrey welcomed my work warmly. For several years I sold quite well and had plenty of exhibitions in galleries and museums.
My decision to migrate to a latinamerican country was something my father always questioned. He always asked why, if I had already made it out of Lima, I hadn’t gone to London like my friends, and moreover, I had gone to a province, that I was living in a pueblo (I lived in Villa de García, a ghost town in the middle of the desert, to hours away from Monterrey).
Monterrey wasn’t prepared to receive immigrants. There were no taxis on the streets, the migration office was old and at a desk where they gave out visas out of sympathy. Around the time of the MARCO opening, some Southamericans got together with the intention of staying , but the fear wouldn’t allow for anything to really happen. Museums and art institutions were run by managers, businessmen, people who could handle money, but who were incapable of making any artistic decisions. They never worked with curators, everything was decided between managers and counselors, meaning, those who invested money. The results were evident. A lack of guidance, education and experience destroyed the hopes of turning Monterrey into an art capital, which is why it is now living the saddest moment for the art scene in all of its history. In the midst of this scenario, I was the only one who really set roots in Monterrey. I got married and my daughters were born there.
PLB: The first of your works I encountered in Mexico dealt with design and architecture. I especially remember one that really impressed me at X-Teresa, around 1999-2000. I imagine you were still living in Monterrey. It was a prefabricated house, designed to be in the desert. You made it for a collective named Los Lichis. It was a place for them to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs or something along those lines. I would like to know more about this piece, and how your work’s transition towards design and architecture happened. I myself, many years later around 2007 or 2008, also exhibited a portatile module/library within the exhibition Sueño de Casa Propia which I co-curated alongside María Inés Rodríguez in Mexico City, which I believe belongs to that same line of research.
AC: When we lived in the desert, Vanesa, my wife, Mario García Torres and I, decided to form a collective called La Mesa (The Table). It was basically my studio; an old house downtown where now and then we would present different artists’ work. We exhibited some very good projects by the Tercerunquinto collective, by Alejandro Rosso, the Lichis, among others. The best project we showed was by AnDADOR 20, consisting of the installation of a small house I had built and designed with some modernist references in mind, as well as the relationship between architecture and nature, matters I was very much into back then. We set the cabin in the middle of nowhere with an electricity generator and the necessary equipment (keyboards, synthesizers, microphones, etc.) for the Lichis (Gerardo Monsivais, Manuel Mathar and Jose Luis Rojas) to spend a week in the desert making music. We would make trips to provide them with food and some complementaries such as beer, cocaine, marihuana and ecstasy. By the end of the week the three of them were destroyed, they had gotten sick in their stomachs, they had the flu and were completely disconnected from reality. The day of the opening, people came all the way from monterrey and settled around the little house called AnDADOR 20, the name of the street in Mexico City where the Lichis had been living together working for a few months. It was a very special moment. The invitation was at dawn in the middle of the desert. Music was coming out from the inside of the cabin and we could all listen. The result was a quite boundless series of compositions which clearly represented the process they had gone through during those seven days of hallucination in the desert.
Such a cabin triggered various similar projects in my work. They were usually design and architectonic solutions to non traditional necessities or morally in conflict like a reading cabinet (initially I intended for it to only offer pornography) and was essentially a portable public library, or a small cabin which offered a place to sleep and keep things inside for homeless people. This piece was exhibited several times. Also a cabin designed to have anonymous sex in a place widely used for sexual encounters located in the gardens of UNAM called the camino verde (the green pathway). Another one served as a hiding place to smoke weed. This one was a sort of coffin containing a good sound system, one for video and stroboscopic lights.
PLB: While you were in Monterrey, you were also teaching at the University. I’m not sure whether you were teaching those on your own account or with Vanesa Fernández, your wife who was currently working as curator for the Museo de Monterrey. Together, you formed a generation of artists who are now doing important things in Mexico, among them, the artist Mario García Torres and Zelika Garcia, director of MACO, the contemporary art fair in Mexico City.Was there anyone else? Tercerunquinto? Sofía Hernández Chang? I remember you once told me you had some sort of workshop where you gathered to think…
AC: During those years, Vanesa and I entered to teach at UDEM, the university of Monterrey, which had been founded and gifted by Vanesa’s grandfather. Vanesa only taught for a couple years, but I did for almost 8 years at all levels, from newcomers to thesis projects. Throughout that time, I developed a pretty effective and dynamic method that awakened the joy of producing in those generations, and it paid off with very good results for everybody.
I taught in my studio. At some point schedules were dissolved. I would open my doors at 10:00am and wouldn’t close until 23:00 or 12:00am. My students were all there, always working on their projects which I supervised every now and then. We would talk, eat and drink a lot too. Many great projects emerged during those years, fruit of those intense and integral sessions where we all generated an amazing sinergy. Vanesa and I taught Mario García, Zelika García, Eduardo López, Benedetta Monteverde, Ismael Merla and Sofía Hernández, among many others.
PLB: It was around that time that you and Vanesa embarked on the Celeste adventure. Celeste was a publication which became the voice of a generation, and which provided opportunities to people like me, but also Mario García Torres, Stefan Bruggemann, and many others who helped make Celeste into a thought platform. Celeste was like a printed exhibition where works by artists coexisted with critical texts, along with matters of fashion and lifestyle. I also think it was an important moment. The internet wasn’t yet what it is today, and Celeste became a window to the outside, but also to the inside and the voice of a generation. In a way, Celeste was a work of art and a curatorial job. I would like you to tell me more about the decision to make Celeste, and its content. After publishing the first number, you moved to Mexico City. How did that affect the magazine and your work, and how did your work change upon your arrival to Mexico City?
AC: In the year 2000, Vanesa received a proposal from an important editorial group to make a magazine. They knew they wanted a more luxurious product than the titles they currently managed, but they didn’t know exactly what they wanted and how. Vanesa and I designed a magazine for them which reunited different disciplines in a single publication. Back then in Mexico there was one one art magazine, one for architecture, and some fashion magazines, but there was none that built bridges or established dialogues between different disciplines. We were the first to do so in Latin America. We wanted to make a magazine that portrayed our contemporaneity. Through all these years I’ve seen dozens of magazines pop up and disappear after two or three numbers. Apparently everybody thinks it’s a very glamorous job to own a magazine, but few people know how tremendously significant the effort it implies. For twelve years, Celeste was positioned as one of the most influential publications. Then there was Baby Baby Baby, which is ,to this day, an object of cult and collection in different places in the world, especially Tokyo. Those were good years. We ended up editing six different magazines at a time, as well as various books and plenty of special projects. We had the best collaborators in Mexico and the whole world, and we threw the best parties and events. At some point we were a team of over 200 people. The magazine was distributed in practically every important city. We lived in constant pressure but those were highly creative and productive years.
We made the first two numbers in my studio in Monterrey, and when our new partner asked us to take care of a couple productions he had on queue in Mexico City and hadn’t been able to shape, we decided to move. We took our things and most of our equipment and moved to DF in less than two weeks. The city was a tremendous content injection, as well as an amusement park for our games, and also an amazing platform to start working with the rest of the world.
I became editor. At some point I was producing content for three magazines and various books at the same time, plus coordinating the art direction of all the publications by our group. My personal work had transformed and all I did during those years is on the pages of those magazines. From those years, I gained the dynamic of working with others’ ideas to generate my own discourse, but always making the sources clear and visible, as well as the rules of the game, and always giving due credit. Back then I never even questioned it because, to me, it was a given that the lessons of postmodernism on appropriation were very digested and learned by everyone, but that is not the case. I met Sherrie Levine a few weeks ago and we talked about this; originality and authenticity, postmodernism and copyright (it is an issue of gender to her, a paternalistic matter of private property imposed by men) are still sacred values to the majority. Any transgression to those parameters destroys the aura of things and banalizes them, multiplying them into versions of less value than an “original” as if we could speak of any original object within our culture.
PLB: Your most recent work stems from a series of investigations. On the one hand you have a post conceptual romantic research, where lyrics from different songs that partake in the soundtrack of your life are materialized becoming text on the wall or on posters. On the other hand, some of your works reference certain Pop icons, for example, by referring to the sculpture LOVE by Robert Indiana from 1964, but sexualizing it and exchanging it for the word PUTA (WHORE), PORn, SUCK, etc. Other works are more abstract, like your series of steel panels of different colors, which you mold with all the strength in your body until they acquire different forms, and which somehow destroy shape and reflection. I would like you to talk about those recent works, how you understand the transitions your practice has undergone and that give shape to your art, arriving at what you do now.
AC: As a result of my work in magazines, I realized that I didn’t need to generate every idea, that I could become an editor, even within my own work. That’s what I did on the artworks with the lyrics; I would search phrases that checked these two boxes: once stripped of their original context (usually romantic) and put into the art context, they seem to reflect the process itself through which the pieces are created. The second requirement is that the text must make the artworks speak about themselves, like in the piece (extracted from a Madonna song) “I’d be surprisingly good for you”. This work refers to itself and how surprisingly good it would be for you, for the spectator, for the collector.
Parallel to the text pieces, throughout some years, I developed an old interest in mirrors (Pistoletto, Robert Morris, Borges) and so I transitioned through acrylic mirrors to end up with stainless steel. One of the premises of my work is time, and the steels are an example of that. It usually takes more time to clean the piece than it takes to make it, because my processes must be fast. Such pieces are like the reconstruction of a crime. On its surface you can clearly read the forces which transformed the material and shaped the form it holds. To me, what is important about those pieces is the process. The object is the result, the document, the trace of that fight (which is very literal in some cases) in which I struggle to transform the material, and the material struggles to maintain its form. In that process I went purging out the unnecessary, the excess. That’s how I went from acrylics to steel. In order to bend the acrylic, I needed to use a blowtorch and that bothered me. The tool, that third element in the way between me and the material. I always make the steel pieces using only gloves because it is crucial for me to have that direct, immediate relationship. The pieces are a result of my weight, my strength and even definitely my emotional state. I always think of my pieces as organically generated, like pictures of the surface of a river; they will always be different because, even though I have developed certain strategies, every piece is always a different problem each time. According to Bergson, the notion of linear time is impossible. Reality is to him the simultaneity of past, present, and future, and that is what I find in my corrugated mirrors. The past is there because the object reminds immediately of the moment of its transformation. The present because it is evidently a fast and intense process, and the future because it is impossible not to think that if any of the ingredients that shaped the steel had been ever so slightly altered, the result would be absolutely different, it wouldn’t be the same object.
PLB: You recently created a brilliant exhibition in your workshop, where you did a homage in Memphis’ style, as well as Etore Stotsass and Christian Nagel, and you invited a new generation of young artists to participate. I would like you to to talk more about this almost obsessive presence of the eighties (the aesthetic, the music) that exists in your work, that is perhaps also linked to your earlier works in Peru, to your works with song lyrics, but also to the way in which the past becomes a tool to re-read our today.
AC: The aesthetic of the eighties is my aesthetic. Just like your generation becomes very evident through your music, for it is the music you listened to in your adolescence and post adolescence, this happens to me in both aspects. Memphis was the aesthetic of my generation. Stotsass and Memphis (and the group Archizoom before that) were so influential that their aesthetic permeated in the imaginary of the time in such a way that we still run into sequels of an original, and sometimes even authors themselves don’t know trace back to Memphis. I have always found such a characteristic of design quite fascinating; its power to penetrate daily life, away from the pretensions and hermeticism characteristic of art and its encrypted messages, directed towards an audience who enjoys such a ridiculous feeling of exclusivity. Hernán Pasos’ (friend and mentor) work in Lima in the eighties was very Memphis, but better than Memphis. Hernán had digested the aesthetic and had accomplished some works that marked me forever at 21.
PLB: In your work as an artist, you have done about everything; you’ve published magazines, you’ve curated exhibitions. I am very interested in your labour as a polifacetic artist who tackles cultural production from distinct angles and somehow redefines what people believe the artistic function should be. Which leads me to the question, what do you think should be the labour of the artist nowadays? Especially in your case, operating internationally, but living and working from a city as intense and complex as Mexico City.
AC: An artist must be a mirror of its contemporaneity, of issues within the historical moment it lives. That is the conducting thread of my apparently eclectic and different practice, across every discipline I have practiced. Something I always repeated in my lessons is that every idea implies two specific aspects. One of them is the material. A video idea cannot be solved in a magazine, a sculpture piece cannot be a painting. The second matter is time. If your idea requires two minutes of execution and you did two minutes and three seconds, you’ve ruined the piece. There is a relationship of exactitude between these ingredients where one cannot fail. In search of that equilibrium is that I have gotten involved in so many different disciplines.
It is said that to be universal, one must start in the particular. For instance, the image of the tip of an iron inches away from burning the tip of a tongue is one that anyone can understand and almost perfectly feel. We all have the same body, therefore we share the same experiences it allows. Hence, we all understand the image from the Sensation catalogue (the YBA exhibition in 1977), both newcomers and connoisseurs. That’s why my work is about me, my era, my tastes, my personal history, because that is all I can talk about and it’s the only thing others could truly understand.
PLB: Wrapping up, what are you working on now? And also, the last question Hans Ulrich always makes in his interviews, what projects have you not done that you would like to do?
AC: I am currently working on two projects. One of them I’ve been on for a few years now. It is a small novel in which I narrate the sex life of a post-teenager in Lima during the eighties, a mixture of fiction and truth. The title is “I don’t lie, I don’t tell the truth either”. The other project is the exhibition I’ll have in Lima in December, after almost five years without exhibiting there.
I have so many ideas I would like to execute, I’ve got thousands, but I think, without a doubt, it’s gotta be something I’ve never done before, a new discipline. I would like to make a musical!
PLB: hahaha, one last question, then. If your life was a musical, who would get to act the part for Aldo Chaparro?
AC: Viggo Mortensen, of course. *****
Aldo, I have finished reading these answers to my questions back in Lima.
Yesterday we opened the exhibition at Centro Camino Real. We installed the works of different artists in some of the abandoned business premises. Many of your friends were there; Fernando Bryce, Gilda Mantilla, etc. Everyone walking about the semi abandoned mall, a ghost of what it once was.
I enjoyed very much being able to converse with you via the internet, learn things about you I didn’t know, grasp a better understanding of where you come from and why you do what you do. Getting to know parts of your practice which I ignored, like your work as a teacher, or your role in Celeste’s team work, subjects in which I would have loved to go deeper. I am dying to read that novel on Lima in the eighties, and to soon be able to watch that musical! It is a shame I’m leaving Lima tomorrow and you will arrive in a few days. I would very much have liked for this conversation to happen face to face, for us to have met at the top of Huaca Huallanmarca and talked through sunset while drinking pisco sour, looking back, but also forward. But alas, such is our contemporaneity! I hope to see you soon, live. Meanwhile, I send you a big hug.