Works from the “Foreigners” series, 2013–present. Porcelain, approx. 15 x 20 x 8 cm.
Claudia Fontes, who represented Argentina at the 2017
Venice Biennale, has been living in Brighton, England,
for the last 12 years. She studied art at the National
School of Fine Arts Prilidiano Pueyrredón in Buenos
Aires and art history at the University of Buenos
Aires. Her actions, objects, and social projects express
a deep concern about the political and symbolic spaces
left behind by decolonization. Art becomes a powerful
weapon in the struggle against apathy, indifference,
and ignorance, introducing new ways to perceive culture,
nature, history, and the social forces that shape
individuals. In addition to her studio practice, she
has spearheaded several cooperative artists' networks,
including TRAMA, a platform for DIY, artist-led culture,
and has generated spaces for the development of
critical thought. She has contributed to numerous
international forums about artist-run culture, focusing
on the impact of arts and culture in social development.
María Carolina Baulo: Your sculptures and installations always
make a statement about human behavior, frequently by initiating
a dialogue between animals and humans. Murmuration (2016),
for instance, highlights the importance of cooperative learning.
You want humans to exercise the same cooperative skills demonstrated
by starlings learning to fly. Murmuration represents a
nomadic chorus that underscores the importance of paying attention
to each other and to our living environment. Could you talk
about how it came into being?
Claudia Fontes: At the moment, it is more of an evolving idea than
a piece in its own right. I did a pilot version at Parque de la Memoria
in Buenos Aires in October 2016. It was called 500, in reference
to the number of children estimated by human rights organizations
in Argentina to have been killed—as is assumed in the case of Pablo
Míguez—or kidnapped. The action was motivated by the birds that
have used my Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez as a
perch since the moment it was installed. Pablo's figure was never
lonely; it was accompanied by these birds from the very beginning.
When I started working on that piece, Argentina was consumed
by an institutional crisis, which, though tragic, also introduced
the right conditions for self-organized knowledge to emerge. The
search for utopia in the '70s had been channeled through organizational
structures, which were extremely vertical and hierarchical
following patriarchal mandates, and this ultimately contributed
to their failure. I believe that the only way to preserve any sense of
a utopian future is to channel it through horizontal organizational
strategies; and we can learn a huge amount about such strategies
from the behavior of birds and other animals. For 500, I invited
500 14-year-old children to mimic the birds' movements following
a set of rules. They could break the rules if they wished and then
debate about them afterwards.
MCB: Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez seems to float
on the Río de la Plata—the "grave" of hundreds of victims disappeared
by state terrorism during the '70s. In 1999, you were one
of the winners of the Parque de la Memoria Award, which resulted
in this work. Did you intend to subvert the conventional structure
of the monument from the beginning?
CF: The piece actually uses the conventional idea of a monument
because it contests it. The figure was modeled by trying to achieve
an accurate anthropometrical representation of an absent body,
which is obviously impossible. However, the mere attempt of trying
to do it puts that impossibility in suspense. The figure is not
intended to show how Pablo Míguez looked. We are denied access
to his face and appearance, forced instead to imagine him.
The work appeals to a pulsation of life that we set in motion at the
moment of attempting to reconstruct Pablo's face in our minds.
At that point, it becomes not an emblem of power, as monuments
are, but an emblem of presence.
MCB: You have referred to your practice as walking along the edges,
along borders instead of through centers. Those are challenging
roads, which question comfort zones and provoke reflection. Personally,
I believe art should always question the status quo and
propose alternatives while moving our emotions; if not, it is
wasting a magnificent opportunity. What do you see as the role
of art today?
Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, 2000--10.
Water reflection on stainless steel, (figure) 170 x 50 x 70 cm. Work installed
in the Río de la Plata, Buenos Aires.
CF: We are going through a moment in the history of artistic
practice in which we need to question what drives us to make
art. What do we want to get out of it? What type of experience
do we want to bring into the world? If we question this in our
practice and train ourselves to look at things in a different way,
then there is a chance that we will be able to offer others different
conditions of looking. A different experience of looking can trigger
different ways of being present, of engaging, and of feeling. So,
it is not only about shaking someone's emotions and thoughts for
its own sake, it is about being able to offer an experience that
can meaningfully engage people. Right now, I believe we have a
greater chance of engaging meaningfully with each other at the
edges of the art debate than at the center. I am not very good at
pretending that the art world makes sense. As soon as you move
out from the center, there are a billion people ready to tell you
that it does not. Why not listen to them?
MCB: The focus of the "Foreigners" series is clearly political. You
highlight the necessity of producing poetic situations that open
up channels of perception and collaborative awareness. These
sculptures can be in absolute sympathy with their context, surrounding
objects, and the situations of daily life, yet they present
unexpected scenes of strangeness. What inspired this series, and
why did you choose porcelain?
CF: In Britain, porcelain is popularly associated with upper-class
social status and proper Englishness. I wanted to appropriate for
myself a material that is both symbolically and physically from here,
using it to comment on what it means to be a foreigner in this place
and at this time. The various images, which I collect while rambling
in the countryside—a very English activity—come together in a
kind of hybrid that I call "Foreigners." They are about the size of my
hand. They are also foreigners in respect to the language of contemporary
art—you would not expect an artist these days to focus on
making porcelain figurines. I believe that the skills of the foreigner
are very useful: you are part of a community, yet you have enough
distance to be critical of it. By the same token, you become an
expert on adaptability, which is, I think, the most relevant single
quality nowadays. I highly recommend becoming a foreigner in
everything you do, if you are not already one.
MCB: Material and concept work together for you, and touch is
very important. Your works invite viewers to engage not only in
intellectual dialogue but also in physical dialogue. It is essential
in these moments of crisis that we, individually and as a species,
recover and (re)develop the intelligence that we have trapped in
our hands. Is this the idea behind The Horse Problem (2016--17),
which debuted at the Venice Biennale?
Decoy for Andean Condor, 2011. Polyurethane foam, synthetic rubber, paint, and
rope, view of work installed at Frieze Sculpture Park, Regent’s Park, London.
CF:We face a major challenge in contemporary art practice, which
is finding a new epistemology, a new way of validating the necessity
of creating art as a form of understanding and making sense of
the world in which we live. For a while now, I have been interested
in the role that artistic practice plays in our evolution as a species—
what necessity it addresses, how it helps us to survive. The agreedupon
sensorium in Western culture, which centers on the sense
of vision, is making us fail. At some point in history, we decided that
we could trust our eyes more than our hands, and we gave up on
a way of understanding the world that is crucial to the formation of
concepts in our minds. It is by touching and handling that we are
able to put names to things when we are very young. There is a
hypothesis that prehistoric figurines representing human beings multiplied exponentially during the Neolithic, at the point when we
cemented the idea of what it is to be a person, and that their main
function was to be held in the hand. These hand-size representations
had a major role in allowing our brains to think of human beings
as different from animals and the rest of nature, so that we could
exploit them. When I read about this, I wondered what would happen
if we had the choice of thinking through our hands. What new
concepts and understanding of our surroundings would we gain?
MCB: The Horse Problem sparked a flurry of interpretations. It captured
a frozen instant in which a horse, a woman, and a man react
to a crisis. You said you were inspired by the 19th-century cultural
icons that built Argentina's identity, challenging them through
a surreal scene with the quality of an apparition. Could you discuss
the ideas and some of the formal decisions that you had to make?
CF: My idea was to create a scene that would collect and express
the different layers of history and meaning already contained in the
Argentinian Pavilion at the Arsenale, which I used as an objet
trouvé. As an artist living abroad invited to "represent" my homeland,
I treated this as an opportunity to engage in ideas about how
Argentina formed its own identity, but in a very playful manner that
would open other, wider meanings. Those cultural icons linked to
national identity were a point of departure, rather than the destination.
Argentina is a country with a strong literary tradition, and it
made sense to build this piece by borrowing from literary tradition
and literary expression.
The material, techniques, and language allowed me to establish
links across history, which you could read as ironic. While the figures
had the appearance of classical monumental sculptures, the
actions into which they were frozen, especially the woman and the horse, were the complete opposite of what you would expect from
classical equestrian statuary. I am very interested in this sort of
"trans-creation" across centuries: the figure of the victorious male
rider is replaced by the warped building it is bumping into, the
horse is neither poised nor triumphal but bucking and scared of its
own shadow being dismembered; the only character with superpowers
in the scene is a woman. To render this, I used new technologies
like 3D scanning and 3D modeling in combination with
traditional sculpting techniques. I was interested in the theatricality
of the installation in a traditional sense as much as in the video
game language that the 3D modeling software brought into it.
Finally, I was interested in the monstrous aspect of the out-ofscale
horse and the out-of-scale hand holding it in place, the tension
between what would be considered "beautiful" and acceptable
and how that becomes distorted just by inflating the scale. There is
something about the lack of sustainability in contemporary art practice
that I consider to be monstrous, and this consideration probably
filtered itself into the choice of scale when thinking of the Biennale
as the least sustainable of all international art world events.
Works from the "Foreigners" series, 2013--present.
Porcelain, approx. 15 x 20 x 8 cm.
MCB: So, in this case, you really are disassociating your work from
traditional monuments, particularly the equestrian monument?
CF: I play with the idea of monuments, trying to deconstruct and
make visible the absurdity of the values that they encapsulate.
Monuments are usually instruments for state propaganda, but this
horse bucking against the ceiling in a state of panic—within the
context of a national pavilion—does quite the opposite. I thought
of the building containing the horse as a reverse plinth. Rather than
standing on top of the plinth, the horse is trapped inside it.
In the case of Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, the
plinth is the river where Pablo's body was allegedly dropped. The
monumental aspect of the horse, like the reference to portraiture
in Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, plays with the
tradition of figurative sculpture, and seemingly traditional materials,
but only as a strategy to disconcert the viewer. Neither stainless
steel (in the case of Reconstruction) nor marble dust and resin (in
the case of The Horse Problem) are traditional materials for monuments.
Instead, these not-so-noble materials add to the debasement
of the monument.
MCB: What have you been working on recently?
CF: I was invited by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro to be part of the curatorial
team for the São Paulo Biennial, which opens in September 2018.
This time around, there is a curatorial team made up of artists, all
of us with very different practices and conceptual approaches.
Gabriel's invitation was to put my work in dialogue with whatever
and whoever I considered necessary. I had absolute freedom to
choose my own definition of what it is to be a curator, select a sector
of the building to work in, and decide what that space was going
to be about. It has been quite an experimental process from which
I've learned a lot.
María Carolina Baulo is an art historian and writer in Buenos Aires.