Built from Life

The dynamic practice of Abraham Cruzvillegas draws on his experiences of growing up in Mexico city, as he creates sculptures that grow from their environment.

Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’ sculptures appear haphazard, disjointed and improvisational – and they are. Inspired by his parental home in Ajusco, a district in the south of Mexico City, he calls the sculptures autoconstruccións (or “self-construction”), as he sees them arising out of the environment that surrounds them. His parents, like many of their neighbours, built their house themselves, creating an improvisatory domestic edifice contingent on the availability of materials and the environment in which it was situated.

These autoconstruccións will be the focus of an exhibition at the Walker Art Center this spring, curated by Clara Kim. Kim see this as an important time in Cruzvillegas’ career, arguing that he is at a juncture of sorts in terms of what he will do next and how he will develop. He has come to recent widespread acclaim in the UK, with residencies at Tate Modern, London, and the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Glasgow, and it is thus a prime moment in his career to launch a survey of his work. Kim says that the exhibition will be “tracking the works he has made as well as providing a critical context for his provocative thinking, which ultimately challenges artistic will or intent and the production and consumption of objects.”

The importance of the artistic network within Mexico is integral to the way in which Cruzvillegas’ work developed. Gabriel Orozco (b. 1962) is often cited as the dominant influence, particularly in his artistic method whereby he adopts everyday materials in his work and reframes or reconfigures them. Sandstars (2012) consists of thousands of items (litter) that Orozco and assistants collected from the coastal side of a wildlife reserve in Mexico; their placement within the gallery space of the Guggenheim, New York, elevated their status as objects, reminding the viewer of their previous value as objects, which had been negated through their subsequent use and discardment. Sandstars is very much in the same vein of development as Cruzvillegas’ oeuvre and is indicative of the network of this generation of artists coming out of Mexico; a generation that includes Dr. Lakra and Damián Ortega.

The establishment of the Friday Workshops (Taller de los Viernes) was integral to this. Founded in the late 1980s, they initially began as seminar-type meetings with Orozco as teacher. The weekly meetings consisted of a select group of artists (Ortega, Dr. Lakra, Cruzvillegas and Gabriel Kuri) and were not just a site for collaboration and discourse but also one of support, with Cruzvillegas explaining in the exhibition catalogue for Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City (2007): “We learned together to discuss, criticise, and transform our work individually, with no programmes, marks, exams, diplomas or reprisals. We did not intend to become known, prepare for a show, go against the grain, make our presence felt as a group, or even make work … this was my education.” Kim states that the group are, though they no longer hold weekly meetings, close friends and sources of support, for by the time the group dissolved it had evolved into a “tightly knit group who form a kind of extended family that is supportive intellectually, creatively and personally.” The subsequent demise of the group and establishment of the artist-run studio Temistocles 44 (T44; named after its street address) arose out of the relationships and sense of solidarity cultivated at the Friday Workshops. Cruzvillegas realised the importance of gatherings – of having sites for exchange and discussion of ideas – in the creation and development of a permanent contemporary art infrastructure in Mexico City. Thus T44 replaced, in many ways, the workshops.

Circumstances of Cruzvillegas’ upbringing, education and training were influential in his artistic development, and the urban city landscape undeniably plays a major role in his work. Mexico City, a spawning, dynamic geographic metropolis, seems to breed resourcefulness: Francis Alÿs’ Ambulantes (1992-present), a series of images showing people pushing carts, wagons and buggies full of goods around the city, depicts this quite eloquently. The mode of transport is perhaps not always suited, with items precariously piled on top of one another, but it is essential. Cruzvillegas, like Alÿs, is interested in people’s ability and knack for “making do” and that nothing appears impossible or unmanageable, because with a little ingenuity and imagination anything can be transformed or achieved. In an interview with Decker-Parks in Museo Magazine, Cruzvillegas cites Mexico and his family home as “triggers” for new processes and developments in his work: “My house shows the evidence of a social clash and uneven wealth distribution, but also of the ingenuity and the wisdom that [follow from] specific needs.” The landscape, both physical and social, of Mexico is contingent upon the lived experience of its inhabitants and it this lived experience that he takes as the framework for his autoconstruccións.

Though sometimes described as having a DIY aesthetic, Cruzvillegas’ work is far from it – it is a melding of craft, technology and collecting in order to create a new aesthetic language. Cruzvillegas explains the process as being closely related to the traditional crafts of Mexico, but operating on a more conceptual and transformative level. The diversity of his practice, including, as it does, performance, sculpture, music and theatre, is best exemplified in A.C. Mobile (2008), which Kim explains as being about “the sharing (blasting) of music; about a collective, public experience as well as about announcing who you are, your identity.” This sense of identity as being tied to one’s heritage and culture is accentuated in Cruzvillegas’ 2010 play (created with theatre director Antonio Castro and composer Antonio Fernández Ros) Autoconstrucción. Staged at the Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto, its set itself was collaboration, featuring works by Dr. Lakra, Hassan Khan and Roman Ondak among others. The performance is indicative of the way in which his practice is stretching and evolving, pushing the limits as it were. Collaborations with fashion brands (e.g. Surface to Air), musicians and artisans as well as various residencies (e.g. Atelier Calder in 2005) keep his work incredibly dynamic and self-motivated.

This dynamism is inherent in the casual materials of his sculptures; feathers, pieces of rubber or plastic, a stray cymbal, a set of shark jaws, and a discarded empty can of vegetable oil all take on a new grace and status as objects as they are reconfigured into sculptural form by Cruzvillegas. The Optimistic Failure (2011), a suspended sculpture reminiscent of a chandelier in shape but closer in artistic comparison to an Alexander Calder mobile, is composed of representations of shrunken heads (tsantsas) made with various materials (coconuts, artificial hair, dung etc). The heads, which were traditionally used by tribes in the Amazon for ritual and trophic purposes, are fascinating in both their inherent anthropological allusions to the tribes by which they were used, and in their very material composition. The accumulation of disparate objects and forms into a cohesive, usable form is the very reality of his sculptures: the unusable becomes usable. His family home is exemplary of this and Cruzvillegas states in Autoconstrucción: The Book (2009): “The references that arise from observing the house are also transformed, in an equally unstable way, into obstacles, debris, constraints, leaps and jumps, tremors and unevenness, falling materials, ricochets, cracks, and disappearances that appeal to what is local in the form of a somatic consciousness of the immediate, the urgent, of a physical presence in time and space, multiple and simultaneous.” Cruzvillegas actively searches for and accumulates materials, not always with a specific intent in mind as most of the materials find themselves back in his studio for variable amounts of time. Once found by him they tend to lose their utility, valued as what Kim identifies as “raw material” and for their inert energy.

Works such as Aeropuerto Alterno (2002), A.C. Mobile (2008) or Sin Título / Untitled (1999), which directly references Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), exhibit a strong Duchampian element, not just for their aesthetic form but for appropriative elements. A.C. Mobile, made during his residency at CCA, was the fruition of his collaboration with John O’Hara of The Common Wheel project, and consisted of a mobile sculpture (essentially a customised bicycle) mounted with a sound system, which he used to broadcast 18 recorded songs (the lyrics of his own writing, played by local Glaswegian bands). Cruzvillegas says, in an interview with Decker-Parks, that the work “refers to people riding in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s and 1980s, but also to DJ and MC practices around the world, and especially the Sonidero tradition of Mexico City.” The materials themselves compound the multiplicity of references in his work, as each material references not just its traditional utility as an object or material, but how this changes in relation to other materials. Aeropuerto Alterno (2002) features machetes and knives piercing the top of a standing butcher’s block, the quantity of knives creating a plume-like effect that defeats their destructive, somewhat gruesome use. The arrangement of the materials thereby creates a new interchange of meaning: Cruzvillegas does with material what Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte did with words and linguistics.

Viewing an autoconstrucción is similar to reading a novel: each material is a new word, dependent upon the words surrounding it to give it a meaning. Then, those sentences being formed, like each sculpture created, develops a narrative in relation to the others. There are many disparate threads in his work, linking it to various “isms” and movements from Arte Povera with the use of organic materials, to Dadaism with elements of photomontage reminiscent of Hannah Höch’s work, to relational aesthetics with the destruction of the boundaries between art and audience. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 exhibition Untitled (Free), in which he converted 303 Gallery, New York, into a kitchen serving free food to visitors, historically contextualises the development of Cruzvillegas’ interactive works. Untitled (Free) was, at the time, shocking and revolutionary, and paved the way for conceptual artists who wanted to encourage an active participation from the audience. Like Tiravanija, Cruzvillegas turns to Nicholas Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics as a theoretical framework upon which to base his work. His experimentations and juxtapositions are not limited just to objects but to words as well. Calme (2006) and L’écriture du désastre (2006), comprising paint and chalk on cardboard, appear to be small chalkboards scrawled with the remains of an incoherent lesson. The surrealist tendency for word-play, as is perhaps best exhibited in the work of René Magritte, is used by Cruzvillegas in the same way – even his autoconstruccións, such as Autoconstrucción: Departmento de Defensa (2007), have an element of this. Interlocking and layered pieces of wood, and bricks of varying sizes, rise up to a layer of broken glass bottles, the bottles perhaps defending the sculpture beneath from the invasion of roosting birds.

This humorous element runs throughout his autoconstruccións, with Autoconstrucción: The Film (2009) providing a close look at the culture in which he grew up and the comical side of that everyday reality. Though at times sexually graphic (we see a couple naked, having sex outside), the film illustrates the reality of the often ramshackle houses that arise out of what seems like nothing. Cruzvillegas quite deliberately answers the main question that runs through his audience’s head when viewing his autoconstruccións: what does his parents’ house look like? The success of his work, though, is that, through answering the question, he automatically creates a sequence of questions; the audience is left more disturbed but one step closer to the culture of his art. The very presence of his autoconstruccións within the white walls of the gallery space highlights the stark difference between the generic materials of their construction, the often bizarre sculptural results, and the traditional aesthetics of the art world. The dialogue opened up by Cruzvillegas’ practice enables the audience to view in a new way; the sculptures becoming hybrid creations, the result of an open cultivated eye accustomed to seeing beauty in even the simplest forms.

Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites opens 23 March and runs until 22 September at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. www.walkerart.org.

Niamh Coghlan