INTERVIEW with GEMA ALAVA by GUILLERMO PESCADOR
Iberarte, August 2008, Spain.
Why did you decide to establish your residence in the United States?
Coincidences of life and good intentions… I arrived to the United States with a Fellowship for graduate studies from La Caixa Foundation to study in San Francisco and, when I was done with my MFA, New York seemed like a good place for an artist. Dialogues are essential for the development of my work, and the good thing about New York is that, although not everybody lives here, many people and shows pass through the city and it's possible to have conversations that would be impossible if I lived somewhere else.
Is it essential to pass through New York to be a recognized artist?
A recognized artist… It depends if you want to be recognized by your family, by your neighbors, by your country, by the whole world… I guess that in order to have your work recognized in New York, you have to pass by New York.
Iberarte met you when you gave a lecture at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. Do you come often to Spain because of work motives?
Not really, though I would love to come more often. Maybe someone will invite me after reading this interview. There are a couple of things in the air right now: La Caixa Foundation is taking a look at one of my projects. And, the exhibition that will be opening soon at the Cervantes Institute in New York is going to travel and I think that one of the stops is Madrid, though I'm not sure.
It's curious that you ask because one of the reasons for the exhibition at the Cervantes is to promote the work of some of the artists from Spain who live in New York.
Could you talk about the show at the Spanish Institute, and about your piece there?
The title is NY MOTION 1.0. It opens on September 23 and it will be open until January 2009. It's curated by Paco Cano, and Elvis Fuentes, who is a curator from El Barrio Museum in New York. They have invited seven Spanish artists who live in New York. All of us were born during the 60's or 70's. The other artists are Teo Gonzalez, Abigail Lazcoz, Jose Lerma, LluisLleo, Ester Partegas, and Fernando Renes. All of them are fantastic. I've worked before with Teo and Ester. Elvis and Paco's concept is very good; they think that our generation has a lot to say and they find the point of view of artists from Spain who live in New York to be very interesting. We are some kind of hybrids. I'm very happy to be part of this group and think the show is going to be very well received.
My piece is entitled "Tell Me a Lie." It was selected by Paco and Elvis when they came to my studio. It's an installation mounted directly onto the wall made out of paper, gold leaf, pins and thread. It's oval shaped and it's almost 3 meters wide. It's a version of a piece that was commissioned by the Center Juan Carlos I from New York University back in 2006.
How does an artist survive today? What or who are the art "Mecenas"?
I will ask Teo and Ester when I see them, I wonder what they'll say… You have to be consistant and be very organized. You have to distribute your time between the studio, family, the jobs you might have, traveling, openings, and answering e-mails, of course…
The "Mecenas" of the arts are many but it's not always easy to get close to them. The first thing I did when I came to New York was to apply to two programs for emerging artists - that's what you call an artist who's been trying to survive for a couple of years, as you say. I remember very well the feeling of not knowing anyone at all in New York as I sent those envelopes. I was admitted to both programs I applied for and that opened some doors. And one thing brings you to another: Curators see your work in a museum wall, they invite you to other projects… But, at the end, everything depends on your work. You have to work hard: If the "Mecenas" arrives and your work is not ready, the "Mecenas" leaves. We artists have to be very sincere with ourselves and that's not as easy as it sounds. Collectors also play a very important role. A good collector can be a fantastic Mecenas.
But… it's also true that some of the best art projects throughout history have been made, are being made and will be made without a Mecenas. There is a famous dialogue between Alexander the Great and Diogenes which has a lot to do with this topic: Diogenes was a very wise man who used to say that he could live with nothing, and in fact lived in a barrel. Alexander looked for him and asked him: "Diogenes, I've heard great things about you, is there anything I could do for you?" To which Diogenes replied: "Yes, could you move to one side so that I can get some sun?" Alexander was very surprised, looked at his officials and told them: "Say whatever you want but, if I weren't Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes." I believe there is a very important message in this story.
How is Spanish art valued in the USA?
That's such an interesting question… Spanish art… I can talk about how the work of Spanish artists that I know, but I don't know what to tell you about the whole of Spanish Art… I wonder if there's such a definition today and, if there is, what it really means. Can a work of art be considered Spanish if it has been created in a Spanish land even while the artist was born in Germany? Can a work of art be considered Spanish if it has been created by a Madrileno who has been living in Mexico for the last twenty years? How does one define it? Can Spanish art stop being Spanish art? When and why would this happen? Today, artists can travel a great deal. We are like sponges absorbing so many different experiences that, after a while, you wonder: Where do I really fit? We talk so much these days about globalization, multi-disciplinary departments… A year ago, during an interview with a television camera right in front of me, I was asked: Where is Spain in your work? And I replied: "Spain is there. Spain is always there." And I cannot think of a better answer.
In my experience, the value of the work made by Spanish artists, or Mexican, or Korean artists, is based on the capacity of acceptance that this work establishes for whatever reason. Maybe the work makes us pay more attention to new points of interest; maybe it deepens a specific concept which we find interesting today. It is true that, currently, there are certain cultures which gain our attention more than others; if that affects the acceptance of their art, that's a different story. Everything is so relative.
You work as a museum educator. We are very interested in your work with children, could you tell us what you do and if you learn from children?
I feel very fortunate to be working in the education departments of the museums where I work… I learn a lot from both audiences of children and of adults. Children are wonderful, they tell you what they think, what they feel, they haven't lost the capacity of being surprised by little things. They have that sincerity and freshness that is so important in life and so often we forget about. Picasso said that, when he was very young, he could paint like Michelangelo but it took him more than twenty years to paint as a child. Children paint what they feel, not what they see, he said.
The work of a museum educator is based on creating dialogues with your group that stem from observations, questions and interactive activities. We have many meetings where we discuss the best techniques, our experiences in the galleries… I work in five museums, in different education departments, and sometimes I have the feeling that I'm a spy. It is a great part time job for an artist.
Your art work creates a big visual impact, what made you work with such materials?
The best way to answer that question is by looking at the work made during the past six years… There has been lots of investigation. I try to work with materials which enclose a story. I place or arrange them in such a way that they can tell their own stories. I find it extraordinary how different people respond in such different ways to the same material. I like to play with this ambiguity, these contradictory truths. I've also discovered that because there are so many stories related to these materials and because of their own aesthetic, they are great tools to encourage the audience to tell stories to one another. I work with materials which intrigue me and I feel comfortable with.
We know that one of your projects took place at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, could you tell us about this project and how was the idea developed?
I mentioned before about how important the selection of materials is. There is one thing that all these materials have in common, and it is a certain sense of vulnerability. They are materials which are exposed to deterioration, which are fragile, but, even so, they can transmit a strength that it seems to not come from them. They are, mostly, ephemeral materials. Dialogues can also be ephemeral but, at the same time, they can leave huge marks; they can influence decisions which might change our lives.
CaiGuo-Quian, in his last show at the Guggenheim, invited people to submit proposals under his concept "Everything is a Museum." The selected proposals would be exhibited at the Guggenheim. What I did was to take this opportunity to invite Cai directly to participate in my proposal; this way, if he accepted my invitation and collaborated, my proposal could be turned into a project. My proposal was to establish a conversation with him and create a museum from our dialogue. And that's what happened. My written proposal was exhibited with the other selected proposals during the time Cai's show "I Want to Believe" was up, and the project: "A Dialogue," took place on February 21, 2008, at nine at night at the museum's ramp.
About the development of this idea: At the beginning of 2007, I had to install in London a site specific piece and my installation was placed in front of one of Cai's paintings. It was like a dialogue. That's what encouraged me to write to him. I find dialogues essential for development and learning. They also allow you to put different fields of thought or study in touch with one another; not just cultural fields but also social and political ones.
Right now, encouraged by Cai's positive reaction, I'm working on a new project based on the importance of dialogue and its capacity to change structures which might seem immovable at first glance. I'm very happy to see that the people that I'm inviting to participate are reacting so positively and with such enthusiasm.
When will we have the pleasure of having one of your shows in Spain?
I hope very soon.
Is there a web site where we could know more about your work?
Yes. I'm glad you ask, because it's brand new and I'm very excited about it. It's www.gemaalava.com