Interview with Gema Alava by Laura Turegano
King Juan Carlos I Center of New York University

November 2006.

As we know, the symposium “The Politics of Memory in Contemporary Spain” has played a very important role in the making of the pieces that you are presenting at the King Juan Carlos I Center. During this interview, I would like to talk about the relationship of the pieces “Hay Ropa Tendida (clothing),” “Almost Invisible,” and “75” to the idea of the symposium.

What criteria did you use when selecting the pieces for this exhibition?

The installation “Hay Ropa Tendida” was the original piece that I had in mind for this commission. It was later that I heard about the painting by Picasso, which had never been exhibited before and, ironically, was the first Picasso painting to come to the United States. That’s really a story in itself.

The choice of which pieces were going to be in and which ones would not be included in this exhibition has been a challenge. I was tempted to show more recent work, new compositions made with thread coming directly out of the walls. But the overriding concern was that I wanted the show to be consistent, and relevant to the issues being discussed in this symposium.

This symposium is about memory, and one thing that I find interesting about memory is how fragile memories can be, yet how a slight instant can have such a strong impact on us. I like to keep these concepts present in my work, the relationship between strength and fragility.

My work tries to create dialogues, open doors, connect different cultures or generations through the various readings of the materials that I work with. Since I came to the U.S., in my conversations with different people, I found that the relationships that each person had with the image of clothing hanging from a cord was intriguing. It’s a strong image, I think. I had imagined displaying this piece in a space where Americans and Spaniards were confronted with this image, hoping it would create different interpretations and generate conversations. It was such a magic moment when nyu told me about the symposium that was going to take place at the center and invited me to present my work.

How did you come up with the idea and the title for “Hay Ropa Tendida (Clothing)?” I would translate this as “There are Clothes Hanging.”

As is mentioned in the press release for this exhibit, the title for the piece partially originated one day when my mother told me how adults used this phrase when talking about things that they didn’t want the children to hear, and it wound up having the opposite effect. Something that was supposed to help hide information became a signal to the children to listen, that something interesting was being discussed that they weren’t meant to hear.

A sentence that is meant to hide information becomes a sentence that makes you pay more attention to that information. I found that to be extremely interesting, and is one of the relationships that I identified with the symposium, because what they’re going to be talking about here is how you should remember something – what are the things that are good or maybe not so good to remember.

What can you tell me about your choice of materials?

The choice of materials is one of the main parts of my work. I try to find materials that have lots of things to say, that have a rich history associated with them, and I just let them speak. I try to arrange them in such a way that they can talk about their experiences, about the history that is connected to them. It’s extraordinary how people can relate in so many different ways to different tools and materials. I have found that, because there is so much history associated with these materials – needles, pins, thread, letters, gold – and because they have their own particular aesthetic, they’re great tools with which to tell stories. I work with materials that I’m comfortable with.

Currently, I’ve been using materials that allow me to work with the idea of fragility and tension at the same time. My work is based, in part, on the feeling that appears when we are faced with something that looks like it is about to fall. I’m intrigued by how we react to these kinds of situations: if we just let it go and rebuild a new structure, or if we try to hold, maintain, balance what is almost gone. Or, it might involve indecision, when we just look at it wondering what we should do, and how we are supposed to react to such a situation. Needles, pins and thread allow me to deal with these concepts. It’s incredible what a complex grammar they have, and how differently the pieces turn out by making the slightest changes.

Why did you choose to use gold for the shirts in the piece “Hay Ropa Tendida (Clothing)?”

Another component of my work is about people’s preconceptions regarding different materials, and how they change. It centers on the viewers’ thoughts and interpretations. I’ve been working with letters from 1911, handwritten business letters that people may think are love letters, because that’s the visual reading that we make these days.

With gold, people know it’s very expensive, you make jewelry with it, it’s used for currency… but what interests me isn’t so much about the value of gold, but its other unique characteristics. Gold is a material that you can bend and bend and bend, a metal you can pound with a hammer that will get thinner and thinner and maintains this ability to get thinner almost to the point of disappearing, to the point where you have just a few atoms, one close to another. Few materials allow you to do that. Gold has another quality: it has the ability to reflect the light that it has around it in a particular way, especially if it’s pure gold. It’s very difficult to work with pure gold because it’s too soft. Jewelry isn’t made out of pure gold, so you don’t get that perfect reflection. Pure gold doesn’t get old, in the sense that it doesn’t rust. It doesn’t change color like copper will. There’s also the tradition of the alchemist, whose obsession was to make gold out of other more abundant materials. Maybe this obsession arose not just because of gold’s intrinsic value, but also because of all these properties that make it extremely interesting, almost God-like qualities: the idea that it can’t be divided, the idea that it doesn’t get old, the idea that it reflects every single thing that is around it… I think all these qualities together are why gold as a symbol became such a precious metal.

So those are the main reasons why gold interests me. With regards to “Hay Ropa Tendida,” and the construction of all of these tiny gold shirts, I’ve applied the gold using exactly the same gilding techniques used in the Middle Ages. This process makes use of fish glue, which is made out of fish air bladders, and the glue has to be reactivated once it’s dry with the warmth of my own breath by exhaling on it, in order to properly apply the gold leaf. To place the gold on the shirts I had to press it very softly with my fingers, which left fingerprints. I want to mention that I’m very grateful to my assistants for this project, Kristy Michele Maruca and Alexandra Redorta Gascon. They’ve done a tremendous job helping me with so many things, and were involved in the process of making the shirts, but I wanted to do the process’s more personal tasks myself: the breathing and the fingerprints.

I don’t expect the viewer to know these things about the shirts, and this is true for my work in general. My work has a number of layers and it’s unlikely that people will know everything that I do with it. And that’s fine. There’s not just one single right way to read this work.

Besides the use of some of the materials that we’ve discussed, shadows play a pronounced part in your work - you’ve even drawn the shadows in on one of your exhibition pieces, entitled “75.” What role do they play?

Alfonso Armada once asked me, during an interview in 2002, “Would you say that without shadows, there’s no piece?” I answered neither with a yes or no, because I don’t think there is a right answer – I think that shadows play a very important role in the pieces. Shadows change, they are never the same. If you are able to freeze a shadow you are capturing time. Peter Pan got in all that trouble because he lost his shadow. Shadows are important.

Let’s talk about the piece “Almost Invisible,” inspired by a little-known piece by Picasso. How does this piece fit in with the other pieces in this exhibition, and within the larger framework of the symposium?

“Almost Invisible is an interpretation in thread and pins of a painting by Picasso. It is the first Picasso to enter this country; it was hidden in a private collection, and it has never been exhibited. The painting arrived in New York in Max Weber’s suitcase, and until recently had never been documented, because it was bought by Weber directly from Picasso in his studio. The Whitney is currently having an exhibition with this painting, which is somewhat ironic since it normally only exhibits the work of North American artists, yet there is the influential Picasso, again breaking barriers. Obviously, this symposium too, and its conversations about the memories of the Spanish Civil War, is also taking place in the United States. People are traveling from Spain to attend.

I felt a strong relationship between the Picasso painting story and the idea of how we deal with memories that appear out of the blue, without permission, and they shake us or confront us with issues that we thought we had overcome. I think everybody has been in a similar situation, the situation of Proust’s “madalena;” but, I don’t think this “madalena” always brings us back to pleasant places and nostalgic memories. I think the past can be pleasant and cruel at the same time. There is a lot to say about this, and again, I find it related to the concepts that will be covered in this symposium. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

I asked my grandma over the phone the other day why she didn’t talk that much about the Civil War and she replied, “What for? Those were such hard times that it’s better if one does not think about them.” I didn’t live those times and don’t think I will ever be able to experience what my grandma experiences when she remembers. Maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to talk about that past.

I think if you make an effort to remember for a positive reason, it’s good, but I think it’s risky to remember the negative side of certain things, it might generate bitterness.

Everyone knows what a civil war is: you have brothers fighting against brothers. There is something that really strikes me about a civil war; it’s something that my grandfather told me about the Spanish Civil War: You had both sides fighting with each other during the day, they were each on a hill and there was an empty space in between them, down below. At night, they would stop fighting, and they’d wait for the next day to begin fighting again. But since some of them had things that the other side didn’t have, during the night members of both sides would gather together in this center space, the middle ground, and they would meet – they’d tell jokes, exchange food, they would sing. Their Captains, or whoever was in charge, didn’t know they were doing this. My grandfather used to sing, he loved to sing, and the other side would applaud him, making jokes about how he could sing so well and be “on the other side.” When daylight would come, they’d forget everything completely, and they’d start fighting again, killing each other. It was a civil war. And it’s an idea that I find to be extremely interesting that, in any war, you have the human feelings that can break any barriers, and you also have the reality of what people fight for, and you have to forget what happened the night before.

With this piece I’m not interested so much in what the original Picasso painting is about. In this case I’m more interested in the story of the painting, what that painting can tell me. It’s a painting that was forgotten, and it’s ironic that it’s being seen for the first time here in New York, in 2006, I don’t know how many years after its arrival. A painting like a secret.

And you’ve chosen to represent the painting with pins and thread versususing any other kinds of materials or methods: paper, paint, pencil...

Yes, because I wasn’t interested in making just a copy of the painting. I wanted to be consistent with my work, about the fragility of things, of how things can fall down at any moment. I like works that deal with this tension. Because of this, the painting is suspended in the air. If you look at it from the side, what you see is a thin line, like a little layer, almost like one of the layers of gold on the shirts that is so extremely thin yet can be very strong if it captures the proper angle of light.

Earlier, you mentioned the shadows in my work. The shadows are also present in this piece. I was telling you before that I have some pieces with white thread over a white wall, and all you can see is the shadow. In the lower part of “Almost Invisible” you can see how each individual thread makes its shadow on the white board, but as the image gets clear, as the image of the painting begins to reveal itself, you begin to not see the shadows, they are covered. Looked at the opposite way, the less you look at the painting visually, the more it reveals its shadows. I like this idea. You can see these differences between “Almost Invisible” and the two studies made for this piece that I’ve also included in the show.

And of course, if you were to pull out a single one of the pins, the piece is gone. In this piece that danger is there, that possibility is there, that option is there.

Tell me more about your piece on paper, entitled “75.”

That drawing is based on an installation I did a few years ago at Lance Fung Gallery, “Land of No One;” but in this case, instead of using random fragments of business letters from 1911, I’ve just used the blank parts of the letters, fragments with barely any information on them. You might find the beginning or the end of a word at most.

I like to tell the story of Ulysses told by Kafka, entitled: “The Silence of the Sirens.” Kafka implies that Ulysses didn’t go mad because of the mermaids’ songs, but because they remained quiet. And he says, “Sirens have a much more powerful weapon than their song, and that is their silence.” I found the blank parts of those letters full of meaning. In some way, these blank pieces are filled with absences. And I find that these absences are connected to, or related to, memories. Absences could be thought of as memories of things that have disappeared. Absences have a presence. Memories also have a presence. Shadows allow me to work with these ideas.

To end, what is it that you would most hope to communicate with your work?

I try never to produce work that communicates only a single idea. I want it to be open to different interpretations. And I’m not interested in communicating my own, individual ideas. My ideas are not the most important thing. That’s not why I make my work. It’s not about my persona, it’s about things that intrigue me, and I think it’s interesting to see how people react today and read certain materials, compositions, and installations in very different ways. And it’s that difference of opinion, the dialogue that it creates, that I find amazing, and so I always try to make sure that I leave space for interpretation.

c) Gema Alava 2008