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Prime Matter: Abraham Cruzvillegas on “Autoconstrucción

By Abraham Cruzvillegas

“I use ‘dead’ things, or materials people think of as garbage,” says Abraham Cruzvillegas, “and give them a new use by revealing instead of hiding their nature.” Over the past 10 years, the Mexico City–based artist has become recognized as a key figure among his generation, bringing a fresh conceptual strategy to the use of found materials and improvisational processes. The result is a riveting body of work that he calls autoconstrucción, or “self-construction,” made from found objects to which he’s given new life while working in urban and rural environments in Mexico City; New York; Paris and Saché, France; Glasgow, London, and Oxford, UK; and Gwangju, South Korea.

Each of these commonplace components contributes its own striking character and seemingly precarious form to a sculpture or installation. Here, the artist sheds light on his practice and how it underpins his artistic vision while also serving as a metaphor for the construction of his own identity. Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites is the first major exhibition to focus on this multifaceted project.


Origins

The autoconstrucción concept comes from a building technique that is led by specific needs of a family and by the lack of funds to pay for constructing an entire house at once. People build their own homes slowly and sporadically, as they can, with limited money, with the collaboration of all family members and the solidarity of neighbors, relatives, and friends. Houses show the autoconstrucción process in their layers, through which it is possible to experience their transformations, modifications, cancellations, and destructions; they evolve according to changes in the lives of their residents.

Aesthetic decisions are intertwined with the ability of the builders to use anything available or at hand, depending on place, circumstance, or chance. The combinations of materials and hybrid construction strategies are very rich and diverse. Autoconstrucción is not a weekend hobby; it’s not bricolage or DIY culture—it’s a consequence of unfair wealth distribution. As opposed to massive building projects, it points to an autonomous and independent architecture that is far from any planning or draft: it’s improvised.

While this kind of building happens all around the world, as in Brazilian favelas or South African shanty towns, in my personal experience I lived with autoconstrucción during the first half of my life, witnessing the evolution of my parent’s house in Ajusco, south of Mexico City. This is a land of volcanic rock that was settled starting in the early 1960s by immigrants from the countryside looking for a better life in the big city.

Bit by bit, they started building houses with lava stones and recycled materials gathered in other neighborhoods. For years there was no water and in general, no services at all. Fighting for this land to become property, as well for streets, access to electricity, etc., became an everyday activity. Women became leaders in those movements, along with young guys and children, while men were working, many of them as construction workers in so-called modern Mexico.

When I Started to Use It

I have appropriated the term “autoconstrucción” as a name for all my work since 2007, when I improvised a whole exhibition in New York, working only with materials found around a gallery. I was attempting to reproduce the dynamics of autoconstrucción—rather than represent the results, I wanted to activate the process. I started working with the idea as a personal fact (and not as a chosen subject matter) that had been underlying my work since 1999, when I took many pictures of the houses in my neighborhood, the volcanic rock there, and details of my parents’ house.

Then I wrote the story of my own experience, what I witnessed all those years, without nostalgia— just facts. This text became a book accompanied by many images, including some lent by neighbors, captured during the early years of the autoconstrucción. It was published in Glasgow, where I was invited by Francis McKee to do a project at the Centre for Contemporary Art. At this point I’ve made autoconstrucción sculptures, drawings, paintings, videos, a theatrical play, and a film. Maybe it’s time to move to “autodestrucción.”

What It Means

As a structure in which everything is possible, autoconstrucción can take shape in infinite and diverse ways. It is a way of thinking more than a method or a technique; it’s a way of life. Improvisation and testing all kinds of combinations according to specific needs (like expressing oneself) are rules of autoconstrucción, rules that provide absolute freedom. For me, autoconstrucción is the most authentic type of creativity, because it blooms in the most adverse circumstances. It’s pure ingenuity and will, fueled by hermeneutics, use, function and/or contradiction. It is transparency, simplicity, and change.

System of Production/Ideological Framework

It’s easy to perceive the economic and cultural origins of the materials composing an autoconstrucción; and this evidence produces complex readings for both viewers and inhabitants. The will to construct is more important than the aesthetic or economic value of any or all of the materials that might be used. When an object is discarded by a person, it’s valueless; for autoconstrucción, it could be seen as prime matter. Autoconstrucción does not deal with garbage, but with prime matter.

Recycling has only recently become a widespread practice, but for centuries in so-called underdeveloped countries, scavenging and harvesting used materials and objects has been an activity. Pepenadores in Mexico pick cardboard, metals, discarded furniture, cans, bottles, paper, and other materials from the garbage in order to give them a new life. They collect, classify, accumulate, resell, and transform these goods. Then a new cycle starts. When I make an artwork with found objects or materials—i.e., aluminum, wood, a forgotten bicycle, my own hair, shark jaws, a cowbell, teeth, a chair, wax, coins, plastic, or sheep dung—they retain their original qualities and defects.

Even if the piece is later dismantled, its fragments remain as they were before they were incorporated: there is no alchemical transformation, there is no trick or magic. Transformation occurs only in the viewer’s mind. And in my hands, of course. So, a stone is a stone before, during, and after the art/architecture approach; it does not represent anything else but a stone being a stone as a stone. When the same stone is removed from the pavement to be thrown over a police barricade, or through the window of a government office, it will still be a stone. But a happy one.

Autoconstrucción meant for me, for many years before making art, a constant struggle with authority, and not only because of growing up in a challenging situation, learning to deal with scarcity, solidarity, roughness, and resistance to the environment, to the local governors, to self-indulgence. Now it’s more an ideological consequence in which all my acts involve my genealogy and my future as trying to arrive to a certain degree of consciousness based in all that I’ve mentioned above. Autoconstrucción is not biographical or anecdotal, is not narrative, it’s not thematic or communicative. It is the very expression of survival and work. It’s also humorous, ironic, paradoxical, and delirious.

“For me, autoconstrucción is the most authentic type of creativity because it blooms in the most adverse circumstances. It’s pure ingenuity and will. … It is transparency, simplicity, and change.”

Abraham Cruzvillegas, The Invincible, 2002

Collection Craig Robins, Miami

Abraham Cruzvillegas, The Simulteneous Promise, 2011

Courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Bougie du Isthmus, 2005

Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Restricted Gift of Collector’s Forum in Memory of Phil Shorr, 2006

Abraham Cruzvillegas, La moderna, 2003

Collection Eva Pressenhuber, Zürich

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aeropuerto Alterno, 2002

Courtesy: Collection Dallas Price-Van Breda, Los Angeles