Walker Art Center

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The Artist Constructs Himself
Verónica Gerber Bicecci on Abraham Cruzvillegas

By Verónica Gerber Bicecci

With his own hands my maternal grandfather built the house that my uncle and grandmother still live in today. There’s a photograph that records the beginning of this long and definitely unfinished process. You see the empty lot of the Iponá neighborhood, just behind the University of Cordoba, Argentina. My grandmother is fixing a kerchief on her head, fighting against the wind, while my grandfather traces the space that would be occupied by, I suppose, the living room, dining room, and bedrooms with some loose bricks. Sitting in the background you can see my uncle, still really small, playing on the grass. By that time, the end of March 1976, my mom, who was twenty-three, had gone into exile to Mexico with my dad.

Paradigm. That was the first word Abraham wrote on the blackboard. I remember perfectly well because “paradigm” (paradigma) has three a’s, just like his name, and also because he handwrites the roman a: a, a, a. The word stuck not just because it seemed uncommon for someone to write this way, but also because it was a new word for me. We were about twenty-five students taking our first visual knowledge theory class. I was seventeen and had just graduated from high school. It’s strange because, in a way, that first class became itself a sort of paradigm. Most of us didn’t even know why we were there.

My grandfather built the house while the military disappeared more and more young students and while others left the country, threatened with imprisonment, torture, or death. My parents came to Mexico City with $100 dollars in their pocket, two bags of clothes, and nothing else. My grandparents didn’t understand what was happening, or didn’t want to understand. Mom and Dad started from scratch—their first house was a maid’s room in an exiled Chilean couple’s place. The photographs of the foundations, the walls, the fruit tree saplings in the garden, my grandfather working and speaking with the workers, my grandmother organizing a picnic in the middle of the construction, and my uncle playing in the grass started arriving in Mexico. Soon after, my parents managed to find some classes at the Acatlán National University, and they rented a small apartment in the Roma neighborhood.

Construction progressed, especially on weekends when my grandfather didn’t have to go work as a bureaucrat at the Aviation School offices. While the house in Iponá kept rising, the dictatorship became harsher. The possibility of coming back became more distant.

The handwriting from my notes is almost illegible. The light in the classroom used to be turned off, and I could only write in the dark while the slideshow kept going. I came back to my notebooks a few days ago and unearthed the first sentences.

Theory of visual knowledge,
Abraham Cruzvillegas.
1st semester, August, 1999.

Paradigm: epistemological break, according to Kuhn.
What stops being true through new knowledge.
Art is also knowledge (not just pleasure).
Duchamp: paradigm of 20th-century art.
*The artist constructs himself.
Any rupture brings with it a critical movement.

I was struck, above all, by the fifth line. I have no idea why I put an asterisk before it, but this sentence now seems key to understanding Abraham’s work.

My grandparents and my uncle moved into the Iponá house before it was finished. It was a sort of functioning construction site that allowed them to save on rent and use that money to finish it little by little. We made our first trip to Argentina once the democracy was restored, when Alfonsín became president in 1983. I was two years old. In the living room, my grandfather had left an empty space to build the staircase that would lead to a second floor where my mom, my dad, my brother, and I would live. That second floor was never built and my parents never returned to live in Argentina, either. My grandfather died pretty young and the house stayed exactly as he left it, with the added patina of thirty years of wear: the unplastered walls, the untiled bathroom, wiring that will not allow for the washing machine to be turned on at the same time as the AC, and the dozens of knickknacks piled in barely comprehensible mounds, covered in dust and grime.

Every time I am confronted with Abraham’s work, those randomly piled objects at my grandmother’s house come to mind. In Mexico, this kind of accumulation is associated with Breton’s condemnation of the country to surrealism. I think this isn’t so. A pile of unpaid bills and news clippings archived in the wedding present box, with a large yellow bow, on an old stool; or the savings and old money that an aunt hid in the vitamin jar under the great-grandmother’s wardrobe have nothing to do with the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” that Lautréamont imagined. There is something in that way of accumulating and of making unrelated objects coexist that, rather, reflects an unstable—and perhaps contradictory—condition between resistance and abandonment; a way of stacking that has more to do with keeping the remains of personal history, with preserving the tracks of an effort to survive.

Some time after, my mom got two classes at National University in the philosophy and literature department, and she left Acatlán. More or less at the same time, Abraham decided to study pedagogy instead of visual arts because he was interested in changing arts education in Mexico. In the end it was that utopian project that led him to teaching, at a very young age, at the ENAP (National Plastic Arts School) and then at La Esmeralda (the National Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School). On that first day of classes, when Abraham took attendance, he recognized in my names that of the woman who had been his undergraduate professor and automatically drew a chain of coincidences, a sort of genealogy, which, according to me, is fundamentally rooted in resistance. Or at least that’s how I explain it to myself since I understood Abraham’s work and remembered my mom teaching classes in a country that wasn’t her own and to which she had arrived fleeing catastrophe. The classroom was a space in which she was not afraid and in which she moved freely.

Abraham was my teacher again, during my senior year, for thesis seminar. I remember that at that time he was obsessed with a question: what are the conditions that allow us to be here today? Each time I heard him ask it, I tried to come up with an inner answer. The first thing that came to mind was that I had enrolled at the Esmeralda School because in 1999 the UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) was undergoing its historic and endless strike. I even thought that I was there because I had taken drawing and painting classes since I was a little girl. But the question is deeply ontological, almost unanswerable, and he repeated and reformulated it constantly. Each week I would try out a new answer, unsuccessfully: what are the conditions that allow you to dedicate yourselves to the production of art objects? Now I think that these conditions lie further back in time, in a time that precedes my birth. Dictatorship, for example: one of my family history’s most important paradigms. The history of the house in Iponá, the only trench left to us after the coup. This house, at once abandoned and suspended in time, is the only column of Argentina left in my family’s life. It mirrors each and every one of the consequences of “The Process,” which is what the military called its tyranny. But I believe that the history of a house is also, in a way, the adventure that brought us here. The family saga. And both in Abraham’s story and mine, the origin is disastrous.

It took me a while to realize there is no representation in Abraham’s work. We learn to see signs of the real even in the most abstract, but beyond the objects I couldn’t see the bottom of those accumulations, of those seemingly impossible exercises, fulfilled with a rash and liberating hedonism. It was the story of his house that put everything in perspective: a house in constant construction, deconstruction, and transformation, subject to the fragility of that which is unplanned. Abraham turned the story of that autoconstrucción into his work system—a system in which contradiction and the unforeseen are essential tools. This is why, as if we strolled through the marginal areas of Mexico City, it’s not uncommon to find two mortars, a wood and wire pedestal; or two crates on top of one another with a conch and an aloe on top; or a giant tin of vegetable oil with strips of wood on top and a necklace of oranges hanging from the ceiling. Each piece makes a sort of paradigm from which it is possible to start anew, because nothing is finished. The artist builds himself and unmakes himself piece by piece; he self-constructs, as if he were a wall where cement is always wet and bricks can be shifted.

Abraham’s autoconstrucción system also propounds to have that sense of community that allowed his parents and other families to take over the land in which they built their homes. It appears as an open form of collaboration: leaving his work to be transformed in the hands of others, or even to start from others. But it also relates to something deeper. The freedom with which he brings together objects and dissimilar concerns in his sculptures—the freedom with which he takes hold of them—has to do with that original act of appropriation of the land where his parents finally built their own house. He grew up on that which is, above all, a transgression that was at the same time the consequence of a rupture. A rupture that constantly confronts whoever tries to survive the persistent crises in Mexico, or a rupture like the one produced in my family by the Argentinean dictatorship. Transgression therefore takes the shape of a space of autonomy, as was, for example, the classroom for my mom, or the one where Abraham was my teacher. Transgression is another way of naming the paradigm, the rupture; and that is the condition that allows us to be here today.

Installation view of the exhibition Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites, 2013

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film (video still), 2009

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film (video still), 2009

Installation view of the exhibition, Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites, 2013

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film (video still), 2009

Installation view of the exhibition, Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites, 2013

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film (video still), 2009

Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites

Abraham Cruzvillegas (b. 1968) is one of the most important conceptual artists of his generation to come out of the vibrant art scene in Mexico. Over the past 10 years, Cruzvillegas has developed a riveting body of work that investigates what he calls autoconstrucción, or “self-construction.”

Informed by the sociopolitical contexts of Latin America, Cruzvillegas has garnered much attention for his dynamic assemblage sculptures made of found objects. Interested in improvised building materials and techniques, he roots his sculptural practice within the urban landscape of his childhood home in Ajusco, a district in the south of Mexico City. To this day, Ajusco’s landscape of volcanic rock remains a work in process, with structures in a constant state of transformation as additions are made when materials become available and necessity dictates. This way of constructing has become the basis of Cruzvillegas’ own thinking and methodology, while operating as a rich metaphor for the articulation of individual identity and place.

Featuring 30 to 35 individual sculptures and installations, along with his recent experiments in video, film, and performance, Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites is the first major presentation to shed light on the artist’s unique vision and multifaceted practice.

A major catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

Walker curator: Clara Kim