on the end of the world
interview by ALEXIS DAHAN
portrait by PANOS KOKKINIAS
all photos by JÖRG BAUMANN
courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris, London and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City
In 2017, Argentinean artist Adrián Villar Rojas created four major projects, all bearing the same title: The Theater of Disappearance. The projects were a documentary shown at the Berlinale, a plaster-cast dinner party on the rooftop garden of The Metropolitan Museum in New York, the summer exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz, and a solo show at Neon in Athens.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Could you explain how these different projects meet under the same title?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — A title is an engine, a symbolic surface that enables you to create a universe. You know when a title begins, but never when — and where — it ends. This particular one, The Theater of Disappearance, actually arose from a research tour I made in August and September 2016, when I was in Athens and other Greek cities for two months and could see really closely how we — humans — strive against time to preserve what seems significant to us. Therein, theater appeared as an epistemological metaphor to address fragility and entropy.
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — Theater is the artistic field that I think is the closest to the idea and experience of disappearance as the implicit fate of any human activity. Theater vanishes when happening. There is no way to record the complex poetic, aesthetic, physical, and emotional experience of a “theatrical event.” It is only for those bodily present with their eyes, mind, and senses — the public with the actors at the same time. That’s what makes theater itself: it is its ontological difference. Argentinean researcher Jorge Dubatti calls this specific feature of theater “convivio,” asserting that what defines theater as an art is an endless process of mourning. Every play is a birth and a death, resurrected in the following presentations.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Could you elaborate on the relationship between theater and time?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — Time and theater are equally lost. Theater lives a bit more in the memory of those who attend the ritual. In contrast with performance as a contemporary art branch, theater makes a routine of its own evanescence and fragility. It finds in repetition a key logic of production, which propels a slow process of sedimentation and growth. Theater needs repetition like animals need oxygen. From the first rehearsal to the last representation, it is — to use a Marxist concept — accumulated work. It is a kind of accumulated work that vanishes when the living cycle of a theatrical project comes to an end. As a precarious heritage, memory and experience are transmitted or used for future projects. But, let’s make this absolutely clear: theater — human activity radically traversed by convivio — is 99% lost.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you believe in the autonomy of art?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — The idea of art as an autonomous sphere (“art for art’s sake”), which we accept so naturally, is no more than 200 years old. Most of what we keep in museums once had a function in daily life and was at hand for human beings to use. The objects were in direct contact with hands, skin, breath, saliva, fluxes, senses, voices, emotions, and thoughts. Museums generate a sort of alienation phenomenon. An artificial environment has been created to keep them alive for ages and generations to come. But this is precisely what prevents any interaction with them. In some way, I felt that by means of museums, modern alienation has permeated the entire history of human activity.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Where does theater fit in?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — Thanks to traditional museological practices, commodity fetishism has activated a museum’s enchanting powers over humanity’s past. These reflections encouraged me to think of theater as a metaphor and to deal with what was lacking there: life, human beings “doing” something inside which all of those objects once played a role.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Can you talk a bit about The Metropolitan Museum Roof Garden commission?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — For The Met, I wanted to bring these objects back to life, and to do so, it was necessary that contemporary human figures play the role of the activating force, the ones who touch, who sit, who grip, who push those objects into current activity. I wanted to erase the museum’s divisions, departments, and hierarchies. I wanted to approach things as what they actually are: used, enjoyed, destroyed, reconstructed, reused, doomed to movement, and at last, to disappearance. And, if this is true for the material dimension of things, just imagine what happens with its symbolic dimension: it fades away so fast in terms of “historical seconds” that one is tempted to see all of these objects in museums as the empty shells of mollusks on the seashore. Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, by which human language is a living system of material and immaterial elements deeply engaged with a context and in constant movement through use, is quite an interesting metaphor to rethink the role of these shells in a history of the oceans.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How did your project relate to The Met’s unique history?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — The project refers to the origins of The Met and how this museum created its first collection with plaster copies of world-famous works of art, which they progressively replaced with originals, eventually gathering one of the major collections of art and culture. The Met’s history as an institution can be read as a metaphor for the entire United States, from that colony of poor but determined Puritans expelled from England to the modern imperial nation it is now. We should also remember that most of what we know about Ancient Greek sculpture is through Roman copies. So, it’s not exaggeration to say that Western art is founded on reproductions.
ALEXIS DAHAN — I always associate your work with a certain handmade quality. What motivated you to use 3-D printing?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — I started by asking myself how this task of reproduction would be carried out in the present day. Obviously, that meant using state-of-the-art technology. Most of the project was done with a technique called CNC robotic milling, which is basically a robotic arm that carves material, in this case a polymeric one. Then, considering that the project title is The Theater of Disappearance, the operation was to produce pieces with as little human intervention as possible. So my team was reduced to a single person who assembled, sanded, and made minor repairs on pieces delivered by machines. Machines are not perfect; they have limits on the level of detail they can achieve. We decided to respect these limits, trying not to improve or correct their work so as to have an accurate image of the current “skills” of CNC robotic milling and the photogrammetry to shape copies and get information from the respective originals.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How did this process relate to the overall purpose of your project?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — The Met encompasses 5,000 years of handmade objects. I cannot imagine a better place to say farewell to human work. Robotization and artificial intelligence are going so fast that their effects in the world may only be compared with the 19th-century Luddites, a group of English textile workers and weavers who, from 1811 to ’16, destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest. Luddites feared their skills would go to waste as machines would replace their role with less skilled, and thus cheaper, workers. The movement was brutally suppressed. In some way, they glimpsed the future of humanity and reacted through rebellion. Reproducing these major samples of manual work with state-of-the-art machinery could also be a gesture coming out of a similar awareness but made more as a way of mourning than as an act of protest.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How do you see the world around you?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — I’ve tried to look at planet Earth and human culture from the perspective of an alien with absolute horizontality and lack of prejudice, in a state of detachment and distance. I wanted to reflect a remote future and absence of humans, and a remote past at the origins of life. This ontological choice has determined my practice since the beginning.
ALEXIS DAHAN — When you were using clay, you had a material that naturally cracked and allowed you to represent the passing of time. Whether you use one of the oldest sculptural mediums or the newest one, is it always essential to you to have this end-of-the-world quality?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — For me, “end of the world” means “end of language.” I do not care about the end of the world as a narrative, but only as a friendly interface for problems. For example, in the foundation of art as a field, how were entities (the artworks) created within and delimited by this field? Thinking about the limits of art, I found in Duchamp the idea of the last frontier: the frontier that removed all frontiers, matching art and language. For me, Duchamp embodied the radical idea of a map that had the same scale as the territory itself. Or, to refer to The Library of Babel by Borges, the new alphabet that Duchamp displayed, or represented, or presented, already contained all the books.
ALEXIS DAHAN — To what extent?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — We cannot go ontologically beyond Duchamp. The last thing we have to do is mourning. We have to go to the confines of art and start to mourn a field that, after devouring everything, disintegrated against its own lack of limits, reached its end, and, finally, the end of language itself. In this terminal landscape, I installed an “alien” that would play with the ruins of language. By an “alien,” I understand a tabula rasa, a consciousness able to approach entities (mathematics, stones, the language of the worms, or the God of a civilization elsewhere in the multiverse) with total detachment, horizontality, without prejudice. It is the “other” of language as such, a second or 10 billion years after the end. The alien is then a friendly interface, like Duchamp himself, to express a paradox: a subjectivity without subjectivity, without any point of view, but with the pathos of mourning. The encounter of a germinating bean, Michelangelo’s David, a clay triangle, a bust of Jesus, and a Nike sneaker filled with fossilized shells is not the result of a lottery but of a residual pathos, asymptotically equal to zero. However, without this residual pathos, the alien and the lottery would be exactly the same.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Many of your colossal sculptures refer to an iconography outside art history, to areas like Japanese animation or to grunge culture. In The Theater of Disappearance, you seem to have fully integrated art history as the language for your sculptures — Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Picasso, in Bregenz; the archives of The Met in New York. Why did you include reproductions of classical masterpieces as part of your new works?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — Besides what I explained above, I am currently working on another removal process, which was already quite well expressed in the exhibition “Two Suns” at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. The showing of David was the locus of art in the exhibition, as that which affirms itself as art, that which says “I am art” in relation to everything that surrounds it. It does not say “art” that same way, but does generate a background for us to face art in its absolute artificiality.
ALEXIS DAHAN — But that wasn’t so literal, was it?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — It was a trap. Everything is so regulated by so many layers of sedimented language and assumptions; our sight is so structured and directed. And if there is any doubt, any uncertainty creeping out, you have the press release to kill it, like the spoiler trailer for a blockbuster. Claudio Iglesias, an Argentinean architect, talks about removing “architecture” from architecture, the “project” dimension from projects, the self-affirmation of human action as such, to start making “things” that do not say “I am architecture,” “I am a project,” or “I am a human action.” He exemplifies this idea by comparing a chair with a stone. While a chair bears the burden of the project dimension on its back and four legs, a stone can be occasionally used to sit on. A stone has not come to existence to be a chair and therefore holds no “project,” but can nevertheless be used as such. Claudio Iglesias wanted architecture to be like that stone. No doubt this is key to thinking about the Bregenz proposal.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How about contemporary art? Are there particular artists that you like and are in dialogue with?
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS — The world is wide open to dialogue with every human being, with every territory, culture, age, and even geological era. I think the label “artist” is a sort of universal key that magically opens every door. In this global scenery opening in front of our eyes, more than dialoguing with our colleagues, we must dialogue seriously with humanity in all of its infinite diversity, in all of its times and spaces. There is so much singularity to grasp and enjoy, to take into account. It is not a bias for exoticism; I think we owe ourselves a major, collective commitment to ontological reparation. In this general perspective, it is impossible to confine dialogue to the safety walls of something called the “art field,” especially when such urgent tasks, both unique and universal, remain before us.
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