Archaeology of Time: A Conversation with Claudia Aranovich

One could describe sculptor Claudia Aranovich as Argentine, female, Jewish, artist, feminist, contemporary, in this order or any other. But she has transcended confining attributes by creating a body of work that is surprisingly diverse and beautifully universal: transparent resins acquiring organic, fertile shapes, aluminum masks apparently cast from dead people, small resin friezes hosting glimpses of Muybridge’s archetypal men, landscapes of Hebrew letters, cones of cement, iron rhomboids, giant vulvas that remind us of carnivorous plants, massive installations, and urban art made with fragments of nature. Exploring this world demands a form of archaeology from us, as we dig layer after layer, disentangle erased writings emerging behind new, perplexing ones, and follow marks, hints, and misleading passageways.

Cones of Wisdom, 1995/96. Polyester resin, photocopies, and lights, three cones, each 66 x 26 in. diameter. View of installation at the National Fine Arts Museum of Argentina, 2000.

If there is a melancholic spirit pervading Aranovich’s works, it is because her “sea of memories” (as one could call her production as a whole) confronts us not only with past generations but, astonishingly, with our own biological lineage all the way back to our first unicellular ancestors. In Aranovich’s sculptures, history becomes biology, and our own biography becomes the testimony of a perpetual survivor struggling between the impermanent and the eternal.

One of the leading names among Argentina’s new generation of sculptors, Aranovich never fails to elicit from us a sense of puzzlement and recognition. Her almost promiscuous relationship with forms and textures, her whimsical sensibility, and heightened poetic perception have produced an unusual “environment” where we are bound to find, in the crevices of matter, the concealed secrets of nature.

Pablo Baler: You are most often placed at the forefront of an artistic movement that has reinvented feminism. Do you recognize yourself in that role?

Claudia Aranovich: That movement was indeed a current of self-determination and of exploration into the feminine in art with references to the body. It was a sensibility that was quite popular after the success of feminism during the ’60s and ’70s; it said, “Now we look toward the inside, since most of our goals outside have been achieved.” I may have been influenced by that, but references to the organic, to the feminine, have appeared in my work as a response to an impelling force rather than to a rational project.

View of installation at the Center of Modern Art Recoleta, Buenos Aires, 2000.

PB: And indeed you are able to glimpse through your works something that may be inaccessible to the masculine eye.

CA: Women always tell me they feel captivated by the deeply feminine quality of my work, by the way those mysteries of the organic feminine world are exposed. This is something difficult to verbalize, though possible to express symbolically. But then again, I do not set out to do this, it is just something that happens to emerge, because it is there, in my inner world.

PB: Do you remember your first aesthetic experience?

CA: Yes, and of course it has to do with nature. An art workshop I attended when I was about eight years old used to take us to the zoo and the botanical garden in Buenos Aires, and I vividly remember experiencing those landscapes, those animals in motion. If pressed to answer, I would say observing nature was in itself my first aesthetic experience.

View of work as installed at the VI Biennial of Havana, Cuba.

PB: And one that had a lasting influence judging by the pervasive role nature plays in your work.

CA: Nature soothes me, appears to me as something less bound to irrational changes than the human spirit, at least in a symbolic way. The sea, the earth, the trees, those animals of tranquilizing demeanor such as turtles are ever-present images in what I do.

PB: What about your first experience of actually producing art?

CA: It isn’t easy to draw a borderline between those works done while still a student and those which came afterward. Around 1982, I was producing some pieces with “human fragmentations,” with semi-transparent materials such as gauze or hardened bandages (rather spectral stuff), and then later in 1984 and ’85, I kept exploring this domain of corporeal fragmentation with crucified bodies. I believe all this had a lot to do with some images that were being produced at the time in Argentina, for obvious reasons. Later on my own images became less hard, less explicit.

View of work as installed at the National Fine Arts Museum of Argentina, 2000.
Roots in the Sea of Memories, 1994. Polyester resin, photocopies, roots, and mixed media, 88 x 124 x 10 in.

PB: Do you recognize in your work traces of those years of repression and violence in Argentina?

CA: I lived my childhood, my adolescence, and my youth under dictatorial governments, and of course I was against them. During the years I spent at the University of Architecture the student body was highly repressed. That may have been the reason why I quit just before graduating and started fully dedicating myself to sculpture; only in art could I find a territory of absolute freedom. I believe that during those years the images I produced somehow talked about that repression and the fear we lived through. At any rate, even inside a dictatorial and politically oppressive society, those young people who still have dreams manage to find a space of personal happiness. That’s no ideal for sure, but that’s what one can have during those times and that’s what we had.

PB: Most of your works, and the world you have created, are based on the integration of manifest contrasts—the organic with the geometric, the soft with the hard, the bivalvular vulva of your fertile shapes with the funerary mask of your apparently decomposed characters. Is there a conscious attempt to tap into this symbolic power of contrast, or does it spring, unavoidably, as a necessity?

CA: Contrast in general empowers language, and more often than not, while I’m elaborating a piece, I find myself thinking, “This will be just too soft,” therefore I bring a geometric form to it, to counterpoint its organic nature. Nature itself offers contrasts that can be violent or smooth. Sometimes these contrasts do appear in my works unconsciously, other times I could be held accountable for them.

Hard Life, 2000. Plumb, tin, and resin.

PB: Intuition, however, seems to account for most of your production. An Argentine critic, when trying to describe you, said that you have an “unheard-of intuition,” and I think of this definition as a most accurate description of your talent. Would you agree that intuition governs most of your creative processes?

CA: Probably. I once heard a scientist describing the path through which he arrives at a discovery and thought of it as very close to my own creative process, endowed as it is with a strong intuition at the early stage, then undergoing a phase of uncertainties that crystallize in specific choices such as materials, dimensions, and relationships. At the end of the day, these choices (which have physically originated the work) are the ones that will prompt me to say: “Yes, this is indeed the materialization of my initial intuition, of my desire.”

View of installation at the Center of Modern Art Recoleta.
Cone of Heart, 1999. Cement, polyester resin, acetates, and light, 72 x 38 in. diameter.

PB: And how does this process work?

CA: I always start with an obsession for articulating a tale or idea that dwells somehow fuzzily in my imagination. Since in sculpture, more than in any other visual art form, the process is longer, the expectations for the concluded piece are substantially amplified, at least in my case. At any rate, I start out from ideas, stories I build in my head, and then I try to shape the materials to reflect that, to make that become a reality. Sometimes one work leads to another as in a circular narrative, therefore the same or similar materials keep appearing. Sometimes I choose a hard material, such as metal, in order to frame or embrace a more organic or softer one. Lately, however, after many years of dealing with wood and metal, I feel more drawn to transparent resins because they convey, in a strong manner, that which I want to express at this point. They allow me to create organic masses that could appear as a sea of amniotic liquid where memories may be found floating or that could be vulvas and leaves where sexual drives could be experienced. It would be more availing, however, not to get too attached to a specific material; I believe attachment limits the richness of one’s language.

PB: What are the tales, the ideas that spur your imagination?

CA: Oh, so many! Sometimes the stimulus is just a phrase that for some reason inhabits my mind. For example, “heart of stone” (a Spanish idiom for “hardhearted”) triggered the 1993 installation Plantación de Corazones (Plantation of Hearts). There, prior to the show, I planted a ring of grass, 15 feet in diameter, and inside the circle, in a circular pattern, different “species” of heart/trees: a sprout-heart, the germination of a heart, the stone-heart, the hiking-heart—always alluding ironically to human situations. Other times what triggers my work is a dream—to be inside a moving cone, for instance—and I start developing a series of drawings around this theme. Sometimes I run into objects whose forms interest me, so I draw them in a rather stylized way. Other times, I’m obsessed with sensations of being trapped among natural objects—that’s a starting point.

Seeds, 1994–95. Carved wood, plumb, and metal, each one approximately 25 x 27 in.

PB: I suppose the long-lasting theme of nature has a lot to do with your interest in public art.

CA: I have lived mostly in cities, particularly in Buenos Aires, where there is a great lack of urban contemporary art, in the streets and in the parks. There are, of course, many monuments from the early 20th century, when Argentina was a powerful country. Argentina has a very interesting art history and a high level of artists, but that is not reflected in the development of public art. In fact, until recently Argentina seemed “a country of painters.” Now, a progressive interest in public art is starting to develop, which was already apparent in other cities of the interior of the country (Resistencia, Bahía Blanca, Río Gallegos), where there are many contemporary sculptures in the parks. Art in the streets makes public space more democratic and poetic and offers a higher quality of life. Talking about my works in particular, I believe they look better in a natural environment rather than in a strictly urban one. The spectator’s connection to the work varies according to where the work is placed, and artists could and should adapt their projects to these different realities.

PB: There is a strong figurative sensibility to your work (deeply involved with the human body) and also an abstract component, which is also very powerful. What’s your personal relationship with both forms of expression? How do you reconcile them in your pieces?

CA: In my mind, there is no such division between the abstract and the figurative. I could be creating, for instance, works that are seen as figurative, such as the series of masks done from live models (though everybody seems to think of them as funerary masks), or I could be doing pieces of a rather abstract persuasion such as Reflexiones desde el Cono Sur (Reflections from the Southern Cone), which is a series of transparent cones with a strong organic presence. I’m not really interested in the classification figurative/ abstract. Let’s just say I comply with my obsessions, whatever they may be.

View of the Masks as installed at the Center of Modern Art Recoleta, Buenos Aires, 2000.

PB: The exploration of time and memory is central to your work— a persistent need to record the passing of time.

CA: Mine is an “archaeological” interest in recording the passing of time and the traces it leaves. In 1994, I showed a great concavity made of resins called Raíces en el Mar de las Memorias (Roots in the Sea of Memories) in which you can discover, layer after layer, memories of past generations. In 1997, I produced fragments that had to do with my own memory, with my own roots. And then in a series of Caparazones (Caparisons), I embodied the very passing of time in the work. Currently, I’m working with marine shells and fossils, organic forms that also have imprinted in them the age of time and their memories.

PB: Are you drawn to Hebrew letters for similar reasons?

CA: I am attracted to Hebrew letters even though I don’t understand them. I recognize myself as part of the Jewish culture though I did not have a religious education or practice the faith. However, when I want to refer to my own roots, I find myself turning to Jewish symbols. They belong to my ancestral patrimony.

PB: Where does history according to Aranovich begins?

CA: History begins with generations passing on knowledge, it begins with the possibility of recording the past, of handing down a memory of our crossing through the world.

Rupture, 1999–2000. Iron and polyester resin, 12 x 12 x 55.2 in.

PB: What type of work are you producing these days?

CA: I’m veering toward more complex elements in terms of shapes and also pairings that produce contrasting or mirroring effects. I’m still attracted to masks, and I’m developing lit cases where photographs of masks appear trapped between layers of resins. These are the same photographs most people see as metaphors of the irrevocable, as images of human beings trapped forever. That interpretation really astonishes me, because one of the things that most attracts me about artistic work is precisely this possibility of warding off the irrevocable—death—by allowing non-existent things to be created.

PB: What direction will your art take in the future?

CA: It will surely include other media and other materials. But most importantly, I believe, it will tend toward synthesis, and it will become more diversified, more silent.

Pablo Baler is an Argentine novelist and art critic.