Capula Klein’s Bottle, 2007. Stainless steel frame and woven vinyl chord, 95 x 178 x 92 in.

Building New Topias: A Conversation with Pedro Reyes

The methods employed by an artist in producing a body of work are often made up of intricate and personal associations that may confound the way a viewer assimilates knowledge. Pedro Reyes, architect, cultural agent, and artist, employs simple means: objects and casual scenarios that blend the realms of utopia, psychology, function, individual fantasies, and collective aspirations. His works, often emerging from existing forms, are re-ordered into meaningful participatory events and social renewals, a strategy that aligns them with the theories of Nicolas Bourriaud. For Bourriaud, “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and to produce models of action within the existing reality, whatever the scale.” Reyes’s work is conceptually based and visually unpredictable. His project Palas Por Pistolas, presented at a talk at the Storefront for Architecture in New York City in October 2007, inspired this interview. Reyes’s collaboration with architect Teddy Cruz, “Conflict Resolution,” was recently hosted by the San Francisco Art Institute, and the exhibition “Pedro Reyes: 47 Undertakings” recently closed at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami.

Carolee Thea: How did Palas Por Pistolas come about?
Pedro Reyes: I was invited to do Palas Por Pistolas for the botanical garden in Culiacán, a city in western Mexico with the highest number of gun deaths in the country. The gardens are beautiful and bucolic, considered the best collection of tropical plants in the Americas, but outside the walls, violence prevails. My project tried to bridge the two worlds. My initial step was to organize a campaign in cooperation with the city government—collecting weapons and melting the metal into shovels that would later be used to plant trees in the city and beyond. It’s like a transmutation of metal motivated by the social design embedded in the process of removing the weapons from circulation—like agents of death turned into agents of life. I want to believe that by taking 1,500 arms out of circulation we might save a few lives, but the real purpose of the piece is to add a story to the world, so in other cities they will say, “In Culiacán, they did that. ”

CT: Who instigated the project?
PR: I was invited by the curator Patrick Charpenel and the patron of the botanical garden, Agustin Coppel, a visionary philanthropist. I quickly understood that Culiacán is like a gun-slinging town in an American Western. In my research, I spoke with many people who knew of someone, in their own family or another one, who had been shot. My ensuing deliberations connected the guns and the garden to produce a social metamorphosis.

CT: Instead of a traditional approach to making sculpture for a specific site, you negotiated several environments, seizing on the opportunity to collaborate with an institution to transform its surroundings. This is a very different approach than that used by artists in the ’60s and ’70s, when symbolic means exposed social inequities and anti-democratic institutions. Enlisting the help of institutions was not desirable.
PR: The point you make is very interesting. Often the idea of resisting the institution is a bit like renouncing your responsibility, because the people working within the institutions may want to dialogue, and furthermore, they may be willing to be called into the project. For me, the idea of going against the institution is childish.