Casa de los conejos, 2009. Photograph, 90 x 137 cm. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

Crossed By Time: A Conversation with Hugo Aveta

For Hugo Aveta, who works and lives in Córdoba, Argentina, time, ghosts, and memories become conceptual raw material. In his devastated, dehumanized scenarios—realized through photographs, videos, sculptures, models, drawings, sound installations, and immersive, site-specific works—what persists is the echo of what was and will never return. Another, disturbing reality is intuited, one that cannot be defined. Aveta’s work has been featured at Bienalsur (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2021) and at MAC VAL (Vity-sur-Seine, France, 2019–20), following a residency there in 2019, as well as in countless exhibitions, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, among other venues. A monograph devoted to his work, Espacios Sustraíbles, was published in 2015.

Casa de las tejas, 2011. Photograph, 90 x 137 cm. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

María Carolina Baulo: Your work is overwhelming and disturbing, conceptually governed by time, memory, and uncertainty. Why are these ideas so important to you?
Hugo Aveta: I feel crossed by time, and this strong sensation awakens very human reflections in me. There is a moment that repeats itself and that I look forward to, when something happens that I recognize as important because of its ability to transform me. I am not saying anything new—it happens to all artists—it is the moment in which an image is revealed as close to some truth that belongs to you. It is poetic, and it is melancholic, perhaps related to that god who dances within us, who reveals something related to love, time, to the creative, the oneiric. He is a body without fear letting himself be carried away by a warm current.

MCB: How do you choose your medium and materials? When do you use photography and video, and what makes you take on space in the form of installations?
I started with photography and, over time, began to incorporate new languages that I am also passionate about. I come from a family of artists. I am not afraid of techniques, and although it’s important to know them, that is not what it is about. Sometimes I work on photographs that become videos and then objects; in the end, everything is intimately related. I’m not afraid of failure because it is almost always around; it is about time and not triumphs.

Hotel inmigrantes, 2009. Photograph, 100 x 153 cm. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: Ante el tiempo (In the Face of Time, 2009) marks a north in many ways, the tip of the tangle of what comes later in your work. It also establishes a link with a key reference, the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman.
For me, the video piece Ante el tiempo is a moment in which the body of the viewer can be seen involved in or in front of a scene that questions it; that body is diluted in a space that absorbs it, like portraying the moment before disappearance. It’s a hypnotic piece that transmits finitude and time. We are the fragile, labile, harmless element, the one passing through, and the image often has more memory than the being looking at it, Didi-Huberman tells us. The need to maintain a regular notion of time is lost here; a being manifests itself in an object, which, in this case, is sand. There is an energy that is randomly absorbed by a space, by an unknown external force, and it is that final void that challenges us.

MCB: The series “Espacios sustraíbles” (“Subtractable spaces”) is made up of photographs, including Casa de los conejos (House of rabbits, 2009), Hotel Inmigrantes (2009), La conciencia íntima de los objetos (The intimate consciousness of objects, 2011), La casa de las tejas (House of tiles, 2011), and Portal Tiradentes (2014). These are artificial places, objects, and models with such a figurative reality that they compromise perception; we imagine seeing spaces that do not exist. What are they about?
HA: “Espacios sustraíbles” is about the insistent search for the being that inhabits a space. I have reconstructed some real spaces only to photograph or film their cloning and insist on discovering something of their essence, of their survival, like a game of discoveries based on the perception of the real image. The important thing is to have the manipulable scene (mock-up) at my fingertips; in the best cases, the ghost of time is slightly manifested, and the photograph acquires a meaning for me because it retains the sediments of a time, a history. I can only suggest the history of a space, or rather, seek the essence of its history in the reconstruction of that space and the time I have to develop the image—this thing of looking and looking at the object until I find what it demands of me.

Portal Tiradentes, 2014. Photograph, 95 x 145 cm. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: The single-channel video Ritmos primarios, La subversión del alma (Primary rhythms, The subversion of the soul, 2013) and its accompanying photograph, El rayo verde (The green ray, 2013), decompose time, questioning its linearity. The images, saturated with a green that recalls the effect of night-vision devices, seem to be more about capturing ghosts than anything concrete. How did you conceive of and realize these works?
HA: The video explores the degree of evocation that an image can transmit from the anachronism of memory as a means to bring an event from the past to the present. The images came out of a timeline to belong to another world, an oneiric world that alludes to another time, where the movement of bodies breaks down into epic gestures—the tragic becomes dance, memory intensifies in the blur. In Ritmos primarios, everything is an unreal green, as if we had put on glasses to see in the dark. The process consists of decomposing the images and then grouping them; an emulsion that absorbs light for a few minutes is the key to this decomposition. After shooting an image on this emulsion, I get a ghost by photographing the gradual disappearance of the image. The action is somewhat performative since I work in a totally dark space photographing an image that dissolves, and then another one is added that contains the reverberation of the previous one. The conjunction of all these photographic disappearances forms Ritmos primarios: La subversión del alma. In them, we see the ghost of a political event, a poetic evocation of the rebel bodies, a dance of history.

El rayo verde, 2013. Photograph, 200 x 150 cm. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: The video installation Ni vencedores ni vencidos (Neither winners nor losers, 2014) takes us to a key moment in the history of Argentina: the attempt to overthrow President Juan Perón in 1955. From the horrific images of massacre, only the traces of drawing remain, a spectral field revealed as shadows. Does an aesthetics of the diffuse help the viewer to process the cruelty?
HA: In Ni vencedores ni vencidos, I am interested in the insistent gesture of retaining an event—the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo in 1955. The gesture of the hand over the temporality of the images accentuates survivals, latencies, and symptoms. The fact of working, in this case, with real historical events inevitably leads us to immerse ourselves in the anachronism of the memory that brings them to the present. Memory as an individual, subjective, personal condition is related to the gesture of the artist who decides what to capture and freeze and what he allows to disappear. The conjunction of image, sound, and the gesture of trying to retain the image projected on a notebook creates a poetic piece dedicated to art. The body, in this gesture, tries to understand, to make sense of what it does not have, to retain in memory, to underline an aberrant event. Finally, the ghost remains silent in the notebook, the expression of a hand traversed by a series of images, graphics of a tragedy.

MCB: Tracción a sangre (2015), the title of which is not easily translated, but refers to an animal-powered cart/vehicle, brings us closer to your spooky spatial scenarios with a succession of frames united in an “unnatural” movement. This not very fluid movement signals that the sequences are not a film but a composition. Could you explain this work?
Tracción a sangre is a video piece made up of frames using the same technique that I employed in Ritmos primarios, with an intentional addition that brings it closer to fiction or vice versa. We see overhead images, scenes marked and directed by a kind of illusionist magician with the head of a bird; it’s an oneiric piece that tells us about the exercise of power and its consequences. The referent is lost within the blur of images, and the blurred gestures become protagonists of a story that repeats itself all the time. Neither place nor protagonist is recognizable; there is no reference, only the naked human gesture, as in an inevitable ritual.

Tracción a sangre, 2015. Single-channel video, 5:53 min. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: Océano (Ocean, 2015), an installation shown in “Migraciones (en el) arte contemporáneo” (“Migrations in contemporary art”) at MUNTREF Centro de Arte Contemporáneo in Buenos Aires, seems to bring your models to life. There was a reference to water and soulless ships, while the notes of a piano reverberated through the space like echoes of suspended voices.
HA: In Océano, a piano is transformed into a kind of boat. While I was working on my exhibition “La humanidad de los objetos,” this piano with an incredible story appeared in my life. It came from Italy with its owner, a pianist named Alma, who was migrating to Argentina at the beginning of the last century. She had never been separated from her piano, but before reaching her destination, in the middle of the ocean, Alma fell ill and died on the ship. Her piano continued alone until it reached Argentina, along with her story, which accompanied it for the rest of its life. The object passed from one family to another until it reached La Pampa, where it remained in a shed for many years. Finally, a friend of mine received it as a gift, and years later, he gave it to me for this work.

In the installation, we see a ship/piano that rocks in an imaginary sea and reproduces the sound of the sea in its very movement. It is an attempt to reconstruct the moment when Alma separates from her piano forever, torn away from the instrument in which something of her survives. Thus, from my hand, like a medium, I felt that the piano would offer a tribute to its owner, serving as a metaphor of their union. When I put the installation to work, its sounds were incredible, as if they belonged to another time, another place. It was very magical—that’s what art is about for me.

Océano, 2015. Sound installation with piano, wood, and sound, installation view. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: Síntomas (Symptoms, 2017) was made for the exhibition “La conciencia íntima de los objetos” (“The intimate consciousness of objects”) at the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti (2019). A looming structure made from a mass of doors invited viewers to enter its uncertain openings, thus emphasizing the symbolic charge of confronting what was inside. What was this implied journey about?
HA: The idea of Síntomas developed slowly as a dangerous game. I was gathering elements from the unconscious, intuition, and time. I recognized the atmosphere that the image must have, but it was still blurred. I knew that it was a structure that could be traveled, that the viewer would be raised from the ground, that it would be an image related to memory, to our tragic history, and at the same time an art object, but it still had not appeared; its elements were out of order, and it was a matter of time. According to Walter Benjamin, whoever tries to get closer to his buried past must act like a man who digs, and whoever only makes an inventory of the discovered objects and is not able to show the place where the oldest is found in the current soil is frustrated. This is how Síntomas emerges as a revelation of time. It contained the right dose of concept and memory to become a work. Two hundred doors form two cubes, one inside the other; the doors are from public offices from the ’70s, which no longer exist. In my memory, they represent a municipal office full of archives; everything is very precarious, the doors painting everything brown. Síntomas contains all of that—a cube that will take you up a ladder, lifting you toward the heart of an archive, where each element gives us clues, brings us closer, like a symptom, to a great memory full of memories.

Hércules, 2017. Iron beam, 10 meters long. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: Hércules (Hercules, 2017), an installation made from iron extracted from a cement factory, winds “lightly” through space. It was also part of the exhibition “La conciencia íntima de los objetos.” What is this work about?
HA: The Hércules is an old, abandoned cement factory located a few kilometers from my house, in
the town of Dumesnil. It’s a giant concrete structure that evokes the power of another era. Yet, over time,
it gave way and collapsed. Its iron supports, bent by the impact, stood out amid the gigantic rubble; this is a form of time in matter. The name “Hercules,” written on a huge chimney in metal letters, remains standing and reinforces the idea that nothing exists in this world to be so rigid. This paradox convinced me to take some of the iron home and build an extensive line bent by time and the weight of its history.

MCB: The sea appears again with Barca (Boat, 2020), from the “Expediciones” (“Expeditions”) series. It is remarkable how your work has grown conceptually and materially, gaining volume and projecting itself into space, each work reinforcing the search that you began early on.
HA: In “Expediciones,” the heart beats, searching for new horizons and the abandonment of that search. The boat repeats itself, because stories always repeat themselves: it is a man or a woman or a girl or boy who mourns the abandonment of a world that does not see them—always riding in some boat, sad, waiting for a miracle.

La fascinación de la falla, 2019. Mixed-media installation, 7 x 22 meters. Installation view at MAC VAL, Paris, France. Photo: © Hugo Aveta

MCB: You presented La fascinación de la falla (The fascination of the flaw) at Bienalsur at MAC VAL (Paris, 2019) and in Jeddah (2021). The installation reflects on objects that can become aesthetic, even when they are useless—for instance, a bridge that no longer unites. The object disappears, leaving in its place a “fascination” for what it represents, its symbolic capital, and a nostalgia for the ruin.
HA: It is the hand that builds a scale prototype of an erratic piece, it is the same hand that imbues it with emotion and hope, it is finally the hand that works until the art manifests itself; and it is the object that, finally, returns in its forms a desperate and exciting cry, something similar to a roar that belongs to the earth and to men. The fascination of the flaw is that useless object that fascinates us because of the truth it hides. An impossible, burnt, useless bridge that gently lies down its center like a womb waiting for something to change—it is a cry of hope. We have already seen it: something is vanishing because of our hypocrisy. The object transmits its pain to us.

MCB: Your work, particularly Dioses invisibles (Invisible Gods, 2022), corresponds to the definition of “contemporary” proposed by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who says that “contemporary is that which keeps its gaze fixed on its time, to perceive not the light, but the darkness.” Dioses invisibles offers a harrowing X-ray of our times. How does this installation synthesize your creative search?
HA: This immersive installation was designed for the Museo de la Inmigración in Buenos Aires, with the premise of generating a micro-world in which humanity does not exist as such and the world of nature in its broadest sense becomes the protagonist. We enter a place where there is a disorder in time and space with scenes that come and go, entering and leaving dimensions detached from varied realities. All of these universes are related to dreams, where boundaries become blurred and languages intersect, including drawing, sculpture, video, and photography. I think there is a profound reflection on the state of things and those invisible gods that wander through space, trying to shed light on it in some way.