Ingrávida, 2023. Steel, bilayer paint, and magnets, 6 x 18 x 15 meters. Photo: © Carola Zech

Dynamic Protagonists: A Conversation with Carola Zech

The Argentinian sculptor Carola Zech has spent over 25 years expanding the limits of sculpture, installation, and context. In her often site-specific works, she thinks about space and all its actors—especially the body of the viewer—as a nucleus that grows or contracts with the interaction of the parts. Abstraction, light, color, and geometry are key components in her vocabulary, allowing her to blur boundaries and establish dialogues that include painting, architecture, physics, and public space, intermingling what otherwise might be considered distinct.

Catálogo de colores, 2022. Vinyl on acrylic, 30 x 37 cm. each; 1.50 x 7 meters overall. Photo: © Carola Zech

María Carolina Baulo: Over the last decade, the boundaries between sculpture, installation, and site-specific projects have become increasingly dematerialized. Could you talk about your work as “expanded sculpture?”
Carola Zech: The concept of expanded sculpture was an idea developed by Rosalind Krauss. I’m not sure that my work was ever associated, but I feel that I expanded into a space inhabited and configured by the public, which became active and creative. From focusing on issues related to color, my attention gradually grew to incorporate space, since color, in addition to being form, is space. The dynamic between these elements in my work, together with materiality and the creative processes that I go through on a project, exploded categories to the point of blurring their limits or specificities. Mirrored surfaces, the other, chance, light, the ephemeral, and architecture were shaping the metaphors of this era, and new ways of thinking and traversing space were born.

MCB: The spaces that your installations generate are in permanent tension. They summon and repel, they create magnetic-energetic fields—all linked to the use of color. How do these relationships actively impact the viewer’s body?
CZ: On one hand, the idea of proposing space as a product of relationships makes the public join in and discover multiple points of view; viewers also see themselves in the reflections and repetitions that the multiple mirrored surfaces give back when exercising that playful constructive impulse and intuitive interaction. This activity means that the spaces in which the works are located, and therefore the works themselves, are continuously under construction, requiring the presence of others. Conceptualizing the space in this way meant that my proposals began to be interactive, asking the public to be a dynamic protagonist and a constitutive part of the works. Thus, the different locations of the interacting public become material aspects that complete the morphology, color, and meaning of the work—space, not as a fixed and stable category, but as a specific temporal and social subjective singularity.

Nosotros II, 2022. Participatory installation with stainless steel, auto paint, and manual 360-degree rotation system, 2 x 3 x 3.50 meters. Photo: © Yamila Miglioranza

MCB: The Magnéticos (2003) provide the foundation for your subsequent works. There is the balance of rationality with sensitivity, the materials—especially steel—the shapes in tune with the colors, and the effects on the viewer.
CZ: That group of works refers to the magnetic quality of colors when in a dynamic with others. They test a kind of sociology, a metaphor for the ephemeral, for conflicting or loving relationships between people. I researched complex colors (bright, opaque, pearl, metallic, and iridescent) and gave them first and last names. The metal substrate suggests a metaphor in relation to the body since both are sensitive to weather conditions, especially cold, heat, and magnetism. These ideas are still present in my current work, but with less control over the results. I present my installation works as devices, plausible as infinite forms but derived from a system defined and determined, a priori, by me. I also keep the investigative spirit as a procedure to know the materials that I use since new projects are born from that act; because the metaphor is hidden in the material and its context.

MCB: You have produced unique chemical alloys, colors specially created for your works in steel.
CZ: I had a unique experience with the Sinteplast paint factory, which gave me the opportunity to work in their plant with a wonderful team from the laboratory. From that came material possibilities that did not exist before. Strong collisions can exist between art, which feeds on the unique, and industry, which produces the multiple. Art is very much privileged, but I find it a necessary relationship to channel the diverse, but complementary, creativity present in each field. That flow has always brought me good results and tools.

Como el viento I, 2021. Steel, bilayer paint, and magnets, 3 x 15 x 7 meters. Installation view at Bienalsur, la Embajada de Alemania, Buenos Aires. Photo: © Carola Zech

MCB: Como el viento (Like the wind, 2020), a project developed for the Recoleta Cultural Center, in the context of “El camino de las formas” (“The path of shapes”), demonstrates the goals of your sculptural installations. How does it work?
CZ: Como el viento consists of various polychrome metallic volumes that, in interaction with the space in which they are related, change color, location, morphology, and meaning. They lean randomly on each other, following the procedural pattern of a wind produced by a blowtorch on small volumes of balsa wood at a scale of 1:25 (random volume “organizer” procedure). Then those relational positions are reproduced at a 1:1 scale. The volumes are assembled by a union system based on magnets. The pandemic made me reflect on hazard, the unforeseen, and climate change, and this is how chance began to order my volumes. These works invite us to think about new possible worlds from the loss of relationships between the elements that linked reality. At stake are the minimum conditions for the existence of humanity, which also implies danger for other forms of life. Donna Haraway sees this reality as a sign of the destruction of shelter for all beings, including people. She proposes another time-space for reconstruction based on the creation of new and different kinship ties between terrestrial beings joined in mutual care. I wonder if we can learn to live and resist on a damaged planet and create new ties to our surroundings. The mirrors in my latest works are intended to make us look at ourselves together with others and in specific contexts.

Nosotros III, 2021. Participatory installation with polished stainless steel, bilayer auto paint, and manual 360-degree rotation system, 2 x 2.50 x 2 meters. Photo: © Carola Zech

MCB: The three versions of the participatory installation Nosotros share the same concept and materials—stainless steel, mirror-polished stainless steel, bilayer auto paint, and a 360-degree manual rotation system. Each iteration operated in a different space: Nosotros I (2019) for Bienalsur at the German Embassy in Buenos Aires; Nosotros II (2021–23) for Bienalsur at the Fenaa Alawwal Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Nosotros III (2019–22) for the Campo Cañuelas Museum, also in Buenos Aires.
CZ: These interactive installations focus on the concept of space, both in physical terms and in their connections to the context in which they are located. Viewers/participants constitute a bond between them by activating the work, rotating the colored mirrored planes and orienting them toward different directions; this creative act constitutes new relationships, creating and discovering spaces. Space is the dimension of the social, a place continually in the process of change, of being formed, of being modified. The implementation of the device activates the ideas of Doreen Massey, a contemporary social scientist, in such a way as to displace this analysis from the field of social sciences to the field of art. Massey developed the idea of “power geometry” to analyze the conceptual problem of space. She argues for the importance of place and the position it occupies. I focus on three of her ideas in my work—space as a product of relationships, space as being multiple, and space as something continuously under construction.

Conceptualizing space in this way, these interactive installations propose the public as a dynamic protagonist and a constitutive part of the work and of the social space through the mechanism of rotating the mirrored planes. The idea of releasing the result to the interactors freed me from control over the form and the space, since from now on the work could be in infinite ways. That is why I understand this series as the creation of devices or artifacts in which the work is in a state of latency—the public discovers aspects, proposes discoveries. Thus, the different places of location next to the public that activates it become material aspects that complete the morphology, color, and meaning. By observing and establishing comparisons between the different versions, it could be verified—if it were a working hypothesis—that space is the material that constitutes and completes the work in a primary way through the reflection of the differences of the various specific contexts.

Lumen, 2022. Self-adhesive vinyl and solar projection, 10 x 18 meters. Intervention on skylight of the Museo de arte contemporáneo de La Boca (MARCO). Photo: © Carola Zech

MCB: Lumen (2022), a solar projection on the walls and intervention with self-adhesive vinyl on the skylight of the Museum of Contemporary Art of La Boca, Buenos Aires (MARCO), was a perfect synthesis of physical materials and their activation by light. What was this experience like?
CZ: It was amazing how this project was determined in an unexpected way through interaction with the space when we entered with curator María Teresa Constantin. It was as if it were manifested beforehand; it was there—the light entering through the glass skylight in the center of the main room. Lumen—the title of the work also gave the exhibition its name—collected the activity of the sun and time and manifested it within the museum (floors, walls, and public) through the transparent vinyl that I adhered to the skylight. It was like a daily presence. It was surprising to observe how it changed day by day until it disappeared almost at the same time that the exhibition closed. It never repeated its morphology or light intensity, not even the nuances of its colors.

Lumen consists of two parts: the skylight covered with colored vinyl and the solar projection. Making the projector, or device artifact, freed me from control over the results; discovering the incidence of light and its way of being in architecture fascinated me. I could spend hours in the room recording the life of that being. Lumen is one of the qualities of color that I had been investigating in previous projects; some blues, for example, radiate more luminosity than yellow or white. I like to perceive these different intensities of lumen in people when they let it flow through their different ways of being, people whose presence is perceived when they enter or leave a space and transform it with their energy.

None of the ideas developed for the “stained-glass window” materialized; rather the work turned out to be the research process. This process consisted of investigations into vinyl and transparent materials that I carried out to propose possible projects and which were shown as the central works of the show. These are the Catálogo de colores and Catálogo de procedimientos (Catalog of colors and Catalog of procedures), a survey and various superimpositions of transparent vinyl materials available in Buenos Aires. From the superimpositions I discovered new colors. I selected iridescent, metallic, and transparent ones because they incorporate the viewer into the work through shine and reflections, making them an interactive and subjective part of the experience.

The director’s idea to make an exhibition showing the catalogues of colors and procedures with the vinyl developed at the same time as the investigation. His first idea was to work on a project for the museum’s façade, which would be an invitation to the La Boca neighborhood to reflect on contemporary art in its own language—the saturated and vital colors of its houses and tenements. With the defined context of the façade, the proposal was to build a visually permeable, transparent, and reflective entrance, to allow the public and neighborhood residents to experience contemporary art even before entering the museum. From inside, the dynamics of the street, with traffic and passersby, would be reflected on its surface, involving people in configuring this scene.

Ingrávida, 2023. Steel, bilayer paint, and magnets, 6 x 18 x 15 meters. Photo: © Carola Zech

MCB: Ingrávida (Weightless, 2023), at the Caraffa Museum in Córdoba, Argentina, was also curated by María Teresa Constantin. Another work that addresses the artist’s creative processes, it consists of steel volumes, bilayer paint, and magnets in one room and a large “vinyl on acrylic catalogue” in another, presented as an extension of Lumen. How does Ingrávida develop the same ideas?
CZ: In this case, I was again surprised by how certain qualities of the space determined the idea. The room had hooks on the ceiling, left over from an old basketball court before the space was renovated for the museum. These hooks suggested the idea of suspending the volumes, making them float in a weightless space, and altering the coordinates—just like life was altered after the pandemic, initiating a stage where experiences became a confusing mix of the virtual and the real in terms of time and space. Everything had changed forever—intersubjective relationships, daily life, ways of inhabiting space. The process of this installation and exhibition had many comings and goings since the opening was postponed for two years. During that time, the project, which I was developing in a scale model, took different forms before reaching the final version exhibited in the museum. Hazard ordered the volumes again, but they were also lightened by the action of their spatial arrangement, with the intention of hosting the public on that journey. Years before, I had been working on small levitating sculptures, which floated by electromagnetic repulsion in space, contradicting the will of gravity to bring everything down. Ingrávida summarizes this investigation.

Another room featured a recent series of paintings on paper and canvas in which I alter the system of order and measurement of the templates of geometric shapes used in design and architecture through a system of dimensions that I take from my own body, for example, the distance between the elbow and the middle finger or between one eye and the other. There was also a series of small aluminum works, Catálogo de proporciones (Catalog of proportions), which arose from an investigation that I carried out in the Sinteplast laboratory with industrial powder paints, as well as sketches of small sculptures (Como el viento) in which I began to test random ways of combining the volumes. A third room featured the Catálogo de colores and Catálogo de procedimientos that I made for the MARCO, but in a different arrangement.

MCB: What are the next challenges for your tireless and obsessive research?
CZ: There are several things that feel like desires. I would like to work on projects involving a team that expands to other areas of knowledge, such as engineers, architects, and technicians, learning from and with others. Another is to attract the attention and activity of the mass public whom I would like to summon to participate in larger-scale projects for public space.