Cristina Piffer’s works do not permit indifference. Small objects by this Argentinian artist can be just as impressive as her large-scale installations, with a formal elegance that captures the attention while moving viewers into a universe where life and death are locked in permanent tension. Fat, beef, blood, and guts migrate from the organic world to become the “paint” with which Piffer creates. Since “Como carne y uña” (“Like flesh and fingernail”), her 1998 debut exhibition at the Borges Cultural Center, she has been producing controversial, aggressive works masked by a subtle, quasi-monochromatic quality, in which words and patriarchal symbols are fundamental. Her forceful sculptures and installations, exhibited in Germany, Spain, the United States, and Peru, among other countries, challenge the passage of time and question ethical and moral assumptions while creating a coherent narrative of style and materiality that thwarts any attempt at a distanced or aesthetic reading.
María Carolina Baulo: Perder la Cabeza (To lose one’s head, 1998) addresses the confrontation between Unitarians and Federalists in 19th-century Argentina, specifically the organization of the national state and the concentration of private land ownership. This brutal installation reveals your aesthetic approach and the importance of texts in your work—in this case, a letter that reveals a horrific act. Could you explain how you play with the expression “lose your head” and the force of reality?
Cristina Piffer: In Perder la cabeza, I allude to the violent practice of exterminating the enemy, which has been sustained throughout our history. I worked from a long list of illustrious victims of factional fighting during the 19th century. These are generally stories redacted from official histories. I displayed blocks of polyester resin and beef on a steel table; the shape refers to small tombstones, and I engraved them with the names of the slaughtered, those who literally lost their heads. The text is a letter sent to the Judge of Peace in the city of Dolores, giving instructions for the exhibition of Pedro Castelli’s head in a public square. It gives viewers a key to access the installation. The letter is also a historical document that I am interested in showing; it is a disciplinary device.
MCB: In the “Mesadas” (“Tables”) and “Trenzados” (“Braids”) series, you convert concepts into metaphors expressed through beef, steel, and guts. There is a stark contrast between the once living material and the coldness of the supports. In the “Trenzados,” cow guts are suspended in formaldehyde; and in the “Mesadas,” texts are engraved in slabs of fat. Could you explain these works? Their technical delicacies— the gaucho braids and detailed engraving—sit uneasily with the sinister materials.
CP: I made these series in 2001 with a grant from the National Fund for the Arts. In “Mesadas,” I lined up several blocks of cow fat, arranged one after the other, and engraved them with the stories of survivors from the battle of Pago Largo in the province of Corrientes. After the battle, soldiers from Corrientes who were taken prisoner by the federal army were beheaded and their corpses left unburied. White on white, the texts engraved in low relief on fat demand careful reading from viewers; they must engage with this task. The “Trenzados” were made with cow guts, duplicating braids made of raw leather. I followed the instructions of a well-known manual. I must mention that chinchulines (small intestine) are part of our diet and are often braided in a much simpler way and then roasted. But here, their exhibition in glass jars with water and formaldehyde on steel tables refers to a forensic museum.
MCB: The “Neocolonial” series continues this approach, combining a quasi-Minimalist aesthetic with cruelty and violence in the materials. Pieces of fat and meat create friezes and checkerboard tiles, challenging the viewer to exercise an active and unprejudiced point of view. How do you approach such a complex synthesis?
CP: The works in the “Neocolonial” series refer to an early 20th-century architectural style that laboriously searched for the roots of an Argentine architecture. The geometric pieces of beef and fat quote the checkerboard floors and decorative friezes of that style. There is always a first stage specifically related to the materiality: I choose to work with organic matter, which is unstable—always on the verge of decomposition—and I must resolve how to control and stabilize it. In a second stage, I try to reach sense in consonance with those powerful materials. These are long processes.
MCB: You consistently use raw meat, cow intestines, fat, resin, blood, rawhide, steel, acrylic, glass, paraffin, and formaldehyde. Describing your materials is like describing the contents of a morgue—dead organic matter and aseptic instruments. Are Lonja and Cincha (both 2002) good examples of this?
CP: Due to the materials, the idea of a dissection table, laboratory, and butchery hovers over many of the works. I usually avoid bases for the pieces; tables are a choice to reinforce that reading. Lonja is made with rawhide and steel hooks. I thought about this work while working with a braiding teacher, who showed me how to rub the rawhide by tensing a slice with two wire hooks, outdoors, between two trees. It was a routine part of his work process, but, to me, it seemed a very suggestive and very disturbing image. I started working from there. Cincha is also part of the braids, but it refers to saddle harnesses.
MCB: Referring to your “Entripados” show (2002), Fabián Lebenglik wrote that “Argentine history is a slaughterhouse that always rewards the butcher with gold and bronze. What seems to be a fundamental artistic metaphor about the initial gesture that forces the matter to be beautiful in Cristina Piffer acquires, once again, the almost unbearable power of literalness.” It is shocking how you can make visually attractive works from materials that make the viewer’s mind rebel. Why do you do it?
CP: I started working with raw meat in the 1990s after trying some large installations, which were difficult for me to carry out because of their size. So, I searched for materials that, even on a small scale, were convincing and able to articulate the issues I was trying to address. That was the trigger for the first works with beef. On the other hand, beef, fat, and chinchulines have strong roots in the national imaginary. By the end of the 19th century, Argentina was incorporated into the world economy as a supplier of raw materials, and raising cattle structured our economy. The materials become metaphors of a carnivorous country of butchers. Each material proposes a challenge. I try to present them with all their rawness, but cooled and contained. Rather than following an expressionist aesthetic, the exhibition devices are stripped; I work hard to avoid the superfluous. Geometric shapes and modular structures are constant in the installations. I avoid any ornament.
MCB: Could you talk about the role of the written word in your work? Sometimes the texts seem to want to guide the message; other times, they merely reinforce the visual so the work can take on multiple meanings.
CP: I incorporate text in different ways. In some cases, it helps me to guide viewers, to introduce them into the story. In the braids, the operation is different: here, the texts are instructions from Mario Lopéz Osornio’s Manual de Trenzado. But I intervene in the text, omitting the subject and cutting out sentences. The text no longer describes what we are seeing; it takes us to more suggestive and disturbing terrain.
MCB: Serie: Las marcas del dinero. 200 pesos fuertes (The marks of money, 200 strong pesos, 2010), one of a series of works made from dehydrated cow blood, glass, and stainless steel, was exhibited at the 2018 arteBA international fair. Did its reception change in this context? Art fairs encourage mass consumption of a work and not always by minds open to dialogue with it.
CP: In 200 pesos fuertes, I used powdered blood to “print” a piece of money paper from the late 19th century on glass. This banknote, which carries the image of a group of cows, puts on stage the economic project that accompanied the foundation of the nation—a country dedicated to the breeding of animals in large expanses of land. The image of a banknote made with bloody dust, which becomes “dust” in times of economic crisis, is one that challenges viewers, even art fair visitors.
MCB: Could you discuss your process? I imagine that it must have a huge impact on you personally while you are making a work.
CP: I think that one of the most complicated series in terms of production was the braided chinchulines. The viscera decompose quickly, therefore the braiding had to be done in a limited time, and then they had to be submerged in water with formaldehyde in order to stabilize them. I also had to design a device that would allow me to disassemble the works for transfer. They have traveled a lot, and although they are not very big, they must remain in water and formaldehyde. My professional training is present in all of my works. I solve technical issues and seek advice on things that I don’t know, which is the same way I proceed when I build as an architect.
MCB: Dehydrated blood appears again with great force in 41 millones de hectáreas (41 million hectares, 2011), which addresses the consolidation of the agro-export economic model of the Argentine state at the end of the 19th century. Here, you allude to the massacres behind the Conquest of the Desert, initiated in 1879 under the command of General Julio Argentino Roca. Is this work related to Las marcas del dinero. 200 pesos fuertes?
CP: In 41 millones de hectáreas, I refer to the territory. That is the number of hectares appropriated by the national state after the military advance on indigenous territories in the so-called Desert Campaign. In a bowl full of powdered blood—a fine, volatile, dark powder similar to earth—I print the text with a matrix, a mold. The powdered blood acts as foundry ground and also as a founding ground. Of course, this work is related to Las marcas del dinero: money always leaves a trail to follow, literally.
MCB: I’m particularly interested in a work you did for the Martin Garcia Island in Buenos Aires. Serie Argento, 300 Actas (300 Proceedings, 2017) also involves cruelty and violence. The island functioned as a detention center for indigenous people, who were then distributed for “domestic use”—slavery, in other words. This exercise in oppression was endorsed by the Catholic Church, which conducted baptisms that testified to passage through the island and served as accreditation of identity.
CP: For 300 Actas, I used archival materials from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires to explore the fate of native peoples after the military advance on their territories. This is an invisible topic in official narratives. I worked from the texts of Alexis Papazian and Mariano Nagy, two historians who have recently investigated the functioning of Martin Garcia Island. Through their texts, I learned of the indigenous baptisms on the island and the existence of the archive, where I photographed the material. The proceedings give a large amount of information, including the name, age, and geographical origin of the baptized person. It took me a long time to understand what I could do with that information. Finally, I decided to replicate the names of the baptized exactly as they appeared in the proceedings, as well as their age and racial information, using the same calligraphy reproduced with a fretwork on very thin sheets of silver; each proceeding fills one metal sheet. The 300 proceedings are combined to constitute an extensive silver surface. It was exhibited at the ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada), a clandestine detention and extermination center during the last civil-military dictatorship, in the context of Bienalsur.
MCB: Your exhibition “Democracia, en obra” (“Democracy, under construction,” 2018) was shown at the Kirschner Cultural Center, where you also participated in “Formas de violencia” (“Forms of Violence,” 2017). How do 21st-century forms of violence echo your interests, and how might they drive future works?
CP: My work deals with historical and political violence. In 1976, when the military government took power, I was an architecture student at the University of Buenos Aires. I belong to a generation that went through the dictatorship. Many years later, when I began to articulate a speech that alluded to the violence exerted by the state, historical quotations allowed me to achieve some distance from a very painful topic. But as I progressed in the task, I understood that distance wasn’t possible. There are historical continuities and a persistence that somehow refer to the present.
This article appears in the May/June issue of Sculpture.