Less Exists in One Place, 2014. Hollow bricks, bars, metal, and PVC, installation view. Photo: Gustavo Barugel, Courtesy the artist and Salitas Fundación Osde

Material States: A Conversation with Marcela Cabutti

Argentine artist Marcela Cabutti creates simple, elegant, and subtle works of fantasy and magical transformation based on a strong connection between forms and materials, particularly blown glass and fired clay. While some viewers may think of a Surrealist legacy, her sculptures and installations also draw on the literary tradition of Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Silvina Ocampo, and Ernesto Sábato, using shifting points of view to create a metaphysical sense of time and place in visual form. Cabutti began working in glass in 1997 while living at the Delfina Studio Trust in London; later, she worked with master craftsman Pino Signoretto in Murano. In 2000, at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, she worked exclusively with blown glass, and when she returned to Argentina, in 2009, she worked with the Cristalería San Carlos in Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe.

María Carolina Baulo: Your work includes objects, sculptures, paintings, and installations, some of them ephemeral. What determines the material state of your work, the space or the idea?
Marcela Cabutti: The material of my work is fundamental, and as you say, it is a “state.” It is an idea of the material that extends reality, which is an apparently stable situation but is really subject to change. The apparent stability of the crystal that I use, for example, results from a fragile balance between its 14 components—any variation will change the piece. Space is also crucial, because it is the site of experience and human relationships.

Inflatable Poems, 1995. Documentary photo of performance at the Rio de La Plata (Boca Cerrada, Punta Lara ), 20 x 30 cm. Photo: Hernán Rojas, Courtesy the artist

MCB: Your works are based on science and nature, though literature and poetry also play a part. What are the dynamics between these influences?
Since childhood, my life has been surrounded by science; we had a bio- chemical analysis lab at home, with test tubes, pipettes, and Petri dishes. We viewed plants from the garden under a microscope. Nothing was left unseen. My father’s infinite patience was very important. We also had small cages with animals, such as frogs (which were once used to test for pregnancy). As a young girl, I attended film workshops, where we had to draw the films we had seen. I liked to animate little parties and write plays for puppets. Reading and poetry came later as part of my training at the secondary school of fine arts.

MCB: The ideas behind your pieces make them something more than just aesthetic objects, though they retain an elegance and refinement. How do you understand the relationship between material and concept when working with glass?
MC: Crystal pieces, because of their materiality, were historically considered items of luxury and taste. It was challenging to work with that aesthetic pressure, but clear ideas and a sensual perception of materiality allow you to interact, almost physically, with that incandescent mass of high temperature, which, when tempered, becomes a cold form. That coldness can be modeled, worked so that through visual experience, you discover the slipperiness of a kiss without even touching. The works that I did in black blown glass were inspired by pre-Columbian Huaco erotic pottery from Peru, which I saw in closets, hidden from public view, at the Museum of Natural Sciences in La Plata—hidden, because at that time they were seen as pornography.

Black Kisses, 2014. Black blown glass, 40 x 20 x 30 cm. Photo: Fabián Cañás, Courtesy the artist

MCB: Working with crystal and glass requires a specific and complex knowledge, so you have to rely on experts. You must delegate, trust others, and also know enough about the process to be able to control the quality of the final piece. What can you tell us about creating pieces in these materials?
MC: Crystal is more refined, with its 14 components, while glass is basically sand with two or three added elements. The technique is very old. I know how the material behaves, and I’m expanding my knowledge thanks to the artisans with whom I work. I usually have a clear image of what I want, and the works are not totally delegated since I am present throughout the entire process of realization, except in Murano, where they specialize in artistic objects and can make any piece without supervision.

MCB: Poesías Inflables (Inflatable Poems, 1995), where you intervened on a beach, was one of your first public actions. How did you develop the idea for a work that disappeared over time?
MC: That work was done in Boca Cerrada, Punta Lara, in the same area where Edgardo Vigo did his “señalamientos.” It was a performative, ephemeral work that achieved poetry in a few minutes, while floating and moving. It didn’t disappear completely, however, because photographic records indirectly allow it to return to that moment and to the idea of floating poetry—something that levitates, that vanishes but still persists. I learned to enjoy this. I define myself as a sculptor, but my works are the excuses I use in order to talk about what exceeds them materially.

Look at all the boats still sailing!, 2008. Epoxy and wood, 450 x 170 x 600 cm. Photo: Alejandro Tosso

MCB: Mira cuántos barcos aún navegan! (Look at all the boats still sailing!, 2008) and Proyecto Barcos-Deseos (Boats-Wishes Project, 2012) reflect certain constants in your work that appear and reappear, such as fortuitous encounters between natural creatures placed in unusual situations.
MC: Mira cuántos barcos aún navegan! is very dear to me. In February 2008, I was working on an exhibition at Galería 713 in Buenos Aires, and at the same time, I was restoring my studio—a process that took five years. We had taken some days off with my three-month-old daughter Francesca, and when we returned, we found over a meter of water inside the house and the studio. It was like a big blender had mixed and destroyed almost everything; a mass of dark water had dyed everything with mud. The recovery process lasted several months—we had to dry each photo, each document, and each book. The unimaginable occurred in just a few hours, and it produced a consequent feeling of the inevitable. All the meaning of my previous work was lost, and a deep sadness flooded me. While I waited for the heat to dry my papers and books, I caressed my baby and read Yasunari Kawabata, who tells a story about a couple traveling on a boat at dusk: when a catastrophe occurs, the direction of their journey must change. Crises, misfortunes, and losses must become opportunities, even though the process of going through them is difficult. Mira cuántos barcos aún navegan! maintains the illusion that despite calamity, something remains—something is still floating, something that goes beyond the event. We must ask ourselves, “What are the moments we must treasure?” And we must find effective tools to carry on. The stories and unusual encounters of my characters allowed me to get some distance and to speak about the unspeakable. This work toured many places and brought me to people who found it moving; it achieved a collective feeling and unbelievable associations.

MCB: Pasionaria (Passion Flower, 2009) is located in the heart of Buenos Aires, at the entrance to an important art collection. Are you interested in how your work participates in public spaces?
A work in public space can achieve interesting levels of democratization. We have to listen intensively to people and what the work means for them. I work with a metallurgist team from a cooperative to make the outdoor works. After making such large pieces, returning to the studio and working at a small scale again requires a process of mental rearrangement.

Arch, 2014. Hollow bricks, metal bars, and red blown-glass, 245 x 24 x 145 cm. Photo: Fabián Cañás, Courtesy the artist and Galería del Infinito

MCB: In the exhibition “Estados de la Materia II” (“States of Matter II”) at the Klemm Foundation (2011), you presented several works in crystal. How do you treat the material, for example in Lluvia Gruesa (Heavy Rain, 2010)?
These works were based on three-dimensional sketches done in Styrofoam, which proved to be impossible to carry out. The work changed materially in order to adapt to the original idea, and that change was reinforced by the technical difficulties—a difficulty, an apparent failure, can be a great opportunity.

MCB: In Octas (2012), Arco (Arch, 2014), and Menos existen en un solo lugar (Less Exists in One Place, 2014), the architectonic presence is very strong. Is this another way to construct landscapes?
MC: I admire architecture, and maybe because I see it as a spatial challenge similar to sculpture, these works become exercises to go through what we already know—a column, an arch—but from another perspective. The bricks that we use today aren’t 100 percent natural, but they still respond to ancient techniques, which emerged from the first mixtures of soil and water that humans employed to build houses and make everyday utensils, using the handiest resources found in nature. I am interested in the tension between natural landscapes and the possibility of reconstructing them artificially.

MCB: Lluvia Negra (Black Rain, 2014), Acerca del Equilibrio y la posibilidad de la Magia I (On Balance and the Possibility of Magic I, 2014), and Besos Negros (Black Kisses, 2014) exploit the elegance and sensuality of glass. But you also use it in large-scale installations. Over time, your work has become visually lighter, more diaphanous and transparent.
MC: That change is part of the extension of the material—an amplification of reality reinforced by a material that, because of its transparency, becomes immaterial.

On Balance and the Possibility of Magic I, 2014. Hollow bricks and blown glass, 45 x 34 x 15 cm. Photo: Fabián Cañás, Courtesy the artist and Galería del Infinito

MCB: Geometría del Cielo (Geometry of the Sky, 2016) synthesizes this tendency toward dematerialization.
MC: Geometría del Cielo begins with Johann Bode’s book Uranographia (1801), which I relate to the geometry formalized by the Greeks. Uranographia is a celestial atlas that combines scientific precision—showing the location of stars and other astronomical bodies—with an artistic interpretation of the constellations. It marks the culmination of these artistic representations. The study of astronomy and cartography served as a means of solving geometric problems for more than a millennium. The installation concentrates on geometric forms that, when transparent, seem to disappear, but they contain the density of the ideas found in the old geometry.

MCB: You recently published a book that summarizes your work exquisitely—it seems that you have tried everything. What is left to explore, and what is your next challenge?
MC: That’s a difficult question. My book, Aire alrededor de los objetos (Air around objects), represents a moment of introspection after trying to go through the sinuous trajectory of my work; it took me many years to put together. Throughout my journey, there has been a great passion for doing, a need for affectivity and constant curiosity. I want to propose new challenges, following more sensorial, experimental, and immaterial paths—we’ll see.

María Carolina Baulo is an art historian and writer based in Buenos Aires.