Garden on the sea, 2008. Wooden raft and live plants on the sea of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Special Effects: A Conversation with Sofía Táboas

Sofía Táboas, who lives and works in Mexico City, employs a wide range of unconventional elements, including edibles, plant life, fire (which has the potential to communicate not just with humans but also with extraterrestrial life), welded steel cages that are both decorative and disturbing, and swimming pool “chunks” shaped into sculptural forms. With an Arte Povera and minimal art sensibility, her works crisscross across materials, forms, and sensibilities to surprising and poetic effect.

Robert Preece: Garden on the sea (2008) is magical. How did it come about?
Sofía Táboas:
I’m interested in putting together two elements that we usually find separated—in this case, trees and plants living on a boat floating in the water. To suddenly see them on the horizon makes for a particularly strange and special effect. The absurdity of the situation provokes a sort of mirage, a dream-like or fictional quality that modifies perception. The work was installed near the beach in Puerto Vallarta. The boat, which is an original regional vessel lent by a fisherman, had to be anchored so the wind wouldn’t blow it away. It was carved completely out of wood, which is very rare. The plants were non-flowering ornamental species.

RP: How do you deal with meaning and narrative in your works? Could you explain Dorso, for example? Was there a personal narrative behind your selection of the pool elements?
ST: Dorso, which means “backstroke,” refers to a style of swimming. I had been working with the motif of a fraction or sample to imply a place or a larger extension. This is how I made my first piece, Espectro (Spectrum, 1993); I collected several samples of industrial rugs and exhibited them, along with the particular names of the different models. In this way, they became a collection of potential locations, of spaces and displacements.

Dorso (Backstroke), 2011. Venetian tile, steel, cement, and brick, 90 x 200 x 120 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

I started with my first pool in 2010 in a similar way. I had developed the idea of a fraction of a site, one that is familiar to everyone and that alludes to another place or even another time, removed from daily routine—like a vacation. I made several site-specific sculptures, playing with the characteristics of each site and solving some of the issues that I found. When I was preparing works for a museum show, in a rather neutral space, I decided to avoid site-specificity and embrace the idea of a sculpture, thinking and constructing a literal fragment of a pool, on a one-to-one scale.

RP: What exactly were you doing with Canned heat forming an extraterrestrial plan (2001–11)?
ST: The idea dates back to 2001, when I made a site-specific work with canned heat. In the first version, the idea was to modify the garden and generate a field of flowers made of fire. I buried the cans in the ground, and the piece lasted for four hours, until the alcohol was consumed. The residue
of the work consisted of the burned black insides of the cans. In 2011, I made another version using the design of a crop circle—alluding to the famous designs in English wheat fields, which are sometimes supposed to have extraterrestrial origins. I transformed my work into a kind of ritual or secret writing on the roof of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City. This work has the same trance-like quality of the first piece. The event, which happened during the opening of the show, is documented in a video.

RP: What do you like about fire? Does it ever disturb you?
ST: It is a hypnotic piece that also implies mild risk. It imposes a bit of fear. It is like giving form to something that doesn’t really have one, and that can make us nervous. I used the symbols to add another layer of complexity, as if being extraterrestrial, it would be an unknown mysterious message, like the nature of fire itself.

Fuego enlatado con plan extraterrestre (Canned heat forming an extraterrestrial plan), 2001–11. 910 cans of alcohol and video, detail. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

RP: Could you explain the four mysterious cages? Their meaning could go in many directions.
ST: Four Personal Cages was inspired by a nearby building, which had housed the Court of Appeals and had also been a jail. The architecture takes the form of a great box. I decided to make a simile with an element of Mexico City domestic architecture—metal bars attached to doors and windows. The geometry and original function of the building also brought to mind the condition of insecurity that prevails in my country. Excessive protection of houses transforms them into small cages or domestic, urban islands. I selected some windows and doors in Mexico City and used them as models for the four pieces. I used simple, pure geometric forms, creating a formal relationship with the building itself. Each of the four cages is big enough to incarcerate a person. They are constructed of steel painted with an electrostatic process. Each cage was conceived as an outdoor piece, to be in the street, one near each of the building’s corners.

RP: Could you talk about the diversity of your work, which seems to be ever-mutating?
ST: The works change; mutation and transformation happen frequently. Sometimes the site modifies the project that I have in mind, or it adapts from one place to another. I like to use this pretext to subtly change particular works. In other cases, the material itself changes. For example, with Filtro Lama (2011), the algae were generated during the show. It started with water from Xochimilco Lake in southern Mexico City, an air pump, and the action of sunlight, but it ended up as a dense culture of algae that obstructed the street view until it collapsed to the bottom of the tank from its own weight. The cotton candy work, Algodón degenerado, degenerated immediately and drastically after the installation, consumed by heat and humidity. In the case of Silvestre (2002), the flowers slowly dried up, and the work changed gradually. The transformation was a bit milder than I expected, and the piece didn’t lose its shape; insects proliferated though, and it smelled funny. Mirror of water, made of liquid candy, was surprisingly unchanged for three months. In many instances, there is an element of surprise in terms of how the material will adapt or react with each new site.

Silvestre (Wild), 2002. 122,400 natural flowers without water in 100 square meters on a branch structure, 150 x 1000 x 1000 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

RP: Do the pool and flower works relate to the extraterrestrial works, also exploring unknown perspectives?
ST: Yes. For me, the flowers are another material that transforms. Silvestre was like an inaccessible field, imposing a material on viewers, on their bodies even, because they had to enter a narrow aisle. I tried to evoke an idea of violent nature—nature as something that overpowers us, that is bigger than ourselves and unpredictable.

RP: What led to your crop circle works?
I have not seen any crop circles first hand, but I am interested in them for several reasons: the splendor of the rural landscape, the fact that they are made on site, and their mystery. I am also interested in all of the ideas that people conceive to explain them using a sort of blind faith in something unknown or non-existent.

Fuego enlatado con plan extraterrestre (Canned heat forming an extraterrestrial plan), 2001–11. 910 cans of alcohol and video, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

RP: Were crop circles also behind Floral beginning in circular time (2015), which you made for “Strange Pilgrims” at The Contemporary Austin?
My interest was to generate a geometric synthesis of several flowers that would allude to the rural environment and the cultivation of fields with a circular irrigation system, as if they were another kind of crop circle. I simulated an aerial view. Here, the catalogue of various urban materials contrasted with the initial context.

RP: Could you explain the wall works Muro de construcción and Azul Extensivo?
Muro de construcción (2011) is another piece that uses a sampler format. It shows a collection of construction materials used in Mexico City. For me, it is a kind of urban landscape. Each cube is independent, and the piece is put together almost like a Lego set, blending the materials and leaving empty blocks, integrating into the site around it. Azul Extensivo (2016) is also constructed with modules. It, too, creates a surface, but it brings to mind pictorial principles. The idea of a collection is also here—it is a sampler of blue glass.

Muro de construcción (Building wall) (detail), 2011. Wood, metal, plaster, cement, stone, glass, mirror, ironworks, and brick, 200 x 480 x 20 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

RP: Are there any materials that you would not use?
I always intend that the idea or the site suggest the material and that the investigation into such materials grow with time. I would never work with animals, especially birds. In the case of Five floating gardens for five stones (2009), I didn’t anticipate how the fauna would react. Birds made nests on the works; they fought among themselves for this new territory, and they attacked people who were employed to water the plants. This was a happy accident that I never anticipated.

RP: Why do you think there has been more interest in contemporary art from Mexico in recent years?
People have paid more attention since Gabriel Orozco gained notoriety. It was a threshold that allowed Mexico to be seen with interest and curiosity. This was a long time ago, and the interest hasn’t dwindled. It continues with my generation, and the artistic energy is still interesting even when the general situation in the country is very different. Younger artists point to different objectives, and there is an intense diversity in Mexico, perhaps because the context is always problematic, chaotic, and stimulating.

Cinco jardines flotantes para cinco piedras (Five floating gardens for five stones), 2009. Plastic bins, plastic containers, rubber tires, wood, and plastic bags with earth and plants, view of installation at Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

RP: Your partner is artist Eduardo Abaroa. How did you meet? Do you talk about art all the time, or do you separate the professional from the personal?
ST: We met at art school in Mexico. It is not possible to separate our professional experience from everyday life. As an artist you never stop working, you are always thinking. And so we speak about art, and our projects, but not only about that. We also talk about our kid, of course.

Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.