Memoria de un jardín, 2016. 32 oil paintings and plants on wood, and wood shelves, paintings: 30 x 50 cm. each. Photo: Albano García

The Garden of Waste: A Conversation with Lucila Gradín

Lucila Gradín, who was born in Bariloche, Argentina, and now lives in Buenos Aires, develops her work around nature, specifically investigations into tinctorial and medicinal plants. Recently she has also been working with native plants that have all but disappeared. Her creative universe is nourished by organic life cycles and organic waste—left-over food, decaying plant matter—which contribute to time-based, ephemeral installations and other, longer-living works, all rooted in the study of myths and the recovery of lost knowledge connected to plant uses and the ritual practices surrounding them. 

Tautología Cromática, 2021. Natural mordants and pigments on paper, wool, and felt, 400 x 160 cm. Photo: Lucila Gradín

María Carolina Baulo: You study the properties, colors, and uses of plants, connecting them to ritual practices and translating them into paintings, texts, drawings, sculptures, and audio works. Would you say that this is the starting point of your process as an artist?
Lucila Gradín: My work is related to research on medicinal and tinctorial plants. Lately, I have focused on native plants, since our original ecosystem has practically disappeared; there are only very small samples of what this landscape used to be. Through mythologies, I find clues to understanding a cosmogony that has been invisible for centuries—medicinal uses, dyeing capacities, and shamanistic practices. All this knowledge is hidden in myths linked to certain plants and trees. This research is being carried out in collaboration with Esteban Liberzuck (a homeopathic doctor), Eloísa Castellanos (a healer and plant specialist), and Lisandro Grané (a biologist specializing in native plants). As an artist, I am interested in approaching color as an expansive health bomb, since every tinctorial plant is medicinal. I think about color beyond its tonality, considering its full potential.

MCB: Many of your works offer interactive experiences. In Banquete de Papas (2012), for example, you invited people via FM radio to “collectively devour an image to generate a new one.” 
LG: This came about at the invitation of the Curados de Espanto, a collective of artists and curators in charge of the contemporary art space of Radio la Tribu. I proposed using the exhibition space and the radio and holding a potato banquet. I made a jingle in collaboration with the artists Julián Terán and Ana Montecucco and the choristers Guadalupe Navarro and Federico Sala, which aired for a month prior to the opening as an invitation to the general public and listeners, many of whom were neighbors. The show was a generous potato-based feast. The initial image was of 21 dishes made exclusively with potatoes and 21 watercolors of different types of potatoes. Participants, through the action of eating, modified that first image. 

Years later, I was invited by the residency La Ira de Dios to participate in the “Kitchen in Process” program, with curators Tainá Azeredo and Pablo Calegaris. All of the talks, presentations, and group activities took place around the kitchen. This time, I put a white tablecloth on the table, which we used during all the meals. After each meal, I embroidered the stains that remained on the tablecloth, freezing the image of the stains that had built up over a month, one on top of the other.

Installation view of “Indigofera tinctoria,” Galería el Mirador, Buenos Aires, 2019. Photo: Mariana Berstein

MCB: You have also worked on site-specific projects. Far from the Sun (2013) was created during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where you developed what has become a constant in your work—the combination of organic material, particularly food and food waste, and drawings. Could you explain this project?
LG: The space assigned to me had two access doors. I divided it in two by building a paper wall. In the smaller space, I placed apples collected from the ground and left them for two months. Meanwhile, I was using the sunlight that came through the window to fade sheets of black paper. On the other, larger side, I lined the walls with pink paper (a roll had been provided by the residency to protect the floor) and phosphorescent orange duct tape (a color that had to be worn while walking outside since it was hunting season). At the end of the residency, I removed the bad apples and broke the paper dividing wall, integrating the smell, the flies, and the colors into a single atmosphere. 

Months later, I was selected for the El Ranchito residency at Matadero Madrid, and I did two works that were a kind of continuation. Madrid is a city with a lot of sun, and a headline in the local newspaper reading “The sun is no longer free” caught my attention. It seems that they were charging very high taxes to people who had solar panels on their roofs. So, I wrote the same sentence on a large red cloth with tape and left it in the sun to be rewritten. The other action consisted of a bread raft. Behind Matadero, there is a river that often runs dry. I made a human-scale bread raft and dropped it into the river without knowing what would happen—if fish or pigeons would eat it, if it would sink or crash. None of that happened; the raft floated until it was lost on the horizon, and the action was recorded on video. I am interested in creating a situation and then letting it go, totally losing control and creating a new image based on different factors, such as a devouring public or the sun, the rain, and the passage of time.

Biosfera, 2015. 150 kilograms of modeling clay, water, aquatic plants, wood, and lights, 300 x 600 cm. Photo: Albano García

MCB: In La Cosmogonía del poroto (2014) at the Foster Catena gallery in Buenos Aires, you sought interaction between the elements and sculpture, mutating plaster, cotton, and beans under the effects of the weather. The installation became a living organism. What was this work about? How did you subsequently conserve or dispose of it?
LG: I was invited by the curator Inés Huergo to make an installation outside on the terrace and in a room. For the terrace, I put together several sculptures of plaster, cotton, and different types of beans, and the exhibition opened with that image. I was interested in the potential of materialities put in tension: cotton offering a certain fertility for the seeds, cast as a hostile force, and beans at the disposal of the climate and the other materials. The work transformed over the course of a month, each bud breaking from the initial shape, providing color and constant change, since many of the buds became plants. But there were also beans that never germinated—on the contrary, they underwent a rotting process, which was modified every day. There was a rhythm that little by little was modifying and building the work. For the indoor work, I had previously performed eight large-scale germinations in my studio. I built four glass fish tanks to the size of the 50-by-75-centimeter paper I was using. I laid out cotton, paper, and beans, and watered regularly for a month. Then, I took out the plants, and the growth of the seeds was registered on the paper. Eight drawings remained. In this case, the work is preserved. The outdoor installation was an ephemeral work captured in photographs.

La Cosmogonía del poroto, 2014. Plaster, cotton, and beans, 900 x 600 cm. Photo: Lucila Gradín

MCB: La Contemplación de las semillas (2015), another multipart installation, was made during your stay in São Paulo for the FAAP (Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado) residency. You made 45 watercolors from the remains of the food you ate over the course of those three months, five sun-dried tomato works, plastic envelopes with cotton, wool, and beans, and finally, 22 ceramic pieces. Biosfera (2015), developed at the Fondo Nacional de las Artes, follows the same logic. There, you worked with 150 kilograms of plasticine, water, aquatic plants, wood, lights, and the cycle of germination, reproduction, putrefaction, and death within a changing installation.
LG: I put together a routine and sustained it for the three months of the residency, which gave birth to the final installation. I kept all the remains from fruits and vegetables that I ate: seeds, husks, leaves, stems. And then I would portray them, going a bit against the classic still-life—stopping to contemplate and paint what is considered a waste, giving it space and time to fix the beauty that continues to beat before matter begins its path to rot, which remains beautiful. I also had fun, keeping a kind of travel diary narrated by these annihilated plants about to disappear. 

The tomatoes were a totally unsuccessful experiment: I opened them, removed the seeds, allowed them to dry, and then put them back inside, with the intention that new tomato plants would start to grow inside. It didn’t happen; on the contrary, the force of the plant seemed to implode toward its interior, and a fossil was left. New, lifeless forms emerged—they looked like little planets made of rock. 

On the window of my study, I had placed transparent envelopes for mini-germinations, which were marking the residency time as the seeds germinated and grew. The smell also began to appear as the days went by. Germinations have a very particular smell. Walking from my study to the university workshops, I would collect seeds that I found along the way. The FAAP residency is located in the heart of São Paulo, so there weren’t many. Even so, I collected enough and selected 22 seeds that I then replicated in clay, modifying their scale slightly—they were a little smaller or larger than the originals. All of these gestures and actions made up the final installation, testifying to the passage of time. 

In Biosfera, I made a large clay model, six meters by three and a half meters. Since clay is impervious, I put together a landscape with pools of water filled with aquatic plants, which aerate the water and keep it clean. The plants were modifying the installation, growing and rotting—there was a delta smell inside the room.

La Contemplación de las semillas, 2015. Installation with 45 watercolors made from the remains of the food the artist ate during three months, 5 sun-dried tomatoes, plastic envelopes with cotton and beans, 22 ceramic pieces, and other materials, dimensions variable. Photo: Lucila Gradín

MCB: Time plays an important role in your works, which goes against a world dominated by immediacy. You respect the different rhythms of biological and organic time, which cannot always be controlled. How do you relate to the demands of the art market with these slowly paced works, even when they’re not ephemeral?
LG: The paints are made with dyes and vegetable fixers. This allows me to work with organic materials and have the works remain. All the fabrics of our ancestral cultures were made with dye plants, and their colors are still intact. When I carry out a project, I am interested in addressing organic matter for all that it can offer, including constant modifications to the work. Every day, you will find some change in the room. That is why I am interested in talking about smell, since it accounts for the passage of time and can only be perceived if one is inhabiting that space. 

MCB: You made Memoria de un jardín (2016) for the SensArt residency in Buenos Aires; an architecture studio brought together several artists to intervene in houses slated for demolition. At your site, you gathered a piece from each species of plant in the garden, as if trying to preserve what would inevitably disappear. What did you use in this installation, and what was the process like?
LG: Because the houses were going to be demolished, we could work with everything inside. I used the bottoms of drawers as supports to represent in oil each species next to the original plant. I used pinotea wood to assemble the shelves of the installation and exhibited these objects made up of plant segments and their representations in oil as a museum of natural sciences. This work articulates the passage of time in an inverse way. The painting represents the plant in its splendor, and the segment decomposes with the passing of time, but because the whole situation is framed, it remains encapsulated. It’s the opposite of the effect of formaldehyde—the plants were dissected, thus losing their most notable features, and it is the painted representation that evokes the memory of the garden.

Restos, 2017. Mural created with natural dyes made from the artist’s everyday vegetable scraps, including yerba mate, onion, beet, and cabbage, 400 x 350 cm. Photo: Institución casa del Bicentenario
Restos (detail), 2017. Mural created with natural dyes made from the artist’s everyday vegetable scraps, including yerba mate, onion, beet, and cabbage, 400 x 350 cm. Photo: Institución casa del Bicentenario

MCB: In the mural Restos (2017), painted with natural dyes made from the remains of vegetables that you consumed (yerba mate, onion, beetroot, and cabbage), and Cronología Vegetal (2017), you take the chromatic investigations of your installations and confine them to two dimensions. What changes when the work leaves three-dimensional space?
LG: Although these are two-dimensional works, they continue to interact with the viewer in the same way as the installations. Restos was made with the same vegetable waste, which was not fixed, so the color changed over time. Beyond this chromatic variation, what attracted special attention was the smell produced by the dyes. The matter was present in terms of its smell, and this generated a different atmosphere almost impossible to register—these aromas go through different notes until finally disappearing. That is why presence was essential to these works; although they were two-dimensional, the experience was much more complex because it involved other senses.

MCB: The exhibition “Indigofera Tinctoria” (2019), at the El Mirador gallery in Buenos Aires, was your last pre-pandemic work. You created an installation made with natural dyes and mordants, accompanied by a publication in collaboration with a homeopathic doctor, an anthropologist, a flower therapist, and a healer. What can you tell us about this project?
LG: The process involved a lot of research because I had to study and experiment to achieve a very wide color palette. This led me to consider the plants in all their dimensions—tinctorial capacities, medicinal uses, and shamanistic practices. When you work with plants, you are constantly invoking a universe with each one. I got into discussions with an anthropologist who was conducting research on cave paintings in Catamarca. We had the opportunity to collaborate, and by comparing data, we realized that plants can propose behaviors. For our ancestors, colors were much more than tone, they were used to invoke a behavior, an energy, to bring something from another time and place it in the present. The same thing happened with the homeopath and the flower therapist. I gave them a list of all the tinctorial plants, and they investigated the medicinal part of each one. “Indigofera Tinctoria” materialized these experiences and acquired knowledge through paintings, objects, actions, and the publication.

Herbolaria, 2020/21. Oil inlays on felt, 200 x 160 cm. Photo: Lucila Gradín

MCB: Herbolaria and Tautología Cromática (2020–21) consist of oil inlays on felt, pigments, natural mordants, paper, and wool, all on a large scale. Here, you’re suggesting fantastic themes and medieval bestiaries. What are these recent works about, and what are you planning for future works?
LG: These investigations are linked to “Indigofera Tinctoria.” I am constantly researching plants; in my studio, I have a balcony where I planted a mini native forest. Living with plants and trees gives me different keys to enter deeper into this infinite and mysterious universe. Since color is much more than tone, there is a constant revisiting of mythologies—the information once transmitted orally was very powerful and comprehensive. The processes of colonization modified those mythologies in favor of the Spanish language and made them invisible. For example, the tree that today is called palo borracho was called “madre pegada a la tierra,” and its mythology as well as its name accounted for all the benefits that the tree had for people. 

I have been working on a project called Cosmogonía Pampeana for the sculpture park at the Marco Museum, in Cañuelas. It is 22 meters in diameter and consists of planting a native, medicinal, and dyeing forest, a lagoon with aquatic plants, and an interpretation center. It will be set in the middle of a field, at first generating a clear contrast between the precolonial and postcolonial landscape. The intention is that the forest will grow and begin to erase those limits. It is a sculpture in constant expansion, designed to regenerate the native ecosystem and make it an expansive health pump, in literal and symbolic terms.