Installation view of “Liliana Porter: Other Situations,” El Museo del Barrio, New York, 2018–19. Photo: Courtesy Martin Seck

The Importance of the Insignificant: A Conversation with Liliana Porter

Liliana Porter’s impressive, sometimes unsettling visual universe probes the mysteries of representation and the trials of human existence. She is fascinated by the conflicting boundaries of what we call “reality” and by our relationship to the concept of time. For 40 years, she has worked across printmaking, drawing, painting, installation, photography, video, and during the last decade, theater—always using humor as an ally in her work. Her spatial “situations,” which frequently take the form of sculptural stagings, bring together a pantheon of little flea-market-find characters—Elvis Presley, Che Guevara, Jesus, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pinocchio, Alice, toy soldiers, piggy banks, rubber ducks, and Benito Juárez—in sardonic confrontations that turn seemingly lightweight pieces of kitsch into expressions of philosophical heft.

María Carolina Baulo: You’ve changed media with amazing ease over the course of your career. Does the work itself require those changes?
Liliana Porter:
The formal solutions that I choose pretend to be coherent with the ideas that I propose. In an artwork, everything has meaning: scale, material, support, the space where things happen. A fabric stretched on a frame prepares the viewer to perceive what happens inside that space as something somehow related to art. In my work, the awareness of that mechanism is part of the content. I once said that my work is like watching a movie with the lights on because you try to surrender to the illusory space but at the same time the light keeps you aware of this other side of reality.

To Fix It, 2017. Broken clock and figurine on shelf, 5 x 8 x 3.5 in. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: You are concerned with the human condition, time, the construction of reality, and the criterion of truth. Though the forms change, the importance of the concept is constant. It is almost as if the medium acts as an excuse to address the concept.
I learned to reflect on these issues using the tools, mechanisms, and conventions of the visual arts. It is a language that helps me to think, to take positions in front of what we call reality. I am very interested in these topics, and over the years, I’ve continued to reflect on them using different media. Because they are problems that don’t have a single answer but are infinite and changing, I will have reflection work for a while.

MCB: In When does contemporary art begin? (2014), Andrea Giunta writes about the democratizing drive of printmaking in a pre-digital world, giving it a strong Latin American stamp. Your Arruga (Wrinkle, 1968) is a good example, a track left by destructive action on paper—immortalized in the scar, a gesture of resistance. What does that work mean to you?
LP: When I moved to New York in 1964 at the age of 22, my prints were inspired by literature. Getting to know this city led me to refer to the reality that surrounded me. Other images were the result of reading and reflection, for example the prints on Mahatma Gandhi. In 1966, another crucial change took place: I decided to reduce my formal vocabulary, simplifying the selection of images and trying to extract the essential meaning of my ideas from any technical boasting—something that the engraving technique, in its richness, provokes. That’s how my work with shadows (the idea of building absences) began, using elements of “simple” appearance: a trickle, a nail, a rip, a wrinkle. One work described the different stages of a crumpling piece of paper in 10 images, which contain many different meanings. There is the metaphor of time and the contradiction of an apparently inconsequential and banal action—like crumpling paper—becoming a poetic situation.

Wrinkle, 1968. Photo-etching, each plate: 8.5 x 11.5 in., paper: 13.5 x 16 in. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: The New York Graphic Workshop, which you co-founded with Luis Camnitzer and José Guillermo Castillo shortly after moving to New York, emphasized reproduction, concept over technique, and gave printmaking a new dimension with the FANDSO (Free Assemblable Non-Functional Disposable Serial Object). Were your Exposiciones por correo (Mail Exhibitions) and “Sombras” (“Shadows”) series born in that context?
LP: In the mid-’60s, young artists sought the dematerialization of art. We wanted to get away from the idea of the single object, the “elitist” work, to emphasize the essential, a way of perceiving or re-creating reality that didn’t necessarily have to turn into a painting, a sculpture, or a print. As printmakers, we were very interested in the fact of multiple works, which was a democratic way of making art. In the Mail Exhibitions (1969), through cards printed in offset, I decided to reverse time by sending shadows of objects (two olives, a glass, a bent corner) by mail. The receiver could place real olives or a real glass next to the printed shadow and thus complete the situation. From that moment, I became focused on the topics that continue to interest me—the simultaneity of the dissimilar, the reversal of time, the confusion of the virtual and the real.

MCB: Was your 1973 exhibition in the Project Room at MoMA a turning point in your career?
I can’t say that it was a turning point, but it was a great opportunity to show what I was doing in the city where I had lived for almost a decade. The installation included images of nails, hooks, and a fragment of rope, with their respective shadows, printed directly on the walls using photoserigraphy, which joined real objects with their shadows. The almost empty white space in the room was very important because it accentuated the presence of those minimal situations. I was invited by Riva Castleman, curator of the Department of Prints at the time. Since that space was reserved for artists with new proposals and the Department of Prints had to choose one, my ideas within the conventions of printmaking (works printed on the wall, empty spaces) would be quite novel.

Dialogue with Penguin V, 2000. Cibachrome and assemblage, 20 x 16.5 x 4 in. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: In the ’80s, you approached a more material world, shifting to sculpture and installation, as well as painting and drawing. What influenced that passage?
LP: After going through a quite deprived stage regarding the elements that constituted my works—the empty space was almost the protagonist—unexpected experiences at that time (including illness) led me to work in a less abstract way, using more narrative elements.

MCB: Found objects, toys, and antiques create suggestive groups of questionable importance that act within the silent and empty spaces that you compose for them. How do you establish such an affinity with ordinary objects that they gain a relevant identity in the world of art?LP: The objects that I choose and include in my work are a cast through which I can put together metaphorical situations. Space is a very important element. The monochrome or empty space where I place them takes away any hint of context and makes them timeless. I want that space to be devoid of any information about specific time. I am interested in presenting situations that reveal the varied and contradictory meanings of things—then a revelation takes place and enriches in the eyes of those who re-create them.

MCB: Though you don’t relate these readymades in a nostalgic way with your personal life, they carry an “emotional background” that connects with your concerns. There’s an interesting tension and uncertainty between what you see as an artist, what the objects once represented, what you don’t know about them, and the nature of the viewer’s impression.
LP: I don’t choose the objects in order to represent my past; I am relating to them now, in the present. There is no nostalgia in the staging. If this cast belongs mostly to the ’40s or ’50s, it’s because they are somehow familiar to me. I would never include a Barbie doll in the selection, for example, because it was never part of my experiences.

Tejedora, 2017. Fabric, figurine, and thread on wooden white base, 22.5 x 96.5 x 90 in. Photo: Federico Lo Bianco

MCB: Your work creates meaning, gives hope, and inspires resilience. You confront oppositions and appeal to humor as an emotional catalyst to approach existential concerns and contradictions. How do you harmonize the personal side with these universal issues?
LP: We might refer here to the “Trabajos Forzados” (“Forced Labor”) series, in which, for example, one tiny character tries to untangle a giant knot of ropes, cords, and wires. The disproportion between the character and the measure of the task that occupies him is enormous, but he is still focused on that task, which implies an important dose of faith in the possibility of carrying it out. The situation is quite dramatic, but it simultaneously provokes laughter—a metaphor for the human being in front of the impossibility of understanding the essential meaning of things, a task that surpasses him but generates the constant and uninterrupted search for meaning. Another example would be the “Reconstrucciones” (“Reconstructions”) series. First, in the virtual space of a framed photograph, we see a shattered figurine; but next to it, in our space, we see the same figure unharmed and intact on a shelf, as if it existed before the disaster evidenced in the photograph. This way of reversing time brings hope; but on the other hand, it is a lie played with humor—we suspect the mechanism of the trick.

MCB: Absurdity also characterizes the impossible encounters proposed in the “Diálogos” (“Dialogues”)—relationships that generate empathy with the viewer and through ridicule, provoke thought.
LP: I try to make anomalous dialogues possible and natural, confronting different times to make them simultaneous, joined by opposition. I abolish hierarchies and make natural or logical what could be perceived as absurd or impossible.

Forced Labor at Sea, 2013. Acrylic and assemblage on canvas, 39 x 72 in. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: How much of the “Argentine condition” is still present in your work?
LP: I think that the first experiences of childhood and adolescence, as well as the first language, are definitive influences in our basic perception of things. Despite having lived for three years in Mexico City and 55 years in New York, I still feel like an Argentinian, and I don’t speak English with an accent. I believe that we are, and inevitably must be, reflected consciously or unconsciously in what we do, including art.

MCB: What inspires you to conceptualize art as communication?
LP: Art seeks to transcend and question the partial meaning that is our knowledge of things—a space of action that moves away from the known or accepted laws with which we operate in life. It seeks to generate reflections based on experiences that tell us that the true meaning is a revelation to which we don’t have access. It approaches poetic, philosophical, aesthetic, and sociological reflections. In any case, art communicates questions, not affirmations. I think the most intelligent art is the one that helps us to think, and perceive new experiences, and question ourselves more and more clearly.

Forty Years IIIB (hand, over horizontal Line 1973), 2013. Chromogenic print, 24.25 x 22.75 in. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: The appearance of your work camouflages a certain amount of drama. How does the tragic side show?
LP: I don’t know if it’s a tragic side. What I can say is that the search for the meaning of things generates actions and reflections. Jorge Luis Borges lucidly defined the aesthetic experience as the imminence of a revelation. The word “imminence” is what hides the anguished part, because it implies that we never achieve that revelation. On the other hand, I’m an optimist, and I’m certain that the explanation I don’t know is somewhere. Knowing that reassures me and gives me a certain level of happiness—also understood as an act of rebellion.

MCB: Do you have any anecdotes from the time when you and Luis Camnitzer—by then your husband—worked with Salvador Dalí?
LP: It was a very interesting experience to meet him in his New York environment. He had a space converted into a workshop at the Hotel San Regis. Luis met him on a visit to the Pratt Graphic Art Center, where he was looking for help to convert some holography experiments into prints. In 1966, Luis and I produced Dalí’s “Retratos Españoles” (“Spanish Portraits”) series of etchings. The editor also commissioned us to print the series. It was a great opportunity, and we were extremely enthusiastic; but suddenly the editor realized that Dalí would be in Europe (he only spent half the year in New York) when the time came to sign the finished prints, so it would be better to print the engravings in Europe. Before this devastating news, I had come up with the idea of Dalí signing the papers before printing. The editor thought I was crazy; according to him, it was like signing blank checks. But Dalí, who liked us, loved the proposal. In one afternoon, he signed hundreds of empty Arches sheets. Incredibly, he transformed that act into a habit, until the day when one of the trucks carrying the signed papers was robbed and fake engravings began to appear on the market. The false part was not the signature, but the printed image.

Man with Axe (detail), 2017. Mixed media, site-specific installation, 67 x 393 x 275 in. La Biennale di Venezia, 57th International Art Exhibition, Giardini Arsenale, Venice, Italy. Photo: Federico Lo Bianco

MCB: In a conversation with Inés Katzenstein published in a 2013 book, you talk about a certain recurrence of themes in your work over the years: corrections, reconstructions, and repetitions. Could you expand on these interests?
LP: That book belongs to a series of conversations between artists and curators published by the Patricia Cisneros Foundation. All artists have some recurring reflection that somehow defines them. In my case, my interests are related to questioning the concept of time, representation, and the meaning of things. In the “Correcciones” (“Corrections”) series, one of the works is a scribble drawn in pencil, which is “corrected” in red by another, overlapping scribble. Correcting a scribble is an act between the presumptuous and the pathetic. Here, the inevitable persistence of the error becomes evident because we ignore what would be the perfect drawing to propose. The “Reconstrucciones” (“Reconstructions”), as exercises in trying to reverse time and destruction, are another example. Because the issues I address don’t have a satisfactory answer or immediate solution, I feel the need to continue reflecting and hence the reiteration.

THEM (still), 2018. Performance at The Kitchen, NY, part of “Liliana Porter: Other Situations,” El Museo del Barrio, 2018–19. Photo: Liliana Porter

MCB: Your interests have always inclined toward stagings, though your first experiences with theater have been fairly recent—Entreactos: situaciones breves (Between acts: brief situations, 2014) at the Sarmiento Theater and El orden de las cosas: bocetos (The order of things: sketches, 2015) at the Museum of Modern Art, both in Buenos Aires. How have these two experiences expanded your work?
LP: I continued with Domar al león y otras dudas (To tame the lion and other doubts, 2017) at the Parque de la Memoria (for the Performance Festival of Buenos Aires) and THEM (2018) at The Kitchen in New York. Inés Katzenstein made the first staging a reality. At that time, she was the director of Visual Arts at DiTella University in Buenos Aires. Ana Tiscornia acted as co-director for that project and for all the subsequent works. Together, we put together an excellent cast and technical team that included the musician and interpreter Sylvia Meyer. Just as photography took me to video, the rest of my work—in particular the installations—pushed me toward theater because I realized that there was already a lot of theatricality in the mechanism of my work, in the fact of staging situations. Theater, on the other hand, makes everything more alive and immediate. Paradoxically, the more real it is, the more transitory; it’s not solved in an object but in a specific collective experience.

“Liliana Porter: El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves” is on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami through October 20, 2019.