The Horse Problem, 2016–17. Resin and marble powder, view of installation for the Argentinian Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: © BERNARD G. MILLS

Walking the Edges: A Conversation with Claudia Fontes

Claudia Fontes, who represented Argentina at the 2017 Venice Biennale, has been living in Brighton, England, for the last 12 years. She studied art at the National School of Fine Arts Prilidiano Pueyrredón in Buenos Aires and art history at the University of Buenos Aires. Her actions, objects, and social projects express a deep concern about the political and symbolic spaces left behind by decolonization. Art becomes a powerful weapon in the struggle against apathy, indifference, and ignorance, introducing new ways to perceive culture, nature, history, and the social forces that shape individuals. In addition to her studio practice, she has spearheaded several cooperative artists’ networks, including TRAMA, a platform for DIY, artist-led culture, and has generated spaces for the development of critical thought. She has contributed to numerous international forums about artist-run culture, focusing on the impact of arts and culture in social development.

María Carolina Baulo: Your sculptures and installations always make a statement about human behavior, frequently by initiating a dialogue between animals and humans. Murmuration (2016), for instance, highlights the importance of cooperative learning. You want humans to exercise the same cooperative skills demonstrated by starlings learning to fly. Murmuration represents a nomadic chorus that underscores the importance of paying attention to each other and to our living environment. Could you talk about how it came into being?
Claudia Fontes: At the moment, it is more of an evolving idea than a piece in its own right. I did a pilot version at Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires in October 2016. It was called 500, in reference to the number of children estimated by human rights organizations in Argentina to have been killed—as is assumed in the case of Pablo Míguez—or kidnapped. The action was motivated by the birds that have used my Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez as a perch since the moment it was installed. Pablo’s figure was never lonely; it was accompanied by these birds from the very beginning. When I started working on that piece, Argentina was consumed by an institutional crisis, which, though tragic, also introduced the right conditions for self-organized knowledge to emerge. The search for utopia in the ’70s had been channeled through organizational structures, which were extremely vertical and hierarchical following patriarchal mandates, and this ultimately contributed to their failure. I believe that the only way to preserve any sense of a utopian future is to channel it through horizontal organizational strategies; and we can learn a huge amount about such strategies from the behavior of birds and other animals. For 500, I invited 500 14-year-old children to mimic the birds’ movements following a set of rules. They could break the rules if they wished and then debate about them afterwards.

Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, 2000–10. Water reflection on stainless steel, (figure) 170 x 50 x 70 cm. Work installed in the Río de la Plata, Buenos Aires. Photo: © Cecilia Nisembaum

MCB: Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez seems to float on the Río de la Plata—the “grave” of hundreds of victims disappeared by state terrorism during the ’70s. In 1999, you were one of the winners of the Parque de la Memoria Award, which resulted in this work. Did you intend to subvert the conventional structure of the monument from the beginning?
CF: The piece actually uses the conventional idea of a monument because it contests it. The figure was modeled by trying to achieve an accurate anthropometrical representation of an absent body, which is obviously impossible. However, the mere attempt of trying to do it puts that impossibility in suspense. The figure is not intended to show how Pablo Míguez looked. We are denied access to his face and appearance, forced instead to imagine him. The work appeals to a pulsation of life that we set in motion at the moment of attempting to reconstruct Pablo’s face in our minds. At that point, it becomes not an emblem of power, as monuments are, but an emblem of presence.

MCB: You have referred to your practice as walking along the edges, along borders instead of through centers. Those are challenging roads, which question comfort zones and provoke reflection. Personally, I believe art should always question the status quo and propose alternatives while moving our emotions; if not, it is wasting a magnificent opportunity. What do you see as the role of art today?
CF: We are going through a moment in the history of artistic practice in which we need to question what drives us to make art. What do we want to get out of it? What type of experience do we want to bring into the world? If we question this in our practice and train ourselves to look at things in a different way, then there is a chance that we will be able to offer others different conditions of looking. A different experience of looking can trigger different ways of being present, of engaging, and of feeling. So, it is not only about shaking someone’s emotions and thoughts for its own sake, it is about being able to offer an experience that can meaningfully engage people. Right now, I believe we have a greater chance of engaging meaningfully with each other at the edges of the art debate than at the center. I am not very good at pretending that the art world makes sense. As soon as you move out from the center, there are a billion people ready to tell you that it does not. Why not listen to them?

MCB: The focus of the “Foreigners” series is clearly political. You highlight the necessity of producing poetic situations that open up channels of perception and collaborative awareness. These sculptures can be in absolute sympathy with their context, surrounding objects, and the situations of daily life, yet they present unexpected scenes of strangeness. What inspired this series, and why did you choose porcelain?
CF: In Britain, porcelain is popularly associated with upper-class social status and proper Englishness. I wanted to appropriate for myself a material that is both symbolically and physically from here, using it to comment on what it means to be a foreigner in this place and at this time. The various images, which I collect while rambling in the countryside—a very English activity—come together in a kind of hybrid that I call “Foreigners.” They are about the size of my hand. They are also foreigners in respect to the language of contemporary art—you would not expect an artist these days to focus on making porcelain figurines. I believe that the skills of the foreigner are very useful: you are part of a community, yet you have enough distance to be critical of it. By the same token, you become an expert on adaptability, which is, I think, the most relevant single quality nowadays. I highly recommend becoming a foreigner in everything you do, if you are not already one.

Works from the “Foreigners” series, 2013–present. Porcelain, approx. 15 x 20 x 8 cm. Photo: © Bernard G. Mills

MCB: Material and concept work together for you, and touch is very important. Your works invite viewers to engage not only in intellectual dialogue but also in physical dialogue. It is essential in these moments of crisis that we, individually and as a species, recover and (re)develop the intelligence that we have trapped in our hands. Is this the idea behind The Horse Problem (2016–17), which debuted at the Venice Biennale?
CF: We face a major challenge in contemporary art practice, which is finding a new epistemology, a new way of validating the necessity of creating art as a form of understanding and making sense of the world in which we live. For a while now, I have been interested in the role that artistic practice plays in our evolution as a species—what necessity it addresses, how it helps us to survive. The agreed-upon sensorium in Western culture, which centers on the sense of vision, is making us fail. At some point in history, we decided that we could trust our eyes more than our hands, and we gave up on a way of understanding the world that is crucial to the formation of concepts in our minds. It is by touching and handling that we are able to put names to things when we are very young. There is a hypothesis that prehistoric figurines representing human beings multiplied exponentially during the Neolithic, at the point when we cemented the idea of what it is to be a person, and that their main function was to be held in the hand. These hand-size representations had a major role in allowing our brains to think of human beings as different from animals and the rest of nature, so that we could exploit them. When I read about this, I wondered what would happen if we had the choice of thinking through our hands. What new concepts and understanding of our surroundings would we gain?

The Horse Problem, 2016–17. Resin and marble powder, view of installation for the Argentinian Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: © BERNARD G. MILLS

MCB: The Horse Problem sparked a flurry of interpretations. It captured a frozen instant in which a horse, a woman, and a man react to a crisis. You said you were inspired by the 19th-century cultural icons that built Argentina’s identity, challenging them through a surreal scene with the quality of an apparition. Could you discuss the ideas and some of the formal decisions that you had to make?
CF: My idea was to create a scene that would collect and express the different layers of history and meaning already contained in the Argentinian Pavilion at the Arsenale, which I used as an objet trouvé. As an artist living abroad invited to “represent” my homeland, I treated this as an opportunity to engage in ideas about how Argentina formed its own identity, but in a very playful manner that would open other, wider meanings. Those cultural icons linked to national identity were a point of departure, rather than the destination. Argentina is a country with a strong literary tradition, and it made sense to build this piece by borrowing from literary tradition and literary expression.

The material, techniques, and language allowed me to establish links across history, which you could read as ironic. While the figures had the appearance of classical monumental sculptures, the actions into which they were frozen, especially the woman and the horse, were the complete opposite of what you would expect from classical equestrian statuary. I am very interested in this sort of “trans-creation” across centuries: the figure of the victorious male rider is replaced by the warped building it is bumping into, the horse is neither poised nor triumphal but bucking and scared of its own shadow being dismembered; the only character with superpowers in the scene is a woman. To render this, I used new technologies like 3D scanning and 3D modeling in combination with traditional sculpting techniques. I was interested in the theatricality of the installation in a traditional sense as much as in the video game language that the 3D modeling software brought into it.

Works from the “Foreigners” series, 2013–present. Porcelain, approx. 15 x 20 x 8 cm. Photo: © Bernard G. Mills

Finally, I was interested in the monstrous aspect of the out-of-scale horse and the out-of-scale hand holding it in place, the tension between what would be considered “beautiful” and acceptable and how that becomes distorted just by inflating the scale. There is something about the lack of sustainability in contemporary art practice that I consider to be monstrous, and this consideration probably filtered itself into the choice of scale when thinking of the Biennale as the least sustainable of all international art world events.

MCB: So, in this case, you really are disassociating your work from traditional monuments, particularly the equestrian monument?
CF: I play with the idea of monuments, trying to deconstruct and make visible the absurdity of the values that they encapsulate. Monuments are usually instruments for state propaganda, but this horse bucking against the ceiling in a state of panic—within the context of a national pavilion—does quite the opposite. I thought of the building containing the horse as a reverse plinth. Rather than standing on top of the plinth, the horse is trapped inside it.

In the case of Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, the plinth is the river where Pablo’s body was allegedly dropped. The monumental aspect of the horse, like the reference to portraiture in Reconstruction of the Portrait of Pablo Míguez, plays with the tradition of figurative sculpture, and seemingly traditional materials, but only as a strategy to disconcert the viewer. Neither stainless steel (in the case of Reconstruction) nor marble dust and resin (in the case of The Horse Problem) are traditional materials for monuments. Instead, these not-so-noble materials add to the debasement of the monument.

MCB: What have you been working on recently?
CF: I was invited by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro to be part of the curatorial team for the São Paulo Biennial, which opens in September 2018. This time around, there is a curatorial team made up of artists, all of us with very different practices and conceptual approaches. Gabriel’s invitation was to put my work in dialogue with whatever and whoever I considered necessary. I had absolute freedom to choose my own definition of what it is to be a curator, select a sector of the building to work in, and decide what that space was going to be about. It has been quite an experimental process from which I’ve learned a lot.

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