On the occasion of our trip to Mexico City to attend Zona Maco 2017, we interviewed Mexican artist Carlos Amorales to give us a preview of the project he will present for the Mexican Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Carlos Amorales was born in Mexico City in 1970 and in 1992 moved to Amsterdam to attend the Gerrit, then at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (1996–97). Amorales’s practice encompasses animation, drawing, installation, video, and performance; he also collaborates with professional animators, composers, designers, musicians—and even wrestlers. Having matured under the influence of both Mexican and European cultures, Amorales frequently explores the commonalities and disparities of the two milieus by juxtaposing their distinctive vocabularies. His work is also deeply personal—reflective of emotional introversion and at times obscure, it journeys into a dark world of fantasy, blurring the line between the real and the imagined.
Mara Sartore: Obviously, we would love you to talk to us about what you are preparing for the Venice Biennale, but before we get to that, let’s take a moment to talk about your artistic journey, how you began, and what your relationship with your parents was like, in this respect…
Carlos Amorales: My name is a stage name, it is the joining of the “A” of Aguirre, my father’s name, with “Morales”, my mother’s last name. This is because, otherwise, I would have had exactly the same name as my father, Carlos Aguirre. And so, being the “second” forced me to look for another name. It took some time to achieve, it was a long process of searching for an identity, then one day I thought if I put an “A” in front of Morales… And so we have Amorales… During this time of “separation” from my father I also left Mexico. At the beginning of the nineties I went to Holland to study at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and then at the Rijksakademie where I finished up in 1998. I have always had a great interest in pictures, graphics, performance and music, but what gave me the push at the beginning was to create this character called Amorales, a character through which I have been able to find my uniqueness, my distinctness. From this starting point I have begun working on different themes…
One of the central themes of my work has always been the mask. Not so much as an object in itself, but more as an object that hides and reveals at the same time. A membrane between public and private. I know that art happens in the public space, but what is behind it and what pushes its creation are almost always private matters. The masks I initially dealt with were very simple, snapshots of my daily life, of my relationships with people, then slowly I started creating other types of worlds, more artistic and imaginative ones.
When my first child was born, the pregnancy was a very intense moment for me. I took photos of his mother and these images become characters that then reappeared in my animation. I slowly started to become more interested in both the written word and in music. It was almost as if they were signs or tools that allowed me to interact with the real world.
The images became representations not so much of a fantastic or realistic world, as much as scores that had to be interpreted musically or performatively in relationship to new situations.
M.S.: What happens to the life of an artist when he discovers he has been selected to represent his country at the Venice Biennale?
C.A.: Life becomes very chaotic… hahaha… In reality, it is the second time that I have been involved in the Biennale exhibition in a national pavilion. The first time was in 2003 in the Netherlands Pavilion, as part of a collective…
M.S.: Yes, but the Netherlands is not your country…
C.A.: It’s true, this time it is very different. I am alone and in the Mexican Pavilion. I knew about the contest to participate in the selection two weeks before it closed. I had to present a project, I worked on the texts and on the prototypes to present to the commission and then I waited for a week to find out the result. As soon as I found out that I was selected, we left for Venice and started working.
M.S.: I heard that they gave you the opportunity to choose Pablo León de la Barra as curator. Is that true?
C.A.: Yes, this time that’s how it turned out. It’s usually the curator who chooses the artists. However, there was a lot of discussion in Mexico about the fact that it had to be a curatorial or artistic project that was chosen and so, this year, that’s how it worked out. And this has given me a lot more possibilities as an artist, more liberty on how I could present my work. In Venice I will present a formal piece that I am working on, starting with paper clippings, which in the past I have developed a lot of things with: the first was a series of abstract images, an alphabet, a font, this is what I have worked on in the past few years, it was the next step after “l’archivio liquido” (the liquid archive), that was very figurative. I wanted to work on something more abstract and more typographic. Each form represents a letter. Last year I suggested this to a Mexican institution called Casa del Lago (Lake House) so that they would use it for three months, they replaced the font that they normally used, in all their programmes, with this new illegible font…
M.S.: For some time you have focused on the theme of censorship… is inventing a new language a way to take this reflection to the extreme?
C.A.: It is a way to codify content in order to be able to preserve it… a way that allows you to look after content, to preserve it and to maintain this type of freedom of expression, despite it being transformed, like when I was speaking to you about the mask: it’s as if, at times, there’s a censorship of the truth, but truth must be maintained, it must be spoken, it must be preserved, because it is important – and so ways can be found to disguise it, to preserve it… Right now, in Mexico, we are going through a difficult time, societally, and it is very hard to find a way to talk about this moment because every time you speak about it, you ignore, you accept, you don’t assume your responsibility to speak about it… Today we are experiencing a moment in time in which representations of reality are in crisis, our entire language has evolved into “over” informatin and what I am reflecting on is exactly how to find new forms to say things and to preserve them. What I want to show, in the pavilion, is actually how, through these forms, it’s possible to say something about what I feel is happening. It has been like a process of transformation of language, these elements are like the tools that are needed to make music, to depict poetry or a text. It is as an exercise of abstraction through which I have created a world, that is a figurative world of characters, trees and houses in which I tell a story…
M.S.: Will you also record a video of it? An animation?
C.A.: Yes, it is halfway between animation and film, a theatre of puppets in which I’m very interested in how the puppeteer and the musicians are shown and I like the idea; it is a story that is told by real people who bring it alive and make it work. It is not a stop-motion animation, that exists by itself, but the objects are made in the same way: if she speaks, she speaks in this language and if he responds, he responds in the same language. It is like a totally encrypted world… I really like how art can change according to where it’s on show and how people respond to it and how the culture of the people seeing it transform it.
M.S.: What is the story you are telling?
C.A.: It’s the story of a lynching – when a whole country encircles someone and lynches him – it is the story of a family of immigrants that arrive in a country and everyone starts speaking badly about them and they lynch them… This is an example of what I believe is happening here: it is a moment in which the State is becoming so weak that institutions are losing their role. This transformation that we are seeing, I don’t think it’s just a Mexican problem, it’s a global problem.
M.S.: In Europe, fear is seen as being embodied in the foreigner. In Mexico it seems to me that it’s different…
C.A.: Here it is very tied up with economic problems, or rather, what has happened here is that when Mexico was liberalised, it went back to being a factory producer that makes car parts. This has completely changed the economy and the country has begun to depopulate, creating a lot of migration of Mexicans towards the United States, the same people Trump is now building a wall to keep out. At the same time, in Mexico, an enormous, illegal industry of drug trafficking began to grow. The legal and the illegal began to mix along with the corrupt and the honest, and I believe this has produced a lot of psychoses, and I have the feeling that it will grow… for example: the price of gasoline has increased by 20%… a self-defence tactic, people create their own military groups and take the law into their own hands and go out and fight – they are not guerrillas, because they are not ideological. In Europe you have other problems but at the end of the day they are all economic and political problems.
M.S.: In Europe, a sort of psychosis is developing, a refusal of the “other”, the incapacity to live together, a loss of, but at the same time, a seeking out of a sense of community… Beginning with the manipulation of news by the media, the importance of reappropriating one’s own expressive means is more important than ever. At the heart of this there is obviously language, the primary connection with one’s own country of origin, creating a new “language” is, first of all, creating a new identity.
C.A.: Yes, what seemed interesting to me in my creative process is how, starting from a formal game, simple clippings of paper, nothing sophisticated, a universe can be created that can somehow tell a coherent story. A reaction to what is happening with the media, there is a lot of confusion: you open Facebook and you don’t understand what is true and what is not, you feel that everything is quite biased, and you see everything but only within the limits of your own political taste and this is a tendency that eliminates critical thinking at the root, that makes you see only what you want to see, because it is already preselected for you, it prevents you from seeing the other side… Therefore, I have wondered if proposing a new simple language could help to clarify…
In the end, these shapes are just forms, it depends on how you feel about them, it’s perhaps more a work about suggestion rather than assertion. I’m telling a story about a family, they could be Mexicans, they could be Africans, they could be Chinese. By using a mythical structure, you can have more universal empathy. I am not hoping that the audience sees the problem of Mexicans but perhaps a representation where everybody can feel more identified. In the discussion we had with Pablo it was clear that we didn’t want to become nationalistic. What scares me about nationalism is this tendency to look at the past, and most of these ideas are modern, they are not truly traditional. In Mexico our identity was created, for the most part, after the revolution.
M.S.: In Mexico there has been a kind of break between the revolution and contemporary Mexico… I don’t know today how much of those ideals remain. I was really struck by a piece I saw – “La Basura Social” by Orozco – a 1923 painting with the swastika already in the garbage 10 years before Hitler even climbed to power… For us Europeans, it is amazing to see that a Mexican was already seeing clearly, when, for many of us, unfortunately, it was clear only 20 years later…
C.A.: What I feel is that we must build something new. I read something recently that said that since Mexico has been part of the free trade agreement, and imports a lot of North American food, obesity has skyrocketed here. So much so that we are now the country with the second highest obesity rate in the world, after the United States. So, now that they perhaps want to put restrictions on free trade there will also be some advantages…
M.S.: Yes, I also thought about that! In Europe, we are reflecting a lot on a possible return to community, to the dimension of the polis, we are looking for ways to resolve local problems. Even if the world, by now, has become so small, in reality it is still a place of vast comparison where points of reference are easily lost, where the news of distant places affects our daily life, in which confusion between fiction and reality is growing, everything is present at the same time but generalised, globalised, and, in this context, people increasingly feel the need to return to what they can see with their own eyes, to what they can feel and touch, to concrete issues and actions…
C.A.: Yes, as an artist I also have this feeling. When I studied in Holland I was defined as an International artist and, at that time, I had the feeling that either I was an International artist, and therefore worthy of respect, or I was merely a “local” artist… Therefore, the most important thing was to see the world, to travel… But lately my needs have changed. I don’t feel the need to be considered an International artist anymore, nor to travel. I’m tired. I feel like relating to the reality that surrounds me, to my community. There are big changes happening now, we need to pay more attention, to stop and look at things more closely. For this reason I have called the show in the Pavilion “La vida en los pliegues“, a title that comes from a book of poetry by Henri Michaux. I liked this title because it represents the feeling of change that I feel. We must understand ideologies and reconsider them, call into question our way of life. We can’t stay on the path that we have traced up to now. These days everything is theatre, representation, it is almost impossible to find pragmatism and substance here nowadays…
Carlos Amorales – “Life in the Folds”
Mexican Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale
Venue: Arsenale, Sala d’Armi, Tesa B
Dates: 13 May – 26 November 2017
Opening: Thu 11 May, 11.30am
Performance: from 9 to 13 May 2017, 10am -7pm
- Carlos Amorales in his studio. Photo by: Teresa Sartore
- Mara Sartore interviewing Carlos Amorales in his studio. Photo by: Teresa Sartore
- Carlos Amorales in his studio. Photo by: Teresa Sartore
- Carlos Amorales, Works for the Venice Biennale Project, Photo by: Teresa Sartore
- Carlos Amorales, Works for the Venice Biennale Project, Photo by: Teresa Sartore
- Carlos Amorales, The Cursed Village, 2017 (still). Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto