Pablo Helguera by Kathleen MacQueen

Pablo Helguera on his love of used books, dying languages and his conceptual approach to captioning an image.

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Pablo Helguera, Librerí­a Donceles, 2013, installation view. All images courtesy of the artist and Kent Fine Art, New York

Themes of language, translation, and polyphonic voice are prevalent in the conceptual and socially engaged art practice of Pablo Helguera, particularly his projects The School of Panamerican Unrest and Librería Donceles, which is on view at Kent Fine Art through November 8, 2013.

Kathleen MacQueen Can you tell me about the Librería Donceles and how it came about?

Pablo Helguera Librería Donceles has autobiographical origins. I grew up surrounded by books; there is a certain comfort in being surrounded by walls of books that I cannot fully describe. There is a Borgesian fascination with the labyrinth of books and the imaginary conversations that one has with different tomes—a dialogue through the ages—but to me, books are inextricably linked to those who have owned them.

KMQ The setting you create here in the gallery feels like a home, one that’s been lived in a long time.

PH The first library I knew was my grandfather’s. In the 1940s he amassed a large library. My grandfather would organize tertulias, or literary soirées. As a result of the Spanish Civil War, a lot of Spanish intellectuals came to Mexico and my grandfather, a businessman interested in culture, would arrange these Thursday evening soirées; it was in fact at one of those where my parents met. My brother was a well-known writer who passed away ten years ago and had a big influence on me.

I have also become an obsessive book collector myself—not in the sense of collecting first editions but in collecting those that seem “off the beaten path.” The more famous a book is, the less interested I am; the more obscure it is, the more unique and special the process of discovery becomes.

Two phenomena have irked me in these last years and led to this project: the demise of the book as an object and the rise of the e-book, of which I am an assiduous user as well, but there is something about the objectof the book that I need. I don’t like borrowing books because I like to carry on a long-term dialogue with a book over time and also to give books away.

The other phenomenon is the demise of the used bookstore, particularly in New York City. A used bookstore is not like Barnes & Noble, where you come in with a book in mind or where you are told what to buy. In a used bookstore you will never be told what to buy and will, in fact, be hard-pressed to find what you need. There is a completely different social dynamic—you come, like a miner or fisherman, just looking… that’s when the magic happens because something finds you instead of you finding it.

KMQ It requires a leap-of-faith. But it’s important that this is not simply a used-book store but also a Spanish language bookstore.

PH Yes, there are two million Spanish speakers in New York City, a fourth of the entire population and the last of the Spanish lectorum bookstores on 14th Street in Manhattan closed in 2007. There are a few bi-lingual bookstores and in some large bookstores you can find books in Spanish, but in those the Spanish language section is frankly insulting. I don’t want to read the latest Dan Brown in Spanish or a self-help book or a Spanish language bestseller. It is as if the collective Spanish mind could only handle one author at a time.

In any language there is a range of thinking, as you see here, that encompasses philosophy, sociology, algebra, and children’s stories that are never translated. There are books that never go online, that are out of print, and that only a very few readers could access.

KMQ These are histories of thought that remain localized but could be more widespread.

PH When you walk into this place, you think not only of the breadth of this language but any language… you could do the same project with Portuguese, Mandarin or Swahili; however, the fact that we have this unbelievably huge population of Spanish speakers here is what made this project particularly urgent to me. I find the unsustainability of Spanish language bookstores in this city incomprehensible.

KMQ The United States is for all intents and purposes a monolingual society. During years of economic crisis, language programs are often cut first from university humanities curricula, suggesting their low rank on a scale of ideological, economic, and social value.

PH This has become a major political debate where we try to understand what it means to have Spanish speakers in the United States and what immigration means beyond the usual stereotypes of seeing Latin American culture as a source mainly of dance music and food. Those perceptions imply that there is an inherent incapacity to produce serious philosophical thought in Latin America for example; or, if you are a creative writer from Latin America then your work must be magic realism… that you cannot produce theater, etc. It’s limited.

Furthermore, Hispano-American literature and thought is so closely linked with an understanding of Anglo-American, French, and Spanish cultural density. So there is a need to show that things are not as reductive and simple.

KMQ: Perhaps to show the complexity of both individual and national identity?

PH I am more interested in showing the identity of the Spanish language itself. In Hispano-America, the big publishers have historically been in Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Bogotà, and to some extent Caracas. Language becomes a country as well.

KMQ … a country without borders.

PH The true borders are linguistic. You can see this online. The Spanish, Italian, or German Internet worlds are very different from the ones you access in English. Even the Wikipedia entries are different. The more languages you understand, the more nuance of understanding you can get on different subjects.

So while we think that everything is accessible at any time in any place, there are definite borders that require our investment in understanding language. You construct your set of references through the writings of your time; for example, my grandfather, who put together his library in the 1940s, populated it with the Spanish authors in vogue from that time (Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, etc). My father’s library included famous authors of the 1960s. So within each language there are generational shifts.

KMQ Which is precisely what you find in a used bookstore that offers perhaps a century of publications.

PH The most gratifying aspect of the project is that the books become amazing conversation pieces. The other day a professor found a book she had read in her youth and hadn’t seen in fifty years or so. It was an author I had never heard of, but it was deeply meaningful to her to find it again and have this conversation. It triggers memories. The same is true with the people who donated these books.

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Pablo Helguera, Librería Donceles, 2013, installation view.

KMQ I’d like to talk about the methodology: how did this happen?

PH It started with an invitation in April from Kent Fine Art to do a project and I told them that I don’t really do exhibitions and I think this project would be essentially a failed business. (laughter) But I was interested in inhabiting a gallery in the sense of it being a business space and creating a temporary pop-up shop that could go on to exist in other places.

In Mexico City, used books can be found easily both in private homes and on Donceles, the oldest street in Mexico City. [Picks a book from the shelf.] This book, for example, would be worth little there, financially speaking, but here is quite unique and valuable as an object. I went to Mexico City and started a campaign: I offered some of my small works on paper in exchange for boxes of books.

I started with friends and family but the results were not enough so I went to the newspaper La Jornada, which printed a small story that was picked up by the media. Then it exploded. I started getting offers of donations from Mexicali in the north to Merida in the south, from Veracruz and all over the country. They did this less for the motivation of the artwork and more from the desire to do something for the immigrant community here. There’s been an enormous irritation in how immigrants are treated in America, as well as a feeling of impotence: what can we do about it?

It was quick, in four weeks we had 25,000 books so we had to stop the campaign. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice (laughter) the books were multiplying! Then I started a second campaign of hard cash to get the books here. This is why a used-bookstore in New York City is an impossible proposition—the costs involved for acquisition and storage. Two dollars for each book shipped.

KMQ It’s no longer a sustainable model.

PH The only way something like this can exist anymore is, ironically, as a socially engaged art project.

KMQ How do you reconcile a project fueled by nostalgia to one that is progressively committed to change?

PH First of all, memory is continuity and is precisely what triggers a human connection with others. It’s not just a store, it’s a state of mind where communication happens on different levels. It’s a container of stories. Each one of the books has the donor’s name inscribed on the Ex libris label. Each name is a story.

KMQ But how does the non-viable model of the bookstore change into a different sustainable project?

PH The purpose changes: it’s no longer about financial revenue but about cultural revenue. There is a certain level of investment at each stage by which the project becomes a conduit for a series of transactions, if you will, or relationships with dimensions of education, language, culture, and dialogue. I have been always interested in inhabiting models of every kind—I’m keenly aware that I am performing a variety of roles. Sometimes I am a theater director, sometimes a therapist, sometimes a teacher, and sometimes an artist in the conventional sense. How can I use these roles to make something meaningful? This project is about giving the model new meaning and new purpose. That’s exactly what it tries to be.

KMQ Where does it go next?

PH My goal is to keep this project alive as long as I can. Odds are against me. It couldn’t be more complicated but a lot of people have become interested, for example the Arizona State Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. This interests me because of the political situation… do you know in Tucson, there is a ban on Ethnic Studies in schools? Imagine this: A state where you are not allowed to study other cultures. This is a retreat to the Middle Ages. So we are renting the space of a former Borders Bookstore to sell books in Spanish in the middle of Phoenix, where there are no Spanish bookstores as you can imagine.

KMQ Will it remain itinerant?

PH I will continue touring the project for a period of time, but I live in New York so I would like it to have a permanent home here. The easy solution would be to donate the books to a library but that would be like burying them.

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Pablo Helguera, Librería Donceles, 2013, installation view.

KMQ Your previous project, The School of Panamerican Unrest, was so expansive—a kind of reaching and spreading out—while the Librería feels almost as a gleaning or gathering of materials? A harvest, so to speak.

PH The Panamerican project was not a language project but more intended to understand the continent as a historical, political, and cultural experiment and establish parallels between the nineteenth-century beginnings when countries were young and hopeful and filled with ideas of freedom. That, coupled with this vague notion of intercontinental integration and what could art do today to revisit those ideas.

It was definitely an attempt to create a dialogue that wasn’t really happening between various cities—Vancouver in conversation with Puebla, for example—it was the beginning of my understanding of what I was trying to do in terms of pedagogy and socially engaged art, before this was a buzzword. I didn’t want to teach but to engage in collective platforms of knowledge and understanding. I would come to a place not to talk about art but to ask others to talk about their own reality.

It was incredibly ambitious and difficult and had almost an absurd desire of connecting with people on faraway lands. In that sense, there is a certain similarity with the Donceles project: I am interested in utopian and almost “lost causes.” Both projects have a level of impossibility about them, but they become the counterpoint to our time and obsessions. I am attracted to these counterpoints; I feel they need to be acknowledged.

KMQ I find the story of the two near-extinct languages at the start and finish of your journey such a counterpoint, a symmetry of loss that forms introduction and coda on the Panamerican project.

PH Those were an unplanned coincidence, luck really. I pursue last speakers of a language because I am interested in the uniqueness of something that emerges in a particular time and place that is irreplaceable. Language is the ultimate expression of that. Languages emerge out of necessity in places around the world, not as part of cultural practices but as a result of a region’s biodiversity. The more bio-diverse an environment, the more language-diverse it is as well.

So throughout the Panamerican project I was looking for what I believed to be unique of that time and place. While one can find Walmart and MacDonalds practically everywhere, in contrast it can be hard to find something that is a unique cultural expression of a place—truly unique, not handicrafts manufactured in China. My answer is that it is language—particularly environment-specific languages. Languages produce literature, music, jokes—frames of mind— the extent that you understand a language is the extent to which you can penetrate the culture. That is why it was important for me to search for these last speakers of languages that would soon be extinct. This is part of a larger project, called the Conservatory of Dead Languages, to record phonographically these last speakers of languages that are disappearing.

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Conservatory of Dead Languages: Cristina Calderón (b.1929) and Marie Smith Jones (1918–2008), 2004–present, 22 Wax cylinders, display case, two framed C-prints, Thomas Edison Gem phonograph, stand; dimensions variable.

KMQ This then is a merging of two projects.

PH Yes, frequently my projects overlap and it was through research that I discovered the existence of these women: Chief Marie Smith Jones, last surviving speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language and Christina Calderón, speaker of Yaghan, a language of the Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most inhabited part of the world. This became for me like a fable or a tale: a journey to the end of the world.

KMQ As raconteur, you were drawn to the tale.

PH I am very much aware that I exist in the neo-conceptual tradition of contemporary art, which in a sense contains its own narrative; yet I have always been strongly drawn to creating works that have in them unfolding narratives both implicit and explicit. A narrative or script often forms the spinal cord of the project. And it is important for me to uncover its outcome as I go along. I don’t want to know the outcome of a project when I start it—otherwise the project would be already dead. In socially engaged art there is a great deal of unpredictability because you are working with individuals—different people always responding differently to things, and that’s what makes the stuff alive.

The Librería Donceles project has been all about individuals and their stories; why they participate and the books that they choose as well as the small details such as notes included in the books themselves.

KMQ At the opening I was particularly adept in selecting display books that shouldn’t leave the gallery; after about five responses to my request: “No, no, that one has to go back; keep looking, I’m sure you’ll find a book you like.” Finally my sixth choice was approved, so I left a donation and took it home. I have since learned that “libros de muestra” means “display copy” so I am returning it…

PH (laughter) Thank you.

KMQ … but this book found me: its title is Cinco Minutos de Silencio (Five Minutes of Silence); I am particularly interested in silence in relation to the creation of meaning. The pages have never been cut—since 1925 it has been silent! It’s the perfect metaphor to introduce briefly the artwork Rogaland in the second gallery.

PH Rogaland is not only a project about books. It is also a project about translation, though it has nothing to do with Spanish.

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Pablo Helguera, Rogaland, 2012, installation detail, 65 framed prints, 4’ 2” × 27’ 33” overall.

I found this book with the title Rogaland at Argosy Bookstore on 59th Street; it had amazing images and a language that I did not understand. The images looked to me like land art, like Robert Smithson, but it was printed in 1936.

My first impulse was to look up the author on the Internet but then I said, “No, I’m not going to make this easy. I’m not going to look for the obvious answer.” So I took the book home and continued to look at the images and tried to make sense of their captions. I’m fascinated by the relationship of the caption to the image and the kind of information captions give us.

KMQ They often don’t tell us anything useful.

PH Even when they do, does that really help us understand the image? What do we want when we want an explanation? Who can explain the intimate personal experience you have when you look at a work of art? I’ve worked in museums for 24 years. If I know that Picasso created this work in a certain year, in a specific medium, what does it tell me about why he painted it?

But I’m fascinated by the psychological relief that a caption provides. So, with that in mind, I tried to read the text out loud. In sounding it out, I made a deliberate attempt at mis-translation by writing whatever the phrase seemed to suggest to me. Even the images, when I first saw them, were an immediate mis-translation of the context, knowingly. The book has an author, a subject, and intent but I’m doing this in a completely capricious way, constructing an imaginary world but, more… it’s the deep subjectivity of entering into the process of translation.

KMQ It’s a form of poetic license, isn’t it?

PH I feel comfortable doing that because, by my understanding, that book and its subject are already buried.

KMQ It becomes not Peterson’s historical excavation but your own conceptual one.

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Pablo Helguera, Rogaland, 2012, installation detail, 65 framed prints, 4’ 2” × 27’ 33” overall.

PH By turning it into an art project, I felt I could re-activate its images.

KMQ There is a lamentation within your text: forgetting, loss, and absence within the passage of time.

PH I definitely feel a very strong impulse of wanting to understand an object, of wanting to know what it is, in an effort to regain it—to give it life again. I am attracted to things that are dying or about to disappear. This is an on-going obsession of mine. Knowing that I cannot give it new life, I can incorporate it into a process by which the intervention might extend it or aid it in some way… in anticipation of death.

In my first published book, a poorly written essay titled Endingness, I argued that we create because we know we are going to die and we need to create something independent and external to us. This is one of the great things about art making: to create objects that might have outside lives.

For more on Pablo Helguera, visit his website.

Kathleen MacQueen writes on contemporary art for Shifting Connections, BOMBlog, Flash Art, and other arts magazines both print and online.

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