Pablo Vargas Lugo, 1 747-400, 1998, paper cutout, 25 x 20 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.
Pablo Vargas Lugo’s enigmatic works—colorful collages, formalist drawings and site-specific installations—explore such diverse themes as the extinction of dinosaurs, natural catastrophes and flying machines. These pieces are marked by an uncanny tension between form—bright and playful—and content—often dark, traumatic events, from tsunamis to midair collisions. Unlike that of Miguel Calderón, Jonathan Hernández, and Daniela Rossell, artists who produce work about Mexico City and its cultural contradictions, Lugo’s work at first appears to be detached from the intense, crime-ridden and chaotic capital in which he lives. But as we will see in this interview, his work has quite a bit to do with Mexico and its urban culture.
I’ve known Lugo since 1993. Our most surreal encounter took place in New York in 1998, when we spent several days installing a 12-foot inflatable map of Japan on the balcony of a museum on Fifth Avenue. It looked like one of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, except that it was attached to an air pump to keep it taut and well inflated. Actually the piece was more than a map: Lugo had rotated the shape of Japan’s main island to create something that looked like a white monster with a red eye. “A monster?” I asked him. “Yes, I was thinking of Godzilla,” he answered. Me: “And the red eye?” “It’s a Japanese monster, so it’s only appropriate that it should have the rising sun as its only eye.” And thus the orientalist Cyclops took Manhattan by surprise.
In the course of the following interview, Pablo elucidates the mysteries of his creative processes and offers some possible readings of these quirky works.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Requiem (Excerpt), 2005, 24 drawings, 9 x 13 inches each.
Rubén Gallo Your technique has changed from the collages I wrote about some years ago, which incorporated fragments of snapshots. I remember writing that your project was a traumatic reworking of photography. Tell me how your technique has changed, and why you varied the process.
Pablo Vargas Lugo Working with collage was always an excuse not to paint, a way of experimenting with images without engaging in the debate about the status of painting. When I began to make collages, photography was a useful means of producing rich color variations and creating visual ambiguities. I was interested in how these images did not fit into traditional categories (they were drawings, collages, and photos, all at once), but also in the particular tone this combination achieved. Using collage I was able to create images that were difficult to classify.
Little by little the photographic elements gave way to other materials. Ode to Joy, 2005, for example, shows a musical score invaded by rocks flying in space. Each rock is a separate element; they are small collages, with a sort of handcrafted detail about them, and the whole picture becomes a chaotic accumulation of all of these elements. It’s like a shower of small stones thrown upon the paper.
In this piece I was interested in the idea of reading music, and the possibility of playing with the formal elements found in a score. Not long ago I started to take piano lessons, and it always surprises me how the writing in the score easily transforms into an incomprehensible array of dots and lines when your concentration drifts a little. In my work there’s always been a yearning to evoke that moment of perplexity that happens when you see but don’t understand. In this case I was especially interested in music as a kind of uniquely coded language, whose usefulness exceeds that of speech.
RG I like Ode to Joy very much. It seems to be a visual elaboration of synesthesia: it plays with the possibilities of translating sounds into images and images into sounds. That piece is a very good representation of the transposition of different senses, and it also evokes the difficulties inherent in all synesthetic endeavors, through the chaotic accumulation of rocks over the score.Describe the technique you use to make these new collages.
PVL They’re line drawings cut and pasted on another type of paper, and piled successively one over another. It becomes a matter of overlays that then stand apart and become elements flexible enough to form a composition. Each of these elements is independent, but when they are placed together, largely by chance, they create a “complete” picture, an image captured in the moment of its creation. Here it’s important to point out that the final result always contains a degree of chaos that balances the detail with which I craft these pieces.
RG What kind of paper do you use? I remember that years ago you used a very hard-to-find German paper.
PVL No, now I use a very ordinary paper, Canson, which comes in a wide range of colors. Not long ago I began to use stencils and spray paint. The result is something between a collage and graffiti. It combines the techniques of the cut-outs, the stencils, the superimposed layers—processes that are so painstakingly hand-crafted—with the use of spray paint, which is always a dirtier process, less precise: it can’t be controlled.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Madonna Tsunami, 1998, paper and photograph cutout, 25 x 19 inches.
RG Why did you stop using photography in these works? Was the change in materials linked to a thematic shift in your work? Or was it purely for formal reasons?
PVL It had to do with a change in format. I was using snapshots that I took myself in places like gardens or aquariums, focusing more than anything on obtaining very pure textures and colors. Then I would print them as 4×5s, and that in itself limited the pictures to very specific dimensions. Eventually I wanted to experiment with other formats—larger sizes. Of course I could have turned to larger photos, like 8×10s for example, but then I would have had to get involved in a more specialized technical process. I wasn’t interested in foregrounding the role of photography in my work. I simply wanted to take advantage of the texture and colors of the material and the equivocal quality they acquired within the drawings.
RG Certain themes seem to recur in your collages over the years: disasters, for example. You’ve made many collages about tsunamis, plane crashes, and other kinds of catastrophes. Another constant theme is flying objects: airplanes, space flights, satellite launches, asteroids.
Peter Vargas Lugo, Catastrophe, 1994, paper and photograph cutout, 25 x 19 inches.
PVL Disasters have been a constant theme. And since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by flying objects. I’m especially interested in the structure—I would even say the architecture—of satellites and rockets. These are artifacts that condense an enormous amount of energy, but at the same time they are very fragile objects. It is this tension between strength and vulnerability that led me to both flying objects and disasters.
I’m really not so interested in exploring the more traumatic aspects of disasters. I think trauma has already been done to death in contemporary art. It’s very easy to fall into a Hollywood-like exploitation of the shock value of traumatic events.
I approach disasters from an oblique perspective: for instance, I’ve made a series of pieces depicting a space probe stuck in a tree. This is a subtler and more metaphoric representation of
a catastrophic event: there’s the contrast between the sky and the ground, the tension between that which is capable of escaping gravity and that which is the image of rootedness. The tree and the satellite are polar opposites of creation: one is part of nature and grows slowly; the other is man-made and moves at fantastic speed. In my picture those two processes form a harmonic image.
A space probe stuck in a tree is a type of catastrophe, but it’s a catastrophe of the aspirations embodied in the names of the probes: Voyager, Explorer, Pioneer. I want to explore the less obvious aspects of this accident: there is a great serenity in this image that provokes a whole series of psychological reactions in the viewer. But there is a distance. I want to investigate the formal aspects of those encounters as a way of navigating around tragedy, around the notion that something is good or bad for those involved.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Mariner 2, 2003, wall drawing, 8 x 16 inches.
RG What was the first disaster you investigated in your work?
PVL In the early ’90s I made a series of collages about dinosaurs. They showed a dinosaur staring at the horizon, where a giant meteorite is crashing. I was making a reference to the theory about the asteroid that hit the earth thousands of years ago, triggering a climate change and the extinction of the dinosaurs. These were also some of the first works that incorporated fragmented photographs.
RG How did you arrive at such a prehistoric theme?
PVL In the early ’90s everyone was talking about dinosaurs. The movie Jurassic Park had just been released, riding on a whole discussion about the extinction of these beasts, about genetics and new discoveries about their biology. When I went to see the movie, I noticed the audiences identified with the dinosaurs as much as with the horrors the human characters in the film experienced among them. I wanted to explore this feeling of empathy for a living being that disappeared millions of years ago, and that’s why I placed my dinosaurs in an idyllic setting, living their daily life, sketched out with a minimalist technique. I think we psychologically aggrandize ourselves by identifying our own domination of the planet with that of the dinosaurs. Their story is our fable, and their end is our moral. Dinosaurs were powerful and successful beasts, but in the end they proved to be as fragile and vulnerable as any other form of life.
RG Let’s talk about your new works investigating various aspects of time. The triptych Clock I, II, and III, 2002–3, for example, consists of three monitors, each displaying a digital clock keeping a time that is distinct from the other two.
PVL Each of the three monitors is connected to a computer, each of which is running a different program. Each clock keeps time in a different way. This piece is an investigation of the mechanism used by computers to divide time: they perform a series of computations to divide time into fractions of a second. The idea of dividing time into fractions is very ancient: it began with the Sumerians and the Babylonians, who were the first ones to divide the day into twenty-four hours, and then the hours into minutes and the minutes into seconds. At first this was done with hourglasses, but we continue to use the same idea with computers.
I was interested in the idea of dividing time into prime numbers, that is, numbers that can’t be evenly divided by other whole numbers. The numbers that appear on conventional clocks have many dividends: for example, if a clock says 24:00, the number 24 can be divided by two, by three, by four, and so on. That’s why the day is divided into 24 hours.
My digital clocks, on the other hand, divide the day into prime numbers: the first clock divides the day into 11 hours; the second into 23 hours; and the third into 47 hours. In the first clock, each hour contains 19 minutes and each minute has 73 seconds. In the second, a day has 23 hours, each hour has 59 minutes and each minute has 59 seconds. The division of minutes and seconds is also done using prime numbers; the idea being that if we divide time into prime numbers we can no longer use the same words to describe it. You can’t say “midday” or “half an hour” or “a quarter of an hour,” because the numbers on these clocks can’t be divided by half or into quarters.
I wanted to contradict the idea of an eternally divisible time by creating a time that consists of regular but indivisible units. It’s a way of creating a time like the time you count when you think “three minutes,” or when someone asks you to wait five seconds. What is important is that it’s not about subtracting, adding, or slowing down, but simply creating a different division of time.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Clock I, II, III, 2003, PC and Macintosh computer programs.
RG How does this digital-chronological triptych relate to Clock 10:21:40, 2003?
PVL That piece belongs to a series of 20 “fixed clocks” that I made in collaboration with craftsmen in Agra, India. I chose different points in the day, and each piece was conceived as the proverbial clock that doesn’t move, that displays the same time all day long.
It’s a simple trick in conceptual terms. I liked the idea of writing the hour by hand because then the handwriting is also frozen on the stone. The series combines these four elements—stopped time, handwriting, painting, sculpture—and the 20 stopped clocks present a collection of snapshots about time, about both grasping the moment and expecting the moment to arrive.
RG How did you become interested in exploring time?
PVL We perceive time mysteriously. We can’t see or feel time; we can only perceive its effects. It’s like a metaphor for a series of processes, of transformations that we can’t observe while they are happening. My works with concrete, including Sidewalk (Camellón), 2005—which looks like a cracked sidewalk—also have to do with the passage of time. Sidewalks are not cracked from the beginning, and the roots of a tree, for example, take many years to shift a sidewalk. This happens on a much larger scale to geological layers, as we see in the continental drift.
I’ve always liked thinking about that point in history when our theory about time changed: in the Middle Ages people thought that only five thousand years had elapsed since God created the world in seven days. Little by little, by putting two and two together, and finding evidence about the passage of time in nature itself, we’ve come to the conclusion that our planet has existed for billions of years. Time’s immateriality has an effect on matter; it’s like evolution: you can’t understand it if you don’t see time written all over it.
All of this is developed very thoroughly in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. InTime Regained, the last volume, the narrator is surprised when, after returning to Paris following an absence of many years, he discovers the ravaging effects of time on others and on himself. Over the course of the book, the reader never perceives the passage of time, until the narrator himself discovers its terrible effects.
Peter Vargas Lugo, Reloj (10:21 40), 2003, pietra dura, 15 inches.
RG Crafting is another way of perceiving the effects of time, only in this case it has to do with creation and not destruction. I’m reminded of On Kawara’s very elegant date paintings. Despite their apparent simplicity, these quasi-monochromatic works take the artist almost a full day to complete. When Kawara picks a date, he spends nearly that entire day painting. And when you see several of those paintings together you are overwhelmed by the monumental accumulation of time they represent.
PVL I’m involved in this relation between craft and time. Sometimes, when I finish one of these works, I think not only about the actual time it took to do it, but about the time it appearsto have taken to do it. People have a weird appreciation of that value; it somehow seems to add up to the merit of the work, as silly as the craft can be. In that sense I sometimes think of my work as building a cathedral out of matchsticks. After it’s done, one can only think: “Wow! How long did I spend making that?” The work then becomes an index of a frozen temporality that adds up to the other elements in the equation. That’s why I don’t draw with ink or pencil: to me that process is too simple. Collages, on the other hand, keep track of the passage of time through a complex series of processes: tracing, cutting, pasting, et cetera.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Cross-eyed View, 2002, paper cutout, 28 x 27 inches.
RG I see a link between the dinosaur collages and the works about time. You’re exploring an imaginary historical period—either an imaginary temporality, as in the clocks, or an imaginary epoch, as in the dinosaur works. We know that dinosaurs existed, but we are forced to imagine that temporality, just like we have to imagine the temporality that is not divisible into even numbers. In both cases it has to do with hypothetical constructions.
Let’s talk about your sidewalk pieces. Your collages and clocks avoided dealing not only with what we conventionally call the real but also with the direct historical context in which you live. The sidewalk pieces are the first works in which you try to represent Mexico City, albeit through a highly metaphoric procedure. I read these pieces as representations of urban life in Mexico City, where buildings and streets have been scarred by cracks and fissures over the centuries. The cracked sidewalk is a perfect metaphor for Mexico City and its decay: sinkings, earthquakes, and other disasters have left its marks on the city, and these also register the passage of time. I consider these your most realist pieces.
PVL I walk through the city every day. I’ve always found a lot of charm in all these scars in Mexico City’s urban fabric. It also makes me think of the phenomenal effort that goes into constructing a city—imagine building all those sidewalks, streets, overpasses, buildings. It’s like trying to conquer nature: you have to level her, pave her, you have reclaim urban space from the wilderness.
I’m fascinated by seeing how a city that was built with such monumental efforts eventually becomes run down. In any city there’s a constant struggle to defend against outside forces, and there’s always the danger that those forces will devour it. That’s what just happened in New Orleans: in a few days nature sank all that humans had built with so much work over such a long time. An entire city, a place that seemed so stable, so established, is suddenly reclaimed by a natural process.
The sidewalk pieces are about the threat of nature, but I’m also interested in the urban fabric’s ambiguities. On the one hand, the sidewalks and the city’s infrastructure provide us with protection and give us a sense of shelter; on the other, we’re constantly eroding them simply by using them, and as sidewalks decay they acquire qualities closer to those of a landscape.
I’m engaged in the urban fabric and in the city where I live, but I always resist the temptation to address the real. I never deal directly with the real.
RG Although your sidewalks are very realistic representations of Mexico City and its urban problems.
PVL Yes, but they’re not a true representation of the city. Every crack in my “sidewalks” is perfectly designed. We see that tension between form and content: in my collages you see an explosion, but it does not document a real event—it’s an image that was crafted. In these sidewalks you see a crack, a fissure, but it has been planned, sketched, sculpted using a spatula and cement. These elaborate processes interfere with the relationship that the work could have to “reality.”
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Sidewalk, 2003, MDF and cement, 35 x 157 x 79 x 14 inches.
RG Your sidewalks deploy a strategy for representing Mexico City that is the exact opposite of that used by Jonathan Hernández. I’m thinking of his Conozca México, a series of fake postcards featuring photos of broken streetlights, bent traffic signs, misplaced street signs. In these and other works, Hernández denounces the city’s malfunctions by mocking them. Your work, on the other hand, can be read as a celebration or at least as a redemptive and affectionate depiction of the city’s many problems. Instead of denouncing the cracked sidewalk as a symptom of a urban decay, you invite the viewer to consider its aesthetic qualities. There is an art, your work seems to say, to the city’s disasters.
PVL It’s an art that arises from observing natural phenomena. Perhaps the difference between Hernández and myself is that I don’t see broken sidewalks as a sign of human failure; I see them as a transformation that is inevitable. It’s time—and not the incompetence of city officials—that causes these cracks. In any case the officials would be there to mask the effects of time. But even if the city has a huge team of workers devoted to fixing the streets, I see these cracks as the result of a small natural disaster unleashed on a fragile and ultimately ephemeral fabric. That’s why I always install the sidewalks in the middle of an empty gallery or museum space: I want them to be read like small landscapes.
RG Fault, 2004, is another work that deals with urban decay. For this site-specific work, you “drew” a crack on the marquee outside Museo Rufino Tamayo. It’s as if you had transposed the cracks that haunt the city’s poorer neighborhoods to the museum, which is located in one of the richest enclaves in Mexico City … . You spent some years living in an apartment building in the Centro, on Calle Licenciado Verdad, and I remember that the facade was full of cracks.
But I wanted to ask you: what did you use to make this crack?
PVL It’s made of Trovicel, a fairly light, synthetic material: a type of PVC. It works very well for this kind of installation. After I made the crack I coated it with asphalt, and then made channels with little pots so that plants could grow in them. This green line that you can see in the photo is made of plants.
RG So there’s soil inside?
PVL Yes. This is a piece that is designed to grow.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Fault, 2004, Trovicel, asphalt and plants, 16 x 131 inches. Installation at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City.
RG It reminds me of another crack on the wall: the Buddha’s smile you presented at a show on Orientalism in 1998.
PVL Yes, but Fault is designed to have a more graphic character: the red on green on black reads like a computer—or a stock market—graphic. It reminds me of the graphs used in electrocardiograms or radar screens. Fault is 120 feet long and 9 feet high. It has a very narrative spread, like a Chinese painting in that sense. If you drove by it in a car you’d see it go by like a storyboard. But a lot of people never saw it, although it’s such a large piece. The green gash was lost among the many trees around the museum entrance.
RG Or perhaps people were so used to seeing cracks everywhere that they didn’t take notice.
PVL Fault was an experiment. I was interested in how the museum uses its marquee to convey information about its programming. I wanted to use this space in a non-verbal way. I distrust art that is based on language. Many artists seem to base their work on written language, as if the work had to say something and it had to be said with words. I’ve always felt that work is much more expressive if it doesn’t bang you over the head with words. I want the viewer to focus on the image, on the formal aspects of the work, the perceptual ambiguities, the associations they bring. I prefer to create a mute art with a minimum dose of language—only the words in the title.
RG Now I’d like us to talk about Ocellus, 2004, a piece very much in the spirit of Roger Caillois, the French theorist of insect mimicry. I liked how this work uses Caillois’s ideas about ocella, those false eyes that adorn the wings of certain insects to scare away their predators. We’ve talked a lot about vision, and about the different ways of seeing that are present in your work. Tell me about your interest in Caillois’ theories of vision.
PVL What is fascinating about Caillois is the idea that somehow nature looks at itself.
RG And that vision, like weapons, can be offensive and defensive.
PVL Caillois suggests that there is a form of self-perception involved in animal mimicry. He was also interested in the horror produced by an animal that appears to be looking at you. We’re used to thinking about the gaze that moves from the viewer toward the work, but I was interested in creating a vision that moved in the opposite direction: to make the viewer feel that the work is looking at him. In Ocellus, those bright eyes illuminate the viewer, emphasizing the very uncanny sensation of being watched. Caillois sees the ocellus as a disembodied gaze: it’s so powerful because it’s the image of the gaze itself.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Sidewalk (Diamond), 2003, MDF and cement, 110 x 106 x 15 inches.
RG In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan devotes an entire chapter to the gaze: “Of the gaze as objet a.” Interestingly, he also bases his discussion on Caillois’s ideas about mimicry and ocella. Lacan makes some very funny remarks: he points out that people walk around thinking that they’re the ones who see, and they don’t realize that they are also seen by others. And for him psychoanalysis is about realizing that others are looking at us, that the world sees us. He gives some amusing examples, writing, “You no doubt eat oysters, innocently enough, without knowing that at this level in the animal kingdom the eye has already appeared.” Imagine: you’re eating an oyster and the oyster is looking at you.
PVL Do oysters have eyes?
RG According to Lacan. It might not be true—like so many other things Lacan said—but the idea is fantastic.
One last question: I’d like to talk about the recent “boom” of Mexico in the international art scene. How did you experience this extraordinary surge of interest in Mexican art?
PVL There are many good artists in Mexico, producing very vital work, but in this surge of interest many things besides art took part. Mexico is a place where several compelling elements come together—the sprawling megalopolis, the problems posed by migration and globalization, a rich social map that also features every ill imaginable—and it has a cosmopolitan cultural life and is very accessible from the United States and Europe. People have been able get to Mexico very easily—the trip is much easier than traveling to Indonesia, Egypt or India, for example. In those countries there’s an enormous cultural difference in the language, religion, and customs, while in Mexico—as in Brazil, another country that went through a “boom”—the visitor can straddle two worlds: the cultural mix with its third-world chaos, and the developed world of international hotels, classy restaurants, and transnational headquarters. The interest in Mexican art was very much helped by that.
On the other hand, in the last 15 years there was an explosion of creativity in Mexico, a very healthy desacralization of art and an acceptance of various non-traditional art practices that finally came out of the margins. The merging of those factors helped to focus the attention on Mexico for a few years: lots of Mexican art was shown around, mostly in group shows that tended to focus heavily on the urban experience. Now most of those artists are working as individuals, and not as members of “the Mexico City scene.” I think in the end the art world has benefited from the experience, though many may have gotten a hangover from it. Regarding how the whole situation affected my work, I always felt that the interests that drew the curators, gallerists, and critics to the city didn’t find much of an echo in my work. There was a certain thirst for realities that my work didn’t satisfy.
RG But your work addresses the major issues affecting Mexico City—violence, disasters, destruction, and decay—even if it does so through subtle and often oblique references.
PVL But it represents that from a perspective that dodges the human presence. I am more interested in shifting the scales of size and time, of finding different proportions to represent thoughts and phenomena, so everything ends up warped and torn between different viewpoints. I have always thought that my work shouldn’t be looked at in a straight way; viewers should—so to speak—cross their eyes a little, lose their ground and change their focus. In the end that is what my work is about.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Ode To Joy (Excerpt), 2005, 24 drawings, 9 x 13 inches each.