SAKRISTAN: Working the Streets by Rebecca Kaye

Street Artist Raquel Sakristan on Dark Energy, defining consciousness, and not being afraid to disappear.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Sakristan Surpas Festival Body

Raquel Sakristan, Surpas Festival, 2010. Installation at Surpas Festival. Made in collaboration with Portbou’s elder women, Barcelona.

I first came across street artist Raquel Sakristan’s work in a literature and art publication I unearthed in a crowded independent book store in Valencia, Spain. As I flipped idly through the magazine of local artists and writers, one page in particular caught my eye: there was a dancing winged figure with a broken heart hinged at its groin, an electric plug for a tail, and a house for a head. The house had a penis for a chimney and fireworks exploded out and rained down on the figure from that chimney. The energy of this creature in mid-dance and the audacity of the phallic chimney struck me—they spoke of nameless human performances, the collusion of emotional, technological, and sexual forces, and seemed to attest to the vibrancy and strange vibrations of life. I bought the magazine and pinned it open on my desk to that page. The figure and its dance began to haunt my room.

What conditions had produced such a creature? Was this image holding up a mirror to mankind or portraying of our worst fears—and what if those were one in the same? Years later, in my exchanges with Sakristan it suddenly became clear to me that that image I remembered so well was, in fact, doing both: simultaneously reflecting the human psyche and projecting its shadows far out beyond the scope of conscious thought. Much of Sakristan’s artwork hones in on human obsessions, deep-rooted desires, doubts, and fears; fear of the dark and of our own disappearance, the latter of which pushes us to leave our “cultural fingerprints” on our edifices, wherever and however we can. Despite the urban setting of most of her works to date, Sakristan’s street art reflects all aspects of nature; the impetuses within our human nature that drive us to create, question, and change the outward forms of our environment, as well as the natural world and how we relate to and interact with it differently as individuals based on our cultural, ideological and spiritual beliefs. In conversation, Sakristan is both serious-minded and passionate, impressively self-aware and outspoken, when it comes to her motivations, her desire—and beyond that—her need to ply her craft on the street.

Rebecca Kaye So, just to get a sense of your background, where are you originally from? I first came across your artwork in a copy of Caldo de Cultivo when I was in Valencia; you’re not from there are you?

Raquel Sakristan I was born in Madrid, but I like to think that I belong to wherever I am living at the time. When I spend more than three or four months in a city, especially if it is located in another country, I consider that the experience adds new layers to who I am. When I travel, no matter if it’s to Beijing or to a small village in Africa, I feel that I become a part of the new landscape to the point that, sometimes, I almost forget how I was before being there. For this reason, the years I spent in Italy, New York, and Barcelona have been crucial to developing my identity as a person—and as an artist.

RK Okay, but how do you feel your upbringing or the environment in which you grew up has influenced your art?

RS Picking up from what I was just saying, I don’t think Madrid or Spain has been the main influence in my artwork. Traveling to Brazil and Ghana was a greater influence on my way of expression. However, what is really important is the kind of neighborhood in which I grew up: very humble, working class, hard landscape, not much beauty around. It’s probably one of the reasons why I have tried to transform my environment with artwork ever since I was a child and also why I prefer to develop my pieces in places that are socially and visually “degraded.”

RK So when did you begin making street art? How would you define the artwork you create in the public arena? And what first made you decide to bring your artwork outside of “interior” spaces?

RS I strongly believe that the act of painting the places that surround us is inherent to the human condition. It is our cultural fingerprint. From the time of cave painting until now every civilization has left its mark on buildings, cities, and streets. Since I was little, I have felt this need to escape from and expand off of the limits of the paper to the surroundings, effectively erasing the limits between the second and third dimensions.

I always felt attracted to any artistic attempt to transform the perception of space, so I greatly admire the work of artists like James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy, or Gordon Matta-Clark. To me, it seemed natural to enter into a dialogue with the surroundings in your work and, consequently, to use anything available, or found within the vicinity, to create and, without my really being aware, my work has always had a very “site specific” spirit.

About 12 years ago, I began to show photographs of my pieces, mainly through the Internet. This allowed me to share with others that which quickly disappears on the streets. Recording and sharing “street art” digitally has now become essential to the evolution of street art because, even if the pieces vanish within a few hours, the idea—the concept—remains on the net forever, and can be seen and generate discussions all around the world. It’s like adding layers of paint and information to one BIG virtual wall.

Sakristan Poblenou Body

Raquel Sakristan, Poblenou, 2007. Painting at Poblenou gypsy settlement, Barcelona.

RK Many street artists choose to create their art in public spaces because it is more accessible to the public, and more effective as an agent of social change. But you go one step further, don’t you? At the Surpas Festival in PortBou, in 2010, you invited members of the public, specifically the older people of the neighborhood, to collaborate with you. Do you feel that by including the public in your artwork you can bring about some type of social change?

RS To be honest, I try not to think about whether or not I can produce any significant social change through my artwork. I have come to realize that I can catalyze little inner changes in the individuals and small communities with whom I interact and this is my scale of work, for now.

I am particularly interested in collaborating with people whose lives are far-removed from artistic contexts as well as people who have either never painted or never painted on public spaces before. Through that kind of collaboration, I find that things happen in a very natural way and a lot of fresh ideas emerge.

Collaborating with various groups of people has also given me the opportunity to be in contact with many different realities: from children living in extreme conditions in Africa to children living in artistic districts in Beijing; from adolescents interned in Psychiatric Hospitals to the elder population living in small rural areas; from sculptors and poets to mathematicians. So, individuals with the most different backgrounds you can possibly imagine.

RK In the piece that resulted from the Portbou collaboration, I noticed that you used fabric as well as paint. And I’ve seen other work of yours that incorporates plastic bags. Already there are street artists/graffiti artists out there using mosaic tiles (Space Invader), plywood (Above), in addition to the more traditional medias of wheatpastes and spray paint. Do you think the boundaries of the media can be pushed even further to make street art multidisciplinary?

RS Sure! My work is about mixing as much as I can—whether it be codes, concepts, techniques, or ways of expression—in order to erase boundaries and explore new combinations. Every project is an opportunity to try something I have never done before. I like to listen to the spaces where I work before interacting with them or changing them. They always have some information to reveal and I find that the more I understand the environment, the better the result. (Or, the better I feel about the work.)

Flexibility is essential for working in the street and for collaborating with other people. If you enjoy letting the piece breathe and grow naturally, incorporating elements or materials you find around or adapting it to the circumstances at hand, that’s a huge advantage and also makes creating a lot easier.

RK Adapting the circumstances at hand, that’s interesting. I noticed that several of your pieces are strategically placed on walls where either ivy or plants can partially or completely grow over them. Is that you adapting to the circumstances or is that the environment adapting the art? Do these natural elements become another media in and of themselves?

RS I actually like to see how nature erases the prints of civilization. For example, when you find an abandoned factory that’s being swallowed by the landscape, there’s a glorious image there that speaks of constant regeneration. I believe that in so-called “modern” societies we have totally lost our connection with nature. I see such perfection and harmony in nature that I feel the need to fuse myself with it. These pieces immersed in the landscape will evolve—disappearing progressively—and it is precisely this fact which makes them organic and alive. At the same time, it’s a way to show how nature always wins.

RK You often create pieces on the walls of buildings marked for demolition or construction, so you’re obviously not afraid of transience as an artist. But, I’m interested to know, what impact does the notion of impermanence have on your work and your creative process?

RS I am really interested in the cycles of creation/transformation/destruction/regeneration. The material objects I create are conceived to experiment with these cycles and push them to their limits. Sometimes I’ll come back to a piece and recycle or transform the remnants of an older piece of work to create a second cycle.

As you say, I am not worried about the artwork disappearing or being destroyed. I am focused on evolving and registering the changes. So the photos I take of the pieces are important, not to freeze or keep the instant, but rather, to reflect mutations over time.

I have many stories about how my artwork evolves over time. Let me tell you one of them: While I was living in Barcelona I used to paint in an area where a gipsy community lived (Poblenou). I became close friends with the patriarch of the clan (Juan “The Mad”) so I painted the entrance of his house and also gave him a picture of it:

Sakristan Mapa Festival Body

Raquel Sakristan, Site Specific Project, 2008. MAPA Festival, Ponas (Barcelona)

During those times the gypsies were forced to leave their homes because the “slums” were being demolished to make room for modern apartments. They were fighting for a long time to keep their homes but one day I arrived at the place and everything had been demolished. However some families were still living there in the following weeks, with their furniture standing in a completely empty area, literally under the stars. Juan was very sad and told me that the only image he had of the home he had lived in for more than fourteen years was the one I had given him and that he had placed it in a little altar with flowers and candles in the middle of that empty plot. I was totally overwhelmed by this. That transformation—from a painting on a wall to a “ritualistic image”—has been one of the most powerful processes one of my pieces has ever undergone.

RK You have two types of street art listed on your website “Legal” and the inevitable “Illegal…?” I was wondering how do you differentiate between these terms as an artist and does the distinction have an effect on your execution of a piece if it happens to be, let’s say, a non-commissioned piece?

RS Indeed, on my website I play with this idea because the thin line between legal and illegal is one of the main issues artists have to deal with when they work in public spaces. They are such relative and changing terms that I could be fined or paid for executing the same piece, depending on the circumstances, the latest local laws, the politics of the mayor of every city, etc.

Take Barcelona, for example: about eight years ago street art was not persecuted and a lot of artists from every corner of the world visited the city to develop their work. It created a large community of artists who created high quality pieces and Barcelona began to be known as an important street art hot spot. That was like a magnet for galleries and students of all kind of artistic disciplines, and the cultural life of the city became very active. The Barcelona street art scene was even promoted by official institutions.

Progressively things became harder for street artists in Barcelona and now urban street artists are considered as common criminals. It’s even become illegal for small business owners to contract an artist to decorate their storefronts. In this case, both the artist and the business owner would be fined. But at the same time, when the institutions want to show that Barcelona is a culturally-rich, modern city, they try to contact urban artists to organize events that export that image.

In this sense, some of my pieces that were originally commissioned and completely legal, would be considered illegal these days and some pieces that were not commissioned wouldn’t be illegal because they were made in places with fewer restrictive laws. The bottom line is that if you like to paint on the street you will always find a way to do it: in little villages, in the middle of nowhere because working in a commercial space or within a gallery will never substitute this action and what it represents. For me, the sense of freedom I get from painting on the street can’t be obtained through commercial circuits.

RK There is also something quite performative about your artwork and the way it is documented. Bringing members of the public in at the Surpas Festival only seems to add to this performative aspect and you recently created a piece which involved you writing on a sidewalk with a wet mop, while being filmed. Do you find yourself heading more and more in this direction?

RS Many times, painting is the easier way of expression for me because I can do it everywhere, by myself, and with relatively few resources. But I really prefer more interactive projects. One of my favorites was participating in the Mapa Festival. I had the opportunity to spend fifteen days in a little village near Barcelona, creating a site specific piece. The general theme was darkness, and I had the whole village at my disposal, including the landscapes, the buildings, and even some of the people who lived there. I could create any collaborative project and I would have all the necessary help—it was like a dream come true.

After investigating some of the local legends and fears related to darkness, I suggested that the villagers vote to choose the official Phantom of Pontós. The “candidates” for this position emerged from the stories and legends deeply rooted in the village. With all that information I created three identikit pictures, representing every “candidate” in installations that could be visited day or night throughout the election. The project, supported by the village council, generated discussions between the members of the population as to which figure was the best representative of their fears.

But this was a really rare opportunity and projects like this one don’t come along very often so I try to use different ways of expression to find the balance between the idea I want to transmit and the resources I have.

Sakristan Dark Energy Body

Raquel Sakristan, Dark Energy, 2010. “La Tabacalera” Building, Madrid.

RK One of the aspects of your work, which is visible in the Mapa Festival piece, is the dashed line which surfaces in your work again and again and is—to me—one of your signature techniques. How did you develop this style? Did you have any specific influence here?

RS Congratulations, this is the essential question! The dashed line that appears in almost every piece represents the flow of energy and matter. To be more precise, it makes reference to the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy—that invisible force that holds the universe together. If we believe in some of the more recent scientific discoveries, Dark Matter represents approximately 23% of the universe and Dark Energy around 72%. That means that only five percent of universe is observable. When I first saw a simulation image of the Dark Matter distribution in the Universe I was really surprised. The filaments of dark matter are invisible, to even the largest telescopes.

Art can give visible form to ideas and concepts that are not expressible otherwise. To me, much of the artwork and the corporal decoration of ancient cultures represent these invisible forces that interconnect across every corner of the universe. The secret of the universe seems not to be in vibration itself, but in what lies in between the vibration, in vacuum. The technical term to describe this is discontinuity, but we could also define it as consciousness.

Sakristan Crux Festival Body

Raquel Sakristan, Crux Factory, 2008. Installation in an abandoned factory.

RK Speaking of the universe, there are definitely some space-age things that appear in your work such as glowing otherworldly beings, rockets, and UFOs that remind me of the empty-eyed, halo-surrounded “sky-beings” depicted in the Wandjina Petroglyphs. How did you come up with these figures? Were you at all influenced by the idea of ancient petroglyphs?

RS The representation of “superior” beings is a constant in almost every ancient (and modern) culture: Gods in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Mayan Mythologies; Anunnakis in Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian Culture; Nature Spirits in Animist cultures; and all of the saints and prophets in modern religions.

One of Jung’s linguistic theories states that there is a common language to human beings of all times and places, consisting of primitive symbols that express the content of the psyche that is beyond reason. So maybe all these “superior beings,” whether they are primitive aliens or space saints, are archetypes that represent the possibility of the evolution of our inner capacities: the intuition that we can attain other levels of consciousness and vibration.

RK You mentioned corporeal decoration earlier on. I was going to say that your artwork is reminiscent of the tribal face paint of the Kundep Sing Sing group from Papua New Guinea in its colors, and of the Tingatinga style of painting, which originated in Tanzania, in its focus on natural elements; people, clouds, lightning and animals as well as its different textural elements. Are you influenced by Papuan and/or African art forms?

RS My connection to Africa has been especially powerful since the first time I was there. That trip completely changed my world vision in that I was able to better understand the way aboriginal people, Hopi Indians, and some African tribes are connected with their environments in a way that other cultures aren’t.

I like to find connections between the latest scientific theories that attempt to explain the world and the ways in which some primitive cultures did so a long time ago. So I suppose that it’s curious and yet natural that, somehow, I represent some concepts the same way they do. What is really strange is that sometimes I draw a character with specific corporal paintings and only later, I find a real picture that absolutely fits with it. The face paint of members of the Kandep Sing Sing Tribe of Papua New Guinea is a perfect example. I had not seen it before. And I wasn’t previously aware of Tingatinga but I am sure that if I investigate it now, I will find strong connections between their culture and the way I see the world. (Thanks for introducing me to this Tanzanian art form!)

Similarly, I was traveling around Brazil and found myself drawing this kind of decoration that I hadn’t seen before. Then I found an image of a Surma woman with corporeal paint in an exhibition at Salvador, Bahía. I was really shocked because it was exactly what had been on my mind all that time. Then I began to investigate this tribe from Ethiopia and I became totally fascinated with them. Surmas represent the maximum expression of beauty to me: art and nature are integrated into everyday life, allowing the Surmas to reach the highest levels of creativity. Since that time, I began to represent a Surma boy that appears repeatedly in my work wearing a collar made from words like “high tech,” or “beauty free” and learning about the Surmas has also been an inspiration for how I link my pieces with the environment.

RK You have a lot of written slogans that appear and reappear in your pieces; specifically, “Stop Thinking,” “Wash Your Brains,” “More Wild, Less Style” seem quite politically provocative to me; do these all express the same type of sentiment or do they relay different messages? Most artists want to induce thought in their audience so what do you mean exactly when you tell people to “stop thinking”?

RS I am used to including texts in my work. Sometimes it’s just painted text and sometimes the text interacts with images. But in both cases I launch ambiguous sentences with various interpretative possibilities into the work, trying to suggest opposite ideas at the same time, so that every person can build different mental associations depending on how they understand the world. I construct phrases so that—with the minimum words—I can incite the maximum number of different interpretations. I like to create pieces that are simple or even naïf in the form, but complex in the content.

Phrases like “Stop Thinking” or “Wash Your Brains,” in an imperative tone could be advertising slogans that remind us of how brands or political bodies try to control our wishes and needs. But from my point of view they are invitations to the viewer to take care of him or herself: to meditate or practice mental exercise in order to find some inner calm, eliminating the negative thoughts and the spam that invades our minds every day. The phrases speak to the plasticity of the brain and how we can change our way of thinking to feel better and evolve. “Stop Thinking” can sound as if you are letting others control your mind for you and “Wash Your Brains” sounds as if you are erasing your identity, but from my perspective the messages are exactly the opposite of this. “Stop Thinking” from the point of view of meditation is not an easy or passive act at all; it requires a lot of practice to focus your mind and be in control. The same with “Wash Your Brains”: removing the bad or useless ways of thinking that block our lives is a difficult task, but there can´t be any transformation on the outside without inner transformation.

I was invited to participate in a group exhibition in Madrid about Urban Art. Every artist had to develop two pieces: one for the street and another that would be inside a gallery. Outside I made an installation, and inside I painted the words “I Like to Work on the Street,” in an attempt to express the contradictions inherent to exhibiting street art in galleries, museums, and other private spaces. Of course, the expression “to work on the street” has hard connotations, but it fits because I felt that somehow all of the participating artists were prostituting themselves by exhibiting there.

RK You are currently on retreat; can you describe the project you are working on? Any plans for future projects?

RS After working a lot to transform what surrounds me, I want to research about inner changes, working in a more intimate scale and experimenting with my perception of the world. I want to work more with nature, hopefully developing some kind of dialogue with the landscape. It will talk to me and I will respond, but sometimes I will just begin to create so that the natural elements can respond to me. Formally, I wouldn’t define it as ArtLand because my pieces will be strange elements to the natural environment. They will be more like offerings.

Rebecca Kaye is a graduate student enrolled in the Creative Writing Program at Oxford University. She is currently concentrating on poetry and drama.

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