Sergio Vega by Nicolás Guagnini

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Sergio Vega,  The Holy Parrot, brass rods, stuffed parrot, 120 × 168 × 7 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.

Crocodiles, fruits, exuberant vegetation, the garden of Eden, a lost perfect tongue, Dante, Saint Francis, Che Guevara, boats adrift in Amazonian rivers, a cabinet of curiosities, magic spells, and reigning above all this miscellanea, high up on the altar, a parrot.

This improbable accumulation could easily fade into a cynical postmodern pastiche. Against all odds, artist Sergio Vega succeeds in making precise and poetic ideological sense of all these things.

Now that the necessary and unavoidable breakdown of the hegemony of Western discourse is almost a decade old, and a shift toward a global art world is being challenged by dangers such as the commodification of cultural identities, any attempt to reinsert utopia into stereotypes is a bold gesture.

In order to approach Vega’s referential roller coaster, the words of political theorist Ernesto Laclau may prove appropriate in setting the tone for this interview:

“The question that remains to be answered is this: has the signifier America without distinctions, without separation of the South from the North, any possible role to play as far as the Latin American peoples are concerned? My answer is no. I do not think there is any political gain for Latin America in playing around with the possibility of a community of destiny with the Anglo-American peoples.

However, what about the Afro-American and the Hispanic minorities in North America: is there, for them, any language game to play around the ambiguities, the floating character of the signifier America? The answer, in this case, has to be different…”

Unlike most art with a clearly defined political agenda, Sergio Vega’s work is oneiric, subtle, sometimes hilarious, and other times surprisingly demanding. It is not for quick consumption. It’s seductive. And, yes, visual. Sergio Vega is uncannily funny, erudite and programatically arrogant, yet charming and hopelessly articulate.

Nicolás Guagnini The first piece of yours I’d ever seen was a small painted sculpture, a parrot with the face of Dante Alighieri. My obvious reaction was amusement. Dante could not stop writing, just as parrots can’t stop talking. Once the humor subsided, I understood what you were getting at: Dante was giving us a version of biblical themes, namely heaven and hell, in his own contemporary terms. Are you a theological commentator or an evolutionist?

Sergio Vega I am glad you bring up that piece, Dante-parrot, because it functions as an axis upon which most of the work I have produced in the last eight years hinges. At the time I made it, I was puzzled by the term U.S. politicians were using, when they referred to the countries of Latin America as “our backyard.” Immersed as I was in Dante’s work, I decided to make a cast from a replica of his death mask to represent a habitant of that backyard, like one of those cement dwarfs people use to decorate their gardens. Dante is turned into a parrot as if someone had put a spell on him; he is entering the Garden of Eden (in canto 28 of Purgatorio). Besides the joke that the parrot’s beak is in this case Dante’s famous nose, the piece proposes a paradox of ideas about originality, staging the contradictions of a constituted Latin subject: Dante, the author who articulated a new language in order to produce his own work, is embodied in the vernacular representation of a bird that mimics speech.

NG So you are calling attention to the fact that Latin American culture is, among many things, also an heir of that constituted and venerable Latin subject?

SV Dante used to call the Italian peninsula Terra Latina. The New World before colonization was called Terra Incognita. It seems that the incognita was resolved somewhere in the colonial process as it became Latin America. There are jokes in my work about the necessity of essentializing cultural identity. If we look at Latin American literature, we can see the enormous influence of Dante, which I argue goes beyond even that of Cervantes.

NG But at the time of your Dante-parrot, about eight years ago, Latin American art was not discussed in North America in those terms. Don’t you think jumping in as the parrot artist instigated the risk of a very typical and colorful misreading?

SV You are right! I remember a panel at the Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of the big Latin American show in 1993. At that time art critics were debating whether Latin America was essentially indigenous or if it should be considered part of Western culture!

Now work on stereotypes is considered to be quite politically incorrect. I have heard the archaic argument that this type of work reinforces the stereotypes, which I believe misses the point entirely, the logic being that stereotypes are bad, so don’t mention them. You end up with an elephant farting inside a room and nobody can talk about it. This absurd politeness places everyone on very fragile ground. The problem with the argument has to do with applying restrictions to a discourse that is primarily colonial in order to insert a more universal model into it.

The colorful misreading is certainly an instigation because that very typical reading is what is brought into question, like putting a finger on a blister. It may not have been the most pragmatic thing to do, since my approach managed to annoy people on both sides of the fence. You know, even the most austere conceptual artists from Latin America are exoticized as being sweet, poetic, victimized, instinctive noble savages. And it may have nothing to do with the work and everything to do with the context.

NG Can we then describe the more political aspect of your practice as an attempt to work with the conflicting relationship between stereotypes and the risk of stereotyping implied in the politics of identity and difference?

SV Well, yes to the degree that I acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of Latin America to be a lost cause. I am all for the increase in diversity. Needless to say, I find those stereotypes hilarious. They entail such a grand narrative, going back to the Middle Ages in Europe and to a whole Dionysian mythology recreated in the scenario of the conquest. I engage in several operations with stereotypes, by reconstructing the historical evolution of a representational figure, and its insertion or revival as colonial discourse. What interests me is the stereotype as a symbolic mode; that is its function as allegory, the leap into the imaginary (thus the stereo effect). Allegory says one thing and means another and should not be confused with literal or historical meaning. Allegory comes from allos and agoreuein, meaning other, and to speak openly in the assembly or marketplace. Agoreuein connotes public, open, declarative speech; this sense is inverted by the term allos, thus allegory is often called inversion. I see in allegory a radical iconographic and linguistic procedure, which, pushed to an ironic extreme subverts language itself.

NG You are surprising me with this turn into philology! You know, Nietzsche stated that Christianity as a sort of Platonism for the people forces us to seek the truth, which tends to undermine that leap into the imaginary you talk about. But the Catholic symbolic structure and iconography that populate your work have also triggered some of the craziest allegorical productions of the past century, in the films of Luis Buñuel for instance. Can I insist that your work borrows from the self-reflecting strategies of theology?

SV If you insist. I would also throw Fellini and the whole spectrum of magic realism into that mix. The Christians who ended up looking for the truth are those on the north side of the Alps or the Rio Grande, and I bet they are not going to find it in representation. Desire has nothing to do with truth, and from that perspective, the assertion that representations are fake or not is beside the point. Although I am not a medievalist, I am among those who believe that we live in the secularized Middle Ages. A stubborn belief in the incarnation of the sacred in the real world, in real time, is the underlying abstraction fueling most of the intellectual achievements of the Western world. It just changes faces: take away the image of Christ, and you’ll find a nice image of Elvis to venerate. Things have changed, but our relationships with them have not. Maybe there is a Borgesian pessimism in the endless, cyclical repetition of history in my approach. But I see it even in science and philosophy. For instance, in the 19th century Darwin’s theory of evolution is embraced as the tribal argument of the survival of the fittest; Marx’s dialectical materialism recycles the ancient Mediterranean, even pre-Christian myth of the redemption of the just; Malevich invents abstraction instead of the icon and we end up in a culture that fetishizes the cube. In my work I do a kind of running commentary on the presence of theological principles in contemporary world views, particularly in the realm of ideology. From my perspective, the intellectual Left in the Protestant countries of the first world has been derailed into a kind of antipopulist aristocracy that ended up confusing Marx’s revolution for Calvin’s Reformation. You know, that anal retentive, clinical mind so inclined to authority.

NG So your delirious yet lucid genealogy of anal retentive representational aesthetics goes from Jesus to Elvis to the cube. It doesn’t seem to be that far from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the minimalist monolith representing an outer, superior life force. What in contemporary art enables us to articulate that line of thought in actual space?

SV We’ve spent the whole century occupied with the problem of the aura, and it still goes on. I see in the arguments of conceptualism the assertion that fetishization is predicated on the material object. In minimalism, the assertion is that fetishism is predicated on the image. Both ultimately sustain the essentialist perspective they attempted to dismantle. Then comes the whole phobic tactile thing, whether it is hand touched or not hand touched, as if art has to be pure and virginal, or really mundane, contaminated and dirty in order to be what — more authentic? I think the inquisitive battle against the evils of the fetish has rendered itself obsolete by default, since the results I see only account for its relocation, a way of cross-dressing it or making it presentable for a new sort of fetishization.

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Sergio Vega, detail from The Golden Age with Mosquitoes, 1999.

NG The use of photography and text is instrumental in your recent projects, but you often include sound. Is your paradise a recovery of the sensorial through a dismantling of the cognitive apparatus?

SV Desire plays a big role, and is not at all about dismantling cognition but about grounding it in the body, letting it come through the body from where the illusion of objectivity cannot go too far, and always comes back to the subject. In my photo essays I am interested in an experience somewhere between ekphrasis and stream of consciousness, located at the point of translatability or untranslatability between pictures and language. We come from the semiotic perspective of looking at images as signs, often assuming that the operation of reading is equivalent to the operation of viewing. I wish to challenge that assumption through my work.

NG The viewing/reading thing just sounds like driving backwards on the avenue of that ghost town called conceptualism.

SV In that sense the style of what I call magic conceptualism embodies a contradiction that I have found fruitful, particularly when it comes to issues of authority between visuality and language, rationalism and desire. If we consider that conceptualism recognizes in language and the dematerialization of the art object a higher realm of experience, which often works to the detriment of visuality, and take that as a counterpoint to magic realism, which relies on visuality in order to uncover the role of myth underlying what is taken as real, we end up with a set of contingencies where meaning is not stated but actually negotiated within the artwork itself. And there are many uncanny instances where magic and concept exclude each other, and then come together as something else. In other words, we could say that this magic conceptualism of mine is a kind of self-defeating naturalism in the face of an impossible reality.

NG Can you then explain to me your use of actual sources and myth in a project like Paraíso? In other words, what process lies between research and your magic?

SV The project El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo is based on a book by Antonio de Leon Pinelo written in 1650, which posits the theory that the Garden of Eden was located in South America. After I read the book I went, like those monks of early Christianity, on a trip in search of paradise. After many mosquito bites and encounters with parrots, crocodiles and rooms without air conditioning, I found the Garden of Eden in Matto Grosso (Brazil). I felt an urgency to bring the news of my discovery to the world, so I wrote a personal diary and produced a series of photographs, drawings, videos and installations based on the experience. The diary functions as a container in which the myth of paradise, colonial history and the present socioeconomic conditions of the site are rearticulated, unfolding as the spontaneous encounters of a traveler.

NG This is an existing Argentine myth, that paradise is Brazil. Didn’t we both grow up with that orgiastic vacation in mind?

SV For me it started very early. Between the Tarzan movies, “Gilligan’s Island” and my father’s big mambo band rehearsing in our living room, as a child I expected to see crocodiles jump out of the ponds created on our home’s patio after the rain. And then the exchange rate made going to Brazil so cheap that we all, guided by Bacchus himself, started that exodus into the land of endless Carnival. Argentines would come back from Brazil with color television sets because they were much cheaper there. I remember this huge billboard I saw in Copacabana Beach, an advertisement (in Spanish) targeting Argentinean tourists. A man carried a television on his shoulder and the image on the TV was a close-up of a woman’s butt, just like the ones at the beach. The ad said, “Bring home the perfect picture!” In the same fashion, when the Spaniards made it to the New World and crossed the Amazon for the first time, they hallucinated a huge tribe of voluptuous naked women in the jungle eager to copulate with them. That’s how the biggest river in the world got its name—from the myth of the Amazons. Unfortunately for them, the Spaniards couldn’t put their Catholic guilt aside as they also thought that those muscular superwomen were going to eventually castrate them and turn them into slaves.

NG In a sense your trips were not to Brazil but into the historical construction of a cultural identity, or myth if you prefer, using a 17th century text as your departure point. How did you go from colonialism to manipulating kitsch?

SV One of the peculiarities of Pinelo’s book is that it attempted to reconcile the myth of Eden with the new discipline of the time, natural science. That is why I imbricate politics and religion, natural history and art history in very specific ways for this project. My practice in photography borrows from a vast array of imagery and concepts about nature, all of them historically implicated in investing Latin America with this Edenic mythology. When I look at naturalism in the history of Western painting, I see that it portrays natural sites as the meeting point between myth and reality, often in a highly seductive organic sensualism, as in the Baroque or Romanticism. On the other hand, I believe that contemporary nature documentaries attempt to illustrate the ontological condition, the archetypes of that pristine, Edenic stage of creation coming out of either Darwin’s theory or the hand of God. Although they add a certain thrill factor to make the films adventurous and entertaining.

NG You mean like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel?

SV Exactly. Those are the popular versions of natural science and anthropology, which I see as entirely implicated in the history of colonialism, thus enabling the colonizer to classify the colonized and their culture. Both disciplines tend to construct nature as an archive. The mass media, advertising and the industries of tourism reinsert an array of kitsch and vulgar stereotypes of nature as an exotic fantasy in order to generate consumption. All of these iconological considerations informed my approach to photography for this particular project, making it difficult to locate my work within the conventions of what is understood these days as high art.

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Sergio Vega, Telephones of Paradise, 1999. Eleven photo text panels, 40 × 30 inches each.

NG But you have also ended up generating a trademark. One of the most difficult tasks for contemporary artists is to make a trademark that is multidimensional. In other words, can you pull a universe out of your parrot?

SV The parrot is the stereotype given the role and three-dimensionality of the main character in the story. The iconology is extensive, but it starts with the role of the parrot in the Garden of Eden. In Eden all animals could speak, but after the original sin they lost that capacity, with the exception of the parrot. That is why the imagery of paradise is so populated with parrots, because they are the only remaining witnesses. The discovery of the New World brought a parrot fever to Europe. Europeans speculated that Eden may have been in Brazil, because the territory hosted the most species of parrots. Now, if you go to a travel agent, you’ll see posters of parrots advertising vacations to anywhere in Latin America. Rubens painted a replica of Tiziano’s Adam and Eve painting in order to make one change: the addition of a large red parrot. Ironically, Ruben’s parrot is of the same species that today live on the limestone cliffs in the Brazilian plateau where the Garden of Eden was thought to be. In my diary of El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo, I have a chapter titled “Genesis According to Parrots.” The parrots I encounter in the jungle speak the perfect language of paradise—Adam’s tongue—and relay the events of the Garden as they witnessed them at the beginning of time. There is another issue here: the search for the perfect language.

NG Talking about le mot juste, you are skipping the most notorious 19th-century parrot, Flaubert’s. At a time when the discovery of the exotic other was in fashion in French high culture, we have this simpleminded woman named Felicity (happiness), adoring a parrot on an altar. Isn’t the parrot mania also a reflection on stupidity and happiness?

SV Well, I made a piece called The Holy Parrot in 1996 representing the vision of Felicity at the moment of her death, when she sees the gates of Heaven opening and a parrot comes down to welcome her. The parrot mania has to do with many other things. I believe there is a fascination with an earthly paradise in the culture at large as a consequence of some of the latest sins of humanity. The anxiety about the extinction of the rain forest, (thus losing paradise) and the experiments on genetic manipulation (eating from the Tree of Life). In that whole mélange where the parrot starts as an icon of the third world, and the interlocutor of the profane (parrot’s dirty talk), we begin to see him as a sacred species who speaks directly to God in the tongue of Adam. But more than anything, parrot mania is about recognizing the wounded inner parrot we all have inside. It becomes an impulse, like a way of life, to let him out in the sun, to let him say what he has to say, to let him take a nap if he wants to, to let him dance a mambo and sing a prayer if he feels like it, to let him have a drink and tell a joke, for God’s sake!

NG Are you implying that liberating the inner parrot and letting him speak freely is a significant part of artistic practice? Is this interview a staging of Vega’s parrotism?

SV Let’s not forget that parrots are a complex, liberating phenomenon: performative and mimetic in terms of language—Warholian, Aesopic—and nonmimetic in visual terms since most of them stand out with their pure colors—Mondrianesque, primitivist. They are both sacred icons of Paradise, and profane representatives of the third world. I envision that one day parrots will get organized and lead a massive biblical exodus to the northern side of the globe. Invading the pale skies of the cities with their colorful plumage, their presence would seem natural, a transition explained as one of the effects of global warming. Once comfortably installed on top of the highest buildings, parrots will be doing enough talking to run the world. Let’s forget the eagles; they are lonely cannibals heading toward extinction. Parrots are empathic, communicative, communal and live for centuries tasting the most delicious forbidden fruits. I say we give them microphones right now…and let them shit all over the place if they have to.

NG Your utopist parrotian future could not exist without Marcel Broodthaers’ criticism of both the museum and the idea of the romantic artist as hero. And I also believe that Magritte plays a role in your marriage of conceptual and Surreal strategies. Let us talk about your own genealogy as an artist.

SV You are absolutely right on Broodthaers, he certainly paved the road from which my work takes off in order to go somewhere else. I am particularly interested in his idiosyncratic inventories of the collective unconscious through icons, and his dead serious scientism of the absurd, which I see as going far beyond institutional critique. Magritte’s influence resides in his staging of the contradictions between nominal and embodied meaning—although I consider magic realism to be very different from Surrealism. In my view, Surrealism aims to dismantle signification through chance, whereas magic realism dismantles signification from a critical perspective that is radically specific. But I truly think that my main influences are, like yours, from the field of literature: Borges, Marechal, Carpentier, Dante. I studied Dante with Michael Sonnabend who taught me how to read the texts in medieval Italian. That opened the doors to a more insightful understanding of the text. Michael would always talk about the structure of the Divine Comedy as a Gothic cathedral where the consciousness of Western morality is carefully constructed in stages and sites. Set in motion as a journey of casual encounters, the Comedy simultaneously maps past and present, the personal and the political, the religious and the philosophical in a continuum that is seamlessly fluid, and that is because Dante’s allegories manage to function as transhistorical archetypes while being entirely anecdotal. Although following Dante’s argument, the allegories I visit in my paradise project inevitably derail into the absurd.

NG It is quite obvious to me by now that Parrot-Dante is actually a self-portrait. Are you devoting the rest your life to the making of your paradise?

SV I used to think that my parrot was guiding me in my journey, like Virgil did for Dante. I guess that since the Virgil of the Comedy is Dante’s alter ego, he is also Dante’s self-portrait. I will always be devoted to paradise in one way or another. One way of ending it would be to simply move there, and live in the Garden of Eden forever after. Although I’m thinking about other projects for the future. One of them is to isolate Saint Francis’s and Che Guevara’s DNA, then blend both of them into one being and resurrect him like Lazarus. Designed to be a great leader, he will turn this nasty world we live in into a paradise for all. If I fail with the experiment, I’m going to get a parrot and teach him to sing the Internationale.

NG What you mean is that making art is like being in paradise?

SV Making art is like being in paradise. Being a professional artist is a lousy purgatory.

Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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