Conversation 2nd June
Sol Calero, Johan Gustavsson and Clara Pallí Monguilod
Johan: It is important to share that we have wanted to work with you for many years. The first time we worked together was with the Conglomerate show Oedipusmas Special in 2016. So it’s very nice we can finally make this show, which already looks amazing.
Sol: Yes, and the solo exhibition at 1646 is a perfect situation for these kinds of projects, because I see this as a work in progress, so the invitation came at the right time. In experimental spaces like 1646 the expectations are very different. Every space is different, of course, but in the way that you run 1646 you are very open, and there is no pressure of a structured way of dealing with the project. I think that this is so important when running a place like this, like we do with Kinderhook & Caracas in Berlin. I have had many opportunities to do shows, but I like that in these kinds of exhibitions you can be more experimental, like I have the opportunity to do now.
Clara: There is a sense of trust, where you can try out things, to see how something works, without having to justify it as much.
Sol: It works very well. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of the working process. For many years I have been doing many projects and every project has been very different. This has worked very well for me, because you develop ideas very fast, and now I have so much vocabulary and so many resources that I can overlap things. But that could become very tiring, physically and mentally after many years. So I have been thinking about slowing down and having the opportunity to develop one idea for a longer term. It is also an important process. I think both processes are. If you can develop things fast it is good because you learn so many more skills, but if you work on a project at a much slower pace it is also interesting. I started thinking of the sustainability of an idea itself, we should all be thinking of sustainable projects. I have been thinking a lot about this in my work. How can we make one project travel from one place to another, and not only because of logistical reasons, but also because the production involving this project requires many natural resources, such as wood and workers.
So often we are used to dispose of things in the art production, this also translates in the way we are dealing with ideas as well. Because everything is so fast. Art Fairs, for example, are programmed to be up for a week and to be taken down. As an artist you start noticing that you are also working at that fast pace.
So this show came at the right moment because I started thinking about this project when I was invited to participate in the Bergen Assembly (Norway). Conceptually the bigger idea started in 2020, when I was invited by Saâdane Afif at the Bergen Assembly to design a canteen or a restaurant. The first idea was to start from zero when designing the restaurant, and I got really excited because designing a restaurant is something that had always been in my mind, because of the social element. It goes very well with my practice, where I am creating these spaces that I am activating with the audience. Also in terms of the function and design, I am interested in working with furniture and decorative elements. So to be able to bring together all those ways of working that I have used in past exhibitions, and put it into practice within a real space, I thought was perfect.
The challenge of it is that I am invited to redecorate a space, but it still has to be contained in the art context. I would like my installation to be in a canteen and that you still feel you are in an exhibition.
That is why the project that we are seeing in 1646 is a work in progress, the whole project of creating a functional canteen has been divided in different steps. The first step was in Paris in 2021, with the show La Carta Por Favor, which was the first attempt to think about the idea of building a restaurant. At that point, I did not know what the space in Norway would be like, or in which context it was going to be, so it was an open idea to start thinking very abstractly of the decoration. From the beginning, the name of the canteen, La Cantina de La Turista, was very clear, which is linked to the concept of the Bergen Assembly, which is curated by Saâdane Afif?? In his idea, there are seven fictional characters that define how the different locations are related to these characters. One of the characters is called ‘The Tourist’, and that is the character I have been invited to work with. He suggested immediately that I should do La Cantina de La Turista, because he knows my work and he knows how I deal with creating spaces which when you see them you immediately feel that it does not belong in the place of origin, because of a tropicalisation and colors. Within his concept of the tourist, he thought the canteen would fit my work ideally. And I think so too, because Bergen is the opposite place from what it is to be in a tropical place, and I think it is interesting to see the effect that the aesthetics of this tropical cafe will create in the users.
In 2021, during the first exhibition in this work in progress, I created some of the water colors that we see in 1646. Those are the first notes to what it is to think about that restaurant space. And I clearly wanted to think of a very tropical place that you can imagine when you go on vacation. Because I have done projects before which deal with this idea of tourism, like for example the installation that is now on display in the Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, El Autobús. Basically, the idea is about the expectations versus the reality that one experiences when traveling somewhere. How your preconceived ideas of a place could influence the way you conceive the place, as well as the opposite situation, how that could also change when visiting a place. So what I will try to do here, is to show part of the elements that will be in the canteen. There are many layers to the way you get to a concept, but in 1646 we have titled the show ‘Los Vestigios de la Turista’ because I thought it would be a good idea to create the feeling of an archeological site. A site where we discover particularly the mural tiles and ceramic pieces. The ceramic pieces that we see in the front room come from an earlier project I did. The idea was to create this archeological site to dig out what were the remaining parts of a restaurant that existed somewhere else. For me, this idea became quite interesting and playful when thinking of the project, that the narrative of an idea belongs to a double past. We are creating a past for a new element, and we are at the same time talking about a place that existed in the past. But actually the conclusion resulting from these few projects will be placed in a present future. So in terms of the narrative of an idea, for me it is quite interesting to break this linear trajectory of making work, in which you develop something, you produce it and then you show it. I think what we are doing now is somehow breaking the structure of the final show, which is not going to be seen until later in Norway.
What I also like, which comes from the formal elements of the show and the reason why I started working with tiles, also for the mural La Ventana that I did for the train station Bahnhof Berlin-Friedrichstraße, is that when tiles are attached to architecture they give a sense of being timeless in space. And when you include time or a timeless element in a material I think there is that double vision also for a show. There is a timeless material, which is obviously new, that we are putting into a narrative that belongs to an invented past.
It is the same with the ceramics. Making ceramics is not only an ancient craft that humans have been doing since before everything, but it is also creating something that always remains. When you are digging at an archeological site, I always love that history has been written from ceramics, that you can read the history of an Egyptian period through a vase. There is an ancient connection to ceramics still, and that is also why we are placing them here.
Johan: One thing that I find very interesting in relation to this idea of a place, is something I have read recently. They have measured the joy of tourists when going on holiday, and they have found that people are actually happier during the preparations, imagining themselves being on holidays and when planning, rather than being at the place itself, when they are on the holiday.
I find that such a fascinating idea of what it means to be a tourist, and how when you are actually there it might not at all be as exciting as you had imagined.
Sol: Yes, I am glad that you point that out, because it has to do with imagination, which is something I have been thinking about in the last years, in relation to immigration. In my earlier works, the development of my practice has come from the following vision, that I come from a place (Venezuela) that I want to know about, using new references to tropicalism or the Caribbean, and using the perception from the western position. So I was in this critical position, needing to unveil this narrative that I have been absorbing from a certain perception. More and more I am getting closer to a different way of seeing it, understanding that when you are an immigrant you are obligated to forget where you come from in order to adapt to a new place, to integrate. And this integration process I find so disturbing for the imagination of a person. It gets even more complex if you come from a place that is being so damaged that it does not even exist anymore. The memories that you have from a place create the identity of a person. I have been focusing more and more on this idea of the imagination. When a person doesn’t belong to one or either place, what happens in between. I like to see the positive aspect of it, because it creates narratives that are so complex and so creative that we are almost not really paying attention to it, because we are so focused on the aspect ‘you have to belong to this place or not’. I think what happens in this ‘in between’, this narrative, is similar to the one of the tourist. It is like recreating the place to adapt to a place, it is a very interesting process for adaptation. An example of this way of working was the project Isla that I did at Kunsthal Extra City in Antwerp.
I wonder if when you go on a short trip for three days, you are already there before you even go, the whole planning takes you to the place. Which sometimes happens to me when I am doing projects, right now I got an invitation for a project that I don’t know if I am going to do or not, but if I don’t do it in my mind it feels like I already did it, like I was already there (laughing).
Clara: Within your practice, as you were saying, you had to understand the narratives that constructed your understanding of the place you came from (from a western position), and unveil them through ‘situations’, installations, that you have been creating in the past years. And I was wondering, an archeological site, as we see in this exhibition, is a very loaded setting within topics such as colonialism. So within the narrative that you are creating at 1646, of an archeological site where things are found that then will be moved to another country to have another function or value, has that load entered the thinking about the work?
Sol: I think the archeological aspect is a very organic thought, because there is this aspect of discovering, the revealing of something, it is quite a natural process when you are reading something or learning something, but when I work I think so much of architecture, it is a very formal aspect too. Even though for this show we have references to the ruins, I am very interested in the idea that we can create a very fragile space in order to understand our life, our history. I have always been fascinated about these sites, more with the way they are designed than with what they find sometimes (laughing). And this aspect of thinking about the old times, similar to when you go to Archeological or Historical Museums, is definitely present. The constant thought of these cultures whose art has been looted. Even today, seeing the war happening in Ukraine, it takes so much to build cultural content and it can be destroyed so quickly, and the aspect of rediscovering a site, it almost becomes the art itself.
I think the fragility of these structures is creating the bridge that we need for these different projects I have been working on to come together. So the aspect of the archeological site is creating this bridge, architecturally and conceptually, to a future idea. I would say it is a conceptual bridge, but mostly formal.
And I think that because the final project of building the canteen conceptually is not a research based project, it is a very interesting process for me. It is one of those projects where I am completely focused on the formal aspect. And conceptually the work is being sustained by my language, which is something that I have been working on for many years and is a natural process in an artist’s work. It is a very comfortable position to be in, and very rewarding, when as an artist you have worked for so long that it feels like you have a magic stick, because everything feels so connected in between projects, like this one that I have been developing for two years.
Even though the canteen project will almost be an interior design exhibition, it has been sustained by everything that is around it. For me this is almost magical when this happens, seen from my position as the maker. You can go out of it and the thing works by itself. For example, when someone comes and sees this simple structure of the bar, if you know my practice already, you can say ‘this is Sol’s work’, but if you go to New York today all the things that they build for coffee places look exactly like this (laughing).
Clara: About the mural that is being discovered in this archeological site at 1646, it includes an image, does it have specific references?
Sol: I work on these murals as I work on the paintings that I do, and the paintings and the installations are kind of supporting each other. You see elements of the installations that were in paintings before, and you see elements in the paintings that were also in the installations. I am often working on a very classical theme, the view from a window, and the interior versus the exterior. That’s how I conceive painting. And then I have some body of work with other topics.
For me painting is like a binocular, it is a frame of a window but it can go really far or really back. So for the topics of the murals at 1646 we are seeing windows, if you see them (laughing). It is a very interesting process for me to work with almost these pixels, like fragments of colors, because I have been using them as I use paint. They are just creating these blocks of color. But because we are working on an interior space I like to open the murals as windows, so they create some sort of perspective in the space. And sometimes some paintings are much more a close up, which is why you see fruits, plants. I also like this idea that painting, within my body of work, is a souvenir for an idea. I like painting as the container of a concept. I like that painting can talk about an idea and I also like that painting doesn’t talk about anything. I like painting in general (laughing). For me it is very comfortable, because I found making art very hard, so when you feel comfortable with something then you achieve a lot. So I feel quite comfortable, because both the installations and the paintings belong to the same place. And I say this because when you are painting, and when you start to learn painting, one thing is to learn a style. I remember when I was studying I was painting abstract paintings and then I developed my own language that I could understand and practice. That language was too abstract and at some point color, expression, lines and materials were not enough. So I feel now that these paintings, as we see them represented now in tiles, are solid within the narrative of my work. They belong to a narrative, and for me that is important. They are very decorative, very colorful, so often when people don’t know my work it’s also fine. I think that’s important too, I am up for the idea that art has to speak to everyone, and I feel that with such an iconography and with colors people can relate to it, because they are more used to it, it’s more pop culture. I like that. I think that if you can make someone connect with something that you do there is a lot of work done. I like to do that with color and to do that with the space, to create welcoming spaces where people don’t feel segregated or not included because they don’t understand a language that they haven’t been taught.
Johan: As you see your installations as paintings, would you feel comfortable with the translating idea of walking into your paintings when people walk into your installations?
Sol: Yes, for sure. When I describe my work I always say “I am coming inside of a painting”. To put a concrete example in this installation, we are now positioning the plants, but for me I am painting with the plants. So while placing the plants seems like a job anyone can do, for me it’s not, it needs to be in the right place in the painting.
I am going from two dimensional to three dimensional, and I do that with the space too. When you are creating these lines, these colors, you are composing as if walking in a painting.
Clara: At the same time, it’s also interesting that both in the idea of looking through a window and the tourist, there is a certain distance to the position from which you look. You are an observer of something from a distance, to an extent.
Sol: You could be a viewer but you could also be participating, that’s the thing. Because I am trained as a painter, for me the information goes through my eyes. I am always very interested in the aspect of how we are trained by the eye. For instance, in cinema there is a way to suggest that someone is arriving by making them enter from the left side (laughing). It’s so basic, but we are so trained by the eye. I think the position from the viewer is really the position I create, as an artist, you are observing all the time. One thing is to observe a painting and another thing is to actually walk in the painting.
La Cantina de La Turista is a more abstract project, which comes from so many layers that it is impossible to talk about briefly, it is connected to many earlier shows. For example, to El Barco de Barro in Copenhagen, where the floor of this installation comes from. When being able to connect these materials, the materials become also the medium. It’s like it has a life of its own, there have been thousands of people that walked on this floor who at the same time produced the ceramics. And now the function of the furniture that is now in the front room of 1646 has changed. Before, in Copenhagen, they were produced for displaying materials for the workshops, now the furniture displays the final works of that workshop. The work remains in movement, starting in 2020 from Copenhagen, to Paris, now to 1646 and later Bergen. So it is also a matter of perspective by changing the function of the things. For example the mural will be on a wall, now it is on the floor. These ceramic pieces were worked on by many people, now they are exhibited as objects, and they will become the decorative elements in Bergen.
The artist would like to thank: Arthur Cordier, Athanasios Anagnostopoulos, Aude Lèvere, Bergen Assembly, Cerama (Copenhagen), ChertLüdde (Berlin), Christian Roncea, Clara Pallí Monguilod, Contemporary Copenhagen, Daniëlle de Hoog, Deutsche Bahn, Elizabeth Ravn, Galerie Crèvecœur (Paris), Gilles Broersma, Johan Gustavsson, Honey Kraiwee, Lisa Ünsever, Lucian Lee, Maria Chiara Ziosi, Mariia Karimova, Matei Vlad Dragomir, Ramon Ottenhof, Rebeca Pérez Gerónimo, Ruth Ur, Saâdane Afif, Sarah Klevan, Stanley Street, Tea Bernardelli and all the participants that took place in the ceramic workshops in El Barco de Barro at Copenhagen Contemporary Studio.