Atlántica # 58

Three structures made of plywood rest on top of a concrete floor. The space seems barely capable of containing them; as you move around them, you have the impression that they are pushing against the ceiling and the walls. They are mute, as all inert objects are, but in this case there is something unsettling about their silence. You have only to look closely at the structures to get the feeling that they have been muzzled: lashed together with metal cords, the pieces of plywood look as though they are guarding some kind of secret.

As it turns out, the structures do contain something, even if this something turns out to be nothing more than an empty core, a bit of negative space. The structures are molds, and while different on the outside, they are all intended to yield the same form. They were built by three different construction workers, who were provided only with the form they should produce, the idea being that if concrete were to be poured into them, the results would be similar. This is not to say that their outward differences are negligible. On the contrary, it is on account of these differences that they stand in the room as sculptures in their own right—even if each is also, simultaneously, nothing more than a virtual sculpture, to be brought into being at some imaginary point in time.

Construçao (2013), as the work is entitled, is a good example of the projects that the Peruvian artist Miguel Andrade Valdez has been developing over the last decade. The work, specifically conceived for Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, where the artist has lived and worked at various points in his career, builds upon his ongoing interest in the vernacular school of sculpture that is dispersed across many Latin American cities. The form he selected for Construçao was that of a monument found in Lima that commemorates a figure known as the rabona. This was the name given to the women who accompanied the troops in military campaigns in the nineteenth century, performing domestic tasks and offering material support. This character is now almost effaced from the country’s collective memory, and, like many other monuments of its kind, the one Andrade Valdez selected for this project sits virtually abandoned in a Lima park. The title of the piece is a reference to a song by the Brazilian artist Chico Buarque. Composed in 1971 during Brazil’s military dictatorship, the song is, among other things, a critique of state oppression and of the construction worker’s plight in a scenario of relentless modernisation and mechanisation.

Andrade Valdez’s interest in the vernacular school of sculpture in Latin America had already made an appearance in a video like Monumento (2011), a fast-paced visual collage of various anonymous monuments scattered throughout the Peruvian capital, and it would be developed further in Constelación (2015), an absorbing two-channel video depicting a journey through various structures sitting atop the Morro Solar, a promontory on the edge of the bay where Lima sits. Construçao, however, merits separate attention, as it is there that we see the artist grappling for the first time with a problem that has since become central to his work. Indeed, the very scale of the structures and their tense relation to the confines of the gallery space anticipates the artist’s more recent interest in the relation between sculpture and architecture.

Young artists across Latin America and in Peru in particular (Iosu Aramburú, Raura Oblitas, and Ishmael Randall Weeks are three names that come to mind) have explored this relation in recent years. Most likely this has to do not only with the formal problems that this relation has allowed these artists to investigate, but also with the way in which it provides an opening onto a fascinating interrogation of the politics of culture in the region—the fate of European modernism in tropical settings remains a point of shared interest among many. What sets Andrade Valdez’s work apart is the intensity of his own fascination with the material dimension of the relation. His focus is ultimately not on the formal vocabulary that sculpture and architecture share or on the politics of modernism—even if both are at stake in his project—but on the role that matter, with its inherent force and emphatic presence, plays in shaping this relation, as well as on sculpture and architecture themselves as means that groups devise in order to shape basic materials (broken stone, gravel, sand, cement, and water) in ways that affirm and commemorate their passage through the world. These concerns begin to insinuate themselves in Construçao, but they have since taken centre stage. And as they have done so, their metaphysical import, too, has also forcefully come to the forefront, beginning with the question of time.

Metaphysical Monuments | Atlántica

Monumento Lima
2010 – 2011
Video 5’53´´

This was most recently in evidence in Estratos, the solo project that Andrade Valdez presented at Museo de Arte Mario Testino (MATE) in Lima in September of 2016. For this project, Andrade Valdez turned his attention to the post-war decades in Latin America, a period when large-scale projects that were aimed at accommodating the growing bureaucracy of the modern nation-state began to alter the region’s capitals. Estratos takes as its point of departure the building that continues to serve as the headquarters of Petroperú, the state-owned petroleum company that was created in 1969, following General Velasco’s expropriation of the oilfields of the International Petroleum Company. An enduring icon of the brutalist aesthetic that would come to define the architectural legacy of Velasco’s Revolutionary Government, the building makes an appearance in MATE’s gallery in fragmentary form. What we see is a section of its auditorium, scaled down so as to fit within the space.

Brutalism was fated to be the style of choice for Velasco’s government. Its imposing structures, marked by a refusal of ornamentation and a brazen display of materials in their “raw” (brute) state, must have seemed capable of eloquently projecting the kind of strength demanded by a project of national renewal. In addition, something about the way that they reveal rather than disguise the mechanisms whereby buildings regulate the flow of people betrays a desire to allegorise the functional efficacy of the bureaucratic apparatus that would support this project. Designed by Walter Weberhofer and Daniel Arana Ríos and completed in 1973, the Petroperú building aimed, like other buildings of its kind, to monumentalise the nation-state. In Peru’s case, of course, this monumentalisation takes on a special meaning, particularly when measured against the rich architectural legacy of its pre-Columbian past—a past alluded to in the company’s logo, which depicts the head of a tumi or ceremonial knife, and which gives shape to the auditorium that Andrade Valdez recreates here.

Metaphysical Monuments | Atlántica Metaphysical Monuments | Atlántica

Video 13´25´´

If the artist’s previous forays into the relation between sculpture and architecture pivot on single and discrete objects—and in this case Construçao, too, is exemplary—Estratos forms part of a body of work that presents us with a fragment of a structure that never quite ceases to be an architectural structure, and that is thus emphatically not an “object” as the latter is commonly understood. Its limits exceed those of the gallery, effectively suspending the neutralising operation that is conventionally performed by exhibition spaces when they act as containers for entities that are granted the status of art. The superimposition of two distinct spaces (the auditorium and the gallery, here appearing in a way that deliberately contravenes the law that states that no two bodies shall occupy the same space) can be said to function in this sense as a strategy for probing the basic phenomenology of artistic reception. If the neutralising operation typically performed by the gallery is the condition for aesthetic contemplation, then Estratos is questioning the possibility of a contemplative relation to the strange kind of object it itself knows that it is. We are invited not to contemplate but to inhabit the work. In a way, the gallery’s failure to enclose a distinct object illuminates for us, paradoxically but with uncanny efficacy, the primordial function of any enclosure, a function aligned with the procurement of shelter and thus with a kind of degree zero of architecture.

In the end, though, the distinct contribution of a work like Estratos might lie beyond this concern with the phenomenology of artistic reception and the unstable boundary that separates the sculptural object from the architectural structure. What we see (the form, cast in concrete, that literally traverses the gallery) emphatically affirms its own existence through its imposing rawness, but this rawness is inseparable from a temporal determination that ends up exposing the futility of any such affirmation. It is the rawness of matter that lays bare, in and through its own crude materiality, the infinity of time. This metaphysical concern, an increasingly characteristic note of Andrade Valdez’s project, is announced through the sedimentation registered by the structure’s layered appearance. Oil is a resource that comes into being over vast stretches of time. Confronted with it, one must adopt a geological frame of reference, one that necessarily exceeds the frames of reference supplied by human institutions—including, of course, those of a state bureaucracy erecting monuments to its own capacity to extract the wealth hidden in the deep strata of the earth. When one adopts this frame of reference, every human structure emerges as a ruin, destined to crumble and to disappear. And if that is the case then we ourselves cannot help but ponder our own disappearance. Estratos invites us to imagine a very distant future that is ultimately no different from the very distant past. It invites us to imagine a time when we do not exist.

Metaphysical Monuments | Atlántica Metaphysical Monuments | Atlántica

Bedrock, plaster and terrazzo
280 x 620 x 320 cm