The work of Abraham Cruzvillegas (born 1968 in Mexico City) begins with the concept of autoconstrucción—loosely defined as “self-construction”—as a means of transformation, an idea rooted in dialogue, improvisation, instability, resourcefulness, and play. Inspired by the community of collaboratively built structures in his hometown of Ajusco, which the artist has described as a “sprawling slum” on a landscape of volcanic rock south of Mexico City, Cruzvillegas’s practice engages deeply with local culture and geography. Of the house where his family lived, Cruzvillegas notes, “Because it was built with no funding and no architectural plan, today the house looks chaotic, almost unusable, yet every detail, every corner has a reason to be where it is. The house is a true labyrinth, polished by the simultaneous patina of construction, use, and destruction.” While his work takes many forms, including sculpture, installation, film, music, writing, and performance, the core of Cruzvillegas’s current creative investigation centers around transforming recycled materials into sculptural objects, then engaging local participants as agents of change and social dialogue. The artist extends this process to museums and institutions that are exhibiting his work by instructing staff to source discarded and found materials in order to make the sculptures themselves. In this way, he acts as a director and catalyst, rather than the singular author of the artworks.
For this exhibition, Hi, how are you, Gonzo?—which will premiere at The Contemporary Austin and then travel to the Aspen Art Museum, Colorado, in October 2019—Cruzvillegas provided the museums with schematics to produce his sculptures, allowing for site-specific variations in scale and material. Conceptually, the playful title, Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, links the contexts of Austin and Aspen through two local creatives, the legendary Austin musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston and the late Aspen-based journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whom Cruzvillegas calls “misfit and cult figures.” These individuals serve as a metaphor for transformation and the breaking of conventions. For the production of the works themselves, The Contemporary and the Aspen Art Museum then collaborated to source found and discarded materials from each venue and city to create a single set of objects that will then be “activated” during the course of the exhibition. The sculptures will be used in self-determined ways by participants from Mexico City with direct connections to the artist and many local groups within Austin and Aspen, including choreographers, musicians, cooks, herbalists, skaters, DJs, and distillers, as well as museum staff, community partners, and the general public.
The interactive spirit of Hi, how are you, Gonzo? has roots in the evolution of contemporary art in Mexico City, as well as in contemporary art’s turn toward participatory forms. In the 1960s, many artists globally began to shift away from modernism’s focus on object-based practices and individual authorship toward ideas, situations, happenings, and performances. Conceptualists paved the way for the embrace of ideas over physical artwork, while performance artists, including feminist artists using their bodies in radical and transformative ways, also represented an important turning point. By the 1990s, in an increasingly transnational and cross-disciplinary art world, social sculpture (a phrase first coined by the German artist Joseph Beuys to suggest that art-as-life could transform society) and relational aesthetics (French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s term to suggest that art was about human interaction and social context) opened the field for participatory, subjective, local, and audience-based art making. Likewise, in the 1990s in Mexico City, when Cruzvillegas’s career began, a vibrant arts scene was emerging, characterized by institutional disaffection and unconventional gatherings, or what the artist has termed ejercicios de colectividad (“community practices”). Along with Cruzvillegas, artists including Eduardo Abaroa, Gabriel Kuri, Gabriel Orozco, Damián Ortega, and Sofía Táboas formed a loose community of those challenging the nature of individual versus collective practices and utilizing experimental formats such as books, magazines, lectures, and workshops.
Cruzvillegas’s Blind self-portrait series, three of which are on view at The Contemporary Austin, emerged from this trajectory. These works consist of scraps of paper collected by the artist from his life—receipts, tickets, brochures, envelopes, newspaper clippings—painted a single color (here in blue, teal, and seafoam green). Those installing the artworks are tasked with pinning the scraps on the wall with space between each geometric shape, generating an abstract composition; the measurements are determined by the wall and architectural surroundings. Complementing these, works from the artist’s series of primate drawings are scattered throughout the exhibition, painted by Cruzvillegas on pulpy kraft paper. For these intentionally improvised drawings—titled in Spanish Nuestra imagen actual, or in English, “Our current image”—the artist has alluded to a range of meanings imparted by the beloved monkeys, from a self-portrait to a satirical nickname for cartoonists in Mexico.
Inspired by this ethos of experimentation and collectivity, for this exhibition The Contemporary Austin began discussions with Cruzvillegas and staff across museum departments to identify communities that were particularly local and unique to Austin. At the direction of the artist, who indicated that the activations of his art should invoke “warmth, ease, and necessity,” the museum engaged a broad range of groups and communities, inviting them to interact with the sculptural objects and public during the course of the exhibition. Some of these activations and communities include storytelling, roller derby, a book exchange, a high school percussion ensemble, food and fermentation workshops, a diverse range of dance performances, anthropology and ecological lectures, and experimental music groups, to name a few. Alternately choreographed and chaotic, static and open-ended, educational and entertaining, the exhibition proposes new definitions for the role of the artist in society and emphasizes the potential for creative activism, generating playful and profound convergences across people and place.
Each participant offers an area of expertise and passion, an educational model that allows community members to collaborate to define and share their local cultures, skills, issues, projects, histories, and ideas. Over time, the structures in the exhibition will change and transform—within each museum as well as from one venue to the next. Like viral organisms taking on a life of their own, the works serve as evidence of the actions and people who have engaged with them, and the potential for action, solidarity, and exchange across diverse groups.
This exhibition is co-organized by Heather Pesanti, Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs, The Contemporary Austin, and Heidi Zuckerman, Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director, Aspen Art Museum. Austin activations are organized by Andrea Mellard, Director of Public Programs & Community Engagement. Text is by Pesanti.