Interview Conduced with the Artist at her Studio
-Alejandra Urresti. ¿Urresti is a Basque name, isn’t it?
-Right down to the bone.
-Do you have a middle name?
-No. Well, yes.
-What is it?
-I don’t actually have one, that is, it doesn’t appear on my national ID card, but my parents did say Alejandra María at some point. So, yes, in the end, it’s Alejandra María Urresti, with María in the middle. Reality is always confusing, I don’t really know whether or not its true. My Aunt Nora, for example, my mother’s cousin, sends me a message by phone every time «el día de María» (María’s Day, or something like that) comes around, every year, for several years now. Her three daughters are named María something. María Ximena, María del Pilar and María Cecilia. I doubt that I have two names since it took them practically three days to name me Alejandra. And my Uncle’s name is Alejandro. They don’t have a great deal of imagination. My older sister’s name is Carolina Micaela and my other sister is also Micaela. Yep, same father, same mother. My brother is Joaquín, Joaquín Esteban, Esteban just like my father, just like my grandfather.
-Maybe that’s the reason why you made the «Alejandra» piece (video in which
the artist invites one hundred Cubans to say Alejandra in front of the camera).
-No. I don’t think so. I did that piece for other reasons.
-Would you like to tell us a bit more about those reasons?
-Tell us something about your educational background.
-Varied and incomplete. Done bit by bit. At a distance. Very carefully. I would say without a doubt that the Architecture, Design and Urbanism Department at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the people I met there was the most outstanding part of my formation. I always go back and listen to those theory classes when I feel I need something. I close my eyes and voilá. I imagine myself sitting there in a chair in one of those huge halls full of people in Pavilion III in Ciudad Universitaria. That’s what those theory classes were like. Three hundred people seated in an arc around one architect orator who would talk for four hours straight. It was always the same. It was cold in winter and hot during the summer. Extremes. The audience wouldn’t nod off, always attentive in spite of listening to the same thing. They would talk about lights, whisky, itineraries, car trunks, suitcases and function. I miss Horacio Bucho Baliero. I may have abandoned the career, and the first ones to leave a sinking ship…
-If you had to choose your three favorite words used in the art context, which would they be?
-None of my favorite things ever come from that context. I’ve never thought about favorites, but what I could mention are at least three words that I completely detest.
-Please, go on, don’t hold back.
-Palimpsest, mainstream and statement. All words as petulant as can be. Unbearable. If possible, could we please change the subject…? Of course. Ah! I almost forgot, there’s a compound word that doesn’t deserve my sympathy, either. Visibility platform. What do you say to that?
-What is your opinion about curators?
-My opinion is that there are more curators than sick people.
-Last year you participated in a show in Paris. How was the experience?
-Well, the truth is that I don’t know whether or not the show ever took place. But it wasn’t in Paris at all, it was someplace else and one week before the opening a tornado passed through and destroyed the roof along with a few other plans. Philippe, the curator, visited my house in early 2010 (I think – I’m really bad with dates, in addition to first names). He mentioned off-hand that I was an obsessive compulsive artist and he particularly liked «volar y chocar» (fly and collide), a fifty-minute long video in which I play with a wooden paddle with a little sponge rubber ball attached by an elastic thread, by myself. There are one hundred different takes, one hundred different bounces, all in the same pose without any reason why. I decided that I should keep in touch with him; keep in mind that I didn’t have a web page or anything, and it isn’t like I go out a whole lot to see what’s going on, either. I had to do something. So I headed in the direction he was interested in. I sent him the one hundred different takes one by one via email every day for one hundred days in a row. One a day. One hundred mails. Mute mails. The subject: one of one hundred, two of one hundred… thirteen of one hundred… up to one hundred of one hundred. One a day. Without missing a single one. During one hundred consecutive days. Two months later he invited me to participate in the tornado show. Catastrophe climatique, those were the first two words I heard that trip. In French, from Philippe.
-Do you have any particular dream in terms of your production?
-Yes, three years ago, or two, I discovered an exhibition space. I say that I discovered it, but it already existed, naturally! There had already been an architect and plans and everything. I say that I discovered it because the discovery was realizing that it was the perfect space for showing the «Escenografías» series, and although its been years since the series has been finished, I’ve never shown it the way it really should be. Sometimes the craziness and urgency of the surroundings wind up shifting you off-center. So I have to reconcile my time. It doesn’t matter how long it’s already taken. The images will be shown in the most appropriate place to exhibit them.
-No. No. No. Hang on a minute. Nothing’s been confirmed yet. Although they haven’t actually said yes, they haven’t said no yet, either. It’s a National venue, which means that you have to wait and see what happens with the 2011 presidential elections to see who will occupy the corresponding political positions. What I can tell you is that I have had a meeting with a very favorable outcome. But you have to keep on waiting. Patience.
-You mention the word time, preceded by the word reconcile What’s your relationship with time?
-The same as anyone’s, I guess, I can’t control it, I can’t stop it and can’t speed it up, either. I can’t stop thinking about it. Tock tock someone’s thinking about you. I think that time is absolute, categorical. Time or the lack of it. A mal tiempo buena cara (in bad times, put on a good face). Time to play around with or waste on a wooden paddle, two minutes and eleven seconds is how long it took one hundred Cubans to say Alejandra, time to watch television, time to spin through a revolving door. Spin around and around and around.
-Speaking of time, how long did it take you to stamp the word paciencia (patience) 62,400 times?
-It’s incredible that you should ask. When I did the stamping, between the rush, the anxiety and the anguish I forgot to keep track of the time. It’s a grave error, considering that I count everything and measure everything and just the same I forgot the result. Incredible, isn’t it?
-Who would you call your references?
-Wow! That’s a really uncomfortable question. Let me see… I don’t make lists like that. I don’t like rankings, and so I don’t rank people. Basically, it’s because I don’t like everything that any one person does. I like things. The things that I like. And they’re not always conceived of or carried out by the same person. However, I can choose one area which interests me most, I would mention my inclination toward architecture and related fields once again.
-Sixteen questions. Sixteen answers so far. Damn counting thing.
-Let’s move on, shall we? Nineteen, then. You practice archery. What’s it like? How did you become familiar with the discipline? You live in Buenos Aires and you shoot with a bow and arrow?
-I live in Buenos Aires, close to the Congreso de la Nación, and I shoot with a bow and arrow in San Telmo. I was in the middle of mounting the «Suomenlinna» show (a series of photos taken in Finland during an artist’s residency) at the Ernesto Catena gallery, it must have been 2007, that’s right, it was one year after the trip. Hernán Zavaleta was the gallery’s artistic director at the time. For those who don’t know him, he is a very restless person, absolutely mobile. I heard that he practiced archery and I asked him if I could go watch because I couldn’t bring an image of a calm, serene, quiet Hernán to mind. He immediately picked up the phone and called Andrés F. Verde, his professor. Hernán invited me to the next two classes. I’ve been practicing archery under Andrés’ supervision ever since.
-Do you consider yourself to be good at it?
-Maybe… on a good day… if the target isn’t moving…
-I’ve always asked myself if artists are the result of nature or nurture.
What do you think?
-At times it’s a risk to even mention the word artist. Because right away you think of Michelangelo and a million possible comparisons. That’s truly tedious. Today, that’s not what it’s all about. This isn’t that, either. Time has passed, and things change. It’s just that we keep on using the same word. I prefer to think that artists aren’t made, but I couldn’t say for sure.
-How is it that having taken courses in Medicine, Engineering and Architecture, you wound up choosing something so different?
-Well, I’d rather not begin every answer with no, but it may well be that the careers aren’t as different from one another as they may seem. They have one thing in common, I believe they all do, and that is the profound desire that exists between a person and certain knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard science or whatever. What matters is that there’s a person and a thing and something happens between the two. And that something between a person and a thing didn’t happen to me while I was studying in any of those fields, except for architecture. I’ll take the chance to clarify a bit regarding the time I spent bouncing between several of the careers that produce serious professionals. First, it was Medicine. The truth is that I believed that it was all about that desire to do something for others, kind of like wanting to save the world, but I quit having taken only Mental Health and some Anatomy and Cytology classes. I couldn’t even focus the microscope, the nucleus and all the other stuff about cells were and continue to be a big mystery to me. I did, however, have some know-it-all classmates who could look through the microscope without closing the eye they weren’t using without getting dizzy and recognize all the little cells one by one. They had superskills. Engineering was the second career that I didn’t finish. It was definitely my father’s background and the way that he silently induced my siblings and I to become academic creatures that made me attempt Engineering this time, another serious field. Nevertheless there I did, indeed, last a very short time and the only thing I remember is studying two subjects that I was missing from the Basic Common Cycle, Algebra and Mathematical Analysis, which I had to take at seven o’clock on Saturday mornings at Ciudad Universitaria. I don’t think I made it into the second month. I didn’t understand anything. At all. Once I was there, at the FADU, I just changed careers. This time it was Architecture. La tercera es la vencida (three times lucky), as they say, and I’m one of those who think that no hay dos sin tres (luck always comes in threes). It wasn’t a mistake, but I didn’t get my degree, either. I spent four years in that building. And I loved it, but I didn’t like the exams and the obligatory finals. During all three attempts I always did something related to photography.
-Are there opticians or photographers in the family?
-No. As I said, my father came from one of those families where they were Notaries and their friends were lawyers, doctors, architects and engineers. On my mother’s side it’s different. There’s an uncle, the blonde Uncle. He was my mother’s uncle, actually. His hair is grey and has been ever since I can remember. Completely grey. He’s laid back, more relaxed in a manner of speaking, and has a restaurant in Queens, «La Fusta». Of course, he liked the ponies and gambling and all that. That’s where «La Fusta» (The Riding Crop) comes from. And that’s why he would always tell me about the photos he used to take on the rambla (boardwalk). Right, the one along side the casino in Mar del Plata. Every time I see him—he lives in Brazil now and doesn’t travel much—he tells me something about sea lions, about the size of people, and how to make the person in the picture come out bigger than the sea lion. He may have been the one who took the photo of my mother lying back on the big sea lion statue in Mar del Plata.
-So, you passed through several university careers without finishing and then completed tertiary level photography studies, so far, so good, but how, then, did you enter into the art world, almost in parallel?
-The attraction to photography was an attempt to assist my memory, or better yet, to take hold of it, or store it in order not to forget things, almost with a documentary aim, toward biographical ends. It was to be able to remember people and places. It was to remember myself. The me from before. Things that I don’t remember, so, I grab hold of the photos. That’s how it started. And photography brought me a new, altruistic way of thinking. A project. The project was to translate photographic images into three-dimensional objects that would make it possible for a blind person to see or to recompose an image by passing their hands over it. I contacted León Ferrari’s daughter, who used to work in a building on Entre Ríos Avenue. She introduced me to Horacio Bracco, who was around fifty years old. At the time, he had spent half of his life seeing and the other half blind. Acquired blindness. «Hi, how are you?» and he took me by the arm. We took a walk around the block. He was very charming. As we went along he said «Here there are bars. Here, a large door. Here there’s a parking lot. A kiosko». The sound of the cane meeting the sidewalk is information. It has to be decoded, as if it were radar. Like a bat. The sound takes more or less time to come back, the rebound sounds different according to what surface is hit. Sound is information. We go into a bar. We would always meet there, in the bar, at his office, in a park. We tried different things. A map of Argentina made out of different grades of sandpaper, from very coarse to very fine, with the boundaries of each province differentiated by different grades of sandpaper. The highly developed sensitivity of his fingers allowed him to recognize the object rapidly. He lifted his head, as if looking at me and said, «Alejandra: I’m blind, not stupid. The Islas Malvinas are missing». We laughed. I did learn, although I may not have managed to save humanity or find a way that the sightless might see. Horacio also takes photos. Photos of his family. His models speak to him, he aims and that’s it, the record of the family gathering winds up in an album. He never showed me his photos. I haven’t seen him for many years now. He would always say «chau Ale, we’ll see each other next week». And that’s how I came across the technique of photo-etching, through Tamara Stuby and Esteban Alvarez, in order to apply it to that project. We submerged metals in acid for long periods of time. We could point to Tamara and Esteban as my first hosts in the art world. Let’s say that they are responsible, to some extent.
-I understand that you spent some time working for an advertising agency.
I cannot help thinking of your «Larga Vida» (long life) project as an advertising product. Was it produced at that time?
-No. That series comes from someplace else, at a different time, prior to that. I participated in a workshop run by photo-journalist; the promise was that it was a multi-disciplinary course, including people from different fields. It wasn’t going to be oriented toward photo-journalism. I was interested in diversity, and still am, in fact. I don’t remember if it was part of an exercise, but someone decided that we should do something jointly under the title comer (to eat) or la comida (food) or something of the sort. It was a moment of crisis in Argentina and the chosen topic—chosen by whom, I don’t know either—would show us images of children, empty plates, garbage, cartoneros, soup kitchens and hunger in black and white. And it had become clear to me that there was nothing I could do for the world, nothing at all. Not save it, not feed it. Nothing whatsoever. I escaped and went to hide in a supermarket. I began to work. I searched in the food, in milk in particular, specifically in the containers. Made in Argentina, just like the crisis. I found the history of art in its packs and cartons and I found the excuse, the chosen topic: the cow. The cow model poses, the main character amidst pleasant green fields.
-«Larga Vida» (Long Life), «Fantastic World«, «Cuba», «Finlandia» (Finland),
«62.400 repeticiones hacen una verdad» (62,400 repetitions make one truth),
«Feliz Cumpleaños» (Happy Birthday), «La afirmación» (The Affirmation),
«Calma» (Calm), «Felicidades» (Congratulations)… Are the titles of your work always so bright?
(Alejandra cracks up, she can’t control herself and laughs without stopping.)
-Once again, I have to say no. There’s no enlightenment here. The question of titles is an important one. I’ve meditated quite a bit on the matter. The earliest works didn’t have titles. Then it became a necessity, a relief to be able to refer to the works by a title. Deciding to differentiate myself a bit from my parents, now I give things a name quickly, even though it may not turn out to be the definitive one. In fact, when I exhibited the piece «Penitencia» (Penance), the title was «Camas» (Beds), and that’s where I begin to respond to your question. The titles are not bright; «Camas» went on to become «Penitencia«. Volar (To fly) alone would have been nice, but that verb is accompanied by the word chocar (to collide), «volar y chocar» (fly and collide). I am certain that «Cuba» is not the final title for the series of photos taken in La Habana. Yes, there I am just like my parents, nothing occurred to me there. «Cuba» for Cuba, «Finlandia» for Finland, «Escenografías» for the TV Studio Sets, Micaela Micaela, Esteban Esteban Esteban, Alejandro Alejandra, «Alejandra» for Alejandra, «Felicidades» for Congratulations.
-They told me that you were somewhat sulky and curt, that you eschew dialogue, that you prefer silence, even though it keeps you awake at night, so I arrived with certain apprehension.
-They didn’t lie to you.