The Public Place of Sculpture

Nasher Prize Dialogues: Excerpt from Mexico City 2017

On March 16, the Nasher Sculpture Center presented a talk in partnership with Museo Jumex in Mexico City called The Public Place of Sculpture. The talk considered socially-engaged sculpture in various modes, from social practice outright to objects which employ themes of monument and document and included artists Sanford Biggers (USA), Amalia Pica (Argentina), Damian Ortega (Mexico), and Pedro Reyes (Mexico) and was moderated by Nasher Prize juror and Curator of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, Pablo León de la Barra. The discussion centered on the historical role sculpture has played in public spaces and the dynamic and evolving ways it is currently presented, especially in light of the global political climate. Each artist presented a brief talk on their work which addresses these themes.

Pedro Reyes: [In his presentation, Reyes talked about a land art work, Espacio Escultórico (Sculptural Space)made by six Mexican artists in 1979 outside of Mexico City—that features a ring of enormous concrete slabs encircling an ancient lava bed and which, until recently, offered an uninterrupted 360 view of the sky and nature. Last year, the nearby University of Mexico (UNAM) built a tall building on its campus—the H building—which sullies the view that was the very intention of Espacio Escultórico. Pedro Reyes galvanized a group of artists to protest the destruction of the land around the work, and requested that the building be dismantled to afford Espacio Escultórico the space intended for it.]

The Espacio Escultórico is perhaps the biggest sculpture in the world or one of the biggest in the world, and when you’re in the middle of it, you feel you are away from the city, you have 360 degrees of a view that’s a natural reserve, and before the H building was built it was the only place within the city where you could have that “to be in the middle of nothing” experience, even though you’re in the city’s center. Espacio Escultórico is an incredibly vanguard work, and it ends up being, a lot more, well, visionary, of many current disciplines. The six sculptors [who made the piece] wrote a manifesto saying they wanted to make art for everyone and forever. These days, public space, or rather natural space, it seems like now is for a privileged few. I mean a free, natural space, open to the public, etc. is a human right. And culture is a human right. And the fact that it is made forever, an effort was made, to make it last forever. So I think it’s a question of continuing to talk about it, continuing to push. I tried doing things the right way, like “Let’s do an auction, raise the necessary funds,” trying to do everything the right way and… complete silence. So what we decided to do was make a documentary to try to explain the art’s importance, and of course eventually we’ll have to share it, so if anyone knows anyone at UNAM… pull those strings.


Sanford Biggers: This piece is called Lotus. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of wholeness, purity, completeness, peace. This particular lotus is made out of glass, is hand etched, and is around 2 ½ meters in diameter, and it weighs close to 600 or 700 pounds. The closer you get to this object, you realize that all of those petals that make the lotus blossom, they’re actually slave ships. These were diagrams that were used by slavers to take captured Africans to the New World. This was originally used as a diagram to best maximize your money and your cargo. Then it was later used by abolitionists in the UK to show the horrors of slavery, and to start the abolitionist movement that ultimately helped to end—well, partially end—slavery. This object right here took, you know, I can’t tell you how many hours. We had to hand carve every single figure. We couldn’t do this with digital technology at the time, so this was literally sand blasted. The idea of this piece struck a chord with a group in New York, and I was later commissioned to do a public work [that is] approximately 9 meters in diameter. This one is steel on the side of a school, a high school for young men -- African-American and Latino men – in the Bronx. The interesting thing is that I had to talk to the city many, many times to make this happen. There was a woman from Puerto Rico who was very upset with the piece. She said this had nothing to do with her culture. [laughter] Exactly. So I had to obviously cite a couple of important historical works and say, well it actually is very much part of your culture, but, more importantly, it’s part of the culture of America and it’s part of the culture of these boys who go to this school. And, it’s just, sort of, an opportunity to teach that you can never forget these things because they can happen again. Here we are in 2017.


Amalia Pica: This is a cement podium sculpture that I made called Now Speak!, which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in the contract, when they bought the piece, it says that they have to activate it at least once a year. Activating the piece involves inviting members of the community to choose a historical political speech. The condition is that there has to be a change in the sex or race from the person who originally gave that speech, and one of the things that happens a lot with this piece and the reason I wanted to bring it is that sometimes I do an Internet search and find out that, for example… the ex-ambassador to Nigeria is reading Lincoln’s [Gettyburg Address]. And in that sense, I was interested in bringing the public responsibility of a museum like the MFA in collecting a piece that has this instruction and I don’t even know who the community leaders are that are invited or the speeches that are read. There are some guidelines to prevent it from turning into a platform for certain speeches that may go against what I would like, but apart from that it’s a piece that has a public life which is quite separate from my decisions, thanks to the institution also fulfilling that public function – the activation.


Damian Ortega: I want to talk about a piece I made in Rio de Janeiro which I started a long time ago—around 2002, 2003 when I lived in Rio de Janeiro and one day found myself in the train station where they had sculptures scattered on the floor between the tracks. In an unused space that went along the tracks and in that space there were Egyptian and Greek statues and some really eccentric things. So I went to ask what they were because I thought it could be interesting to rescue them and make an installation—a piece later. It turned out they were garbage from Carnival, and at the end of Carnival there are hundreds of statues made of Styrofoam left over as trash, and it’s difficult to find a new place for them or recycle them because depending on the material it could be toxic. So in general they keep them in the huge warehouses where they make them, and every year they reuse and change the figures—a Buddha turns into a Hulk or they can turn the Hulk into a girl with superpowers or whatever is necessary in the program of activities or the plan they have for that year’s Carnival.


Sometime later I was invited to the modern art museum in Rio… and I decided I wanted to do a piece with Styrofoam so I asked to buy a huge block of it. I think it was 6 meters by 6 by 6—a giant block so it was like a quarry or mine of raw material, and I invited a group of people who worked in those warehouses—who were sculptors without an academic education and that have an impressive ability to do the job—to quarry and work on it there in a studio we built right there in the exhibit hall. So we have for example the cube, and the process would be a breaking down, a deconstruction of this space, this pure or clean figure and start to deconstruct it. We chose images that I reacquired, and I started investigating statues that interested me and I wanted to recreate. In Brazil they have this idea of piracy like in Mexico—the genius of transforming logos, adapting materials and making a cheap, local reinterpretation of all those shoes, clothes, practically anything. So I thought it would be interesting to start to appropriate the whole history of art and start to make figures, a self-made history of art, homemade.

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