PRINT September 2011


Adrián Villar Rojas, Ahora estaré con mi hijo, el asesino de tu herencia (Now I Will Be with My Son, the Murderer of Your Heritage), 2011, clay, cement, burlap, wood. Installation view, Argentinean pavilion, Venice. From the 54th Venice Biennale.

LIKE MANY CURATORS, I have an abiding fear of becoming blind to art that doesn’t have a “look” I am already comfortable with. So many up-and-coming artists seem to fit into well-established categories, whether the etiolated figurative painting of Kai Althoff, Enrico David, Tomasz Kowalski, and Andro Wekua; the linear and refined abstraction of Tomma Abts, Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, and R. H. Quaytman; or the large-scale “accumulation installation” of John Bock, Christoph Büchel, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Mike Nelson, to pick out just three current “styles.” Given the dominance of such trends, it is easy to imagine an artist with an individual voice going unnoticed, even if from time to time some originality is indispensable to generate new fashions for the market.

On view at the Argentinean pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Adrián Villar Rojas’s oversize semiabstract forms confront the viewer with something that looks quite distinct—not simply in superficial stylistic terms but, paradoxically, through their open adherence to preexisting tropes and shared visual memories. Installed in a space whose entrance has been made smaller to heighten the sense of an alternate environment, Ahora estaré con mi hijo, el asesino de tu herencia (Now I Will Be with My Son, the Murderer of Your Heritage), 2011, includes eleven massive vertical elements made from the same unfired cement-gray clay. They bring together references to architecture, organic life, motorbikes, and cartoon characters, as well as entirely imaginary sculptural forms. Each element appears to have been ripped from the ground, its base or pedestal consisting of raw earth and debris that remain attached, like a root, to the bottom of the sculpture. Taken together, the elements suggest the remnants of a lost or future civilization.

The instantly recognizable signature of Villar Rojas’s dominating sculptures may raise suspicions in this era of spectacle art, but a critical consciousness about the art world’s fashions is inherent to these works. They are deliberately out of sync, less of their own time than somehow prehistoric and postapocalyptic at once. In addition, the artist has chosen to use clay, a uniquely inappropriate medium for large sculptures. Villar Rojas’s choice to use this material means he has to undergird these works with wooden structures. Another consequence of his decision is that these objects resist easy incorporation into the ready-to-collect market: The only way to get them out of the pavilion is to destroy them.

Villar Rojas’s project for Venice marks the seventh time he has used clay. His first experiment with the material was for the 2008 installation Lo que el fuego me trajo (What Fire Has Brought Me), shown at Ruth Benzacar Galería de Arte in Buenos Aires. There, he took a more traditional route, in that the majority of the objects that littered the floor and filled the shelves were relatively small, made in the artist’s studio before being transported to the gallery. The artist’s claustrophobic installation made the gallery resemble an ancient sculptor’s underground atelier uncovered in an archaeological dig. It was filled with rubble, strewn with clay bricks, tiles, and fragments, with two huge brick ovens in one corner. Yet the objects encompassed a confusing range of references, by no means exclusively pointing to a historical past: Dinosaur models, winged figures, paint cans, boots, natural materials, anime figures, portraits, and vases were combined with car hoods, the odd beer can, and sneakers. The variety of subjects was suggestive of a memory bank of images and impressions—as if someone had set about crudely representing, in three dimensions, the flood of mediated information that is the stuff of our twenty-first-century existence, and added to it various species of imaginary beings derived obliquely from this daily onslaught of stylistic and material influences and associations. Rather than the digital profusion of two-dimensional matter so typical of our time, Villar Rojas set out anachronistically to make three-dimensional copies, or to make “real” the flat landscape of the computer or TV screen. The colors of the clay, the confusion of scale, and the tendency of the material to dry and crack erode the meaning and materiality of the objects and gives them a patina of age, further obfuscating the origin of the various forms.

Adrián Villar Rojas, Ahora estaré con mi hijo, el asesino de tu herencia (Now I Will Be with My Son, the Murderer of Your Heritage), 2011, clay, cement, burlap, wood. Installation view, Argentinean pavilion, Venice. From the 54th Venice Biennale.

While Lo que el fuego me trajo implied the transformation of the everyday by means of a sculpture-based installation, in Villar Rojas’s piece for the Second Bienal del Fin del Mundo in Ushuaia, Argentina, in 2009, the “original” was itself the artist’s imaginary world. He took a poster he had made to accompany the earlier show, depicting a prehistoric-looking beached whale in a forest, and remade the animal as sculpture. Titled Mi familia muerta (My Dead Family), the strange-looking beast was installed in a small wood on the southern tip of Argentina, where it provided a suitable complement to the alien terrain of the Tierra del Fuego.

An undertone of dreamy but apparently unapologetic romanticism in fact runs throughout the artist’s work. It is evident in the diaristic stream of consciousness in the lengthy texts, written by his brother Sebastián Villar Rojas and himself, that have accompanied several of his exhibitions. Villar Rojas’s insistent otherworldliness may suggest a state of mind in another time, but, as with these writings, it is primarily an interior world that is imaginatively projected. The nature of his romanticism is perhaps conveyed most clearly in “Harto de adioses” (Sick of Good-Byes), 2010–, a series of motorcycle helmets painted in a style recalling airbrushed 1970s hot-rod art, the covers of romance novels, and science-fiction illustrations. More than decoration, they imply the inner workings of the minds the helmets would contain. Though these works can at first appear indulgent and might be dismissed as symptoms of the arrested development of adolescent fantasies, an excellent essay by Argentinean author Alan Pauls in the catalogue for his country’s pavilion defends Villar Rojas’s work on exactly these grounds, associating it with the tradition of the “teenager artist,” in a somewhat satiric piece titled “Imaginary Portrait of AVR: What Hurts Can Also Be True.” Among Pauls’s arguments is that the teenager artist—as depicted by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Adolescent—embodies a kind of megalomaniac melancholia.

Speaking with the artist, it is apparent that his position has been molded with great self-consciousness. Rather than looking to occupy the niche of one or another tired mode of contemporary art, he has chosen to think about artmaking by making the wrong decision, or the unfashionable one. Not only clay but soft porn, lengthy passages of personal writing, and other embarrassing genres derive from the vocabulary of the populist and the clichéd; their deliberate formulation in his work demands a new approach on the viewer’s part—a suspension of cynicism.

Villar Rojas’s 2010 sculpture Las mariposas eternas (The Eternal Butterflies) offers an imaginative experience that seems likewise to have its origins in a mélange of mediatized images from our collective imagination. Two equestrian statues were constructed from clay, one of a young female anime figure riding an armatured robotic animal, the other of a boy astride an exhausted-looking packhorse. The latter was placed on top of a typically ornate platform, while the former perched on a rectangular plinth, both also made from clay. Together they look like equestrian heroes of an imagined dimension (perhaps even the one familiar from the artist’s and his brother’s diaristic monologues).

The Venice project could be read as the landscape from which these figures emerged. It will itself be “completed” with an immersive sculptural installation opening this month at the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, one which the artist has described, perhaps worryingly, as “more ambitious in terms of engineering and scale.” The title of this work is Poemas para terrestres (Poems for Earthlings), which implies that Villar Rojas is indeed intent on suggesting the existence of parallel universes, if only to break with the monotony of what we encounter in our own.

In the same way that the visual imagination of a Star Wars film or a socialist-realist documentary would turn the clichés of traditional public sculpture to its own aesthetic or idealist ends, Villar Rojas’s clay monuments interrupt and divert our automatic reflex always to place the new in the context of the familiar. Even as his work exhorts us to embrace any new trend or style with confidence, it refuses to let us relinquish a distinct sense of unease about the seemingly endless repetition of references and tropes.

Jessica Morgan is the Daskalopoulos curator, International Art, at Tate Modern in London.