Buenos Aires

Adrián Villar Rojas

In his short essay “Dream Kitsch,” written in 1925, Walter Benjamin employs the metaphor of dust to describe the run-down state of dreams in modernity. Like the disappearance of aura, he says, dreams are no longer removed from concrete experience but are tangible and near. They have lost their romantic dimension, their “blue horizon,” fading into a sad grayness that resembles the polluted atmosphere of everyday life. Adrián Villar Rojas’s dusty installation Lo que el fuego me trajo (What the Fire Brought Me), 2008, phantasmagoric ruins right at hand, is like one of those dilapidated dreams materialized.

In the downstairs space of the gallery, Villar Rojas used bricks, cement, sand, and piles of debris to create a sort of stage imbued with the fluid vagaries of the unconscious. Here and there as you walked through, broken statues, bone fragments, and ancient tools, almost all made of unbaked clay, recalled a city lying derelict and forgotten. The work exudes a peculiar sadness, a kitsch melancholy like that provoked by snow paperweights. Villar Rojas has touched on such sentiment before, in previous works such as “Harto de adioses” (Sick of Good-byes), 2004, a series of paintings of beautifully rendered dinosaurs that become memorials reminiscent of Faiyum portraits.

But what makes the installation so seductive is its romantic stamp of elusiveness. We can never quite be certain as to what has occurred: the bombing of an ethnographic museum, a volcano eruption, or perhaps a fire, as the work’s title suggests? But littering the floor, the debris recalls a shipwreck, an underwater jungle where barnacles cover the carcasses of sunken vessels until these become part of the rocky scenario. It is the ultimate artificial kingdom, radiating mythical glow. “There indeed under my eyes, ruined, destroyed,” wrote Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, “lay a town, its roofs open to the sky, its temples fallen, its arches dislocated, its columns lying on the ground, from which one could still recognize the massive character of Tuscan architecture.” Such images came to mind as one lingered. Further on, there were the remains of a gigantic head; elsewhere, contemporary everyday objects, such as an iPod, looking like ancient artifacts. Further still, one found autobiographical elements: memorial busts of the artist’s grandfathers, or his worn-out tennis shoes, mingled with dinosaur remains, Paleolithic stone arrows, and Kurt Cobain memorabilia. It was like the remains of some fantastic, self-contained civilization, a utopia gone sour—the lost continent of Atlantis.

Despite the shifting of names and places—all ancient cultures, from the Chaldeans to the Incas, seem to have a variant of Atlantis—the bare bones of Villar Rojas’s tale could well include an ancient people of divine ascendancy, the corrupting power of wealth, and a full day and night of rain culminating in an earthquake and gigantic wave under which the magnificent city sinks forever. Shrouded in hazy magnificence, the lost continent of Villar Rojas represents an empire consumed in its own splendor. Like the culture it memorializes, the installation is at once allegorical and disconnected, fragmentary and all-encompassing, luminous and tortured.

The installation seems to glorify the perishable aspects of events. The residual and excessive, far from worthless and abject, are the main conveyors of signification. Artificial brick ruins condense all the resonances of “real” ruins: catastrophe, disappearance, and irreparable damage. Making ruins into icons, Villar Rojas produces a “style of loss”—the loss not of riches or knowledge but of the very materiality of civilization.

Maria Gainza