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Living between Old San Juan and Paris, it is unusual to find the artist Victor Vázquez around the streets of Old San Juan. When in San Juan, he spends most of his time at his studio; thinking, musing and creating. Victor welcomed me to his studio at San Sebastian street, to talk about his career as an artist, his work and his upcoming show at Seraphin Gallery.
Carla Acevedo: Victor, you have studied psychology and sociology and you have graduate studies in comparative religion. How did you begin to be interested in art?
Victor Vázquez: First of all, I have always been interested in art. Since my childhood, I have always used the camera. During my undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, I also did photography, but it wasn’t something that had any priority to consider it a way of life. I was first thinking of a career, mostly because of my parents. But when I was in Barcelona studying, something very curious happened. Due to student strikes, I practically wasn’t able to finish my studies. What I did was travel and take pictures. I studied but I didn’t study, that is, I didn’t do anything on an academic level. When my parents found out, I had to leave Barcelona and I went directly to New York, where I started my masters in psychology. As part of the curriculum, I had to submit myself to therapy, since it was part of the requirement. My therapist was a painter and she was the one who helped me define what I wanted to do… Definitely my studies, reading, and travelling help develop the creative work.
CA: In your work from the beginning of the 90’s, you often work with themes of spiritualism, as well as many other Caribbean artists. However, you differentiate yourself from the movement of the 80’s in that you distance yourself from the explanation of the data. How do you approach these themes?
VV: Through these themes, I attempt to textualize my work within a space, that is within the Caribbean. Given the circumstances, it is my understanding that is very important to emphasize certain elements that define us as Caribbean and particularly as Puerto Ricans. During that time, I reflected upon ideas related to syncretism. As we know, religious syncretism is a fusion of beliefs. In Cuba this is also done, the difference is that I don’t try to indemnify the data. I try to invent it, to take it from the everyday. I don’t try to answer questions such as who is Yemayá, why he does this or that, why he wears this and recreate it in the work. But I pretend to talk about the everyday experience through spiritual symbolism and how the rituals of our everyday lives are a religious experience.
CA: What is the work then that defines your career as an artist?
VV: The work that really situates me and makes me known in Puerto Rico and abroad is a work titled The Realm of Waiting, which has to do with one of the first cases of AIDS to come out in the United States. For this work, I photographed this person in New York, who was a really good friend of mine. He was a homosexual and his profession was that of a translator. But in order for his life to have sense to him, he had to go out at night to hunt for men. I felt that I had to, in a way, give value and justify his existence, regardless of the fact that his existence was so awful. For this reason, I developed a documental – conceptual work. The project consisted of taking images of him during his physical deterioration during his sickness, and completing the work after his death by looking for images of him when he was a child. For this, I had to develop a technique so that all of the images had a similar aesthetic language. The series also had a text written by me, where I transform myself into the subject, to then speak from the other. In other words, I assume the role of the character and at the same time of the narrator.
Esther Ríos de Betancourt had the chance to see the exhibition, which interested her because it was different, experimental and conceptual. The photos were huge prints installed with clay and cement. Ríos de Betancourt suggested to Dr. Fischler, Director of the Museum of Art of Ponce at the time, to present this show at the museum, which was the first experimental exhibition to be presented there. At first, there was a little hesitation from the museum to present my work, since there were some differences that existed between the museum’s vision and the one I had about art and the work I presented. Nonetheless, the exhibition was accepted and the book published with it won best book of the year by the Association of Art Critics, and was presented in New York, Venezuela, the Havana Biennial and Paris. Still in Puerto Rico there was a little resistance towards my work since people found it very strange. At that time, I was working with themes that had to do with religion, non-institutionalized religion, with death as something cyclical, as something positive that is a part of life.
CA: You currently have an exhibition at Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia titled Dislocation, Encounter, Displacement. How did you come up with the idea for this work?
VV: I started this work in 2005 and I am just finishing it here in Puerto Rico. I presented part of this work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Puerto Rico (MAC) last year, in New York and now I will be presenting it in Philadelphia, but it has always been presented in fragments. It is a very large work, a photographic installation. I started to develop the idea in Paris, and I continued in Buenos Aires, Lima and San Juan. Walking though the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, I realized that there were chairs everywhere where a body had been sitting, but that the chair was left exactly how it was used; seeing the chair, you see what that person was doing, what they were looking at. I started to photograph the chairs exactly how I found them, and I thought, if the chair represents a body, why photograph or speak of the body if there is already a body within the chair, it would be redundant then to speak of the body. I titled the series A Body to Body, it was the idea of the chair finding itself and at the same time being alone. These chairs made me think about the body, but at the same time they made me think of my own body in another space. From this stems the idea of Dislocation, Encounter, Displacement, which is a reflection on the experience of the immigrant.
In one of the pieces of this work, I used a flag from France and another from Puerto Rico and I took them to the Luxembourg Park, which is the representation of what it means to be French. At that moment, the police came to tell that I couldn’t take the picture, but I took it anyway. It’s a photograph that I titled A Body to Body 2. And in this way, I continued developing these themes. I also took pictures of the chairs bundled together, that for me seemed like bodies lying around. Then I continued to reflect upon the concept ot the body, bodies that are attracted to each other, bodies that reject each other, and the bodies that aren’t the same, that are different belief systems. From this idea came the soccer ball, the mattress, the refrigerator… I saw things and I completed them. For example, I saw a refrigerator on the street, in a hurry I left to look for the flags and take a picture. The idea was to intervene, to appropriate the space and transofrm it into something else to discuss, problematize and reflect upon the idea of dislocation; of being in a place that is not yours and what happens in the process of you wanting to integrate to it. And the flags are an important vehicle in this process.
CA: Why work so much with flags? What reasons have driven you to use these symbols in your work?
VV: I use flags as a metaphor to reflect upon ideological systems. Flags are a representative symbol of an ideological system and in a way define us as a people. The idea has to do with wanting to work the problem of exile, of the way people are in a different context other than their own. It is a problem that we encounter as Puerto Ricans, but I didn’t want to work on it from Puerto Rico, but from a more global context, because it is a problem that many cultures experience, so it was better to present it from a context that concerns many cultures but that is mainly mine, since I live it on a daily basis in my own country. I wanted to position Puerto Rico within a global context, where it could be a voice just like any other country. The fact that the Puerto Rican flag was presented in Paris has many important connotations, since Paris is supposedly the birth place of culture and represents the ideas of equality and democracy.
CA: The body has always been a common denominator in your work, be it the physical body, the geographical one or the object.
VV: Exactly, the body as a metaphor to speak of beauty, (understanding that beauty is subjective), of the natural, of the religious, of the syncretic, and at this moment of the political and the social. Not that in my other works the political and the social is not present, it is all mixed in. But in all of this, the body has always been present. I like to work the body because I find it to be a useful tool to talk about many subjects, undressing it until arriving at the essence, with everything that has to do with what’s behind.
CA: Talking about what’s behind… the photograph where you are apparently eating a small dish… I find it to be quite enigmatic. Can you explain the creative process behind it?
VV: I was in Paris at a library and I saw a dish, which appelaed to the most basic sense of all, sight. It had an intrinsic beauty, a beauty that you can’t grasp because it is a perfect circle. Besides, it was in a place it shouldn’t be, at a library. When I saw it there, it made me think… what a well decontextualized object, and in my work there is a lot of decontextualization and resignification. I take objects, redefine and appropriate them, and recontextualize them. It’s about perception and how it sometimes hides what is perceived, which is objective but at the same time hidden, it’s that game.
CA: This work demonstrates your interest in composition, color, in the formal characteristics of the work.
VV: Yes, I believe very much in the formal aspect of the work, many people say that they don’t believe in technique, for me technique is very important, in fact, having an object like a camera is already a technique. I also believe very much in composition, design, color, in those formal elements that have to do with aesthetics, with a type of beauty, regardless of the difficulty of the subject.
CA: You are working on a new series, how are you developing it?
VV: It is a work in progress that has to do with the dialectic of history and it is titled We are not going to arrive, but we are going to go. I am developing it inside a ruin in Old San Juan. It is more of an arqueological work, where the idea of the palinsept is developed, where layers exist. The work is very conceptual. I find objects, I intervene them and I redefine them, such as the shoebox in the photograph titled Timberland.
CA: Your work has changed over the course of the years, from spiritual renderings to more politically charged and conceptual work. How does the work evolve?
VV: This question is best answered by the work itself, because it keeps asking you things, and also individual instrospections of how you reflect with yourself. I find that a work of art is at times something that you don’t even understand, that you say, why the hell do I do these things! I don’t let myself get influenced by the opinions of others; the work evolves because the work itself asks for it, and it just so happens that I keep working with the body.
Victor’s exhibition at Seraphin Gallery, titled Dislocation, Encounter, Displacement, opens December 16th 2009 and will be on view until January 26th 2010. The exhibition deals with restrictions and liberties, espouses the relativity of demarcations and meanings. Its affirmations leave room for free will, for the tenacity of terms like “all,” “nobody,” “persons” and “bodies,” emblems of a plurality that disdain precise identities and which carry with them the eloquence of the multiple. Political parties, ideological struggles, frontiers and jurisdictions have been eliminated from its geography and particular map of the world. This is a no-man’s land, the clay which supposedly gave us form and through which utopia proffers a journey in every direction, without caring any longer about the escapist trajectories that go from the south to the north, from the peripheries to the centers.
Victor Vázquez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Puerto Rico. He went on to complete doctoral studies in Education, and Comparative Religion at New York University. In 1982, he traveled to India, China and Japan to study art, literature and the cultural history of these regions. He went on to study photography with Jan Jurasek and attend the School of Visual Arts and the Maine Photographic Workshop. He has shown his work internationally in public and private spaces such as the 2007 Venice Biennial and the 2002 Nooderlicht Photography Festival. His work is part of private and public collections such as The Museo del Barrio, The Museum of Art of Puerto Rico (MAPR), Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), Museum of Art of Ponce (MAP), Casa de Américas and Centro Wilfredo Lam both in Havana, Cuba. Victor also has an upcoming group show in February 2010 at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in California titled Changing the Focus: Latin American Photography 1990-2005.
Images provided by the artist and Seraphin Gallery
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