For the fifth edition of CIRCA, Artistic Director Celina Nogueras invited renowned curator, gallerist and artist Pablo León de la Barra to conceptualize the CIRCA Labs. This year, the labs presented a completely different concept from previous editions, bringing young galleries from Latin America that offered viewers a quick glance of contemporary artistic production from countries such as Guatemala, Panama and Peru. I sat down with Pablo the day before the opening to talk about the Labs, his ideas on the creation of new dialogues among Spanish speaking countries and the local scene in Puerto Rico.
Carla Acevedo: Previous editions of the CIRCA Labs have been held outside the fair, featuring containers with artist projects and collectives with a punk edge. This year, the containers are inside the fair with galleries from Central and South America. Tell me more about the ways you conceptualized the Labs.
Pablo León de la Barra: For the first editions, Celina Nogueras conceptualized the Labs as a type of laboratory so, in this sense, this year we are continuing the idea of an art laboratory. The main difference is that in previous editions, there were sponsors for the event, which allowed the organizers to subsidize the projects that occured in them. But this year, we were confronted with the difficulty of not having any sponsors to support the event. The first dilemma we faced was how to work with this situation to make something different. So I proposed to invite young galleries to occupy the space and propose projects from their artists.
CA: What did you take into consideration when choosing the galleries to participate in the Labs?
PLB: The idea was to invite young galleries that could establish a dialogue between themselves and with the local art scene. Since there are currently no galleries to represent young artists on the island, I opted to invite galleries from the American continent that could sell art at a reasonable price. For them to pay a booth at an art fair and their travel expenses is a great effort, so I wanted to invite galleries that could travel to Puerto Rico easily through either Panama or Miami.
In the coming years and if I am invited again to participate, I would like to expand on this idea and create a dialogue with young galleries from the United States and Canada, for example. But for this year, I was interested more in connecting the space with galleries from Spanish speaking countries, since in a way they have very similar concerns to what is happening here within the local art scene. I invited Galeria Revolver from Peru, Proyectos Ultravioleta from Guatemala, Diablo Rosso from Panama, Preteen Gallery from Hermosillo, Mexico and Proyectos Moncloa from Mexico City. The only gallery that was unable to come was La Central from Bogota, Colombia; a gallery directed by Beatriz López and Katy Hernández, two very active young women in the artistic life in Bogota with incredible proposals that unfortunately could not be here because their visas were denied. Which is a shame, speaking of latitudes and of being Latin American and US at the same time, and having to pass that US filter to be here.
CA: Are all the galleries well-known in their native country or are they mostly young proposals?
PBL: Revolver Gallery and Proyectos Moncloa are perhaps the most established. Proyectos Ultravioleta is a gallery with a commercial vision but managed by young artists, while Preteen is a young proposal. There are galleries that are on the border of definition, that do work as a gallery but are also artist projects and collectives. I was interested in presenting through the Labs these different ways of operating a gallery, that in a way could echo here in Puerto Rico, but also create dialogues between themselves, so that people from Peru could see what is going on in Panama, and that they in turn could see what is going on in Puerto Rico, and so on.
CA: You have chosen various Puerto Rican artists for the Labs. Tell me more about the incorporation of these local proposal into your concept.
PBL: Well, I thought if this year the containers where to be occupied by galleries, the question then was how not to lose the incorporation of local proposal into the Labs. I wasn’t interested in the punk side of art like graffiti. I agree that this should be in the fair, but I told Celina I was interested in taking the concept a step further. The first proposal that we had was the fair/market/museum. At that point, the containers where going to be in the parking lot outside the fair. I wanted to create a type of museum or contemporary art center, an open-air museum, where we could also have a flea market, where people from Puerto Rico could come and sell their products or show their proposals, participating in a market economy but also a cultural economy. Living abroad this was difficult to organize and at the end wasn’t feasible. But it is an open project that could be realized in future editions of the fair. We do have two proposals from Puerto Rican artists that more or less participate with that idea, the girls from Ticherts.com and OM Studios, which is a testing ground for this idea.
CA: I see you have a type of garden where the containers converge.
PBL: Yes, between the containers we wanted to create an outdoor zone and a cultural promotion/development space, where we could have different things going on. As a starting point, we have a tropical garden created by Radamés “Juni” Figueroa where the artist collected plants from around San Juan and placed them in paint buckets and sneakers. The second part of the garden is a rainbow that occupies the center, where we will have a coconut water fountain. We also have Carolina Caycedo’s flag Live, Local, Love hanging from the ceiling and Esteban Gabriel’s furniture, which is the typical plastic furniture you can find anywhere in the world that he has covered in silver. But if you look closely, you will notice that every chair is different because they are from different countries.
CA: Speaking of the dialogues that can be created between different countries. Any thoughts on the idea of national art and its repercussions?
PBL: First of all, I am not interested in the idea of national art. On the contrary, this can be a little risky. An example is the case of Mexico in the 90’s, where there was a boom, a moment of extreme creativity. This was due in part to the economic situation and a deplorable social and political situation. There were no spaces to show work, so the artists started to create spaces with an aesthetics and discourse that in a way undermined what happened in the local museums and the so-called official art. What happened 10 years afterwards? Curators from abroad started to see this boom of good Mexican artistic production, a post-conceptual one that dealt with social reality. These curators did around 10 exhibitions of Mexican contemporary art abroad, people spoke of the Mexican art boom and then once this boom was consumed, the curators searched for another geography to feed their hunger. It didn’t last long. But what also happened is that some of the artists, in order to have visibility abroad, started to produce for the international market, for the international art fairs; Miami Basel, Frieze, etc. The artist started to produce for the fairs and skipping their local public.
CA: Here in Puerto Rico, there is a lack of curators, spaces to show work for young artists. Any advice?
PBL: As an artist, you just have to work on the themes that interest you, and time will tell what is important or not. In different historical times, maybe one artist that is important now will prove not to be in several years. You have to work on what you believe in. There are artists that work on local themes and others on more global ones, but there are also the ones that while working on the local arouse international attention. But saying this, more than national art, what really is important is to have an active local scene and that there is a dialogue created with other scenes… New York, Chicago, Mexico, Los Angeles, Peru… It’s these dialogues that promote exchanges, transformation within the artists, new projects. I find that in Puerto Rico there is a lack of a contemporary art space where artists have the chance to do a real exhibition; one where you have a budget, a curator, where they have the opportunity to face the museological space.
CA: You saw the National Art Exhibit in San Juan. Any thoughts…
PBL: First of all, it’s kind of interesting that they call it National because obviously there is no nation, but at the same time there is one. There is a Puerto Rican nation that expands beyond its borders, there are Puerto Ricans in New York, Puerto Ricans in Chicago, even in London! It’s interesting because the exhibit does give a place for Puerto Rican artists, but in another way it’s just a survey or a selection of works. A more interesting proposal would be to give a room to 10 artists to develop a project to then see what happens and what dialogues are created. The other thing that I noticed at the National Art Exhibit was the lack of dialogue between the works. It would make more sense for the work of the curators to expand a little bit more; to identify themes, to see directions, to identify what Puerto Rican artists are doing right now. For instance, why are so many artists working with graffiti, or who is working on the body, what dialogues are being created, what does it mean… curators should push the limits and question the works, this would be beneficial for Puerto Rican contemporary art.
CA: I agree, we need more curators, institutions that are willing to bet on emerging artists, to create dialogues that are contemporary to our generation. Thanks Pablo and much success!
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