Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

IMG 4518 Desktop Resolution 1  Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

A title like this one has to be placed in context, otherwise we run the risk of dispersion or formalistic reductionism that we are so accustomed to. For this reason, the concepts of raw materials and manufacture will be questioned in sociological terms in order to better understand some of the differences between the art produced in the First World and in Central and Latin America.

In that sense, we know that the political impact of a work of art in its journey through the channels of production, circulation and consumption begins with the choice of material. It is here where the conditioning imposed upon the artist’s wishes and the social conditions that prevail in that election plays a key role. From this, the following questions arise: What is the political influence exerted by the socioeconomic conditions in the choice of raw materials or manufactured ones? How are the works perceived according to the materials used, be it raw materials or manufactured ones?

These questions bring into discussion dilemmas that were transversal in the forums and lectures on contemporary art at the end of the last century and refer to the center-periphery relations in the world of art. So far, these studies have emphasized only the channels of circulation and consumption of works of art, and its marginalization from the hegemonic circuit, such as major museums, galleries and editorial projects of the First World.

Mauricio Esquivel 3 1  Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

It is likely that the origins of these ideas among Latin American criticism go back to the well known dependency theory developed in the 50s and 70s in South America by intellectuals such as Fernando Cardoso, Theotonio Dos Santos, Andre Gonder Frank, Celso Furtado, Mauro Marini, and Enzo Falet among others; and which emerged as a response to the socio-economic stagnation that occurred in Latin American countries during the twentieth century. This theory uses the center-periphery duality to argue that the global economic system is put forward in a model of unequal exchange that is harmful for poor countries, since it condemns them to a peripheral state of production of low market value raw materials, while the power of decision comes from the core countries, which are characterized by their elevated industrial production of high added value materials (manufactured material).

In the repetitiveness of the discourse, limited to the more superficial aspects of the center-periphery duality of the dependency theory, Latin American criticism focused on the questioning of the mechanisms for circulation that excluded the West, the insertion of peripheral art into the international arena, and the consequences of cultural colonization and its impact on the construction process of new identities, putting off the issue of the duality raw material/manufactured material. For example, “The statement Art, Society and Reflection, proposed as the conceptual frame of the Fifth Havana Biennial (1994) stressed the historical ties held by the non-hegemonic or subaltern art with its vital context, as well with the common issues in both poor countries and developing ones. It also emphasized particular aspects of human drama in an international level and its levels of marginalization, which in terms of theoretical and critical discussions resulted in a return to the topic tradition vs. modernization, the postcolonial status of artists and their struggle in the West as a challenge to neocolonialism, the center-periphery relationship and the consequent marginalization of the subaltern, the problem of cultural identity and multiculturalism, the historical circumstances of contemporary production, and crossover languages in art of the Third World.”1

IMG 4542 Desktop Resolution 1  Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

Despite the many inquiries reagarding the marginalization, the questioning of neocolonialism, the center-periphery symbiosis and a series of interpretations of past cultural phenomena through the qualitative sifting of socio-cultural and geopolitical relations, the analysis of the artwork from its condition of raw or manufactured material -within the terms suggested by the center-periphery theory- during the second decade of the twentieth century has been virtually ignored, but what are the reasons for such a basic omission?

Perhaps to highlight only aspects related to the mechanisms of circulation and consumption of Latin American art in the hegemonic centers made theorists loose focus on the materials of the work, the conditions for processing in peripheral countries and the contrasts which become material conditions of art of high added value, which is made in the core countries, who benefit from production and industrial finishing (all of which are nonexistent for artists living in the Third World); which had an impact on the perception that we have so far of this art, as well as the discursive platforms of the various players within the medium, who have been forced to structure their proposals and speeches from these dualities without having much awareness of the implications that this game of power and contrasts has on the production of art.

Since I don’t pretend to deny the limitations of the center-periphery theory facing the current complex global relations, it hasn’t been difficult to observe in the literature of art, how in recent years the criticality towards art of the Third World from the parameters of hybridity, transculturalización and center-periphery relations has been diversified and reconsidered. “But another problem is that the flow cannot remain forever in the same North to South direction, propelled by the power structure’s distribution channels and their conditioning. No matter how plausible the appropriation and transculturation strategy is, it implies a rebound action that reproduces that hegemonic structure, although it responds to it and relies upon it just like the art of combat without weapons, that takes advantage of the strength of a more powerful opponent.”2 This control strategy identified by Gerardo Mosquera is evident in the conceptual and political direction that artists have etched into the contemporary objectual tradition in Central America, all of whom I will speak in detail later on. For now I’m interested in investigating, from a comparative perspective, the relationship between manufacture and raw material in the works of some artists from Latin American and what is called the First World.

Mauricio Esquivel 1  Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

From raw materials to manufactured goods in the production of contemporary art.

It is clear that the Industrial Revolution between the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries defined the guidelines for development in specific areas of the planet, where artists until then, relied on more traditional techniques such as carving, casting modeling and die-cast. In Latin America, we know little of the sculptural art produced during that time (other than the traditional religious statuary or pre-Columbian art). But as the twentieth century approached, sculptural techniques were expanding through the first academies in Argentina, Mexico or Brazil. However, the use of industrial materials such as common materials among artists goes back to recent times. That explains in the medium, the inequalities in industrial production concentrated in the hegemonic centers servicing their artists and technical limitations in less developed contexts.

The use of bronze, wrought iron, steel, polyurethane and large patinated metal structures with automotive lacquer have been, since the industrial revolution, accessible resources for artists in wealthy countries. Its use in a great number of parks, plazas and industrial and university campuses has responded in many cases to urban planning which modern architects have included in their designs, hiring renowned sculptors and unknown ones who have constructed a series of monuments that have become important points of interest and a source of collective identity within and outside the major metropolises.

Today, the value placed on works of art, more so on contemporary works, remains a determining factor of market relations in both Latin America and the rest of the world. Since the beginning of contemporary art and to date, for the majority of experimental artists, to think about monumental art projects with industrial materials seems ever more distant from their possibilities. However, in industrialized countries, the companies that receive commissions for public art projects work together with factories and industrial workshops, making readily available to the market a range of technical and administrative services that aim to generate a diversified production for consumption.

“Where Velazquez, El Greco, Rembrandt and Rubens had during their time a workshop where the more skilled apprentices discovered the secrets of the trade, now the Murakamis, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Olafur Eliasson run artistic factories where art designers, physicists, architects, chemists, fine art students, accountants and financial managers coexist… “3

Angel Poyón Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

In 1992 the famous and controversial artist Jeff Koons began working on a series called Celebration. His plan was to create colossal reproductions of Easter eggs, birthday hats, Valentine’s Day hearts, animal-shaped balloons and other “celebratory” images, all in brightly colored metal.4 The innovation of the materials used by the American artist was responding to an industrial aesthetic of the moment, but not to the monumental aspect of the work in the public space, because as I stated before, in industrialized countries this has been a constant since modern times.

But, is it an interest commensurate with our economic conditions to aspire to realize monuments of this type? Or is that we Latin Americans lack “non perishable ambition”? The truth is there are always exceptions and it is wrong to generalize. However, the limitations imposed by the social environment have not been a disadvantage for certain artists. Several contemporary Cuban artists have been able to handle this dilemma with a refined sense of humor, although the subject matter of their works continued to worship the vulnerability reminiscent of the story of the three little pigs, who to escape the wolf, decided to construct houses made of different materials such as straw, wood and bricks. This is a good example to contextualize the dichotomy of raw material vs manufactured material.

One of the most prevalent trends from the 80s and 90s to the present, has been the use of perishable materials, worked with great dedication and artisan virtuosity. Although the materials used are still fragile materials, some works are not without a convincing conceptual strength; but its material components, due to the conditions of the economic environment, remain raw materials such as wood, cement, or mud, or make use of found materials and some manufactured goods like textiles, basketry, or metal soldiers, all similar to those used by the young pigs in the story.

Of manufactured goods to its alteration as a political practice.

In Central America the influence of socioeconomic conditions on the choice of materials has been fundamental in the construction of objectual languages. Artists like Priscilla Monge (Costa Rica), Darío Escobar (Guatemala), Angel Poyón (Guatemala), and Mauricio Esquivel (El Salvador), to name a few, utilize resources through which they achieve to defetishize the objects from their social or anthropological sense. Their work in my opinion, is based on elements that simulate autopoietic systems, that is self-regulated systems. Its tautological functionality is ironized by poetic resources that point to minor alterations of manufactured material, while proposing to reflect about the evolution of the technological devices that are produced in industrialized centers.

Priscilla Monge Raw Material and Manufacture: Its Implications on Art. Essay by Adán Vallecillo

All these artists are interested in the political and social implications of the control of the instinctual, what is essentially human such as love, sexuality, migration and other issues fundamental for coexistence. Likewise, some who are more aware than others expose with the use of economic materials the relationship of mutual dependency between companies in need of manufactured material and industrialized societies, questioning the role of the latter in their attempt to convert the nature, needs and lives of people regarding management and marketing.

In summary, this predisposition of art in the region helps us better understand the use that these and other artists have for manufactured products. Facing the technical limitations that imposes unequal trade processing of plastic, metal or fiberglass, Central American artists bring to light those forgotten oppositions by the art critic and which arise in the determining choice of raw materials or manufactured goods. Thanks to an economic-symbolic conversion, these artists have been able to strengthen these differences in benefit of the renewal of technical strategies and political discourses that have dominated over three-dimensional production.

In my opinion, they have quite rightly learned to reverse the core-periphery dilemma from the reconversion of manufactured material. Neither the currencies of Mauricio Esquivel, Angel Poyón’s watches or Priscilla Monge’s drills have been manufactured in Latin America, however, their creators have learned from the Latin American objectual tradition, the intelligent expansion of the symbolic boundaries of merchandise’s utillitarian value , subtly changing its structure, to become potent symbols of critical self-assertion to be studied in depth. Therefore, the theoretical challenge involves the exploration of this new branch of art in our context.

Adán Vallecillo
Artist and Sociologist
Images provided by the artists
Translation by Carla Acevedo-Yates
This essay was originally published in Spanish in www.elojodeadrian.com
[1] Montes de Oca, Dannys. La Bienal de la Habana. 25 años de integración y resistencia, Revista Excelencia, Edición No 2, La Habana, Cuba.
[2] Mosquera, Gerardo, Robando del pastel global. Globalización, diferencia y apropiación cultural, en Horizontes del arte latinoamericano, Editorial tecnos, Madrid, 1999
[3] García Vega, Miguel Angel,  Fábricas de arte contemporáneo, Diario El País, España, 25 de octubre del 2009
[4] Jones, Jonathan, Jeff Koons: del sexo con la Cicciolina a obras infantiles como mensaje a su hijo, Ñ Revista de Cultura, © Guardian News & Media 2009 y Clarín
Traducción de Ofelia Castillo,   http://www.revistaenie.clarin.com/notas/2009/07/14/_-01957634.htm

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