by Jose Ruiz
Breaking the ice.
For several years, I have followed the work of Puerto Rican-born, San Francisco-based artist Pablo Guardiola online. Introduced to me by mutual friends and colleagues, Pablo and I have never physically met nor communicated. As much as I understand his work intuitively, I have never seen it in person.
This is not uncommon in today’s age.
As WOW HUH’s first Visiting Writer for the summer of 2012, I would like to negate the idea of a finished essay or article and open up this venue as a space where the writer’s initial assumptions and constructs are questioned. In this particular case, the brackets of time are fitting. To the point where the ongoing, evolving and editable format of this text also simulates Guardiola’s own artistic process.
Over the next several weeks, Pablo and I will discuss his work in relation to historical texts and cultural affinities via interviews, email correspondence and images.
Pablo Guardiola works across installation, sculpture and photography. He has had recent solo exhibitions at little tree gallery, Galería de la Raza and Romer Young Gallery, all in San Francisco. He is also the co-editor for Set to Signal, an art and culture bulletin concerning the future, and the co-director of Queens Nails Projects, an alternative space in San Francisco. Guardiola is also the founder of The Lecturers, a series of commissioned online seminars in English and Spanish primarily focusing on the production and consumption of knowledge through visual arts. This fall, his work will be featured in a group exhibition at Present Company in Brooklyn, NY.
Part One: First Take - Exits from the Banal
Some of the first works that I noticed by Pablo were photographic, quiet and somewhat simple images that seemed to have a natural sense of existence. Perhaps somewhere between conceptual travel photography and quotidian records composed with imagery, each photo presented a new, yet familiar environment—a chance encounter with a kindred stranger’s tracks and surroundings.
The images resemble the type of spatial experiences where your eyes quickly scan the parameters and contents of an area while your brain subconsciously stores that information. Normally, it is forgotten in the archives of memory. And less frequently, it is recollected in the future when trying to make sense of a situation, a place, or a person that you were not fully alert to at first glance. It would not be that far of a stretch to say that some of these images also contain the non-dramatic photographic focus of a crime scene, albeit with more saturation and crispness, where an event that could be considered dramatic by law is embodied by the camera in its most objective way.
What these two angles of interpretation have in common, however, is that the viewer assumes, in both cases, that these images were found by the photographer, meaning that Pablo stumbled upon these scenes, however banal or gruesome, and photographed them for a specific metaphorical impulse and resonance. The twist here is that many of these works were composed or doctored by the artist to the point of gaining their own natural sense of existence (with a side note being that the artist does not normally feel the need to explain how these images came to be).
When considering that these images were instigated, then a third and fourth position on form and practice emerges: the discreet documentation of ephemeral sculptures and/or the recording of sublime actions and interventions.
Below are three examples of these possibilities, each entertaining various concepts, back-stories and literary references, but for the purposes of Part One, let’s just consider how they function and what they may imply.
Untitled, 2007, 20 x 30 inches, c-print
Untitled (light bulb, water, electricity), 2009, 15 x 22.5 inches, c-print
"What do you think about space and time travel?" "But I thought all travels were done in time and space.", 2011, 30 x 20 inches, c-print
-the following texts are translated excerpts from a Skype meeting between Pablo and myself, which took place in July 2012-
José Ruiz (JR): Knowing a little bit about your background in art and your studies in history, how did your work evolve when you moved from Puerto Rico to San Francisco around 2003?
Pablo Guardiola (PG): My work did change. In Puerto Rico, I was working primarily, or directly, with addressing issues of representation. I was influenced at the time with the relationship between neurolinguistics and history, as well as thinking about ideas of narration and how narrations often form reality. I was also playing with the idea that since photography is normally seen as an objective medium, that I would try to make my photos contain as much subjectivity as possible.
I would recreate scenes, often as miniatures, which were essentially constructions that would be photographed. Once in California, the theoretical background remained but I started exploring more open modes of narration, with the potential for being more poetic. I kept doing interventions on objects but started to work off of the innateness of each object and as minimally as possible. As opposed to making a maquette, photographing it, and creating a reality that didn’t exist; I started to intervene on quotidian objects that carried a certain presence. For example, in the paper bag photo (pictured above: Untitled, 2007), the bag did have grease stains but I started to alter them so they would render the shapes of a world map.
JR: So essentially, you were creating interventions on objects and situations that already existed but that had no particular audience prior to being photographed…
PG: Exactly. In the end that relationship if it’s real or fictitious doesn’t interest me enough to have to address it. I think it’s better to consider it as creating a reality within the own work that can stay there. This is present in the series cubo and primero la caja, which are both linked by premises of the container and the box—the container of information, the container of ideas. The two series shift from a kind of tropical, sun-colored, pop aesthetic (cubo) to more sinister engagements (primero la caja) where the light is more artificial and a certain repetition is introduced. You keep seeing the same quotidian objects to the point where they become strange. They remain basic objects, but you start to question their purpose and context.
JR: In both of these series, which in many senses culminated as two, separate solo exhibitions, do you consider each of them to be one piece, an installation, or are they a grouping of works that can exist independently?
PG: I consider the works as being finalized within, or by, the installation. In both of these cases, it was really important to emphasize the relationship between the individual pieces. The main narrative of the installation is within the installation, so it’s essential for them to be contextualized as one.
It became more essential in jet travel, the installation created for Romer Young Gallery in 2011, where the final editing took into consideration not only the relationship between the works but also operated within its own natural order. That show was generated by a very specific structure. We didn’t mention it in the press release for the exhibit, because in reality it doesn’t really matter to me if the audience knows where everything is coming from. I don’t really like the idea of over explaining things because I think it can be a little gimmicky. It’s never intentional, it’s usually the way things develop, but each project always has a relationship to literature.
The premise for primero la caja, for example, started from a quote by the early 20th century Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, in which he states “there is no synthesis where there isn’t a criteria for synthesis; for the same reason that you cannot put things in a box if there is no box.” So I used that quote as a formula to generate the works. In jet travel, part of the premise was inspired by a novel by Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, where the book is fragmented by the beginning of chapters that are never completed. So it’s a story that is never resolved and each chapter takes you to a new story. So, Calvino used a very specific formula for his work in order to structure the relationship between each new chapter. As Calvino cited in an interview, "I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object."
So for jet travel, I created an adaptation of Calvino’s structure and applied it to create an exhibition. In theory, jet travel departs from the premise of what travel consists of, which I then divided into four points: traveler, ideal traveler, place, and ideal place.
JR: There’s a work from the series jet travel that has intrigued me for quite some time that I’ve been meaning to ask you about. Can you tell me about the work “What do you think about space and time travel?” “But I thought all travels were done in time and space”? Perhaps it’s the piece that grounds the entire series. By putting you in physical points in space, ordinary numbers have to be reconsidered in relation to time and history, a sort of psychological timeline if you will.
PG: For years I’ve had this other literary quote in the back of my mind. I remember reading a Jorge Luis Borges interview from the 60s in which the interviewer asked him what he thought about space and time travel. This was during the time when space exploration was peaking and his answer was full of witticism. So the title of my piece is both that question and his answer from that interview. So within the structure of that idea and the photograph, you have two things. A date that you consider as being in the past and allows you to travel backwards in time while at the same time a marker is present that is really concrete, fixed in space, which is the house number, an address. For me, it’s a piece that’s fairly dry but also very humorous. In some ways it’s fairly complex but also very simple. It is this type of balance that I try to achieve in all of my work. One of the dates, for example, is the year that the pyramids were discovered.
JR: In your more sculptural work there seems to be a play or a mutation on the readymade. Objects that maybe already existed where the viewer does not know if there was an intervention on that object or if it was like that to begin with. The idea that objects can have this strange essence to them, enough to become critical objects on their own. I find this particularly to be the case in Untitled (light bulb, water, electricity), which is pictured above.
PG: For whatever reason, in the Caribbean, the humidity is intensely dense and in some places light bulbs tend to fill up with water due to the extreme condensation. I remember vividly, many years ago, in Hatuey Ramos-Fermín’s mother’s house (a Puerto Rican artist who is now based in New York) there was a light bulb, which had become filled with water due to the condensation and humidity. Hatuey liked the light bulb because it seemed dangerous but at the same time, he didn’t want anyone to turn on the light in case of an electrical explosion or short circuit. I remember that it stayed like that for months and it was fascinating to me that there was this object that could serve as an invitation to danger, but at the same time, was extremely elegant and aesthetic. So years later, I decided to recreate that object with a friend who’s an electrician for the purposes of a photograph. We created the illusion that the light was on, which was exactly what we had wanted to do all those years ago when we were young.