Critical texts by author
Conversation with Matilde Marín
by Adriana Almada
We are in Matilde Marín’s studio, and the silence is almost corporeal. You can touch it. Cut it, perhaps, with a deep breath. Invade it, though only briefly. Like copious waves, silence returns and gets into words. It happens.
This is the laboratory where Matilde Marín processes stories, emotions, thoughts. It’s her habitat, her point of departure and return: the place of assembly and reflection, the site of memory.
In this setting, with its immaculate surfaces and defined spaces, I sense an almost cosmic order: agitation and stillness interwoven in a single movement. Three hours go by. Enough time to look away and sense the abyss.
How did you shift from printmaking to photography?
It was a necessary shift. In 1999, I had had an operation on my left hand; I had to exercise with string. I thought it would be interesting to use that experience for a series, but I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do that in printmaking. It didn’t turn out right. So it occurred to me to take photographs. At first I took photographs of other people doing those exercises, but I didn’t like the tension in their hands. So I said to myself, “I have to do these exercises myself.” I spoke with a photographer friend and we agreed: I would direct the shoot and he would photograph me. That’s how it all got started.
Your hands took the leading role…
Yes, they were the focus of this long and varied series. It includes photography, video, video-installation and objects (boxes with images), as well as prints! In the end, I was able to do something with prints. It is a very elaborate series. I developed it, worked it through to the end. It took me two years. I finished the series in 2001. It had considerable impact; it was exhibited and very sought after.
In terms of the meaning of the work, what do you think taking the image to different media and supports has contributed?
In this series, I tested myself creatively. One thing feed the next. The series has a certain graphic quality, a very bare, monochromatic image. In the process, something strange happened to me: when I finished with the photographs I felt that the work was not really finished, that I needed to experiment with another visual approach. That led to two series of prints. One with very photographic silk screens, where the pigment is well incorporated into the visual situation of Playing Hands. That’s the one I like most of all. The image readily adapted to what I wanted to do. And when everything was ready (the two series of prints, the photographs and the boxes), I knew I had to set it in motion, that that would be the only way to bring the circle to a close. And I decided to make a video, my first one. With its dark and mysterious climate, the series flowed easily from discipline to discipline. It was all very smooth. When I saw the work in its entirety at the exhibition in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile, I confirmed that each technique maintained its specific identity.
Playing Hands marked your entry into photography and video. What came next?
Since 1993 I have traveled a lot for work. At that time, when I was still making prints (not traditional prints, but prints with volume, connected to sculpture), I started to carry a camera around with me. From that year, 1993, until 2001, I worked on a very private project. It was called Itineraries, and it consisted of photographing my own shadow projected on the ground at the different places I went.
A sort of ritual…
Exactly, it was a ritual. I arrived somewhere and, at a certain moment, I took photographs of my shadow. On the basis of that series –which I was keeping to myself and had no intention of showing– I made an installation for the Cuenca Biennial (Ecuador) in 2002, at the request of Irma Arestizábal. The themes of the Biennial that year were identity, nomadism and globalization. The work (me, seeking my identity in different places) fit perfectly. And I won the grand prize.
I find the idea of working with identity as shadow –as something ungraspable that is always getting away from us–very apt.
Exactly. I found that shadow ritual very useful. Every time I went somewhere, by taking the photograph I felt that I recomposed myself.
The Wichi Indians, from northern Argentina (the border with Paraguay), call shadow nopeyak. A person who takes photographs is a nopeyak wo, or “the owner of the shadow.”
The owner of the shadow… that’s lovely. Many photographers have depicted shadows. They have respected them. In photography, there are three widely-accepted themes: smoke, footprints and shadows. Though used time and again, they will always seem original.
Like love, life and death in literature.
In speaking of the Contemporary Bricolage (Need, Rummaging and Illusion) (Bricolage contemporáneo (La necesidad, La recolección and La ilusión)), you are making immediate reference to the social crisis in Argentina at the end of 2001.
Yes, that’s the time when these series arose.
Nonetheless, that trilogy is far from documentary. Rummaging is an exquisite, extremely stylized series.
I am aware of that. In that context, I asked myself what my options were. Taking photographs of the people rummaging through the trash or rummaging myself, assembling my own collection? I decided to make my own collection. I have much, much rawer material as well –something like rummaging in action– which is a video-performance. The situation was so extreme, so tragic, so uncanny: going through the trash to find something to eat. The stylized approach to that reality was intentional: I wanted it to be seen without frightening.
The result moves away from that reality.
It separates from a certain moment.
And it becomes symbolic: those loaves of bread are almost Biblical or, if you will, breads of grace. The tone is poetic, even metaphysical.
I wanted to make the work more universal, less local. Food is a human concern, a worldwide problem. Stylizing it is a way of making it important, of taking care of it. An artist can appreciate that. I sometimes think that extreme beauty can be very disturbing.
Perhaps because extreme beauty insinuates the uncanny. Threat.
I often find myself at that boundary.
Let’s talk about Need.
This series arose from my travels in Latin America and elsewhere. I started making a photographic register that I found interesting and then I made it part of the larger series.
This is also highly stylized. Though they don’t cease to be real, those objects (the carts) take on a different quality.
In fact, I was struck by how the rummagers care for their carts, how aesthetic they are. In Colombia, for instance, one was even decorated. Naturally, carts of their livelihood. From so much collecting, the carts become if not exactly artistic, close to art.
For them trash is no longer trash. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Exactly. I find it fascinating that in each country the carts have their own identity, a distinctive quality. This is evident in how they are put together: the most precarious, perhaps the least stylized are the ones from Buenos Aires.
Let’s go on to Illusion (La ilusión).
In the middle of the 2001 crisis, I met a traveling saleswoman, Karina, who sold bubble makers. The city was practically in ruins, the norms of coexistence were not intact. And when I saw her –she was so serene– blowing bubbles in the midst of the chaos, I felt that all was not lost, that there was a possibility. That’s how Illusion came to be; a metaphor for the fact that one could go on living.
Karina, in her way, was also formulating an aesthetic. She didn’t sell gum or candy; she made her own toys.
And she decorated them. She was interested in an aesthetic object.
She had a position…
That’s right. The bubbles were a sort of dream that lingered above the city. They disappeared quickly, they were fleeting.
What was your connection to Karina like?
It was a long one. I met her, I bought one of her bubble makers and then I kept seeing her on Florida Street. We established a relationship; I told her I was an artist. After I had known her for a year, I suggested taking photographs. In 2004, we made the video: a sort of performance around the city of Buenos Aires.
Unlike Illusion, which you directed, in Not Too Far you released the eye of the camera, letting it record whatever appeared. Why?
I work with real things, specific things that happen. But I am not interested in a particular reflection on the world. I am very concerned about what civilization is coming to, about certain situations and the way that art can react to those situations. I have asked myself whether or not art is useful at all, if it is or is not an instrument. In the end, I am not sure. Not Too Far is conceptual; with very few elements, it attempts to give the viewer a chance to think.
How did that piece come to be?
I was very moved by the simple fact of being in a usually inaccessible place, in the southernmost point on the continent: the Straits of Magellan. This is the spot where the oceans collide, and quite violently at that. I filmed in the lighthouse there. Pharus, in Latin, means “the light that guides man.” Lighthouse (Faro) is a series that I am putting together, and this is the beginning. It is really a metaphor. In these complex times, the fact that there is still a lighthouse to guide man is amazing.
A signal for the sailor.
It’s a signal in the midst of the sea, of the dark.
The strange thing about this work is that the lighthouse is seen from the inside: a consciousness that perceives itself and, at the same time, a moving eye that looks out at the world. You must have felt somewhat omnipotent there.
Not at all. More than omnipotent I felt very small, perhaps due to all of the power at the place: the tensions between the lighthouse inside and the sea outside.
How did you find the music for those clashing oceans?
Not Too Far is a song that I have known for quite a while. Victoria de los Ángeles sings it in front of a landscape, and it is very deep and intense. When I finished making the video, which was such a wonderful moment, I thought that this was the only music that could give the viewer a great sense of celebration, that could allow him to empty out his mind to look and then reflect on whatever he wanted. And so I called the work Not Too Far. In a certain way, in this work I distance myself from narrative and emphasize my interest in human consciousness. The image occupies and does not occupy space, it only refers to things. I think that, above all, this video is a sensorial experience.
Cold River (Río frío) is also a sensorial experience.
Yes. I filmed in Río Rivadavia, in southern Patagonia, Chubut. I had been there before and taken photographs. I thought it was amazing that a practically virgin river like that still existed. When I made the video, the landscape was still intact, preserved. In fact, this river was not known until the 20th century, when Patagonia was first traveled and major lakes were discovered and crossed. Until then, it was unknown, except to the Indians, of course. Now it is black, because ash from Chaitén fell on it.
I know that now it is in ruins. I work altering landscapes, with everything that happens to them, and so this work is, in a certain way, a tribute to still untouched nature. Almost a last tribute.
You have had the privilege of standing before large horizons. This has led to your most recent work: pan shots of landscapes.
I have traveled since I was young and I have been very adventuresome. I have been to certain places where, to observe the landscapes and sail the rivers, you must be fairly intrepid. Over the course of six or seven years, in those journeys I would collect horizons to, when the time came, process them (I do several lines of work at the same time). I do believe that it is a privilege to be in places that, in a certain way, make me ask myself what is happening in art and what is the role of the artist as a witness who records current issues that will mostly likely be seen differently in the future.
A witness who intervenes, like in Altered Landscapes.
Yes. I portray the present as well as what is no longer here. I compose the image.
A reinvention of the landscape.
Exactly. An artist-witness, I have found a role for myself, even in reinventing. Doris Salcedo said something very interesting that is related to what I think. She says, “The work is the place of memory, the place where forgotten events can and do occur in the present.” In a certain way, I was thinking of that when I made the altered landscapes. That is, I thought forward. I recently had a surprising experience. I went to Chile to have a show and, while I was there, the volcano erupted. 5 But the works that I was going to show were already contaminated by smoke! The landscape had already been altered. That, in turn, would be another forgotten event… but the work will remain, as a register. A register that I invented at a certain moment, without knowing that it would really exist. That moved me greatly.
Almost a premonition
It was a very strange situation.
Having collected so many horizons, do you think that the landscape constitutes you?
Yes. By including new elements in the original image of a landscape, I try to reproduce what I felt when I was before that landscape. It’s very hard to convey. These are very solitary sensations; they are unrepeatable and born from an unrepeatable moment.
A landscape is not a reality in and of itself: a landscape is a personal and unique vision. Certain landscapes produce silence, questioning all of art’s skills. Have you felt that?
I wonder a lot about the role of art today. And those -I wouldn’t say dramatic, but certainly intense and broad- landscapes have, in a way, taken my breath away. The landscape becomes the trigger for many questions that might have answers, or might not.