Conversation with Matilde Marín
by Guillermo Saavedra
When Matilde Marín turned 13, her father took one of those life-long determinations: at a time when middle-class adults were seeking for their children a destiny of high-school teachers or business experts, he proposed her to complete high-school at the Manuel Belgrano National School of Fine Arts. In this way, Matilde eluded the desire of her mother, who, determined to recover a social status lost through the economic stumbling of the father, had other plans for her. But above all things, the long process of finding herself began.
Matilde, in truth, was fascinated by archeology. In a popular magazine she had read in her childhood, she learnt the remarkable intellectual epic of Jean-François Champollion who, without moving from Paris, managed to decipher the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on the famous Rosetta stone. Matilde’s father, in a sort of archaeological exercise on his own daughter, knew how to interpret that enthusiasm as the echo of a vocation that was beating, hidden, waiting to be unveiled: art, with its laborious patience, was going to be the way in which Matilde would learn to exhume the aura of objects, landscapes, buildings and living beings. Not from all beings, but those who, like any artist who boasts of such, seem to have been waiting for it to be who redeems them from their exile of dust or silence.
The School of Fine Arts put her in contact with a way of learning much more free and open than the ones from conventional high-schools, with the various artistic disciplines and with some unforgettable teachers “that allowed me to understand that art is the result of a historical and social process, which I think now many artists that are formed in particular workshops are lacking, because they don’t go through the School experience and the relationship with other students”, replies Matilde, in the serene and wide luminosity of her workshop, dominated by a range of whites, blacks and grays analogous to the one that overlies almost all of her body of work.
After graduating from the School as a sculptor, and without yet having the conviction of being an artist, at one time -the beginning of the 70s- when the urgency of revolutionary ideals attracted her as much as art, she worked as a medical visitor and then as an employee of the National Endowment for the Arts, while beginning to find in the engraving media an appropriate alternative for her creative interests. This is how she began to visit the workshop of Martha Gavensky who, although she did not give regular classes, taught her, says Matilde while offering an unbeatable coffee, “what it was like to be an artist”.
Then she made a decisive trip, between 1975 and 1980: Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela (where she settled for a while, made her first exhibition and taught at the Ateneo de Caracas) and other Latin American countries, until she reached Canada and the United States (there she made contact with important engravers such as Krishna Reddy, creator of a technique to simultaneously print several colors in a single engraving matrix, and with Richard Blackburn). Finally, she visited some of the countries on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain and had a profitable stay in Switzerland: “I discovered that the engraving could be thought from less conventional parameters,” she says.
When she returned to Argentina in 1980, the ravages of the civic-military dictatorship were evident in the streets, buildings and, above all, in the faces of people. In that context in which terror and frustration seemed to freeze any expectation, Matilde Marín began, however, to laboriously believe in herself.
Now, almost 40 years later, the talk continues, fresh and flowing like one of the Patagonian rivers that she is so fond of, more or less like this:
-You were sure from the beginning that you did not want to segment the various specialties of art in watertight compartments. But that multidisciplinary attitude excludes painting in your work.
-It’s true, I never painted, nor was interested in painting, despite having studied it, of course. I’m very interested in seeing paint, but not doing it.
-The color does not appear much in your work, not even in the videos, except in Río frío.
-I believe that my history as an artist can be divided into two stages: first, when I return from my trip and I am actively involved in favor of engraving. I felt that, although it had been important in Argentina and that there were still good artists, at that time it was in a process of decline. And it seemed unfair because, although the discipline was rarely recognized, engraving lent many things to contemporary art. The mixed media technique, without going any further. So, with another Argentine artist returning from Brazil, Alicia Díaz Rinaldi, we formed a group that tried to change that state of the things, Grupo 6, in which we were Olga Billoir, Mabel Eli, Zulema Maza, Graciela Zar, Alicia and me. The Group phase was very interesting and had a great impact. Beyond that, I set to work so that the engraving would be considered on an equal footing with other manifestations of the visual arts, so that it would no longer be relegated to a second plane linked to its tradition, which existed and was very valuable, but that by then he had fulfilled his destiny and had to forge another. I was very strongly encouraged, and I also had a lot of resistance. I believe that, through that process, I truly became an artist. Since then and until now, the second part of my artistic journey takes place.
-Is it true that your step from engraving to a wider type of work had to do with an injury you suffered in one hand?
-Yes. I was moving a very heavy plinth during the installing of a show in Chile and I got injured both hands. They had to operate me. For a while I could not work on anything because engraving technique requires a lot of pressure and strength. And, at the same time, I had to do exercises to rehabilitate my hands with threads. Since I had studied photography, it occurred to me to photograph those games. First, I thought about using another person to do the different movements while I was photographing it, but I realized that the things I had imagined were not going to appear, so I started doing them while a friend was photographing me. Thus, arose Juego de Manos, where the archaeological -a constant of much of my first works in engraving- is present through the evocation of ancestral games, but already begins to leave room for other aspects.
-Maybe your archaeological vocation continued to work metaphorically. Bricolage Contemporáneo, for example, carries out a sort of archeology of poverty implicit in the work of the cartoneros. Of course, the immediate and concrete reality is there much more present than in your previous work.
-Yes. I remember that Fabian Lebenglik once told me: “When you started working with photography, the world entered your work in a different way”.
-What does photography add to the way you look at things so that this change of perspective occurs?
-I could not say it with precision but, when I photographed, the first thing I felt was a certain relief. Being able to capture images very quickly gave me greater freedom. Before I also had freedom, but in engraving techniques there are a series of processes that one has to inexorably fulfill in order to get to the image, while in photography that is instantaneous.
-You started working in the time of analog photography and when digital photography appeared, you incorporated it, but you did not completely abandon analogue photography. What does analog photography offer that digital does not have?
-The great difference is depth. It is remarkable the great depth that the analogue confers, especially in the landscapes. Digital photography crushes the image quite a bit.
-How is the video added to this process of expanding the procedures and techniques in your work?
-In the ’90s, in the midst of innumerable work trips and a personal crisis that led me to wonder about the meaning of art in contemporary life, I saw in the Venice Biennial such an extraordinary video of the great Iranian artist Shirin Neshat that produced an absolutely physical reaction in me. Is called Turbulencias, and consists of a two- channel projection: in one, a man is seen singing to a tribune of men applauding him and in the other, a woman, emitting sounds of birds to empty stalls. It should be noted, that in Iran women are forbidden to sing. It was emotionally very strong and on the other hand, of an admirable formal and technical perfection. I understood thanks to it, that not everything was lost, that there were things that could be done through art to incite reflection and also to move, and that the image in film or video, because it is so direct, has an unbeatable capacity to propose ideas. When I returned to Argentina from that trip, I started to make videos to accompany some of my series.
-Your videos are usually very brief.
-Yes, an art video should not be very long or take a long time to make your proposal evident. Otherwise, the visitor in the gallery looks at it a few seconds and leaves.
-That brevity does not imply a great speed in the flow of images. On the contrary, it seems that you granted each image the right to endure a longer time, or at a different time. This allows us to move on to another dimension of the visual, such as when we drink a glass of water to change the taste on our palate and taste something else.
-Yes, the search is in that sense.
-It’s very interesting how the sound appears in your videos. In Río frío, it is as or more important than the image itself.
-Yes, it is a river that can be entered by a very limited number of people at a time. Then, when one goes upstream, it is surrounded by a huge human silence and the sounds of nature are heard with great clarity.
-When listening to the different nuances of the sound of river water in your video, it is understood why the languages of native people who lived in fluvial areas have such a diversity of expressions to refer to water and the interaction of men with it.
-Exactly. And I think that the richness that appears in the video was the product, above all, of having recorded 6 or 7 hours so that then would only be 5 and a half minutes.
-Do you always work like that, recording a lot and then edit the essentials?
-In the case of Río frío, I made the decision to record the whole stream which lasted more or less that, 6 or 7 hours. Anyway, it is said that you always have to record at least two or three times the time that the final video will last.
-In Atlántico Sur, you worked from a fixed image, right?
-Yes, actually with several. To get to the Isla de los Estados, I had to rent a plane piloted by a military man and ask for a special permit because it is military territory. We left at dawn: the view was impressive, the island stands alone on the sea and seems paralyzed. I took pictures from the plane, which circled the lighthouse for 3 hours. And I decided to work from fixed photos and not from videos – which I also did – because I thought that in that way I could transmit better the sensation of deep immobility of the place where, curiously, everything happened, and has a tremendous symbolic charge, from the Lighthouse of the End of the World that Verne took for his novel, passing through the prison of Ushuaia and a thousand other stories.
-How did you give rise to your Pharus series?
-I develop several series or projects at the same time. Some may take years to be completed. A while ago, I started a new one that will be dedicated to receptionists. It arose when at the Venice Biennale I saw a colored man, probably from Cameroon, behind a counter, looking very bored, surrounded by a huge space, totally white and postmodern. The contrast was so big and unusual that I photographed it. Later, when I went to the Biennial of Cuba, I loved the receptionist of the School of Fine Arts and I also photographed it. At that moment, I realized that I was at the beginning of a new series. The headlights came from reading in the newspaper, in 2005 or 2006, that the lighthouses around the world were going to stop working because the existence of GPS made them unnecessary. The news touched me. I started to investigate on the subject, I discovered that the word faro (Spanish for lighthouse) comes from the ancient Greek pharus, which means “the light that guides the destiny of men”. I found it very melancholy to live in an era that witnesses the moment when that light that guided men for centuries ceases to exist.
-In your work with photography, where do you play the essential part of the creative process, at the moment of shooting, as in the case of Cartier-Bresson, for example, or in the subsequent manipulation of that image?
-I think that, on one hand, there are the documentary photographers who, like Cartier-Bresson, try to record a certain reality; and, on the other, artists who use photography as an element to propose worlds or imaginary situations, or comments about reality. My work has to do with this last aspect and consists of two fundamental steps: the choice of what I am going to photograph and the subsequent work of that image in the workshop.
-Does the original choice determine you a lot? Are you attentive to what each image asks?
-Completely. In general, I search and search until suddenly an aspect of reality itself imposes on me, almost as if I were hit. What I try to do later in the workshop is to recover through my work the climate that I perceived at the moment of receiving that hit. For example, when photographing the Victor Hugo lighthouse on the Island of Guernsey for the Pharus series, I wanted to recreate in the photo the climate of loneliness in the environment in which Hugo lived for fifteen years, a few kilometers from France, banished by the government of Napoleon III and that I felt deeply when I was there. The stories surrounding each of the lighthouses in that series were very important for my final work on each of the photographs.
-When giving special treatment to the photographs of the Bricolage urban series, were you not afraid that it would be interpreted as an aestheticization of poverty that de-dramatizes it?
-As many Argentines, I was very affected by the crisis of 2001. At first, I took photos of documentary type, but at some point I thought that what people were doing in those days with garbage was an act of collection that, on one hand, it has an atavistic aspect that refers to the search for food of the first men in the prehistoric forests; and, on the other, refers to bricolage, that is, to the reuse of something that had been discarded. From this point of view, it seemed to me that, although it was terrible because of the conditions in which it was done (and still is), that task should be considered as a way of survival and look in a way capable of ennobling it.
-The artist books that you were creating must be thought of as part of the project that gave rise to them in each case, or can they be considered in an autonomous way?
-They have a certain autonomy, but without doubt they are one more feature of the project. I am excited about the project as a whole, to do different things – series, photographs, videos, books – that come together in a common work.
-Could each one of those work elements be an interlocutor of a dialogue that is plotted between all of them?
-It’s a good analogy.
-Do you consider the possibility that each of these elements may enter into conflict with the others?
-Yes, there is usually tension. Among other things, because not all the elements arise simultaneously. For example, in the series Humos, the book we did with José Emilio Burucúa, preceded the work as a whole in several years, to which I am just now finding it back. I started to collect news from the newspapers that had to do with fires and other catastrophes in which the smoke appears as the protagonist.
-The smoke has an indeterminate materiality, it is gaseous but at the same time it contains solid particles, like that of volcanic eruptions.
-Yes and, as I said, it is one of the three things that are always attractive when photographed: the smoke, the human shadow and the footprints. Another of my series is called Itinerarios and consists precisely of photos of my own shadow projected on the floor of different parts of the world. It started as a personal ritual and then I realized that it could be a series.
-What attracts you especially from the artist book itself, as an object?
-Everything that has to do with paper attracts me a lot, I even made paper at some point, and I also like everything that has to do with editing and printing. If I had economic availability, I would love to own a publisher.
–Kazimir Malevich’s imaginary journey consists of several things, one of which is also a book. When seeing your work or listening to you, it is difficult to relate to such a categorical thought as Malevich’s.
-It is true. But, in addition to his work, which is impressive, I was very attracted to his attitude, his commitment to an idea that, despite having to renounce it publicly, in his innermost heart kept to the last consequences, as proven by the fact that he asked to have a black square placed on his grave.
-Is it a decision that the color is rather implicit in your work, or something that happens in spite of you?
-I do not look deliberately, but the truth is that I feel comfortable in black and white. I think that, in the case of photography, black and white generates a tension that would not occur with color; This, even, can sometimes distract, preventing apprehend what that image is proposing. And in some landscapes, for example, color reminds me of something touristy.
-Is there an aesthetic or ethical limit that you try to respect?
-I try to avoid the easy, the occurrence, the joke, things that in contemporary art tend to abound. And I seek that each work has, in some way, a content. In that sense, I admire artists from the ’60s like Richard Long and others from the Land Art movement. I think those people did not trade, nor did they sell themselves. That has been lost.
-Avoiding frivolity does not imply, in your case, excluding the game, to the extent that it is present in all cultures as an element linked to ritual and magic, and is also a fundamental driver of childhood.
-Of course. And also, because I need to enjoy my work. There are artists who say they suffer, but it’s not my case. My work with the series, to the extent that these are often carried out over years, has to do with that idea of the game and, also, with the idea of ritual, an intimate, personal ritual that a mysterious way acquires a certain entity so as to become an artwork.
-In a certain way, your exhibitions also seem the result of an archeology: first, a long process of sedimentation from layer to layer of trails and experiences; and then, the irruption of the discovery of all that world that the passage of time has allowed to accumulate.
-I think that description expresses quite well the process and the meaning of my work.
-And what would you like the viewer to find in your exhibitions?
-hat he may be able to perceive the different facets of my work that will be present. That he feels that art can be a vehicle of ideas and emotions that have to do with the reality that is lived and with the past that has made that reality possible. And that intuits that, behind each series, each work, there is a story that involves men, women and things of this world.