Fitzrovia Chapel, London 2018
photography Thierry Bal
Crisálida, is an installation of 18 meters of length, composed of 200 objects wrapped in polyethylene film, individually or grouped, as arranged for storage or a move. The set includes objects of the most varied dimensions and uses: a car, a motorcycle, a piano, a container with cremated effects, suitcases of different times and designs, domestic artefact, furniture, books, tools, toys, maps, previous works by the artist, and also of other artists: Soto, Etcheverri, Barrios, Pujol, etc. Some objects such as La Paella were part of another journey, more than 80 years ago when they accompanied my grandparents who fled Spain during the Civil War, looking for a better future in the Americas. In Crisálida, the audience not only discovers (sometimes with humour, always with astonishment) a curious and multiple personal inventory, but also perceives, the powerful emotional charge of uprooting and exile.
Attached is also video of the performance by the artist wrapping himself in the same material as he wrapped his objects, preparing to travel with his memories. It is an hybrid piece, between the sculptural, the pictorial and the installation, which I organized with a narrative structure, based on the relationship of my artistic researches, with the social drift that exists in our countries in permanent conflicts. This is a formal representation of the particular situation that we live on daily basis, and that has left a deep imprint on the collective feeling. This set of objects traces an open path in which personal objects, borrowed objects, found and given away objects, count the departure as a possibility of transformation. Crisálida is a cartography, a map that suggests emotional comparisons for the viewer to develop his own story. Here, the objects not only share a certain aesthetic style, they are a continuum of works with a thematic unit, all the pieces are linked to each other, they are stories of our city that are already part of a collective feeling and include the audience as a fundamental part of the show.
Following its first showing at Espacio Monitor in Caracas in October 2017, Crisálida will be exhibited in a different configuration at Fitzrovia Chapel by Ruya Maps in October 2018.
RUYA MAPS supports artists in areas of social or political instability. Our roaming exhibition programme introduces culture generated in areas of discord to new global audiences, in many cases for the first time. Onsite activities take place in areas currently or recently affected by political or military conflicts, and in refugee camps. They include artist commissions, workshops, talks and collaborations with local groups, organisations and initiatives. RUYA MAPS’ aims are twofold – to enable artists working in areas of discord to participate in international cultural exchange and to encourage a wider understanding of global challenges, through the testimony of real-time, creative witnesses. We also produce publications and digital content.
Enduring Ephemeral - Tamara Chalabi
At first glance, Venezuelan artist Pepe López’s body of work seems like a celebration of colour – bright, bold colour. Most often, single colours that do not mix, that are clean in their delineation, but not orderly. The reason for this is that much of his work is made up of plastic materials, Sellotape, tarpaulin, plaster; a celebration of the synthetic and the chemical inthe best possible way. On the face of it, López’s work is a homage to the modernism and geometric abstraction embraced by Latin America’s cultural elite in a concerted effort for greater proximity to, and emulation of, the west. In fact, López’s determined experimentation – with materials, forms and technique – is a critique of that tradition.
His work is a stubborn reminder of Venezuela’s reality, of its mixed culture that is also indigenous, mestizo and African – far removed from a European consciousness. Using the common language of major Venezuelan artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Alejandro Otero and Gego, López’s work stands out for its intentional lack of monumentalism and its use of materials and installations that wither with time, that are ephemeral. His range is wide: intricate collages made with coloured sticking plasters on small pieces of paper, giving the impression of an intimate drawing; giant-scale tarp compositions that hang like a delicate embroidery on the wall; or, more recently, a series of beach chairs in singular colours. These chairs simultaneously hark back to a bygone era of easy seaside living outside Caracas, on the Caribbean shore, but are also a clear homage to Alejandro Otero whose own geometric abstractionism – large-scale works that were a constant exploration of the relationship between painting, space and size – distinguished him as a pioneer of change in mid 20th-century Venezuela. López’s latest installation, Crisálida, is different. It is even a departure from his usual practice. It is a work that is deeply personal, an intimate yet collective story. López and many other Venezuelans are confronting the loss of home, flight, exile – all too familiar nouns that are part of an age-old parlance that makes them universal. The new rules of the game are different; they are no longer about positioning the politics of his work within the duality of society’s reality and its aspirations, “of being like the other while forgetting who we are”. Crisálida trumps that, in cutting ties with the past and the present in Venezuela, and understanding the new rules of this new order. This is most obvious in one of the installation pieces within Crisálida: a machete on top of a book by Ferdinand Bellermann, on a small wooden table. Bellerman, the 19th-century German painter and naturalist, created romantic scenes of Venezuela but omitted the country’s tropical nature. López chose to place the machete on top of these dreamy landscapes as a statement of who he is, who his compatriots are, today. The machete is a reminder that Venezuela is a caudillo society. “Like nature in the tropics, you cut, you kill, you prune and something new will flourish, even ∞ it is weeds, and then it doesn’t matter, if we don’t like them we will root them out anyway. It is a neverending story, a deadly cycle,” says López. Herein lies the human tragedy.
The individual objects wrapped in plastic film that collectively make up Crisálida are the household contents of López’s Caracas home. It’s a domestic compendium of several generations of López’s family that also narrates a larger story: of the Old World, of Spain during the Civil War, followed by escape to shelter in the New World, in Venezuela – and the loss of both worlds.
Crisálida (‘chrysalis’) as a choice of a title is poignant, using the egg-caterpillar-butterfly analogy to suggest the process of transformation from a known entity into an unknown one. It is a transitional stage where the outcome is hidden. This process of transformation is recreated here by López, from being rooted in one’s home and country to being without it. The outcome is opaque at best. López is the son and grandson of Spanish Republican partisans who fled after the Civil War, first to France and then across the ocean to settle in Caracas, Venezuela. The house whose contents López painstakingly re-transformed into Crisálida was originally his father’s house, and where he was born. It is the house where he later moved as a young married artist, and where his two daughters were also born. The list of objects is a testament to this long presence: the metal paella pan that came with his grandparents; a Lladró porcelain piece of a country girl with her deer that was treasured by his grandmother; the globes that belonged to his grandfather, who was an avid collector of globes and moons; a Schimmel upright piano that was played by his sister Eugenia for years while he was growing up, often suffering under the pillow on a Sunday morning wishing he was somewhere else. This is the piano that Eugenia remembered playing – “so many scales to warm the fingers, so many Czerny preludes, Bach fugues, Beethoven sonatas, Chopin studies, a lot of Debussy hits, false notes, metronomic, tic tac tic tac… a lost memory.” Here is the garden fork that López used to maintain the garden he planted with his hands and watched grow into a small jungle, thanks to the rich soil of Caracas and the care he took in nurturing his green idyll. He recalls the names of every single tree and flower he planted – Rosa de monte (mountain rose), Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) and Etlingera elatior (torch ginger), among others.
In the process of creating Crisálida, López alsocollected objects from friends and neighbours, who all responded in a similar way, wanting to participate in this collective ritual via their possessions. This humanises an all-too-often abstract notion of loss, where a migrant/exile/refugee stops being seen as a human and becomes a stereotype that represents loss and burden in equal measure. Scenes of people fleeing their homelands have become all too common and, recently, increasingly distressing, with public acts of brutality inflicted on Syrians fleeing the war in their country; on refugees at the Hungarian border; on Mexican children being forcibly taken from their mothers at the US border.
For Venezuelans, the push to cross the bridge over the Táchira river, which divides Venezuela from Colombia, has become continuous, as access to basic needs such as potable water and food becomes an ever-increasing luxury.
Crisálida, with its rich inventory of objects covering family life, everyday life, the lives of children and adults, the life of a home – both in individually wrapped items and the haphazard installation of several objects together – strongly suggests the cutting up of a carcass into different pieces, not unlike the simplified butcher’s diagram of a cow with all its useful edible parts. So too the different pieces of this installation communicate a dismemberment of the whole.
In his artistic practice, Pepe López has had many inspirations and rivals at the same time. He came of age in the 1980s when Venezuela’s cultural landscape was firmly rooted in a western tradition extending back many decades: Armando Reveron and his singular body of work with unusual materials that influenced López. There were also the kinetic artists Gego, Otero and Soto, in particular, were present all over Caracas, their works confirming a much desired modernism for Venezuela. The city was an important destination for Latin American art, with its many easily accessible public museums as well as serious private collections. Already, from decades earlier, the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the ambitious architectural and artistic masterwork by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, in collaboration with many local and international artists, was a testament both urban and public to the country’s dedication to art and culture.
The realisation of the multifaceted and unequal layers of human lives in Caracas did not need to be understood through Marxist manuals; López only had to look around him. Next to wealthy neighbourhoods with state-of-the-art galleries stood slums – barrios that were (and still are) home to hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. The dissonance of colours, sights and smells was gradual, it grew rather than exploded. It slowly but surely suggested something more to López as an artist. Reviewing the body of work López has created over the years suggests a conscious if not controlled effort to maintain a balance, between beauty and politics, between two strands of artistic expression – meaningful abstraction and conceptual realism – which he observed as separate in his milieu. His self-defined mission was to combine these elements in his works, to marry the beautiful with the topical, the political with the colourful, in a lexicon accessible and connected to his country.
Beautiful art, the grandiose edifices and murals to modernism, seemed a far cry from the injustice and suffering of the people. Equally, political art was political and not concerned with beauty in the first instance. Vanguard artists such as the El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale) collective that emerged in the early 1960s, or Claudio Perna, who called for radical change in Venezuelan society, informed López’s education as an artist. For them, art was a means of protest and engagement. López’s first important exposure to activism speaking as art was during his participation at the Salón de Jóvenes Artistas (Young Artists’ Salon) in 1983, when Juan Loyola, a local artist, threw eggs at the then President of Venezuela, Luis Herrera Campins, who was opening the show. The eggs were filled with yellow, blue and red paint, the colours of the Venezuelan flag. Juan Loyola was put in prison. This artistic political act appeared as a flagrant contradiction to the formalist art that López and the public had been imbued with, the purity and order in lines that had become the official visual narrative of the country.
Working with his simple materials, plastic, reed, thread and paper, López has created a universe of colour and texture that is constantly redrawing lines of familiarity. He has led and participated in several community engaged projects, in the large Petare barrio in Caracas, for example, or with musicians from Todasana on the Caribbean coast. The latter project fused the modernist aesthetic in his practice with the functional, by creating and painting hand-carved wooden drums with the musicians that play them. Appropriating the object that represents the presence (or, in Venezuela’s case, absence) of food in supermarkets, López created a large map of the US, Disposable America, from plastic bags glued together. The Chinese plastic bags are made of polyethylene, which is derived from petroleum –Venezuela’s key natural resource. The symbolisms are many in this piece, and unlike Crisálida, it is a mobile foldable object that was created earlier, suggesting an attempt on López’s part to find a way to adapt to the increasingly fragility of his Venezuelan life. Crisálida followed later, when he could no longer adapt, or pretend.
Crisálida is a clear change in López’s practice, in that the personal overrides any other instinct despite his artistic preference for engaging collectively. The outcome is an elegant, ethereal installation that shines and shimmers, thanks to the crystal-like effect of the transparent plastic wrapping reflecting against the light. It is in this process of its own transformation, or chrysalis, that a near sacred atmosphere is evoked, where a viewer’s peek is that of a trespassing intruder. That is the beauty and the pain.
Tamara Chalabi is the Director of RUYA MAPS. She is a curator, author and historian based in London and Beirut.
When it comes to exile, we keep all memories in the same place in the heart Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò - Studio International
The mesmerising exhibition of personal items wrapped in clingfilm by Pepe López (b1966, Caracas) is the debut project of Ruya Maps, a non-profit organisation curating visual artworks originating in areas of political strife. The 18-metre long installation, on show, at the end of last month, in the jewel-like Fitzrovia Chapel in London, tells a personal, national, but also universal, story of exile in which López presents about 200 swathed objects, mostly from his family home in Venezuela, his lost domain.
López’s arrangement of artistic and domestic artefacts produces charismatically surreal combinations, but Crisálida (2017) also functions as a map of movements between the old and new worlds of Europe and America, the many suitcases a leitmotif evoking the fraught yet hopeful process of packing up a life that expatriation entails. The installation also calls to mind the often-spectral quality of shrouded art objects, whether Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ (1753) or Iain Baxter&’s 1966 Bagged Place, and its later rendition, Rebecca’s Bagged Place, in which the artist shrink-wrapped the contents of an apartment whose owner had recently died. López seeks to transmute the sense of loss evoked by mummified objects by placing them in a public art installation, and in doing so, saying goodbye to them.
Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: By way of an introduction, can you tell us about your early artistic or cultural reference points? I understand you were influenced by Armando Reverón, creator of fantastically eccentric dolls, and uncanny painted seascapes. In stark contrast, presumably the strong presence of kineticism and formalist abstraction in Venezuela and Latin America was also a force to be reckoned with?
Pepe López: I was born in the 60s in Venezuela. Caracas was a vibrant Latin-American cultural hub with many museums, contemporary art galleries and prestigious cultural institutions. Art was everywhere in the city and Armando Reverón was the local cultural reference for Venezuelan artists; he was the great painter who understood the light in the tropics. Reverón lived in the mountains by the sea and was this kind of crazy man who created his own fantastic world. He was perceived as a local Venezuelan artist for Venezuelans, but he was already dead when I was born: he was an institution, a renowned artist before I even started my art adventure. Then there were geometric and kinetic forces: [Jesús Rafael] Soto, [Carlos] Cruz-Diez and co, who were the official cultural reference of the arts in democracy, an invasion of their work was happening all over the country. All major important public and private projects included a huge kinetic sculpture as part of their original plan. And then, later, politics and arts became the logical reaction of a group of artists concerned with social drift. I come from a country with huge economic and social inequalities. So, it was not just Reverón who influenced my artwork, but all Venezuelan artists and their relationships with our social reality.
ARC: The complete works of Plato in the installation are a reminder that you studied philosophy. How do you view the relationship between art and philosophy in your practice?
PL: There are many reasons I chose each of the objects included in Crisálida. We have many books at home and there are many books in the installation, but they are hidden in closed suitcases. And I had to make a choice. Which books should I display in Crisálida? My grandparents were Spanish republicans, they came to Venezuela running from the dictator, Franco. This Spanish edition of Plato’s complete works was translated by Juan David García Bacca, a prominent Spanish philosopher who also went into exile after criticising Franco and lived in Venezuela from 1946. After the Spanish civil war, Venezuela became a centre for Spanish refugees. We were a very rich country and people from all across Europe came to this beautiful land, running away from the civil war and from the second world war, looking for El Dorado. We had the most amazing will of inclusion and we wanted to build a country out of work and hope. But after 50 years this project failed. We are now living our own exile: Venezuela has become a country ruled by criminals, drug dealers and terrorists. Plato is no longer in Venezuela, he went into exile; nor is Simón Bolívar, nor María Lionza our local goddess. My country is no longer that dreamed of country full of future. But coming back to your question, I started a philosophy master’s programme once I graduated in civil engineering. I was tired of numbers and equations, I think I was looking to philosophy for some kind of freedom but, after two years of study, I was overwhelmed with this very rigid “kingdom” and I quit. Later on, I found that structural thinking is fundamental to my process. I can say now that there is always a balance between the different dimensions in my art practice and this structure is essential to me, to keep all the elements together.
ARC: What determined your choice of objects and their arrangement in Crisálida – were there other available objects you could have used?
PL: Just like Plato's complete works, every object choice is a determined decision in Crisálida. There are objects that belonged to my grandparents – they brought them from Spain in the 40s and now they have come all the way back to Europe. There are objects, such as the paella pan, which represent family Sunday luncheons at my parents’ home. Also included are my elder daughter’s bicycle and skateboard, my younger daughter’s gymnastics trophy, some of my wife’s shoes and some clothes and furniture that belonged to her family. There are also a couple of found objects and some others that were borrowed from friends who wanted to participate in the installation. All the objects are part of my life in Caracas and there are many memories attached to each of them. The arrangement of the objects is random, aleatory, but the proportions of the pile are determined by the gallery space. When I first showed Crisálida in Caracas, it was in a big white-walled room in a contemporary art gallery and the display was much more horizontal. Here, at Fitzrovia Chapel, I wanted to build it vertically, the chapel’s proportions determined the installation’s dimensions.
ARC: In addition to the personal domestic items, your wrapped objects include works of art and design, your own and by, among others, Jésus Rafael Soto, Marcel Breuer, Philippe Starck, Eero Saarinen and Rodrigo Echeverri. This affects the more personal aspect of the installation, arguably suggesting a more art-related inflection. Or do you see these as personal objects like any other here – in the poignancy of exile, is a panettone equal to a Soto?
PL: These objects tell the story of my life up until now, and they all have a place in my memory and in my heart. Crisálida has an art inflection because it is the household contents of a family of artists. Also, Venezuela was a very modern country in the 50s, 60s and 70s and Saarinen, Breuer and [Charles and Ray] Eames, mid-century modern architects and designers, were and are still part of our tradition. But you are right, when it comes to exile, we keep all memories in the same place in the heart. A panettone represents for me Christmas with family. The Soto was my first artwork acquisition. When I was a teenager I saved money for years to buy this Soto silkscreen. Banal or substantial, I don’t discriminate. All these objects bring back memories of my life.
ARC: There are also items here that suggest different kinds of travel, from emigration to tourism – mainly suitcases, but also an inflight Air France magazine, which suggests a more carefree type of journey. Was the prevalence of suitcases deliberate, given that they are quite emotionally charged objects?
PL: Packing your life in a suitcase. Crisálida is not about tourism. Suitcases are the first containers that you fill with personal items when you decide to migrate. My grandfather’s suitcase, the one he used in his exile is also here … and plenty of other suitcases, full of personal items. The Air France magazine refers to the country where I am now trying to settle down with my family. It happens that I was fortunate enough to travel by plane and in better conditions than most of my fellow citizens. But what I really want to share with Crisálida is loss and transformation. Even for the great majority of Venezuelans who could not migrate, and still live in my country, the strongest feeling of this social drift is the loss. And the urgent reaction to this collective failure is transformation.
ARC: There’s a natural dialogue between the shimmer of the clingfilm wrapping your objects and the chapel’s bejewelled surfaces. How does the context here inform this version of the exhibition, previously shown in a white-cube setting in Caracas: does it lend a more sacred, or perhaps distancing, quality to the installation?
PL: The word chrysalis is derived from the Greek word chrysos,meaning gold. Some monarch butterfly pupae are completely covered in a golden draping. My Crisálida, exhibited at Fitzrovia Chapel, has the appearance of an optical illusion, it reflects its surroundings like a mirror. It is very impressive how the clingfilm reflects the golden tiles of the chapel: this relation gives a phantasmagorical atmosphere to the installation. In the white-cube gallery the installation looked brighter, more colourful. Here, the atmosphere is the protagonist more than the individual objects. In Caracas, I was surrounded by affection, the installation was perceived with a sense of geographical and emotional belonging. Here in London, all my things are out of context but nevertheless a trashcan becomes sacred. Exhibiting Crisálida here feels like the process of its transformation has been blessed.
ARC: The exhibition catalogue presents the list of works as an “inventory”. Despite the reference to a clinical shipping ledger, the list is a poignant document in the way it meticulously, at times poetically, describes the objects’ original location, installation, or function – for example, Paloma’s bedroom, or the cart bought for market shopping before a big dinner with friends. Was it hard to write down those details?
PL: I feel that wrapping and exhibiting all my stuff at Espacio Monitor in Caracas, and then describing the objects for the catalogue, and then bringing Crisálida and exhibiting it here in London, has made me feel that, even if I own these objects, they no longer belong to us, they no longer belong to me. This is a very intimate work. I was home alone, wrapping individually each object that is part of Crisálida. It was therapy. The whole process up to now has been very emotional. To connect each object with a memory in time and space has been a farewell. It was painful to write those details, but in a different way it was also a happy moment to remember parts of my family life.
ARC: The inventory shifts from the micro to the macro: in addition to your family, we encounter references to friends, neighbours, as well as sociocultural expressions of Venezuela, relating to food, musical instruments or Santería beliefs. Was it important to present a wider story of Venezuela, as well as a personal self-portrait of exile – your other work is much more centred on collective contexts?
PL: This inventory is personal, even if I included several objects that belong to friends and family, they could have been my own objects, all of them. There are drums in Crisálida because they are part of my art collective projects, but I know that in every house of my country there is a musical instrument, a drum, a cuatro or a piano. We are a very musical and happy people. Crisálida is the contents of a household, of a family in any Venezuelan city, in any Venezuelan home. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, if you are an artist, a taxi driver or a waiter, we are facing this drift all together, as a collective. This social and political situation is touching society transversally. It is personal becoming collective. My story is the story of my family, of my neighbours, of my people. My people’s stories are my own story.
ARC: In his resistance memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi wrote: “The most immediate fruit of exile, of uprooting … is the prevalence of the unreal over the real.” Does the staging of your personal belongings from Venezuela, in a public setting thousands of miles away from “home”, enhance this sense of unreality that Levi refers to?
PL: Once you take time for mourning, for detaching yourself from your possessions, you start feeling less grief and sorrow. It is a strategy of transformation. These objects from my day-to-day life are now taking a relative hierarchy in my memory. I like Primo Levi’s idea of unreality versus reality as it refers to the prevalence of dreams and illusions over a harsh reality. But Crisálida at Fitzrovia Chapel is a very strange dreamlike situation, an irrational combination. Having all my things from Caracas piled inside a chapel in London is more of a surrealist art proposition. I strongly embraced the choice of venue for the show, as it gave the installation a whole new meaning – the process of the transformation of Crisálida had already begun, and my chrysalis was already taking a new step.
- Crisálida was exhibited last month in Fitzrovia Chapel in London.