Adrián Villar Rojas: Gray Matter

1-2 Now I Will Be With My Son, The Murderer of Your Heritage, ceramic, 2011. Installed at the 54th Venice Biennial—Argentine Pavilion.

In his work, Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas envisions the end of human civilization. His complex, enormous, and baroquely detailed installations display a fossilized present in which the detritus of technology and popular culture are sculpted in vast assemblages of crumbling, leather-hard, unfired clay. What Villar Rojas creates is a nothing less than a three-dimensional snapshot of the present cultural moment cycled into a hallucinogenic, apocalyptic view of an unstable future. Although his use of materials is grounded in the sculptural tradition, they’re presented in nontraditional ways evoking figures, buildings, plants, and machines.

The work is operatic in scope, fundamentally grotesque, comedic and tragic; a spoof on and mirror of how we live today. The work is unabashedly theatrical, a monumental, encompassing, and profound spectacle that merges imagery of animate with inanimate. Despite its visual cacophony, its narrative is clear; it’s a harsh observation of contemporary culture and its consequences. His complex tableaux resemble archeological sites exposing artifacts in various states of preservation. Villar Rojas has said that his work concerns the Anthropocene era, a term that refers to the collective actions of humans that have fundamentally altered the conditions of life on the planet. Villar Rojas presents these activities as fossilized remains seen as they might appear 200 years from now. The wide range of imagery is based on visual and philosophical oppositions, purity versus integration and hybridization, social reality versus aesthetics, the brutality of science versus the illogic of superstition, Kurt Cobain versus Michelangelo. His disparate influences include graffiti art, rock music, pop stars, video games, technology, kitsch, and classical sculpture. The emotional impact of his work is crucial to him; he wants it to provoke a moment in which the viewer experiences a strong response, possibly sadness, anxiety, or wonder. Its ultimate irony lies in the fact that Villar Rojas’s futuristic work has no future; after the course of an exhibition it’s dismantled, shoveled up, and discarded. The work lives on only two-dimensionally in books, photographs, and videos.

3-4 Mi Familia Muerta (My Dead Family), 88 ft. 6 in. (27 m) in length, clay, wood, rock, 2009. Installed at the “Biennial of the End of the World” in Ushuaia, Argentina.

In 2008, Villar Rojas began to use clay simply because he had a bag of it in his studio; the experience transformed his entire artistic practice. He was attracted to clay because it represented the opposite of the highly conceptual projects he had been involved in. Clay was a revelation for Villar Rojas; it has a metaphysical significance for him. In an interview, he said, “. . . clay itself has pretty much been the ideological, narrative, and aesthetic engine that engendered the universe.”

In the 2009 “Biennial of the End of the World,” Villar Rojas exhibited his monumentally scaled unfired clay work; My Dead Family, a life-sized whale sculpture placed in a forest in Ushuaia, Argentina. It was the making of this absurd and pathetic object that led him to his present fabrication methods. His work is never fired, it’s either thrown on the wheel, pressed into molds or layered over armatures of wood, wire, found objects, or Styrofoam. The scale of his objects varies and the exteriors may be unadorned or highly detailed, smooth or intricately modeled. The surfaces are matte gray, deeply fissured; the structures self-destruct incrementally, cracking, delaminating, and falling apart. Villar Rojas manipulates the viewer’s experience of time in two ways, through its visual embodiment in the decay of the work and in the time it takes to pass through the huge spaces the work occupies.

Although the planning and conceptualizing is entirely his, Villar Rojas no longer physically engages with clay; a team of engineers and sculptors create his projects. He likens this situation to that of director and film crew. The work is realized from images he makes as photographs or drawings; much of the final imagery comes out of his interaction with his team, their discussions and arguments. It’s a collaborative process in which everyone is given credit. Up to 50 people at a time have worked on his installations, working long hours making individual parts or fabricating sections. The scale of the objects and timeframes necessitates a frantic work pace. Nothing is made in advance of an exhibition and there is no preliminary planning; Villar Rojas does his designing on site, in direct response to the location.

In 2011, Villar Rojas installed Now I Will Be With My Son, The Murderer of Your Heritage inside the Argentine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It took two months of nearly continuous work on-site to complete the eight-piece monumental grouping. The sculptures resembled chimerical forms that combined aspects of human figures, plants, and machines. Villar Rojas designed the lighting so that the enormous, vertical sculptures loomed from shadows—the 2700-square-foot space seemed fully inhabited by them. One of the pieces features the gigantic upside-down legs of a robot whose reversed torso culminates in an old-fashioned video monitor embedded in a bulbous base; another sculpture is festooned with spade-like leaf forms.

5-7 Today We Reboot the Planet, mixed-media installation, 2013.

For the 2012 German sculpture exhibition, “dOCUMENTA (13),” Villar Rojas created Return the World, a sprawling installation on several acres of a terraced, park-like area in Kassel, Germany. The scale of the site required quite a bit of walking in order to see all the components. There was no pre-planning for this group, the colliding, disjunctive images developed intuitively, combining the conceptual with literal and abstract elements. The installation was placed on different terraces and included 25 huge bells, a dead deer lying in the grass, several figurative groups, small bone or branch-like objects and a huge machine-like form.

In 2013, Villar Rojas installed Today We Reboot the Planet in the Sackler wing of London’s Serpentine Gallery. The work was made in a nearby warehouse. The piece was inspired by the fact that the Sackler was originally used to store gunpowder. Villar Rojas designed one of the vaulted rooms to resemble a storage area in an archeological museum. This area had racks of shelving accommodating numerous dusty clay- or mold-covered artifacts including vases, tires, an iPad, casts of various objects including the lower legs of Michelangelo’s David, moldy bread, and sprouting potatoes. Among this array was the life-sized, reclining figure of a dead man, the pop-star Kurt Cobain, whose torso was pierced by plastic water bottles. The sculpture was both humorous and shocking, pitting the reality of death against a backdrop of cultural detritus.

8-9 Return the World, clay, wood, cement, metal, 2012. Installed in Kassel, Germany, for “dOCUMENTA (13),” Weinberg Terraces.

For the exhibition, all the galleries were paved with bricks, an element that changed the sound and feel of each footstep and emphasized the fragility of the sculptures. The only single object was in the entry area; a life-sized, half-crouched elephant with what appeared to be the cornice of a building forcing it down to its knees and pressing its head against a brick wall. The coloration and cracks on the elephant’s surface animate it; it was one of the most moving and spectacular objects in the exhibition.

Combining naïveté, hope, pessimism, and humor, Villar Rojas’ raw and dramatic work reflects the pressing issues of our time; the ravaged global ecology, contemporary culture’s greed, and materialism, the way our values threaten present and future. His work is intuitively designed and beautifully made, freighted with a meaning made more forceful by its transience and disposability. Though conceived from the theoretical perspective of the future, his work embodies the battle of current ideologies. His theme of impermanence is enigmatic, unsettling, and emotionally intense, as affecting as it is overwhelming.

the author Kathleen Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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