Having realised that there’s no place like Dalston, a fact already appreciated by moustachioed hipsters, hooded rioters and burly Turks, Argentine artist Amalia Pica returns from the Americas to her chosen new home to sit down with the DLR. As her latest work is being passed around Tower Hamlets as we speak, we thought we’d take the opportunity to talk to her about communication, language and bomb scares.
Hi Amalia! Thanks for taking the time to meet with us.
You’ve just come back from the US and Mexico, where you were in a few shows (as well as being in the Venice Biennale this year — it’s been busy!). Welcome back. We saw some images of the catechresis sculptures you showed at Kurimanzutto in Mexico City and just loved them: they reminded us of our favourite Fischli & Weiss works (A Quiet Afternoon) while also being about an obscure term of literary criticism. In short: nothing could be more perfect for the DLR. Could you tell us what a catechresis is?
It is such a pleasure for me to meet up with you as I am a big DLR fan and thank you for the Fischli & Weiss comparison!
The sculptures are based on a passage from The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, where a group of poets are running away in a car chase into the desert, and to distract them a wannabe poet and literature student plays a game with them. He gets them to guess the definition of technical literary terms, which become riddles as the poets struggle to know their meaning. One that caught my attention – ‘catachresis’ – and I made a group of sculptures after this term. A catachresis is a misapplication of a word or expression that is used when there isn’t a specific term to name a particular phenomenon. The sculptures are inspired by catachrestical metaphors that have become so engrained in everyday language that we have stopped perceiving them as metaphors.
A few examples of this are ‘the neck of a bottle’ (bottles don’t really have necks but we don’t have any other way to call that part of the bottle. We don’t, however, visualise the bottle as actually having a neck), ‘the eye of a needle’, ‘a book jacket’, ‘the teeth of the comb’, ‘the leg of a table’, ‘the head of the nail’, etc.
How did you translate that into sculptural form?
To make these sculptures I produced assemblages to represent these metaphors, which could resemble early Surrealist sculptures, in that the link that brings objects together into one form comes across as absurd. The ‘hidden’ meaning of these sculptures operates just like the metaphors themselves, as the complicity of the viewer is needed to find the hidden thread that binds these objects together.
A lot of your work is indeed about finding such threads, and of trying to make forms of communication into concrete, visual signs. Perhaps a good non-art world reference would be when Monty Python did Wuthering Heights in semaphore. In your film To Everyone That Waves (2005) you had a number of people wave to a parting boat in Amsterdam harbour with white handkerchiefs, exploring how that particular gesture became common currency – now, of course, a wilfully antiquated one – for saying goodbye. Could you explain what it is about communication that interests you, and how you treat it as a subject?
I know it sounds a bit hippiesh but I am interested in what brings us together, and so communication and its difficulties are for me a sign of how much we need each other. Despite all the things that can go wrong in the process we still rely on the channels we invent because there is a fundamental need to be in conversation. I guess this is why I am interested in highlighting the failed attempts to communicate because I find the fact that we keep trying rather beautiful and it fills me with hope.
In another one of your works you projected the colour yellow onto the Historical House of Independence, in your native Argentina, which is where the constitution was signed. We heard that it is painted white in reality, but appears yellow in all the children’s schoolbooks, and that your projection was aimed at correcting this mistake held in common across the country. A number of your projects track this kind of misinformation that enters into the public sphere. Is this part of your exploration of modes of communication – how news travels, essentially?
The work is an enquiry into how Latin American history is usually portrayed as mythical in school. I was interested with this work, School Period, in highlighting this distance between what is taught and the factual colour of the house because I thought it could be a metaphor on how less innocuous errors are perpetuated in educational institutions. I guess I intended to open up this space for critical reflexion, hoping that critical re-evaluation could become a way for viewers to look at other things.
So to answer your question it is not exactly related to communication. I guess it is somewhere in between the fluidity of information exchanges and the inaccuracies that happen along the way, and how the moment of crystallisation of that process presented as historical truth is something that deserves a closer look.
You’ve taken this idea of a thought-held-in-common and literally made it concrete in the project you’re doing for the Chisenhale Gallery in Mile End at the moment. Can you tell us more about that?
The project for Chisenhale has been one of the most fulfilling things I have done in the past year. More so because it is home turf (though not in Dalston, but not so far away), so it felt more urgent for me to think on how we come together when we do, and how to make something that would involve an exchange between people in the area without being patronizing or utilitarian regarding their participation.
I was really nervous about creating something for the community as I didn’t want to have to define this community in reductive terms or to anticipate what they would want from an artwork. So started thinking about the idea of public sculpture and people’s engagement with it, and decided to literally leave one of my sculptures in the hands of the community and trust that they will care for it. The project is a nomadic sculpture hand-carved out of granite (not concrete…), which is being passed from house to house in the borough of Tower Hamlets where Chisenhale Gallery is located. Each host gets the sculpture for a week and then passes it onto the next host, and this happens for a whole year. So in total there are 52 people who signed up to host it.
And the reason why this has been such a fulfilling project is that I could not have anticipated how cooperative and caring the hosts have been and how ready they are to take the sculpture to the next host and meet each other. This is a lot of commitment and I am amazed at the level of individual involvement in this collective effort. Also the Chisenhale Gallery team have been very supportive and incredible so all in all it has been a great experience on a human level. It is hard as an artist to get a sense of how the things one makes reach other people. This project is quite direct and intimate so I have had a chance to get very raw feedback and this is invaluable. More so because it is so close to home and it has positively altered my perception of my own area. So now we know what we always suspected: the East End is filled with caring people who are quite ready to get involved.
And the sculpture itself (which is a carved echeveria — a plant named after a misspelling of the name of a Mexican botanical artist and which is a good migrant in the sense that it can withstand many different climates and conditions) has had great adventures. It was hosted in a house boat in Regent’s Canal, and it even had to be evacuated from a school due to a bomb scare. It was spending a week in a local school while there were construction works next to the building. During the works they found two unexploded Second World War bombs and they had to evacuate the school before removing them. I got a call from the teacher from the sidewalk saying she evacuated all the students and the sculpture too! It was so sweet of her to think of taking it with her!