Adrian Villar Rojas might be the ‘most succesful’ Argentine artist, today. Represented by Marianne Goodman in NY, London an Paris and with more than five shows in top tier venues such as PS1 MoMA and the Serpentine, he is the embodiment of that inversion of the low over the high that has fascinated the contemporary art world for years. That inversion is not new in the history of art if we bear in mind paintings like the Butchershop by Annibale Carracci, the Cardsharps by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggi or any Seville bodegón by Diego Velázquez where the high must be found ‘among the kitchen pans’ as Saint Theresa of Avila used to say. The problem with Adrian Villar Rojas is that he does not aim at representing that inversion but instead he presents himself as its very embodiment.
Adrian Villar Rojas’ skin is dark in a country that has not made peace with its blatant racism. In fact, Argentina was one of the few countries that gave shelter to the Nazis in times of populist leader, Juan Perón. The irony of the fact is that Perón has, since that time, represented the political hopes of the dark skinned working classes. It is from that point of view, that the local media has considered Villar Rojas as a maverick in an international art scene that seems to be taking too long to acknowledge Argentina’s allegedly undeniable artistic power.
Thus, prestigious local newspapers have hailed any artist that manages to work in the international art market. Of course, the quality of their art is left undiscussed in a country obsessed with anything international, if possible, in English. A few days ago, La Nación’s journalist, María Paula Zacharías wrote an apotheotic piece where she considers Adrian Villar Rojas as Argentina’s artistic maverick. I think this should, at least, be opened for discussion.
I would say that Villar Rojas’ work finds its source of artistic value in the fact that it is collaboratively assembled by the artist and a group of labourers that are shipped from the outskirts of Villar Rojas’ hometown, Rosario, to wherever his ephemeral installations have to be assembled. As a matter of fact, in a critically acclaimed short film shown in Saõ Paulo’s Casa Encendida, the artist presented his team as ‘his family’ in a rather (Peronist) and romantic acknowledgement of their equal status.
I got acquainted with the way Villar Rojas treats his assistants after befriending one of his managers who has been a close friend of his for many years. We started skyping at the time of their preparing his show at PS1 MoMA. It was during those conversations when I could notice that his team of twelve workers was forced to sleep together in a smallish room after 15 hours shifts of hard physical labour. It was then when I decided to focus on Villar Rojas’ source of artistic value which lies in his (at least, according to him) claim to communal labour. Although Villar Rojas made them appear in his short film as ‘part of his family’, in many interviews he insisted on the fact that his practice is not collective but individual whereas he has the conceptual and managerial command.
Although the visitor to any of his installations is usually stunned at the amount of labour used to built his ephemeral clay installations, the source of artistic value seems to lie in the communitarian way in which that post apocalyptic message is materially constructed. His workers are like bees in a honeycomb in which the artist is the queen. Then, if the source of artistic value is not formal but conceptual, Adrian Villar Rojas’s work might be more manipulative and politically opportunistic than anything else. But who kind of viewer is he constructing and why does he need to be politically motivated?
At the time of the PS1 MoMA, even though he might appear as taking advantage of the low cost of his own migrant manual labour, it was difficult to say that he was disloyal to his team. But when Hans Ulrich Obriest invited him to make an ephemeral installation at the recently inaugurated Sackler Wing at the Serpentine Gallery, the institution told him that they would outsource its building to a local team on grounds of cost. Thus, his ‘family’ of assistants was, from one day to another, left unemployed and unprotected in Argentina. His dark skinned collectivism was rather an excuse than anything else. The shallowness of his political beliefs became evident when invited by the UAE to stage his work ‘Planetarium’ at the Sharjah Biennale where thousands of migrant workers are treated as modern day slaves.
But Adrian Villar Rojas’ body of work lies on another source of artistic value which is its post apocalyptic eco-conscious theme. His installations are themed park scenes that represent a world in which humanity got extinct. In that world, technology is either a fossil or a ruin. The problem with his eco-friendly approach is that his main sponsor was one of the perpetrators of that Apocalypse. VolksWagen was the main sponsor of his show PS1 MoMA show. So how can he claim status as an artist concerned with the environment when he appears to be laundering the reputation of a car manufacturer.
In her article for La Nación, María Paula Zacharías makes a point of the fact that he is currently presenting an urban installation in Havanna where he installed 60 clay nests in trees, lamps and buildings. Those clay nests or ‘horneros’ (as they are called in Argentina) are allegories of communal work like the ‘honeycomb’ one that I just used. What Zacharias forgets is that the international art work has decided to boycott that same Biennale after Cuban artist Tanya Bruguera was detained and her passport confiscated by the political regime. Last week, a group of UK artists such as Jeremy Deller, Mark Balinger and Bob & Roberta Smith joined others in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Rotterdam asking the Cuban authorities to allow Bruguera to leave the islands. All this while the Argentine media celebrate Villar Rojas’ allegories to ‘socialist’ solidarity. Very cynical, indeed! J A T