Artists to Artists is a section in which to artists have a casual or formal conversation, either live or through mail exchange, about their topics of interest. In this one, artist Cristóbal León (Santiago de Chile, 1980) interviews Berlin-based Venezuelan Marco Montiel-Soto (Maracaibo, 1976), to talk about his recent pass through Chile, where he attended a residency program at Taller Bloc/D21 and had an exhibition in D21 Gallery (January 25th till March 13th, 2013), taking his travels to Isla de Pascua y Valparaíso and his journey across the North of the country by car, as the primary resource for his creations.
His show El neón no me deja dormir y pretendo seguir todavía hasta que me aguanten o el motor (del auto) se funda (“The neon won’t let me sleep and I pretend to continue until they get tired or the car’s engine breaks”) is comprised of a collection of sounds and a series of found objects either intervened or set together. Montiel-Soto develops his work from the tourist’s perspective and the urban curious (a postmodern hunter-collector, one could say), making use of photography, sound, and video next to objects and biographical memorabilia, resembling surreality.
He frequently uses the found object as a relic or amulet, symbolically charging it or intervening it to repurpose its meaning, ridding it of its previous context. During his residency in Santiago, the artist accumulated fragments of various stories –own or borrowed, past or present– that, in their relocation to D21, pushes us into his workshop routine. From a horse cemetery to a stone with drawings made by a security guard; from an ocarina to a Disneyland postcard bought at a flea market, previously sent by a Chilean to his family in 1984; from images of the Selk’nam indigenous tribes to a discoloured garland with Chilean flags, Montiel-Soto presents puzzle pieces that weave the plot of his own life story, guided by the surrounding rhythmic sounds.
Marco Montiel-Soto: What are we going to talk about?
Cristóbal León: We’re going to talk about your work.
MMS: Then we shall talk about things that happen on the road.
CL: Is it about that?
MMS: Yes, the work has something to do with that, it’s hard to escape reality.
MMS: My work has to do with the journey. I think it evolves in that sense, in the city or the place that I’m in, the language I think and speak in, the people that surround me, moments and distances, memories and trips.
CL: I described you once, when someone asked me about your work, as a professional tourist. Your main occupation is tourism and, based on that, you develop your work.
MMS: I utilize the metaphor of the tourist as a personal flag, I like being a tourist but I’m not really sightseeing a the tourist is, the work itself is the journey, I take an expedition, I travel through time.
CL: Out of all the metaphors one could apply to the figure of the artist, which would accommodate more to you personally? The metaphor of the detective, explorer, archaeologist? With which of these would you identify?
MMS: Maybe with all of them, depending on the moment, but I think right now the explorer would be my choice, they’re like a tourist but not just exploring the territory, they’re also an explorer of memory.
CL: Even more so than the detective, because the detective…
MMS: No, I’m not a detective, because detectives walk in a different direction.
CL: Because detectives are chasing after a specific thing, and an explorer is also a wanderer, he opens up unknown land. The game “Civilization” comes to mind, I played it as a child. There the world was a black screen in the beginning and slowly then it filled up with the image of the terrain.
MMS: I didn’t know that game; when I was a child I did play detective, but the detective chases after clues and most of the time I don’t even know what I’m looking for, I simply find it on my way. Sometimes I don’t find it at all. But when I do encounter something I am interested in, there I center my compass. I can have a few pieces of the puzzle in my hands, but no idea of the final form of the puzzle.
CL: Do you want another beer?
CL: I think the figure of the tourist is good because they’re a contemporary explorer of sorts. An explorer in a world where nothing can be discovered anymore.
MMS: That’s exactly what it’s about, I don’t know where my journey stops or what I’ll find on my way there. I feel like a tourist when I’m in a place I haven’t been before, where I have a whole panorama of things and places to discover. But when I’m in Berlin, for instance, I don’t feel like a tourist, but rather an explorer of the city. When I first arrived in Santiago I did feel like a tourist, but I don’t anymore.
CL: What would your definition of a tourist be?
MMS: Tourists have a position of constant astonishment while they wander through unknown territories, always lost, sleeping on foreign beds, on vacation and not working. When I went to San Pedro de Atacama by car I was in that position of constant wonder, because I had never driven through that road before, but it was as if I had already dreamt it, like a permanent déja vu, I felt like an adventurer, we did the whole trip without knowing where we would spend the night.
CL: An adventurer…
MMS: Adventure tourism! When we got to San Pedro de Atacama there were no available rooms, all hotels were full, 2012 was almost over and the desert was filled up. After asking for a room in 13 different hotels and practically knowing the whole town, we finally found a cabin.
CL: I imagine that the way you perceive your own journey is an exploration or a travel of tourism, defining the way you see the objects that you collect along the way. A tourist can, for example, collect souvenirs, as opposed to the detective who collects clues that lead to the guilty person or an archaeologist who picks up rests of a certain culture. Your objects are personal memories, something to show your family or friends…
MMS: Of course, the type of journey I make is connected to the objects I collect. And so the tourist collects souvenirs, postcards, pictures, everything, they want to remember and show the places they’ve been to, but there’s an emptiness in tourist travel books. When I take photographs or videos, collect sand, objects, and stones, I am working like an archaeologist reconstructing the memory of a voyage.
CL: A photograph is a souvenir…
MMS: A photograph is a memory printed on paper. A memory brings back the reminiscence of a certain place or time. If the picture does not exist, you forget you went there. I take many pictures to remember, but not just to remember the place, also to remember ideas, addresses, phone numbers and even words.
CL: Are the objects you collect memories for you? Or do you try to give new meanings to them?
MMS: Objects represent both things; some are part of the archaeological discoveries of a trip, others are some other type of narration. For example, my work Nube de costillas de caballo (“Cloud of horse ribs”) is impregnated with memories of that journey and, at the same time, it represents something entirely different. I remember going down the Rapa Nui road and finding many horse bones along the way. I was surprised and I wondered: why are all these horses dead? I started to take photographs of the skeletons and then picking the bones up from the ground, but I was not thinking about a cloud at that particular moment. The cloud came about some days later after being on the road for a while. I approached the skeletons, and I would spin them around while recording the whole scene, I once started creating a melody out of them, trying different sounds and recording the whole thing. Then I classified the bones by size and shapes. The cloud came to spontaneously, while I tried to create different shapes with the bones. And the cloud really represents the bridge between life and death.
CL: You took some photos in Rapa Nui…
MMS: Yes, in Rapa Nui I took some photos of the skeletons and also the first rough draft of the cloud, but in the exhibition, it ended up being much larger. One day I started to play with one rib and throwing it from one side to another while I made a video. I remembered the scene from that movie 2001, where the bone turns into a spaceship.
CL: Yes, yes, yes.
MMS: I had the camera in one hand and with the other, I’d throw the rib bone and walked over to the place it landed in, took it and threw it again, and again. It was that moment’s action, a game that reminded me of that movie, but aside from that reference, Isla de Pascua seems to be a horse cemetery, with skeletons laying around under the sun, wild horses dying of thirst on the sides of the road.
CL: I like that animalistic quality you give to the cloud. It’s like an assassin that draws with the blood of its victim, or something similar. It makes me think of churches decorated with someone’s skull from top to bottom. There’s always something bloodcurdling when bodies are turned into objects. There was a tradition in Chile to cut a cross shape on sausages before boiling them. While cooking they would open up like a flower blooming. Thos two things one never wants to put together: a sausage and a flower. Your cloud work makes me think of that.
MMS: Of a sausage in the shape of a flower?
CL: Yes. I think your imaginary takes from romantic painting: the ruins, the traveler, the dead bodies… What is your relationship with romantic painting? Is there any consciousness in that reference? Do you consider Romanticism to be your tradition?
MMS: No, but I did write some love songs back in the 90s. German romanticism is very cold, I think that’s why my heart might have frozen a bit. Germans need some coconut trees… I like romanticism, though I don’t know how much of a romantic I actually am or if I do it consciously; some works I produce unconsciously and with time I find closure for them, perhaps when I finally title them. Travelling makes me miss so many places; it’s been 11 years since I left Venezuela… The first time I went back was after 4 years. I always miss it and, in a way, I also miss every single place I’ve been in.
CL: That’s very romantic…
MMS: Yes, maybe it is. I would like us to be talking right now in San Pedro de Atacama or perhaps in Merzouga… I also miss Berlin.
CL: Are you always missing something?
MMS: Sure, I miss Berlin, and I also miss Maracaibo. Although it isn’t really my home anymore, it still is and always will be. I miss my studio in Berlin, my plants, the hammock in the living room… Many times I get jet lag. When I leave Santiago I’ll miss you.
CL: The other day I was thinking about your work that there seems to be a shadow ir a ghost that you might be chasing after. It seems as though you’ll never be able to find that thing you’re looking for.
MMS: It’s hard for me to decide where I want to be. Sometimes when I like a certain place a lot, I get an itch to go to other places I don’t know yet and might like as much, starting all over again… I also like going back and restarting.
CL: It’s fun, almost like a sort of exile…
MMS: How so?
CL: That sensation of not being able to stay in one place, condemned to traveling all the time. I remember when you arrived in Chile and I took your picture, coincidentally very similar to Caspar David Friedrich’s traveler…
MMS: That moment was magical. Seeing the city from atop Cerro San Cristóbal was one panoramic I had never dreamed of, I was the authentic version of the marveled tourist. I remember we saw each other once and then you left, you were starting your journey playing the role of the traveler.
CL: Do you consider yourself to be exiled?
MMS: I decided to exile myself.
CL: Are you still interested in making work in Venezuela?
MMS: I’ve always done work in Venezuela and for Venezuela, it’s a different kind of work in that it’s always politically tinted in a way because the politics are inescapable for any Venezuelan. I will always go back to Venezuela; there are entire seasons where I work from Maracaibo, but I don’t know if I could move back there definitely, there’s a lot of paranoia one has to live with, so I would have to go to the beach and build my own Castillete.
CL: I was taking a look today at one of your earlier works, the one about the eyes…
MMS: “La historia del ojo izquierdo” (Story of the left eye)
CL: Was that in any way a biographical episode of yours? Did you actually injure your left eye?
CL: Is it still bad?
CL: What happened?
MMS: When I was living in Barcelona, I got acute conjunctivitis. At first, I thought it would go away pretty fast, but it got worse, so I went to the doctor who gave me some eye drops and I had an allergic reaction to them. The eye kept getting worse and worse, terrible, it was itchy all the time and I couldn’t see anything, it made me want to take it out with a spoon.
CL: Wow. Did this happen because of stress or something like that?
MMS: No, the doctor said it’s easily contagious, it’s a common infection, so it can happen when you put your hand on a railing and then scratch your eye. The real problem came when the medicine gave me the reaction. There was a certain point where I thought I would lose my eye completely, it was so frustrating that I went ahead and recorded a cassette, as a sort of testament to my losing my ey. In the tape, I explain what the medicine was, its ingredients, the dosage, what I was feeling, the dates, etc. At that moment I wasn’t really making an audio work, but instead, I was documenting the process and “Story of the left eye”. I came back to the doctor several times after that and, after a while, they figured out how to cure it, but before that, it got really bad. At that time I started to collect paper eyes that I dissected from magazines and posters on the streets… I collected them for a long time and kept them in a little box as a visual treasure. Then I organized and classified them by size, color, the direction of the gaze and, on a white table, I took pictures. Some of them, wherever you stand in the room, there’s always an eye staring back.
CL: Can you be a tourist in Berlin, which is where you now live? Or is your work taking another direction? Maybe towards more autobiographical pieces?
MMS: I don’t even know where my home is anymore, I don’t know if I can consider Berlin to be my definitive home; time flies and I travel with it… My family and friends are all over the world, so when winter comes I escape and I always end up coming back. It’s a way to have the opportunity of a new beginning, maybe that’s more where my work is centered.
CL: There’s a dream-like sensation in the way you work and talk about your work. That feeling that everything is a sign of something else…
MMS: For a long time I’ve been a believer in coincidence, but not so much anymore… That kind of events should be called destiny, or maybe life is really a dream or a sort of permanent déja vu in a loop. There are always many signs along the way and many roads to tread.
CL: There’s an aesthetic of witchardry and primitive magic in the pieces that you’re showing in this exhibition. It seems as though you’re trying to extract and manipulate the energy these objects carry as if they were threads of hair for a voodoo ritual.
MMS: The magical and primitive element in these pieces is present in the precariousness of the materials I used. The gesture they make is much more important than their aesthetic. The work titled Cordillera (“Mountain chain”) es comprised of a fan and a series of adobes with which they build the houses in the Atacama desert. When I was driving back from San Pedro to Santiago, all the adobes broke, which demonstrates the distance and movement of the road. The fan has an airplane attached to a guitar string, the plane I cut out of the emergency instructions from the flight to Santiago, and it travels through the air produced by the fan. In the beginning, I tied it with a string but it didn’t work that well (it was always in turbulence); the guitar string is better for flight stability.
CL: Do you sometimes show your drawings?
MMS: I’m beginning to show sketches, but I’ve always thought I’m bad at drawing.
CL: I always hear that painters and people who draw talk about the importance of the precise moment in which a work is done. There is a point in which the work is not overworked or underworked. I have the feeling that in your pieces that time comes pretty soon. At least in what we saw in this show, for gestures to be clear, the realization of the material has to be somewhat lazy.
MMS: To me what’s important is what the work represents. I like simple gestures and long titles. Some works are done quickly and some take years to develop. I am always working on more than one thing at a time, some related and some unrelated to each other. Random phrases I wrote years ago can become titles for recent works… They’re ideas that circle my head, so it’s hard to say how long they’ve taken to materialize. For this exhibition I had very little time, the residency was for one month, so I came to Chile beforehand in order to have time to travel and set up the studio puzzle. I didn’t have time to lay on my hammock.
CL: All of your works from this exhibition have things that have been eaten by time: destroyed adobes, bones, discolored flags…
MMS: I think we live in a time –in life and contemporary art– of precariousness. Many of the materials I use are found, and so they’re perfect to showcase that state of precariousness. When I say this I am referring to the fact that history has been destroyed, we live in its ruins and work with these ruins in order to create an oversaturated collective imagery. Destruction is much faster than construction.
CL: If someone who knew nothing about Chile came into this show, they could think the country doesn’t exist anymore…
MMS: It’s an imaginary country, torn by the wind and the sun.
Cristóbal León para Artishock, 2013