Interview with Ana Tiscornia
Ana Tiscornia (Montevideo, 1951) is a pivotal figure of the community of Latin American artists living in New York. She has developed a very personal and consistent body of work blending artistic practice, criticism, curatorship and teaching. Her collages and sculpture series show the dislocated and context-lacking spatiality of contemporary big cities, framed by social concerns which appear recurrently as forms which are exploding or becoming disintegrated and characters that do not clearly reveal a specific ontological condition. The pessimistic and ironic substratum of these works, which also inquire into the atrophies of memory and of subjectivity in the present, contrasts with their beauty and with their author’s “radical optimism.”
Gabriela Rangel: Why did you study Architecture?
Ana Tiscornia: I think architecture and art were two things I have confused ever since I was a little girl. I had an uncle who was an architect and he took me and my cousins to the building sites and I found that fascinating. I also visited his studio, and in the same way that I liked to watch the construction workers building a brick wall, I loved that studio full of drawing tables and architecture blueprints. His wife, on the other hand, took us to visit museums and showed us a series of art books that amazed us. So at the age of five I drew my own architecture blueprints, which were houses I invented and which I asked my uncle to correct, and at the same time I declared I wanted to be a construction worker. In fact, I think I wanted to be an artist but I did not realize that those things I liked were actually art, so when I went to college, I did so to study architecture. A few years later, I began to simultaneously study art. But many years had to go by before I could become aware of that origin and be able to reconcile it with my work. Only recently has this become clear to me.
GR: Tell me about your experience in the architects’ studio in Montevideo.
AT: I worked for over fifteen years in the same studio, where I began my practice when I was very young because I had specialized in drawing plumbing systems, which was more artistic than it actually sounds; those blueprints were drawn with tempera on canvas, and they were full of small colored circles. The university students who were about to graduate hired me to make those blueprints for their portfolios, and it was in this way that I got into architect Pola Glikberg’s studio. After she graduated, she invited me to work there, and I did so until 1990, when I traveled to New York. We did mainly interior designs for houses and offices, and recycling of buildings which were being re-functionalized.
GR: So this is the origin of the habitable spaces (not necessarily inhabited) in your artistic work. There is also an emphasis on the construction tool as an allegory of what is in permanent formation.
AT: In fact, they are mainly habitable spaces which had to be abandoned, or spaces which were once habitable but are no longer so because they have been destroyed; or virtual spaces, enunciated by a plan, a drawing of the space. Let us say that the spaces I am concerned with are those existing before something is built or after something has been destroyed. Sometimes I explore residual spaces which architecture has not contemplated in the designs but which it has been forced to construct (flat-roofs in buildings are full of these). I have also worked with what we might call the negative spaces in buildings. I did this particularly in a series focusing on the places inhabited by the people living in the streets, which have been determined by society and by architecture without apparently being planned by either of them. With regard to the construction tool in relation to what is in permanent formation, I think it is important to point out that this formation may be the consequence of arbitrariness, destruction, or change.
GR: There is a “constructive will” that manifests itself as a clear organizational principle. However, this volition is often disrupted by the emergence of a chaotic force or a destructive principle.
AT: Yes, this is undoubtedly so. The architectonic language in my work is a tool operating at different levels, and it includes the existence of a precise program as well as the absence of such a program. Only I do not use it to indicate constructive will but rather to emphasize the possible existence of something programmed behind the destructive principle. Or, if anything, to establish a tension between these conflicting principles. In general, my work originates precisely in the fractures of the socio-cultural fabric of contemporary society. Although I do not often make this origin evident, I do try to render what you term the ‘chaotic force’ visible.
GR: There is also an evident interest in the public sphere, or at least in the collective rather than a concern with individual problems. What audience is your work aimed at?
AT: My work is focused most evidently on the collective, but like any work that draws on its author’s experience, it is also laden with individual dilemmas. In the beginning and for many years, even when I was outside my country, the public I addressed was the Uruguayan public, a public with which I shared many things that were not mentioned but were implied, and to which I was linked by a common life experience. Eventually I realized that I was beginning to include other audiences, that one wants to socialize one’s experience, and on the other hand, that every spectator is, intrinsically, a context on which the interpretation of a work may be based, and this renders multiple and diverse readings possible. After living in New York for twenty years, one necessarily incorporates other gazes, although it may not be too clear what these are. Or perhaps that initial public continues to be fundamental, but it is reinvented in my head, giving rise to others.
GR: To what extent does your carrying out your activities in two languages, English and Spanish, and within the cultures which characterize each of them, afford a multicultural dimension to your work? I am referring to what Edward Said describes as “contrapuntal”, from the Baroque musical term “counterpoint”, in relation to the loss of context derived from exile.
AT: One copes with the condition of “terminal loss,” as Said defines the inevitability of the loss of the original context (in the sense of managing the process of mourning) reinventing that context, and also practicing that counterpoint through the incorporation of new cultural codes. At the same time, one must not deceive oneself: the original context is always lost, even if one remains in one’s homeland, since the context is in constant change, albeit at a slower pace. And that which is more permanent remains with us, even though we may move. Of course, the “terminal loss” has to do with what one changes in that counterpoint. Still, one is undoubtedly the synthesizer, the one who decides what stops to pull, the one who selects what to mix, and in that operation one defines one’s contextual plots.
GR: Now that I have mentioned Said, I wonder how your voice as an art critic, a curator and teacher is incorporated in your artistic work and to what extent living in New York allows the diverse discursive forms to adopt an interdisciplinary authorial axis, as has been the case of Martha Rosler, Coco Fusco and Walid Raad.
AT: I perceive myself as someone who tries to represent the artist’s voice. Writing, or curating certain exhibitions are extensions of my work. It is a conceptual and a technical issue; my work is based on ideas that materialize through the medium I consider the most fitting. We might say that some of them need to be conveyed via written language; on other occasions, I want to say something that has somehow already been said by other artists, and I only need to insist on showing them through a particular articulation, so I curate an exhibition. Something similar happens with my work as a teacher. I do not think this is a result of living in New York; at least in my personal case, I owe this to my having developed as an artist in Uruguay, a country without an art market, where I had a clear perception of my insertion in a circuit of knowledge production, as we might define it, and in an exercise of intellectual freedom, albeit in a time of dictatorship.
GR: How did your political militancy influence your work? What was your formative experience in Uruguay during the dictatorship like? Is this important for the construction of an artist-in-exile imaginary?
AT: My formative experience is indissolubly linked to political militancy; I belong to a generation of Uruguayans who lived in a time when the entire cultural activity focused on socio-political criticism and militancy, and the ethical paradigms determined our actions, which at that time even included shifting our cultural activity directly to the political sphere. This happened at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The dictatorship was established in 1973, and that changed the forms of political activity, which could no longer be so open and so public, but on the other hand, the ideas became consolidated. We withdrew from militancy and focused more on cultural activity as a more veiled form of channeling political messages. Regarding whether this is important for the construction of an artist-in-exile imaginary, I believe it is definitive. Those ethical guidelines in which I was raised, and that notion of art as a vehicle for knowledge and culture travel with me wherever I go, and define my gaze.
GR: In the 1980s there was much talk about the end of history, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about the end of politics. However, the end of history and the end of politics meant the end of ideologies. While you have always been critical of those dogmatisms, your generation was marked by the ideological struggles of the left to consolidate a revolutionary project which, at present, is actually crushed. How does the political element currently appear in your work? I am referring specifically to the collages and assemblages in which allusion is made to an “other” (“homeless” people, persons forced to disappear) in a veiled manner in the narrative.
AT: It is interesting, because everything that was left along the way in this matter involves the form rather than the essence of a way of thinking. Ideologies fell from favor as representatives of concrete articulations of ideas. This was also due to the dogmatism with which they were embraced and the ways in which they were interpreted in practice. But we must not mistake ideologies for the ideas themselves, and much less for ideals. From this point of view, my ideals are in considerable good health, but precisely to preserve them from the erosion of confusing outdoor conditions, in my most recent works I have incorporated them in a more veiled fashion.
In my first series of the “disappeared” of 1996, the themes I was addressing were evident and specific, but the second one, in which I feature the photo frames at the back, marks the beginning of a process of densification of the work in which I push the narrative even further.
In the series of the “Homeless”, I work with oblivion, and the narrative is decidedly the oblivion of the narrative. In these drawings I re-create from memory the spaces that people living in the streets inhabit, and I modify these works innumerable times, until I accept that my memory of their habitat is extremely imperfect. The final drawing is what we might define as the residue of this process of trying to render the memory specific. In my current work I accumulate plans of houses falling one on top of the other, or exploding and becoming unrecognizable. This work tries to be many things, but what triggers it may be found in wars, in displacement of people, in the loss of projects, in catastrophes. This chaos, however, results in images of a certain beauty, and this shows something that is a little perverse on my part regarding concealment, something that, if I were cynical, I would describe as pure naturalism, something that has to do with exploring how the packaging, the form, may differ radically from the content and at the same time serve its purpose.
GR: Both in One Day Explosions and in Situaciones, the pessimism of the discourse and the beauty of the form converge. Basically, they are tributes to Andy Warhol.
AT: I never conceived any of my works as a tribute to Warhol, but now that you have brought it up, I realize that your association makes sense. I must take the time to analyze that relationship more in depth.
GR: What was your experience with graphic art (engravings, serigraphs) like? Is it perhaps connected with the mechanical reproductive potential of the work, with the process itself?
AT: My first contact with engraving was, precisely, a consequence of the dictatorship and of that return of the political to artistic channels. The dictatorial government forbade us to meet, so we sought other paths in order to avoid isolation. The path I chose was to approach the Engraving Club in Montevideo via the School of Engraving. This was due not so much to my interest in the graphic arts but to my need to be with other artists. Just like me, many others joined the Club at that time under pretext of learning engraving. At the same time, we then believed in the notion of the democratization of art through multiplication, and in general in the value of graphic art as a form of rapprochement to the social collective. That time marked me in a definitive way. Oddly enough, it was a time of great sadness and fear on account of the political situation we were living, but on the other hand, it was the most enriching period in my life from a formative point of view. The Engraving Club had to adapt itself to the reality of those who joined it, make up in some way for the formative deficit that a closed down school of fine arts implied (the dictatorship took control of the university and the School of Fine Arts was not allowed to reopen its doors for twelve years), and admit many artists who had urgent expressive needs that went beyond the boundaries of engraving. There were times during that process when it was difficult to understand our exhibitions in the context of engraving, because to tell the truth, it was difficult to find any engravings in the midst of the installations, performances or other artistic expressions we eventually hosted. Although in any case, at that time graphic art came from a very rich moment of expansion, not only because the national publishing industry had fostered it but because political activity itself had led us to experiment and acquire training in this field. Political posters, signs, set designs, etc., many of which were also linked to the creation, in 1971, of the Frente Amplio, which rallied all the left-wing groups in the country, had provided us real world training in this matter.
GR: An image generally taken from a newspaper serves as vanishing-point in your work (resuming the idea of the musical counterpoint). What does photography represent, a testimony or fiction, or both possibilities?
AT: In my work, photography has sometimes been a tool, and sometimes a testimony. If I have ever used it as fiction, it has been through other voices I have as an artist in collaborative projects; otherwise, the emergence of fiction in my work is almost a random event, or if you will, some accident I deemed fortunate enough not to discard it. I often gather together photographs from newspapers or magazines, or my own photographs, rather as a way to approach a theme and reflect about it until it becomes clear enough for me to sketch my first idea for the work. After that, my process does not turn back to photography; it rather withdraws from it as much as possible.