TIERRA DEL FUEGO: TREES WITHOUT SHADOWS
Conversation between Francisco Gazitúa and José Zalaquett - September 2006
José Zalaquett: On previous occasions we have spoken about the difference there is between the progress of language in art and the urgency that many feel in creating novelty forms, in spite of the fact that they are not sustained by anything.
Francisco Gazitúa: Nature, par ex the island of Tierra del Fuego and its lengas—supplies the theme or the musical score and I am the interpreter. The problems of form, structure and resistance that these trees pose are summarized, essentially, in the need that they have to be able to bend under the hurricane-like winds of the Patagonia by a lateral growth, practically touching the ground, at the same time that the roots, that other tree there is beneath the surface of the ground, resist the force of the wind of the south of Chile, the country where I live and work.
Now, to continue using the previous analogy, we know that music has both composers and performers; visual arts today, on the other hand, engage in both roles, although in the past this was not so. If one examines the highest points in the history of sculpture, one realizes that artists were performers. In Egyptian sculpture, as well as in African sculpture and that of the Renaissance until Rodin, subject matter was a given and there were few subjects. For Donatello, Michelangelo or Verrocchio, the point was not so much to work on an original subject as to do a good David instead. Of course, just like Alfred Brendel and Glenn Gould can interpret in very different ways a given piece of music, there were differences in the aesthetic solutions offered by the various sculptors, but not in the subject matter they were dealing with. This attitude, in relation to the problem of creation in art, on the one hand takes care of half the problem, which is the subject matter or motif; and on the other, it liberates them from that harmful imperative of "originality" that has been a characteristic of the XX century, ever since it was thought possible and desirable for artists to be, exclusively and at all costs, innovative. This belief ended up by leading the visual arts to positions such as that of Duchamp, who fancied himself a composer whose productions became works of art for the sole reason that he declared them so. Thus we arrive at a blind alley. I think that the cult of the "avant garde" that emanated from that attempt to do something radically new all the time, transformed the artist into a publicist.
J.Z: Where is boundary between art and craft?
F.G: One thing has never had anything to do with the other. Art concerns itself with cross examinations; it progresses through the method of trial and error. In fact, the itinerary of the majority of good artists is full of doubts and blind alleys. Now then, in order for those errors to have a positive outcome, and so that they may eventually contribute to the achievement of great results, such as those achieved by Rembrandt or Bach one must, on the one hand, explore new fields fearlessly (where one is likely to commit many errors) but, on the other hand, one must have a strong command of the crafts without undue respect for the traditions of the craft. On the contrary, many times craft must be used in ways that it has never been used before. The best example I could give is that of a "Musical Offering" that is born after Frederic The Great gives Bach a small fugue so he could test his collection of harpsichords. The musician's reply to this craft related event was a formidable composition embodying a compressed building of innovation that, 250 years later we are still trying to unravel. The same thing happens with the Rondanini Pietà, in which Michelangelo, the greatest of craftsmen gradually departed from fidelity to the traditions of the craft in order to carve his best sculpture and die in the process of creating it.
I was as in Seattle as practitioner-professor at a congress of sculptors and designers working on forged steel as a means of expression, I also went 3 month ago to a similar one in iron bridge, England.
A craftsmen repeat a process and produce objects of everyday use, whereas artists use the same techniques for a purpose that is not clear to them. The artist may eventually cause a light to go on, so to speak, but most of the times, none does. I would say that the artist is like a flute player lost in a labyrinth, he knows he must learn to play his magic flute extremely well in order to reach the light some day. In short, he is an explorer in a profoundly mysterious region.
J.Z: In what sense would the artist, who inherits certain themes from the past, become a performer and the craftsman who inherits the same forms, decanted, does not?
F.G: These are two different dimensions. In my lecture, I apologized to all craftsmen present at the event, clarifying that "I come from another source." I showed them my tools and there was a Japanese craftsman there who made carving tools that were fantastic compared to mine, but both tools cut, both fulfilled their objective. It was very difficult for them to understand that a person who had reached my level, producing all these works involving very complicated technical processes did not come from their world, with all that means in terms of instruments and techniques. The truth is that, in a sense, I come from there, but never really belonged there. I did not have training in the crafts.
J.Z: You have worked primarily on wood, iron and stone and sometimes you have translated a piece from one material onto another. Can you explain the meaning of this transposition of the work into different materials?
F.G: The sole purpose of transplanting form, of interpreting a given subject in several materials, is to investigate how much and how matter weighs in sculptural discourse. I am interested in establishing how a form or image engages and is modified by matter. This has been my field of inquiry for the past thirty years and in this sense I feel I am swimming against the current. In some countries—France, for example—thirty years ago, they closed all practical and technical workshops at the fine art schools. These were the places where students became familiar with matter.
J.Z: In your work, together with developing an interest in the reinterpretation of natural form, you frequently incorporate forms that emerged as a result of ancient technologies.
F.G: Let's begin by considering the issue of form. As you know, the industrial revolution began in the forge, in northern England in the XVII century: nails, mechanical devices, chains and eventually locomotives. Three hundred years have passed and to this day no one has invented a more efficient way of modelling steel than the forge, red hot, using the hammer and the anvil.
The same happens with wood, in which there is no finer technique than the fine carpentry of the luthiers, who begin their work in the forest, seeking natural forms in the wood, which is later cut using a system of wedges, following its vein and structure. In my life as a sculptor in Europe I had to work with the most modern cutting and bench mechanics systems for high precision industrial metalwork and carpentry, but I must say, after this experience, that nothing comes close to the forge for the steel and fine carpentry for wood.
J.Z: All this has to do with the way that the materials and the working methods may condition the forms that you seek to create, which leads us to the point of "content" as the motifs you develop using those materials and techniques have traditionally been called.
F.G: Content in a sculpture is essentially given, as I mentioned earlier, by my referents, as well as other factors. I propose here the example of the four-year project I am working on for the city of Toronto. The competition I won considered the subject matter Lake Ontario and its cultural history. The idea was to open up the city of Toronto towards the lake. My proposal included sails, rudders, and sextants, parts of piers, ships' ladders, and anchor stones. The form and content of those 100 tonnes of steel and stone that I will finally install 2007 was given by the need that an entire city had to recognize their cultural history, which enters through the Saint Lawrence seaway.
In my last exhibition, content is represented by the lengas on the flag of Tierra del Fuego, called thus because of their shape. This is a motif to which I have dedicated three years of work. These are trees without shadow, because of the weak, oblique luminosity of that zone and because they grow hugging the ground.
J.Z: And to all of the above must be added your option of living and working on the foothills of the Andes. What can you say about your need to be close to nature, to move through it, to investigate it, to find natural forms in vegetation or in stone?
F.G: To answer that question I have to go back to the roots of American poetry and get to the mid XIX Century, to Emerson, the founder of a poetry that has more to do with nature than with culture. Emerson and a chain of followers including among others, Walt Whitman, all of whom represented the first step of American cultural independence in poetry, setting them apart from the European tradition. Emerson wrote:
"This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller's-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the eons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing! Now let arts unfold!
This intuition, this gaze to our own, is taken up by our best poets and above all, Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Nobel price.
My family comes from the country, from the Central Valley. Some members of the family remained in the country and others went to work in the city. The first were "eaten by the soil." I donned the "traveller's cape." I lived in England for many yeas and for some time was one of those who managed to escape "the soil." In London I taught at college and I realized that there I would be consumed by intellectual discussions and that in order take the steps that I needed to take in sculpture, I needed earth and silence. I returned to Chile and decided to experience being one more of a long tradition of people and let the earth eat me up. This is what Emerson did when he stopped to gaze at the forests of the Appalachians. This is the experience that supports me. In a country like Chile, in which everyone tries to avoid being swallowed by the earth and, on the contrary, turns to the great urban centres, towards "the international" the option for the soil is counterproductive. To remain in Chile, to turn towards the "inner sea" and live in it, is at the same time a renunciation of "being in the right place at the right time." It is to return, to go down rather than up along that ladder that begins in this southern periphery and ends in the large cities of the northern hemisphere; it is to abide by the popular saying that tells us that faced with the risk of being nothing, it is better to have somewhere to be from.
Los Andes, which is where I live and work on a daily basis, surrounded by limitless geological masses, hides a mystery that deserves to be heard from up front, and with XXI century eyes. In these years in which I have been immersed in this mountainous zone, surrounded by the solemn silence of this landscape, I became aware not only of the fact that our Southern mountain range is empty and unexplored, but also that sculpture, which might create the gates and roads to enter into her, to travel through it and understand it, is even more unexplored as a cultural territory. To return to Los Andes, Chile's great forgotten is an exercise fit for those who have been swallowed up by the earth.
Perhaps my sculptural forage into the trees represents my first footsteps as a man who returns to the forest in the early XXI Century, when the entire human race that has nature as its only religion, tries to return to it and does not know how.
I have been to the Patagonia on three occasions. I never could examine the trees with the precision that the Renaissance painters allowed themselves, or the botanists of the age of Illustration, who did not gather only a general impression and instead examined every single branch. Something always happened to me on my journeys south: I got lost on the road, I was almost blown away by the wind and I almost froze to death, crossing the Darwin mountains. In fact, my photographic camera froze on me, in spite of which I managed to take some pictures. Finally, I worked practically with an impression of that environment, with the recollection of that way of growing that keeps the trees close to the ground and which is absolutely necessary in order to resist the merciless winds.
J.Z: Something that attracts my attention is that in your contact with natural forms there is an almost Cezanne-like desire to uncover the organic structure of the model. As well as capturing movement, your works reflect a very dynamic sense of proportion. You can see in them the tension of their components, but the group provides a sense of organic exactitude, a feeling that all parts and pieces are secure, so to speak.
F.G: Of course, they have to be! And not only in the image that one shows nor in the environment one tries to create, but in terms of structural engineering too, if one is going to build an object that should withstand winds of up to 200 kilometres per hour.
This happens with the wood carvers of Easter Island, who select their pieces of wood considering their shape and the direction of their vein. That way, the piece they produce plays the same melody of the wood. Half the time I was in the forests of the Andean mountains, gathering wood. At this point there is a difference with the grand tradition of sculpture in the past—Hindu, Greek and even American—in the sense of imposing a form on the stone or bronze. Instead, when I create a lenga in wood, I use the natural curves of the wood. If you then subject that piece of wood to hurricane winds, it will resist. Alternatively, if I had cut the vein of the wood just like one cuts cheese or soap, the piece would not withstand the tension.
The same thing happens with steel. For me it is essential that one can see that the material is suffering, enjoying itself or expanding; that is to say, that the matter contributes to the discourse. I think this is also a critically unexplored field.
J.Z: And as regards the creation of form, with which sculptural tradition do you identify yourself?
F.G: With the tradition of Michelangelo and Rodin. What they enunciate in their work is that the reality that we see is the result of a structure that underlies the surface and that, in order to render an object visible, it is necessary to begin by exploring that which cannot be seen. Sculpture, then, is not the result of a drawing or an idea, but of an analysis of reality.
On the other hand, the unity of contemporary sculpture is much more visual than material. If one seriously considers the vein opened by Picasso with his bombshell of 100 years ago, through his first collages, if one considered all matter as possible subject matter in sculpture, one would be liberated from the slavery of working only in bronze, marble or ceramics and would open up to a field of absolute freedom. From that point of view, it becomes necessary for us to stop and seriously consider the possibility of exploring the territories discovered during the XX Century and which have been explored by the so-called avant-garde movements with the speed and in the manner of a grasshopper. I think that the XX Century is not even a beginning. Instead, it is a huge void. Artistic research finished and we ended up, finally, by adopting in the visual arts the scheme of the rock singer: how to achieve an identifiable look or sound in a career of superficial ostentations, both social and mercantile.
J.Z: In opposition to this void, what makes, sense, in your opinion?
F.G: At the end of the day, what makes sense is not art in itself, not even the artists. There are only people, human beings who move and stir in a space of time delimited by two vast silences. I don't pretend to understand God; the only thing I am certain of, is that if he has put us in this world, with our strength, our innocence and our capacity to see, He has done so, so that each one of us realizes something special. Therefore, we are subject to two mandates: discover what it is that we came to do in this world and gather the necessary courage to do so. If we do not try to fulfil this mandate, all the strength we have been given will turn against us and will annihilate us.
Having found the answer to the first question in my art, sculpture makes no sense to me as a seal or distinctive trademark, or as a means to compete or become famous, not even as the defence of certain aesthetic principles. On the other hand, it does make sense to me to view sculpture as that labour to which I have dedicated my life and my work, work that has accompanied me as a magic flute in the labyrinth. Sculpture is the instrument from which the sound of my hammer springs forth, a sound that has been echoing back for more than forty years from the foothills of a mountainous landscape that is always present, but which I cannot take in all at once with my gaze; it is like the sonar of a submarine that draws the contour of the bottom of the ocean in which it moves, submerged.
At this point in my life, and my artistic trajectory, it makes sense for me to bring together in a single narrative the two histories I have lived as a sculptor: that of my pieces installed in parks and streets, my catalogues and CVs and, on the other hand, that of the twelve hours a day of silence and work in my studio, accompanied by my master-sculptors of the past and by my friends sculptors who are somewhere in the world, working just like me, defended by my poets in the inevitable journey that takes us from hell to heaven, through purgatory.
Finally, it would make a lot of sense to me that the visual arts would emigrate from the museums, that they would cease to be a theoretical problem for specialists to deal with and instead that they would return to the streets that they should have never left.