San Francisco-based independent curator, writer, and musician Chris Fitzpatrick met with Mario García Torres at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to discuss his current solo exhibition, Je ne sais si c'en est la cause, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger, and Some Reference Material, which remains on view through May 17, 2009.
CHRIS FITZPATRICK: First, let's set the scene: In the entrance to the Matrix galleries at BAM/PFA, a vitrine contains documents and other substantive materials that informed your research, as well as an exhibition poster and vinyl record displayed on the wall. The entire space is filled with sound from a record player in the proceeding darkened room, visible in the light emitted by Je ne sais si c'en est la cause (2009), a dual 35mm slide projection on two different walls. A larger single 35mm slide projection, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger (2007), can be seen in the backroom at the far end of the galleries, announced by the corresponding poster in the entryway. All of these works center on two relatively obscure art-historical narratives: Daniel Buren's murals at The Grapetree Bay Hotel in St. Croix, damaged in Hurricane Hugo, and Martin Kippenberger's the Museum of Modern Art, Syros, now a waste treatment plant. How did you become interested in these particular subjects?
MARIO GARCIA TORRES: I guess the output of my work is a confluence of my general interests and situations I've found myself in. Both the work of Kippenberger and that of Buren have intrigued me at different times. Besides Kippenberger's critical position towards art institutions, I've been interested in his enterprise in Syros for a long time, which until recently was largely undocumented. The discussions around this institution fascinated me; I think Kippenberger's casual take on what a museum and its program are and could be is still very viable, as more massive and over-defined museums are being built. That's why when I was invited to do a project based in Athens I became curious about trying to get first hand information on Kippenberger's initiative. My desire to actually try to at least experience the site started to seem a possibility. In the case of Buren's project, it was a text he wrote a few years ago, where he acknowledged the influence of the Mexican modern muralists on his in-situ ideas, that made me reconsider the context of those early works.
CF: Was Buren's text also the impetus for the record you produced with Mario López Landa? One of the documents on display in the vitrine is a 12" record titled "Sundown at Grapetree Bay with Pedrito Altieri and His Steel Band" from 1962. How does your record relate to Altieri's? Did you intend for the new recording to function as a sort of soundtrack to the exhibition as a whole?
MGT: The song in the vinyl is an essential part of Je ne sais... and it definitely came about in reaction to Pedrito Altieri's record. It's a strategy I've used before-and in a certain way I explain this through my work-where I use a tactic from the past and try to overturn it with a different purpose. Altieri actually played at the Grapetree Bay, and they recorded him and his band to promote the hotel when it was properly functioning. The initial idea of our record-the music is actually by Mario López Landa-was to ‘promote' a different stage of the same context. The song tells my take on the story of the hotel in spoken word and uses a letter that Buren wrote while working in the Virgin Islands as its lyrics. It was for us a way to try and create a certain atmosphere celebrating both the rhetoric of failure surrounding the story of the hotel and the career defining moment that Buren was in at the time.
CF: And what is Buren's relationship to his murals?
MGT: I think it was a difficult time for him as it was quite early in his career, and if one is ambitious as a historian, one could argue that the stripe form that he has consistently used for nearly his whole career in someway began with the paintings he made there at the time. I am not sure how much importance in relation to his other works he would put on them, but they are definitely regarded as his first in-situ works.
CF: Specific as they are, it's fitting that they haven't been preserved, but subject to the same conditions as the rest of the hotel. In your artist's talk before the opening of your exhibition you mentioned that Kippenberger would program projects just to further legitimate MOMAS and make it all seem more real. Does What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger function similarly?
MGT: I see the action of looking for MOMAS' former site and making a show in the premises as they are today as a way of reviving the story in hopes that those ideas are thought of again. I'm not interested in ‘legitimizing' anything; I wouldn't even have the pretension to think I can do such a thing, but maybe one can hope that by documenting the action with slides and showing them in other places Kippenberger's ideas have a larger impact, maybe towards museum policies for example.
CF: Beyond their respective institutional critiques, both projects-Buren's and Kippenberger's-are also related in that neither is ‘history' in any fixed sense. Neither has been entirely ‘written.' And as they are known largely through images, if at all, do you think your work exists parallel to these narratives or has it become an inextricable part of them, even outside of the context of art?
MGT: I see my work as a different account of what has already been written about them. I don't think it becomes part of the original works; they exist on their own. I'm conscious of it though and it is of great interest to me, for example, to let people see the state in which I found Buren's murals. It's interesting that not many images have circulated of those works, and only one in color. Not only that, but one of the murals appears unfinished in that image. As Buren's ideas are very much related to the context in which the works exist I wanted to rethink his works through picturing not only the state of the murals but also their surroundings. It was almost twenty years ago that the hurricane hit the island, half-destroyed the hotel and severely damaged some of the murals, yet the works are still written about as if they were in their initial state. I'm interested in questioning the way history is written and rethinking the way works of art keep changing-in Buren's case physically so-and how they reclaim a life of their own.
CF: History is destabilized in your work, but these are not fictional accounts. [Curator] Elizabeth Thomas writes in the exhibition brochure that your research into the recent past is real and provides a sort of blueprint for discerning the present.
MGT: They are both essentially documentaries, of both the original works that interested me and of the actions I've done around them.
CF: And you manage to approach them with both documentarian objectivity and overt artistic subjectivity. Is any resulting uncertainty as to what's true intended to keep the story open-ended, to allow the story to expand?
MGT: I don't want to create a hard-fact rhetoric around the stories, but more of a possible reality.
CF: It seems like your work creates a kind of art-historical feedback loop, where the possible reality you create affects the accepted one you initially responded to, which then forces some reconsideration of both. Do you see your work as reformative?
MGT: There is a certain amount of demand in these works-a call to put attention to a certain story-but in no way do I pretend to hold a more valid position than others. I don't assign myself that type of function.
CF: But even if you don't want your position to supplant the authority or credibility of another position, by intervening within histories that are still solidifying, do you think your work nonetheless transforms history in some way? Is history always already reformulating?
MGT: Well, the political functions of history are well thought, criticized, acknowledged, etcetera these days. I definitely think my works intervene in those stories and, so far, I stand by my version of the facts, but at the same time I think we should be suspicious even of ourselves. The way I've put together and presented those stories serves my own ideas about the artists very well, about the way I think we should approach their work and the way that art operates within society in general. In the end I think my telling isn't just about the works that sparked my research but also touch upon other interests outside of art and art history.
From the top: Mario García Torres: installation view of Je ne sais si c'en est la cause, 2009; dual 35mm slide projection and vinyl record; 11:50 min.; Album cover for Mario García Torres (in collaboration with Mario López Landa): Je ne sais si c´en est la cause, 2009; vinyl record; 11:50 min.; installation view of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger, 2007; 35mm slide projection. All images courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum; photographed by Sibila Savage.