RUBEN OJEDA GUZMAN
Ruben Ojeda Guzman is a Mexican conceptual artist and arts writer based in Madrid.
At the core of his work is the idea of art as a connection between different practices and knowledge. Rubén's artworks contain questions about art history, visual culture, colonialism and history of his immediate context. The artwork doesn’t end on itself.
Ruben is the co-founder of El Chilar, an artist-run space based in San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca.
His work has been collected and exhibited in Switzerland, Brazil, Norway, United States, England and Mexico. He also participated in residencies such as the air-Montreux program (Switzerland), and was awarded with Young Creators FONCA 2014 (México), selected for the Young Project of the Museum of Oaxacan Painters.
As a curator he carried out, the project La Colección del Precariado (Mexico, 2014 - to date), Ex-lege for the Transitio-MX 05 festival (National Arts Center, Mexico, 2013), From/after: The myth of Ileana Sánchez Marín (Puebla 2015), and along with Santiago Rojo, the artist run space El Chilar (Oaxaca, 2015-2017), among others. His work has been reviewed in Frieze, Iberoamérica Social, Torpedo, Fahrenheit, Milenio, and Arte actual Oaxaca: Artistas contemporáneos catalogue.
Chambre Fluide - Rubén, you are a multidisciplinary artist working on very different media...How did you develop your ideas reaching the final result?
Rubén Ojeda Guzmán - My process always starts from writing. It so happens I write essays on art, politics and economics for a few magazines in Mexico and Spain. I found in writing, which allows me to imagine how some concepts could be displayed in the space beyond the text, a gold mine for ideas and inspiration for my artistic practice. I was formed as a painter yet my process comes from conceptual art methodologies: walks, drifts, finding and collecting objects, recordings and exploring with different materials. For a few years I was somewhat uncomfortable dealing with those two paths in my career: the most traditional and the most conceptual. Some friends, artists, teachers, collectors and curators suggested I leave one or the other. Over time I understood that I couldn’t abandon either because they are both necessary for an aesthetic understanding that relies on the processes of abstraction and representation.
There was a time around 2010 when I found painting very problematic within my artistic practice. I left it for a year to explore working with other materials such as glass, resin, bullets, gunpowder and pyrotechny. I used drawing and writing as forms of sketching ideas and possibilities that emerged from the research with new materials. But every new project
brought me back to painting and its concerns: color, support, media, materiality and so on. I finally reconciled with painting when I comprehended that this conflict comes from an historical discussion between objectual and non-objectual art that for me wasn't productive at all. In a country like Mexico, if you are not a very established artist, it is very hard to work only as an non-objetual artist. As a young artist you must take every single opportunity to express your ideas, and so this battle of painting against conceptual, objetual against non-objetuctual is exhausting and meaningless for that purpose. Moreover, I love painting. Why should I stop painting if I'm an artist? The most important characteristic of an artist is that we make choices.
So I put all the pieces together: starting from writing and drawing I started using painting to plan projects that I would develop in specific places. When I have the opportunity to exhibit my work in a museum or in a gallery I try to experiment with everything that I can't do in my studio or in my house. For example, in 2018 Dea Lopez, a young-talent curator from Oaxaca invited me to do a solo show in the gallery of Archivo Maguey, and we decided to work around the idea of party and hangover. As Oaxaca is very festive and noisy with a lot of fireworks, I began working with fireworks makers, in order to explode drawings and phrases on the wall.
The idea is that you can always paint or write in your studio or at home but not every day you can shoot a gun or explode a firework.
CF - You are the co-founder of the artist-run space El Chilar in San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca. How did it start and what are your plans today?
ROG - I lived at the foothills of the biggest mountain of Oaxaca City for almost 27 years. I saw how this place transformed from fields and modest ranchers' houses to luxury residences. I used to play in the forest when I was a kid and now everything is full of concrete and fences. My friend and artist Santiago Rojo was my neighbor back then. We discovered El Chilar, an abandoned ranch 30 minutes from the city center, in the forest. We found the owners and negotiated with them in order to use the ranch as an artist run space. They accepted while the property was for sale. We spent two years, from 2015 to 2017, doing exhibitions with international and Mexican artists especially from Oaxaca. We had two main lines of research: one was to explore and archive the transformation of the landscape surrounding the San Felipe del Agua hill as a result of real estate speculation; the second was El Chilar's own history. While the guest artists produced their own projects we discovered the dark history of the place. It used to be a vacation rental for an accountant, now a fugitive in Central America.
This character was a party-lover and also allegedly embezzled billions of pesos from the government. This was a legendary place for huge parties and excesses of all kinds. On the other hand, El Chilar is located 200 meters from an abandoned highway built in the late 1980s to free up downtown traffic. The highway was built but never used except by local residents and is now in ruins. Within this context and from those conditions we curated 12 exhibitions with more than 20 artists.
When the property was sold in 2017 we invited ten artists to produce work for an exhibition which we proposed as a massive party. Few days later we had to leave the ranch. Among the artists we invited are José Luis Cortés-Santander, Lissette Jiménez, Fabienne Guilbert, Hugo Mir, Alejandro Osorio, Victor Mortales and Alejandra Bolaños. Currently Santiago Rojo and I try to put all the archives together for a future exhibition and publication.
CF - Quoting the great Luis Camnitzer, in one of his famous books Didáctica de la Liberación regarding the relationship between life and art in Latin America, says: "As an art student in the fifties, belonging to a student body that was as or more militant than the rest of Latin America and immersed in dreams of social change, I discovered that one of the most frequent topics of discussion was that of art could have a real impact on the world". The key question of whether art is a weapon or just an elitist pastime. What is your position on this?
ROG - I think art changes its functions over time. I believe my parents when they say that they were convinced that their generation would change the world through music and painting. At the same time they weren't aware of the scale of the problems of the world. And neither are we today, but now we have access to immeasurable more information and we can see that the solution isn't that easy. Artists are more cynical now. Currently, it is hard to believe that painting, dancing or singing would change the way things are. It requires much more work.
But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Or the question is not quite in focus. I think the point of Camnitzer is that art should not be seen as objects for an elitist market. Perhaps you can think of art as a complex system of relationships of individuals with institutions, different social strata, diverse forms of knowledge and values. Art must be understood as a pedagogical system where one could be exposed to the perspective of the others through a series of devices: artworks (of course), talks, workshops, assemblies, etc.
On the other hand, artists have a great potential as social agents. There are a lot of artist run spaces that exemplify how artistic activity fosters social encounters with neighbors, students, foreigners and locals. It is at the same time true that these same artists are also spearheads for gentrification, but it is a risk to be taken. Art can be a weapon, but it has a double-edged sword. Let's be careful with this idea.
CF - Tell us about your work Tributary faults.
ROG - In 2012 an NGO commissioned me to draw a picture of the seven main felines of Oaxaca for educational and preservation purposes. The main objective was to raise awareness of those animals including the jaguar. People in the villages usually kill them to avoid them from eating their livestock. In order to prevent the hunting of these felines, we made a poster with the differences in animal skins. While I was working on the project I met, by chance, an artist who had a beautiful jaguar skin. I asked him to borrow it, and as it wasn't easy to convince him I promised him that in exchange I would give him an artwork that I would produce out of it. That's when my obsession with the jaguar skin and its history started.
I held on to the skin for several years in my studio, closely observing the spots on the fur while also conducting an in depth research about the jaguar: its history, its representation in ancient cultures in Mesomeric and the popular stories around it. During this time I was also very interested in the concept of debt, credit and faith. I found that the jaguar had mystical
powers for all the nations of the Americas and was associated with power, war, debt and honor. The jaguar skin was a currency used for paying taxes to their governors in ancient Mesomeric societies, while also being a token used by the elite to pay for military, chamanic and political services. Some of the most important codex like Códex Laud (The Book of Death) was written on jaguar skin. On the other hand governors and high-level warriors used to wear jaguar skin, claws and fangs to increase their spiritual force.
I drew the spots of the skin using tracing paper over it thus obtaining almost exact copies. I produced twelve editions of which one was to pay off the debt with the friend who had lent me the skin. I used another copy to pay my taxes to the Mexican Federal Treasury in 2017, as in Mexico you can pay in kind, in this case with an artwork, your taxes. Then I decided I wanted to further the process on the image , so I started to make a replica of the skin spot by spot in painting. It took me almost 2 years to finish it. In 2019 I knew I had to part ways with the skin so I made a video of it exploring the concepts of money and debt.
In most Indo-European languages the words used for "debt" are synonyms for "sin" or "guilt", thus we can trace a relationship between religion and politics and the mediation between the sacred and profane through money. Precisely the connection between money (German Geld), compensation or sacrifice (Old English Geild), taxes (Gothic, Gild) and, of course, guilt is revealing. In the video I made with the skin and through this etymological exploration, I connected my Mesoamerican past with my westernized present with the superposition of meaning and images from my two cultural genealogies.
The last component of this project consists in a phrase taken form the Lord's Prayer "And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us" written on the wall with fire powder that I lit up leaving the ashes on the wall. The most recent versions of the Bible changed the term "debt" to "sin" or "guilt". However, in the older versions and in the Russian and Antiochian Orthodox versions, the original translation of "debt" is still preserved. It is this particular polysemy that interests me, for this prayer which is widely familiar to Latin societies (among others) connects the meaning of debt to the moral value of guilt. I think that this prayer should be politically appropriated to transition from a prayer to God to being used in the fight for the cancellation of unpayable debts. Currently we see how debt is becoming a naturalized condition for everyone. That is why I decided to burn the work as a rejection of such naturalization.
CF - Oaxaca is a magical place, full of history and culture. Being from Oaxaca seems to be a crucial issue for Mexicans native to that land. We can see the affection you all have for your city and this great love that drives you all in everything, in your work and in your life, (for better or for worse). Now you live and work in Madrid. Let's talk about this, about this identity, let's not only say "national", about not only feeling affection for the territory, but being part of a society, feeling at one with a place, your place of birth. What does it mean to feel belonging to a place? What is it that transports this love everywhere?
ROG -Belonging to a place means to be indebted to that place. You owe to it the most important parts of who you are. I frequently think that I must go back to live in Oaxaca someday in order to give back a little bit of what I got from it. It is a debt in many ways. A symbolic debt but also an economic debt. My first experience in the arts was for free in the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (IAGO) and in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca. The bases that form me come directly from Oaxaca. It's something I carry with me all the time.
I feel that every Oaxacan is convinced that there is no place better than Oaxaca and we are able to persuade you that this is the case. Maybe it is because the weather is perfect almost all year, the land is beautiful and you can grow any kind of vegetable and fruit you want.
Of course there is always the good and the bad as you said. In fact, there is a lot of inequality: a small number of people possess a great deal of wealth and power while at the same time there are a lot of poor people. In between there is a game of shadows and lights from which sometimes beautiful things happen. Maybe that's what generates the love for Oaxaca: the kindness of the people and their hope for themselves.
The first time I lived outside of Oaxaca was in college when I studied Visual Arts in Cholula with people from all over Mexico. Carlos Arias, an incredible artist, teacher and friend told us that you can tell who comes from Oaxaca just by the way they walk. He said that Oaxacans are used to taking their time to do everything. And it's kind of true. We like to enjoy those little moments that give meaning to the day to day.
I don't remember any Oaxacan artist who has refused his identity in any way. I can think of artists who question the instrumentalization of folklore like Jaime Ruiz or Edgardo Aragon. Anyway it is more common to see artists who use the "Oaxacan" to capitalize their work. And I don't like that obviousness in art.
Oaxaca is for me the place to which I can always return and to which I owe so much. And I know from friends from abroad that they feel the same for that place.