Interview with Juan José OlavarríaMonday, January 25, 2021
The following interview is the seventh of a series conducted by the Venezuelan artist Ángela Bonadies. Her conversations with Latin American visual artists and filmmakers continue the CPPC's tradition of preserving first-hand cultural testimony.
Juan José Olavarría (Valencia, 1969) is an artist whose work captures the milestones of violent—or violated—iconography of Latin American political history. To explore his body of work is to travel through a good number of the Goya-esque chapters of Venezuela’s past, and that of the continent. The slack, dusty supports of many of his works cause any attempt at fantasy to fall apart: canvases without stretcher support; textiles buried and then “exhumed” and dyed; icons of a world that bubbles and burns; cuts and amputations of the social body and the human body; displaced meaning; refrigerators that are urns; realities as hallucinations; still lifes (dead) that are twice killed off; lines of people who are going nowhere: a zombie world, half alive and half dead, is what moves in his pieces. “The dreamlike landscape of buildings open to the abyss and fugitive shadows that appear to be sleepwalking,” writes the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo in Paisajes después de la batalla. This is the environment that surrounds Olavarría's pieces.
Olavarría and I have known each other for years and since 2010 collaborated on the long-term project, La Torre de David. In the following lines, we speak about how—and from where— Olavarría confronts his work.
Ángela Bonadies [AB]: Tell me about the project La Torre de David, the emblematic skyscraper in Caracas, which was first abandoned, then inhabited illegally by some three thousand people who were later displaced—this collaborative work that has occupied us for so long.
Juan José Olavarría [JJO]: What can I tell you about La Torre de David that you don’t already know? This is the most elaborate and continuous project I’ve made. It’s the most radical contemporary work I’ve done, for its idea of diluting oneself in the other, as we ourselves have done. That’s very complicated. There are people who aren’t capable of understanding our practices, which are very new.
The work on the Torre de David is among those that have brought me the most satisfaction. And even shame, because when people write to the blog or send emails because they want to go in the tower, as if we owned a travel agency selling packages for a theme park, it made me feel deeply wrong. But to have made a predicament of this kind visible on an international level, to talk about porno-tourism and pornomiseria—that was important. Art won’t solve anything, but it’s capable of making many things visible and questioning them. That’s what we achieved with this project. Now we’re about to present the comic book En las entrañas de la bestia, which is another reading of the country, of what we experienced at the tower.
AB: Your exhibitions are a mix of historical revision and news. Often, upon seeing them, we move through layers of time. I think that they all have something in common: you try to show the permanent exceptionality of Venezuelan and Latin American history. How do you work with that condition? How do you decide what shape you’re going to give each piece?
JJO: I read and read. I look for news every day. I am consumed in it, seeking information, recording, saving, reviewing articles of every kind, and I discard them as I go. Of course, when I see a piece of news that interests me, I also look for its counterpart, and not only the counterpart but also a third opinion, a third route. That’s how I work. What shape do I give it when I finally have something that interests me? I couldn’t tell you exactly how I’m going to give it shape, but generally what I do is to research, and the material itself gives me the support as well as the technique. In some cases, I can work directly in drawing. If I can draw it, I simply do it, and if I can’t, I change the support or the route. I'm equipped with the advantage of having a series of tools to develop ideas, so in the end the result may be a photograph, an engraving, an installation, a drawing. I don’t have to look for special effects or anything beyond this world. The idea that I want to convey—there it is.
In the case of projects that go beyond the field of art, in which I have to work with communities, for example, other kinds of works are produced, because the experiences are different. It’s not simply thinking about how to develop it, but rather what the process generates. I can speak of topics such as motor disability, mental health… Knowledge is given through people. It’s another way of working on ideas.
My works are a matter of time. You have to sit down and let them simmer. It’s not that I’m in one place today, and tomorrow, in another. Sometimes there are ideas that prosper and others that don’t because there aren’t enough sources of information. Then, they’re abandoned. Without precise, clear information, I prefer to end or postpone the investigation. That’s why I’m not an artist who does exhibitions every year. I do individual exhibitions every eight years. One may emerge in-between, but I take years, almost a decade, to do each show. Nor am I an artist with an extraordinary production of work. If you take a look and follow my trajectory, I have few works.
AB: When I look at your works there is something particular, something current that is settled in past events—even the technique evokes another time. Do you feel like part of a tradition?
JJO: Yes, I feel like part of a tradition, but not one that’s interested in problems that have to do with light, color, or “informal gesture.” There is a lot of iconography in my work, the way an iconographer works. I work in forgetfulness, and if there’s a tradition there, that’s where I place myself. Religious iconography has its tricks to move you. And I take advantage of them. I study how those representations startle people. It’s a trick, even if what I’m telling you sounds a little perverse.
AB: You mention iconographers. I have always thought that you are a kind of perverse priest or that you move—forgive the hackneyed terms—between the erotic and the religious. One of your favorite films is Andrei Rublev and your favorite director, your point of reference, is Tarkovsky. Tell me about these tricks, of communion and emotion, in the face of the supernatural, of necropolitics and the cult of the dead. All this, it seems to me, is framed within your work. Violence and rapture. In other words, someone who knows nothing of contemporary art could see “something” that doesn’t exclusively belong to contemporary art.
JJO: I can’t give you names. Because when I talk about iconography and iconographers, I’m not talking about people, per se, I’m talking about the way one works. I think that iconographers go from darkness to light, and that’s just what I want to do, that’s the way that I want to work.
When I was a young boy, my house was right in front of an art store. Every time someone gave me money, I went there and spent it all. I bought paper, paints—whatever I had, I spent it there. And I tested, I scribbled, I damaged, I did everything I wanted to do with those materials. Thanks to that desire to experiment with everything I had, I learned about them. That’s my life, a permanent investigation, since I was a child. After that, long after that, I learned about alchemy. I was interested in knowing how materials were made, and that’s why I’ve learned and discovered how to make pigments, bit by bit, on my own. I’m interested in my works having rare materials, strange pigments. I like to mix things, to know why the dye made from a bean produces a color similar to blood when measured just right… because if you do it wrong, it could be closer to green or gold. That is to say, this is cooking. That’s how I’ve learned: testing. I make chalk, I make brushes, I make everything I need to work; I fabricate it myself. Here in Lima I’ve tried making dyes with wheat mote and with pseudocereals like red and black quinoa, with kiwicha (amaranth), chia seed, maca, canihua…
Perhaps it’s the cult of the dead that interests me. I love how it is addressed in all aspects. Not just in art, but in science. If I were not an artist, I’d be in forensics. It brings me ecstasy, death fascinates me. I’m linked to it. I’ve seen it in person. I can accept it and live with its brute strength.
AB: You work with political and social icons such as the Porteñazo, the Caracazo, the Torre de David, the exhumation of Bolívar, icons of political history. What are you looking for in these events or symbols?
JJO: I’m looking for the origin, their cause, what produced them, or how and why they were produced.
AB: The photo of the Porteñazo by Héctor Rondón is a pietà you recreated in small sculptures, and it’s quite similar to the last scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. From Tarkovsky—and I know this firsthand because it’s part of our work La Torre de David—we take the “sap green” used to tint the photos of the audiovisual film El elefante blanco.
JJO: Tarkovsky said that images stick in the memory better when they’re in duotone, not black and white. It’s not like he used or manipulated black and white, but rather those landscapes you see in his Polaroids or in his films that seem to be black and white… they’re not, they’re in duotone color. That’s what I was referring to and why I suggested the “sap green” for the El elefante blanco video, so it would stick better in the memory.
One of the things that interests me about Andrei Tarkovsky, for example, is how in the film The Mirror he manages to awaken the consciousness of a child. He does it through the idea of “sculpting in time.” That film awakened my consciousness, and it’s the most real film I’ve seen in all my life. That’s why he’s one of my heroes and why I admire him so much.
AB: The images of the events with which you work are always related to death, of something that dies, that burns: the charred hands of Rómulo Betancourt in Que se me quemen las manos and the exhibit you titled Me cambio el nombre, after Hugo Chavez’s line promising there would be no more street children, thanks to his government. What are you looking for when you approach these topics?
JJO: I’m a kind of chronicler of my age, or I’d like to be. I feel it’s my responsibility. This has a lot to do with the idea of Los desastres de la guerra by Goya, which I transformed into the disasters of guerrilla warfare, from the experiences with victims of violence on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Human beings are the only animals who enjoy harming themselves. And the more damage one can cause without killing oneself, the better. The theme of contramuerte (counter-death) makes up part of three spaces: to kill, to finish off, and to counter-kill. These are the steps to get to contramuerte: it’s a way to send a message. There’s a revenge. To counter-kill is to take away all dignity from a human body. It’s a clear message. There are many cuts that can be made with the victim still living, or the cuts can be made once they're dead, reconstituting the body in another shape. There, in the plains, I worked with victims of violence, and I did a work of iconographic reconstruction with a theme that seemed strange or impossible—but it exists, it’s there, and there are victims of this phenomenon every day.
AB: What are you working on now, or what have you just finished?
JJO: In March of 2020 I opened the show La locura más peligrosa de América [America’s Most Threatening Madness] at the Galería Municipal de Arte Pancho Fierro in downtown Lima, curated by Fabiola Arroyo. We worked on this idea for a little more than two years. The project is conceived as an exercise in comparative memory between the imaginaries of Peru and Venezuela. It was presented in the Peruvian local context because Peru is the country with the second largest number of Venezuelan immigrants, due to the greatest displacement of humans in the continent’s history. Beyond the theme of forced displacement, the exhibition makes visible several diverse problematics, such as authoritarianism, terrorism, violence, necropolitics, and corruption, which invite you to reflect on the past and present of Latin America without trying to build or restore memory, instead showing it in all its fragility and contradictions, in its rawness.
It’s not a closed project; it’s open to new interpretations and meanings. I invited other artists because that’s part of my work methodology, my experience of collective work. The idea to give space to other voices also came out of the curatorial exchange with Fabiola. In this project, dialogues were created among four artists, in some cases with works that have common themes, and in others because of the need to widen them.
I arrived in Lima on March 3, 2020, to install the exhibition. A short time later we were confined. I was in Peru for months. The borders were closed, and I couldn’t go home to my family, which is what I wanted to do.