“I use ‘dead’ things, or materials people think of
as garbage,” says Abraham Cruzvillegas, “and
give them a new use by revealing instead of hiding
their nature.” Over the past 10 years, the
Mexico City–based artist has become recognized
as a key figure among his generation,
bringing a fresh conceptual strategy to the use
of found materials and improvisational processes.
The result is a riveting body of work that he
calls autoconstrucción, or “self-construction,”
made from found objects to which he’s given
new life while working in urban and rural environments
in Mexico City; New York; Paris and
Saché, France; Glasgow, London, and Oxford,
UK; and Gwangju, South Korea.
Each of these commonplace components
contributes its own striking character and
seemingly precarious form to a sculpture or
installation. Here, the artist sheds light on
his practice and how it underpins his artistic
vision while also serving as a metaphor for
the construction of his own identity. Abraham
Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites is
the first major exhibition to focus on this multifaceted
The autoconstrucción concept comes from a building
technique that is led by specific needs of a
family and by the lack of funds to pay for constructing
an entire house at once. People build their own
homes slowly and sporadically, as they can, with
limited money, with the collaboration of all family
members and the solidarity of neighbors, relatives,
and friends. Houses show the autoconstrucción
process in their layers, through which it is possible
to experience their transformations, modifications,
cancellations, and destructions; they evolve according
to changes in the lives of their residents.
Aesthetic decisions are intertwined with the
ability of the builders to use anything available
or at hand, depending on place, circumstance, or
chance. The combinations of materials and hybrid
construction strategies are very rich and diverse.
Autoconstrucción is not a weekend hobby; it’s not
bricolage or DIY culture—it’s a consequence of
unfair wealth distribution. As opposed to massive
building projects, it points to an autonomous and
independent architecture that is far from any planning
or draft: it’s improvised.
While this kind of building happens all around
the world, as in Brazilian favelas or South African
shanty towns, in my personal experience I lived
with autoconstrucción during the first half of my
life, witnessing the evolution of my parent’s house
in Ajusco, south of Mexico City. This is a land of
volcanic rock that was settled starting in the early
1960s by immigrants from the countryside looking
for a better life in the big city.
Bit by bit, they started building houses with
lava stones and recycled materials gathered in other
neighborhoods. For years there was no water
and in general, no services at all. Fighting for this
land to become property, as well for streets, access
to electricity, etc., became an everyday activity.
Women became leaders in those movements, along
with young guys and children, while men were
working, many of them as construction workers in
so-called modern Mexico.
When I Started to Use It
I have appropriated the term “autoconstrucción” as
a name for all my work since 2007, when I improvised
a whole exhibition in New York, working
only with materials found around a gallery. I was
attempting to reproduce the dynamics of autoconstrucción—rather than represent the results, I
wanted to activate the process. I started working
with the idea as a personal fact (and not as a chosen
subject matter) that had been underlying my work
since 1999, when I took many pictures of the houses
in my neighborhood, the volcanic rock there, and
details of my parents’ house.
Then I wrote the story of my own experience,
what I witnessed all those years, without nostalgia—
just facts. This text became a book accompanied
by many images, including some lent by neighbors,
captured during the early years of the autoconstrucción.
It was published in Glasgow, where I was invited
by Francis McKee to do a project at the Centre
for Contemporary Art. At this point I’ve made
autoconstrucción sculptures, drawings, paintings,
videos, a theatrical play, and a film. Maybe it’s time
to move to “autodestrucción.”
What It Means
As a structure in which everything is possible,
autoconstrucción can take shape in infinite
and diverse ways. It is a way of thinking more
than a method or a technique; it’s a way of life.
Improvisation and testing all kinds of combinations
according to specific needs (like expressing
oneself) are rules of autoconstrucción, rules that
provide absolute freedom. For me, autoconstrucción
is the most authentic type of creativity,
because it blooms in the most adverse circumstances.
It’s pure ingenuity and will, fueled by
hermeneutics, use, function and/or contradiction.
It is transparency, simplicity, and change.
System of Production/Ideological Framework
It’s easy to perceive the economic and cultural
origins of the materials composing an autoconstrucción;
and this evidence produces complex
readings for both viewers and inhabitants. The
will to construct is more important than the
aesthetic or economic value of any or all of the
materials that might be used. When an object is
discarded by a person, it’s valueless; for autoconstrucción,
it could be seen as prime matter. Autoconstrucción does not deal with garbage, but
with prime matter.
Recycling has only recently become a widespread
practice, but for centuries in so-called underdeveloped
countries, scavenging and harvesting
used materials and objects has been an activity.
Pepenadores in Mexico pick cardboard, metals,
discarded furniture, cans, bottles, paper, and other materials from the garbage in order to give them a new life. They collect, classify, accumulate, resell,
and transform these goods. Then a new cycle
starts. When I make an artwork with found objects
or materials—i.e., aluminum, wood, a forgotten
bicycle, my own hair, shark jaws, a cowbell, teeth,
a chair, wax, coins, plastic, or sheep dung—they
retain their original qualities and defects.
Even if the piece is later dismantled, its fragments
remain as they were before they were
incorporated: there is no alchemical transformation,
there is no trick or magic. Transformation
occurs only in the viewer’s mind. And in my hands,
of course. So, a stone is a stone before, during, and
after the art/architecture approach; it does not
represent anything else but a stone being a stone as
a stone. When the same stone is removed from the
pavement to be thrown over a police barricade, or
through the window of a government office, it will
still be a stone. But a happy one.
Autoconstrucción meant for me, for many
years before making art, a constant struggle with
authority, and not only because of growing up in a
challenging situation, learning to deal with scarcity,
solidarity, roughness, and resistance to the
environment, to the local governors, to self-indulgence.
Now it’s more an ideological consequence
in which all my acts involve my genealogy and
my future as trying to arrive to a certain degree
of consciousness based in all that I’ve mentioned
above. Autoconstrucción is not biographical or
anecdotal, is not narrative, it’s not thematic or communicative.
It is the very expression of survival
and work. It’s also humorous, ironic, paradoxical,
“For me, autoconstrucción is the most authentic type of creativity because it blooms in the most adverse circumstances. It’s pure ingenuity and will. … It is transparency, simplicity, and change.”