The Artist Constructs Himself
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The Artist Constructs Himself

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film (video still), 2009

With his own hands my maternal grandfather built
the house that my uncle and grandmother still live in
today. There’s a photograph that records the beginning
of this long and definitely unfinished process.
You see the empty lot of the Iponá neighborhood,
just behind the University of Cordoba, Argentina.
My grandmother is fixing a kerchief on her head,
fighting against the wind, while my grandfather
traces the space that would be occupied by, I suppose,
the living room, dining room, and bedrooms
with some loose bricks. Sitting in the background
you can see my uncle, still really small, playing on
the grass. By that time, the end of March 1976, my
mom, who was twenty-three, had gone into exile to
Mexico with my dad.

Paradigm. That was the first word Abraham wrote on the
blackboard. I remember perfectly well because “paradigm”
(paradigma) has three a’s, just like his name, and also because
he handwrites the roman a: a, a, a. The word stuck
not just because it seemed uncommon for someone to write
this way, but also because it was a new word for me. We were
about twenty-five students taking our first visual knowledge
theory class. I was seventeen and had just graduated from
high school. It’s strange because, in a way, that first class
became itself a sort of paradigm. Most of us didn’t even
know why we were there.

My grandfather built the house while the military
disappeared more and more young students and
while others left the country, threatened with imprisonment,
torture, or death. My parents came to
Mexico City with $100 dollars in their pocket, two
bags of clothes, and nothing else. My grandparents
didn’t understand what was happening, or didn’t
want to understand. Mom and Dad started from
scratch—their first house was a maid’s room in an
exiled Chilean couple’s place. The photographs of
the foundations, the walls, the fruit tree saplings in
the garden, my grandfather working and speaking
with the workers, my grandmother organizing a picnic
in the middle of the construction, and my uncle
playing in the grass started arriving in Mexico. Soon
after, my parents managed to find some classes at
the Acatlán National University, and they rented
a small apartment in the Roma neighborhood.

Construction progressed, especially on weekends
when my grandfather didn’t have to go work as a
bureaucrat at the Aviation School offices. While the
house in Iponá kept rising, the dictatorship became
harsher. The possibility of coming back became
more distant.

The handwriting from my notes is almost illegible. The light in
the classroom used to be turned off, and I could only write in
the dark while the slideshow kept going. I came back to my
notebooks a few days ago and unearthed the first sentences.

Theory of visual knowledge,
Abraham Cruzvillegas.
1st semester, August, 1999.

Paradigm: epistemological break, according to Kuhn.
What stops being true through new knowledge.
Art is also knowledge (not just pleasure).
Duchamp: paradigm of 20th-century art.
*The artist constructs himself.
Any rupture brings with it a critical movement.

I was struck, above all, by the fifth line. I have no idea
why I put an asterisk before it, but this sentence now
seems key to understanding Abraham’s work.

My grandparents and my uncle moved into the Iponá
house before it was finished. It was a sort of functioning
construction site that allowed them to save
on rent and use that money to finish it little by little.
We made our first trip to Argentina once the democracy
was restored, when Alfonsín became president
in 1983. I was two years old. In the living room, my
grandfather had left an empty space to build the
staircase that would lead to a second floor where
my mom, my dad, my brother, and I would live. That
second floor was never built and my parents never
returned to live in Argentina, either. My grandfather
died pretty young and the house stayed exactly as
he left it, with the added patina of thirty years of
wear: the unplastered walls, the untiled bathroom,
wiring that will not allow for the washing machine
to be turned on at the same time as the AC, and the
dozens of knickknacks piled in barely comprehensible
mounds, covered in dust and grime.

Every time I am confronted with Abraham’s work, those
randomly piled objects at my grandmother’s house come
to mind. In Mexico, this kind of accumulation is associated
with Breton’s condemnation of the country to surrealism.
I think this isn’t so. A pile of unpaid bills and
news clippings archived in the wedding present box, with
a large yellow bow, on an old stool; or the savings and
old money that an aunt hid in the vitamin jar under the
great-grandmother’s wardrobe have nothing to do with
the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing
machine and an umbrella” that Lautréamont imagined.
There is something in that way of accumulating and of
making unrelated objects coexist that, rather, reflects an
unstable—and perhaps contradictory—condition between
resistance and abandonment; a way of stacking that has
more to do with keeping the remains of personal history,
with preserving the tracks of an effort to survive.

Some time after, my mom got two classes at
National University in the philosophy and literature
department, and she left Acatlán. More or less at
the same time, Abraham decided to study pedagogy instead of visual arts because he was interested in changing arts education in Mexico. In the end it was
that utopian project that led him to teaching, at a
very young age, at the ENAP (National Plastic Arts
School) and then at La Esmeralda (the National
Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School). On
that first day of classes, when Abraham took attendance,
he recognized in my names that of the
woman who had been his undergraduate professor
and automatically drew a chain of coincidences,
a sort of genealogy, which, according to me,
is fundamentally rooted in resistance. Or at least
that’s how I explain it to myself since I understood
Abraham’s work and remembered my mom teaching
classes in a country that wasn’t her own and
to which she had arrived fleeing catastrophe. The
classroom was a space in which she was not afraid
and in which she moved freely.

Abraham was my teacher again, during my senior year,
for thesis seminar. I remember that at that time he was
obsessed with a question: what are the conditions that
allow us to be here today? Each time I heard him ask it, I
tried to come up with an inner answer. The first thing that
came to mind was that I had enrolled at the Esmeralda
School because in 1999 the UNAM (Universidad Nacional
Autónoma de México) was undergoing its historic and
endless strike. I even thought that I was there because
I had taken drawing and painting classes since I was a
little girl. But the question is deeply ontological, almost
unanswerable, and he repeated and reformulated it constantly.
Each week I would try out a new answer, unsuccessfully:
what are the conditions that allow you to dedicate
yourselves to the production of art objects? Now I
think that these conditions lie further back in time, in a
time that precedes my birth. Dictatorship, for example:
one of my family history’s most important paradigms.
The history of the house in Iponá, the only trench left to
us after the coup. This house, at once abandoned and
suspended in time, is the only column of Argentina left
in my family’s life. It mirrors each and every one of the
consequences of “The Process,” which is what the military
called its tyranny. But I believe that the history of
a house is also, in a way, the adventure that brought us
here. The family saga. And both in Abraham’s story and
mine, the origin is disastrous.

It took me a while to realize there is no representation
in Abraham’s work. We learn to see signs of
the real even in the most abstract, but beyond the
objects I couldn’t see the bottom of those accumulations,
of those seemingly impossible exercises,
fulfilled with a rash and liberating hedonism. It was
the story of his house that put everything in perspective:
a house in constant construction, deconstruction,
and transformation, subject to the fragility of that which is unplanned. Abraham turned the story
of that autoconstrucción into his work system—a
system in which contradiction and the unforeseen
are essential tools. This is why, as if we strolled
through the marginal areas of Mexico City, it’s not
uncommon to find two mortars, a wood and wire
pedestal; or two crates on top of one another with
a conch and an aloe on top; or a giant tin of vegetable
oil with strips of wood on top and a necklace
of oranges hanging from the ceiling. Each piece
makes a sort of paradigm from which it is possible
to start anew, because nothing is finished. The
artist builds himself and unmakes himself piece by
piece; he self-constructs, as if he were a wall where
cement is always wet and bricks can be shifted.

Abraham’s autoconstrucción system also propounds to
have that sense of community that allowed his parents
and other families to take over the land in which they
built their homes. It appears as an open form of collaboration:
leaving his work to be transformed in the
hands of others, or even to start from others. But it also
relates to something deeper. The freedom with which
he brings together objects and dissimilar concerns in
his sculptures—the freedom with which he takes hold of
them—has to do with that original act of appropriation of
the land where his parents finally built their own house.
He grew up on that which is, above all, a transgression
that was at the same time the consequence of a rupture.
A rupture that constantly confronts whoever tries to survive
the persistent crises in Mexico, or a rupture like
the one produced in my family by the Argentinean dictatorship.
Transgression therefore takes the shape of a
space of autonomy, as was, for example, the classroom
for my mom, or the one where Abraham was my teacher.
Transgression is another way of naming the paradigm,
the rupture; and that is the condition that allows us to
be here today.

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