Whiteness, immensity, humility: Interview with Argentine artist Claudia Fontes

This interview is part of the cycle “ART AND SUSTAINABILITY, Contemporary Interconnections II”, realized by PAN + the Paco Urondo University Cultural Center, belonging to the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (UBA).

* By Isabella Sánchez

“Seven sisters” chalk cliffs, South Downs East Sussex, UK. © Michael Charles

Claudia Fontes, an Argentine artist based in England. She represented Argentina at the 57th Venice Biennale with her installation “The Horse Problem” (2017). In 2018 she was one of the seven artist-curators of the 33rd Sao Paulo Biennial for which she created the section “The Slow Bird”. Her works have been exhibited at the Documenta de Kassel (2012) and Frieze Sculpture Park (2011) among others. Her work is part of collections in Museums and private collections in Latin America, the United States, Europe, and Australia.

Isabella Sánchez: Do you remember a moment in childhood where nature impacted you?

Claudia Fontes: Yes, in my childhood I was a member of ClubAndino Bariloche. We traveled there every year and were close friends with a very active family from the club. I did a lot of mountaineering with a mountain guide. So, from a very young age, I learned to respect the nature around me. I remember receiving compliments from my dad and this man (I was 6 or 7 years old) because he was very good at evaluating which stone to step on so as not to skid when crossing streams. I also learned to distinguish between two very similar southern plants, through the leaves, I learned not to litter. Well, to learn to be silent, to sit on top of a rock and be silent. All of that came from my dad’s hand.

One moment that I especially remember was a snowstorm, which caught us going up Cerro Tronador, and I did not have mountain shoes, and the next day we went out and it was absolutely snowy and we had lost all references, but I remember that this guide, Fredy, I was putting sticks with handkerchiefs to have a reference the next day and know how to get down. Because when it snows the landscape changes absolutely and you cannot recognize where to go, and in that area, you can easily fall into the glacier and it can be fatal. I remember that time because my dad was very nervous and the amount of snow-covered me. I also remember him massaging my feet because he was afraid that I would lose them, that I would lose a finger. That was an adventure that I had, on the one hand, the privilege of being in the mountains, of seeing how the landscape changes from one day to the next due to the snow, and at the same time the terrible respect because the fear of my father and also the confidence of giving yourself to the people you are with.

Everything ended very well, but perhaps that was a very shocking experience of feeling a lot of respect and the true scale of the human in that landscape, which is tiny. I was 8 or 9 years old.

IS: Is there something of that that is reflected/maintained in your work?

CF: I think so. The theme of scale in relation to nature and landscape possibly comes from that experience of humility in front of nature. I am thinking, for example, of Pablo Miguez’s Portrait Reconstruction in the Memory Park, that although the sculpture is one size at a time, it is in real scale, because it is placed in the immensity of the river, it is very small. There are also the Foreigners, there is something of that, of the small scale.

“Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Míguez”. © Claudia Fontes
© PH Juan Manuel Laurens / GCBA / gv
“Foreigners”. © Bernard G. Mills

IS: Changing country implied a change in your relationship with the environment? For example, did you have to change habits? Do the two societies have a different relationship with sustainability (in general and artistically) for you?

CF: Yes, changing the country implied, of course, a change with the environment, learning to identify my environment with their names in English and species that do not exist in Argentina and vice versa. I think it is because of the latitude, although I live in Brighton, which is a maritime town, maintaining the garden of my house I think taught me a lot. The plants, the quality of the landscape has something to do with southern Argentina. The plants that grow wild, the rosehip, the raspberry, the blackberry, remind me a lot of my childhood. In that sense, I think it’s a nice link between the two. My relationship with nature was formed earlier, in my childhood on those trips to the south.

I think that with regard to societies, the generalizations are complicated, the people who live in Brighton are not the same as in London. Brighton is the only place that has a green agenda, the only green party MP in the whole country is from Brighton, and it has a very strong green agenda, and I think that attracts very conscientious people in that regard. There are many groups, organizations, and projects that have to do with recycling and sustainability.

For example, there is an organization so that food is not wasted, there is a normal public transport system but then there is an alternative one that makes some routes that work with the oil that is recycled from restaurants, hotels and family homes, so we recycle the oil with which we cook, for example. Little by little it is very easy to come across these proposals and join. For example, people who raise bees and make honey from the neighborhood, local honey, there was a neighbor who had no more room for panels and asked other neighbors with bigger gardens in exchange for giving them, free honey.

That issue of permaculture design, in Argentina, has been missing for 20 years, so it seems unfair to compare, but I see through social networks that a lot of those things are happening as well. Perhaps it is more difficult because they do not receive such explicit support from the State, or from governments, while here you can access scholarships if you have initiatives.

That in general, and in the artistic sphere, I don’t know exactly what you mean, but when I think about sustainability in art, I think of two questions.

On the one hand, what is the sustainability of the artists? What do artists live on in order to continue making art? and the other thing is that it seems to me that art is a service that is taken for granted, that it will always exist. I like to compare it to the pollination of bees. There was a time, not so long ago, when no one imagined a world in which there was a danger of high pollination. Pollination was seen as a service provided free of charge by bees. Now we know that the bees are dying, and if we continue like this we will have to make robot bees to pollinate the plants. Some of that seems to me to be the case with art. I like to make this analogy because art, creativity (as human capacity), artists’ capacity for innovation seem to be co-opted by capital, which imposes certain rules of transformation and not others.

I think that certain artists can know that we can do certain works and not others due to lack of funds, or if you sell works, certain works are sold and not others or they are sold more easily. All these things affect one’s practice because in the basic question of sustainability, in this case, what do artists live on?

To that, we can add the question of whether we can imagine virtuous, sustainable cycles. For me, this is something that although it always worried me, is difficult to do because the laws of the game are already set in a way that points to non-sustainability. So it is a process that is slower, in which one can join and try to imagine spaces, modes of exhibition, and circulation of works that are more than human, and in that sense, sustainable. You can’t always, that’s the tragedy. For example, I presented a project for the High Line in New York, which was going to be a sculpture-like my Foreigners but monumental considering that the monument is always a habitat anyway, historically birds have always taken statues and monuments as habitat. And the proposal, as the sculpture has to be on the High Line for 18 months, is that it be a habitat for birds while it was there and after 18 months it was going to be put at the bottom of the Hudson River to transform it into a habitat for oysters. And this function of sculpture as habitat was an intrinsic part of the work. That is, it is not a trick that I added at the end to make it sustainable. I quote this because I consider it a virtuous example, if it could have been given because they did not choose me, they preferred a pure and simple work. That’s what I said, it was a beautiful project but I couldn’t do it, and it was very situated in that place. I mean, I can’t do it anywhere else because basically, no one is going to pay you to put something in the sea at the end of everything. So these kinds of questions, I think it is difficult to ask an artist to have them resolved because the world is not resolved. So it is very difficult to do something virtuous in a vacuum.
Now I don’t know about comparing the two scenes, because I look at the Argentine scene from afar, and for personal reasons, every time I travel there I never have time to find out more, it is a debt. I would like to take a trip to Argentina and visit workshops, see samples, and understand what is being done. So it’s difficult for me to compare, and I don’t know the English scene that much either, I do my thing, it’s not that I’m in a scene. I get projects and I do them, and generally, they are international projects that do not depend on a scene.

IS: Did your work transform after that change in spatiality? Did you incorporate new materials?

CF: Well yes. The Foreigner series was not the first thing I did in England but it was the first thing I from England. I wanted to work with porcelain, but my choice of material is never naive, or simply sensual, but it is because I am very interested in the history of that material, that is, the situated question. What is the story, what does it represent for the people, where am I, etc.

And in that sense, I started working on all these white works, but I think it has to do with where I landed, which are the South Downs in Sussex, southern England, if you look at photos of the coast, they are white cliffs. The cliffs of Dover have been known since World War II because they are so white they glow when a ship or ferry is arriving. And well, they are chalk cliffs. Where I live is as if it were the bottom of the sea, because at some point the sea covered the entire area. Unfortunately, it will not be that long for me to do it again. And that generated the calcareous sediment from which this earth is made. It is the sediment of millions and millions of crustaceans of millions of years that have been compacted, and that is the floor that I tread every day. That is, we have a capital of fertile humus, 5 cm or 10 cm, but there is chalk below. So the vegetation that grows in this calcareous meadow is very diverse. It is one of the most diverse areas in the world, along with Costa Rica, but it is diverse precisely because life is very fragile because it has nowhere to hold on. That idea is very interesting.

Cliffs of Seven Sisters. © Viator

IS: Could we say that the materials, works, and artists are influenced “territorially”?

CF: Calling them territory is another story, it’s complicated. I think they are related, relationally in the sense that one, the artist in the best of cases is a medium, is someone who establishes a zone of mediality between all the things that surround him/her, whether they are human or non-human persons, different species, the wind, the fog, the materials that surround you, the artists that surround you and the non-artists that surround you. So I don’t know if they depend on a territory, because territory resonates with animal behavior, which I don’t know if it is so, but rather a relational behavior, beyond the fact that we are animals.

IS: What does it mean for you to intervene in public spaces?

CF: I have to clarify that I hate the word intervene because I am from a generation that lived under dictatorship and the word intervention sounds to me like the decrees of necessity and urgency. The intervention of provinces, companies, unions. When something is not flowing the way it should, you intervene. That is my definition of intervention, therefore I am going to ignore that word, and more than intervening in public spaces, it would be inhabiting them for me. For me, it is a luxury and it is a responsibility. It is both.

When inhabiting that public space is permanent, as in the case of Parque de la Memoria, it is a gift for life. In this specific case because it worked well, but it could also be that one does something and it does not work, imagine that it remains permanent, it must be very painful, like karma for life. But hey in my case so far at least, it is a great reward and it continues to work.

When you put something in the space or add something, it is as if it were a vessel. In other words, it is a container that people will fill with their own interpretations, moods, looks linked to a specific day, a specific time, or a specific generation. And that is the enriching thing when one exhibits a work.

A work that is permanently exposed, is exposed to everything, is exposed to grow, with the eyes of the people I think that is what happened in the case of Reconstruction, but it is also exposed to transform itself into what people need it to be., which can become a joke, a geographic reference point and nothing more, is delicate. I have flirted with that situation several times, every so often a proposal appears where they ask me for a project, the last one was for a place in Brooklyn but I did not stay, so my only experience is that of Pablo Miguez on a permanent level.

On a temporary level, I did it several times, and it is much more interesting to me than the white cube. It has always been very difficult for me to start from a blank sheet, a blank hoop, or a blank space. It seems to me that “blank” does not exist, that one always starts from a text that precedes it. I’m not that kind of artist, I really admire people who can deal with a blank frame, or whatever.

I see that there is a continuum to which I join, there is like a flow of information, of sensations, of perceptions that is out there circling between things and the only thing that one does when doing work is to locate the matter at some point, suddenly it functions as an aleph, an object or a subject (because we might see the work of art as a subject as well) that suddenly conglomerates or attracts all kinds of information and entities that depend on that specific site.

IS: In other interviews, you mention that in your work you “put your body on”, does that imply a political gesture for you? What does it mean to you?

CF: For me, it means the only way I have to do work. It is a political gesture of course, everybody is political, human, and not human. It is a political gesture, yes. Being is a political gesture. Saying “I’m going to stay here and I’m going to say this, or I’m going to relate this to this and see what happens.” I see it as a political gesture, and being with the body, specifically, what is the only thing we have, is the only capital with which we came to the world and that we are going to take away. I mean, we are going to leave it to feed other bodies, but we come alone and we go alone, and we come with that body that is a container that we receive, it seems to me, to take care of it and be able to navigate with that container. In that sense, when someone navigates within a sample, as a spectator, they enter with that body that has specific antennas, and with those antennas, they capture certain sensory information, interpret it and transform it, pass it from that place to another, or to reading.  I do not see the body as a static thing and above all as an individual thing, For me, the body is a certain organization of cells, organized in a certain way, that will live in that organized way for a certain time. and the decisions that are made about how to live that time, how to nourish oneself, what to see, and what not to see for me are all political decisions.

IS: Does your technique seek to generate something in the public? What function or objective do you find in artistic practice?

CF: I am not such a technical person. I think technique is important, for example, in the Foreigners series. The fact that the clay is smoothed or surface-treated in a certain way, which is a technique, is important because it creates a certain attraction in the viewer that has to do with scale. I mean, if I made the clay rough, it wouldn’t work as well. There is something in the perceptual for which it is important. It has to do with the first call for attention that every work of art makes to the viewer. Depending on the technique one chooses to use, it is the kind of wake-up call that he is making. For example, passing it on to the voice, it is not the same to shout with a court voice, than to sing with the imposed voice of the lyrical technique or to sing a lullaby. Three absolutely valid ways to get attention.

Usually, I feel more comfortable in that lullaby, in that analogy, but hey, in that sense, a technique for me is how you decide to start a conversation. You are conversing with another, if you speak slowly if you give the floor to the other or not. Well, all the decisions one makes in conversation. If one wants to fill the holes of silence that is done, or not. All those decisions have to do with technique.

As for function and purpose, perhaps the wonderful thing about artistic practice is that it does not have a specific function or purpose. It is not teleological. The most beautiful thing about artistic practice is that it is. And that when one decides that a work is “finished” when a process starts with work and suddenly that process stops, and one perceives that the process has stopped and says it’s okay, and you put it away, you put it in the oven, there is a result. Is it what people are going to see in an exhibition or is it what I take a picture of to put on my website.

But in reality, everything is a continuum, in reality, that work one just got rid of to be able to start another. Yes, in that sense it seems to me that one is not looking for an end. Let’s say that I believe that the human artist has a capacity for imagination that I believe must be exercised, which is not a duty. I have no other choice, it is how I see the world, if I stopped making art I would not be able to see the world.

IS: With the pandemic, did you find a new way of creating? Besides the difficulties that the artists went through, were you able to find any strength?

CF: Yes, calmer. I am an introvert and the pandemic gave me a lot of freedom in that sense. It causes me a lot of distraction and loss of energy when people come to visit the workshop, when I have to prepare documentation, update the website, the CV, I hate all that, so in the pandemic, I did a lot of that, I got rid of it. Everything was updated and then I was left with a much freer space for experimentation. It is a continuum of a process that I had been doing before, for example with the São Paulo Biennial, I put together a trio with Paula Fleisner, a philosopher and Pablo Martin Ruiz, a writer and translator, and we put together a project called La Intermundial Holobiente and we went on a year and a half discussing the conceptual aspects of a project that I proposed. And yes, I wish for each work I could do so much research and work so hard. But hey with this specific project I am investigating many questions that have always interested me and that feed the rest of my work anyway.
I found several strengths, being able to work quietly, without interference. Just before the pandemic, I had just built a workshop in the back of my house, small but mine.

Then I stopped renting, and it was very, very good because for the first time I was able to work as I did at the beginning, which also had the workshop in my house. That instead of having the workshop and spending 8 hours, sometimes doing work and sometimes not, or having to cut, now my whole life is, that is, I go to the workshop, I go out, do something, I cook, I take care of the plants, I come back to the workshop, I keep working, sometimes I stay late at night, which I love because I focus a lot to work. So I found strengths in the sense that I found a way of working, or I found myself with a way of working that I did not have until before having my son.

IS: To close the interview, I would like to ask a more playful but -I think- significant question in your work: if you could be another living being for 24 hours, what would you like to be? why? Is this gaze – the perspective of the other non-human – transversal when creating for you?

CF: I think I would like to be a mountain because I think it would be good to be still and with the perspective that a mountain has. For me, a mountain is a living being. I remember once in Jujuy, in Pucará de Tilcara, they told me that the mountain range moves 10 millimeters per year, and it seemed beautiful to me. They did not explain to me where it is moving. I would like to experience that speed, and see the world from that place. It seems to me that I would see something completely different and it would be wonderful. It must be the closest thing to nirvana.

That look, I don’t know if it is transversal, it is in everything I do and since I was a child, and of course also when I do work. Perhaps when I began to be an artist I paid much more attention to the behavior of materials, understanding myself almost like animals and I always chose the materials to learn from them, that is, to learn a certain muscle tone, or learn a certain strength or a certain delicacy, that’s what the materials give you. And for that reason, for me, the material is alive, even if it is clay or a plant.

* Isabella Sánchez is an undergraduate student of the Arts degree at the University of Buenos Aires.

© Portrait Claudia Fontes. Courtesy of the artist.
© Claudia Fontes, “Foreigners”. PH Ariel Authier
© Claudia Fontes, “The horse problem”, Sculptural installation.
Marble and resin dust, wall and shadows. / Argentina Pavilion, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale, Italy, 2017
© Claudia Fontes, “The horse problem”, Sculptural installation. Marble and resin dust, wall and shadows. / Argentina Pavilion, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale, Italy, 2017
© Claudia Fontes. Footnote, 2018. Installation made with porcelain fragments. Variable dimensions. / 33rd São Paulo Biennial Affective Affinities
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