Interview with: Santiago Robles
Santiago Robles work is mostly related with art and the environment, as well as collaborative art schemes, he has focused his latest efforts on developing projects that impact different social groups within Mexico.
In 2021, and in the midst of a global pandemic, he has just published the book titled ‘We all cook, we all eat. Collaborative art
projects in the public space of Mexico City’, where he states the importance of listening, the recognition of diversity and differences, as necessary elements in the actual contemporary art scene. He conceives the figure of the artist as an urban researcher, a kind of naturalist who walks through the city rediscovering it’s ecosystem, making it his object of study and laboratory for experimentation.
His most recent project called, ‘Zones of transition’, consists of letting himself be carried away freely through extensive walks in order to better understand the relationship of tension between the urban and the rural landscapes, and share his experience through paintings, narrative descriptions, photographic images, drawings of the environment, maps, ambient sounds and dialogues with the inhabitants of these territories.
Welcome Santiago, I would like to start this interview from the beginning, do you remember which artist or which artwork moved something inside you when you were a child? How has this approach and references changed growing up?
The oldest drawing I own is an interpretation that I made of a total solar eclipse that could be observed from Mexico on July 11th 1991, when I was 6 years old. My mother is a biologist and my father organizes cultural activities. With her I traveled a lot to the countryside because she works on ecological restoration; on the other hand, my dad taught me the cultural importance of natural resources, we would go to a river that was next to our house and we drew magueys, which are Mexican succulent plants from
which a traditional drink is extracted. Therefore, my first artistic interests arose from a direct experience with nature and these influences can be identified today in my work.
However, the first encouragement that I remember made me want to create an artistic work already with some kind of awareness were the handicrafts of my country: the masks that are a legacy of pre-hispanic Mexico and that are used for ritual dances, black clay pieces that come from the southeast of Mexico and combine utility with aesthetics, alebrijes that are painted wood carvings that represent imaginary beings made up of mixtures of different animals, and above all, traditional painting on amate paper inspired me for its color, for the total representation of a geography and because it showed the cultural relations between man and nature.
As I grew up, I got to know the work of other artists and my references became more complex in a political, economic and social sense. The works that I was generating openly manifest a critical position in front of the facts, and this can be perceived in the works which I now present in Florence Contemporary Art. For example, the piece #RiveradelAtoyac, makes a reference to the cultural tools that build the peripheral communities in cities like Mexico City, as well as the market opportunity that precariousness in terms of exoticism can cause when shared through social networks.
How would you describe your practice to someone who doesn't know you? What are the recurring elements, themes, concepts you refer to?
Through my work I seek to formulate questions related to our current conditions, which allow us to question ourselves about the influence of economy and politics on our identities: In what way does the free market condition what we understand today as our own culture? How can we interpret the founding myths of our societies in a current way? How do global media traditions and practices converge? As different as the projects I carry out may seem, they are all related to each other and are part of a general idea: I am interested in promoting, from the artistic field, a reflection on the time we had to live. If dialogues are not generated with others, the artistic practice is meaningless. On the other hand, with my work I do not seek comfort or make pleasant pieces, since certain works
have involved a great physical effort and some of the results have strongly confronted me, rather I mainly seek to be honest with myself, and not operate under certain procedures or precepts just for the fact that they are a media trend or because the pieces, once formally and conceptually determined, can be condescending to the eye and the mind. My interests are broad and I try to keep an eye out for various manifestations, because I never know when or where ideas may arise.
Usually each artist has a different modus operandi, what is yours? How did your projects start and how do they develop?
I do not have a single working method, with each project I am interested in exploring a particular path, which adapts to the current conditions and, therefore, I often make mistakes before finding a result that I find satisfactory. My practice happens in different media and depending on the type of work, I prefer to operate alone or accompanied, in the same place or in motion, with one technique or another, in a private environment or in public space. It is common for my initiatives to include several of these modalities at different times in their development.
I carefully develop each part of the work, I am constantly reviewing them until I come up with different versions and outcomes. The final presentation, in an exhibition for example, is equivalent to the tip of an iceberg supported by a profound body of research that is not always visible to the public. This allows and supports a transdisciplinary archive in my studio, to which I return frequently. I also distrust that any topic, whatever it may be, can be weared out no matter how much it is investigated. The important thing is to propose a perspective so that others may judge its relevance.
What function do you attribute to your works and why?
The art that I am interested in making arises from interests that do not evade the conflict of the growing individualization of modern societies, but rather confront and expose it, through opening us up to the critical experience of being together, although at times it is rare, elusive or even annoying. I consider it can contribute to blur the secrecy that sometimes separates contemporary art from the public and, at the same time, experiences can be developed that allow progress in the opposite direction to the dehumanization and fragmentation, so characteristic of our time.
Therefore, I am interested in making a point out the fragile and diffuse border between what is considered self and what is strange, between the conception of self identity and finally, between them and us. Eduardo Galeano will describe it better: “From the Mayan language we learned that there is no hierarchy that separates the subject from the object because I drink the water that I drink and I am looked at by everything I look at, and we learned to greet like this: I am another you, you are another me."
Another identifiable role in my job is to generate a hybrid comment on globalization. Question how trademarks and social media have managed, in many ways, to take over our lives. This is the case of the wall piece called ‘Diseñorita’, which represents one of the icons that Mexican State has made official to define national identity. I decided to juxtapose other icons which were made sacred by another type of power: the economic one, which has proven to be the one that governs societies through an homogenizing way.
Finally, would you like to add something about your research and how your art has emerged previously?
As part of my research, I like to always keep in mind that we are not capable of seeing what is for what it is, but rather we have learned to see in a context and within a series of developed subjectivities. In other words, reality is not an immovable and absolute entity, it depends, as Akira Kurosawa showed us in his film Rashomón, on the perspective of who is observing it, who is analyzing it. The notions of reality, memory and historical facts are related in a complex way. Due to this, my work participates enthusiastically in the exercise of conceiving the past and the present as an inexhaustible source of reading, interpretation and generation of meanings. I have deep love and respect for my work. It is what I like to do the most, despite the difficulty involved in dedicating oneself in the visual arts world in a so-called third world country and in a context of late capitalism like the current one in Mexico (Has it been easy in any moment in history?). Art is my way of tracing a path to existence, of interpreting the world, of looking for the lights and shadows of our time, of looking for an ideal.