As the exhibition Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas (Frames) nears the end of its run at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, we present Part 2 of his excerpted interview with curator Elsa Vega and artist René Francisco Rodríguez.
Between 1980 and 1983, Ana Mendieta had contact with you and your group. Personally speaking, what did her presence and friendship mean to you?
Ana Mendieta was a link to the international artistic world. Encountering someone who came from that world, someone who in some way serves as a reference for you, was transcendental. I remember that she always carried a portfolio with which she could show all her work duly documented. By contrast, we had at most only slides or bad photographs of some of our works.
I hung out with Ana on many other occasions: she visited my house in Guanabo a number of times. Later, with Brey, we accompanied her to the area of the Escaleras de Jaruco, where she stayed several days working in the mountains and producing some of her most famous Silhouettes.
Despite any disagreements we had, Ana was a point of reference for many of us, and we admired her for her professional seriousness and for her stance of radical commitment to art. At that time, she hadn’t been turned into a mythical figure yet.
In much of your work you take mathematics as a point of departure. Your piece 15 625 ccm3 de relaciones first marked out this path in 1981. Would you say that mathematics serves the function of organizing your work? To what do you refer when you speak of a sensibility that is beyond numbers in themselves?
For years my work has been associated with scientific language—perhaps because I was interested in the methodology of other disciplines, because I used numbers, graphics, and concepts like series, combinatorics, and systems, and because of a metallic element in my work that is seemingly cold and not very emotional. However, really, I do not think that because one is using a language that includes annotations, graphics and symbols means that we are speaking about science.
In a general sense, I created works that functioned like systems sustained by a logical order and that were at the same time perceived emotionally with all the arbitrariness and depth that a work of art allows. This is the case of the series Configuraciones, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 15 625 cm3 de relaciones.
What significance did DieSiocho días have for you?
At the end of the 1980s, the new generations of students and artists understood the making of art differently from the way it was conceived a few years before. Volumen Uno was already considered a modernist (ancient) phenomenon and my withdrawal from artistic production almost a myth. José Angel Toirac and Tanya Angulo, who had recently completed their studies, proposed that I do a curatorial project that involved my reappearing in public.
What I proposed was to treat the gallery like a social space. A place where I could be a host for 18 days, inviting other artists and interacting with the public and thereby creating a changing artistic space.
Substituting the letter “c” for the “s” in the word “dieciocho” was a numerological artifice designed to create an enigma. There were performances, installations, collective works, video presentations, a diverse public, and finally, the production of a meal.
For me it was an interesting space of coexistence in the arid environment of Havana at the time. An art project that was more in tune with what interested me at that moment. Some did not understand it.
Pedagogy has definitively marked your life. For years you’ve dedicated yourself to teaching, first as an instructor at the Casa de la Cultura de Jaruco, then in the Ministerio de Cultura, and later, during your early years in Mexico, you gave classes at various schools until founding the Centro Morelense de las Artes, which you continue to direct. An old friend defines you as a King Midas, since everything you’ve touched turns to gold; others have commented on your natural virtue for appreciating things and sharing them with others. What is your model of teaching? Can you imagine your life without this work?
Teaching has given me artistic depth and understanding. On a daily basis, I occupy myself with shaping and stimulating the talent of others —creating “monsters,” as we say— equipping their careers with the tools and abilities that I know something about, and this gives me satisfaction.
With regard to whether I have a teaching model, I think not. By this I’m not saying that a well-organized teaching center with an adequate plan of study would be a guarantee of better results, in the sense of allowing people to be more focused in their time and to learn more. To become an artist does not depend on the method of instruction; it depends more, perhaps, on how people mature in their own experience and are able to find a personal viewpoint.
For me, the question is coming up with a plan for each student that is sufficiently specific and sufficiently “ambiguous” to encourage personal resolution. Although I always offer guidelines, I try to leave it to each student to develop their own individual responses.
Improvisation, for me, is a fundamental principle of creation and it’s also a general sense for life itself, because through exercising it you draw away from reason.
The project Una línea de gis [A Chalk Line] completes your intense pedagogical involvement. Tell us about it.
Una línea de gis is an organizational platform for artistic production and planning. It was created for the purpose of establishing links between different visions of art. We recently began a project in which the designs of young local artists are turned into rugs in collaboration with a Oaxacan family from Teotitlán del Valle that works with textiles in the Zapotec tradition. The members of Una línea de gisare students who have graduated from bachelor’s programs in art, artists who are active and interested in the exploration of ancient artistic traditions. We also work with other types of productions: publications, expositions, etc.
The collector Mrs. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros acquired a large number of your works, something that no previous collector had done. And she decided to present your art in this exhibition that we are celebrating today, with the conviction that it will restore to you the renown that you achieved more than 30 years ago. What do you feel when you look at all these works?
The images of these pieces had become too removed from my current life. Now that this circumstance has allowed me to review them, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see them brought together again. It moves me to feel the passion and dedication that I had in making them, and I think it opens new paths.
Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas continues at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana through August 24.
The interview “Life is an instant”: A Conversation with Gustavo Pérez Monzón” appears in full in the catalogue (ISBN: 978-0-9831692-5-3) produced by CIFO Cisneros Fontanals Foundation for the exhibition Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas, presented at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, May 23-August 24, 2015. The publication also includes an introduction by Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, essays by Nestor Diaz de Villegas and Corina Matamoros, images of all the works in the exhibition, and a section of archive photos.
©2015 CIFO Fontanals Arts Foundation, the authors and the artist