Pablo Helguera (Mexico City, 1971) is a New York based artist working across disciplines including installation, drawing, socially engaged art and performance. Helguera’s practice covers diverse ground from ethnography and sociolinguistics to humour and music. He has exhibited or performed at venues such as the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; ICA Boston; RCA London and the 8th Havana Biennial, PERFORMA 05. This interview is really important to me. Pablo Helguera’s practice has been a huge influence on how I view art, especially the importance of dialog in his practice has stuck with me over the years. In this interview we talked about how he considers the viewer in his work and the role language plays. It’s really exciting to share this interview with others because I genuinely feel anyone can benefit from hearing how he approaches his practice the considerations he makes when making works.
During the April lockdown, you did a project called Pablo Helguera: The Grand Central Singing Telegram Co. Singing seems to be a recurring motif in your work. Could you talk about that?
I come from a musical family. My sisters and many of my relatives are classical musicians. It’s interesting growing up in a place like Mexico and hearing Mozart and Bach being played from different rooms of the house. I was always interested in music; I wanted to be a singer at one point when I was a teenager. Although my interest in painting and visual arts eventually took over, music never left me. I feel that is why I gravitated towards live performance art. I also realised later on that the notion of scoring was very important within my practice. The idea of sequentiality, whether in narrative format or a concatenation of experiences. From the standpoint of being an educator, an artist and a writer, everything you produce needs to follow some kind of structure or score. And that has manifested in many different ways in my work. Music is present in everything I do.
As an artist that has been involved in socially engaged practice from very early on, one of the issues that I face is the challenge of creating socially engaged art in the context of a pandemic where social distance and isolation is essential. I was discussing this with John Spiak, an old friend and curator at Grand Central Art Center in California, and we decided to do something that would help people connect. Everyone feels isolated in this moment, and the initial lockdown was particularly severe. I decided to revive my old project, The Singing Telegram. It’s a format that was invented in the 1930s during the Great Depression by Western Union, the telegraph service. I had already done one performance, and we thought it would be interesting to update the format and do it over Zoom.
I offered to become a messenger for people. They could pick from a selection of songs that I knew, and I would sing to the recipient of the message on Zoom. There were roughly 60 songs to choose from, ranging from Broadway tunes and Frank Sinatra to opera and Mexican folk songs. It was a really powerful experience; we had no idea how people were going to react. I ended up singing to dozens of people in different countries as far as New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey… People of all ages from all walks of life.
I was a complete stranger sharing these very personal messages from someone who may have been a significant other or a mother. The basic message behind the songs were, “I really miss you. I love you, and this song makes me think of you.” Often the recipient would start shedding tears and become really emotional. I felt so grateful for being able to facilitate that. It was a very simple way for people to connect. As artists, we need to think about ways of creating closer communication through the power of art.
There is a very particular archival aesthetic to your work. Could you talk a bit about that?
There is an aspect of me that I cannot escape, which is my obsession with the past. This fascination is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting and, in many ways, problematic concept. In contemporary art in particular, it is seen almost as a weakness; you are afraid of looking forward and so, you aim for an imaginary past. But psychologists who study nostalgia have claimed that it’s a process of establishing relationships with things that have happened which can in turn, restore your identity and shape your outlook on the future.
It’s also very connected with the immigrant experience. I’m an immigrant to the US. This process of reconstructing your reality through memories and finding some way of actualising this dual reality in the present – it’s a creative process that parallels immigrant experience. This is why immigrant versions of the foods or traditions from the motherland differ slightly from the originals. Italian-American food or Mexican-American food, for example, becomes something else in that process of recreation which is like an artistic process. I’m interested in that.
That process plays into Librería Donceles, the socially-engaged project where you created Spanish language bookstores in gallery spaces. Can you tell us about the impetus behind that project?
I grew up in Mexico City in a family that was literary as well as musical. When I was a kid, there was no internet. Books were my internet. I would go to my dad’s library in the house to do my homework and look at these huge encyclopaedias. Now everyone has Wikipedia. Books were like friends to me. They calmed me. By the time that project premiered in 2013, we had already witnessed the global dominance of Amazon and e-books, and brick-and-mortar bookstores were closing at an alarming rate. At the same time, I also noticed the lack of availability of Spanish books in New York City, a city home to two million Latinos. So, I proposed this eccentric idea of turning the Kent Fine Art LLC gallery into a bookstore. I went to Mexico to campaign for used book donations. Though the plight of Mexican immigrants in the US is painful, it’s something that Mexicans at home don’t really know what to do about it. On the other hand, middle-class and working-class people in Mexico usually live in the same house across generations, and accumulate stuff like old books, trashy novels and textbooks. As a result, we end up with a 20,000-volume inventory and customers were invited to pay what they wished. It was less about the money than the experience and the recognition of the value of literature in Spanish.
In Librería Donceles, we had 70 different categories, from anatomy and agriculture to horror and children’s books. Anything you could imagine. It was a great entrance to a different culture for people. I modelled the design after second-hand bookstores that I loved, especially those I experienced as a student in Chicago. I find it fascinating that bookstores can resemble their owners’ personalities, and sometimes look like someone’s living room. It’s not a typical person that decides to run a used bookstore. Many of these people are hoarders. I’ve lived near a bookstore that you could barely walk through. If you pulled a book from the shelf, the whole arrangement would fall apart. Librería Donceles was supposed to last two months but it has been running now for seven years. The project has travelled to 14 different cities in the US. I always think that each iteration will be the last but someone new inevitably shows an interest. It’s just such a wonderful experience to deliver this project throughout the US.
Many of my works are inspired by stories. I made a work in Milan in 2013 called Vita Vel Regula [Rules of Life]. It takes the form of a game involving 50 other participants that will last for the rest of my life. 25 strangers who had attended the project’s opening and 25 close friends and family, all of which are younger than me. Everyone receives 16 sealed envelopes labelled with specific opening dates and instructions. On the first day, the first envelope is opened. Two days later, the second is opened. The third is opened on the fourth day. Then eight, 16, 32 – the waiting time doubles between participants until years and ultimately decades pass between each opened envelope. The project will conclude in 2097, when I will definitely not be alive. My daughter, who was three at the time, will be in her 90s. She’s the youngest participant.
The piece is inspired by a short story by Dino Buzzati called “The Seven Messengers” about a king who explores the confines of his kingdom only to realise that it has no end. He has seven messengers to keep him abreast of what’s happening back at the palace. The further he travels, the longer it takes the messengers to make the trip and deliver the message, to the extent that he might never see them again. It’s a story about how we communicate with one another over time. This relates to my interest in merging the experimental and the exhibitionary. The work becomes a record of those relationships in those particular instances. It’s about creating a collective experience.
This connection of language and documentation is evident in other projects like Dead Languages Conservatory…
Dead Languages Conservatory directly ties into my interest in ancestry and living history. There are close to 60 languages still spoken in Mexico. It’s a country with a rich history, and there are millions of people speaking dominant indigenous languages like the many Mayan languages, but numerous languages are dying out. This is important because it relates to the changing environment of our world. Biodiversity facilitates diversity of language. People who lived in the mountains spoke one language, and those in the valley would speak another. The way we settle in a particular environment influences the culture that develops there. What is really wonderful about countries like China, India or Mexico is that they have different climates that give rise to different languages. That is also changing very fast because of migration to cities, which results in the homogenisation of language. The homogenisation of language influences the homogenisation of culture, creating greater cultural centres.
We’re looking at a future where only four languages will be in use. This project reflects on those places and people that have managed to retain a particular culture. Instead of using the typical digitisation approach, I documented this research using the earliest recording technology which is the wax cylinder. The wax phonograph cylinder is a really attractive object invented by Thomas Edison in the 1870s which picks up sound with a diamond needle. The idea of giving a 3D presence to these immaterial voices was very meaningful to me. The interviews with some of the last speakers have made their way into various installations including an interview with a woman in her 80s called Marie Smith Jones who was the last speaker of Eyak. Eyak, is a language that was spoken in Alaska. I also interviewed Cristina Calderón, a woman who lives in Puerto Williams – the world’s southernmost town, located on Navarino Island in Chile. She is the last speaker of Yaghan, the language of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.
Does your work as an educator influence your artistic practice?
There is an educational element to it. I try to really caution art students to be careful that their practice doesn’t become an illustration of someone else’s theories. The worst thing we can do as artists is to open a book by Deleuze or Derrida and try to make a piece of art solely from that. You become a poor illustrator of an idea that you might not have understood to begin with. Don’t get me wrong. It’s very important to engage in the discourse of a period and understand the history but your practice is something separate. It will naturally seep into your practice anyway. As an educator, I am trained to think about the audience. That is the number one question I must ask myself: who is my audience? Who am I working with and how do I produce discourse with a particular group? Language must be used differently depending on an audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. You have to be open and transparent, and treat your audience with respect by tailoring the language to them. An important thing I learned was to avoid talking down to your audience. When working with a community, my process is one of listening, not dictating ideas. We are creating a dialogue – an exchange of knowledge.
You can find out more about Pablo Helguera work through his website link below