Art in America: Pia Camil

April 1, 2019

Gaby Cepeda

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In the Studio: Pia Camil
By: Gaby Cepeda

Pia Camil's Studio in Mexico City is an expansive, windowless room on the ground floor of an old building tucked away between a wide arterial road and the city’s Parque de Chapultepec. She keeps the basement-like space orderly, and during the workday it is almost impossible to imagine it moonlighting as El Cisne (The Swan), a lively cabaret Camil stages there a few nights a year. Word-of-mouth invitations draw a queer-friendly crowd for raucous performances and dancing that continues until the early morning. That Camil envisioned her studio doubling as a nightspot is true to form: her ability to imagine new possibilities for architectural spaces and found objects is at the heart of her practice. Disused billboards, outdoor markets, and abandoned construction sites have yielded raw materials Camil transforms into paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and installations that retain the chaotic energy of their urban origins.

Trained at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Camil was initially drawn to painting but grew tired of its rigidity early in her career. Textiles offered more flexible supports for her experimental vision. She designed costumes for her art-noise band El Resplandor; created huge curtains, dyed in patterns inspired by decaying billboards, that enveloped entire rooms; and eventually discovered the aesthetic potential of secondhand clothes. A prolific artist, Camil has created a substantial body of textile sculptures made of denim or T-shirts. She frequently sews the latter together into massive sheets that can dominate architectural settings. But Camil is equally interested in processes of re-creation and revision. For certain works, she alters the installation depending on the venue, and their meanings can be just as variable—a property Camil embraces. Her work is not easy to pin down, as it seems to mutate both formally and conceptually right before our eyes.

Over the past decade, Camil has exhibited internationally with increasing frequency, while her engagement with certain core themes—the relationships between bodies and architecture, domesticity and consumerism, and art and spectacle—has matured steadily. Camil’s working process is often apparent in her finished pieces, reflecting a commitment to transparency that makes her work, however conceptually intricate, seem welcoming and accessible. Still, like many Mexican women artists before her, Camil is anxious about her local visibility. Her investigations into the global exchange of textiles and the long history of modernist aesthetics have resonated primarily outside Mexico; she had her first museum solo show in her home country at Museo Universitario del Chopo only last year.

Many of Camil’s textile projects engage architecture directly, with curtains and wall hangings dramatically altering the experience of a space. The revelers at El Cisne have a similar effect: their collective enjoyment and celebration of community completely upend the function of a workplace. For Camil, both transformations are rooted in a desire to imagine alternatives to the discourse of modernity, to foreground the grit and texture of everyday embodied existence over the gospel of rationality and progress that devalues the ineffable.

GABY CEPEDA: Your work offers a critique of modernism, and specifically of how its ideals of progress were applied throughout Latin America. This line of thought has been taken up by numerous artists in the region. What is distinctive about your approach?

PIA CAMIL: I am interested in modernism, but more so in its collapse and failure. The modernist museum, for example, is supposed to be a site of democracy and plurality, but I’m more interested in tianguis: the open-air markets frequented mostly by working-class people. These are places of exchange: financial, informational, cultural. I source most of the used T-shirts and other secondhand clothes I use for my curtains and sculptures from the tianguis at Iztapalapa in Mexico City.

For the show “Home Visit” [2016], at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, I was among a group of artists who were asked to make site-specific works in one of six private homes in the city. I requested a home in which a working mother lived, where wage labor and the domestic were mixed. This woman, a textile designer, had her office in a glass cube annex that perfectly matched the rest of the modernist house. I wanted to subvert the language of this architecture: the well-liked, sterile, steel-and-glass type. It is a style that represents a certain status and seems to require no justification beyond that.

I made a huge curtain out of used red T-shirts to cover the glass walls. It was a reference to Mies van der Rohe’s red curtain from the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, but my curtain was also an element introduced to discombobulate the entire notion of modernity, to bring in a sense of chaos.

My piece points at the ridiculousness of an entire cycle of consumption: a T-shirt design from the First World is manufactured in the Global South, it is then sent to the First World to be consumed, and, when discarded there, it is re-consumed by the South via tianguis, before finally coming back to the First World as an artwork. I wanted to create a kind of ouroboros in which recycled materials come back to haunt the places that originated them.

There are similar ideas behind Bara, Bara, Bara [2017], for which I made big colorful sheets of fabric by sewing together used T-shirts. Then I stretched the sheets out in the space of Dallas Contemporary with ropes in a manner that imitates the way vendors in the outdoor markets in Mexico construct tarp roofs to protect themselves and their wares from the sun and the rain. For my upcoming show at Tramway in Glasgow, I’m remaking that installation. It will be cozier with a more intimate, indoor feel to it; peoplewill be able to lie down and look up at the fabric sheets asan overhead landscape.

CEPEDA: You often allude to work by well-known figures, from Mies van der Rohe to Lygia Pape. This engagement seems to come from a place of both reverence and rebelliousness.

CAMIL: Collaboration is central to my practice, and I think of these artists as sort of partners. But, at the same time, anything that has even a whiff of being precious or untouchable fucks with me. It makes me want to mess with it, but respectfully—maybe dance with it. I approached Yvonne Rainer’s iconic Trio A [1978] choreography but turned it into a performance [No A Trio A, 2013] in which I did everything I could to obstruct my body’s movement: I wore a body stocking and a mask that limited my vision, I had thick wood platforms on, and I was attached with Japanese bondage-style ties to fifty meters of fabric that traversed the entire building of La Casa Encendida in Madrid. My performance negated the original piece, reducing it to a series of poeticized but failed gestures; to me, it was the stylization of failure.

For “Skins” [2015], a show at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, I used Frank Stella’s notched paintings as a touchstone for a series of geometric wall reliefs I created. The works resemble the artist’s striped canvases of the early 1960s, but I added a few elements that transformed the Minimal compositions into upscale shop displays with copper shelves and clothes hangers, the kind used in expensive boutiques around the world. I also added some balled-up and haphazardly hung fabrics as a nod to the messiness and unpredictability of domesticity as opposed to the very clean orderliness of commercial and art spaces. A few of my recurrent preoccupations coalesced in that show: subverting modernism, the aesthetics of commercial displays, and domesticity. It was also the first time I worked with Virginia Juárez, who is now my head seamstress and close collaborator.   

A maybe more direct adaptation of another artist’s work was Divisor Pirata [Bootleg Divider, 2016], which saw the materiality of the T-shirt curtain from Cologne [Gaby’s T-Shirt, 2016] reimagined as Lygia Pape’s Divisor [1968]. Pape’s original was a large white sheet with holes in it so that numerous participants could poke their heads through and walk under it as a single, massive unit. It was a comment on the relationship between individuals and the collective, and it was meant as a peaceful protest during the military dictatorship in Brazil. My version, made with purple, pink, and red T-shirts, had similar motivations. It was performed in the streets of Guatemala a few weeks after Trump, with his racist rhetoric, was voted into office. A couple of years later, this materiality mutated again to become Fade into Black [2018], a large curtain made out of deconstructed secondhand T-shirts sewn in a gradient pattern going from white to black. Shown at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum, the piece was also activated as a divisor pirata and worn by SCAD students around campus. This kind of mirrored the way Pape first staged her Divisor in the favela, and then redid it in the more affluent surroundings of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.

CEPEDA: You collaborated with other artists and writers as well as with a team of seamstresses for your recent show “Split Wall” [2018], at Nottingham Contemporary in the UK. How do you balance your vision for the work with the contributions of other participants?

CAMIL: Fade into Black was also included in that show, but in that instance it functioned as a theatrical backdrop, a dislocating starting point for the rest of the pieces. There were also ceramics: mask sculptures that refer to the shape of jewelry and necklace displays, and some of the “spectacular” vases shaped after the abstract patterns in scrambled, abandoned Mexico City billboards that inspired a lot of my earlier work.

The new pieces were videos and denim sculptures. I’ve been wanting to make videos and have more teamwork ever since “Entrecortinas” [2014] at OMR Gallery in Mexico City. For that show I covered the gallery walls with hand-dyed curtains. It was about the privacy of domesticity and how the labor that goes on inside a home is often obscured. I worked with writer Gabriela Jauregui and graphic designer Sofia Broid on a publication for the show, and Gabriela also performed a reading in my custom-made tunic with the matching curtains as a backdrop. I wanted to continue that collaboration, to extend the performance and continue creating characters. That’s how the video series “They” came to be. The title character of the works shown in Nottingham is a nonbinary person acting out domestic scenarios in surreal spaces that appear to be the interiors of my ceramics and sculptures. The unfamiliarity of these spaces was accentuated by the projections themselves on translucent black fabric: the characters appeared incorporeal.

In one of the videos, the protagonist inhabits one of the ceramic masks as a house: the eyes are the windows through which we see them complete their daily routine of personal and household hygiene: that one is the heart of the story being told in the video series. I really wanted to elevate domesticity while at the same time making it unrecognizable. As a character, They is fragmented and ghostly—wearing a mask inside a mask—which reflects on the invisibility of so-called feminized labor. They is played by Alberto Perera, who wears some elements from drag culture: padding, shapers, and latex, with eerie and beautiful results. The stage and costume design were by Kristin Reger and Chavis Mármol, the script was written by Jauregui, and the denim sculptures and curtains were made with Virginia Juárez, Gabriela Salas, and Citlali Salas. We worked together throughout the whole process, sometimes improvising—it was a very horizontal collaboration.

My relationship with Virginia and her team of seamstresses is an affective, creative one in which reciprocal support networks—financial, emotional, and artistic—actually materialize. The heart of my artworks is in this relationship with her and the other seamstresses. They represent the affective bonds that cut across every possible reading of the works.

CEPEDA: Some of your pieces reflect on exchanges like this, which are more affective than financial. You sometimes conceive of your work as a backdrop for something or someone else. And swapping has played an important role in your recent projects.

CAMIL: I think of swapping as an alternative economic relationship and one that can be more meaningful than regular economic transactions, especially when it involves a personal, one-on-one dynamic. For “Telón de Boca” [Stage Curtain, 2018], my show at Museo Universitario del Chopo, this was especially important. It was based on the kind of affective economy that led to the formation of el Tianguis del Chopo in 1980, a countercultural market that was originally established where the museum stands now, and that continues to exist a few blocks from there. Swapping LPs, books, and music memorabilia was always a big thing at this tianguis so I wanted to continue that. Assisted by designer Lorena Vega, I printed a hundred and fifty T-shirts with a spiral El Chopo logo, and then exchanged them with friends and with Tianguis del Chopo visitors in booths I set up there and at the museum. People would get a printed T-Shirt, and in return I would get their worn-out black T-shirts with band logos and pictures on them. These were then sewn together and became a very tall backdrop that was used in the museum for music programming. We also hosted a talk with F*ck la Migra and Otros Dreams en Acción, two organizations that work with deportees living in the city.

I am really not precious about my work, and I think its materiality reflects that. I did a series of paintings in 2017, in which I worked with discarded fabric; the last section to be printed during the manufacturing process will usually have very interesting patterns from printing errors. I collect examples, and in this case they were folded and sewn into the dimensions of a small bed, which can be read as a reference to famous beds from art history, like Robert Rauschenberg’s and Tracey Emin’s. But the pieces also alluded to domesticity and intimate spaces. I made them for a two-person show I had with Ofelia Rodríguez; I wanted the paintings to function as backdrops for her work. She is an amazing artist, the first Colombian woman to get an MFA in visual art from Yale. She was the teacher and I wanted to house her pieces accordingly.

CEPEDA: Lately you have also been hosting El Cisne in your studio. This event combines a few of your favorite subjects: spectacle, bodies, architecture, theatricality, collaboration.

CAMIL: El Cisne is the nighttime alter-ego of my studio: it’s feminist and it’s queer. It’s meant to be inclusive and safe. It’s not a club, and there is no social media posting allowed inside. We have shows by drag queens, bands, and other performers. We try to include different people from “outside” the art world in a way that is productive and collaborative for everybody, properly remunerated and non-tokenizing. The local art scene is very machista and malinchista [sexist and racist], so El Cisne wants to carve out a space that is welcoming but also fun and experimental—that exists right between the seams of different mediums and people coming together. There is a spirit of horizontal collaboration, of improvisation, that has recently gotten more important in my work, and El Cisne is another way to explore this, and also to think about the collective body in a new and exciting way.    

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