The argument can be made that the tools of postmodern technology, like
digital imaging and video, have removed “the artist’s hand,” so to
speak, from the final product.
The artist is free of physical restraint, movement is filmed instead of suggested, and any painterly qualities come from the texture and attributes of the subject matter. This change reflects a shift in values, both culturally and in the ether that the artist invariably works within. Video and the installations that follow it are the crops harvested from the seeds of photography. What the medium of video offers the artist, however, by the sheer properties of the technology itself is a narrative through the presentation of movement.
Miguel Angel Ríos is aware of this at all times.
His work has always seemed to speak in a Latin language of sorts. The conversation, however — an enigmatic dialogue on the fundamental, sometimes quantifiable elements that make up war, politics and role-playing — employs references that extend far past the coasts of Latin America. Enjoying his first major solo exhibition in an American museum, Ríos in his recent work uses video technology and a common Mexican street game to provoke thoughts about international conflict in very much the same way he has done for nearly 30 years: with subtlety and beauty, and from the indigenous condition.
The artist’s work in the 1980s was composed mostly of clay and steel, materials found in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he kept a studio. The clay works were arranged in grids, common in the artist’s oeuvre, inspired by his fascination with colonial maps. The concept of mathematical presentation was carried into the early 1990s by the incorporation of kipus into the artist’s work, an ancient Andean technique of presenting quantifiable information through the use of a knotted cord. After an exhibition of six maps and an installation in Geneva, Switzerland, Ríos became more politically conscious, evident in his subsequent body of work. In what has been commonly referred to as his Gulf War series, Ríos married the kipus with data from various references, including government documents, taking modern information and displaying it using an antiquated South American method. This simplification of politically charged content exemplifies the artist’s approach to communicating global tension without specifically targeting a single culture or ethnic group. His ability to “uncomplicate” has lost none of its power in his newest medium, and his penchant for tangible workmanship remains surprisingly intact.
Aquí, Ríos’ solo exhibition was recently on view at the Blaffer Gallery, included a generous smattering of photos and works on paper that further detail the artist’s recent foray into video. A towering pentagonal “room” consumes the main gallery, whose five walls are used as large-scale screens for a five-channel installation from which the exhibition takes its name. Twirling white tops march in rows as uniformly as troops, while their black counterparts spin after one another, moving from wall to wall. The narrative belongs to the Mexican street game trompos, in which players wind string around homemade tops and cast them violently onto a chalked grid to collide with other tops. The players, however, are absent from the video, which uses the spinning toys as its only form of physical subject matter. The ensuing battle between colors can be interpreted as the action of two opposing sides in the midst of war.
Houston was introduced to Ríos’ video work earlier this year with the inclusion of A Morir (’Til Death), a smaller and similar installation, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition of promising Latin American artists from the Halle Collection. Aquí, however, is of a much larger scale and is maybe the next logical step in using physical elements to mimic political games. A Morir featured a soundtrack of loud helicopters, tanks and the buzz of speeding cars to help the viewer associate the tops with the wartime elements the artist was playing with. This has been left out of Aquí, which successfully draws a visual connection to the subject matter through the manipulation of the tops themselves.
“The white ones are only one size and they dance perfectly,” Ríos said. “I wanted the spinning tops to make an organization, a line, like a military [formation]. And it’s not easy because the spinning tops are always doing like that.” He showed me with the top, spinning it with his wrist. “They go any place they want. They’re like an animal, difficult to control. The whites represent, somehow, the ones who have the power. They’re England or the United States, and the [black tops] are Mexico, Korea, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, China…. [The black tops] are built less uniformly so they have more energy, more disorganized, a crazier rhythm… like a cúmbia or the dances of Latin America, of the body.”
He and I were sitting together in the lobby at Houston’s Alden Hotel when he pulled out a medium-sized top from his bag. His hands were coarse, and his large fingers twirled a piece of string around the trompo as he spoke to me, occasionally twiddling the loose end with his fingertips or tying it into a knot. He was wearing black and white, geometric-patterned, high top Converse shoes, and his graying hair was tied in a tiny ponytail under a wide-brimmed hat. He ended his statements with smiles that made his eyes disappear inside wrinkles that were far less pronounced than expected for a man of his age. He reminded me of my father. And his father. We spoke in Spanglish and then, finally, in Spanish.
“When I was in Machu Pichu,” he said, “I saw [that] the way they did the construction was a kind of grid, but it was a grid that was more soft… tender… an organic grid… and I saw that they used a lot of grids because they made a lot of textiles, and for that you have to use lines, vertical and horizontal, the way you do the weaving. I was having a discussion with someone from a gallery in New York where I was working, and he was thinking that the grid belonged to the modern man. I said no, the grid existed even before mapping began. It was there. I saw it.
“Working with maps made me think about the conflict that is everywhere. It’s not only in South America, it’s in Korea, it’s in China, it’s in Russia… and since I was doing mapping, it made me think more universally. It’s not only about Latin America. I think Latin America is in my soul and my self, and [in] the fact that I will probably always work with my hands. Cutting and pleating somehow makes work that relates more to la material or el cuerpo…. [But] my ideas, they can be anything: any metaphor, anything assumed. The work becomes more international. If it stays more stereotyped, then it’s not a universal piece of work.
“When I made the tops, I made them probably because I could use my hands…. It’s possible that I used them because they have indigenous qualities, and [because of] thoughts and sentiments of mine that were inside of me that I wasn’t aware of. They’re very elegant. I like that they’re violent, but also elegant as well.”
Motivated in part by his disgust with the Mexican-American war, Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience on the premise that people have a duty to prevent governments from making them the agents of injustice by using their taxes to support aggression. “All change is a miracle to contemplate,” Thoreau said, “but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” Ríos’ work has fundamental roots in the concept of change, and his approach in communicating this has always been to use the most commonplace of materials in the simplest manner. Like a seedling pushing its way up and out of the soil, Ríos works from the roots up until his narrative stands on its own, emphasizing the grandest of circumstances with the humblest of voices.
Images courtesy Blaffer Gallery
Evan J. Garza is a writer currently living in Houston.
also by Evan J. Garza
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