Exhibiting Artist Interview: Victor Cartagena

In this interview, artist Victor Cartagena, exhibiting in SOMArts’ exhibition Mourning and Scars: 20 Years After The War (open until February 28th), shares his artistic process and the politics of his work. -Lex Kosieradzki, SOMArts communications fellow

What do the gel capsules represent and how do you get the faces on them?
The representation of immigrant faces on the gel capsules is important to me because although there are issues of labor abuse at multiple levels, this is something particularly rampant in the immigrant labor force.  This installation/sculpture is an allegory that attempts to communicate the frustration felt by immigrant laborers who are often seen as “cheap labor.”  The same way a vitamin pill is ingested to make an organism function better, the gel capsules function as an allegory for the same effect they produce for the sick “body” of industry; corporations, factories and small workshops alike.  Cheap labor allows for systems to operate and function, but there is a price to pay.  The photographs used are a part of a larger series of installations that I have presented over the years, beginning with “Homenaje a Roque Dalton” at the Oakland Museum of California included in the Espiritu Sin Fronteras exhibition.  The photographs are passport size and are the kind that were used in the 70s and 80s when many Salvadorans chose exile and emigrated to new lands to escape the civil war.  “PATRON” comes from the Tequila bottle and the idea of alcohol as a pain soother and at the same time the word invokes the idea of a boss who needs to take the “cheap labor pills” in order to cope.

Does the banner in your piece ever hang outside, or is it always in a gallery?
This banner, or digital mural as I call it, was commissioned as an outside billboard/digital mural for Galeria de la Raza and initially was made to be of an ephemeral nature, gradually disintegrating.  Pedestrians and the public passing by on 24th and Bryant would see it daily for a period of a few months.  It is a one of two digital mural in a two-part series, with the second one titled “Unwanted.”

Can you explain the relationship between cheap exported labor and the Salvadoran economy for those of us who aren’t up on our Latin American politics?
Two and a half million Salvadorans live in the US where they labor every day in a variety of jobs.  Many came to the US during the civil war and the post-war period.
The majority of them send back home financial support on a monthly basis (remesas familiares) and these funds have become an essential part of the country’s economy.  In 2012, approximately $332.2 million dollars were sent back every month.

Artists who work conceptually always have different working processes.  Can you describe yours?
I feel that there isn’t a moment when I am not thinking of ideas and their visual realization.  I like to work in a variety of media and often when I am experimenting and exploring an idea, I spend a lot of time figuring out which material or dimension will best communicate the concept.

Do you see your work as functioning allegorically?
Yes, it definitely is an allegory and metaphor is an integral part of much of my work.

About the Interviewer: Lex Kosieradzki grew up in Minneapolis and now he’s working on his MFA in Social Practice at the California College of the Arts.  He lives in Oakland.

Above images: “Wanted/Se Busca” by Victor Cartagena (detail and installation views) photos by Lex Kosieradzki