Exhibiting Artist Interview: Juan Carlos Mendizabal

Featured artist Juan Carlos Mendizabal, exhibiting in SOMArts’ exhibition Mourning and Scars: 20 Years After The War    (open until February 28), discusses memory, the symbolic, and how to approach dense mixed-media artworks. -Lex Kosieradzki, SOMArts Communications Fellow

You write in your artist statement that the booth in your installation stands in for the human body.  This is an interesting idea.
In straightforward terms, the outside of the booth is the surface, the flesh, the reachable social entity that is a part of the symbolic order. There is language, symbols and frozen images outside. Various kinds of signifiers that form a somewhat accessible web. The inside is that private inner world of myths, dreams and direct perceptions. Inside there are looping moving images and sound and darkness, something like the inner film that occurs in the most private chambers of our individual consciousness. The recurring sequence of images and sound inside clash, interact and give meaning to the symbols outside. Or on the other hand, one could see the outside as illuminating the loops inside, fleshing them out, giving them some kind of recognizable resonance.

Your installation uses several different media in tandem.  How do these media relate to and work with each other?
I approach all materials in the same way – as motivic or gestural fragments.  As pure material, they are all equivalent to each other: a fragment of text equivalent to a fragment of image equivalent to a symbol equivalent to a video fragment equivalent to a short sample equivalent to a short musical motif. Some of these fragments function more distinctly as signifiers (the text for example) while some have no signification at all (the bits of sound) but they all share a common quality as pure form or material. Each of them can switch function: the text fragments can be seen to form bridges between the images or it may be that the images form bridges between the text fragments. The video fragments can form bridges to each other or between the disparate elements in the music. All these fragments are interwoven with each other, they refer to each other in unpredictable ways. The photographs, the text, the processed images, the music and the videos all gyrate around a common “sublime object”, a non reducible “thing” that is touched by all of them but can’t be expressed by any one of them. The combination of all of them is an attempt at an unfiltered, explosive download with unpredictable results.

What is the relationship between the collaged exterior of the booth and the sound and video inside?  What happens when the viewer passes through the curtain to the inside, and then back to the outside?
On the first day of the exhibit, someone commented that the “outside” is safer, more accessible, less challenging. Outside there is language which refers to known objects and situations in a recognizable syntax, there are photos of the known El Salvador, along with processed images of the past, symbols, panels from comics, etc.  There is also a clear sense of being in the gallery with other people. Inside there is an isolated space meant to hint at the isolation inside our minds, where our perceptions intermingle with mythical memories and incomplete history. There is a continuum  between the text, symbols and cartoons inside (purely symbolic gestures) to the photos and videos. In between there is the processed images that straddle the divide by being both a kind of “drawings” but also photographs. In between there is also the live movie images inside which are a kind of “live cartoons.” The passing from the inside to the outside is a simulation of the passing from the social sphere (the symbolic order) to the inner realm of image and sound.

Where does “Itzpapalotl” come from?
It means “Obsidian Butterfly”. In El Salvador these large butterflies symbolize death, they announce death when they appear. Whenever one of these large butterflies would come to rest on a wall, someone would say that soon there would be a death among us. One way to view the installation is as a simulation of the moment of death, when all the different moments of your life come to you in a rush, an explosion of stimuli, memories, myths, symbols, correspondences. This is not a clear statement of meaning but rather the opposite, an explosion of meaning in all directions, a kind of “maximalist” non-linear statement that flows from all directions at once. Within the hurricane of such an explosion, elements that have never been related to each other consciously may suddenly seem distinctly connected, meaningless moments will rise in meaning, the stories that seemed childish might gain in weight and the most serious memories might become like fairy tales.

Can you talk a little bit about the source material for the videos?
The videos on the left are all scenes from shows and movies that were a part of my life while living in El Salvador. They were the mythological framework for my experience of the war and of daily life in El Salvador. The clash between good and evil, the power hungry villain, the young rebel, the Empire, the alien/foreigner that comes to earth/El Salvador to help (which mixes in with the use “The International” in the soundtrack), all these mythological formulas resonated with the actual historical moment we were living through. Whether consciously or unconsciously, these apparently different stories couldn’t help but overflow into each other. The videos on the right are all scenes from the time of the war, some of them extremely brutal, others showing the cleaned up face of the war (US government officials explaining/justifying the situation, etc.) The videos in the center all come from video I shot myself during my last trip to El Salvador. They attempt to open a window into day to day life in El Salvador, not much different from what was happening even while the war was going on. Each of the screens comments on the other ones, each can be seen as main subject or as commentary. As the direct images of the war become lost in memory, they become more and more like mythological sequences, as you flesh out the mythological cartoons, as you bring out their implied meanings, they can become frightening or heartbreaking or simply brutal. Both describe a subterranean level of experience under our day to day existence – the ordinary both hides and tends towards the mythological, the mythological lives through the ordinary.

How does a viewer approach a work that is so dense with information and imagery?  Can you suggest a starting point or a method?
I approach these projects as experiments where the “audience” is an active participant in the creation. I don’t have a preconceived ultimate effect but rather set up an experience and allow space for the viewer’s own will to come into play. Having said that, there would be various approaches that could all yield new discoveries: One could first explore the outside carefully to achieve a kind of disjointed, non-linear context for the experience inside. This exploration could attempt to be somewhat orderly or it could be purely intuitive, jumping back and forth from area to area, from photo to text, from text to graphic. Inside, the video screens are meant to encourage you to edit your own film through free movements of attention. You could jump back and forth from screen to screen, allowing the music to guide you. Or you could focus intensely on one screen allowing the other screens to act on the periphery of your attention. You can let the music guide you in this editing, you can pick different elements in the music to follow. As the music changes, the images may shift in significance, their emotional meaning may change. My main comment on this would be to set aside any intention of discovering the “true meaning”  of the installation. Once that has been set aside you can surrender to the experience of process and saturation of memories, myths, signifiers. Black Butterfly comes from a psychedelic place, so it requests and encourages a certain kind of psychedelic reception. If in the process of interacting with the installation a certain kind of altered space is achieved then I would consider that particular experiment a success. Of course I would never know when and if it happened.

Did you make this piece specifically for Mourning and Scars, or did you make it independently?  Would you display it differently in a different setting?  It’s easy to imagine the soundscape played through speakers, overtaking the space, but it’s also nice to listen to it through the headphones in a more intimate space…
This piece was made specifically for “Mourning and Scars”. Most of the music we played during the opening was derived from the soundtrack of “Black Butterfly” so during the opening we were shooting to overtake the space with the music as you mention. I can definitely see presenting the same material in different forms: on the Internet as a hypertext “book” / web site or as a DVD. The main challenge would be to preserve the non-linear quality, again allowing the viewer to experience their own path through the maze of exploded memories and fragmented signifiers.

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: “Itzpapalotl: Black Butterfly/Mariposa Negra” by Juan Carlos Mendizabal and Radio Free Clear Light, and view of the inside of the same work, photos by Lex Kosieradzki