by Frédéric Bonnet
Highly coherent despite its spatial and formal variety, the work of Pia Camil presents us with a unique combination of problems that relate to urban spaces, the consumerist world and coexistence.
Anonymous people are visiting a contemporary art fair in the most normal way. We are at Frieze New York in May 2015, but what distinguishes these enthusiasts is the way they are dressed, since over the top of their clothes they are all wearing high-contrast colored ponchos. These costumes by Pia Camil (born in Mexico City in 1980) take on a filiation with their glorious elders, Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés. They are all unique, made by assembling pieces of fabric, and are available from the stand of the Parisian gallery Sultana. One last point – not a trivial one – is that they are offered on condition that they be worn for the entire time spent at the exhibition: crowds at the stand and guaranteed success, such is the unconventional, almost transgressive logic of donation, gratuitousness and exchange at an event which is nothing but a temple to trade!
This notion of exchange was once again central in the work offered by the Mexican artist during a 2016 solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York. In the ground-floor gallery, her work A Pot for Latch presented a succession of gridwall panels on which were hung various objects that appeared to have no formal or typological coherence. And for good reason, since none of them was the result of any wish or choice made by the artist, but were rather brought there by an anonymous public – that public again – who were invited to come on an “exchange day” and leave an object that would feed the project, in exchange for an original sweatshirt designed for the occasion. As a statement stressed: “The monetary value of these items is insignificant; their value lies instead in their richness of meaning and in the new life that they acquire on the grid.”
There is an obvious correlation between this exchange logic and the notion of public space (or space open to the public), and the art spaces of New York are ultimately only a step away from the streets of Mexico City where Pia Camil lives; this is a step the artist was eager to take. Because it was indeed in the streets of her native city that her work took shape, through very specific attention to the innumerable billboards that populate the city, particularly abandoned ones, which inspired a process of reflection that is just as rich as it is complex.
From their observation and from photographic archives that the artist patiently compiled in the course of her urban wanderings, the artist drew the material for her project Espectacular, begun in 2012, which quickly became multiform. Its first pieces were canvases on stretchers, and then a second phase consisted of curtains hung in exhibition spaces, subtly hinting at considerations relating to the condition of women in the domestic sphere. What these works all have in common is that they present colorful patchworks, which are striking because their extremely diverse colors and patterns always achieve harmony through a curious symbiosis between the dynamism of a colorful abstraction that does not renounce a Latin American heritage, and the buzz of an urban energy. Beyond the context, this energy no doubt comes from the way these pieces are constructed using fragments and collage, because they are never a real reflection of existing billboards, proceeding rather from an imagined reconstruction based on scanned photos of these.
There were also developments in the project in the field of ceramics, with pieces that were once again presented as fragments, almost like details detached from a whole to which they impart another form of materiality, another kind of vocabulary in the course of an unwritten narrative built on the power of free association provided by abstraction.
By playing with a certain fluidity in this way, through mediums that offer multiple entries and an easygoing transition from one to the other, the project Espectacular – which favors experimentation instead of forcing itself to follow one line of logic – was able to impose two of the guiding ideas in Pia Camil’s work: the importance of the idea of abstraction generated by fragments, and a central exploration surrounding mass culture, particularly consumer society.
This is obviously not far from Guy Debord and his Society of the Spectacle, particularly through the curtain form, which would seem to translate an intersection between entertainment and consumer culture. As for the abstract vocabulary, beyond its visual and semantic power, its uniqueness in Pia Camil’s work lies in how it reflects an idea of the body and urban navigation. “To me, abstraction constitutes a return to the body, and the fragments should be indicative of a body, but never in a descriptive way,” Camil says. “What interests me is using the body as a tool for communicating in abstract terms.”
It is through this prism that one can interpret those ceramic masks that constitute an abstraction from a female body, suffused with references both to pre-Hispanic culture and to urban consumption – their shape being inspired by the jewelry stands found in shop windows. Above all, this abstraction linked to the body is connected with the idea of performance, tested particularly with the ponchos deployed at Frieze New York, which openly cited Oiticica, taking additional inspiration from the inhabitable-painting dimension of his Parangolés, where protagonists are invited by the artist to come and “inhabit” his work.
The practice of collective performance assumes an ever-greater importance in the work of Pia Camil. This is shown by the enormous blanket made of assembled t-shirts, which spent a few months enveloping the façade of the delightful NuMu, the Nuevo Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Guatemala City, which is not only probably the world’s smallest contemporary art museum, but is also housed in a very unique egg-shaped architectural structure. For Divisor Pirata (2016) Pia Camil took inspiration from Lygia Pape and her work Divisor, which consisted of an enormous white canvas punctured with holes through which the heads of performers gathered underneath could pass. Here the canvas is replaced by second-hand t-shirts marked with slogans typical of American culture, a market for which they were specifically made in Mexico before being exported and brought back… as contraband. Before covering the NuMu, this blanket gave rise to an action in the parks of Guatemala City, expanding the field of investigation outside of the individual’s relationship with the collective, in order to question, in these difficult times, Latin American identity in the face of the dominant power of the United States and, beyond this, the relevance of a message when it is displaced towards other geographic, economic and social contexts. With the subtlety of abstraction, as always…