During the Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today exhibition in New York, the Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman interviewed Carlos Motta about art projects of his related to cultural activism, and his thoughts on other artists in the exhibition.
How do you define yourself as an artist in relation to political activism, and in terms of style?
I have never described myself as an activist, because I think social activists are people who are engaged in active fights for social justice through pragmatic goals, with the aim of transforming society. I have thought of my work as cultural activism, however, because I’m interested in using alternative forms of representation as small interventions into the larger narratives of art and history.
I have never been interested in having a very specific artistic style, or in producing work that might be identified as mine. I am interested in responding to very specific contexts, and in making works that have something to say about particular issues, and which are thus not only political gestures, but also responses to aesthetic concerns.
When did you meet Under the Same Sun curator Pablo León de la Barra and how do your interests align around your exhibition work?
I met Pablo ten years ago in New York through a friend in common. I have since been following the ways in which he’s become increasingly interested in Latin American art and culture, his travels around the region, and his diligent thinking about and mapping and studying of what constitutes a Latin American artistic practice in the difficult, paradoxical, and contradictory times in which we live.
Pablo and I have been aware of each other and in conversation for a while. He has shown special interest in my takeaway timelines and chronologies. I imagine Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America since 1946—which he included in the exhibition and which was acquired for the collection—served him as a kind of historical, contextual, and political backdrop for the larger narratives presented by other works in the show.
How do you relate to other artists in the exhibition and which of them influenced the development of your work?
Luis Camnitzer and Alfredo Jaar are very important influences for me. They are not only rigorous conceptual artists, but have also, like me, consistently addressed Latin American politics from the perspective of immigrants to the United States. I identify with that condition or identity strongly, geographical and cultural distance having given me a peculiar place from which to speak.
Alfredo Jaar is perhaps the artist in the exhibition whose work I have looked at the closest. His inquiries into the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and into the ethics of photography, have been formative to my work. Camnitzer’s operative distinction between American/European conceptualism and the use of conceptualist strategies within Latin American practices has greatly contributed to a discourse and context for the discussion of the social and political contexts that Latin American artists have dealt with.
How have you collaborated with other artists on works related to the exhibition’s themes?
A relevant work to this exhibition is the publication and exhibition project El Futuro dura para siempre (The Future Lasts Forever), which is very much in line with Pablo’s idea of revising Latin American stories and histories. Produced in collaboration with Runo Lagomarsino, it presents a series of commissioned texts and artworks that attempt to think of the future of Latin America from postcolonial and decolonial perspectives, in terms of geopolitics and history but also from other less obviously political areas such as emotional space, the space of dreams, and the space of the imagination.
The respondents included Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Carla Zaccagnini, Alexander Apóstol, and Walter Mignolo. We were interested in inviting them to work through the impossibility of producing theses about the future. Runo and I wanted them to feel as comfortable imagining a dystopian vision as a utopian one, or denying the idea of the future as something that can be constructed as opposed to an accumulation of the effects of past and present occurrences.
You are focusing increasingly on gender politics in your work—Nefandus Trilogy at the Cartegena Bienial, for example. How has this transition taken place?
Nefandus Trilogy marked a new direction in my research and aesthetic. It is a body of work that speaks about homoeroticism in pre-Hispanic times in Latin America. I wanted to understand the ways in which sexuality was constructed during the conquest and colonial years in Latin America, thinking about how the body, desire, and pleasure respond to specific European epistemological demands as contingently constructed categories.
I am also interested in the ways that sexuality has become one of the most polemical issues of our time, and I actively want to contribute to the writing of alternative histories of sexuality. We live in a strange time, in which sexual politics have turned towards a wave of assimilation and normalization, and in which there is a tacit acceptance that uncritical inclusion in existing and inherently discriminatory and problematic institutions such as marriage and the military is the way to go. While I recognize there has been a degree of social progress, I want to insist in thinking of alternative and perhaps less conformist ways to achieve to social change.