01 May 2011

Colourful Histories

Written by Published in Art & Culture

Sublime talks to two artists who use second-hand clothing as their medium of choice


Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz are the creative duo that are Guerra de la Paz. The Cuban-born artists live and work in Miami, and have been producing work together since 1996. They use second-hand clothing and found materials to create beautiful installations which are not only visually stimulating, but provide an interesting commentary on sociopolitical issues. In today’s consumer-driven society, their use of discarded clothing in the creation of their installations speaks volumes on many levels, and forces viewers to a critical examination of their own personal practices. Sublime interviewed the duo about their work, their inspiration and the statements they make with their pieces.


Sublime: As a collective, how does the creative process work for you both?

Guerra de la Paz: Much of what we do is about trial and error, which has allowed us to learn a great deal about understanding how to reinforce each other’s work harmoniously. There is a high level of intimacy in how we work, and it’s usually just the two of us in our studio, striving for common goals.

After 16 years of continuously bouncing ideas back and forth, and developing certain methods together, creation for us has become an organic practice that revolves around constant dialogue and shared experiences.


S: What inspires you both?

GdlP: It can come from anywhere. Because the majority of our materials are found, we would say that whatever we come across in our scavenger hunts is a great source of inspiration. We also look to nature and its cyclical patterns; life’s dichotomies; psychosocial issues; scientific theories and the history of different cultures for guidance.


S: Are you fans of other contemporary artists?

GdlP: Yes, of course. There are too many great artists to single out anyone in particular, and the list is ever growing and changing. To name just a few would be to do a disservice to those we didn’t mention.


S: How are the textiles sourced for installations such as Six Thai Trannies in Heaven and Tribute?

GdlP: For Six Thai Trannies, we were invited to a special two-week residency at the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative in Greensboro, North Carolina and asked to create to create a site-specific installation with materials found on the premises. The garments in were part of a site materials collection at the 100-year-old, three-storey building that once housed various businesses and was owned by one woman throughout her life. One of its incarnations was a thrift shop, which is where the clothing comes from.

Garments from the 1940s through to the 1980s were sorted by weight and hung accordingly in order to alleviate stress on the rafters, that were hidden by an original tin ceiling, where the installation would reside. Tribute’s evolution, on the other hand, is a stark contrast, in that it is made entirely of cast-offs that it has taken over ten years to collect, and to sort the clothing to correlate with the colours of the spectrum. The individual items were gathered from piles of discarded garments waiting to be taken away in dumpsters for landfill.

We began collecting garments for the piece around 2000, and by 2002 we had enough to debut its first installation. From there, we have continued to collect and sort, and add to the piece whenever it is reinstalled.


S: Why do you use textiles?

GdlP: The clothing idea came about when we moved into our studio in the Little Haiti neighbourhood of Miami, which was then packed with Pepe businesses (exporters of second-hand clothes to Haiti). They would throw away endless amounts of all kinds of apparel on a daily basis.

We were initially attracted to these large quantities of clothing as they offered an abundant array of colour, sheen and texture to choose from. Once we gained access to several Pepe warehouses where we collect our materials, we quickly learned to appreciate the plasticity of the repurposed medium and to use it in a variety of ways, from individual brushstrokes in three-dimensional paintings to straightforward symbolism.


S: Why do you use second-hand materials? What does this add to your work?

GdlP: The use of second-hand items poses existential questions, and comes charged with issues of provenance and historical significance, acting as contemporary archaeological relics. Using them as a constructive material incorporates their intrinsic value, and the encapsulated energy absorbed from their earlier role as functional items, adding a metaphysical dimension to the work. Each item has contributed to defining an individual, and suggests time and place, while collectively they represent humanity and allude to an entire population.


S: What is the significance of the three-dimensional nature of your work?

GdlP: We generally see our work as a whole as multi-dimensional and multi-sensory. When working with found objects you start with three-dimensional materials, so it makes sense to keep that quality it provides intact.


S: For a piece such as Tribute, take us through the creative process from conceptualisation to installation.

GdlP: Each of us has always had a fascination with mounds: from ancient burial and ceremonial mounds, to the piles of discarded items found in genocidal concentration camps, to Monet’s haystacks. We combined these references to create Tribute. It is a piece we consider to be a salute to humanity, although it could easily be associated with atrocity. It is a representation of all peoples coming together, a metaphor for utopian ideals, and it celebrates both diversity and unity.

To realise this piece, we began by collecting solid-coloured clothes. We then sorted the clothing by colour groups and repeated the process, breaking it down into specifics as we went along. Then, to build the mound, we meticulously placed each garment one by one in the sequence of the colour spectrum, piece by piece and layer by layer, until the mound took on its customary shape.


S: Are sustainable practices of personal importance to you, and is this something you want to convey through your works?

GdlP: Absolutely. We feel it is of the utmost importance to have respect for the earth and to protect all that nature provides to make life possible. In this day and age, it seems as though our time on the planet may be running out unless we re-evaluate our priorities as a society, and find a balance where civilisation can continue moving forward, or pay the consequences for going too far. Our work comments on both mass production and consumption just by the fact that our material of choice is what it is. It exposes the waste that is generated with the bountiful amounts of apparel we use (which doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is hauled away on a daily basis), and can serve as an example of how we can turn our trash into something meaningful, or a thing of beauty.


S: Why do you think we have become such a wasteful society?

GdlP: We are a consumer-oriented society – obsessed with lifestyle and too preoccupied with our routine to notice anything else not on our agenda. We have an insatiable demand for virtually everything, and are accustomed to the convenience of disposability that naturally takes it all for granted. Time, comfort and convenience drive this.


S: You use ties in Powerties. What does the tie symbolise for you, and what was your inspiration for this piece?

GdlP: In our Powerties series, we examine the faceless entities that control the masses. Ties are symbols of success and power, but when twisted into emblems of oppression and treachery, they reveal the flipside of attainment. The work serves as a reminder of the high price of prosperity, and an inherent sense of greed that propels it.

The series began to evolve after a trip to Chicago, where we were allowed to take decades-worth of men’s fashions after being given access to a men’s store that had been closed for many years, in a building that had recently been purchased by the city. That was quickly followed by several friends donating their entire collections of ties. Concurrently, there was a string of corporate scandals unfolding in the media, which helped lead us in the direction of snakes and nooses to represent corruption.


S: These images also have a humorous aspect to them. Was this your intention?

GdlP: Yes, it is important to keep a sense of humour about life. The impact of absurdity is a good buffer when dealing with the harshness of reality. Nobody wants a dark cloud looming overhead for eternity. Lightening things up also adds a sense of hope, and allows viewers that option.


S: Pietà and Martyr are striking, and provide an interesting commentary on conflict. Do you feel a social responsibility as artists?

GdlP: We believe it is everyone’s responsibility to be socially and environmentally conscious, and feel that we are simply creating a forum based on what we perceive to be a general consensus on the topic of the day. We feel as though we are capturing a mood, instead of creating it.

War and religion seem to go hand in hand. We just want to show the world what we see. Ideas come to us serendipitously, and even though some of our subjects could be politically charged, we believe that our work remains neutral and can be interpreted in a number of ways.

The fatigues in those pieces belonged to soldiers, so it seemed only natural to use the uniforms to convey a poignant portrayal of those who wore them, enabling the works to emit both a human presence and its absence. We think that because of this, people can emotionally connect with them for their own special reasons.


S: How can art be a more effective medium in highlighting issues of sustainability?

GdlP: Art chronicles the times. You can always catch a glimpse of what a certain era was like by how it was visually represented. But we’re not sure how influential it is in how we choose to live our lives. We don’t see how it would compare with the media or political rhetoric (even though they are forms of art in their own right) as far as influencing the masses goes.

It is, however, a platform for self-expression, where one can present an issue or pose a question that gets people to think and come to their own conclusions on a subject. We believe that anything done to raise awareness and take action is important and commendable.


S: If there was one thing you’d like viewers of your work to come away with, what would it be?

GdlP: To keep an open mind.


S: Do you have any future projects you would like to tell us about?

GdlP: We are currently working on a sculpture series for a solo exhibition this summer at Galerie Kashya Hildebrand in Zurich, entitled Bonsai Couture. At the same time we are working on producing Manto, an interdisciplinary installation using garments, a performer and a soundtrack for the upcoming Prague Quadrennial 2011. This fall, in the US, we will debut Follow the Leader at the Craft Alliance in St Louis, Missouri and will prepare for a solo exhibition at Praxis International in New York City.


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