Auto-Constructing Abraham: From Frieze Masters to the Tate Modern

Inspired by a talk at Frieze Masters, Robert Barry ponders Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s new commission for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

All photos by Andrew Dunkley ©TATE 2015 except where noted

“Something … growing out of nothing.” A plant or a flower bursting through “a little crack in the pavement, against all odds. That for me,” says Abraham Cruzvillegas, “is an image of myself.” I’m sitting in the auditorium at Frieze Masters, the contemporary art fair’s more salubrious twin on the other side of Regent’s Park. On the stage, the Mexican artist is talking to James Peto from the Wellcome Collection in London about some of his favourite exhibits from this most curious of London museums.

The item under discussion is a painting commissioned by Henry Wellcome himself depicting Pedanius Dioscorides sketching a herb, working on his seminal herbal codex, De Materia Medica in first century AD Greece. Cruzvillegas has become fascinated by what he regards as a highly “anthropomorphic” depiction of the mandrake root, a weed notorious for its magical, hallucinogenic properties. Somehow he sees himself as an artist, not in the draftsman-physician illustrating his plant, but in the fragile plant itself. At the same time, he “found it interesting that there is a person making a representation, within the representation.”

On the stage, Cruzvillegas seems very relaxed in a short-sleeved check shirt and lace-up black boots. His earring occasionally glints in the stage lights. Peto is looking a little more stiff, like a man who just loosened his tie after leaving the office. “I first heard [of the Wellcome Collection] from my friend the tattoo artist,” Cruzvillegas explains, “but he would only talk about it when he was drunk.” You get the sense that for a while he did not quite believe in this strange place, erected by a pharmaceuticals baron in order to collect and display the entire history of his trade.

Abraham Cruzvillegas & James Peto, onstage at Frieze Masters, photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze

“Wellcome was a completist,” Peto explains. So you will find examples of every imaginable species of scalpel, forceps, or syringe carefully displayed amongst the collection, alongside ghoulish looking things in glass jars and Amazonian shrunken heads. All of this is held in equal esteem by Cruzvillegas. “Art is art,” he says simply. Wellcome also desired artistic depictions of great moments in medical history: collected where possible, specially commissioned where not. Our portrait of Dioscorides was one such gap that needed to be filled on demand.

So genially equivocal was Cruzvillegas about the exhibits he found in Wellcome’s museum that, when asked by Frieze to pick out a few favourites, he took a walk through the galleries with his young daughter and took her council on what to choose. At least one painting was picked because she liked the subject’s jacket.

There’s a warm family vibe to the whole proceedings this afternoon. Cruzvillegas’s mum is in the front row (she arrived a little late but was immediately made room for). So when he talks about the resilience of the mandrake root, flourishing “in the worst conditions, with nobody taking care of it,” he’s quick to point out that he personally got a tiptop education from his parents. His reference is more to the “social and economic and political environment” of contemporary Mexico, a situation where he finds everything stacked against the growth of creative sensibility.

Recently some commentators have started to point to a miniature artistic renaissance taking place in the beleaguered North American country. Artnet News even declared the capital one of the best cities in the world for artists to live at the moment (alongside Oslo and Brussels). But Cruzvillegas grew up in Colonia Ajusco, a landscape of ad hoc developments built on inhospitable volcanic rock.

As Peto points out, there’s a close link between Cruzvillegas’s fascination with the mandrake in Dioscorides’s study and the Mexican artist’s current major work at the Tate Modern. Empty Lot takes the form of a vast diamond of timber, hoisted upon a scaffold, filling the vast expanse of the Turbine Hall from end to end. The frame holds a hundred-odd triangular seedbeds, each one bearing soil gathered haphazardly from parks, allotments, and other spots throughout London where the concrete momentarily gives space for green fingers. The cracks in the pavement, if you like.

Throughout the course of the show, these planters will be lit and watered, given whatever nourishment they need in order to produce – what, exactly? As one visitor noted, overheard by me as I visited the installation, it could prove to be the most conspicuous marijuana plantation in Europe. Cruzvillegas himself certainly doesn’t know what might grow there over the life of the exhibition. Maybe nothing. That’s not the point. Indeed, he seems to rather relish the idea that this patch of highly-prized central London real estate might be allowed, for the sake of art, to be completely unproductive for a while.

But already when I visited, less than a week after it had opened, the Empty Lot was already showing a few green shoots. Maybe over the succeeding weeks and months a tremendous verdant landscape will emerge, as if ex nihilo, upon this site. This kind of ‘autoconstruución’ has been central to Cruzvillegas’s practice for over a decade now, inspired by his own childhood in the improvised settlements of Ajusco. Like the mandrake root in the painting at the Wellcome, whatever hardy sprouts might emerge from the Tate’s ragtag of soil samples are to stand as a metaphor of creation itself.

In Henry Wellcome’s nineteenth century, it remained the goal of art to represent nature. A sculpture or a painting could stand as the idealised image of the natural world. So if Wellcome himself wanted to display the medicinal properties of the mandrake root or whatever else, he could commission a painter to prepare an image which would embody and exemplify the root better than any real root ever could. But in the middle of the twentieth century something changed. Artists like Joseph Beuys in Germany, Giuseppe Penone in Italy, and John Cage in America, working across very different media, began to see the artwork as something no longer hived off from reality but contiguous with it. The materials of a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music were, after all, real material things with their own distinct properties. Why lie?

Suddenly the task of art seemed to change dramatically: it was no longer about using oil or clay or a violin or whatever to represent a horse or a tree or a forest scene, but simply to bring the horse, the tree, or the natural environment into the space of the gallery or the concert hall to simply be. No longer representing something else, just presenting itself in its own immanence. Arguably, with Cruzvillegas, the situation has gone full circle. It is no longer a case of art representing nature. Now nature must be called upon and placed in front of an audience in order to represent nothing but art itself.

Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Empty Lot will be growing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall until the 3rd of April 2016

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