I heard about Cristina Mejías’ practice a long time ago thanks to an artist-friend in common. Soon after, we visited her studio for an open studios event when I fell in love with Tro,tro, a video-sculpture of a horse moving around a circle. Later I have gained a greater understanding of her practice and now I am dropping her a line to discuss some works and about her artistic interests more broadly.
Hi Cristina. First of all, thank you very much for welcoming me to your studio in Madrid. I love going to artist’s studios, you can get a broader idea of their practice during the visit. Is this your first studio since the very beginning of your artistic journey? When did you decided that you wanted to be an artist and how did the idea of becoming an artist reveal itself?
Hi María, always happy to welcome you here, thanks for your visit and time.
I have been in this studio for the last two years, when two friends and I discovered this place and decided to tidy it up and settle down with some more artists. But I have been in other ‘spaces’ before. I had my first working space when I moved to Berlin; a very old table in the studio of an old sculptress. The studio was located at the end of a wild path, surrounded by a flea market of antiques and a cemetery of wood; that fact provided me a lot of cheap and free materials to try things with. After a while, I decided to build up my studio inside my own bedroom in my shared apartment, since the rooms in Berlin flats used to be quite spacious. It wasn’t until I moved to Madrid, after some time, that I really decided to have a proper studio to work (also because here flats were not spacious anymore). The possibility of sharing it with friends and have a project space triggers the possibility of other things to happen, apart from my own work, and that makes it more worthwhile and a more affordable experience.
As for your question about when I decided to work as an artist…I wouldn’t be able to say it was something I realized all at once, actually I ended my studies without really knowing what that meant or what I was supposed to do. I started studying Architecture and Fine Arts and after four years I decided I wanted to focus on the second, for some reason I felt much more comfortable with it; but I can see now how architecture plays a role in my interests and practice. I think I realized what working as an artist meant when I started working as an assistant for artists Sophie Erlund and Nathan Peter in Berlin. I spent a lot of time in their studio, learnt a lot from working with them, we shared a lot of time together and I could have the chance to finally see how that works. That it’s not just about having an idea and go for it but it’s a profession that, in most cases, is quite uncertain and that one has to deal with many situations in order to survive economically and emotionally. Being witness of their process in such a complex city as Berlin made me keep my feet on the ground but also gave me the impulse to believe that it was also something possible for me if I was constant and committed to what I enjoyed doing the most (and be willing to combine it with other tasks when needed…)
There’s a “pictorical” tradition in the south of Spain, but I haven’t seen any painting so far, have you ever painted or thought about making paintings?
I studied in Madrid, and in my university the tradition was more conceptual than pictorical. We had teachers who where active artists such as Javier Codesal, Cabello/Carceller, Mitsuo Miura…. who made us pay attention to process and research. Of course we also had to get our hands dirty and work with different materials and formats, and I enjoyed painting a lot, until then it was the most familiar technique for me. But then I discovered other possibilities like video art, under J. Codesal’s guidance, or Sculpture, mostly when I moved to Dublin as an Eramus student. In the NCAD education in Fine Arts is something different to what I was used to, closer to reality I would say. At the beginning of the course you get a studio, a library and several art teachers specializing in different topics to whom you might talk with about your progress. You are responsible for your own project since the very beginning. I entered the sculpture department and that is where I could get a greater idea of different collaborative practices in the neighborhood of Liberties, in Dublin.
There is a pictorical tradition in the south of Spain which you can see in Fine Arts education, but in my opinion there’s a generation of many young Andalucian artists doing very interesting work in many other medias, including contemporary painting of course; from my point of view it reveals that they don’t stick to that tradition or to a more familiar media but to their curiosity and need for exploration.
As for myself, I like to explore new materials continuously…so I don’t exclude using painting if the future if that’s where the project leads me.
When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist, and how do you describe your practice in a couple of words?
Well, it would be difficult for me to synthesize my practice in a couple of words; the work I like doing and those which I enjoy the most as a spectator are the ones that open questions instead of giving answers, I guess instinct has a lot to do with it. Yet seemingly paradoxically, I can tell you that usually it’s preceded by a long research process in which I like to bury myself. My work is normally predicated on familiar narrations, those far from traditional methods used to construct history by means of a linear narrative, and closer to those passed on from mouth to mouth and keep the shape and voice of the one who tells them and the listener who listens, and are the source for storytellers. I like to explore the possibilities of telling stories as a prologue to recompose or invent others.
When I was little, one of my older brothers used to read me books, not because I couldn’t read them myself, but because we preferred to read them together out loud, question the text, listening to one another. He taught me the value of literature, and it’s intersecting my practice all the time. I also enjoy writing, although it’s something that normally I keep for myself.
Nowadays we have got used to accepting the academic world as the legitimate container and transmitter of learning. Today, the responsibility for preserving knowledge is deposited in writing applied to a screen or to paper, after which it then sits in libraries, be that physical or virtual. We have the luxury of being able to forget something because we can always retrieve it from books. However, libraries need to be driven by our desire in order to take on life. It’s not enough to keep a leaf in a herbarium; a living plant is ravaged by the air and it’s important this takes place.
I want to talk about your last solo show Boca y Hueso (mouth and bone) at The Goma Gallery. For me the show represented the tiny line between the work of the artisan and that of the contemporary artist. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience putting that project together?
Yes, that project focuses on artisan guitar-making, because the flamenco guitar, unlike the rest of the standardized school of plucked string instruments, came about as an accompaniment for troubadours in taverns and markets and today guitar-making is still a form of learning that in many cases is passed down orally from master to master.
Thinking of Benjamin, the artisans are the masters of narration, because when the rhythm of work has seized [them], [they] listen to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to [them] all by itself.
In the beginning it was sound and rhythm. Oral poetry is rooted in melody and trope. Strabo tells us that in ancient times singing and saying were the same thing.
I can say that I really enjoyed the whole process of this project, even if sometimes it was tough and challenging, it reflects a lot of my interests and it really affected me.
When and why did you think about creating a body of work together with your brother? How did you find learning the “luthier” process from the very beginning?
One day I was in Jerez, my hometown, and I visited one of my brothers in his workshop. We talked for a while about his trade as a luthier, and at some point he told me ‘no two guitars are alike’. That was some time ago but that sentence stuck in my mind.
Recently, which is some years later, I was invited by The Goma Gallery to have a solo show there; I thought that was the perfect opportunity to finally ask my brother if I could be his apprentice for a project I wanted to develop together with him.
This guild was far removed from the scholastic tradition, giving rise to craftsmanship that evolved empirically and created an instrument whose voice contained a lot of the voice of the artisan who made them.
I spent some months working at his luthier workshop in Jerez and all the pieces I created for that show were made there, using the same raw materials and tools used for making the instrument and following the same methods. An unhurried learning where the premise of listening and learning with the hands and with the body was crucial in the whole process. Writing in order to learn to read.
Piglia says that learning means remembering what it has already done, accumulating experience as it goes along. It will not necessarily make better stories each time, but it will know the stories it has already made, giving them perhaps a plot to tie them all together at the end.
This experience of sharing processes enabled me to engage with this handcrafted practice from the viewpoint of artistic experimentation, and at once to become another link in the transmission and body of learning those processes that have been passed down to us, where the result contains a method where each form tells a tale.
You just been awarded with the Community of Madrid prize at Estampa Contemporary Art Fair in Spain. Can you tell us more about the work that won the price and what it means to an artist to be awarded this prize?
The piece ‘We’re stepping on the bottom of the sea’ is a work that collects a lot of different elements that once belonged to previous projects; a wooden packing box works as a wardrobe that holdsa collection of fragments inside, all of which, for some reason, I kept in my studio for different periods of time. Over the past two years I’ve been working on a project in collaboration with an archaeologist; one of the things that fascinates me while working on this project is the way items are displayed in museums. I am interested in how static everything looks, like there is no time, hand or space that has ever affected or continues to affect them. Like if there is only one way of presenting and approaching them. So I wanted to play with that, turning it around, exploring the connections between forms and the surfaces that hold them; creating a language for a narration that speaks in any possible direction.
It was a great piece of news to been awarded by Community of Madrid prize and to have my ‘collection’ now guarded by such an interesting place as CA2M institution.
Last year you did a residency in Lisbon, part of Ranchito residencies placing you between Madrid and Lisbon. Next month you will be returning to Lisbon for another residency. What is it about that city that continues to attract you?
Well the first time I went to Lisbon for a residency it was an invitation, I didn’t choose to go but it happened to be a great experience. I had been to Lisbon before, but living there for a while gave me a better perspective of the city; and I loved it. I wouldn’t know how to explain it, but back in Madrid I had the feeling I missed the city and I needed to go back and keep discovering it. I got a grant for a residency in Hangar Lisboa next December and I’m looking forward to being back.
Are you going to continue the previous work that you started in Portugal in 2018 or are you going to start something new?
I will work mostly on the script for an audio piece I’m developing for an installation. But I’m sure I’ll find any excuse to go to Feira da Ladra or the deposit of Marinha Grande to look for material and maybe work on some sculptures as well.
In the last couple of months you have been selected for Generaciones 2020, a well-known prize in Spain, that recognizes eight emerging artists every year. Will you be presenting existing work or you will present something new?
I will present a project called ‘La máquina de Macedonio’; it’s something new I’m working on now that I started some time ago, when I did a residency in Maracaibo, Venezuela. It reflects on the construction of a narration, its fiction and polysemy. Two situations are taken as starting points: Ricardo Piglia’s story about a talking machine capable of building stories based on the transformation of previous ones; and the tradition of an oral community I got in touch with when being in La Guajira, which consists of putting what they dreamt the night before into words every day, with the intention of affecting, within the interpretation of those dreams, their daily life. The result will last the duration of the exhibition; after that it will be transform into something else.
After Generaciones you will have a solo show in Barcelona at the Blueproject Foundation. Can you tell us a bit more about that project? Is somehow related with the previous works?
The solo show at Blueproject Foundation will be the first opportunity to show all the pieces related to a particular project I have been developing in the past two years. Up until now I could have shown them just in fragments, some of them during open studios while in residency in Matadero Madrid or Tabakalera Donostia, some others in group shows. The whole project is called ‘The Host and The Ghost’ and it’s done in collaboration with archaeologist and performer Efthimis Theou. It started with a trip to Gavdos island, the place where Ulysses was shipwrecked and the nymph Calypso detained him on his return trip to Ithaca. The island is also the most meridional point of Europe and where the Katalymata excavation is located. It is also where I joined a team of archaeologist for a while. My interest in archaeology and in the Katalymata dig in particular springs from its unique working method, in which it proposes to address the archaeological object as a hybrid space in which to interweave history with contemporary cultural production, nourished by stories, myths, and legends known by native islanders. The result will be a combination of videos, sculpture and installation and the presentation of a publication I’m preparing for which I collaborated with other voices and approaches to the project.