A Conversation with Carlos Amorales on Apocalyptic Futures
The Mexican artist talks about migration, our relationship with nature, and finding the seeds of renewal amid catastrophe.
Carlos Amorales, Madeline Murphy Turner
Feb 5, 2021
Manimal begins with a panoramic view of a parched landscape, with dead trees and a cloudy sky lit only by the light shining down from three moons. Ominous music plays as a silhouette of a pack of wolves appears. The point of view varies, from the wolves’ to images of the pack running through a desolate landscape. Planes taking off, an abandoned playground, and a group of empty buildings are the sole traces of human life in a setting dominated by wolves. Mexican artist Carlos Amorales made this five-and-a-half-minute video envisioning a world abandoned by humans and reclaimed by other species in 2005, using shadow-puppetry techniques and in collaboration with musician Julián Lede and animator Iván Martínez López.
This interview took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made Manimal’s post-apocalyptic vision more pertinent and current—all the more so in a city like New York, which witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of species (birds, bears, and others) observed on its empty streets. Amorales spoke to me about the ideas that gave rise to Manimal, and reflected on opportunities for renewal. He also pondered migration, a recurring theme in his work.
This conversation, which was conducted in Spanish, is part of a series of interviews with artists whose works were donated to MoMA in 2017 by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The interviews explore art’s relationship with territory and nature, a subject that was chosen as the research focus of the Cisneros Institute for the 2020–23 period.
This interview has been translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.
Carlos Amorales. Still from Manimal. 2005
Madeline Murphy Turner: In 1999, you started your Liquid Archive, a digital image bank of hundreds of familiar silhouettes—trees, monsters, animals, skulls, and others—generated using vector graphics. Those images were used and reused in works like Black Cloud (2007). Is Manimal also an outgrowth of the images in that archive?
Carlos Amorales: The origin of Manimal was an invitation from Gabriel Orozco in 2005 to exhibit work at the reopening of the Museo Experimental el Eco in Mexico City. I had made a few animations that combined images and music using a sort of free association. In those works, the urban landscape was explored as the setting for a Gothic story. In Manimal, I wanted to take this further, but with a more narrative approach; I wanted to tell a story. The story is based on Boris Vian’s short story “The Werewolf,” which in turn has echoes of medieval French tales about how packs of wolves migrate to cities. To make the animation, I had to create a whole new series of images—flat images later placed in a virtual 3D environment. They were eventually brought into the Liquid Archive.
I understand the post-apocalyptic not as revelry in a world gone to pieces, but rather as the chance for a new beginning, for something more virtuous to take hold.
Carlos Amorales. Liquid Archive. 2000–10
You have said in other interviews that the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was central to the formation of your artistic ideas. Could you tell us what role catastrophe plays in your art?
The 1985 earthquake was a watershed for me both ethically and aesthetically. My reaction, like the reaction of many, was ambivalent: on the one hand, I felt for what the victims were going through, and on the other the aesthetic experience before the ruins and destruction was powerful. Seeing the collapsed buildings had an impact that proved decisive to certain images that would later appear in my art. That the ambivalence is tied to beginning to understand destruction as a preface necessary for the regeneration of the world. I understand the post-apocalyptic not as revelry in a world gone to pieces, but rather as the chance for a new beginning, for something more virtuous to take hold—and that is something my entire generation believed in: 25 years after the earthquake, we managed to vote out the entrenched ruling party. (The results, of course, have proven very controversial.) I think Vertical Earthquake, a piece I made five years after Manimal, captures this idea. In it, I used the jagged forms of the buildings damaged by the earthquake to make rulers. I hung the rulers from the wall by a nail so that they jutted out horizontally, and then drew a series of semicircles on the wall. This work exemplifies the passage from chaos to order—the crux of my interest in the post-apocalyptic. Manimal shows a moment before that transition; the moment when the human disappears to make way for an animal society.
In the years since you made Manimal, theories challenging the privileged place human beings have taken for themselves, their domination of animals and nature, have emerged with an unprecedented force. Do you find those theories relevant to Manimal?
Yes, the piece is very closely tied to that theoretical thinking. I have always considered myself an eminently urban person. I was born in Mexico City, and since I was young I have always loved exploring it, trying to understand and explain what has always seemed to me like an almost endless place, like an ocean. That’s why the starting point for my work’s relationship with the natural is the symbolic, which is to say language. Animals represent archetypes, psychological facets, and as such they are part of the human. In other words, nature in my art does not exist outside of us. It is part of our mental fabric. I have lived through five catastrophes so far: the earthquakes of 1985 and 2017; September 11, 2001, in New York; the economic collapse of 2008; and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Three of those were natural catastrophes—to a large extent, at least, because there is political responsibility—and two were the product of politics, economics, or terrorism. The experience of a natural catastrophe is very different from the experience of one created by humans. Regardless of how we understand responsibility, natural catastrophes bring us down to size while also making us part of a larger crowd, a great herd that moves erratically, fleeing the urban labyrinth in order to survive.
Carlos Amorales. Still from Manimal. 2005
The geography in Manimal shifts, and the work shows a sort of struggle for mastery of the earth. How did you envision questions of migration while making this piece? Has your vision changed in the last 15 years?
Migration is another recurring theme in my work, particularly in Life in the Folds, the piece I presented at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. That work, which takes its name from the book by [Henri] Michaux, is, in formal and thematic terms, a sort of sequel to Manimal, only this time the figures represent humans. My interest in migration is tied to my own experience and the experience of my family. My grandfather was Basque. He immigrated to Mexico before the outbreak of World War II. I immigrated to Europe at the age of 19, and stayed until I was 34, when my first child was born. We came back to Mexico, where we live now. So that experience of being a foreigner, of being in motion, is a constant. I could take that idea further, insofar as I am an artist who migrates from medium to medium, from theme to theme. Sometimes I go back to where I started, sometimes I stay in the same place for a while, and sometimes I just pass through. I have always liked uprooting, unsettling myself in my work, living somewhere other than home for a while. That means rebelling to some extent against the art market and its “star system,” and being a sort of chameleon who sometimes turns the wrong color, that looks like one thing but is in fact something else—like a migrant.
In closing, I would like to ask you how the COVID crisis, and the long lockdown specifically, has affected your life as an artist, your work and ideas.
In Mexico, and in Mexico City in particular, the government enacted a series of measures known as “Healthy Distance Guidelines.” It appealed to citizens’ sense of personal responsibility; there were never sanctions for not adhering to the lockdown.
Unfortunately, in Mexico more than half of the population works in the informal economy. They live hand to mouth, and their income is daily. This has meant that many people never stopped going out to try to make a living. The combination of the COVID-19 health emergency and the lockdown economic emergency got me thinking about designing and implementing economic solidarity networks connecting different sectors as a means to address both issues at once. I came up with an economic proposal for the production of red face coverings to be distributed for free to informal workers that had to keep going out to work, as well as city sanitation workers and people who work at open-air markets. The project was funded by Kurimanzutto, the gallery that represents me, and some of its collectors. The face coverings were sewn in the workshops of relatives of my assistant, Janet Martinez, and then distributed by WIEGO, an NGO that provides services and support to informal workers. We produced some 30,000 face coverings in 10 weeks; they were distributed to over 20,000 workers.
This initiative provided 17 families with jobs at a time when, because of the pandemic, they had no income. One of the most satisfying results was receiving about 3,000 photographs of people wearing the masks while working. Beyond the urgency of a project that offered a pragmatic response at a specific juncture, when I saw the photographs I realized that the initiative is of a piece with some of my earlier projects: the workshop to manufacture red boots I presented at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the works with wrestlers’ masks, and even the Nuevos Ricos record label that distributed albums on a mass scale.
The Cisneros Institute’s programs are conducted in conjunction with Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), MoMA’s global research initiative, which is supported by The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.
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