Adrián Villar Rojas. Return the World. 2012. Two notebooks, page (each): 9 7/16 × 12 5/8" (24 × 32 cm); notebook 1: 9 1/2 × 12 7/8 × 1/2" (24.1 × 32.7 × 1.3 cm); notebook 2: 9 1/2 × 12 7/8 × 3/8" (24.1 × 32.7 × 1 cm). Fund for the Twenty-First Century. Digital Image © 2023 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Massive, deteriorating sculptures are just one aspect of the immersive worlds Adrián Villar Rojas builds. Even in the controlled environment of a museum, they crumble and crack, hinting at both the material reality of time’s passage and at a series of imagined cataclysmic events that might have brought them here.

A speculative relationship with history—and with our possible futures—is at the heart of the work on view in Chosen Memories Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond. As the exhibition comes to a close (on September 9), I spoke with Villar Rojas, who lives and works nomadically—most recently in Rosario, Argentina—about the multifaceted works he has shown at MoMA, and their new directions.
— Julia Detchon, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints

Installation view of the exhibition Chosen Memories: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond, April 30–September 9, 2023

Installation view of the exhibition Chosen Memories: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond, April 30–September 9, 2023

Let’s begin with the mysterious, untitled object that’s currently on view in Chosen Memories. It’s one of the first works visitors encounter when they enter the galleries. This sculpture was originally part of a larger body of work, Los Teatros de Saturno. Because your installations are often site-specific, it is normally your practice to destroy them after exhibition, leaving only components or fragments of the larger series behind. Do you see this sculpture as a piece or remnant of something larger?

Adrián Villar Rojas: The so-called works are not methodologically destroyed but, sometimes, simply disappear. Often, they are reintegrated into the life cycle of the space that hosts them, like My Dead Family (2009), a “sculpture” made of unfired and unprocessed clay which, over many months, dissolved into the biome that contained it. For me, there is no such thing as a work, a discrete object, that can be destroyed “after its exhibition.” The work—the project—is a system that is deeply interconnected with its hosting space in a symbiotic, porous, and continuous relationship. So when the exhibition is “over,” the lifecycle of the work is temporarily suspended. I wouldn’t like to say it “ends” because, in many cases, fragments of my projects are recovered and recycled. If the work—the content—has become one with its container, must it be extracted from the space of its exhibition?

Since my first year in art school in Rosario, in 1998, I have had the fantasy, or the conviction, that what we were taught to produce—so-called contemporary art—shouldn’t last forever. This was an early and intuitive concern. With time, I understood that the only sculpture that interested me was our own species, which is both entropic and degradable. My practice is essentially suicidal; it deals with immateriality from the trenches of a paradox: to be supposedly producing “sculptures.” So I write, think of, and operate with “sculptures” in a state of suspense, because nothing matters to me less than sculpture or any other discipline.

This work is made from iron, gesso, and clay, which is cracked and actively deteriorating—when we unpacked it for this exhibition, it left a little trail of crumbs behind. Many of your sculptures—including another untitled work in MoMA’s collection—are made from unfired clay and cement. How do you work with these materials, and how do you manage their decay?

These materials are foundational in my practice: clay represents life on Earth before humans, while cement represents the era in which human beings adapt the planet to make it suitable for their own needs. While cement is a sign of modernization and the urbanity of the contemporary world, clay recalls pre-urban civilization, since it is the primary stuff of the world, a stand-in for all matter and all transformative processes on the planet. Both organic and inorganic, it comes from sedimentation and deep time. So, with the stuff of the world, with its constituent, most primordial elements, I have decided to make “things.”

Entropy, contingency, and unpredictability are core aspects of what I do. There is an unresolvable tension with the idea of preservation implied in art collecting. No project is designed to survive. This has to be absolutely clear: there is no natural evolution of my work that can be collected—only more or less fragile, perishable testimonies. In some cases, there is a follow-up dialogue between, for instance, the acquiring institution and me along with my production team, a dialogue to check and edit that “evolution.” It is an open process with no rigid or preset protocol.

To be able to say this in a MoMA publication is a beautiful perfect circle.

Adrián Villar Rojas. Untitled, from the series Return the World. 2012

Adrián Villar Rojas. Untitled, from the series Return the World. 2012

Adrián Villar Rojas. Return the World. 2012.

Adrián Villar Rojas. Return the World. 2012.

Although MoMA’s sculpture feels monumental in scale, its form was based on a piece of detritus—a chicken bone you found on the ground. It was also originally part of a larger series, Return the World, you made for dOCUMENTA (13). Accompanying it in MoMA’s collection is a sketchbook of the same name, a repository of studies and sources from ancient history to science fiction. How does the sketchbook relate to the sculpture—and how do the different elements in your installations build on or speak to each other?

The sketchbook tells the story of an alternative reality where the artifact you are referring to—and many other elements that belong to the larger universe of Return the World—exist. The notebooks offer the “sculpture” in MoMA’s collection a possibility for a second life. This notebook is by no means the blueprint of my dOCUMENTA (13) project, nor is it something my team and I refer to when making something. Actually, while in Kassel, I kept this notebook with me and no one else saw it.

There are many other sketchbooks like it, which are part of what I call “the process testimonies,” a database of still and moving images, audio, paintings, drawings, local materials, texts, notebooks, hard drives, and even “waste.” In this intersectional database, borders between projects, as well as between processes and outcomes, and even between the “field of production” (the art world) and “life” (my life), are erased. It’s me making photos and footage, recording people’s voices, taking notes, and making drawings. There are thousands of terabytes and dozens of notebooks, but also waste rescued from the litter bin, as in Today We Reboot the Planet (2013), a project commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries. We kept all the paperwork and legal documents, drafts of the projects, and printouts from our production office, and transported boxes and boxes of these papers to Mexico City to be reused as primary material for “works” the following year in my solo show Los Teatros de Saturno (2014).

Clearly each of your objects is part of a larger constellation of ideas, drawing from many disciplines and schools of thought, from geology and art history to pop music and video games. How do you choose from such a range of sources, and how do they take material form?

I read very voraciously, and in a scattered way, with no hierarchies. I try to move from my studies on Courbet’s invention of the first solo show, in 1855, through the work of Patricia Mainardi, Loki the Agent of Asgard by Al Ewing with illustrators Lee Garbett and Jorge Coelho, Federico Campagna’s Prophetic Culture, to the YouTube cartoonist Kayfabe or Roger Deakins’s podcast on cinematography. I need this type of intense, hectic, and frenetic range to activate my imagination.

During this “post-pandemic” time, fiction seems dull to me. Nothing seems as intriguing or ineffable as what we are experiencing now. In the last three years we have witnessed the cost of a barrel of petrol priced negative $37; melting glaciers and weather events that are redefining national borders; Netflix’s market share go higher than EXXON’s; super-powerful artificial intelligence become a ubiquitous assistant for office work, accelerating the dismissal of thousands of laborers all over the world (and many more to come); a super-rich technocracy that won’t stop spending money on prolonging life while more and more poor people suffer from extreme lack and marginalization. To me, this is beyond most people’s capacity to imagine; somehow we seem to have arrived at the end of imagination. We consume an avalanche of content—on TV and in films, podcasts, and books—that once was called science fiction, but now I don’t feel that the word can be used so lightly anymore. Are we living in a post-post-sci-fi world?

Could anyone have imagined that the first humans to demonstrate against AI were going to be writers and actors in Hollywood?

Speaking of which, I want to ask about how your sources and methods have changed since making these sculptures. In a more recent exhibition, which only just closed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, you pushed your experiments in world-building even further. Using software called the Time Engine, you created a virtual universe and, within it, manipulated the passage of time and environmental conditions in order to model devastation in virtual space. How has your collaborative process with your team evolved in tandem with your evolving interests? Has artificial intelligence become a collaborator of yours?

The Time Engine emerged because I was feeling extremely frustrated with the way my team and I were using digital modeling tools. Software like ZBrush or Rhino are designed to replicate the analog, human-centric experience of modeling, but in the digital realm. With the Time Engine—lately I have started to call it the Trauma Engine—I am able to tell stories about worlds in continuous evolution. I can determine things about the rain or other weather events, living organisms, gravity, or how many fingers and therefore mathematical systems humans have in this “to-be-defined reality.”
In this way, we can place objects (a mug, a clock, or a “sculpture”) inside modeled realities and see how they are affected (or traumatized). I wanted to know what would happen if we model worlds that model sculptures, then materialize those sculptures in this very specific material-centric world we inhabit. The results are digital, 3D sculptural forms, impossible objects that perhaps no human being in our lives or the lives of our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or even great-great-great-grandchildren will witness.

With the Time Engine, we ask questions like: what monuments might be created to commemorate the end of postcolonial struggles for independence on the Moon’s Sea of Clouds in the year 34,340? What would a sculpture that was left in the canyon of the Valles Marineris on Mars for 500 years look like? What is its texture, what remains of its volume? How do you model wind in 7,374,000 BCE? In that sense, perhaps, the Time Engine could be seen as a machine that generates speculative utopias.

Artificial intelligence is a tiny portion, though a helpful one, involved in the many processes shaping this new tool (the Time Engine). And as boring—or possibly relevant—as it may sound, all these processes are executed by human beings.

Installation view of the exhibition Adrián Villar Rojas: The End of Imagination, The Tank at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, December 3, 2022–July 16, 2023

Installation view of the exhibition Adrián Villar Rojas: The End of Imagination, The Tank at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, December 3, 2022–July 16, 2023

When I look at your work, sometimes I feel like a character in a story about the end of the world. One of the major themes to emerge from Chosen Memories was the way contemporary artists use history speculatively. Even your invented worlds respond to the course of actual human events. Do you see in your work a kernel of futuristic thinking?

I am driven by these speculations about the “art” that might emerge at the point where art ends, after which it could be approached only by nonhuman or more-than-human awareness. I’m trying to get as close as possible to a paradox: subjectivity without culture, without an anthropocentric point of view.

This question reminds me of a project I made in 2010 called Songs During the War, where many of these formative ideas were crystallized. The work is a short parable in which I proposed a hypothesis: what if, in the final moments of humanity, the last five women and men on Earth decided to make an artwork? It would be the last human artwork, with all the implications implied by this fact. In the story, the last group of humans encounter a long-abandoned amphitheater. Knowing and feeling that their end is coming, they carry out one last mission to affirm their existence: to perform the role of Neanderthals, executing modest rituals and household activities, until their extinction.

There is a beautiful, paradoxical gift as a result of this last artistic operation: if the only beings who can measure time are time-traveling through this performance, back before evolution dictated it would be Homo sapiens that survived over Neanderthals, it is impossible to deny that the traveling back into the past is really taking place. Time, language, representation, and meaning is theirs. Traveling in the opposite direction to the flow of time—denied by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity—is in this case perfectly achievable.

In this way, space-time is exposed to one last ghastly, dissonant fold, like two mirrors or two microphones facing each other and producing infinite feedback. With this act, we arrive at the edges of anthropocentric representational systems and art itself—its ultimate ending.