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Juan Fernando Herrán

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Dec 01, 2012
Location: Colombia
Topic: Interview with Juan Fernando Herrán
Interviewer: Micah Malone

LatinArt:  Can you talk about the origin of the photographs of the Crosses?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  The project started one day when I was just walking in the mountains. I asked a woman from the area how to get closer to the communications antennas at the top of the mountain. And she said, just walk through this path, go up the hill 40 – 45 minutes, and once you get to the place that is full of crosses, just climb to the right. So I just started walking and I got to this place filled with crosses. At a certain point there were some killings between the people on the right and the left, the paramilitaries and the guerrillas.

You may know that if a countryman helps the guerrillas, or helps the paramilitaries, they really get into a difficult situation because one of the groups will kill them, I mean, its very, very difficult. So, after awhile, the families wanted to find a place where they could think about these deaths.

LatinArt:  Did any of the crosses have names written near them?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Not even one name, which is also interesting for me. The difference between, lets say a cemetery and this site is that they are not buried there. They also don’t want to make a commemoration that will last forever. So it is just for the moment of remembering somebody. And I think that gives this space a different significance, a different feeling because you will find the way they are constructed, the way each is tied up, the materials are all different. So it’s always a personal decision that is much more meaningful than when you just go into a church or a cemetery that has the religious institution behind it.

LatinArt:  Where was the work first shown?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  I showed the works in a derelict building. Which was also interesting because of the materiality of the rough and unfinished space. This space was going to be the museum for Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and was designed by Rogelio Salmona but it was never finished. But the conceptual structure of the building is built around the burial place of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. He’s buried in the center.

LatinArt:  So the burial place for Gaitán is not well kept?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Well, the burial site is, but the surrounding building is derelict. So it was really, really, important for me that the show took place at this site. Because it was as if these crosses that have no names, would surround the burial site. The space had many different rooms, so the show couldn’t be seen at one time. You needed to walk through one space to another, and the more you walked, the more crosses you would find.

LatinArt:  Public space is really important for you then, I’m reminded of the “Escalas” work that you showed at NC-arte. Can you talk about those photos?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  The relationship between the work and the space is fundamental for me. All of those photos are from Medellin, of poor neighborhoods that exist at the limits of the city, the surrounding areas.

Medellin is a city built in the valley, with all these mountains around, and with the exception of El Poblado, which is the rich area, the outskirts of the city are filled with poor neighborhoods, populated by people who have come from different parts of the country.

It’s an interesting situation because in some way, they are part of Medellin, but you can sense from the photographs that their situation and the way everything is built, that they have a rural mentality. They come to the city and try to integrate by constructing access to the city, staircases and so on… but they are not entirely incorporated, either economically or politically.

LatinArt:  It was interesting to see the train built out there, and the tram that went up to the library [Parque-biblioteca España in Santo Domingo], at least it seemed there was an effort on behalf of the city to incorporate some of these neighborhoods.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  It has improved a lot, but of course, in cultural terms, it is much more complex. There are so many things involved, that even that infrastructure… you could sense for the habitants it was almost like a foreign invasion. Of course, it’s not all negative. But those social changes would have to go hand in hand with many other things that are not happening. Of course, I went to Medellin almost every year, and went to these places everyday. After awhile I noticed that the public space that you find in these areas is really a construction of the people. The way their paths join together is like a labyrinth. It is also a reflection of what they need and how they come to terms with their situation.

Medellin had a large history of public sculpture in the 80s when there was a tax exemption that would allow the constructors to use part of the taxes on an artwork that would be in public space. So for more than 10 years this was a law that affected the sculpture of Medellin. So that’s why I was so interested in finding these places that were not formed with such standardization.

If you go to Medellin now, you will find that there is a lot of public sculpture in parks, near buildings and so on. That has an educational side to it, like something that is really saying to the people, this is art, this is how art can work within a city. Most of the sculptures constructed during those years are of a modernist type that could go well with buildings and so on. I wanted to build a public sculpture that would reflect a different sensibility.

LatinArt:  So the sculptural component of the series, [Espina Dorsal] wasn’t sited publicly, but its scale and monumentality certainly reference public art.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Of course. All the sculptures were built from real staircases, they are all based on real sites. So, it is not my imagination and so on that makes these staircases. And that is very important for me. It is a characteristic of my work that I reflect on what has already been done, not what I as an artist can do or what my imagination can create and so on.

LatinArt:  You can see traces of that characteristic in some of your earlier work as well. I’m thinking of the cylinder of bones…

Juan Fernando Herrán:  That is a very old piece, but yes. I found all these materials when I was living in London at the bed of the river Thames where I used to walk. At a certain point I just kept picking up bones and I took all of them to the college. I wanted to put these materials into circulation and when I constructed this sphere, this bone sphere, it was an image that could move again. I was also attracted to the archeology, which somehow related to the city itself.

I was then invited to the Havana Biennial and I worked through the idea of sending this piece to Cuba, and the idea of Cubans trying to leave the Island and getting into the sea became important. At a certain point I didn’t know how to transport the work to Cuba because I didn’t have money, and I thought it could be a good thing to send it by sea, as a metaphor, and in the end that is what I did. It was carried out very seriously; I studied the currants of the Atlantic, I did a lot of research on the place where I could launch it… I wanted to somehow guarantee that the launching point was the right starting point to reach Cuba. Of course, once I launched it, I just had information of that gesture which I reconstructed in Cuba through drawings, diagrams and so on.

LatinArt:  Perhaps you could talk about the role of violence in your work, specifically in relation to Colombia, and how it has informed your practice.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  It’s complex because it has many sides to it. Very frequently I look for traces of things that will speak about the reaction of the people to some specific situation. It is the difference between being testimonial, and reflecting on that testimonial, to create something that is more present. It is not relating to the past, but relating to the present situation and how those things are somehow working in the present. So I avoid direct images of violence because I think that is how the press deals with it. An artist explores these issues in a different, and I hope, a deeper way.

LatinArt:  What was it like for you when you returned to Bogota [from London]? I guess this was in the mid 90s?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Yes. So when I came back to Bogota, Colombia was in this crisis, institutional crisis, because the president of that time Ernesto Samper Pizano was elected with the aid of the Cali Cartel. So at the time, this was really a big thing. A lot of people were asking the president to give away power. The Ministry of Defense was in jail and many politicians were being judged for receiving thousands of millions of pesos from the Cali Cartel that they used in the campaign.

I got hold of the documents that the Congressmen were going to study in order to decide if the president was to be indicted.

LatinArt:  So how did you obtain these documents?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  From someone who was in Congress at the time who just gave them to me. I have them right here… [returning moments later with a stack of documents]

This was prepared by La Fiscalia [prosecution]. And of course, when you start reading it, all of the inquiries point to who was involved, including many Congressmen…

LatinArt:  So the Congressmen were reading about themselves!

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Somehow, yes. So, I finally decided to do these pieces [Fuchsia] that would somehow reconstruct the main event where 6000 million pesos were given to the campaign in six fuchsia boxes with brilliant stars… That is how they describe it.

LatinArt:  I find it amazing that somebody in the Cartel decided to use gift paper.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  That’s very interesting to me… its part of their idiosyncratic thinking. I mean, they know many of these things are illegal, but at that time they would move at ease through society. So they were very confident and they didn’t want to be behind the scenes.

So this bright color and these stars are another way of saying: This is what we have attained. This is what we are.

LatinArt:  Can you talk about the panopticon form based on doghouses [“Hal 4”]?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  The shape of this piece is a dog’s house. But the structure is like a multiple being, almost like a medusa or something, with many different heads… and it controls the space in terms of light and in terms of presence.

This is a work that deals with private security. Here in Colombia you frequently see guards with dogs throughout the city. Their presence is repeated and it makes me think of a certain power that is not really part of the government. It is very paramilitary in a way. It is like small armies of private securities that populate everything. This is also a symptom of the crisis.

LatinArt:  Walking around Bogota, it is sometimes hard to tell if these dogs are well trained or not. At times it looks like these dogs are just napping on the street.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  These are all private security companies and the few that are from the government are trained to smell drugs, but the vast majority are… just animals. Yet, for many, power has to be expressed by something more than human power. It is a symbol if you can pay for the security dogs. I don’t know if you remember the name of the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey. So this sculpture is another version of Hal 3000, but called “Hal 4.” It has a lighting system that will increase the intensity of the light to a very powerful moment, and a dimmer that allows it to retreat very slowly. So, it kind of breathes in the space.

LatinArt:  Looking at the poppy photos [Papaver somniferum]… I was surprised to hear you say some of these were taken in Turkey.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Some of these photographs are taken in Turkey where poppy is legal. The government takes all the product, all the plants and produce pharmaceutical drugs. So, Turkey produces almost 70% of the pharmaceutical drugs in the world. Like Morphine, Codeine… And that was contrasted with the situation in Colombia where there is a battle against the harvest of Opium poppy. Because of course, it is used to produce heroin.

You will see the photos taken in Turkey to be very beautiful. They show the plant, its beauty… I wanted to show the two sides of the plant. So you could look at this plant without all these ideological constructions, that it is a bad plant, terrible for the country and so on, and the other side of it that has social effects.

I did a related sculptural installation called “Terra Incognita,” comprised of 7 boulders. On top of each bolder, you will find miniature figures. And all of these situations have to do with the actual circumstances of the poppy growers.

LatinArt:  And how did these images come about?

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Some of the images are from police archives because the police fly above all these areas and take photographs of all the poppy fields and use them to plan their eradication campaigns. So they have all these photographs of the places where they have the crops. These people are just waiting to be captured because when the helicopters come, they hardly can do anything because they don’t have a place to go. It is useless to run in the mountains. So they usually just wait.

It is also important for me that the boulders in Terra Incognita are away from one another. There is a sense of distance between these places. Also, the scale of the figures are such that when you are seeing the show, you are high up and are looking at this situation with a certain distance, a mental distance.

LatinArt:  The viewer’s distance from the actual situation is re-inscribed through the sculpture.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  Yes. The viewer has to get very close to see what is happening on the sculptures. Because when you enter the space you only see rocks.

LatinArt:  Throughout many of these pieces you put the viewer in a position of distance, not directly related or implicated. In a way, they have to choose how to engage.

Juan Fernando Herrán:  I very frequently address the issue of deciding where you are, not only in physical terms, but also in ideological terms. How do you place yourself in regards to these situations? Even in the photography, the position of the photographer in relation to what is being seen defines a huge amount of the image and how you want it to function.

I always feel that the artist somehow speaks in a variant language. Many of these issues are being represented in the media, but in such different ways.

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