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José Antonio Hernández-Diez

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 01, 2004
Location: Venezuela
Topic: Interview: José Antonio Hernández-Diez
Interviewer: Karina Sainz Borgo

LatinArt:  In your most recent exhibition there were several works that referenced marginality and urban/vernacular culture. Some critics have attributed to some of your work "a preoccupation for the overwhelming materialism which floods Latin American society". You have made it clear that you are not interested in producing a Latin American art. Are these local readings being imposed?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  These are forms of categorizing which are necessary for communicating information. With respect to a Latin American art, people look for certain references with myself and with others, in order to create a specificity that we come from "this" continent. This is not something I care for, although I do not reject it. I honestly feel more Caribbean than Latin American. More than anything this is a personal artistic program and, of course, the surroundings have influence. I have lived here in Venezuela practically my whole life, although I travel constantly, I have never given up my residence in Caracas. The environment influences us in a group-like manner, but my work is personal. When I was younger, I identified myself with certain artists and movements, but nowadays it is something very concise, it’s more me.

LatinArt:  The installation In God we trust (1991) registers the events of February 27, 1989, one of the most violent moments in Venezuela. An "aggressive" air persists in the sequence of your work; the dogs devouring skateboards in La Hermandad (1994), the acrylic fingernails themselves, belonging to Soledad Miranda (1998) which, although interpretations have been attributed to them on idleness, do not cease to be a weapon. Is there a latent violence in these objects?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  Yes, they can be elements with different uses. That is a fundamental part of my work, not to remain stagnant at a single use or meaning at the formal level. These interpretations interest me, the dogs fighting for food or the fingernails, which also serve for flirting. I am interested in the presence of various readings, not to enclose myself in a specific violent act. The video In God we Trust is very violent, but there is something which makes it more volatile, more digestible. I mixed it with other images I recorded, the advertisements for on-duty pharmacies. This gives it another reading. It does not remain as a documentary event, nor is it my primary interest to show daily violence, but this is a reading that one feels.

LatinArt:  When the photographic series to which Marx, Jung, Hegel, belong were shown in Caracas, it was common for young spectators to stop and look, specifically, at the model of each of those shoes. As items of clothing exist for each urban culture (skaters, punkers, etc), specific models of thinking exist for each culture. What’s with this game of recognition?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  There are models of thought and they are like very specific totems. I am dealing with philosophers that have established historical models of thought because I wanted to make a relationship with shoes, which themselves, are items which have generated much fetishism throughout history; the Chinese bound feet, the leather trend, the heels. Before it was much more difficult to judge your position before a certain policy or philosophy, now it is much easier to know where you come from, what interests you, by means of your shoes. I have studied many sub-cultures in order to make this piece, even at political level this has a very special focus. The Russian mafia in New York uses one type of shoe and here, in Venezuela, when someone was killed for a pair of shoes, it wasn’t for just any shoe, but for Nikes.

LatinArt:  There are continual changes in your processes of art making. You began with video-art, you then concentrated on installation, photography, large objects. You began by studying cinema. Is there a medium which interests you more than another?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  I began studying cinema, a medium closely linked to video, but that was team work into which I did not fit, so I decided to move directly into doing art, video installations, video sculptures. However, nowadays there is no medium which interests me more than any other. Video is harder for me at this time, although I haven’t given it up. In some way I feel more like a sculptor, but that does not necessarily mean carving things. So many materials go into the work that I don’t want to list them and I don’t want to limit myself. Media allows me to change from one work to another, to break patterns. In part my work is multifaceted, very multivalent; I don’t like to stay in a series. The change in medium permits a change in concept.

LatinArt:  Do you feel like a sculptor at any given time?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  I am not a sculptor, but I feel a bit like a sculptor. My photographs are basically sculptures, my video or photographic work are the support. The trick is to capture the image, but I feel better with volume.

LatinArt:  In regards to the size of some pieces, why work with dimensions which tend to exaggerate?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  I don’t consider them to be that large. I try to look for a relationship with the human scale. They are not like an Oldenburg, there is a certain limit which I like to reach. The fingernails of Soledad Miranda are my size. In the marks of my teeth in Que te rinda el dí­a, I try to find a relationship with something that already exists. I did amplify the shoe photographs until I reached a size at which they should be shown, but that’s because they were lost and unsuccessful when they were small.

LatinArt:  Turning to your most recent individual do you feel about the results? Can you talk particularly about the New Museum show in New York?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  This was a show which had been creating itself for some time. I had been working with the curator for five or six years. This is a process and it generates emotions, because confronting work you know well and that you’ve shown many times is something of a shock. There are pieces you would rather not exhibit but you know they are necessary for an exhibition’s coherence. On the assembly level, spaces differ from one another; Santa Fe, New Mexico was stupendous and the New Museum was welcoming. In the beginning, I was somewhat apprehensive because of the latter space, but everything went very well, and people responded to the show...It’s strange to do that, you know, to show something you have not seen for years. Some work you feel good about, while others can make me feel uncomfortable.

LatinArt:  With which do you feel uncomfortable?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  I hadn’t seen Vas pa'l cielo y vas llorando for a long time and I showed it in a different way than I had planned. I feel very good about La Hermandad, because it is something which I continue to work on, all that relationship of micro-histories in my daily life which come from my artistic focus, and from the day to day. The former work is more allegorical, like from a story or fairytale. That no longer interests me.

LatinArt:  A change has been taking place in your work since San Guinefort (1991) and Ceibó (1999), together with the series of pieces created with furniture, domestic, personal references such as, for example, the intertwined beds. Can you talk about that?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  I have been making myself a house without realizing it. I live without roots and things become charged with energy, I wanted to give a little of myself to these daily objects, one could almost say that they are objects which have been found, thinking along the lines of Duchamp, but assembled in a different manner from the use assigned to them. For example, the intertwined beds are something like a family tie, the bed you inherit. El ceibó is the same - that piece of furniture which guards a thousand and one secrets. I gather my things and embalm them to begin a new life, and in that interim you find yourself with these memories, the tablecloth, the dishes. By repeating that situation it becomes a transition which never ends. For that reason this loop, which is not digital but a mechanical loop that I make myself, I take off and on all the time, as a performance. It is a highly charged work, one of the most emotional I have made. I have made chairs, there are irons and tables with my teeth marks on a meter scale. They paraphrase North American minimalism, but this is like making my own mark. The theory is that we, the Latin Americans, are anthropophagous, that we devour culture. I tried to play with this in a more direct way. One of my last works uses the cradle where my son was born. I examined this working like a molecule, as DNA which introduces itself in one’s house, devouring the space. It is this house which I am making for myself.

LatinArt:  What is the purpose of photographs you are taking here in Caracas?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  Everything in my work is connected with the idea of consuming, of digesting the things one swallows, the food we need. I am now working on how the tropics devour modernity, with photographs of abandoned houses full of ivy, eaten by the environment. The political side comes into it when people, who leave their houses and go abroad, then come back and the house is now something else. That would be a second reading. I’m trying to look for stories as to why these houses have been abandoned...

LatinArt:  This project, or the photographs of the small bitten plastic dolls, and even La Hermandad continue with the idea of voracity.

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  Yes, voracity has been present in my work in some form, but always from a clinical viewpoint. I try to take the "spirit" away from things. I don’t focus on the spiritual elements of voracity, Saturn devouring his children, I try to see it more scientifically, because voracity is eating things without purpose, simply because one is hungry. I’m seeing it as something clinical, considered, analyzed. Why are the dolls bitten, because at that time you couldn’t possess them, they took them from you, from the piñatas. It is a matter of manipulating, redefining the body with the aid of new technology. The first pieces on Christianity were about redefining religion through technology. Technology can help to retain Christianity by trying to look for a precept other than theological ones--a scientific emphasis.

LatinArt:  What artists or movements form part of your thinking and work process?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  At a historical level I am interested in the color rhythms of Alejandro Otero, Pop art, Op art, Minimalism, Donald Judd, the Post-Minimalists, Bruce Nauman. Rauschenberg too, his pieces are very clean. With regard to artists of my generation, Gabriel Orozco interests me. I have no special mentor in mind, one can talk of groups, the German photography of the 80s and 90s, Bill Viola in his moment, and the people who work with thematic video cinema also interest me.

LatinArt:  Finally, What elements does your work gather or propose?

José Antonio Hernández-Diez:  Currently I see things around me which are very well made, very self-referential - an abandonment of site-specific installations and a concentration on functional objects which are universal. I am becoming very classical, what interests me is to examine the traditional presentation of the object and museum methodologies. At a given moment I utilize minimalism in a low-tech manner, day to day, mechanical, home-made technology. I have been defined as a technological artist, something I detest, because video, making a machine which moves something, is not technology. I follow the path of ideas and not the framework they utilize, although I like to do things cleanly and I ask myself questions at a formal rather than at a conceptual level. That is the problem in art nowadays; how to show things is one of the big challenges; not one of representation, but of presentation.

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