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CONVERSATIONS

Continuing the Heart’s Path: Fernanda Laguna

Fernanda Laguna in Conversation with Chris Kraus

 

When Fernanda Laguna had her first exhibition at Buenos Aires’s Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas in 1995, she decided to take her then-boyfriend’s advice to “follow your heart’s path,” and she’s been following it ever since. Laguna went on to cofound the massively influential, quasi-utopian storefront gallery Belleza y Felicidad with Cecilia Pavón in 1999, a DIY enterprise born in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s economic crisis, accompanied by the Belleza y Felicidad series of chapbooks and zines. Bringing the center to the periphery, in 2003 she opened a satellite branch of Belleza y Felicidad in the working-class neighborhood of Fiorito, in collaboration with Isolina Silva, a local resident. Belleza y Felicidad Fiorito has a dining hall for three hundred people and has produced numerous exhibitions.

Laguna is also the author of three novels, three volumes of poems, and other writings. Given all of these disparate activities, it’s no wonder that her international reputation has yet to fully assert her strengths as a visual artist. Curator Rosario Güiraldes’s thoughtful solo exhibition The Path of the Heart, scheduled to open at the Drawing Center, New York, in fall 2022, aims to remedy that. 

In the conversation that follows, Laguna and Chris Kraus discuss drawings, diaries, love, life, chance, ambition, and opportunism.

 

CHRIS KRAUS: The collection of drawings and paintings that you and Rosario Güiraldes have assembled for your 2022 Drawing Center exhibition is eclectic, but at the same time very coherent. Clearly, visual work is at the heart of what you do as an artist, although that fact can be easy to miss because your other activities are so diverse and compelling. Let’s start by talking about some of the works in the show. You’ve said elsewhere that the furry heart that appears in the notebook drawings (Red Notebook [2009], Green Notebook [2017], Moleskine Drawings [2019–ongoing]) is your avatar. What else is in those notebooks that’s not in the show? When did you start them? Do you draw in them every day, or intermittently?

FERNANDA LAGUNA: I started drawing the furry hearts initially as a commission. After spending five years at art school learning to draw with straight lines and correct proportions, I’d stopped drawing for many years. Art school had taken away my spontaneity and replaced it with something more rigid and serious—what they called sticking to the canon. But when a friend got me a job illustrating children’s books for a US publisher, I was broke, so I started to draw. I didn’t have a particular style at that point, so I began making the drawings of furry things to loosen myself up and get back into it. That’s when I drew my first heart. It wasn’t so different from the kinds of hearts kids draw, but with eyes and little arms and legs. I sent them the sketches but the job didn’t work out. And so I stopped drawing for many more years.
One day when I was sad (which isn’t uncommon for me) and staring facedown at the table, I drew a sad little furry heart with eyes and extremities. In that moment, I realized the heart was me. The furry heart drawing was transmitting my feelings. From then on, I started drawing myself at different times, in different moods: cheerful, sad, worried, happy, terrified. Then I added the setting, wherever I found myself: my house, the beach, a spa. And I started drawing the people around me: my son, my partners, my friends. Sometimes I draw every day. Other times, there are big time gaps between drawings. Usually when I’m not drawing, I’m writing. Writing occupies a similar place in my life, or my artistic practice. It’s an external support, a way of thinking things through.

CK: The heart appears in a lot of these works, along with other recurring symbols like the big black cat, flowers, spiderwebs, the word “emotion.” They’ve become part of a lexicon that moves across the exhibition.

FL: I love painting things that are recognizable at first glance, so when people see for instance a black cat, they say, “a black cat,” or after seeing a flower, they say, “a flower.” It’s like inviting the audience to name things as if they were reading, as with those laminated graphics in schools and other institutions where pictures appear beside words in an iconographic, instructional way. Maps, flora, fauna. To name something out loud is a way of touching it lightly and trapping its essence.
I recently made a sheet with animals stuck to it: a tiger, a gorilla, a turtle, a monkey, a giraffe. I took another, older work and stuck on a flower that doesn’t mean anything except for the fact it can be seen—and in that process of being seen, it becomes an archaeological discovery. My work always involves trapping or discovering things, presenting things that have been found. The “emotion” encompasses thousands of emotions, but it’s also just a word. I’d like the word “emotion” to speak for itself, just like that flower stuck on the paper.

CK: You deliberately misspell the word as emosión, rather than emoción, when it appears within the artwork. Does the misspelling bring us closer to the actual feeling?

FL: I’m quite bad at spelling. But when I write that word, I write it as it comes to me. Emotions can’t be corrected; they’re a spontaneous fluid that grabs us by the waist and kisses us. When we speak, we do it without spelling mistakes, and I write the way that I speak. But really, whether it’s spelled with an “s” or a “c,” the emotion is the same. It’s a whirlwind that undoes language and kidnaps us, and maybe my misspellings result from being in the primal and thrilling place of emotion. Now I’m doubting myself. Is it written with an “s” or a “c”? 

CK: I get that. It’s like a primitive phenomenology. At first glance the drawings seem naive, but they’re not naive at all. Also, they’re often funny. Morir de emosión (Dying of Emotion, 2001–03) looks like a thirteen-year-old girl’s notebook or a bad tattoo. But at the same time, it’s very powerful. Elements of your lexicon—the heart, the spiderweb, the word “emotion”—are recombined, and there’s a strong feeling of intentionality that makes this work completely different than the amateur graphics it initially resembles. In Emoción (2001), the generic-ness of the flower, heart, and square somehow makes the atmosphere around them feel completely dreamlike. It’s like we’re grasping for our moorings with these simple shapes, but the disappearing ribbon-band of road is taking us someplace scarier and more mysterious: the distance between “I” and “you.” Throughout your career you’ve cultivated this notion that your writing and visual work is the result of laziness, coincidence, or circumstance—which is paradoxical, of course. You’ve cultivated it. But really, I think to be an artist is to be an opportunist, in the best sense of the word. Do you agree?

FL: That’s what it’s all about, transmitting emotional bonds. I make my work with an emotional energy that’s somewhere between limited and electrifying. The drawings arise from pure circumstance; they are mental dialogues that are bearable that might otherwise be unbearable. I weave an affective universe of beings that love me, and who will represent me to others. It’s a form of diplomacy! I totally agree that art is opportunism of the heart. It’s like when someone is drunk and sends a message on WhatsApp without thinking. There’s an arrow in search of a heart that’s somewhat confused but full of desire. Even more than opportunism, I think that art is a mind-boggling scam. It’s a resource that can be used to climb over love, over the world. Like a utopia of love. Art is a resource used by the weak. A great artist said once during a talk, “Everything I do, I do so that I will be loved.”
Many of my works challenge beauty. I want to liberate myself from its tyranny. I want to climb over beauty to something more free. I know it’s a word that doesn’t intrinsically mean anything, but in order to have meaning, it has to be trespassed, conquered, excised. Like freedom, beauty should be constructed in a thousand different ways. But both notions are also a prison. When I do something horrible or unpleasant, I feel like I’m being myself. I feel that, from such place, I might be discovered like a pearl at the bottom of the sea. I want to be loved for who I am.

CK: It seems there’s an opportunism behind your brilliant social projects, too. The Fiorito branch of Belleza y Felicidad gallery, with its Saturday gatherings and meals, resulted from your chance meeting with a neighborhood resident, Isolina Silva, and then your friendship. You’ve since described it as an attempt to bring the center to the periphery. The project feels inevitable, like an idea that was just waiting to be realized. But if you and Silva hadn’t met, it probably never would have.

FL: I met Isolina on the street. I stepped out on the sidewalk and decided to promise ten packs of spaghetti a month to the first person I met. And she was the person. We saw each other and loved each other forever. Two strangers, without any references. Fate wanted her to have a dining hall for three hundred people! That’s how it all started. I love to use chance mechanisms to act upon life. I love to think, but my head is very abstract so I need to impose upon myself a creative system linked to action and fate.
We started working at a time when many galleries in Buenos Aires were opening branches outside the center—unstoppable jealousy made me want to do something like that. That’s how I decided to open a branch of my gallery in a totally different milieu, a place that didn’t have any galleries. I opened, perhaps, the poorest gallery in the world, where art could re-signify itself far away from the big, expensive white-walled galleries that are linked to the city’s art market. It was always a game. The art world didn’t know what we were doing. We were destined for success because success did not exist.

CK: The exhibition Fernanda Laguna: The Path of the Heart at the Drawing Center, New York (upcoming in 2022), spans more than three decades, and the work goes in many different directions. But at the same time there’s a strong continuity, as if the individual pieces were all parts of a larger organism. Curator Rosario Güiraldes has compared your drawings to Julie Becker’s (1972–2016), and I also think of Jon Pylypchuk, a Los Angeles artist who did this fantastic set of notebook collages when he was at art school in the mid-1990s and sold them for $25. Becker’s drawings were often made by default, when she didn’t have the resources to mount a whole installation. And Pylypchuk moved on into painting and sculpture, never really reprising these earlier works. I wonder if the continuity in your visual work is the result of the famous “amateurism” that’s often used to describe your whole enterprise: you’ve never been forced to put all your eggs in the one basket of a gallery career. Is drawing a refuge?

FL: I always feel like if I tried harder, I could do things better than the way I do them. But somewhere in my heart there’s a force that knocks me down and leads me back to something much more amateurish. It’s as if I suffer from an artistic depression that causes me to make things only for my own survival—unlike taking on a professional career, which would be similar to undertaking something more like cooking, which I hate. Recently, I made some works that are unframed canvases with pockets and hidden messages inside paper envelopes. Why did I make them if they’re impossible to exhibit? I can’t stop making them, and above all, accumulating them. It’s like a compulsion to hide myself. Exhibitions always seem strange to me. I’m very used to keeping everything inside of boxes because I think my works look better that way.

CK: The earliest work in the show, Abstracción Escalinata (Stairway Abstraction, 1988), features a heart at the top of the painting, alongside the word “Sad,” and a heart in the bottom corner. It’s funny that you use the word “abstraction” in the title, because the painting recalls Paul Klee or another modernist master. It’s as if you are feminizing or queering the heroic avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Where were you when you made this painting? How old? What did you think you were doing?

FL: I see artworks as cardstock cutout figures, the kind I used to buy from stationery stores. Each one was shiny and printed with different illustrations, and they came connected to each other, so I’d pull them apart and throw them up in the air to play heads or tails with. I always dreamed of building a collection that would cover Surrealism, Abstraction, Informel, Cubism, et cetera, with my own works. Once, I found everything I was looking for in a book of Love Hotel paintings! Which is to say, I was inspired by the classics as copied by amateur artists. I was twenty-seven years old, in a very crazy and sad moment, when I made Abstracción Escalinata. At home, I was trying to encapsulate all of my sadness within the word “sad.” And then, climbing up a staircase to a place that was already happy, toward a pillow-heart. To me, the border between good and bad is a fascinating, irrepressible place. I truly believe that my artwork is not good, that it’s insignificant. One day, I think, people will realize it. But I won’t care, because my stuff will be there like the molted, abandoned skin of a rattlesnake.

CK: Did you grow up with the idea of being an artist?

FL: No, not at all. Or maybe yes. During my adolescence I was absolutely absorbed with Catholic spirituality. I was a fan of the Virgin Mary and Saint Teresita. I talked to them for hours and even saw them move. I loved their real bodies made of plaster, since a Virgin’s body is made of gesso and Jesus’s body, the communion wafer, is a piece of a tasteless cookie. I connected with religious objects easily and intuitively, which I think is where my art comes from. These inanimate objects poof! come out of my body and are converted into a cloth body. That mystery of whether there’s anything more to art or not. Or whether artworks encapsulate life and transcend time. Luckily, I eventually realized I’d been brainwashed and moved away from religion. Afterward I took my revenge with art. 

CK: Cecilia Pavón wrote about how she grew up believing that “art” consisted of the heavy coffee-table books of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee and other early avant-garde masters, and she was shocked, in a good way, when she was twelve, to see a Keith Haring postcard—because that looked to her more how things actually looked, what she saw every day. Did you also grow up with the idea that important visual art was something that occurred in Europe at the start of the twentieth century?

FL: I never cared much about art until I started studying it. I started art school because I wanted to be a hippie, I wanted to meet cool people, since I was coming from a very oppressive school. That’s how I discovered art: looking at the artworks my peers made, namely student reinterpretations of classic paintings. I also looked at art publications. I liked, above all, religious paintings, the ones with gold backgrounds and miniature baby Jesuses. They bewildered me. I had a collection of communion stamps, and I was fascinated by everything miniature—things so small that one had to go inside it to see it well. My whole body would become small, practically invisible, and that gave me an enormous sense of security.

CK: Did people approve of your work at art school?

FL: I received a lot of love at art school. I told them I enrolled because I was a virgin and Catholic and I wanted to stop being both of those things. I signed up to leave those two things behind—and I did. But I think they liked what I make. It’s crazy, but the part of my practice that, I think, ensures its success is my militancy in underserved neighborhoods. If I didn’t do that, my work would be read very differently. I don’t like that my work is seen as serious now, because I have a social practice. I’m not interested in being accepted by the art world. I’m not even interested in having my works last forever. I want to meet people who love me as I am, people who know me. Who’ll send me an emoji heart on Instagram. In my novels, I changed my name in order not to prejudice those who believe in my art world achievements. I write pulp novels; I don’t want to be a great writer. I want to reach the hearts of teens and lesbians, and have them write me messages. 

CK: I’ve read that you were involved with the exhibition space at the Centro Cultural Rojas in the mid-1990s. What was that like? How long were you there? 

FL: When I was twenty-one, I was selected to exhibit there. The exhibition space was a hall in the cultural center of the public university where the craziest artworks from Buenos Aires were exhibited. The curator saw my portfolio and told a friend of mine: “I don’t know if she’s a crazy old lady or a demented teenager.” When an exhibition that they’d planned fell through a month later, I had my show. It was beautiful. I did not really understand what I had painted. I just followed my ex-boyfriend’s advice about continuing the heart’s path: painting without thinking, without inventing anything.

 

Fernanda Laguna (b. 1972, Hurlingham, Argentina) is one of the most influential Argentine artists of her generation, thanks to a multifaceted practice that encompasses visual art, poetry, novels, the creation of alternative cultural spaces—among them the game-changing Belleza y Felicidad (Beauty and Happiness), which brought about an aesthetics and ethics still prevalent today among a younger generation—and an effective artistic social practice that she has carried on for more than fifteen years in the marginalized neighborhood of Fiorito. There, her art workshops and projects have changed the lives of local children and women, and are a center of feminist activism in a place where gender violence is endemic. Laguna has participated in the Mercosul Biennial, Brazil; the Cuenca Biennial, Ecuador; Casa Tomada, Site Santa Fe, New Mexico; and A Universal History of Infamy, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other international group exhibitions. The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is currently presenting a large solo exhibition of her work, and her works on paper will be the subject of a solo show at the Drawing Center, New York, in 2022. Her works are in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid; and Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City.

Chris Kraus is the author of four novels and four nonfiction books, most recently Social Practices (Semiotext(e), 2018). She is a coeditor of the independent press Semiotext(e) alongside Hedi El Kholti and Sylvére Lotringer, and lives in Los Angeles.

 

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