Strange and Seductive Objects: Gabriel Kuri
by Philipp Hindahl
While the objects we have been living with for decades come back to haunt us, filling the oceans and the earth, Gabriel Kuri is well aware of their power. The artist is fascinated by the logic with which everyday objects speak to us and, ultimately, seduce us. Kuri was born in Mexico in 1970, started his art education in Mexico City, and continued his studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He lived in Brussels for a decade, moved to Los Angeles, and then moved back to the Belgian capital.
Philipp Hindahl has met him, a few weeks ago, while he was preparing the exhibition now open at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, coinciding and with the Brussels Gallery Weekend. In his studio, Kuri began by explaining that the presentation will mainly include works from the past decade.
PHILIPP HINDAHL: What will your upcoming show sorted, resorted at WIELS, Brussels, look like?
GABRIEL KURI: We decided to organize it not chronologically, but by reclassifying the works. If we were to throw them away, how would we separate them? Into different materials? You’d have a section which is all metal; one for construction materials; a section for paper; one for plastic.
PH: That is the concept of the display?
GK: The idea of sorting is very important. So the first section of the exhibition will be where those principles are laid out, a bold introduction into this environment and rationale. It will consist of a great expanse of sand that is very neatly littered with coins and extinguished cigarette butts. This is the iteration of a piece I made before, in a disused shopping mall at the edge of the desert. Then you go right into the rooms with works about sorting from different periods, freestanding sculptures and wall-based works, and then you move towards the sections with the materials.
Kuri walks over to a model of the exhibition space and describes the layout of the show. There will be some contamination in the sorting process, he explains, because the works are hardly ever made with only one material. But the contamination is also of a conceptual nature. Sometimes he makes work about paper, but in the finished piece, there is very little paper. The arrangement does not work along the lines of pure material; it also takes the metaphorical value into account.
The tables in his spacious studio confirm his predilection for well-organized objects. On one, there are only door wedges, mostly wooden. On others, there are various multicolored objects, arranged by kind: plastic lettuce, numbers and letters, disposable straws in translucent paper sheaths, and, like a nod to recent environmental policies, reusable metal straws.
PH: You have a lot of strange objects.
GK: This is where I bring my props. Sometimes they inform other works, sometimes they end up in the pieces. I select, and everything that comes in here hopefully comes in for a purpose. I am seduced by the form and the function as well.
PH: There are also plastic straws—I don’t see a long future for them.
GK: A work in the upcoming exhibition uses these, and also the metal straws. I know how they feel and sound, all of this is important as well. I love the transparency of the wrapping paper, the pale pink of the straw underneath it. These objects come from the countertops in self-service restaurants where you have stainless steel surfaces with sunken cups that distribute different things. Salt, pepper, little sticks to stir the coffee. I like the logic of that, and the ergonomics of the devices. They are laid out to be easily reached. Left to right, small to large.
PH: They suggest abundance because they are free.
GK: No, nothing is free. Somebody pays for it. How this gets paid for is very interesting: you always have to assume that in the price that you pay, there are a lot of little aspects implied. Many items will be broken, stolen—and given away. I read a lot about behavioral economics, where psychology and economy intersect.
PH: Does seduction play a part in consumption?
GK: Yes, of course, one of our driving forces has to do with seduction. And ultimately with sex. The way it is sold back to people is very interesting.
PH: I feel we live in a time when the mass of objects from the past decades is coming back to us. They end up in the ocean and in the ground. No place is left untouched.
GK: I don’t think that there is great need to be adding more stuff. A lot of the work that I do is related to organizing it. But I also like making new things, and I can’t help it.
PH: You also make them bigger, such as the receipts or the matches (Untitled  and Waiting Giving, Spent ). What is the fascination in taking everyday objects and making them bigger?
GK: Well, I guess you said it, fascination. All of their qualities grow. They get bigger, more intoxicating. But I also bring up enlargement in the process of abstraction. Something in the notion of abstraction sits in the heart of what making art is about. Experience is abstracted into form, but that form also conveys experience. Which can again be flattened into form. This is a circular motion.
Kuri points at the large window, where, from the fifth floor, the studio overlooks the city to the north. One’s gaze passes the modest, almost squat three-storied houses of Saint Gilles, the Palais de Justice, the Mont des Arts in the city center, the urban sprawl of Brussels up to the horizon: “Look out there. How vast is this? And yet you can somehow convey that in a small form.”
PH: A change of scale makes the world easier to comprehend, somehow.
GK: I won’t stop you from thinking that. But it’s really only a few objects that have that effect in my work. There are the receipts. I have also used a huge black bean, matchsticks, and some other abstract shapes. They become something you have to walk around, or something to crawl under. As a spectator as well as when I make the work myself, this feeling draws me in.
PH: Your work includes found objects, right?
GK: A fair bit, but that’s not the only source. I think one of my premises has been that I don’t really make a categorical distinction between a consumer article, a found object, something that I make, or a bundle of leaves or earth. For me, it’s all material.
PH: But different materials lend themselves to different meanings.
GK: Some have a greater degree of codification. I think everything, as long as it has a name, has already been codified. A consumer article goes through a greater process of mediation: it’s invented, designed, developed, marketed, fabricated, sometimes recycled. Natural materials seem to be more readily available.
PH: If everything is material, how do you choose?
GK: Well, I’d like to think that my work is open enough, in terms of material, to incorporate anything that comes my way and feels meaningful. There are some things that I am not drawn to. I mean, I never made a moving image, never made a video. But the idea should dictate how it is executed.
When Kuri went to art school in the 1980s, he started as a painter. But, he says, “I was veering towards the object.” When he moved from Mexico City to London in late 1993, he attended Goldsmiths and found himself in the company of sculptors, and in a much more cerebral environment, as he claims.
PH: What do you mean by cerebral?
GK: Well, the school I went to in Mexico was more aimed at technique, which was very good for learning the rudiments. I was also going to artist Gabriel Orozco’s workshop at the time, and it encompassed a lot of discussions. London provided even more of that, sometimes a little cartoonish. Sometimes we’d sit in front of a brick and talk for hours. But that’s one of the ways in which art can be radical. It’s about transforming and reinventing what is around us.
PH: You say art can be radical. At the same time, there is a near-limitless global art market. Do you feel like those two are compatible? Do you think the radical is easily included in the economy?
GK: It’s not the art market, it’s capitalism. This force is able to co-opt anything. And we would like to think of art as a way to see through this mechanism. Yet it is a compromising situation.
PH: What do you mean?
GK: The functioning of contemporary art depends on market economy. But I think it also provides a very interesting point of critique. I’m not an activist, I’m not an anthropologist—I am an artist. And I choose to speak about my experience in the world through these forms, which are quite often for sale. However, I think art absolutely has the power to substantially change lives. One at a time.
PH: That’s a purely individual endeavor.
GK: I don’t intend to speak for anyone but myself, and I don’t like it when artists try to include me in their voice: when they say we, or when they speak directly to me in some accusatory manner. I think the identification, or the projection that an artwork can accomplish, is pretty much contained in individual expression.
PH: Do you see a parallel to social developments? Activism failed on a communal scale—with the Occupy movement, for instance—and now responsibility for social change is transferred to the individual.
GK: That is just one way to look at it. I think the practice of art is a way for me to participate socially, and I am happy with the limitations, difficulties, and questions that are well within the definition of art.
PH: It is also a sanctuary.
GK: It is a privileged position. The practice of an artist would be laughable to a lot of other members of society who have to account for their labor. We allow ourselves to spend long hours philosophizing and playing with our little props. This is why we as artists—and there I use the first person plural—we have a responsibility to pay back to society the concession that we are given: the time that we can take off to ask ourselves the big and smaller questions through form. And I think that is not a bad place to find oneself in this day and age of such pressing utilitarianism.
at WIELS, Brussels
until 5 January 2020