Jorge Pardo gets a kick out of thumbing his nose at the white cube, finding innovative ways of getting his work into the world without relying on the privileged spaces of a traditional gallery. That’s not to say that he doesn’t also enjoy the successes afforded by his participation in the institutional art world: He’s had a solo show at Gagosian Gallery, the epitome of white cube traditionalism, along with the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA), and he’s represented by Petzel Gallery in New York. Still, the Cuban-born artist has made a name for himself for the projects he’s done outside the walls of those institutions—like for instance, the house he built as a sculpture in 1998, which arguably launched his career (the project was commissioned by MOCA in Los Angeles).
After just wrapping up construction on his own compound in Mexico, installing a solo show at Petzel ("Eccentric Reflexivity 1988-1994" is on view until April 27), and opening a boutique hotel in France, Jorge Pardo is a busy guy. Here he slows down to chat with Artspace’s Loney Abrams about the value of art, architecture, and design.
In an interview with Lane Relyea for your Phaidon monograph you said, “I’ve always thought that making an object that can enter the public sphere would be much more productive than framing it within a gallery.” Productive in what way? What do you hope your art can do in a public sphere can do that it can’t do in a gallery?
I'm always interested in perception: perception of the work I make, of how a gesture plays out in the world. Putting things out in the world is much more complicated than keeping them in a rarified discourse, like an art context. You getter better data back in terms of what the thing is. It has a much larger sphere for producing data.
Can you give me an example of the kind of data or feedback you receive from that larger sphere?
Issues of quality, of prophesies, methodologies, appropriateness, what it is doing, what it is not, what's the kind of referential system that might be involved....
How is that different than the kind of criteria used in a gallery context?
I think it's just a lot more unwieldy and a lot more lively, so it's generally much more interesting and it’s more difficult to manage. As someone who's interested in managing what something they make might mean, it's just more interesting.
In a profile for the New York Times, you’re quoted saying, “I’m not a white cube kind of guy. I don’t think you can be a white cube guy if you’re in an immigrant.” What did you mean by that?
I always assume that the white cube only operates with the same instruments as white privilege, in the sense that there's a lot that's not spoken about or agreed upon but just is. Every white cube has a different set of problems, like whiting things out, making people pretend that there is nothing before the art world gets there. White people are the ones that can operate with that kind of clarity in terms of identity.
Not acknowledging or reckoning with the history of a space or place or community.
It’s like you're actually lying about what you're looking at! I don't want make it sound more sinister than it is but I think there's a mechanism that's similar there. One's operating more in terms of race privilege and one is operating more within an art context.
On view at Petzel Gallery is an exhibition of works you made from 1988-1994, while you were in school and just after. Many of the sculptures are found objects, which you then intervene with or retrofit. So for example, “Ladder” is quite simply a ladder that you bought, and then replaced parts of with different kinds of wood—from more exotic and expensive wood like Bubinga to less valuable, more every day material like particle board. If I were to look at this work at the time you produced it, and then heard that you were then going to work in the realm of architecture, I might have guessed that your instinct would have been to find a pre-existing building, a ready-made if you will, and then employ the same process you used with the ladder—so for example, removed parts of the architecture and replaced them with different materials, or engaged in some kind of retrofitting. In 1998 you created the 4166 Sea View Lane house, which was exhibited by the MCA Los Angeles. For that house, you designed it and built it from the ground up. I’m wondering, how did you come to decide to build a house from scratch?
I’ve always been interested in this idea that objects or concepts or things in the world have ways you can intervene with them to slow it down so that you're not looking at the thing you're looking at. I was interested in doing architecture for an exhibition, because its placement with my practice was not dissimilar to changing a nut on a ladder. The issues were: what would happen if someone who isn't trained or a believer in the practice of architecture to produce something like that?
What did that house mean to you? And did that meaning change after living in it for over a decade?
It just became my house, but at the same time it always had this annoying problem of having been an artwork.
[Laughs.] What was annoying about it?
I don’t mean that it necessarily annoyed me, but it was annoying in the sense that it had a clear object definitive in it. People would say, "Is this an artwork or is this a building?” That's what I mean when I say “annoying.”
What was your answer to that question?
I'd say, “Both!” That's what's interesting about it. Yes, it was an exhibition; it was made on the occasion of an exhibition to be on display; its primary purpose at its origin and production was to be something completely visual. From there it morphed into something functional and then it dragged along this exhibition quality, and then it also dragged along interest from the architectural community.
Basically, the house is art because from the outset it was contextualized as art. Had you just built a house, without the support or context of the institution, it wouldn’t have been art, right?
I was asked to do a museum at the exhibition and I proposed to create a house to be mine. It's an artwork because it was made to be put on display. That's a biggie, because it was designed to be a visual object. I didn't live in it when it was on display. One of the things that was interesting about it was that, historically there have been projects with houses and artists and things like that, but they were more traditionally stylized, like the funky houses of Gordon Matta Clark. Where as this was a little more complicated and a little more sinister because it wasn't as easy to define. I was interested in something that could potentially make someone lose themselves in their ability in making those judgments about what it is.
It was a conceptual exercise that said a house can be a sculpture, rather than an architectural pursuit which might involve engaging with the history and progression of the discipline, or making some kind of statement about architecture itself.
And the architecture community and art community have absolutely different discourses. That is an interesting dissonance that one can produce in the discourse of what this thing is.
Now, you're working in a professional context as an artist but also as an architect and a designer. You recently finished building a compound for yourself in Mérida, Mexico, and you also designed a luxury hotel in France called L’Arlatan. How does designing a home for yourself feel different from designing a commercial space for, in this case, the Swiss pharmaceutical heiress and art collector Maja Hoffman? Do you see these ventures as different from your art practice or are these all under the same umbrella? Do you feel it's important to make these kinds of distinctions?
I think because of what I’ve made in the past, they're always going to be propped up as potentially being artworks. Some projects are more literal than others. For instance, the hotel was a project that was brought to me by a collector who collects my work—things that aren't necessarily architecture. She said she wanted to make a bigger project with me and that she found a hotel that could be an interesting place for us to work together. So from the onset we were trying to ride this line between a boutique hotel and something a little bit stranger than that. Is it architecture or art? The answer is always both. That problem is always installed in the things that I make. Nobody says to architects, “Is this an artwork or a building?” It just doesn't exist.
Viewers have different expectations for different industries or disciplines. I think most people feel that the organizing principals of design are driven by function and aesthetics or formalism. But the expectations for art are different. Art is supposed to use aesthetics and form to communicate meaning, to describe or reveal something about the world we live in. So if you tell us that this hotel, or your house, is an artwork, then we expect it to describe some deeper meaning. What is the meaning of that artwork?
I think your question described the answer in a way. The fact that you're asking the question the way that you did is already informative and touching on the point that there are differences. There are big differences between, for instance, Modern architecture, which has always been a positivist engagement with improvement of life—making things better—whereas artworks have had the ability to operate in a poetic field that’s a little bit more agile.
Let’s go back to this ladder piece from the beginning of your career, where you made a potentially functional object, a ladder, but you played with how it might be valued. Does replacing a sturdy functional piece of wood with a cheaper piece of particle board make it more valuable or less value? The answer is that it’s more valuable because now it is art. It seems that a big question you’re asking of the viewer is, how is value defined by its context?
Yeah, I'd agree with that. Aesthetics are about trying to figure out what the good one is and why. Historically it's been proven that those things are very subjective. Art is much more subjective than, for instance, buildings that play themselves out and have the potential to fail.