At Mad Art, the art factory in the heart of South Lake Union, there's a massive performance under construction right now, designed by Puerto Rican-born, New York-based artist Alejandro Guzman. When I went by yesterday, there were towers on wheels, made of wood and metal, brightly painted or covered in skins and furs made of strips of plastic bags and mahogany.
There will be eight giant sculptures in all. They'll be worn by performers who will spin and dance inside them. Then, one by one, the performers will emerge from within the sculptures. Each performer is different, and each performs his or her own work within Guzman's unscripted masquerade. One might be quiet and intimate, another they might break out into a fistfight with Guzman, and another might narrate what Tyra Banks is doing on that video projecting on the gallery walls.
Several of Guzman's drawings, a tapestry, and a past performance sculpture are on continuous view at Seattle Art Museum, and two performances using these new sculptures will be part of the museum's exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, which opens Thursday. Guzman's performances will take place during opening celebrations Friday, June 19, from 7 to 11 pm at SAM (within the glorious, double-height third-floor gallery), and Tuesday, June 23, at 5:30 pm at Mad Art.
In these last days leading up to the opening, Mad Art is a hive where Guzman and a team of paid and volunteer workers race to finish. There is a lot of thumbs-upping. Music plays. Guzman agreed to go into the next room to talk to me, but he craned his neck to see through the windows onto the factory the entire time. Every few minutes, he'd jump up and rush out to help. He was crazy-eyed.
Here's our edited conversation about the vejigante of old San Juan, those zoomable photos on the Marc Jacobs web site, and the dangerousness of the Seattle streetscape.
Okay, let's start right in that room over there, where you're looking. Tell me what you’re doing in that room.
Well, I first landed in Seattle, and we worked for like one week to finish an installation at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the Seattle Art Museum. Then once that went out—and that was a Monday—from Tuesday to Tuesday it has been nonstop art production. Like a mixture of The Matrix and Willy Wonka factory.
How many sculptures are you making for the performances?
I think there’s eight sculptures. One has two mini-twins underneath it. It’s an eagle on top of two eggs, I guess. Like that. [laughs]
What these are turning into are skins that are movable. Each performance is different and it’s about transformation.
At the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at SAM, there are drawings and a tapestry. How did you get to making these performances, and what’s the role of the other types of works?
As far as how I got to making these performances, I think it was post-graduate school, Great Recession years, the death of nonprofit art spaces and experimental art spaces. Out of social frustration at just not having an outlet, I guess I took a form of art that was brought to Puerto Rico that is kind of sacred for a lot of Puerto Ricans as far as identity, which is the vejigante.
My dad lived in old San Juan and he knew everybody who would make these papier-mache masks. vejigante festivals and masquerades happen several times a year, with these mask-horn characters that are supposed to instill fear or be a trickster—like change the universe around. I always thought that art should do that also, that you should have a, like, all-caps-WTF moment with the artwork, and so the viewer will feel the art versus just see it.
There was an artist who was also a great professor, William Villalongo, he is also in this show [Disguise], and he curated a show in response to certain art criticism that was happening in the New York Times, and he took the opportunity to create an exhibition so that art critic could respond. And the curator here, Pamela McClusky, went to go see this exhibition and she found out that there was a performance coming, and she went to [my] performance, The Fatalist. That was January 18th, 2014, at Susan Inglett Gallery. That’s how I landed in Seattle as a kind of last-minute addition to [Disguise].
I thought about the drawings in a residency in Guatemala called the New Roots Foundation, and hopefully the Mad Art and New Roots Foundation can start communicating and doing more of these things. It’s great that Tim [Detweiler, Mad Art director] and Alison [Milliman, MadArt founder] have an open mind and an open heart and an open door policy. You can do a lot with that, or artists can do a lot with that. A lot of the organizations, institutions, and spaces are really boarding their windows up. Now with the art fairs, it looks like there’s more motion in the private sector.
Where were we?
I asked how you got here, from the drawings to the performances.
Right, right. Well I started as, like, this little fat kid. My eldest brother and my other brother were professional soccer players, like Olympic athletes. I really wasn’t into that. I would draw and eat Oreos all day on the soccer fields, bored as hell. Unfortunately, it was the pre-IPhone years. “Boredom is the absolute best place for art,” Lucio Pozzi says, and I agree with him.
What were you drawing back then?
Pets, ghosts, people—you know.
Then you went to art school.
I went to UC Boulder, got a degree in biology, and then I befriended a professor/artist by he name of Albert Chong. His work really influenced me to become an artist; he was a really nice mentor. He used to take me to help him with installations, to make sculptures, so that’s maybe how this got started.
Do these sculptures start as drawings?
Yeah, drawings, situations in the brain, like the mental studio. Or walking, talking, they just come from anywhere.
They look so shaggy on the surface but seeing them being built, I see that they have these super-geometric skeletons.
I love architecture, the history of architecture, the history of manufacturing plants. But there’s just so much to it. I always like to leave a level of ambiguity because it could be something different for somebody else. When the audience arrives, they can either see these as sculptures or think that they can move and dance. It’s like dance but without the body.
It’s super-important to use the body as a medium. It’s weird because I’m being a devil’s advocate or maybe a hypocrite: I make a sculpture so they can move without a body, but then a body is birthed out or defecated out of the sculpture, and then that performance artist that comes out does his or her respective work.
That’s the only thing I’d never want to control is whatever that artist wants to voice out. There’s like a score, then there’s a choreography, and then the sculptures manifest depending on location and audience. There’s always a shaman or trickster that opens up the performance.
Is that from the vejigante?
The folklore of the vejigante is from northwestern Africa, a little bit of Spain, fused in with a little Congo coming in. Each island in the Caribbean has its own kind of respective mythological festive dancer.
But just going to art school and all that jazz, especially in New York, you want to shock people more than like the three minutes you can get in an art fair. Performance was the ultimate way to live longer than three minutes, or to mess with someone’s normal universe longer than three minutes.
These helpers are amazing, by the way.
How many are there?
I have no idea. There’s people that come in that I have no idea who they are, and I’m like [he puts up a peace sign at an actual worker looking at him from across the room]. There’s two that are from UW.
And you brought one.
Don Edler, he’s an artist in Los Angeles and New York. An extraordinary craftsman. He takes you into the past and into the future.
Did you bring your materials? What are they?
They’re all from here. Some are things the SAM was going to throw away: mirrors, copper wire. There’s wood from the construction site next door, wood from abandoned buildings, Mylar, copper, paint, plastic bags, brown paper bags, mahogany wood strips from Lake Union—there’s people that restore boats and those are like boat trimmings that people were going to throw away. There was this massive pile of them that’s built up for like 20 to 30 years.
The Northwest is still resource-rich, just not the resources you might have once found here.
If I had time out here, I’d make like 50 sculptures. I tried to get with the Army Corps of Engineers at the Ballard canal, too, but by the time I could make the appointment, it was showtime. But people have been really responsive, positive, with any kind of help. That was really nice about Seattle.
How long are you here?
May 30th to June 30th.
I’d heard you were doing performances out in the city, but I don’t see them on the schedule.
There’s so many elevated electrical cables. The sidewalk goes to brick and then there’s different kind of asphalts—it would be dangerous for the artists here. I scout-checked on Google to try to figure something out, but safetywise it made sense not to do it.
Who are the performers? How do you choose them?
There’s one who’s been with me, Tre Chandler, he’s coming out from New York. He comes out of one of the sculptures does his performance, which is usually with a handheld projector. It’s kind of like a conversation or a narration of what’s happening, flipping the meaning of what’s on television, showing you what’s really going on in sitcoms or television shows.
The meeting is tonight, so I’m not 100 percent sure who’s in and who’s out, but I know there are two people from New York coming into town, then there’s five more, either local artists or recently emigrated to work in Seattle. I knew them from previous exhibitions or I’ve seen their work. And then today someone came in who was a modern dancer—she just came back yesterday from a residency I’ll be going to after this one, at the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minneapolis. I’ll make an outdoor one of these, out of steel and car paint.
In your piece that’s on Vimeo, a fight breaks out during the performance. I’m assuming that’s not scripted.
No. We’ll talk about the movements of the sculpture, the safety of the sculptures, the score, how it’s choreographed into the whole performance, and then how each performance artist goes, how they enter, the order of their appearances. It’s usually based on the energy of the crowd, but if I know the crowd is nice and intimate then it’s nice to bring the intimate person out, and then to change that up, the one that comes after the intimate one is the one with the real mayhem, so it’s about spontaneity.
How many museums have you performed in? How’s a museum different from other types of environments for you?
Museo del Barrio, Bronx Museum, I think that’s it—inside the museum.
The performances and the sculptures are so open that Bob Marley said on some famous interview, “My art, my music, wants to get to young people and to old people. If those two groups like it, then everyone in between will love it.” That, I like. Working with museums has been very easy for me.
All the performances are geared toward environment and audience, so that’s why I sometimes don’t care much about documentation. Not one will ever be the same. One’s in Chelsea, New York, in the middle of winter. Then there’s one that lives in sunny summertime Seattle. But definitely [I want] to WTF them a little bit differently in each one.
What about art fairs?
It’s wild because everyone wants to talk about art fairs and it’s how it disruptive but they’ve always been around. There have been World’s Fairs, there’ve been expos.
But those weren’t art fairs like just for the art world.
But they were on the side, like the World’s Fair is going down and they would create a side expo.
There are very few art fairs that I like to go to being an artist. I like Miami and the main Basel fair and Frieze in New York is cool, but yeah, it’s weird how society can entrap some artists. I always like to call them art whores, they’re art whoring because it’s really just doing whatever it takes in your fight for natural resources on this planet. And if you have to do it, you have to do it, and if you don’t have to do it, you don’t have to do it.
Do you have to do it?
Oh, I’m a pretentious dumpster diver, so when it comes to materials it’d be nice to buy it from this mom and pop place here, but...
I think my art whoring comes in research, not like an evil internet troller, but more like to learn the history, so you can advance the style and technique a little more, so then you don’t really have a style or a technique. Kind of like Bruce Lee.
You didn’t tell me much about the drawings at SAM. They’re prep drawings for the performance sculptures?
Yeah, there’s a wall of drawings that spans from ’99 to 2004, then a really big break, then 2010 to now. The drawings function as, like, decoding the process and then recontextualizing that code and inventing a new code. I try not to use an algorithm for the artwork, for the style of narrative that I like to have within the work and what that carries.
For your MFA later in New York, did you study drawing? Sculpture?
And did you use it?
Oh, yeah. [laughs] I was a photographer for Marc Jacobs. Just go to their web site and look at their purses. I was a master at photographing this and that [pointing to two spots right next to each other on the surface of my purse]. You could zoom. But Zappos can get a little bit closer. Zappos, man.