Artist conversation between Ellen Kwan Kit Yiu and Martín La Roche Contreras
This conversation takes place via Whatsapp audio and stretches through the whole period of the making of the show “A Finger in Every Pie”. The reason why the interview has transformed into audio conversations is because the initial interview at Martin la Roche’s studio was accidentally unrecorded, the conversation is left untraceable and remains only between the two correspondents.
This is a very segmented Whatsapp conversation, discussing processes in art-making, collecting versus archiving, cabbages, silence, stories behind a museum in a hat among other things.
Thank you for doing this interview again, I made a terrible mistake of not recording the interview in your studio in Amsterdam! We are attempting to do this interview again, through Whatsapp audio instead, talking through one question at a time.
My first question is: I am curious about your experience studying Art in both Santiago and the Netherlands. Do these experiences shape your practice in any way? Has there been any pivotal moments in how your work has been defined?
Last time we talked about many things, about cabbage and silence and how sometimes one has to be silent in order to make space for a sound to come, a voice to appear.
Since we are recording through Whatsapp now, I will try to feel through this, a conversation.
So, your question about my art education in Chile and in the Netherlands and how it influenced my art practise.
I don’t believe it is necessary to have an official art education to become an artist, it is a path that anyone can follow. But studying in certain places in certain contexts allow you to have a particular understanding and to encounter people along the way. These can be other students, artists and sometimes teachers too. A network of people.
I would say that the education in Santiago was very different from Jan Van Eyck at Maastricht, firstly because Jan Van Eyck was a residency, it wasn’t officially a study. People involved in there had already PhDs or they were at different points in their lives. The academy at Santiago was very classical, it was the oldest in Chile. They separated everything into disciplines, such as painting, etching and sculpture. I was in the department of painting. Although it was very much about painting, it was also extended in practise. We were free to have different relationships to painting, the students saw painting as a lens to look at art. But there was still a strong relationship with local traditions of art, it was Eurocentric. The studio structures were from the 19th century, but it was like a paradox with the teachers who had contemporary art practises. It was a complex process of inhabiting these parameters.
I was very interested in text from the beginning, before my residency in Maastricht. I was interested in the idea of a script, or how literature influenced the visual arts in general. There are certain informations that are shared and trespassed or recorded in text. I was involved in the Young Artist Prize at the museum of the Visual Arts in Santiago, and there, I reenacted the Dry Japanese Interior Garden Manual inside the museum, in a poetic and intuitive way. The instructions were intricate but vague, it would talk about mountains, tigers, dragons that were necessary in shaping the garden. It was also important to put something in the middle of the garden, but somewhere off centre so the garden wouldn’t be symmetrical.
The Japanese garden was important in my connection between Santiago and Maastricht. When I came to the Netherlands, it was a huge change of culture and language, but also in weather. The perspective completely shifted. I didn’t have a concrete plan in mind, I didn’t have connections in the country but I knew that the Netherlands has an interesting art environment. I applied to the Jan Van Eyck and was accepted, and it was a moment in time for me to stop. I didn’t have material pressure to produce, I had time to think and to read and absorb. I was like a sponge! It was a moment of silence in my life.
I read in the library and tried to follow artists who were practising in the Netherlands. I went to talks and shows and had perspective in what I was doing and what I was interested in.
During this time, I wrote this book called Karesansui, written in multiple languages. This book, in a nutshell, explains my relationship not only with Japanese gardens but with the people I had in connection with Santiago and the Netherlands. In the book, I talked about an instruction that led me to a bookstore in Santiago. The first book I took was a book on John Cage on music. It connected with a character who influenced my decision to move to the Netherlands and another character I met in the Netherlands, a German composer who went to Japan to find a card game. The card game lead him to compose a piece of music on Winter, where, somewhere in the middle, not not in the middle, there was a big silence.
I feel that in a similar way, I can position my studies here in Chile on one side of the silence and the other study in the Netherlands on the other side of the silence. My educational years is like a metaphorical garden with the silence in the middle that continues to affect my practise today.
Your metaphor of the garden as a space that bridges your relationship with the two cities is really beautiful. It is so nice that the book and the Japanese garden are physical manifestations that came out of your experiences. I am thinking a lot about the patterns that you mention in your Karesansui book, with the themes of the Ginko leaf and the weather returning again and again. The Ginko leaf was the first thing I noticed when I first visited your studio and I like how the Ginko is a symbol of longevity, a living fossil that survived through time.
I relate to your art education in Santiago very much, it is so similar to our academy here with the structures of painting, sculpture and autonoom. There is always a pressure to produce, but we forget that we also need input and a space to breathe. I am thinking about the elements that influence your work, the languages you encounter, the weather, cultures, balance, silence and how these elements guide you in your process. It leads me to the next question:
As artists, we curate ideas and materials required to materialise our works. How does your art come to be? Does this process influence your work in any way?
Yes, the process of curation influences my work. I sometimes define myself as a collector or curator because I tend to make groups of things and networks of objects. These object can be anything from material objects, stories or songs put in relation to each other.
There is something interesting about what you said about art academies as a place of production, an industrial place where we learn to produce and make things.
I think that old fashioned academies are not only factory-like, but they also resemble martial arts academies; students need to train to get better and be progressive. This was a part that I was a little bit against.
I feel that process is not necessarily progression, but that sometimes process comes and goes in circles. The presence can also inform the process as we tend to reread things and stories to understand them. I feel connected to a process that is done over a long time, a desire to build a collection.
Perhaps you would bring an object into the studio and put it in the middle of the space, or the middle of an empty shelf, or you place a shell on a shelf that already contains some books.
Sometimes it is not about filling empty spaces but relating the new object to other objects in a space. When a book is placed next to a shell, it already begins to have some sort of a narrative. Or you could make a new narrative out of it by relating the title of the book to the shell, then the shell has a title.
This is like when we were talking about the cabbage, and the garden in the middle of my notebook. These notebooks are important to me, because the sequences of the pages allow me to build a collection. I agree that there is some curating about what we decide to put on a page , but it is not like a factory where we fill one page after the next. It is an artisanal relationship and not industrial.
There is a thinking process that is the most important, a bodily process, I’m thinking through these objects, through the book. Sometimes these pages change and evolve, and put into connection with something else.
In the practise of curating, the container and the object is equally important. It is important where you will display them, if it will be on a platform, or in a bag or in a hat. It is the same if you gather certain sounds and record them in a vinyl, or decide to upload them as MP3 files on a web storage system.
The other day, I read about this Chilean poet whose poems were not only referring to other poems in the same book but also to other books he wrote and by others. There is always intertextual relation between what is written because we never write from scratch. There is always a game of singing the other half of the poem with someone else. It may not always be simultaneous conversation but it could always become a conversation
In our conversation that was not recorded, we talked about this writer who says that in 100 years we won’t be able recognise what we know as what it is now. W are always reshuffling, re- understanding material content. Words appear simple, but it is always in a process of change, like the word cabbage, how it at one point meant something different and has evolved through a whole process of simulation. From our understanding of the word as non-native speakers, to how this word relate to an image to a vegetable. Cabbage, is also a sound, it can also be whatever.
Curation is a practise that is always being done. But it has to be rethought. As a reader, a viewer, we have to reposition ourselves in relation to the collection. I want to establish certain platforms, devices, collections that allow for this language association that are not fixed, but is activated by us, by this reader, by this conversation.
It is interesting you say that the art academy is like a martial art institute, it feels like artists can be trained to be successful rather than allowing space for their own search in practise. I was writing a little description for my work and it started out with ‘archiving a library is like indoor gardening’, it feels like putting seeds into the soil is like writing words or putting one book next to another. It is the return of the cabbage and the meaning of it, the weight of the history behind the origin of the sounds.
I am thinking about what you said about the importance of the container, the frame that people tend to forget about when they look at a painting, or the vitrine that the object is inside. Perhaps that is why I feel so connected to your Museé Légitime, because it is a container that is just as important as the objects it contain. It also categorises and narrates the objects within it in a non- conventional way.
Could you talk about your Museé Légitime? What led you to the idea of the museum inside a hat, and how has each edition developed? How do you decide to choose which works to place inside your hat when you decide to wear it?
Hi Yiu, I heard your amazing audio and wanted to give good time to reply to it. There is something very interesting in what you said, I’m very amazed that you talk about the cabbage and other works and how building a library is like indoor gardening, and you used the word planting seeds. And the most crazy relation is that my idea of the Museum in the Hat came from a seed planted in a book. I was invited to a residency in a library in Columbia, where Calipso Press wanted me to do a project around the library. I decided to reorganise the library, proposing to use hints from a crossword, for example ‘a large edible fish’, and you’re supposed to find a four letter word that is TUNA. I decided to use these hints and 22 other more from a particular crossword I found on the street, then using all this to re-categorise the library. Every category of the library was a hint. So there was a hint for ‘a milk-container’, for ‘large edible fish’, for ‘larger than life’, for ‘take’, for ‘outside pub area’ and so on. These categories I didn’t invent myself but I took them.
One of these hints brought me to a book that told the story about a gallery inside a hat. There was this artist called Robert Filio, french artist from the 1962/3. He was selling these artworks by his friends and asked them to make works that would be small enough to transport in his hat. He would walk around in Paris and if someone would strike up a conversation about art, he would ask them if they would have interest in seeing an art gallery. He would show it. I read this story in a book and in it was a very blurry and undefined photo of a hat with a couple of elements you couldn’t distinguish.
That was exactly a seed in a way, PHOOOWW, it became a story that I carried, I printed it in a poster to put in a library, then I brought it with me to an exhibition called ‘Chinese Whispers’, named after a game where what you tell to someone gets transformed through whispers and relays, and the end becomes very different to the beginning. I decided to reinterpret the story in this book as an instruction but changing it slightly, by making a museum inside a hat instead of a gallery.
I invited artist friends who I admire to contribute artworks that would fit inside my hat. I promised them I would carry it, present it and preserve it but I also asked them for a story about the artwork. At the opening event of the exhibition, I carried the first edition of the Museum in a bowler hat with the first 19 artworks of the collection. I walked around with the hat and told many people there. After a while, I invited them to see the pieces inside the hat and started telling the stories. It became an ongoing institution. Many artist approach me to give me their pieces in addition to myself showing interest in other peoples’ pieces. The work started to grow also in buildings, in the shape of hats.
And since then, the invitations haven’t stopped and also my interest in it hasn’t stopped. If I don’t have an invitation, I just wear the hat.
Choosing the works come from intuition. Some days I choose 3 or 4 and I put them inside a hat and I just go for a walk with them. I keep count of everything that I show, so then I try to show everything with balance. This I have learnt, that we tend to show our favourite works most often.
Once I was invited to show the whole collection and there were around 75 artworks. First I presented the ones I loved the most, the iconic, masterwork pieces of the collection, the second time I showed the ones that I liked and had confidence in, and for the third time I had to present the ones that were least presented and it became even more interesting than the first one.
That made me think a lot, sometimes we give a lot of importance to certain things, but we miss others. I learnt that in my collection, every object deserves time and every object is willing to tell a story. You need to listen. Sometimes I do these selections with the help of other people, for example, I invite curators and other artists to listen to the stories that come with these artworks and choose with me. It allows me not to make the same selection every time.
At the beginning, I tried to make a collection for each hat, but very quickly I realised it didn’t work. Because I liked the idea of the surprise, like a trick to get attention, but I also wanted to surprise myself. I try to keep the stories as the artist told me, I sometimes put an emphasis on something, or a variation in the story. It becomes an ever-changing narration. It gives life to them. Sometimes there are things that I say or don’t say, or relearn the story. It is the same with the selection, I am also rediscovering the works that I have forgotten.
How is the installation going for your work? Good luck, I’m looking forward!
Today was our fourth day of setting up the exhibition, we cleaned the space and built walls and painted them, and yesterday we helped each other to transport works to the exhibition space! Today was a long day, long day of organising what goes where and making sense of the space. My teacher suggested perhaps that we should ‘Kill our darlings’, that maybe less is more, and showing less and giving breathing space around the works is better than showing everything at the same time.
It made me think about your selection process for the Museum in a hat.
I see a connection with the process, that you begin with an instruction that you follow or change or misinterpret to make it your own. I like that your process of telling stories of the artworks is like a Chinese Whisper, but by yourself, and over time. I remember seeing a book with drawings made by an artist over a year. She made a drawing on the first day, and after that she would make the same drawing from memory and it would be almost the same but slightly different. And after a year it was like a completely different drawing all together. It’s like the stories in the Bible or Greek myths that are translated and transformed over time.
A few days ago, I listened to a podcast with an interview with the author Seth Godin. He was talking about his new book called ‘The Practise’ and he spoke about the 2 types of works that creatives make. New stuff, or best stuff (that they have continuously made in the past). He mentions that the good work is a kind of a safety net, it sounds to me that by continuously rediscovering the artworks in the hat and the stories, that you don’t want to remains static,
Your never-ending story with the Museum in the Hat reminds me a lot of Ursula Le Guin’s bag. In my first email reaching out to you, I mentioned to you that I was writing my thesis that related to this Carrier bag theory that Ursula Le Guin talked about, and it was such a nice surprise to find out that you also made work that was related to her bag. Could you tell me about your research and what you were writing about?
I’m in the train to see your exhibition and I am very excited to see your final presentation. I didn’t want to keep this message unanswered so I am replying while on the train to the Hague.
It is always so difficult for me to kill my darlings! I would prefer to be with all my darlings but I understand that sometimes for the sake of communication, it is good to think of a selection, because others may not have all the time in the world to see or read or experience.
Perhaps killing your darlings is also good because it is part of the process in a way. There are moments which include bringing darlings together or stopping something that brings it to closure. The outcome is just a phase. When you talk about what is best and what is new I think it’s interesting because what is new or best can be different for everyone. There are a lot of things that we think are new but they are actually really old. It is just a matter of perspective. It can be just born for someone but it is actually being born a long time ago.
I thought of music while you were talking. How music is easier to understand as a script that you follow, so even if for example when you compose you are using all their scores, I also think of a way as a DJ would do, that they would mix a lot of songs and put them all together. There is the new and the best at the same time.
On the train I was reading a book about Fluxus, it was about how they wanted to make art that can be reinterpreted by other artists. They didn’t want only the artist to be present but that it could be translated by many others. The author of the book reflected on how much we know about these scripts through the documentation of the actual objects. There was still some sort of piece even though they wanted to leave everything at score. I like this paradox.
I say all this just to get to your question on Ursula le Guin! The ongoing script. Maybe it has to do with writing, everyday we tell these stories again and again, a narration that changes slightly every time it is told, because the context has changed, you have changed! Even if you want to say something new, it will still resemble other stories that have been told before. There is this endless telling of stories, that makes me think that art doesn’t stop. Sometimes it is not about what has been done, but what we are doing. Even the art that comes to us in the past can be something that is being done, because we redo it while experiencing it.
That brings me to what I am working on about Ursula le Guin. I am working on a collective called ‘See the inability to see’ with Maartje Fliervoet and Arafeh Riahi. We write about text and images and materials that we find and unfold from the archive, processing discarded or excluded materials. We write about them and copy these materials, and write our own narrations, like an ongoing narration, ongoing publication.
We wrote about the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, and when I first read about it, I was very amazed! She talked about not feeling herself like a human when she read history, about man as a controller, or to kill to become a human… She didn’t feel represented in that humanity, in the history of a hero. But when she found out that humans were not just hunters but also gatherers, who would gather food, perhaps pick some nuts, or fruit or cabbage… the first device by humans is more like a net, a bag, a gourd, a sling, a pot…
I felt completely connected to her work, like I had company, like I belonged to this constellation of carriers, of gatherers.
She referred to these carriers as carriers of stories, and explained that these gatherers had a lot of free time, to tell stories! They were the ones who had time to tell the stories of the hunters, the heroes.
I felt completely projected into these works, it was a key element to tell stories and to share them, and to make time to share stories. And I understood my practise more, why I love collecting and why I love archives (not in an institutional way of asserting the truth or certain notions, but the other way around). Sometimes the space of the library is like a space you can feel sheltered about dreaming or listening to someone.
It brings me back to miniatures, and little objects, and having tea and intimacy. It helps to inhabit this existence in a different way. We inhabit the world in different ways. Instead of being busy all the time, we should have time to spend time to think about why we are always so busy.
Your contemplation has stopped me for a while. Taking the train to Den Haag at this moment was like a stop in my routine in my schedule and somehow I am grateful for this. Because it has stopped my business as usual and it gives me 45 minutes of idle time and tell you my research about Ursula le Guin and how I connect with it.
These conversations are important for establishing some sort of mutual understanding. In that, I agree with Ursula le Guin that culture is the base for mutual understanding, and to extend this to understanding other people and allowing objects to speak for themselves.