Adrián Villar Rojas - Installation Poems for Earthlings at Oude Kerk

INTERVIEW: Adrián Villar Rojas – Installation « Poems for Earthlings » at Oude Kerk, Amsterdam – 21 November 2019 – 26 April 2020.

Inferno: Adrian, in the oldest church of Amsterdam, Oude Kerk, founded around 1213, you are presenting an immersive audio installation « Poems for Earthlings ». The church was Catholic but after the reformation in 1578, it became Calvinist. For your site specific installation, you have created a path inside the church itself no longer allowing visitors to discover the entire 36,000 sq ft. For instance, we can’t access the chorus. Therefore, the pillars, as well as the ceiling (which represents the largest medieval wooden vault in Europe), the floor (consisting of 2500 gravestones, under which are buried 10,000 Amsterdam residents) become prevalent. Which moments in the history of this place, or even the town, have interested you to develop this project?

Adrian Villar Rojas: Two major events has shaped the modern Netherlands: the Reformation and the Second World War. The first one may be interpreted—taking one of its many dimensions—as a demand to return to the ascetic values of Christianity against the corruption of Rome. Paradoxically, this demand for stoicism prepared the terrain for the emergence of a capitalist mentality, guided by a materialist conception of existence. The second event, the WWII, is no doubt the deepest wound still bleeding in the memory of Europe, whose nationalist and rightist sediments are permanently pushing to reflourish in the very “white” heart of its societies. Of course, the sandbag walls in my project are somehow symbolically bringing those war days back, and especially the way how the population managed to organize a civil defense to preserve life and heritage.

From an architectural perspective, we restored the original entrance to the nave, reopening it after decades of closure. The current entrance to the church was replaced by this “new” old one. So, in a way, it was an architectural metaphor of the idea of bringing the memory of this sacred space back to the present. The old church was reborn inside the current one.

Could you tell us more about the title of your installation?

Everything that happens -and has ever happened- in a church is a great poem for earthlings, isn’t it?

This title has its origin in a previous project from 2011, a hundred meter clay cylinder built and installed at the Tuilerie Garden in Paris. And this year—2020—it will also be—with a slight change—the title of a novel I wrote almost a decade ago together with my brother, Sebastián, that will be launched in March (Terrestrial Poems, Rosario, Iván Rosado). This novel was originally published under this same title in 2011 as part of the catalogue of my participation as the Argentine official sending to the 54th Venice Biennial. As you can see, a huge part of my practice consists of recycling its materials, titles, words, symbols, in search of a second or even a third life for them. Both tangible and intangible elements in my work are constantly reused and thus resignified in new context and as part of new projects. I think this procedure of reusing titles is a key dynamic of the long-term language game I’m developing as my project/life, an enchained or articulated series of moments building a unity.

Your installation is constituted of a soundtrack, sandbags and chandeliers in their wooden boxes. Sandbags are often used to preserve heritage and prevent monuments and historical objects to be damaged by f.e. bombings. In the Netherlands, sandbags are also used to prevent floods. Here, the sandbags are stacked on wooden reinforcements, creating the path and giving both the feeling of protection of the place as well as the visitor. Can you tell us what made you want to use sandbags by combining them with chandeliers placed on the ground and in the center of the space? What emotional impact do you expect the sandbags to evoke?

You are completely right when you suggest that sandbag reinforcements somehow evoke the war efforts to protect the Amsterdammers and their cultural heritage from bombings (and floods). The emotional impact they may cause on the older audience seems to be quite evident, while younger viewers may have the opportunity to let some questions on the European past flourish in their minds. I never try to guide or control the reception of my proposal by the audience. This “Platonist” cavern remastered as an anti-bombing shelter and full of sounds from the “multiverse”, is likely to trigger some sort of introspection or emotional trip in viewers/listeners.

We are in a dark bunker or protected area—sandbags give that impression—supposedly designed to shelter us and to preserve our dearest “things,” but all we find inside these sandbag-reinforced walls is a paradoxical treasure, an intangible and hyper abundant entity with scarce value in our Capitalocene, as well as impossible to be kept in a safe: sound. Absurd arises to reflect ourselves on a distorted mirror: what are we trying to save? Who is attacking us? Why are we hiding? From what are we escaping? Is this how the older generations lived during the war? Is it possible to imagine—or feel—the fear, the incertitude, the imminence of pain and death by reconnecting our bodies with the architectural memory of the past? At the same time, I propose an introspective journey through our own personal story via this metaphorical history of sound. I always try to trigger reflection/emotion focusing the world from negativity, absence and lost, no matter what kind of matter (tangible or not) I’m dealing with.

You have said: “I set myself from the fictional viewpoint of an alien who is gazing at the planet with total horizontality and lack of prejudice, without even knowing what’s first and what’s next, or not even understanding the difference between an animal and a pebble. The alien–had the entire planet–the entire multiverse, all times and spaces–to toy with.” From that point of view, what did you discover about Amsterdam and Oude Kerk to create « Poems for Earthlings »?

It has always amazed me how advanced is the secularization process in the Netherlands: we are in presence of perhaps the most atheist society in the planet Earth. This calls my attention as far as I come from a country where the Catholic church still has a strong influence in several fields of our life as society, from education to politics, from abortion to charity, assistentialism, and even social activism in shantytowns, not to mention the increasing power and active presence in everyday life of innumerable Evangelical temples fed with financial, technical, human and political support by their North American and Brazilian headquarters. The latter are also building a mass media corporation that is currently delivering successful TV series such as “Moses,” seen by millions all over the world. While most of the population asserts to be Catholic, in Argentina Catholic rites are not that respected as in the past. However, Evangelism has been reactivating the ritual dimension of Christianity for the last two decades, making people return to an almost everyday practice of religious ceremonies, such as attending a temple and listening to the preacher’s long enthusiastic speeches. No doubt, Evangelical practises are playing a social, communitarian and even psychological role in the life of more and more people, not only from the lower classes, but also from middle and upper ones. This is a huge cultural change currently in progress in Argentina and perhaps in the entire region, whose effects—even in the field of politics, as these groups are absolutely conservative—are impossible to foresee.

Therefore, this enormous difference between both realities impacted me, and made me think of how in Amsterdam the surviving “parishioners,” be them Catholics or Protestants, have to share a same sacred space—Oude Kerk—to keep their religion alive, as if they were those first Christians practising their rituals in a cave, hidden from the Romans, far from the cities. Now, these Amsterdam pilgrims are somehow forced to permanently negotiate with secular agents, as “art” itself, that knock their sacred door defying once and again their tolerance and ability to survive in a Godless environment.

You have said that “Poems for Earthlings » submerges into a symbolically-charged material space as Oude Kerk to revisit its history from its opposite: the immateriality and abstraction of sound.” Could you tell us, in more detail, about the soundtrack used and the way you worked on it?

The soundtrack can also be understood as a soundscape depicting a poetic history of the multiverse told with an absolutely personal foley. I worked with an Argentine film sound post-producer, Gerardo Kalmar, and some of my collaborators, under the premise of looking for the true sound/noise of things. That was the original proposal I brought to the team: to dive into the Internet and other sources in search of the true way things (from bangs to dinosaurs, from Big Bang to galaxies) sound. For almost a century, film industry—especially Hollywood—has shaped our ear, has deceived it into taking foley as the Truth, as the way sounds sound in the “real world.” This is evident in the case of two major Hollywood specialties: guns and dinosaurs. Therefore, we spent months following this research line which soonly turned into a “garden of forking paths.” At the end, during the post-production process, we discovered that fiction always manage to win, as we were pushed to imagine lots of noises and sounds, to fill enormous gaps in our knowledge, but this time it was our own exploration at the service of a sonic introspection what guided creativity.

One could thus say that the soundscape created for « Poems for Earthlings » is a first tentative step towards the building of a cave of sonic introspection. I tried to remember if I had ever been to a place where I could listen to stories related to sound, from the Big Bang to the last singing bird or to the noise of the Earth when engulfed by the sun 35 billion years from now. And the answer was no, so I committed myself to create this first attempt, to build this cave where sound cohabits, with no order, no encyclopedic temptations, just pure joy and humor. By doing this project I learnt quite fast that with forty sounds you can make forty million sounds, you would be surprised.

How do you “propose to revisit our passion for matter via the immateriality and infiniteness of sound”?

It is called contrast, paradox, and oxymoron, all rhetoric resources to toy with negativity and absence. Buying-Chul Han asserts that our contemporary world suffers from an excess of positivity, an overproduction of literally everything that is asphyxiating us. Ontologically as well as politically speaking, I’ve been trying to address this issue for the last ten years, or even more. First unconsciously, and later as a more conscious programme, I began to work with negativity.

Since the beginning of my practice as a Fine Arts student I realized that contemporary art could not last forever and, at the same, that it was impossible to go ontologically beyond Duchamp, beyond the universe he had founded with the cornerstone operation of creating a readymade. What to do to escape from the doom of delivering another work of art? What to do when everything—in ontological terms—has already been done? My early answer was: to go to the shores of art, to its end, to sit down right there, as close as possible to the outer edge of the borderline, and to begin to mourn it, to mourn art and even language itself, and the entire world, and why not the entire universe, as an alien coming from another point of the multiverse with no idea of who we were, what was important for us and what kind of things and thoughts we did and had, what animals there were on Earth, what colors, what sounds. This alien hypothetical entity would not have any human hierarchy to order reality, feelings, words, but only one intuitive impulse: to mourn existence from its very shores.

My practice has thus been traversed by the paradox of dealing with intangibility (disappearance, hyper-objects, huge amounts of time, etc.) from the trenches of tangible materials, producing—for instance—large-scale sculptural installations. But I’ve never been actually interested in sculpture. I never regarded myself as a sculptor. It has only been a means—a content—to develop ontological enquiries, especially about the limits of art as a field tensioned by several logics and agencies, of which not a minor one is ‘the market,’ and all its exigencies to produce docile ‘objects,’ easy to sell, to transport, to install or dismantle. I used matter to deconstruct all these implicit rules, and to besiege them from their own margins at the risk of my own disappearance: most of what I’ve done no longer exist, due to its fragile or perennial materiality, impossibility to be transported, preserved or stored, etc. My practice—as an idea, as a concept—will hardly survive without a strong physical trace to support it, not to mention the problem of coming from the peripheries of the planet, from a country with a weak state and private apparatus to keep its artists’ heritage alive. Therefore, matter—especially clay and organics—has been a huge excuse to toy with limits, and with human and non-human agencies: it has allowed me to develop a community of collaborators with their own language codified in clay, for instance; or to explore entropy as an inner agency against which ‘art’ hasn’t got necessarily to be preserved, but that can be integrated as a shaping force, opening the path to incompleteness, to permanent change via growing, decaying, breeding, etc.

In this wide spectrum and as I said before, Oude Kerk comes as another exploration stage of this multiversal journey via negativity.

Wealth has been historically represented—and accumulated—through hard-to-get and thus scarce materials such as gold and silver, and we find this same logic working in every field of the human existence. Scarcity makes things be worthy of our money, time and hard work. I’m trying to address this logic from the infinite abundance and intangibility of sound. In a way, I’m turning my own research line upside down by reflecting on materialistic culture from this immaterial means.

You said that: « more than clay or any other material, the prime matter I work with are humans, in two directions: context and team. Total commitment with–and immersion in–local and institutional contexts defines projects; that’s why pre-production in my practice is key and perhaps the longest stage of the process. » How was your work with Amsterdammers and volunteers during the three years before the opening of your exhibition?

I had several meetings with Oude Kerk staff, did a lot of research in the church archives, and explored its history. This is my usual procedure: to sink myself in the life of the institution, to understand its dynamics and culture, who are the key agents, the personnel, from the one who opens the doors in the morning and sweep the entrance up to the curators and producers who define politics, ethics and aesthetics. Every section and detail constituting and giving shape to the institution I’m working with concern to me. What I find out in this deep process of exploration is always the basis of the project I’m facing, and sometimes it is the project itself. Content and context fuse.

In the Oude Kerk case, the most striking discovery I made is how the institution is still functioning as a church and keeping a fluid exchange with the community that uses this building for their religious rites. This is a community of about forty people that gathers both Reformists and Catholics. It’s interesting to think that, in a clearly atheist environment, there has been no other option for Christians than to join, even for two previously irreconcilable factions. The struggle between Reformists and Catholics plunged Europe into blood, death and destruction at levels hardly imaginable for contemporary Westerners, and even for me, a sort of correspondent coming from the western borders. Increasingly secular societies—and as I said above the process of secularization in the Netherlands is perhaps the most advanced in Europe—have pushed Christian communities to forget those bloody times and differences in order to find a common reference in their faith in God. As regards my project, this faith was not an obstacle for this community to open their sacred house to a quite strong architectural reform as the one I proposed. Toying with words, one could say that the spirit of The Reformation seems to still be alive. It obviously implied, as I said before, negotiation with this “alien” agent knocking on Heaven’s door, which is part of what I call the politics of a project.

Oude Kerk is a metaphor–or even a metonymy–of the conflicts between Reformists and Catholics in the XVI century leading to the emergence of Protestantism in northern Europe and its split from the Vatican. How is « Poems for Earthlings » the synthesis of the complex conflict between medieval thought and capitalist modernity?

I think of Protestantism itself as this synthesis you are mentioning, as far as it prepared the ideological terrain for the emergence of a capitalist mentality from a pre-modern world conception. Calvinist and Lutheran preachers shaped a pragmatic answer to calm down their parishioners’ anxiety about the fate of their souls. As they could not be paid for guaranteeing salvation (one of the main criticisms against Rome was the unrestricted sale of indulgences by “pardoners”), these preachers would tell their communities that, though it was impossible to know God’s will, there was a way to somehow forecast His mighty decision: the richer you become on Earth, the closest your soul would be to Heaven. The connection between this new morality and “private initiative” is evident: salvation no longer depended on a religious hierarchical leader but on the autonomous will of a free individual agent. From this new religious mentality to the emergence of “the market,” there’s perhaps several steps but all belonging to the same staircase: materialism as the new hardcore of the human existence and experience, i.e., the bourgeois era. Six hundred years later from that cultural revolution we find that religion—or at least Christianity—has virtually disappeared from the north of Europe, where atheism prevail among—so to say—“white” population. Inland United States is still strongly religious, but we should not forget that the deep roots of this country must be looked for in the XVI-XVII-century arrival in “America” of several fanatic sects expelled from UK, or that were in a serious search of the Promised Land. On the opposite side of the ring, we have a still strongly Catholic Europe—mainly Italy, Spain and Portugal—that was clearly left behind in the race towards technocapitalism by the northern powers. We should either disregard the profound influence of islamic culture in the Iberian peninsula, under muslim control for nine hundred years, as another strong difference between the north and the south, i.e., between Protestant and Catholic Europe. It is not mere chance that 1492, the year of Christoforo Columbus’ arrival in the New World during his expedition seeking a new route to India, was also the year of the military defeat of the last surviving sultanate in the peninsula (Al-Andaluz), which meant the definitive expulsion of the muslim population from Hispania and the unification of the Catholic reign of Spain. At the same time, 1492—as part of this unification process under the flag of the Catholic cross—was the year of the persecution, killing and expulsion of the jewish population, not a minor part of which—as Baruch Spinoza—emigrated to the Netherlands, a territory of relative religious tolerance, as it had been Hispania itself for centuries. Latin America comes from this European melting pot, to which the clash with Amerindian empires and peoples must be added. From this viewpoint of a multicultural subjectivity coming from—as Alain Rouquie defines it—the Far West—those last and distant rings of the Western culture, as the south of South America—I come to Amsterdam and focus my attention on this church which is now equally shared by Catholics and Protestants. In chronological terms, I am—we are—standing at the other extreme of these Capitalocene journey that began with the Conquest of America, now arriving at the shores of a new massive extinction, this time triggered by those “autonomous” and “free” agents that somehow were born—or have their deeply rooted genealogy—in the XV-to-XVII-century conflicts between these two religious mentalities at the core of the same Christian world—those mentalities you are in some way defining as medieval and capitalist. No doubt, this soundgarden or soundscape that centers its main metaphor in the construction of a multiversal history of sound, has a real background in this subjectivity—mine—that blends all these tensions and internal streams in his own genealogy.

Could you tell us about the handouts given to visitors at the end of their visit? What’s their content?

The booklet is intended to offer entry points into this world with its own rules, with a clearly independent life, by assuming the form of a comic book (my second one up to now). As well as a key is a part of a house, this piece—also a key—is a part of the universe deployed inside Oude Kerk, whose doors it helps to open, but—paradoxically—only from inside out. I hate trailers or any other instrument made to relieve viewers’ anxiety or incertitude regarding what they are about to watch or experience. I don’t want pills to make life easier. I don’t want to control or direct expectations. My projects are above all a humble intent of stimulating autonomous ideas, thoughts, emotions, feelings, not a way of trafficking mine, comfortably and beautifully bottled or packed to be sold out. Not even I know what to expect from these ecologies triggered by me together with my team of collaborators. So, how to dare to shape others’ viewpoints? However, I think that there is in contemporary art a need to give an amount of information or satellite elements to enrich the audience’s experience, as part of the logics of the exhibition, a sort of supplementary language “called to the party” in order to address project dimensions that are impossible to crystalize through the standard or traditional channels. These satellites should not interrupt or obstacle this immediate connection between the audience and the experience. Therefore, I decided to hand the booklet at the end of the viewer/listener’s journey, so that they can even choose if she or he should come back another day to continue their exchange with the proposal.

Interview by Timothée Chaillou,
Amsterdam, december 2019

villar rojas 6villar rojas 5villar rojas 4villar rojas 7adrian villar rojas tuileries 2011

Images: 1 to 5: Adrian Villar Rojas: Poems For Earthlings – Installation view at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, 2019 © Adrian Villar Rojas. Photo: Baumann Fotografie FrankfurtAdrian Villar Rojas, 6: ‘Poems for Earthlings’ Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, 2011

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