Unlikely Marriages: A Conversation with Gabriel Kuri

International Sculpture Center
Jun 1, 2017 7:58PM

by Robert Preece

Balance of the Invisible and the Foreseeable, 2014. Powder-coated metal and donated sleeping bags, view of installation view at the Common Guild, Glasgow.  

Contrast and juxtaposition are key principles in Gabriel Kuri’s work, guiding his treatment of formal and informal elements, texture, size, material, and color. Working with a range of materials, including found elements, Kuri takes a broad view of artistic process. His work can incorporate everything from dumpsters, privacy screens, and emergency supplies to stones and metal furnishings, to receipts from the purchase of materials and currency itself.

 Kuri grew up in Mexico and received his BA from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City in 1992 and an MA from Goldsmiths College in London in 1995. He has lived and worked in Los Angeles and currently resides in Brussels. Over the years, he has exhibited internationally at a variety of biennials— including the Venice Biennale (2011 and 2003)—museums, and other art spaces.

Robert Preece: For this conversation, I asked you to shortlist some sculptural/installation works that you consider important to your development as an artist. The earliest work that you listed is Items in Care of Items (Berlin Biennale, 2008), which featured a contrast of formal and informal elements such as jackets and sleeping bags. Could you tell me more about this installation and its influence on the treatment of materials in Balance of the Invisible and the Foreseeable (2014)? Gabriel Kuri: Items in Care of Items is important because it embodies many of my recurring interests—process, form, system, transaction, ordering principles, and displacement. It starts with the displacement of a device in an institution—the stripping of function from the wardrobe booths at the Neue Nationalgalerie—and the shifting of this from the periph - ery, both literally and metaphorically, toward the center of the exhibition space. It starts with moving the space and air in a given public space, so to speak. This is extended into an exercise of what you rightly refer to as a contrast between formal and informal, involving trust, an organizational system, and changing form. Soft forms negotiate with the hard or given ones. I set up a series of rules in a somewhat inevitable—and hopefully not imposing— organizational system [the sculptural space as a cloakroom] and then let go of control to watch changing soft forms work against other forms commonly seen as somewhat generic public sculpture. The piece was carried out by the cloakroom staff of the biennial, and with the huge number of visitors, it worked. Balance of the Invisible and the Foreseeable is a more formal work. There was participation involved, but I controlled the forms in the end. However locally significant the Common Guild in Glasgow may be, it does not have nearly the same flow of visitors as the Berlin Biennale. So, for this work, I put together the components, which came from both my studio and the random public. Once the work was finished, achieving a fine yet reliable balance, then it was no longer bound to change form anymore. It all started with an open call for donated items of basic necessity—blankets, bottled water, toiletries, matches—crucial materials in situations of urgency that I planned to improvise with in contrast to other forms that I provided.

RP: Contrast and juxtaposition are key design principles in many of your works. For example, the juxtaposition of the tipped skip versus stone and metal in .)(. (2013) is striking. How did you balance the skip? Do you spend a lot of time on material and visual contrasts?

GK:Well yes, contrasts and dialectical oppositions are at the root of my modus—I went to Goldsmiths in the mid-1990s, after all. I go by gathering bits of specificity and evidence, and these often make their way toward becoming an artwork through their unlikely marriage to other pieces of collected information. This is an open process whereby the clock only ticks—or rather a little bell only tinkles—once something comes to fruition. I could not really tell you whether the process takes long or not. Sometimes two elements have been lying around for three years, and then their coming together takes a few seconds. I particularly like it when this happens—a long period of incubation and a quick moment of discovery. The execution is fast, not just the realization. There is a lot of pairing and rhyming between contrasting sources—both in material and situation. The upended, balancing skip set against the metal “wave” propped down with a rock is a piece that I somehow, not knowingly,rehearsed in a smaller scale through other works. Once I thought of this particular idea, I could not afford much trial and error, since it involved a fair amount of sourcing, fabrication, transport, and fine-tuning. To balance the skip in this way, there is a rock inside, pretty much the same volume as the one on the metal wave.

Items in Care of Items, 2008. 4 painted steel sculptures, numbered magnetic disks, and assorted items, view of installation at the 5th Berlin Biennale.

RP: Is Bilateral Growth (2013) a synthesis, a starting point in a new direction, or both?

GK: I think rather than a synthesis or point of departure, the motion in these alignments— as I like to refer to pieces in the family of bilateral growth—is more from the outside in. They only happen when I have the necessary lucidity to arrange my props in the most specific of ways. My hope is to spell a phrase with the economy and music of a classic line in a film or song. So yes, it is a synthesis—or rather a line in an obscure poem, but with a sense of being what it is. So yes, it is a starting point, sufficiently, inevitably, and with just the right number of characters.

RP: Is Self Portrait as a Chart with Two Point Convergence (2012) related to Looping Trajectory through Collapsible Mountain 01–02 (2015) beyond interior/exterior color?

GK: I have attempted self-portraiture through  the formal/geometric language of charts and diagrams, through the visual rendering of information flow, diagrams of  cause and effect, or simple direction of forces. Self Portrait as a Chart with Two Point  Convergence could be seen as a somewhat didactic statement; it is a demonstration, a simple  physical experiment involving tension, balance, and “touch” or tangency. Its materiality—the  lightness, rigidity, fragility, tension, temperature—is just as important as the simple  principle it enunciates. When I go on to give a title to a piece like this, it really helps to  render it back to flatness, to make a line drawing or diagram on paper. Looping Trajectory could be thought of as similar in its bendy metallic  form. However, it involves a little more improvisation. I have done a few pieces in the  family of Self Portrait as a Chart with Two Point Convergence, and I found that if I set up a  matrix, there are only a limited number of variables. With Looping Trajectory, I first decided  that I really liked the collapsible flea market stand and the two-sided aluminum roll, and that  their marriage should be a closed circuit—as opposed to a structure with  ascending/descending levels like the stand suggests or a coiled line like the roll. Then, I somewhat shut  off reason and tried to understand how I could make the materials do what I wanted them to  do—or rather couldn’t and simply had to obey what they physically dictated.

RP: Coin and Cigarette Butt Board HLRP02 (2014) and Won Won (2015) show juxtapositions.

GK: Coins, cigarette butts, beans, beads, pebbles, particles—they are all counting units or punctuation marks. They bear the trace of the social but are also completely primal as communication tools. What could be more basic than a point on a field? I love it when banknotes are color-coded; they make my work more enjoyable.

RP:Where did you get the screens and poles that you used in Privacy Standards (2015)?

GK: I first saw the privacy screens in a pharmacy in Los Angeles. I immediately understood what they stood for—a quick form of visual isolation to perform some medical observation. These have a peculiar characteristic, which I only came to realize once I obtained some of the same kind and they were in my studio. These screens conceal things at table height. So, I faced either having to suspend an element from the ceiling—an awful idea—or having something stem from the ground, which created visual clutter with the legs of the screens. To solve the problem, I brought back an element that I had worked with before—thermal aluminum emergency blankets taped to wooden sticks—and I hoped they could dance with one another. I ended up structuring this by following very basic observations about, on the one hand, the different kinds of enclosures that I could make with the screens and their color coding, and on the other hand, the variable form to somehow attest for these possibilities.

RP: How do you know when a work is finished, for example Untitled (CHCHN) (2016)?

GK: This particular one only felt finished when  I titled it. There are a few elements, gestures, tropes involved in its making. I found the material in a hardware shop.  There’s also my love for color-coding and foreign currency—U.S. banknotes bored me when I was  living in Los Angeles; they are all green and austere. Also, there’s the tension of  the rubber band and, naturally, the leaning of the wad of sticks against the wall. The moment when I leaned it against the wall would normally be thought  of as the moment when the work came together. But in this case, I only thought of  it as finished when I came up with the title, after it had leaned for a while. I place a  lot of importance on the linguistic when I make sculpture, even when the pieces are pretty  intuitive in their process. My work is never completely material, nor solely information.  Never. Only when these two are in agreement in their formula— and this I cannot predict—can I consider a work finished.

RP: An enlarged fiberglass bean form, which you’ve used before, sits on a stone element in 1/1 Exponential Growth (2014).

GK: The enlarged black bean is an example of a counting unit, a punctuation sign— hopefully pregnant, or latent, with meaning. I wish I had found this big black bean in a flea market in Brussels; I have found pretty wonderful things there. But since I didn’t, I had it fabricated with the help of a prop maker. I incorporated one in a piece a few years ago, and it has reappeared a few times for its syntactical handiness. The composite stone disk is a found object that resembles an oversize ancient coin. This is where the “1/1” notion comes from—there is a unit on top of another unit.

RP: Is Untitled (Charted Missing Data) (2016) moving in a new direction?

GK: Speaking in very simple terms, yes. I have been wanting to make an exhibition in which all of the works have stainless steel parts that either come straight from the world of public or functional furnishing—like public toilets, airport security points, assembly lines—or have an echo of them. I am hoping that in my next show, there will be a stainless steel device in every work. This very recent piece is a beginning, a wish, in that direction. I love how the slickness of stainless steel only ever comes in situations where there is fluctuating mess.

 Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.        

International Sculpture Center