by Dominique Suberville
I’m looking to bring light onto hidden peoples and trades. Also, the idea of thinking that lower class people are lower class because they want to be. The idea that work will for sure take you somewhere. The promise of, “Work a lot, save, and you’ll be rich.” Right? All these are false promises about social mobility within the urban context. More now than ever.
On a second floor space, above one of the minimarts run by his family, “Mini Súper Jessi,” I sat down to talk with conceptual artist Carlos Lara. With his work set up ready for my visit, Lara showed me his work chronologically while going back and forth between speaking about the pieces and narrating family stories which motivate his practice.
Like a good apprentice, Lara has looked to continue his family’s legacy: the practice of work. However, unlike his family, he uses this practice to communicate the real economic and social consequences of the false promise of it. Using the tools of memory, narrative, and experience, his work transports the spectator to a history, which is not only personal, but one of a city which represents to many the great example of the result of globalization and modernity, Monterrey.
The first in his family to go to college, Lara began his artistic career in Monterrey by participating in several events and fairs, like FAMA and the Festival Santa Lucía. Currently he is planning his next exhibition at La Casa del Campesino in the Museo de Culturas Populares with work that will unify the theme of work and the catholic tradition.
Taking from the experiences of past generations, Lara speaks to the current repercussions lived by family members in the present. However, his work does not intend to speak about memory itself, but to shed light upon the real experiences of work, what he calls the vehicle to the life of his ancestors, which has afforded him the current economic and social system he finds himself in.
Recognizing that his present is the result of preceding effort, he looks to emphasize the road created by the engraved steps taken by his family with pieces that function as a record of these
Dominique Suberville: In your work you speak to experiences that live in memory, the past, and the present. What are you trying to communicate to your public about those personal experiences in relation to the theme of work, a theme that works both at a personal level while also one that everyone can relate to?
Carlos Lara: There’s something really interesting which begins with a point of view resulting from a situation many of us find ourselves in. In Monterrey there’s very limited notions about the work of artisans and farm workers. But if you scratch the surface, we all have a family history that has connections to that work. I never lived in the periphery or the country. I didn’t grow up in poverty. All those stories that exist in my work are ones that were told to me. This is why I call them memories of the unlived. Experiences of which I have no memories of but it’s as if I lived them myself because they were told to me so often as a child. I know the food that is eaten at ranches. I know specific things that have to do with artisanal work. I know basic things about field work but I was never really there; I didn’t suffer, let’s say, the mental burden my family experienced.
For Lara, collaboration is not about the art object that will be produced when he uses others’ knowledge. Rather, it’s about the symbolic process that is required for such objects to have an impact on an audience.
Whether it’s speaking to family members, working with a bricklayer, carpenter, or documenting the experiences of a homeless person as they attempt to survive the streets of Monterrey, his interest lies in the relationships he forms through the process of learning. He recognizes that those he works with are more than tools for the creation of an art object, but rather they are the motivation towards creating something that demonstrates that process.
Dominique Suberville: You collaborate a lot with others to create your work, like the rocking chair piece (Breve melancolía de un atardecer dominical, 2018). Can you talk a little about how that plays with the idea of using objects from the past and workers of today to create work of the present?
Carlos Lara: Yes, that’s fundamental. Actually, the new building, Centro Roberto Garza Sada, at the University of Monterrey has all kinds of tools. There’s for 3D printing, airbrushing, engraving workshops for wood and metal, etc. However, during the 4 years I was there, this didn’t really do much for me even though I had my studio there. So I decide to leave school. I leave school and go to a house where I build my studio and I get myself back on the street. That’s when I realized that what I was looking for.
My days consisted of going out to sort inventory for the store with my parents. Everyday I would look out for my parents stores and speaking to people. It’s where I truly felt the most comfortable.
All of my pieces, or at least most, have a connection to the people that I either already knew or managed to develop a great friendship with. In the case of Breve melancolía de un atardecer dominical, which is the sculpture included at the Macroplaza (Plaza Zaragoza), I produced with two blacksmiths from Topo Chico, an area I had photographed previously for a year. One of them called “El Herrero Ciclista.” The selection process that lead me to him, for example, happened by asking around. That’s the first step in my process. I speak with several blacksmiths and whomever I got along with best, who understood the work, and who seemed the most interested with taking on an artistic endeavor, that’s who I would choose.
It’s not about offering a job for the sake of work but rather to take them out of the monotony of their daily work. In that moment he said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!.”
Most of them do window treatments and door carpentry and they gain a lot from it. With this project, they were going to do great work for a low profit. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to pay them but they told me, “I’m not charging you much for this anyway.” It’s when I noticed that he was excited about the idea.
I also work with another blacksmith called Pablo whose son also want to get involved in the arts. He made the grill for me. The label for the Minisúper paintings was made by someone who’s been a client for the store for over 26 years. He worked for the Carta Blanca brewery for 16 years lettering mini marts and bars. In order to produce the agave piece, I had to speak with family members, make calls, and take notes about how you scrape agave and its general process.
Same goes for my documentary photography about people living in the street. It’s about collaborating rather than just getting a photograph. I’ll spend the whole day talking to them so I can then get a resulting image. This is why I definitely feel calmer working and having my studio in a blue-collar area. It’s where I’m most comfortable. Going out and visiting a painter’s workshop where they have all their materials there; like the label maker. Going to a carpenter’s workshop; a blacksmith’s workshop. It’s what I like the most.
GLOBALIZATION AND THE PROMISE of FALSE WORK
The context of his work is what represents to Lara the false promise that is sold to citizens. It’s true that Monterrey displays the possibility of wealth through urban growth, but Lara assures us that that realization is highly based on probability rather than effort.
Taking his family’s history as his point of departure, it’s through it by which we become privy to a dark side of globalization. He lets me know that it is not about paying homage to that story but to make visible the raw reality of it. He recognizes that his personal history is not the rule but the exception to the reality many of his family members, friends, and neighbors live.
Dominique Suberville: How did your research into the relationship between the concept of industry and the worker begin?
Carlos Lara: It really began with three years of doing documentary photography. I would unload my camera and follow my mother as she ran her errands. I’d go with my grandparents to do whatever they had to do. They live in the US and we’d frequently go to their ranch in San Luís Potosí and harvest food. We would also leave flowers and fix up the gravestones of my grandmother’s mom and grandma. I’d go with her to Colonia Independencia to visit her siblings and tag along as my parents went to the downtown area to gather materials. This is how, during my childhood around the age of 6, I grew up with informal commerce. By the age of 16, after studying photography, I took my camera everywhere and I photographed everything I liked. I had no idea why or what was the connecting thread in my images. I used to think it was only the city itself; having to do with information, the chaotic, the concepts of the periphery and something ephemeral about the city. It was later that I realized that the unifying theme was work itself. It was the vehicle used by the entire family and those around me.
Dominique Suberville: The city of Monterrey plays a big part in your work as it’s here where your stories take place. Do you use it as an example of what you observe throughout the country or is there something particular about it that has a special meaning to you and your work?
Carlos Lara: Yes, it’s very particular. San Pedro was once the municipality where most indigenous tongues spoken in México used to gather. In great part because many domestic workers would arrive from various places in the country. The Macroplaza was another place where a large amount of these tongues come together. It’s also a city that has recently received many immigrants from Central America.
It’s also the city with the wealthiest municipality people in all Latin America, San Pedro, where the wealthiest people live and San Nicolás the wealthiest municipality in México. All of these factors do make Monterrey particular.
Furthermore, the image of the Sampetrino illustrates someone who wants to be first in everything. I feel like this isn’t true for other cities. There are cities which aren’t looking to be the city with the tallest tower in Latin America. They don’t care to be the first in having a large mall. They have different priorities.
It does have these particularities but I also believe that there are many Monterreys. Theres many places that have the same conditions as Monterrey and it’s visible there. I think of Monterrey as a consequence of globalization. A consequence of modernity and, as I’ve mentioned, a consequence of the model of import substitution industrialization.
Since Bernardo Reyes who laid the first laws that would benefit the industry by lowering taxes and began growing the city. He had the government palace built. Since then, people started arriving from rural areas and it’s something that happens worldwide.
Dominique Suberville: What do you want your public to learn or assume about these stories you project?
Carlos Lara: I don’t know much about my public because I don’t know how they take it in. On one hand, I’m looking to bring light onto hidden peoples and trades. Also, the idea of thinking that lower class people are lower class because they want to be. The idea that work will for sure take you somewhere. The promise of, “Work a lot, save, and you’ll be rich.” Right? All these are false promises about social mobility within the urban context. More now than ever.
At this time, the probability of a person moving up from extreme poverty to high class is 1 in 10 million. I’m interested in reflecting upon that and making visible the real consequences of that false promise and the damage of over demanding upon a single person. Consequences that are also damaging to the family unit. For a brick worker that works 12 hours, 16 hours on a daily basis and later finds himself at a bar in an attempt to heal the pain of day’s work. That damage is a dysfunctional family. It’s not always the case but for most, at least in my case, it’s definitely true.
Dominique Suberville: Your work has, on one side, this conversation about the physical act of work and then on the other it’s about pausing—or resting. How are these two themes relevant in your work? The aspect of the act of work and the other, of rest—having a beer, for example. The idea of doing and then stopping that action.
Carlos Lara: For sure. I’ve always considered the balance between work and rest. Furthermore, when that rest can become a moment of leisure. In the case of the beer piece, for example: When you’re and employee of FEMSA and you’re at the soccer stadium to see the Rayados (team owned by FEMSA) and you happen to have a beer, it would seem you’re out of work but by having that beer, you continue to be profitable to the company you work for.
As an artist I have to ask myself about these things. When I’m working I often ask myself when it’s work, rest or leisure. If I find myself reading, is it for pleasure or work? When does rest itself become tedious and turn into work?
The rocking chairs, in that sense, I believe illustrated that balance really well and that back and forth in working and that double edge sword of rest. What seems like a great thing that a boss will afford his workers their due rest, it’s mostly aimed towards having them back the next day working and with twice the strength. So there’s this dark side to that.
The rocking chairs were interesting to me because it was the “space” where the tiredness of those that lived the economic crisis of ‘76 and ‘82, registered. Some of the ‘94 crisis as well. I picked the rocking chairs up from blue-collar neighborhoods which had been established by local industries, like Cuauhtémoc. I was thinking about the act of the sculptor and the moment he takes his chisel and begins to carve into the stone to bring out a figure. The worker carried the baggage with great strength and would get home tired and would begin to carve out a sort of engraving of it.
What remains is that space where people rested but also where moments of leisure and family time; time with neighbors and friends happened. Moments of conversation, of drinking, partying or simply for the purpose of doing a neighborhood watch to keep the home safe.
The artist is known to be an observer and interpreter of the time. It’s this role that Lara assumes without reservations. Questioning his personal stance on the concept of work, he let me know that his art work does not mean to offer any stance, whether it’s about the past or present. It’s not to say he isn’t a critic himself, but he is simply not interested in imposing his personal opinions on the spectator.
Closely related to the theme of memory, his work is about making visible that which our society takes for granted. He looks to denote that behind everything that surrounds, there’s an individual with a world of his own. It’s about shedding light to a significant but forgotten population.
Dominique Suberville: Are you interested in being a critic with your work or is it more about reflecting? I see it as an homage to the worker. Can you talk a little about that?
Carlos Lara: It’s something that I have been asking myself to which I don’t have an answer. I think if I had found one I would have already left it alone and veered towards something else.
I don’t know that it’s criticism. Actually, I don’t know if art should be a kind of criticism or it should simply be about placing a spotlight unto a certain circumstance. I think I do try to be a critic, so in that sense, yes; but I don’t know that art objects should. I think it’s about making things visible.
In terms of homage, that concept doesn’t fit in either because I don’t see myself as having a specific posture about whether working is good or bad. I don’t hold onto the idea of “Let’s all work” while I also don’t demonize work. I really think it’s just about making these groups and jobs visible.
Dominique Suberville: Last question, you say you don’t hold a stance on the concept of work per say, but maybe you have something to say about how the history of work in your family is one thing but to you it’s meant something else because of what you do, which is art. What you expect in the future?
Carlos Lara: What I’m really interested about work is that my family used it as a vehicle to reach certain goals so they wouldn’t have to live in the periphery. They wanted to have children that graduated college, had a car, had a brick home. That kind of result of the promise doesn’t come true for many. In the case of my father’s family, only my dad got there. He was the only one to reach that kind of success; so did my mom.
I saw myself grow up in a good socioeconomic status but for my cousins, aunts and uncles, it wasn’t true. Many of them work for the family businesses or work in other industries. My extended family lives even more precariously in the Independencia neighborhood or San Luís Potosí. In that sense I feel very comfortable and I don’t believe I’m profiting or taking advantage of their experiences. Actually, it’s important to me that that doesn’t happen. That’s why a distrust the notions of work as a promise for more.
In the future I see myself less attached to art objects as a result of my research and working more towards processes that have to do with economic models. Models that offer more sustainability to specific communities. Starting with one family, then three families, a rural community, etc.
I’m interested in creating an artistic practice that revolves around giving a quality of life to these specific people. Not in the sense of offering them a job for the sake of work, which is what I view as having happened to my family. They worked to work and survive.
I can also tell you, before I was in college I had never picked up a book. My parents currently don’t have the habit of reading. They had never been to a museum. Those activities never went into what I call the vehicle of work. That’s what I mean when I say I want to work with communities. That’s the road I’m interested in. More procedural and less material
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