Just a little push

13 questions for
Francisco Montoya Cázarez
Video Installation "The Spell from Sonora"

Francisco Montoya Cázarez: The Spell from Sonora. Installation view at the Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven (Photo by Nora Heinisch)
Francisco Montoya Cázarez: The Spell from Sonora. Installation view at the Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven (Photo by Nora Heinisch)

“The Cleanse”

“The Perimeter”
JUST A LITTLE PUSH – 13 questions for Francisco Montoya Cazarez by Clemens Wilhelm

In THE SPELL FROM SONORA – a seemingly absurd video performance – you purchase two bottles of potions from a healer in the Sonora Market in Mexico City. The healer performs a cleanse on you, and then you travel to Germany where you try to cleanse all German nuclear waste sites by spraying them with this magic potion. The spiritual energy of the potion seems to collide with the radioactive energy of the nuclear waste site. Would you agree that the belief in the supernatural and the belief in science clash in THE SPELL FROM SONORA?
On the one side, you have the radioactive waste which is the very last result of a whole chain of nuclear energy production of modern societies. There is nothing one can do with it, and since decades this has generated huge debates on what should be done with it, and where it could go. After the Fukushima disaster, the discussion intensified, and although many nuclear power plants have been shut down since, there is still a tremendous amount of radioactive waste that is being produced and accumulated every year. There still is much nuclear waste on its way to be deposited into one of the salt domes I visited in the video. I am fascinated by the contradictory idea of developing something that tries to be helpful to society, but at the same time creates a power that could do tremendous irreversible damage to it, or even destroy it. We can see it in the history of nuclear energy, it is like playing with fire.
On the other side you have a healer woman who performs a cleanse, a ritual action that claims to generate protection against potentially harmful energy through potions, prayers, creams, stones, plants and traditional non-Western medicine. This idea of healing stands in contrast to the basis of science, it challenges the basic scientific ideas. For example, if a healer tells you to carry a certain stone with you when you feel in danger, this goes totally against the logic of science. I was wondering what would happen if I confronted the last result of the nuclear industry with the result of a traditional ritual against harmful energy. So, let’s say I was interested in the clash of these two ideologies.

The artist in the rain spraying the nuclear waste site with water is a very strong but very confusing image. It reminds me of the figure of a shaman, a magician, a priest or a healer, as well as a clown, a trickster or an eco-activist. This figure shifts its meanings and appears to be very ambiguous. How do you feel about that?
I remember when I started to prepare the action, setting up the camera and getting ready, I was extremely nervous because I did not know what would be the reaction of the security guards. In such high-surveillance places, there are cameras everywhere and I knew that I was being watched. Of course, I was afraid that something would go wrong. I think that one of the interesting aspects when you are performing is that the spectators often do not fully understand what is going on. For example, when the security guard sees me apparently watering plants in the fields, and then I come closer to the fence and even spray the main gate with this bottle. It does generate this moment of uncertainty when people do not know how to react. Although it is not provocative in any sense, it is just weird and silly at the first glance. But I think there is a lot of potential in subtle actions like that. When I was stopped a couple of times by security, I briefly explained what I was working on, but I think they still remained very confused. And of course, the presence of a camera always influences people’s reactions.
A moment of confusion is always a good point to start to wonder about something.
The role of the artist in society has often changed in the ways you mentioned, there is a long history of that. It has different implications in Western and non-Western societies.

In your works, you often oppose natural forces, spiritual forces and technological forces. You often put an object or yourself in the middle to see what happens. The setup of your works often resembles games or experiments. In THE SPELL OF SONORA we witness an experimental meeting of spiritual and technological energy, but I can‘t help but feel that the magic water loses against the radiation?
Well, you know, I think that in the field of art we can do things that not necessarily aim to have a literal effect. We rather make symbolic gestures to raise questions or provoke thoughts. I think we try to point towards something that we consider relevant and we want to make other people aware of it. To notice things around us that sometimes are not so visible, we often need just a little push.
Wether the potions dissolve into the earth and have an actual effect or not is not what the work is about. (laughs)

In my opinion, radioactivity is the ultimate but invisible image of mortality. It is death itself: it is extremely lethal for us, and will be for an unimaginably long time. It might even be the death of our concept of time. When you look at it from this angle, radioactivity becomes overpowering and godlike. We have no senses that can detect radioactivity, but we have found ways to measure it. Since the dawn of man, we have been looking for ways to measure the existence of gods. Is this where the supernatural and radioactivity differ or is this where they meet?
I don’t know. We cannot see or feel radioactivity although it is there. It happens in nature but it can also be artificially induced. We also cannot see the spirit or the soul, although it has been always an essential part in the history of humanity. There is not really a specific definition for spirituality. But both – radioactivity and spirituality – are related to a process of transformation.

You often travel in your work. Do you know what you are looking for before you go? Or do you find your ideas along the way?
It is a mixture of both. I mostly travel alone with my camera or with another person. I do have an idea of what I am looking for, but often I have to find the way in how to achieve it in the right moment. Most of the time you have only a couple of minutes to perform an action, and that is a big problem for me because I am a very shy person. I have the feeling that when you are alone looking for a situation, you have to be patient enough and impulsive enough at the same time to capture the right moment. There is a lot of risk in working like that. Sometimes you see fantastic moments vanish in front of you.

THE SPELL FROM SONORA was your first work about a journey from Mexico to Germany. In your second journey work, THE GOLDEN APPLE, you travel on a container ship from America to Europe. You take an apple on board with you. You and the apple – the only two living things in the video – are surrounded by massive containers, machines, creepy mechanical noise and the endless Atlantic Ocean. The ship then reaches a port devoid of humans, a fully robotic mega-machine. In the end of the video, we see you on the European shore throwing the apple back into the sea. This action makes the whole journey seem absurd, but this absence of logic must be intentional to pose a question? How did you arrive at the concept for THE GOLDEN APPLE?
In THE SPELL FROM SONORA I had a specific idea, I knew that I wanted to go to Mexico to get what I was looking for. I knew what I wanted to do with it. The question was only how to do it, and what would happen in between.
THE GOLDEN APPLE is the result of the journey to Europe after living in New York. I thought that to jump on a cargo ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean headed for Germany would be a strong experience. To be confronted with the opposite of city life, and all that that implies. I mean, I just did not want to sit on a plane, fall asleep, and wake up on the other side of the world after a couple of hours.
The weather conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean during winter are extremely rough. I was warned not to go out on deck, because I could be washed out by a wave and nobody would notice my absence in the next hours. It was also forbidden to interfere with the crew activities, and my attempts to get closer to them got truncated pretty soon.
There was an overwhelming feeling of disorientation, being always in the same space, with grey sky during almost the whole trip, and still the sound of the machine was there all the time, loud and penetrating. After days of being on the ocean, the first stop of the journey was in the Rotterdam Harbor, which is the biggest harbor in Europe. When I went out on deck to see land for the first time, I noticed an unbearable smell, very difficult to describe, but I can tell you that it was really hard to be outside. I think we passed something like a mine next to the harbor. Shortly after, the ship docked at the shore, the cranes took over, and it did not stop for about twelve hours. While all this was happening, there were other vessels leaving and arriving. All this was extremely impressive, and the only thing I could do was to stand there and record it with my camera. The presence of people within that landscape was rather insignificant.
THE GOLDEN APPLE consists of three video sequences of my journey: THE EXTENSION is basically a study of the vessel’s body: the fragmentation of it‘s structure. I wanted to explore the spatial relationship that exists between the vessel and the ocean.
THE HARVEST DE-CONSTRUCTION documents the huge choreography performed by the gigantic cranes at the Rotterdam Harbor. You can see them constantly modifying the landscape due to the rearranging of the sea containers.
Finally, THE GOLDEN APPLE, the last sequence which gave the name to the work, was shot on the European shore in a small German town at the end of my journey, which was a very busy departure point for people that migrated towards the Americas between 1830-1930. I walk towards a lighthouse that was constructed after 1700 and has been rebuilt several times as a historical landmark.
In the end, I decided to point the work towards a notion of a constant displacement. I wanted to get closer to this feeling through the arrangement of the sound and images. I wanted to emphasize the absence of people. THE SPELL FROM SONORA has a totally different approach in technical and aesthetical terms, but I do think there are certain similiarities as well.

How did you arrive at THE SPELL FROM SONORA? What is the relation of this work to your earlier works which had more to do with your home country and how you felt it was perceived?
In my earlier works, I was exploring images that could approach a representation of the place where I come from: the social conflicts that were going on in the country and how it was perceived from a distance, how it‘s identity was shaped and constructed abroad. I took images of recent events in the country and confronted them with images from the collective imagery. This idea of Mexico that exists abroad, which I became increasingly aware of since I started to live in another country. The outcome of this dialogue of perspectives were the images that I was aiming to explore. Through a series of drawings, sculptures and video performances I tried to explore the history, traditions and popular culture of my home country. I was overwhelmed by images soaked with violence. After this process, I realized that the same questions of violence also arise in a global context, and I wanted to change my approach to these violent images. I started to search for a different way to deal with structures, situations or images that could signify a sort of danger or depict violence. My approach in THE SPELL OF SONORA was significant to open up new perspectives for my future work.

The images or objects in your video works often go though a process of transformation. What you see in the beginning is not what you see in the end. It might still look the same visually, but the meaning or the way one looks at it has changed while watching the work. For example, in THE GOLDEN APPLE the biblical apple of sin and knowledge becomes the golden apple of consumption and mass consumerism. Are you interested in image transformations? Why do you usually start with things that already exist?
Recently, I melted six kilograms of empty cartridges that I collected from a shooting club in Berlin where, among the regular private visitors, the police department performs its shooting training. The melted brass was cast afterwords and shaped into a common picture frame which anyone could buy in a one-euro-shop. I wanted to challenge the memory of the material by reshaping it and giving a new form. Does the frame remember what it is like to be a bullet? Does the transformation destroy the memory of the material? Is it still part of its past, or does it represent a new beginning? Can we get rid of our past? What would be the consequences, if so? I do not know yet, but let’s see what happens.
In REMEDIES, a series of recipes that I am collecting from the Internet, the transformation is very different. I am again working with common objects from one-euro-shops which are very familiar to us. The display of the objects follows the instructions of a specific bath formula. At first glance, it might not appear very extraordinary. But when the spectator becomes aware of the constellation of the materials on display, there is an imaginary space where transformation can take place, but certainly it will not happen in the material world.

As consumers we are quite aware that things are often presented to be more than what they look like. Through advertisement we are used to connect products with far-fetched images. The post-modernists claimed that images and what they signify are drifting apart or seem only randomly connected. Do you think we are living through an image crisis?
There are images that have a very heavy weight in our understanding of art history, such as the apple. Art history makes us aware of the relevance of images by showing us how we perceive the world in an associative process. Nevertheless, I want to think that those images can be decoded and re-signified as well. I feel that we have to respond to the needs of the times we are living in. This world is in constant transformation and we should be able to stop for a minute to look again at something we might think we know, or we understand well, and to question it. Maybe it will speak to us in a different way?

In THE SPELL FROM SONORA and THE GOLDEN APPLE you explore places and realities we normally do not see: a radioactive waste site and the journey of a container ship across the Atlantic. However, these two non-places are highly necessary in our economic system, as they support our way of life. For now, global capitalism relies on the container transport system and nuclear power. Are you showing something that we are not supposed to see? Is it hidden or do we just not want to see it? What attracted you to these places?
These places are part of the “back stage“ of modern society. I think, in general, we know these places exist. Some people feel the impulse to go out and see how they look like with their own eyes. I mean, I think images have an enormous influence in how we deal with and perceive our everyday lives. I can never forget these images. While you are reading this, there are gigantic robotic cranes reorganizing the products that are getting in or getting out of Europe from overseas, ships are constantly crossing oceans, and there might be radioactive waste stored under the fields where the potatoes grow that you buy in the super market.

You seem to like poetic absurd gestures: bringing and apple across the sea and then throwing it into the ocean (THE GOLDEN APPLE). Spraying a nuclear waste site with a magic potion (THE SPELL FROM SONORA). Singing a love song at night in front of chancelor Angela Merkel‘s office to get a visa (DAS BUNDESSTÄNDCHEN). Making a 100-years-old man count to one-hundred (DON RAMON). Letting the muppet Felmo tell the brutal news about Mexico (FELMO). What attracts you to absurdity?
Maybe the absurdity of the human condition? I mean, the times we are living in are quite absurd, no?: The struggle for energy sources, the constant displacement of goods and people, the representations of violence that we consume, the emphasis on ideologies, traditions, and beliefs that stand in contrast to Western culture, the strength and the fragility of the human being.
I spend almost all my time in the studio working on different projects, reading the news, getting pissed of by what I see happening, and after this, a work starts to be generated in response to something that stuck in my head. I feel the need to respond to what I see. No, I mean, seriously: to use or to create objects and situations that might seem senseless can help us to point towards some important questions. The absurdity adds an element of humor to the work. Humor is important.

You use highly charged religious symbols in your works – from apples to potions or water. There also seem to be ghosts in many of your works. Often something is haunting the works: an invisible presence, a supernatural dimension, or an uncanny element. What attracts you to the unknown or the unknowable?
Is it not a general human condition that we want to know what we do not know? The forbidden things are the ones you really want.

You seem to work in every medium, so you are a good artist to ask: What makes video so special as a medium? What are the advantages of video compared to other media?
There is an interesting relationship between space and time. Video gives me the possibility to create situations, to shift contexts, to experiment with different narrative structures. Events or images captured in different times and places can be structured in a new narrative structure. A difference to the drawings or sculptures or other media that I use is the way you engage the viewer with the work. Video is a time-based medium, so the viewer does not experience the whole work at once. The video unfolds over time. Sometimes video allows you to capture an event in real-time with sound that only happens once. DON RAMON is a good example for this, there was only one chance to portray this character at this significant moment.

Francisco Montoya Cázarez | © Photo by Susann Dietrich
Francisco Montoya Cázarez | © Photo by Susann Dietrich

Francisco Montoya Cázarez (*1985) is a Mexican multi media artist living in Berlin.
He studied at ENPEG La Esmeralda in Mexico City and at Braunschweig University of Arts (HBK), Germany. After his Diploma in Fine Arts in 2010, he was awarded „Meisterschüler“ in 2011. During the year of 2012, he took part in the International Studio and Curatorial Program ISCP in New York City. His body of work consist principally of drawings, sculptures and video performances and has been shown internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Remise of Kunstverein Braunschweig, Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhavener Kunstverein in Germany.