Technological progress may be quantifiable in some way, but the progress of a society, a culture or even an individual is something much more subjective. What is valued in these cases may vary and there are always costs, some of which may not be immediately recognized. “Progress” implies an ascent, or at least a destination, and having a fixed notion of where one is meant to arrive in one’s life or as a culture can be tyrannical and exclude—or even attack—what does not fit that vision.
That said, it is a special sort of progress when an artist’s practice grows to reach a wider audience while still maintaining a personal vision, and this is observable in Rodrigo Valenzuela’s work in the few short years that he has been producing public shows. He began with examinations of labor, construction and invisible classes from an autobiographical stance. It has been a year since I last sat down with Rodrigo Valenzuela to discuss his show The Goalkeeper at Bryan Ohno Gallery, which took on the multilayered topic of the worker. The interim has been a powerful incubation period for the artist. He is currently a Core Fellow at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and has a total of eleven shows in the next nine months. His current exhibition at the Frye Museum, Future Ruins, continues to ruminate on these labor, class and created environments, expanding the scale, but also—and more importantly—looking ahead, becoming a critique of progress itself and its shadow: nostalgia.
The exhibit Future Ruins features three pieces by Rodrigo Valenzuela, two of which were commissioned by the Frye—Hedonic Reversal and the three-channel video projection El Sisifo. Also on display are two previous works by Valenzuela, Diamond Box (2012) and Maria TV (2014).
Hedonic Reversal is Valenzuela’s first large scale installation, situating seventeen monochrome prints on Dibond in a transformed gallery setting. The images capture plaster molds resembling ruined cities or demolition/construction sites.
Ruins have been romanticized for centuries as remnants of a more sophisticated culture, a Golden Age. In the last century, for those privileged enough to not live among it, urban decay has acquired a sort of bohemian or nostalgic glow that glosses over the real deprivation and struggles for inhabitants of these stigmatized landscapes. In Hedonic Reversal, Valenzuela avoids this sort of exploitative cultural tourism by stripping the subject of the ruin down to its simplest aesthetic referents, detached from social and classist concerns. By using plaster molds and constructed sets, Valenzuela makes a nostalgic reaction impossible, instead fracturing perspective by placing images within images and causing the viewer to confront the purity of the destruction in a space that seems impossible, depthless.
The entire Greathouse Gallery space is integrated and transformed to house these images in Hedonic Reversal. The floors are covered over to resemble concrete and bear the marks and stains of the installation process, while the graffiti-covered walls are caged behind scaffolds surrounding and pushing into the room. These elements document the process of creation in the display, but they also solidify Valenzuela’s overarching social and cultural message—the lifespan of created environments and the human element that brings them into being, but may be left invisible by the end.
This is worthy discussion anywhere, but particularly in a city in the midst of a development boom, such as Seattle. Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, director of the Frye and curator of Future Ruins, states, “It is gratifying to present the important conversations in Rodrigo’s new work and—following on this past summer’s exhibition at the Frye, Your Feast Has Ended—to continue to address pressing social issues in our city and across our nation.” For indeed, just as one city booms, another may languish and be fetishized for its decay. (Detroit is an obvious case.)
It can not be denied that Seattle has changed in the past five years, and continues to do so as the city attempts to accommodate new residents. We all agree that it is something that needs to be addressed and explored, and we hear plenty of snide comments and idle talk. Future Ruins goes beyond the buzz of gentrification and class conflict to look at elemental human roles and environments and how they exert a cyclical influence on each other. In other words, he is doing the real work of artists by seeking causes, not symptoms.
Howard Richards wrote, in his essay entitled The Social Responsibility of the Artist, “Artistic integrity excludes pandering to the public; it requires commitment to some standard of excellence other than public applause. What that other standard is varies widely; it may be….it may be a message, something the artist feels called to say whether or not the public wants to hear it; it may be a ‘new language’ the public does not yet understand, and perhaps will never understand.”
Valenzuela’s aesthetic language is not at all alien. It has shades of surrealism, cubism, expressionism in the prints, which are then placed in a created environment familiar to any city dweller. And yet the message is not so commonplace, and in combination with the video works in an adjacent room, Valenzuela makes intelligible the experience of migrant workers, whose social status and language sets them apart from the general public—who yet construct and maintain the public spaces and buildings of our present, destined to become the future ruins.
El Sisifo, a three channel video projection commissioned by the Frye, captures the work of laborers and what he calls, “the 13th Man.” Leading up to the Super Bowl, the camaraderie that was developed between many Seattleites—including those who are not typically fans of football—emphasized how cherished the ‘12s’ are. Valenzuela’s 13’s are overlooked as they are only in the stadium before and after the excitement. The Frye states, “Hidden from view, often under the cover of darkness, it is they who collect debris in stadiums following exuberant celebration[s]….As Valenzuela notes, his labor—his work—is to bring visibility to the 13th Man and to honor her and him through the construction of a counter narrative for and about workers.”
Valenzuela’s work does not simply bring visibility, but dignity to the workers. During interviews with them, it became clear that they know the value of the work and derive due strength and pride from it, but Valenzuela makes it clear to a museum-going audience, too, who may see manual labor as inferior. In another video, a worker even explains in a crude mandala the arc of his own life and how his relationship to work is healing to him just as it is productive in the world around him.
The preoccupation with ruins, no matter how you interpret it, necessarily has a whiff of decadence in it, of indolence and disuse. Appreciating it for these qualities implies a sense of leisure that threatens stagnation, spoilage. At first glance, the installation and the videos may seem as disjointed and oddly wedged together as the ruined forms in Valenzuela’s prints. However, the juxtaposition of ruins and worker/builder is ultimately what gives the show its vital energy, saving it from the negative aesthetics it references (most explicitly in its title). By focusing on the worker’s function—to clean, to build, to return order—Valenzuela provides a way out of the ruins, out of negation even as he seeks its more playful, possibly fecund aspects.
In spite of language and class barriers at the heart of some of his subjects, Rodrigo Valenzuela has developed a discursive language to address the sociocultural concerns of the world around us. This work is true to the personable, ethnographic approach he has taken in addressing the lives of laborers and domestic servants, and because the culture has made a point to render these people invisible, his placement of them in a larger cultural landscape that demands attention and arrests the eye is a vital step. There is a timely social value to this, but even should the political aspects that inform the work be resolved, the concept of ruin and labor will still be with us as long as time tears down what we build—and this makes the work timeless.
Future Ruins at the Frye is on display through April 26 at the Frye Art Museum.