The Storm in the Eyes
Interview with Laura Torrado
When faced with Laura Torrado’s images, either still shots or images in motion, a type of insecurity assaults the viewer. They are seductive, sometimes deceptively accessible, as if delving into them would be easy, but we quickly realize how tricky this reading is. Her narratives offer resistance and I speak of narratives because in them, in those scenes, “something” always happens, but what? We have the feeling we are seeing a tale of which we are only offered fragments, instants of dense stories whose significance is elusive, it seems we are seeing a suspended moment in time, a time without an exact plot, which becomes an evocation of situations, memories, emotions, fears, dreams… What is uncertain about these images provokes uneasiness and at the same time it offers us an open field where we can project ourselves and weave our own stories.
The face becomes a surface written or sculpted upon, where a text has been erased; a tattooed face where the mask and the costume confuse us; the face is hidden, is cut, is veiled in order to become more real, more faithful to that strange narrative offered to us. Silence reigns or perhaps a low-frequency internal noise, which connects with a symbolic world that affects us, where we can recognize dramas and comedies, miseries and passions, the day-to-day co-existing with the laughable and the extraordinary of existence. Sometimes her characters look at us from nude bodies and what makes us uncomfortable is not the nudity, but their way of questioning us.
Before we begin to talk about your work, I would like to talk about your studies in Madrid. At one time you mentioned that you do not have especially fond memories of that time.
I studied Fine Arts at the Complutense University between 1985 and 1990. I wanted to specialize in painting or sculpture. Sculpture especially interested me, maybe because I had always seen my father sculpt and draw, he alternated between that and being an architect. I was attracted to the tri-dimensionality, to the shapes in space. But I did not identify at all with the type of sculpture that was done in Fine Arts, the carving in stone, wood, metal, everything seemed very distant to me, it was a “masculine language,” to say nothing of the atmosphere surrounding it, which was tremendously misogynistic.
Additionally, there was a complete disconnect with what was happening in art at that time, they weren’t even talking about what had gone on in the decades before. The university faculty lived in absolute ignorance, nevermind that it was practically unthinkable that a female student would be given highest honors. They didn’t take us seriously, we were made into nobodies. We had some professors who were not only misogynists but were also mediocre. So I was incredibly frustrated, I saw that I couldn’t find my place and it had already been hard enough to convince my family that I wanted to study art, they thought I was crazy.
In some way that environment told me I couldn´t be an artist. I think they were masters at annihilating curiosity and the capacity for risk that we had upon entering the School of Art. So being that frustrated, I chose to specialize in sculpture conservation and restoration, but it had nothing to do with sculpture or artistic production. Nevertheless, it gave me the chance to move to New York, because I earned a Fulbright scholarship that allowed me to work in the Conservation Departments at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. It was a path that let me get out of Madrid, something that might not have happened otherwise.
But in Madrid you were also a student of an artist who positively influenced you. I’m referring to Mitsuo Miura. It’s interesting to see the course of many of his students. They have very little in common amongst themselves, none of them follow in his footsteps nor work along the same lines. This big difference speaks well of his teaching style as compared to others. He knew how to stimulate each person’s ideas. How would you define him and how did he influence you?
In the mid-eighties, María Lara and Mitsuo Miura gave drawing and painting classes to a small group of students. Some of us were very young and were just taking our first steps, this was during the first few years of our careers. Those classes were a breath of fresh air compared to the rancid atmosphere of the University. Through them we learned to see things in another way. They taught us to interpret images without temporary barriers.
What did your time in New York mean to your education? We’ve spoken of the importance that it had for you to discover the work of a series of women artists.
In New York I discovered another world, literally. For example, I remember exhibits at the Dia Art foundation that for me were eye opening, like Katharina Fritsch’s show. In an enormous empty room she had made a kind of big horsehair rug and you had to take off your shoes and walk on that black mane. In another room she had displayed her piece made of enormous black rats in a circle, which was impressive. I discovered artists like Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Rachel Whiteread, Hannah Wilke, Louise Bourgeois, Rebecca Horn, who at that point were essential to me.
I was also impressed with Robert Gober, his works in wax associated with the body, those bits of torsos, man and woman at the same time. I saw the work of Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, James Turrell and Walter de Maria. I remember one of his installations, he filled a room up to the middle with black dirt, you could only see it from outside the room. It was 1992 and the theme of the Whitney Biennale was the abject. There I saw Cremaster I, byMatthew Barney, and Janine Antoni’s works, those big chunks of chocolate that the artist had taken a bite out of.
I also remember those artist talks organized in the Whitney where you had first-hand access to the testimonials of artists like Nan Golding, Félix González Torres and Andrés Serrano, with whom, for example, we could discuss the series La Morgue.
How did that influence you?
I kept drawing the whole time but not with the idea of “I’m going to be an artist.” I had forced myself to choose the role of “conservator,” which had cost me tears and sleepless nights. But I registered for the School of Visual Arts and attended a workshop with a female Japanese painter. It was a free program about artistic processes; we had a lot of discussions, we held some intense debates, I found another kind of teaching where you talked about your own ideas, of the type of work you wanted to do and it wasn’t so much about doing, but thinking. It was in one of those conversations when I said something like “I couldn’t be an artist” and she asked “Why can´t you? Who’s stopping you?” It was something very simple but it gave me an enormous boost of confidence. And, little by little I began to think about the material, about the tridimensional and I started to explore materials. I went to the Bowery, to Canal Street, I bought sheets of rubber, I worked a lot with this kind of material, also with textiles, especially gauzes, with paper, leather, copper…
I looked for a studio and I rented a space in Brooklyn in a place that had been an old factory in an area that was actually a pretty dangerous neighborhood, but I didn’t care. I shared that huge space, which was both apartment and studio, everything was very precarious, with a Haitian woman artist, another American painter and a Russian Jewish artist from whom I learned a great deal, and who gave me the chance to learn about Jewish culture. I then did a workshop in Vermont, a workshop on sculpture in nature. From there come the works in the river, and it was also then that I began also to do artistic actions, like Transhumance, where I conversed with the architecture of the place, and documented it in a series of photos.
Those were the first pieces by you that I saw, in the Avenida de America space, which must have been 1995, when you returned from New York. How did the move from object to photography happen?
Actually I approached photography as a way to document the works done in nature and the artistic actions that I was doing in the Brooklyn warehouse.
And where did sculpture end up? Or maybe the works in nature had a certain sculptural dimension? Those first works lead us to think of Ana Mendieta’s type of work. But did you have in mind leaving an “imprint” on nature, as subtle as it may be, or was it just the opposite, were they shapes created with only the idea of capturing them with the camera?
Yes, of course, for me those works were sculptures although not permanent.
I built shapes on the surface of the water of the river that I then covered with different materials. For example, I used white pigment, flowers and waxed paper. When the river rose it changed what had been built. The water eventually carried everything away. The idea of the ephemeral interested me, of what doesn’t leave a trace after “it happens.” I also used other elements, like berries and dirt. I like to work with materials that evolve, that degenerate, to see how time intervenes in them. I tried to work on the idea of what changes, while also searching for an economy of means, something that has been present in my work throughout the years, and especially at the beginning, the use of light materials, that don’t weigh much, that do not become ballast… Working with paper interested me, what it implied to be able to work with it anywhere, carrying very little weight. It was difficult for me, or I denied being able to make objects that endured. There are so many objects around us; it’s hard for me to make things with the idea of permanence. It’s an idea that’s so distant to my way of thinking… We, as matter, do not endure, that’s life, and to create objects with the intention of making them last seems contradictory to our nature.
That fragility that you speak of is what leads you to choose soft materials, as if it were an attempt to even explore the lightness in non-ephemeral objects. All of this is related to your biography, to your childhood, especially in relation to the use of textile fibers, isn’t it?
Yes, I grew up surrounded by fabric, satins, silks, lace, very special fabrics. One of my grandmothers worked in an haute couturestudio and my other grandmother owned and ran a hat studio in Madrid, on Conde de Xiquena Street, which was called Casimira Orgaz. It was an enormous house with enormous balconies. The high-society ladies went there as well as actresses; the clients ranged from Carmen Polo to Ava Gardner. The shop ran from the 1940s to the 1960s, first dedicated to haute coutureand then only hats. She had twenty skilled workers. I still have boxes full of amazing feathers, of hats and headdresses. I have hats designed by my grandmother, flowers, velvets and a type of metallic egg that you use to make fabric flowers. My grandmother’s house was full of boxes that for a little girl were fascinating. My other grandmother sewed in an haute couturestudio called Elia Bea. I still have some of the dresses she made for my mother that were from the studio, with spectacular chiffon and organdies. One of those was in the series El presentimiento. I always saw them making things, creating… I remember that as a little girl I made dresses for my dolls, I made what I saw them make. So of course that has all influenced me to feel comfortable using this kind of materials in my work. On the other hand, incorporating these elements from the past establishes a dialogue with the memories that have been taking shape for me.
I remember the first works of yours that I saw. There were the photos where you are wrapped in enormous red fabric. Do you also see a sculptural element in these actions?
It’s a complex series, with different nuances, but in the end it is a three-dimensional shape that, at the same time, is a performance, a processual development.
Those images are the start of the use of your body and the self-portrait. That step of somehow making yourself an object, into the subject you work with. Why and how did it happen? Was it maybe easiest to use yourself? Or was there a deliberate decision to use your own body and explore its expressive possibilities?
The first time is in Transhumance, the photos where I am wrapped in red fabric that you refer to. I did not do that session, I was not behind the camera, a photographer friend, Reuven Kuperman, did them. He took the photos according to my instructions; I was inside the fabrics. It was the first time that I entered the stage. Right then I did not exactly know how they would come out, there was a lot of intuitive work, I couldn’t exactly say “this is the path I want to follow.” In some way, I needed to involve my body. When I saw the outcome, I still didn’t know where I was headed, but it was something I needed to do. This has happened to me before, to create a work that did not go through a previous intellectual process, to do things that, as one way of saying it, are not filtered by reason, things that are born in another place.
But you had a need to explore your body through the image.
Yes, I suppose that need is related to the fact that I have danced classical ballet, on and off, from when I was five until I was fourteen. Dance had been a part of my life. As a teenager I didn’t have that almost anorexic dancer’s body that is required for classical ballet and I had to leave it. Nobody told you then that contemporary dance existed where those requirements are not so radical and where other things are more important. In New York I could see that type of work with the body that was new to me, for instance like Pina Bausch’s work. I mean that the expression of the body was very tied to my history and it was logical that it would show up in my work.
The way you begin to “use yourself” is very interesting, you almost become a medium, a “surface where something happens.” In this work was there an attempt at self- exploration or auto-analysis?
Clearly there was a need to know myself or recognize myself. Some images have an autobiographic burden, they embody situations and some are related to very specific personal moments, sometimes they are very difficult images. There is in them an inquiry into feelings of pain or loss, but in many cases it has to do with reflections on existence in a more universal than personal sense.
In some of your pieces there are tributes to artists who have worked on the idea of the body, like Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Horn. However, in your pieces there is always a sense of moments frozen in time, an idea of a still shot that has been extracted from a performance sequence.
Really, although I have made photography my most common medium, I do not consider myself a photographer at all. For me, photography is what remains, it is a mark, a trace, an “object” that documents a process that develops in time, a narrative from which frozen or stopped moments in time are rescued by the camera.
It is a medium that allows me to tell stories easily, it is a fast, dynamic, transportable, ultimately practical medium which, in a way, is magic. When I began, in 1993, I did photo sessions almost every day. I prepared a scene and immersed myself in it. It was me who pressed the button on the camera and I went a little blindly; I never knew beforehand what the exact result would be. That surprise factor has always interested me, the appearance of the unexpected, the accident, how the appearance of an image that wasn’t quite right, as in Mujer escalera, and then works really well; or a mishap, which is what happened in Escalera I (lacaída), which captures the moment I lost my balance and as I fell, my hand fell on the floor, pressing the shutter. Chance and improvisation interest me very much.
Sometimes accidents take on meaning, I like that feeling that you don’t control everything, and being behind the camera at the same time that you are in front of it is exactly that: not controlling everything.
I know it is difficult to make this separation but, when it comes time to approach a work, do you work more with images or ideas?
I don’t exactly know how to answer that. Many of the artworks have images related to dreams, archetypal, with a strong symbolic content, like the ladder, the window, the cage, the spiral, the fall, references that belong to all of us and are born from our unconscious. Sometimes they are feelings, or moods, that become images.
You are showing drawings for the first time in this show. Have you used this medium as a type of rough draft for your photographic work or does it have to do with a type of independent work?
Up until now I had never considered the drawings as works themselves, it was hard for me to see them this way. I drew quite a bit while I was in New York, then I abandoned it and in the last few years I have taken it up again, but never as a field to define another type of work. They work independently. It responds to a need to connect again with a certain physicality, it allows me to reconnect with a “manufacturing,” to make with my hands. Drawing is a very direct medium, with no intermediaries between thought, emotions and the line.
And there is a moment when you stop appearing in your work.
I suppose I was saturated with seeing myself. If you look at the last series of what we could call the “age of self- portraits,” I appear moving, veiled, unfocused, blurred. I was no longer interested in following that path because I saw myself repeating and it could fall into the affected. I also stopped appearing in the group images that I photographed.
In certain pieces we glimpse a critical and mocking attitude that had appeared in your domestic self-portraits. In certain works you caricaturize the masculine look that has presided over art history, I am referring, for example to the Hammanseries and Si te quise.
In one of those works there is a reference to a painting by Frida Kahlo where she appears dressed as a man. She has cut her hair, which is scattered on the floor, and there are the words to a popular Mexican song that says “if I loved you it was for your hair, now that you don’t have your hair I don’t love you.” I played with this reference, and with the checkerboard of the floor that also appears in that painting, a floor with black and white tiles, I alluded to topics of gender identity… From here came the domestic series, with a Venus de Urbinaamongst pots and garbage, it was the time when I explored day-to-day surroundings. Here there is no scene building, now they are places that exist, like the fish market in the Hammam series, where the women’s bodies are on display like merchandise. This title came about because at the end of the 1990s, I lived in Paris and spent time at the Institute du Monde Arabe. There I researched women in that context, especially through the sociologist Fatema Mernissi.
Tell me about the use of the mask.
If we look at the self-portraits I did in 1994, where I used clay and drawings stuck to my skin, in a certain way, they are masks. In those self-portraits the face becomes a type of medium taking on a sculptural character. But maybe you mean the series and video from Pequeñas historias bucólicas,where there are different influences and references, from Goya or Solana to Paul McCarthy. The characters that appear in the series are animalized, some border the grotesque with their fat, plastic cheeks and big noses, alluding to those low parts of the individual that are not developed. It is a work with Jungian references. There was a time when I delved into some aspects of Carl Jung’s work, his way of addressing myths, dreams, archetypes about the feminine and fairy tales. His approach to the human being from complexity interests me. For instance, how the characters in a dream, a myth or a story are different components of one’s self, his vision of the hero’s trip, regardless of his appearance or gender; that hero who is rescuing our essence.
The first image I did along those lines is Le mensonge, in 2005. There I started to use the characters with animal masks, the sheep appears as the scapegoat that every structure needs, that figure to blame and whom we always try to annihilate. There is also the idea of nonsense, of the absurd in its poses and actions… For me they are images heavily loaded with psychological violence.
At times your artwork turns to a tragic tone, as if you were exorcizing that part of yourself. However at other times it seems to be an almost perverse tone but with a mocking look at human behavior.
Yes, of course, in that series there are elements that are related to the theater of the absurd. It is a narrative that loses the linearity of what we are accustomed to: presentation, development, and conclusion. Here there is no plot developed. We have not spoken about this but I believe that in my work the absurd and the senseless are very present. For instance, those images where I am sleeping in a paper bed, a bed that is on top of the wall, so that I am standing up. They are useless actions that break from logic and flee from how we normally do things, from a “what for” and “why.” Here there is no “what for” or “why.” This also happens in the art action where I appear stringing together cloves of garlic as if they were beads on a necklace. They are actions without logic. In a way, they are Duchampian gestures.
I believe art should remove us from what is expected, from what has an ending. These stories or actions have no ending, they are fragments. When facing an image or a text, we always hope to understand things, we expect certain times we are accustomed to. In the video Pequeñas historias bucólicasI develop those ideas about the absurd, the bothersome, like that character who plays an unbearable flute. I am talking about how many of our actions in life, which seem to be normal to us, are largely senseless. There, another character is busy blowing up a balloon. I wanted to question how we move by desires and frustrations, that woman insists on blowing up the little balloon that continually deflates and her whole existence revolves around making it happen… We live accompanied by obsessions, desires, frustrations, I wanted to ridicule all of that, it is a portrait of our adult fixations, those vital incentives that we believe to be full of meaning. Really, looking at it from another point of view, our lives are strange and have a lot of extravagance. Those ideas of the grotesque and the absurd can be found in the masks.
I would like us to talk about another aspect, which is eroticism, how from the beginning up until today your work is totally crisscrossed by the idea of sensuality, and it is confirmed with your most recent work. How do you analyze the way you have explored this and its representations? Let’s say that the continuity that you gave to the topic in your last work, Hammam 2013, is very logical.
You could ask the question the other way around: How is it possible that eroticism is not present in a piece, in a work, in a career?
Yes, but your work is a continuumof analysis, of study. Your work speaks of how the body has been represented and how it is a receptacle for things that have nothing to do with it.
Yes, it has to do with dealing with it as an impulse of life, like its expression, like the counterpoint to Thanatos. The moment you work with the body, eroticism is there, what happens is that we hide it, we disguise it, because it’s not right… In the name of the body, especially the feminine body but also the masculine, all sorts of battles have been fought.
Do you think that our culture continues to be castrating in that sense?
Our bodies have been completely castrated, tamed, we have lost the ability to listen to them. We mask their odors, we change them so they respond to the norm. They are always present but they’re hidden. Every encounter holds eroticism, between men and women, women and women, men and men, it accompanies us, you go to a meeting of any type and there is often an energy that is nothing more than pure sensuality. Or you go to the bank or to buy bread, the body is there although silenced and made to be silent… We are senses, we are skin, we are soma but we drown it. What would be hard for me would be to work ignoring it. It is something that accompanies us. Likewise, sensuality is part of the subject, in a texture, in touch… The senses are our channels to know the world, to know our conditions and finally, who we are.
Analysis of your work emphasizes your exploration of the feminine world, but it is interesting how you explore the masculine world and turn its representation around.
I wanted to investigate how we define ourselves as men and women, the attitudes, our cultural constructions. We are made up of both feminine and masculine components; we are the two poles, the yin and yang. My intention in this last series, Hammam 2013, was to let some attitudes associated with the feminine appear in these masculine figures, like fragility, sensuality, the contact between bodies… I wanted to propose a look that radically distances us from what advertising imposes, on both women and men. A type of look that implies a certain risk.
You wanted to explore seduction factors associated with women…
Fragility and vulnerability are attitudes that the patriarchy does not permit a man, in the type of dominating masculinity all of this is disguised, masked. I wanted to investigate these stereotypes.
Would it have to do, again with the use of the masks, at times putting them on and at others unmasking?
We wear a costume over a costume, mask over mask, we are constructions. The mask helps to get outside of your self, to embody another role, be disinhibited, be unrecognizable and be able to be someone else. And it’s also conducive to playing.
It is very delicate to speak about whether or not it is feminine or masculine. I think you have to listen to that polarity. That’s why in this last series I tried to look from another place. In the search for that feminine part of the individual that patriarchal society has drown. For me, it is a complex territory to cover. Certain postures clash, a way to stand, to have the robe slightly open associated with the “traditionally” female, to stereotypes, and it bothers us to have to put ourselves in another place. I think it’s interesting to investigate those codes with images, to try to leave our own prison, from the gaze that has been taught in a certain way, in one direction, to open other ways of looking, to think, far from the visual culture that has been imposed on us.
More and more you have used groups of women in your artworks, in some cases women from your own personal circle of family and friends. Is there or has there been on your part an intention to analyze those private areas and the relationships between them?
It’s true that I have worked with many of the people around me. I grew up surrounded by women and the role of my two grandmothers was important to me, both were strong personalities who kept their families going with their work, both talked with me about how they had fought, about how their husbands had been jailed during the civil war, each one on a different side, and they spoke to me about how terrible the war and the post-war were in Madrid. I learned so much from them, I feel fortunate to have heard their stories and in some way be able to preserve their memory of those years through what they lived through.
To have had that close relationship with both of them enriched me tremendously and made me conscious of how much we owe the women of previous generations. Their work and their struggle, and especially during very hard times, has paved the way for us. Of course there are still enormous inequalities and patriarchal thought continues to dominate, but the rights we have acquired (and their respective responsibilities) and the freedom we enjoy today we owe to them. I feel like a link in the chain. But it is not just with my grandmothers and my mother. Thanks to an important series of women artists who, since the 1970s, claimed another way to do art, a different valuation of the materials, the scale, the means and, of course, their content, artistic languages have undergone an extraordinary opening and have made new problems permeable. So I also owe them who I am and being able to do the type of work that I do.
In the same way I feel that I have the responsibility to pave and open new paths, as a person and as an artist, to those who come after me.
To your question, I can say that the feminine world is very close to me and I have wanted to work on this experience, delve into it, and I have tried to inquire in both a physical and psychological way. Those group scenes have a lot of choreographic composition, of inquiry into body language, of observing how the body moves, how it places itself and speaks, toward where it directs its gaze…
For me figures and the empty space between them are equally important. The bodies brush against each other or distance themselves, that staging interests me. On the other hand, as I said, the most important is always what happens in these sessions, the levels of contact and communication. It is a way to get to know and recognize the “other.” Those encounters, those sessions allow me to approach those people in a different way.
Sometimes magic moments happen, you know that “something” is happening, it seems like breathing stops, you notice a type of vibration, something that the camera captures and registers there, that is the culmination of a process and that process is what really matters, what is relevant.
So you look for elasticity, gestures, and ways of acting that escape expected behavior.
Art that speaks of reality in a literal way tires me tremendously, that art is more like a journalistic chronicle, and those exhibits where they make you read and read documents tire me. You leave with a lot of information and no emotion, and the floor beneath your feet hasn’t moved. And sometimes that art is shown with a display of means that it doesn’t need. It could be presented in a publication or with simple materials without losing anything, and yet it wastes means unnecessarily.
I think art, and this is its specificity, should touch a fiber that is not capable of being touched by any other medium or language and when I speak of art I also mean music, dance, theater, cinema and literature.
At this point in the conversation, it is clear what your relationship with the camera is, how you understand that it is only a tool in the process of your work, and that the way you look at things is as an artist who works with the shapes in space and understands the artistic practice as an experience of situations. For you, the final work is only a document or residue of these actions or performing work. How do you confront that final image? I’m asking if you manipulate the result, if you cut, retouch, suppress or alter, if you move a figure that interests you to the forefront and suppress others, if you alter the compositions according to what you want to achieve, be it digitally now or in the lab when you use the analog camera.
I don’t like to retouch an image after taking it; I am too interested in what happened up until it was taken. Many photographers or artists who work with photos work “after,” in the lab, or with computer applications like Photoshop. I now see photography students and my students with a tendency to achieve “after” what they didn’t achieve “before.” They don’t really care about the shot. Although each artist has his or her way of working, for me what is truly important is what happens in front of the camera, what is happening at that moment, the other is only to emphasize the result, the final object. For me the magic has always happened before.
In your case the result of the experience is inseparable from what made something possible.
To conclude, if you had to summarize your work, what terms would you use?
Art that has a poetic imprint interests me, the symbolic languages that do not directly speak of the real. In the images that I construct I explore the expression of the body as a territory of conflict, eroticism as an impulse of life, representations of what we understand as feminine and masculine, in some cases with self-portraits, in others using groups where choreography shows the most powerful relationships and tensions. I think that through the exploration of dreams, the oneiric, we understand our most remote fears and desires, that part of ourselves that we mask in our daily life. I am interested in having the images show the absurdity of many of our behaviors, actions that seem normal to us and that, nevertheless, are very illogical, that, in a way, allow a different approach, subversive to reality.