Diego Medina, Constructions of Cultures (JCAL, NY: 2008)
By Heng-Gil Han, Curator, Visual Arts
This exhibition culminates Diego Medina’s residency at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, NY, where he worked form July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. Although it presents the outcome of his artistic research and creative endeavors for the past eleven months, the exhibition should not be perceived as the terminus for his research, nor as the completion of his search for the new; it is more appropriate to understand the exhibition as a commencement of a new chapter in which he will further develop his body of artwork and contribute to the advancement of contemporary art.
During his residency, I occasionally visited Medina at work. We conversed, discussed, and debated on various issues of contemporary art, culture and society. Because we intended to be as serious as we can, we decided to take a plain straightforward concept to exhibit the works that have been made during the past eleven months, instead of subjecting ourselves to a curatorial theme or extraneous exhibition framework. Seriousness and simplicity consequently provided the guideline for the selection of artwork to exhibit. We chose to organize a workshop and to show a few significant three-dimensional; works –two human scale installations and a series of combined media pieces- from his body of work that encompasses various media, including drawings, jewelry, and photographs, as well as sculptures, installations, and performances. Medina’s approach to making art is philosophical and discursive, that is, advancing with necessity and debating on conflicting ideas, concepts, and possibilities without dogmatically choosing one or the other.
Today’s young artists are privileged, for they inherit a tremendous amount of intellectual wealth of visual forms and theoretical concepts developed in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s. They are even further privileged, for they are at liberty to use the forms and concepts without necessarily subscribing to the ideologies for which these are invented. A pragmatic solution of a problem is preferred to submitting to an ideological system of concepts. Many artists convey their messages in their artwork; at the same time, they also set performative situations that are intended to be participatory, experiential, and promoting dialogues and interactions among participants. This seems self-contradictory, but it is not in reality. As every human has diverse abilities, artists explore various modes of making art instead of being confined in an artistic style or dogmatic signature – this might explain why there are no movements or –isms initiated today. Diego Medina shares this zeitgeist that is philosophical in character and can be called the “aesthetics of diversity.” I would like to discuss some aspects (or elements) of Diego Medina’s sculptural art that I think should be highlighted.
The use of gravity – An antiquated wooden cart is placed in a slightly oblique angle at a corner of a studio. The steel cart handle is locked at the bottom of the wooden base. Tipped to a side, the cart handle serves as a support on which a broom is gently leaned. The broom, in turn, provides a support for the ladder-like structure to slightly lean on its tip. Or to see it conversely: the broom will fall if the structure is not holding the broom in its slant position by lightly pressing it on its tip against the wooden base. Both the broom and the structure keep themselves from collapsing by supporting each other. Gravity retains the delicate balance of physical tension between the elements of the sculpture – as if the entire sculpture would fall apart by a gentle touch with a fingertip.
The use of gestalt – Found objects are taken apart and recomposed into a new shape that was not in their original form. Gestalt plays an important role here. The vertical structure associates with an image of a man. A torso is seen in the ladder structure. The four furniture legs indicate the limbs. The image is loaded with melancholy. It evokes a feeling of sympathy and gloomy despondency—producing a memory of, perhaps, a tired old man bending himself and swiping the floor. The poetic image perceived in the structure prompts emotional affects enhancing the viewer’s ethical and moral senses. Medina’s approach to the production of a gestalt is constructional, affirming the statement: The meaning of an object is not fixed, but proves emerging from the function that the object is assigned to carry. This statement is valid as long as it is not applied to dehumanize a person or demoralize a person’s identity. With his constructional approach to produce a loaded gestalt, Medina suggestively criticizes today’s conditions of capitalist society in which humans increasingly become objectified and measured by the value of their roles; and in which humans’ simple dignity of existence increasingly gets lost.
The use of metaphor – At first sight, Medina’s sculpture appears to continue the tradition of abstract art. One soon realizes it is not “abstract” in the original or strict sense of the term. No superfluous narratives and elements are abstracted (removed) from the imaginative structure that emerges by addition, composition and organization—instead of subtraction, removal, and abstraction—of elements. The structure constructs, rather than refines, an image or a narrative of a man. The gestalt, the image, and any number of potential narratives that the sculpture is imbued with are something built up and added to by displacing objects and by shifting their contexts. The elements of objects that Medina sets into the new context gain new function, new meaning and new value. As far as the sculpture is pictorial, compositional, and defeating of its “objecthood,” Medina continues the modernist sensibility. Notwithstanding, Medina supports the idea of deconstruction or post-structuralism that there is no single fixed explanation or meaning of a sign. Thus, Medina’s sculpture doesn’t let categorize under one or the other, interposing itself between modernism and post-modernism. In doing so, Medina’s sculpture presents an enigmatic metaphor of which the meaning is ambiguous, destabilized, and diverse.
The use of situation – Gordon Matta Clark’s Open House (Reciprocal Passage) is a work based on Gordon Matta-Clark’s Open House (1972). The work visually states that the process of change and transformation is not only involved in migration, but also in daily life. Back in the fall of 2007, JCAL presented a replica of Matta-Clark’s Open House as a part of a large outdoor exhibition, Jamaica Flux: Workspaces & Windows. Medina was one of the two carpenters who reconstructed Matta-Clark’s corridor structure in a dumpster. When the show was over, Medina took the installation apart and preserved all materials from the installation. After five months, Medina came up with Gordon Matta Clark’s Open House (Reciprocal Passage), which employs most materials from the reconstruction and shows a new reconfiguration of the passage structure. The reconfigured architectural structure comprises a row of few telephone-booth-like cellular modules. Doors are hinged along the narrow pathway. No sidewalls are built so one can see through the structure. As it invites the encounters to enter, the work is intended to be interactive, experiential, and completed by the engagement of the visitors who open and close the doors one after another while traveling through the passage. The work heightens the contemporary sensibility widely shared among today’s emerging artists who emphasize on the viewer’s experience of space, interaction with and participation in artwork.
The use of transformation – on one hand, Medina examines the idea of space as sculpture—an idea that was conceived by minimalists and theorized by Robert Morris—on the other hand, he also explores object-scale sculptures that are substantially informed by the cardinal principle of gestalt psychology: The visual recognition of a figure is based on the self-organizing tendency that the whole is more than the sum of its parts – it is not the distinctive identity of each element, but the organization of all elements by which a figure is identified. The laws of gestalt, such as totality (ganzheit), invariance, reification, praegnanz, and closure are frequently employed in making of these sculptures. Medina is very interested in transforming forms. He pursues his interest via the gestalt phenomena. By de- and re-contextualzing ordinary objects, Medina creates new shapes and relationships. A picture frame is turned into a Fibonacci sequence. A furniture piece is turned into a slave.
Medina’s action of transforming ordinary objects in a new, semantically loaded form could be seen as an autobiographical statement expressing his personal feeling and experience of living in the US as an emerging artist immigrated from Mexico. This reading leads a further meaningful reading of Medina’s hope and intention to transform relationships between people, communities, and spaces through art. In this sense, Medina’s art is performative and socio-political. It reminds viewers to explore the possibility of cultural mutation, evolution, and construction.
As a part of this exhibition, Medina will offer a workshop, inviting Latino community members to add to or adapt elements of the installation and discuss art making and their experiences with different cultures. Medina will work closely with participants in order to make the exhibition widely accessible and generate multiple layers of interpretation. Through the workshop, he aims to promote dialogues among participants, challenging the conventional perception of the audience as a passive recipient of artist’s message. Viewing learning and art production as different aspects of the same process, Medina will interact with workshop participants to create what Joseph Beuys termed a “social sculpture,” a network of interconnected actions and relationships, which improve societal conditions of life.