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Aballí is a long distant runner. Discrete be nature, generous, open to dialogue and with a sense of humour that isn’t obvious but is very much present. For decades now he has been methodically developing a solid body of work that is very much his own. He is a figure who acts as a bridge between artists, critics, curators and gallerists of quite different generations and for this, a key element in the Spanish artistic ecosystem. His work in the last few years has moved through painting (or its impossibility), text, photography, installation, film, and video, amongst others, and has explored subjects as relevant as the conventions of art and the relations between its cultural and economic value.
At A*DESK this month we’re exploring the notion of failure. I’d like you to talk about the idea of the impossibility (of painting, of classification, of making anything new…) for how long has it been a motor driving your work.
The concepts of error and correction form part of my basic vocabulary, as evidenced by the fact of using a material like Tipp-Ex or having made work out of the contents of a wastepaper bin, the supposed destination of errors and failures. For a while now I have had the sensation that there is always a distance between what I’ve wanted to do and what I’ve finally ended up doing. I’m not sure if this is failure or what drives you to keep on trying.
And on the way you find things and materials that you incorporate into your practice.
The pot of Tipp-Ex was an object I had on my table and I thought that it was very much like a bottle of paint and that in some way or other, one could also paint with its brush. But it was important to do so without forgetting that it was a liquid that served to correct, and it was fundamental to incorporate this condition into the work. Hence, there is a series of works titled “Correction” and “Grave Mistake”. Like others I have used, this material makes you reflect about an aspect of the work linked to its specific material condition.
On occasions you have written about the “artists of NO”, like Bartleby, “preferring not to do it” that remits to the impossibility of making anything new, to the idea that everything has been done, and it’s only possible to remake and recombine. Where therefore does one situate the role and work of the artist?
Here one finds a new contradiction that one saw on visiting the exhibition at the Reina Sofía that is full of things… It’s difficult to resist commitments, on a daily business. You want to do the least possible, and you end up doing more than you wanted. I consider the work of the artist, like any other form of work. The difference undoubtedly lies in that this work is less structured. You decide how you organize yourself, and you probably won’t find two artists who develop their practice in the same way. But beyond that I see it like any other form of work.
I imagine when you made the lists with the newspaper cuttings you had to establish working routines.
These routines help me to establish certain methodologies that enable me to construct my day to day. Often when I got home and they asked me “what have you done today?” I couldn’t find a convincing reply, because often I hadn’t produced anything, and didn’t really know what I had been doing in the studio. At the same time, I believe these apparently unproductive spaces of not doing anything and of thinking are important. But establishing tasks and a timetable, knowing that at least you will cut up some newspapers, enables you to be in contact with the work and to carry on constructing your discourse.
Aside from your work, you are a key agent in the artistic ecosystem of this country for your links with artists of different generations.
I value a lot my relations with other artists, be they older, from my generation, or much younger than me, but it’s true I have a tendency to connect with the younger generation, perhaps because for many years I’ve been teaching, and it has been easy to retain links with them. I’m very curious to know about what they are doing, what they think, how they understand the practice of art, the music they are listening to, and what they are reading. The contact with them, just as with your children, helps you to stay connected with a much more alive and current reality.
The exhibition you are presenting currently at the Reina Sofia brings together the last 10 years of your career (with some earlier references), and I suppose it allows you to take stock.
One can see a group of works that allow you to take stock and above all helps to decide how to continue. In the exhibition there are new works that point not to a distant but an immediate future. I’m happy with the exhibition because it shows in a fairly broad and representative manner all the types of work, the subjects that have interested me, the obsessions…but now, it’s necessary to carry on. It’s a moment for thought and reflection. But there is one thing I like, and that is I already the next exhibition scheduled, that will be in the Fundació Miró next summer, so immediately the mind kicks back into action again.
You’ve spent periods of time with lists, with the skies, with boxes of colours… What are you working with at the moment?
The latest works I have done that can be seen in the Reina are, on the one hand, a video that reflects on the history of art, made with some slides a teacher gave me who no longer used them. I left them for a year and a half in the window, and the sunlight modified the colours. The idea is to present a history of art that is as erroneous as possible from a historical point of view, in the sense there is no chronological order, the photographs can’t be seen clearly, they are all badly positioned, the selection was given to me, and is not made according to any logical criteria…That is to say, there are a series of questions that try to suggest another vision of the past, of art history, but from the point of view of error and failure.
Another more recent work titled “Twenty words, three times” is made by constructing words with typefaces, printed with lead letters. A list of twenty words is repeated in three different typefaces. It’s like an index that situates the limits of my work, the subjects, and basic concepts. On the one hand, depending on the typeface, the words change, and on the other, they become a three-dimensional, sculptural, and solid object that represents something as immaterial and abstract as words themselves. At the same time, I believe the way the exhibition is conceived is in itself innovative.
For a long time you have worked with newspapers, that was a way of staying in contact with, let’s say, a mediated reality. How do you relate to the present actuality?
Until now it was a contact through newspapers. In the exhibition, I’ve wanted to show not just all the lists, but all the lines of work that have derived from this object. I have shown it through the originals, the archive of collages I have made, that afterwards are amplified and end up being the work. With the idea also of showing all that it has yielded and posing the question of whether what began more than fifteen years ago all ends here, with this presentation. Another option would be to end it when the newspaper stops existing as an object. But while I was thinking about this, when I was in Madrid I carried on buying the newspaper, and I have cut out some things. Consequently, I believe it will be a process that will require a certain amount of time. On the other hand, the link with reality is also present in other works that have to do with the everyday, with gestures and things you find in daily life.
And humour? Does it play an important part in your work?
I believe that some works propose situations or aspects of daily life that in the end can be read humorously, the humour of the absurd or with irony. I believe this forms part of my work, maybe not explicitly, like some political aspects, but they are one more element that it is possible to read.
Where do you place yourself given the critical situation culture is experiencing at this time, when it is considered increasingly as something that isn’t necessary and identified with the cultural industry and has a tough time?
It’s complicated. The tendency is to consider it as one more branch of the spectacle, with all that this implies, of having to satisfy a public, comply with numbers of visitors and sales, when the work poses quite the contrary. This doesn’t mean to say one shouldn’t carry on, but undoubtedly it will be harder to find an outlet for it.
You are in contact with much younger artists for whom an institutional exhibition is sometimes not the main objective so much as they doing other things in different places…
I believe we are at an interesting moment of self-organisation, and establishing alternatives to the official route. I’m interested in their approach, how they contemplate diffusion and their relations with the structures of the art scene. I’m not sure if this is just a consequence of the period of crisis, in which unavoidably you have to reconsider relations with the established structures, or if it is something more profound. Undoubtedly many of these artists will begin to work with galleries and will exhibit in institutions or art centres, but it’s good to see that this is not the only outlet. These alternative spaces make sense and are more often than not carrying out a better programme. I also find it positive that they are proposing a new Association of Artists, adapted to this new period and with the desire to continue to improve the conditions for artists in Catalonia.
Do you think that the structures of art, the institutions, galleries and magazines are sufficiently porous, that they are adapting rapidly to the new map of needs of artists and society?
Possibly not, but I don’t think everyone has to react at the same speed. Galleries, art centres, and magazines have to be attentive and closely follow a very volatile and fluctuating scene. It is not necessary certainly for a museum to have this link with the immediate present. Its role is to look at things with a greater perspective, to give a long-term view. The work of the museum revising the past is also important, to question the reading of the present and to propose subjects that can have an impact on the problems and debates constructed in the present.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)