On a rainy afternoon in Mexico City, I stand looking up at the imposing facade of an abandoned opera house in the Colonia Santa María de la Ribera. Two stone women, like figureheads on an ancient ship, stare down at me. The streets are filled with storefronts. The old buildings, in various states of decay, are nearly hidden behind a layer of tianguis – one of many open-air marketplaces held throughout the city on various days. Here, though, the tianguis is a permanent fixture. In contrast to the old, stoic, half-abandoned cityscape that surrounds it, the tents of the makeshift market burst with a technicolor assortment of DVD’s, clothing, food, music, and electronics. Outside of the tarp structures, venders aggressively demonstrate their products. It is a whirling panoply of colors, textures, and images – an undiluted consumer marketplace.
Up four flights of stairs, past several dance studios and hair salons, I arrive at Benjamin Torres’ studio. Inside I find a systematic dissection of the for-sale world I just left outside. The room is bordered by hundreds of magazines stacked in piles, and the walls, lined with shelves, are filled with emptied cartons, cereal boxes, soda cans, and other refuse. Slowly I realize that next to each discarded item is its phantom copy, fabricated from white plaster. Disassembled and atomized, dissected and scrutinized, the objects have been replicated and reassembled as something entirely different. It is a veritable laboratory of Mexican consumerism, the inner workings of Torres’ “artistic machine”.
Torres’ early career in Mexico City was altered by the UNAM student protests of 1998, which temporarily shut down the art school where he was studying. He began experimenting in informal settings – often in the homes of professors and other students. The break and isolation allowed for an introspective period which characterized his earlier work and led to his particular cultivation of the self as a universalizing filter through which both objects and audience can be observed.
A residency in Japan resulted in one of Torres’ earliest sculptural projects. The piece consisted of a target spray-painted on the grass of a public park in Japan, and an arrow installed in a park in Mexico City. A photo of its counterpart accompanied each installation. In this piece, Torres traced a journey that, until that point, had existed only as a fantasy (it had been a dream of his to visit Japan). In Japan, the large and perfectly symmetrical target was made up of muted maroon and cream circles. Although in photos of the installation it is clear it is a target, it is easy to imagine that on first viewing, the three-foot wide series of concentric circles could be perceived as simple abstraction. While the maroon arrow seems more concrete an object, both parts, when viewed by their separate audiences, evoke a sense of something missing, of a story that is only being half told. That becomes clear when the audience encounters the photo of each sculpture’s counterpart, and a connection is made that unites the two sites.
Upon viewing both the sculpture and its photographic mate, a line is drawn that starts with the arrow in Mexico City and ends at the target in Japan. The audience is left to contemplate their possible relation to each other and to the artistic author, and the viewer embarks on their own version of this symbolic journey. In this way, Torres’ personal investigation of geographic and temporal boundaries are universalized to reveal a common narrative of desire, uniting viewers through their collective imaginations.
In Torres’ next major work, “Parque de Construcciones” (Park of Constructions), the artist used a crutch fit exactly to his own body as the elemental unit in the creation of two giant mobile wheels connected together by a spoke. A crutch, which Torres had manufactured to fit his own body, is placed sequentially around a hollow wooden circle (a wooden tube) until together they form a complete circle. This action is repeated once before the two circles are then connected to each other to form what looks like a remnant of some past structure, an object that recalls a waterwheel, or a part of an old amusement park, or a part of a giant wooden carriage. The wheel exists as a sort of historical fantasy, between imagined and deliberate worlds. This giant structure, composed of a total of 88 wooden crutches, was first displayed alone in a small gallery where it stood nearly 12 feet high and wide. When exhibited the viewer was presented with nothing but the object and its title. Without any further contextualization, via text or surrounding objects, the impressive structural logic of the piece is what is highlighted, and it is charged with the unexplained – open to interpretation and to various allusions emanating from the repeated crutch.
In the creation of the wheel, Torres employs his own body as both a unit of measurement and a tool and determines the shape and form of the wheel through repetition. The body, then, becomes a source for a machine-like form that allows Torres to use an object associated with fragility and immobility as a central component in the creation of an impressive symbol of mobility.
“Yo trato de incorporar materiales u objetos disímiles o contradictorios para crear un todo que usa sus contradicciones en su función.” (Benjamin Torres, 2015)
“I try to incorporate disparate or contradictory materials or objects to create a whole in which its function lies in its contradictions.”
Torres continues to use everyday objects in ways that defy their purpose. In what seems to be a counterintuitive and provocative appropriation of objects that have a well-established presence in our day to day sphere, the materials used in Torres’ found sculptures find meaning in their ambiguities. As in “Parque de Construcciones”, it is not a fixed idea for an end product, but rather a fascination with a particular object – in this case the crutch – and a specific intent to explore his relationship to it in a potently puzzling construction, which determines the final work. Torres’ sculptural explorations are often a meditation in which a specific idea is explored through a set of repeated actions; the form-making is a meeting point between the artist and the object.
Benjamin’s interest in objects associated with the body’s fragility is what led the artist to begin working with plaster – the medium used to set broken bones. Excited by the material’s versatility – a powder that turns into a liquid, which then turns into a solid object – an initial desire to make a “hueso” (bone) out of “gesso” (plaster) motivated Torres to start experimenting with the material in a variety of molds. He was drawn to using disposable containers, where the plaster would occupy what each container had previously held. He would then throw away the container and be left with a sculptural history of the object – a shadow object.
This process eventually led him back to the bag in which the powder was sold. By pouring the plaster back into its own bag, he created what he considered to be a perfect sculptural object. It had appealing composition, color, and dimensionality, all of which contributed to the object’s allure, and invited audience involvement. The design of the bag of plaster, the formal decisions made for the commercial object, were done to convince a consumer to buy a particular bag of plaster over another. There was a visual appeal built into the shape of the bag, one that Torres began to study for its aesthetic, conceptual, and emotional narratives.
In the bag of plaster Torres saw a visual world ripe for dissection. There were embedded histories, real and imagined, which began with his own deeply personal relationship to the objects that he himself consumed in his day-to-day life. By focusing his process on these objects, Torres could address a wide audience. He began to create plaster sculptures that used as molds the objects he consumed, and he began a formal study of the sculptural shapes of these everyday objects that you can find in any grocery store. His inquiry explored the stories embedded in the objects that are commonly shared in our lives. He wondered how the objects inform or are informed by the larger structure of consumer desires and marketing. By creating plaster casts out of these objects, Torres turned the containers into pure form, erasing the material, graphic composition and imagery of the containers, to focus purely on the shapes. These ghost copies mute one level of visual language to emphasize another, that of pure sculptural form, and free the mind to contemplate the socioeconomic and personal embedded in the objects.
Consumerism as a universal social paradigm became the focus of Benjamin’s material explorations. He chose to address the basic connection people feel with the objects they consume. He began to explore his own emotional relationship to the objects that defined what Torres considered to be his essential identity as a consumer, using the products he himself bought as the basis of his study. By using the supermarket containers as molds, he could create a diary of his own consumption, while simultaneously delving into the sculptural logic of the objects. In this period of his work, the industrialization of Torres’ artistic process became a fully articulated centerpiece of his artistic practice – a single action to be reiterated in a variety of circumstances.
The first image of Benjamin Torres’ work I encountered was a photo of “Contenido Neto,” (Total Net Content) taken at his show in Mexico’s well-known art fair MACO in 2006. Torres had turned his gallery’s booth into a sort of supermarket: hundreds of small plaster molds made from recycled containers the artist had used in the previous year lined a series of aisles. The uniformity of the material and the sheer quantity of the small white sculptures was both alluring and unnerving—a petrified factory, or a supermarket graveyard.
The sculptures were cheap and available for purchase in any quantity. Torres later told me that many people were able to collect their first piece of art at “Contenido Neto”. At the time I had just met Benjamin. He and I were collaborating on a small show I was curating, and we had decided on an installation that would combine several of his ongoing projects. We had begun a conversation about his body of work, and Torres had introduced me to some of the existing criticism covering a few of his shows in Mexico City. I was drawn to Torres’ nearly obsessive interest in his own consumptive habits and his translation of that interest into his use of a single technique.
“El espacio, la materialidad, el tiempo, la distancia, la posición, la comprensión y la expansión.” Benjamin Torres, 2015
“Space, materiality, time, distance, position, comprehension, and expansion,”
On a rainy afternoon in his studio, Torres explained the transition from sculpture to his more recent work, which he considers to be three-dimensional collage. After his exploration into the forms of supermarket containers, Torres turned towards their surfaces, and began to take apart the different signifiers that give meaning to our daily lives.
He explained to me how these principles, so central to his sculptural process, became abstract qualities that he would search for and extract in his juxtapositions-via-collage. For example, one can feel a child’s total collapse of time and space in the over exaggeration of the imagery on the Trix cereal box and is immediately transported to an anxious need to consume. Torres taps into the bright colors and maniacal characters, and by simply turning the volume up, exposes the language as strategic, and questions its motives to the viewing audience.
Another example is his manipulation of idyllic landscapes such as cows grazing on milk cartons, picturesque family scenes, or domestic interiors. In these collages, Torres alters found images, and with a tweak of their intentional perfection, exposes a morbid undertone. For an image of a family walking off a soccer field that Torres found on the side of a cereal box, he simply replaces the soccer ball in the father’s hand with the child’s head. In another example, Torres inserts in the pages of a furniture and lifestyle magazine pornographic images in which the bodies are lacquered to perfection and incongruously seem to coexist in perfect unison with the images of domestic bliss being sold in the magazines.
What one witnesses in a Benjamin Torres piece is a recognizable yet deeply strange manifestation of the desires that are undercurrents to our daily lives. His use of collage and repetition capture the feeling of delirium present in our relationship to the items that we handle in our daily routines, and Torres’ mimetic objects – a remounted, re-conceptualized version of the original – confront us with ignored, unrecognized, or forgotten emotional histories. Torres’ work reminds us of the complex circumstances of our fundamental need to consume. His work, in its deeply personal nature, demonstrates that though consumer products bridge large geographic and political distances, our consumer habits remain fundamentally personal.
Torres’ new piece, which is currently on displayed at Pioneer Works, reflects a shift in subject matter — from materials extracted primarily from consumer culture, to a visual language much more explicitly focused on international political histories of perception and the use of taxonomical understandings of otherness. The piece, “Guía de Campo” or “Field Guide” is the final articulation of a project the artist began in 2008, in which he used Field Guides focused initially on Latin American bird species and later incorporating international bird species as material for an immersive installation. In the piece, Torres applies his same appropriative technique to scientific taxonomy, a structure which has parallels to the fictions he has explored previously in the desires of consumer culture.
The piece is located on the second floor of the old steel mill, facing the facility’s offices or the studios of the artists-in-residence. The space is set up like a classroom. A line of school chairs, the kind with desks attached, face a deep green wall where the meticulously cut out birds are mounted. On each of the desks the viewer can flip through one of the books, the pages perfectly maintained around the images of the cut-out birds.
The structural gesture of the exhibition can be interpreted in a variety of ways. First, the dramatization of the books on the walls offers a wistful if not overly optimistic portrayal of the learning process. The books, which are scientific travel guides, offer fantasies of far off lands that recall a universal yearning to escape and discover new and exotic places. However, the innocence of this narrative is challenged by the classroom structure, an environment within which rules are exerted and only a certain form of behavior is accepted. The rigidity of the classroom setting parallels a similar rigidity in the information presented in the science books, and both are revealed to the audience as systemized structures that the work tests. The classroom is turned into a stylized setting, and that setting and the knowledge it implies are presented as a tainted presence, an order to be challenged and explored.
By using same appropriative assemblage of found objects and images Torres has perfected throughout his career, he turns away from consumer culture to address the vulnerability of systems of knowledge, of discovery, and of power, exposing the relatively clumsy form of manipulation in these schemes. In the end, the many structural parallels between “Guía de Campo” and his dissection of consumer culture make you wonder if they are in fact part of the same story. One leaves questioning if the conventions of scientific taxonomy and consumer culture, are, in the end,” just the prevailing narratives of human desire.