Educated as an architect, Jorge Méndez Blake (Guadalajara, Mexico, 1974) is a mixed media, conceptual artist whose work revolves around books, libraries and literature. Méndez Blake has evolved a conceptual language, both reductive and metaphorical, that translates literary texts into images, sculptures and art installations.
Based on his belief that “writing is itself a kind of construction and reading is a way of creation”, he transforms the literary into the spatial giving a physical dimension to the act of reading. His pieces focus on classic authors through their books, as well as on the value of literature as a means of communication and knowledge. The artist produces and catalogues his work in a series of conceptual chapters, each focusing on a different theme, author or approach. The works of Méndez Blake combine his two passions: literature and architecture, as he declares: “Neither of them finished filling me up and I did not feel comfortable working on one of them on their own. Through art, I found that intermediate territory.”
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You have a background as an architect. I consider –and many other people too – architecture as a fine art that leaves the trace or legacy of a époque, but you said that it is about construction, engineering and things of that sort. Then that art tries to understand its surrounding world. Does it mean that architecture or architects do not cope with the surroundings? And is it the reason why you started with visual arts?
I believe both disciplines ‘read’ the world in different ways and through different processes. I started in visual arts late, but very naturally, after my architecture background and a long and strong affinity with literature. I found a fertile ground for the combination of my interests in visual arts.
Have you ever worked as an architect?
Not in a typical way. But I have the feeling that I use strategies and some knowledge of it all the time. As an artist you work constantly with plans, areas, measurements; you look at architectural plans and sketches before you plan a show in a given space, just as an architect would.
Your installations interpret the work of different authors like Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, Jules Verne, etc. What is the meaning of approaching a book through sculpture/installations?
Since any object can be art, what becomes important is what you can discuss around this object. These discussions have to begin somehow and somewhere, and I like to set this beginning in literature.
And, continuing with architecture, how can a fictional narrative in a book be compared to the architecture of a building?
They can be very similar. You decide how you contextualize your creations and if you want them to be closer to cold facts or to fiction. Some architects have explained buildings with stories, like Koolhaas or Tschumi, I love the story of OMA’s house in Bordeaux or the drawings of Tschumi based on some scenes of a classic Frankenstein movie.
“Art should provide something different, something that you can’t explain using the academia.”
When you think about creating a piece, how do you choose a text? I mean, what is the starting point?
I work with a small list of authors. They are the ones I feel comfortable with; authors that I know and can talk about. The list I like is long, but I only add one name to my work every two or three years because I prefer to keep it as short as possible.
A text can have many interpretations and provoke many different reactions. For example, different religions or factions of same religion are based in different interpretations of the same text. What does your work add to the interpretation of the text you work with?
Art establishes a different lecture of a text than the one given by professional critics or common readers. One thing is ‘to read’ directly from a book, and another is ‘to see’ a work of art related to a book. Art should provide something different, something that you can’t explain using the academia.
You said that the book – as an object, the outside, before reading it – is like an intermediary between the content and the world. Could you please develop this idea?
The physicality of a book is very important. It gives a ‘preview’, a first visual approach. And in the case of a well-known book, it will make an immediate reference to its content or to its author. If you see the name Moby Dick you have an instant thought coming from it, even if you haven’t read the book. The interaction between collective memory and personal thoughts is always interesting.
And then, which role does collective memory play in your pieces, for example, when the visitor or public, know the content of the book very well?
Memory plays an important role in the interaction between a piece and the viewer. We are talking about books here, but I believe it is the same for every work of art. The viewer is not a virgin field in which the artist shows a work; he or she has a personal history, which includes everything that she/he’s seen, read, loved, hated, etc. Not even the exhibition space is neutral; you have to get there through corridors, doors, buildings, streets, the city, the country. Everything affects the work. There’s no such thing as self-referential art.
Your entire career is classified also as a book. In your website, different works are the chapters. The first one is Isla Negra’s Treasure, presented in Sala Siqueiros (Mexico City) in 2005. Together with the text of Stevenson you also worked with Neruda’s Canto General. I am very interested in the multiple conceptual adventures of this work: from the island and Neruda’s posthumous instructions recorded in video, to the mural in the wall echoing Siqueiros. I found this work one of the most rounded installations. I am curious, what is your opinion about this work and how important has it been for you?
To read is to travel. This work implied a displacement, in which, meanwhile, I was reading. With this work, I realized how particular it is the relation between the book you are reading and the place where you read it.
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Then another early work, El Castillo (2007), based on Frank Kafka's homonym text, caused tremendous repercussion due to some photographs that appeared on social media at the beginning of February 2016. What do you think of the diffusion of art using technology and social networks? Do you think the work takes on a new life by using this new kind of media?
With the vast diffusion that El Castillo (a.k.a. The Impact of a Book) had in social media, I realized that the importance of being ‘public’ in arts is real. Once you exhibit or publish something it is not entirely yours anymore; it gets absorbed by the public and the media in ways you can’t control. I believe more in making the work public through exhibitions, but we are definitely far from understanding how social media is shaping the art world.
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Continuing with this piece, a wall made of bricks with the Kafka book in the middle of the base seems to have been travelling around the globe: Mexico, Paris, Venice, the cities in the United States and Istanbul. How do you work when a piece of these characteristics itinerates? How do you make the assembly on the different sites? Do you always use the same book in different locations?
I’ve always used the same book, The Castle in Kafka’s Spanish edition. The bricks are always bought in the place where it is shown, always using regular construction ones, nothing special. I’m interested in how this piece changes every time it’s shown and how the differences between the bricks affect how it looks. Bricks in Mexico or in Istanbul are very handmade, in opposition to European ones, which are perfectly industrialized products.
Taking the concept of literary architecture one step further, in Monuments (2012) you pay homage to some of the greatest writers of the past two centuries by creating physical buildings. Camus Monument, a copy of Camus’ L’étranger under a tower of bricks; Emily Dickinson Monument, an all-white replica of her house in Pennsylvania, etc. Are these monuments inspired by both their lives and their texts?
Yes, they are inspired by the texts, but in a very intuitive way. I’d say that my monuments respond to the ideas in the writings.
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From the mentioned installative and architectural works, it seems that you are shifting to paintings lately. For example, in Poems (2013) you created monochromatic wall paintings based on the works of Hart Crane, Paul Valéry, and José Gorostiza by translating their poems’ lines into solid jagged strips. Then, one of your latest works, repeating Dickinson as a subject, is a group of paintings where you have collected all the dashes in all six volumes of Dickinson’s poems and transferred them into huge canvases. Can you please comment on this?
I’m very interested in visual poetry and in its the shape. How can we make a poem interact with space? How can a poem be something palpable? First, I began doing wall paintings using the silhouette of poems, using corners, shifting walls and doing different variations. Then, I began to make what I called ‘large-scale concrete poetry’ by using painting, a practice that I’m still in the process of exploring.
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The visualization of poetry is another great area of interest for you. Your latest exhibition in Madrid (Spain), Nocturnos – that was on view till this February 2017 – also showcased big paintings featuring compositions based on Mexican author Xavier Villaurrutia that produce visual poetry. Are you interested in the concrete poetry of the 1960s-1970s? At that point, I have to ask you: what do you think about Mallarmé?
I agree with Broodthaers, who said contemporary art began in Mallarmé. I find Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasardone of the great works of art of the XIX Century. My Mallarmé’s Library paid homage to this through an architectural approach that proposed a library-ship shipwrecked in the coast.
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To end up, I would like to ask for your future plans: works, exhibitions etc.
These upcoming months I will be having a two-person show with Mateo López in the Blueproject Foundation in Barcelona, and participating in shows at the Frac Franche-Compte in France, the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, in the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, in the Amparo Museum in Puebla (México) and in 1301PE and Kohn galleries in Los Angeles. I’m also about to publish a book about Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and co-running Ladera Oeste, a non-profit art space in my hometown, Guadalajara.
Long list! Excellent, talking about hometowns, Barcelona is the hometown of this publication, can you tell us about the show with Mateo López at the Blueproject Foundation Barcelona?
The show is called De la línea al movimiento and it is curated by Claudia Segura. It begins with a revision of some ideas found in the classic book Flatland: Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott, which is a very interesting meditation on the way we are not able to see beyond our own physical limitations; it begins with geometry, but the ideas can be applied to society and humanity in general. I will be making a series of drawings based on the shape of the texts, transforming them into architectural spaces.
De la línea al movimiento by Jorge Méndez Blake and Mateo López will inaugurate on Thursday the 14th of December and will be on view until the 4th of March at Blueproject Foundation, carrer de la Princesa 57, Barcelona.
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