Stefan Bruggemann considers himself a hypermodern artist. He defines himself like that, straightaway, using a term coined by the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky with whom he regularly has meetings and conversations. Lipovetsky described our times as based in “hyperconsumption”, a consumption which absorbs and integrates more and more spheres of social life and which encourages individuals to consume for their own personal gratification rather than to enhance their social status. And it seems to me that it is in true hypermodern style that I conduct this interview with this Mexican artist born in 1975 and living in London since 1998. I contacted him through an Internet social network, which I am aware might not seem an entirely professional approach, and I first met him at Soho’s Groucho Club, a famous member’s club where I am more bound to meet a famous model or actor than anyone who can discuss the practice of Pontus Hulten.
“Naked Girl” (2003). Digital print on canvas.
Bruggemann inhabits an artistic terrain that mixes conceptualism with a certain punk demeanour. His conceptualist bias surfaces in his love for short, concise text pieces and minimal installations. Statements that explore the art world, the own conceptual and minimal traditions, and the results of blending of art, fashion and music in tune with the capitalistic scenario. The neutral Arial font is key. Black, white, aluminium paint or neon lights his colours and materials of choice. The punk side, on the other hand, manifests through a confrontational attitude and a constant play with the contradictions that a commercial artist (he is represented by heavyweight dealer Yvon Lambert) faces when producing critical, self-reflexive and meta-discursive work from the core of our capitalistic society. But Bruggemann embraces that contradiction, which he prefers to call “instability”. “I can’t explain and I won’t even try” is one of Bruggemann’s most famous text pieces, but, then again, he is willing to explain quite a few things with a very articulated discourse.
I came across your work as part of a research on contemporary practitioners of Institutional Critique. Would you agree to be considered like that?
Yes, I think there is definitely a part of my work that addresses those concerns, but obviously not in the same manner as the pioneers, in the 60’s and 70’s, which had a clear anarchist feel to it. My context is completely different. I am not against neither the art commerce, nor its commodification, really. These are not my issues. There are some strategies that may be similar, though. But I think my work is another type of analysis of capitalism.
But some of your works are rather difficult to sell, and I am thinking of “Show titles”, for example.
Sure. I don’t think I am taking necessary the easy road, producing little objects, or small drawings that are easy to sell. But there is some degree of perversion to what I do, because in the end, most of it is for sale, you can buy it. I am not making anti-form or immaterial work most of the time. I like to think that I am using capitalism from its insides to wear it off. It’s like stepping on the accelerator pedal of a car to see how far it goes.
Is that reason why you use fashion and music in your work, two more mainstream disciplines?
Yes. Apart of the notion of Institutional Critique, I am also really interested in the question of what is it to be an artist today. It is such an over-used concept and word it seems nowadays we are all artists and, at the same time, none of us is. It is such an ambiguity. One decides that something is art, and that’s it. Then you face the question of how to communicate it, how is “legitimized”.
Obliteration Painting #13 (No Eyes) (2008). Digital print on canvas, aluminum paint.
Why do you think your art, what you decided that was art, has been accepted and “legitimized”, then?
I think my art produces reactions, even if not always positive. But that doesn’t really matter, the moment you have any kind of answer, you are already having a conversation. I think that the most challenging part of making art is saying something new. I am trying to do that by using the strategies of conceptual and minimal art. I want to develop my own reflection on our society. As an artist, I am interested in creating from within. To me, it is quite useless to be isolated in my own world, in my studio. I want my work to belong to the world, to be part of it. Some artists considered political work by illustrating an idea. As if they read a book, some Freud, or some post-structuralist work, and decided to produce an illustration of that. They take a picture of the phenomenon. I am much more interested in the process of making it, in the way you operate to make the piece, which most of the time it is invisible. It is there, but the viewer cannot see it. This is why I always use Arial Black, which is completely standard and neutral. Or why I use vinyl, or aluminum paint. My messages are straightforward and quick. They speak of our society, which is based on the notion of speed.
They are like slogans…
I don’t like to call them slogans. I call them text pieces, but ok. What I like about them is that they can reach anyone, from a very knowledgeable curator to a kid. Of course, what each of them makes of the same message will depend on their own cultural context. Interpretation will vary depending on their background. But my pieces lack the high-brow factor, they are not intimidating. When I use fashion magazines, I do it because it is also a reflection of our obsession with speed, of short-lived fads and trends.
“Life S(o)(u)cks” (2001). Magazine page, red permanent marker.
But don’t you think that art itself has become as fast-paced as fashion already, even disposable?
Oh yes, indeed. But what interests me about fashion is the idea of playing with different means of production. For example, to tear out the pages of a photo shoot or an ad, which probably have a millionaire budget, and then make a small intervention on it. I like that gesture, reversing the process.
That sounds like a ready-made…
Yes, it is a ready-made somehow, a continuation of the concept of appropriation, the act of making something yours. I tear out a page, sometimes I write on it, then I scan it and print it with domestic scanners and printers, low quality. And then I take it to a professional place where they scan it on high quality and print it on a canvas, usually on a format of 150cm x 150cm. After all that process, the result is ambivalent, it looks worn out, it could be a picture, a painting, a picture of a painting or a painting of a picture. My works are neither poems nor sculptures, nor paintings. They are unstable. It is like life in a big city such as London or Mexico. In the same day you can oscillate from heaven to hell. Or like the stock exchange, always up and down. I think that the stock exchange is a great representation of life itself.
I am quite intrigued about your project “Show Titles”, which is an ongoing list of titles for shows that you offer to be used for free by whoever might want to.
“Show Titles” is an investigation on duration and time, because it is an ongoing project that will only stop when I decide to or when I die, and not even, because people will carry on using them after I am dead, hopefully. It is a platform. Anyone is allowed to used them, my only request is to be included on the credits. When I presented it at the ICA (Beck’s Futures, 2006), I really liked that oppressive sensation of being overwhelmed by words, by information, that was completely void at the same time. All that information is empty, unreal, up to each member of the audience to make something out of it. It is really essential that this piece is shown inside an exhibition space, because if you take it outside, it becomes something else.
“Show Titles” (2000–on going). Black vinyl lettering.
That makes me think of the culture flux right now. Thanks to the Internet we can access to so much information it seems we are all much more cultivated than before, but it is just superficial data, like headlines, shallow. We don’t have any in-depth knowledge about anything, just bit and pieces…
Absolutely. That is technology. Mobile phones, emails, Twitter, Skype… We are connected all the time, but we don’t have anything relevant to say, which is a bit sad. I was talking about this recently with Gilles Lipovetsky, in a conversation that will be published soon, where we discussed this idea of the society of disappointment.
Lipovetsky, the French philosopher that published “Hypermodern Times” in 2006…
That’s right. I consider myself a hypermodern artist.
I am not sure, because I do not quite understand the concept. I thought it was a really exciting theoretical wrapping, but couldn’t see the connection with the actual exhibition.
We will soon be able to see a new project of yours at Frieze Art Fair, from the 15th till the 18th of October. Tell me about it.
It is an ongoing project by curators Lisa Rosendahl and Daniel McClean called “Offer & Exchange”, and it will be shown at the Yvon Lambert booth (Bruggeman’s Parisian gallery). Their project explores the idea of the artist contract, which is a subject that has been used since the conceptualists. My take on it is something I have been wanting to do for a few years and that really fits their rationale, and it is basically presenting two works, one by me and other by other artist, each of them with their own certificate, where it is stipulated that every 5 years the authorship of the works change, so my work will be his and vice versa. It is interesting because it explores the idea of the death of the author and also because it breaks the linearity of the History Art. Depending on what year it is shown in a museum, the works will be by different artists. How you catalogue that? It also plays with the capitalist obsession with authorship.
Looks Conceptual (1999). Black vinyl lettering.
Who is the other artist?
Robert Barry, who belongs to the first generation of conceptual artists, which provides an exciting dialogue between generations. I really like the idea of letting go of your work, which I am aware is not an easy thing to do. We actually proposed it to some other artists, such as Lawrence Wiener or Douglas Gordon and they said no. It was also important for me to present it in a fair context, because it addresses the subjects of speculation and commerce.
It reminds me of the project “Purchase of a prize”, in which Santiago Sierra bought the Golden Lion of Venice Biennale awarded to Regina Jose Galindo in 2005, in order to sell it.
Actually, Santiago Sierra has also made a project for “Offer & Exhange” called “Death Counter”, in which a giant LED outside the Hiscox Insurance HQ documents the annual number of human deaths worldwide, from any cause. (On view until the 31st of December 2009 in London. Hiscox, 1 Great St Helens London, EC3A 6HX).
You said before that one of your main practice questions is what is an artist today. So what is it, then?
I think an artist nowadays is someone who is able to navigate a lot of world at the same time: the world of art, of music, of fashion, of nightclubs…
I see that music, as well as fashion, is something definitely important in your work. Actually, in one of your last shows in London last year, at Bloomberg SPACE, you invited the band The Fall to perform during the private view.
Yes, when Bloomberg commissioned me a site-specific piece last year in their HQ, I thought it was such a fantastic place, the climax of the communion between art and capitalism. I did a series of Obliteration paintings, and also presented some paintings by the Mexican artist Dr. Atl. He was some sort of Renaissance man, also involved in politics and very confrontational, with whom I really identify with. It was also to great to have The Fall performing, a band that I love and of whom John Peel said “always the same, always different”, which is something, I would like to think, applies to my work as well. Having a punk band playing at Bloomberg was something very symbolic to me. And also something pretty prescient of the times, as only a few weeks later the stock exchange market fell itself. Credit cruch, the fall…
The Fall playing at the private view of “The Fall”. Bloomberg Space, London (2008).
Speaking of all this… Do you consider yourself punk? Because that is the way many critics or art writers portray you. You have a certain “in you face” attitude, you are critical to society, you have collaborated with Malcom McLaren, and yet, I am not sure I would call you “punk” myself. You work seems a bit too refined and “clean” for that.
Well, yes, I might be punk somehow, but it is indeed a contemporary punk and without falling into nostalgia. It has been a long way since 1977!
You are actually finishing a 5 star hotel in Acapulco, which is not exactly a punk thing to do, I guess!
I know! But as I said I don’t have any interest in being marginal. I like this kind of works, actually. These promoters, who are big collectors of my work, proposed me to collaborate in this new hotel. I decided that I just didn’t want to sell them some works so they could scatter them there. If you are going to be involved in a 5 star hotel in Acapulco, which obviously it is not the most radical thing you can do as an artist, you might as well seize the chance and go for it. So I decided to be involved in the actual design of the hotel, embedding my work on it. And I came up with a format, a formula that can be used in any hotel. The name is “Hotel Hotel”, and the whole project is based on Edward Hooper’s interior paintings. Each room has the title of a Hooper painting carved in one of its walls, in Arial font, of course. The bas-relief is based on idea of taking out, as opposed of adding, which is what decoration usually does. The titles are very poetic and I think that can produce diverse reaction on different customers.
You have also curated some shows, like “Shallow” at I-20 Gallery, NY. Are you interested in curating as well?
Yes, but right now only sporadically. I started my own gallery space in Mexico D.F. when I was a student, a mix of studio and gallery space where we had two shows a month and showed lots of rubbish. But we also put quite a few interesting shows by artists that are now doing quite well. Then I travelled to NY and got really inspired by the Dia Foundation, and back in Mexico I started a more serious art space called Programa, with a similar ethos to Dia. I directed it and worked really hard on it for a few years, until I fell out with the Major of Mexico and closed it. But I think really interesting things happened there that helped to shape a new scene of contemporary artists in Mexico.
“Shallow” installation view (2007).
You have been living in London for quite a few years now, but the connection with Mexico is still there.
Of course, I am Mexican and now I could even say I am Mexican artist, somehow, after all we achieved during those years in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. There was a text piece that was crucial for me. I made it in 1999 and it was called “Looks Conceptual”. I wanted to highlight how conceptual art, that always stood for anti-form and anti-style, after a few years ended up being more formalist than any other school, with a very identifiable style, easy to copy and reproduce. I was fascinated by that contradiction. I sought to apply that question to the context of Mexico, that wants to belong to the international economical community, but whose culture policies are still promoting all the Latin-American clichés: the rural, the found object with magical properties. Even artists with international reputation like Gabriel Orozco are still stuck with this. I wanted to challenge that. It was time to do something about it.
More info at: http://www.stefanbruggemann.com/
Stefan Bruggeman’s last piece, “Shift:, will be on view during Frieze Art Fair (15th-18th October, London), at the Yvon Lambert booth. http://www.friezeartfair.com/