“Beyond the Silent Planet”
An interview with Miguel Harte by Florencia Qualina
FLORENCIA QUALINA: In the mid-sixties, your father, Ronnie—along with a few partners—started Galería Vignes. A number of paradigmatic artists from those years showed there, among them Víctor Grippo, Emilio Renart, Federico Manuel Peralta Ramos, and Pablo Suárez . Do you think having close contact with art at such a young age was a decisive experience?
MIGUEL HARTE: When I was between the ages of six and eight, there were a number of very striking paintings at my house. I remember going to Vignes one time and finding stacks of newspapers on the floor. I later learned that that was conceptual art, but at the time I just saw stacks of newspapers. My father was not really a gallerist or art dealer. He talked his brother-in-law into becoming partners and letting him use a well-located store to open the gallery, which was directed by Julio Llinás.
Economically, the gallery was doomed to failure. It showed work in keeping with what was happening at the Di Tella . It was opened for a year and half but then closed because, apparently, nothing at all—not a single drawing—was ever sold. I guess what my father hoped to get out of it was to increase his contact with the bohemian world that had captivated him around that time.
He couldn’t resist the ideas of rupture and the avant-garde. That was all he cared about. Well, that and having fun, of course. Which is why, shortly thereafter, he would take us all along as he pursued utopian ideas which, naturally, meant living a precarious life of need.
Maybe having been brought up in the midst of an adventure pursued with such conviction had something to do with my artistic inclination. I sensed that there was something in that spirit that was worth the risk, something tied to adventure. That, in my view, had to do with being an artist. Starting in the Vignes days, Pablo Suárez was really into my dad and what he represented. Due to those years of family-like contact with Pablo, everything got all mixed up. I somehow acquired an artist’s vision and practice.
F.Q: You moved a lot as a child and teen. After living in Acasusso, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires, you moved to the coastal city of Mar del Plata and then, in a few years’ time, to the province of Córdoba. From an early age, you experienced a counter-cultural lifestyle in a hostile political context like the military dictatorship . What do you remember from those years?
M.H: It was during my early teen years that my father decided to put into practice his hippy ideals: his friends were part of the family, he had a number of different girlfriends, and he put together small communities critical of social norms. I thought all of that was fun and exciting. When I compared us to my friends and acquaintances, to my neighbors and classmates, and how their families lived, I thought we existed in a superior state. In my view, my parents had broken out of a structure that few people could even see. They had dared to be different and I felt proud. At that time, my parents were, to my eye, like revolutionary heroes dismantling the institution of the family. By the time the dictatorship began, my mother and siblings and I were living in Villa General Belgrano in Córdoba, in my father’s mother’s vacation home. Some people in my father’s circle were affected by the new political situation. Not my dad, though. He was outrageous and, besides, he didn’t care about politics. Even though my family was surrounded by potential enemies of the state, he didn’t register the danger that anyone was exposed to during that period. Pablo Suárez, to name just one, had been involved in the CGT . An ardent Peronist, he had been present at Tucumán Arde . My parents—whether because they were hippies or simply because they were ridiculous—were considered suspicious as well. But they somehow believed they were untouchable, that because they were not involved in politics they were innocent… Even when we—their family and friends—were arrested for suspicion of guerrilla activity because we were living in tents or in little houses in the middle of the mountains—a hotspot at the time—they didn’t get it.
F.Q: What do you remember about the arrest?
M.H: I remember that gray day clearly; it was drizzling. After seven months in that very isolated place, a group of milicos in a Unimog showed up and arrested us all. The scene of the raid and the week we spent cut off from the outside world were straight out of the movie La Noche de los Lápices.
F.Q: Your situation—on a personal level, but also as a family and as a community—must have changed totally after that...
M.H: Until that point, I had been fascinated by my parents and their world, by the idea of a life based on those ideals. I had decided to drop out of high school in my sophomore year and I moved to a community in the mountains with a girlfriend a bit older than me.
The violent end to all that was awful but, somehow, it also put a necessary limit on my family’s madness. It helped me, at least, to have a social life more appropriate for someone my age.
With the family’s project shattered and my dad in jail for over a year, we had to move back to Buenos Aires. I went back to high school, but at a night school for adults. That was where I met Juan and Ricardo. Juan, who wrote, was connected to the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo and Ricardo, who had a restless mind, was into drawing. We would often go to a café after school to talk about everything, especially politics—that is, about the little we were able to put together about what was going on during the dictatorship . That was how I became politically aware. I was drawn to the idea of the resistance.
Alone, or sometimes with them, I also started frequenting Pablo [Suárez]’s studio. He had moved back from Córdoba. My vision of him had changed. It was no longer defined by his relationship with my dad, but by my interest in his life, his vision of art and of politics. Pablo infected me, so to speak, with the idea of a life connected to art. He also got me into Peronism.
F.Q: That was at the height of the dictatorship.
M.H: Those two years—77 and 78, my sophomore and junior years of high school—were pretty tense. In 79, I think it was, my dad—who, after getting out of jail, had spent a long time closed up in the house doing nothing—found a job at a dance club in Rumipal, Embalse de Río Tercero, in the mountains of Córdoba, and I went along to help out.
I really enjoyed the next year or so, but once again I was very isolated; I lost touch with the social life I had put together the years before. To top it off, I was called up for the dreaded military service. I had to go back to Buenos Aires. My post was in Palermo at the Regimiento de Patricios which had actively taken part in repressing protest. Of course, they boasted about that. It was as if my life had taken a sudden, and confusing, turn. And this time I had to face it on my own except, that is, for my grandmother on my father’s side, a totally uncritical and devout Catholic who loved me to pieces. I lived with her in her apartment in the Villa Devoto section of the city. I had no contact with my old friends or with Pablo... I didn’t have any time at all; besides, I was haggard. All I wanted was to do everything right because I couldn’t stand the idea of getting detention and losing one of my days off duty…
F.Q: How did your interest in art take shape during your childhood? Do you remember which images most affected you?
M.H: From my childhood, I remember some Pop paintings at our house in Acassuso. But, mostly, I remember finding the Pinacoteca de los genios collection in the back of a closet. Whenever I was alone, I would take a peek, thinking that it was some sort of forbidden treasure. What made the most lasting impression on me were the images from the Renaissance. The detail of the woman with the flowers in her mouth in Botticelli’s Triumph of Spring excited me, as did Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian… Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Musicians’ Hell... It all had to do with secrets and having to interpret them. So many small and indecipherable details, so many bodies partly covered with transparent fabric or morbid, silky folds. Babies with strange, not-very-childlike faces. Boobs, naked bodies, pale and suggestive faces looking out at me. And that smell of old books, of things hidden away. It was all so suggestive. That whole spy-like situation only heightened the eroticism that the images already had. That sensation made its mark on me.
F.Q: Renaissance art is, above all else, narrative. The paintings that struck you—Botticelli’s Triumph of Spring, The Birth of Venus—are telling a story. Do you think those images were, in some way, foundational to your narrative sensibility?
M.H: I have always been quite narrative, but it was not until I was fully grown that I associated that trait with those paintings. Making that connection even helped me to come up with an idea for an object after not having worked for a number of months. Gustavo Bruzzone and I went to San Nicolás to visit Benito Laren. That trip put an end to a dry spell, creatively. It was the origin of the work El regreso de San Miguel [Return from Saint Michael], one of my favorites. I was saved, I would even say, by a medallion that I found lying on the street with images of Saint Michael and the Devil. The images, which were highly stylized and funny, reminded me of Botticelli, of works of his that, like a comic strip, told a story in a number of scenes. The next day, on the highway heading home, I told Gustavo what the work would be like. It came to me suddenly: three glass spheres on a rod that would hang down from the ceiling; the smallest one at the top would be an explosion; below it, the medium-sized one would be called “tears of rain,” from the sentence that closes Blade Runner; the third, the largest sphere, would be the final battle between Saint Michael and the Devil.
F.Q: When you look at Renaissance art like, say, The Tribute Money by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel, you realize that its structure is narrative: there is a before, a during, and an after. Film is, in a way, the technical culmination of centuries of research along those lines. Do you make use of the language of film to approach your images?
M.H: For years I had been making work that required people to move in close and that way of steering how the work was seen was, to me, cinematographic, moving in on a single detail like a traveling shot or a zoom. El regreso de San Miguel was, for me, a re-encounter with those Renaissance painters. A tribute to Botticelli. Bosch is also highly narrative, with endless details that make the work even more cinematographic. I loved that, and he is one of my idols. I think I’m always narrating something, even in the works where that is not particularly evident or in recent works where I am more austere. I think there’s always some sort of narrative in what I make, even if the work is just forms and textures, a slight curve, a sheen. It’s as if what I make is always heading in a certain direction and there’s a narrative somewhere along the almost obligatory path the viewer takes. Bosch’s paintings have all of that.
F.Q: In 1979, after having lived through some fairly heavy situations—the arrest, your father’s time in jail—you went to Brazil. Did you intend to stay for a long time? And did you fit in, establish a dialogue with the artists there?
M.H: When I got to Búzios, I thought it was heaven. What began as a pleasure trip, a visit, turned into a definite feeling that I did not want to go back to Argentina. In fact, until after democracy was restored in 1983 I only came back sporadically. It was not until eight years later that I moved back for good.
After two years in Búzios, I needed to be in a city and to connect with other people to develop my artistic interests. So I moved to Rio. It was impossible to fit into life there. What I was doing was, for them, very “anthropological.” I liked folk art and the people I knew were into something entirely different.
[Hélio] Oiticica was what people were interested in. There was, of course, a trans-avant-garde in Rio—as there was everywhere else—but conceptual and very formalist work was what dominated the scene. I was into Iemanjá, samba, carnival, stuff like that. And people thought that was touristy, just a bunch of folklore. And they were right. I enjoyed the beach, the people, the music, but I was enjoying the art scene less and less. That’s why, at a certain point, I started coming back once a year. During those years, I was in group shows in Buenos Aires with Gustavo Marrone, Martín Reyna, Sergio Avello, José Garófalo, and Alejandro de Ilzarbe in something we called “Los Últimos Pintores” [The Last Painters].
F.Q: What was your situation when you returned to Buenos Aires for good?
M.H: When I came back from Río in 87, I was penniless. I didn’t have anywhere to live or anything else for that matter.
I ended up sort of hiding out in one of the rooms in the Cangallo studio thanks to Gustavo Marrone, who also invited me to participate in a show he was doing with Cristina Schiavi at Recoleta. I just dived in and agreed to do it; I had to grasp onto something, and it was a lifesaver. So I started working madly on enormous canvases. And, thanks to Suárez’s proximity and logistical support, the work made quite an impact. It was well received. I couldn’t have felt any better.
F.Q: You just mentioned the Cangallo studio where in 1978/79 you worked making frames with Pablo Suárez. You witnessed a diverse group of very solid artists at work there. What do you remember about that experience?
M.H: At that time, Kenneth Kemble—whisky in hand—was there along with his students. I was fairly heavily influenced by Pablo, and neither he nor I was particularly interested in Kemble. His work was very dry and stiff. He used patterns and there was something about that I didn’t like. I remember that he was very tidy, almost like an illustrator. I found his later Informalist works more interesting. He was somewhat academic and that, for me, was a bad word. Alberto Heredia was there as well. He was great, I loved him. He was a real working-class character, just the opposite of Kemble, who had the nicest studio in the front—they got worse and worse the further back you went. The worst one was Pablo’s, though Heredia’s was pretty dreadful. He didn’t have a dime and would get into fights with everyone. His teeth would fall out when he laughed. He was hilarious, but his sense of humor was twisted. He and Pablo got along great. You could tell from the things he said that he, like Pablo, was at odds with the establishment. Those were my folks. Emilio Renart had a studio there as well—we framed some of his drawings—as did Víctor Grippo.
F.Q: Let’s get back to your return to Buenos Aires in 1988. What images were you developing at that time?
M.H: I had been producing images with a sort of folk-art and regional feel though also veering towards making objects. The months after the show with Marrone and Schiavi, I kept making small objects in the same Pop spirit. One of the last works along those lines was Pizzería Harte. That work—an installation with certain culinary qualities—made fun of the idea that something was good if it sold a lot and of serial production in art, which was very popular at the time. Looking back, I think it was an offering to the old guru [Pablo Suárez]. Years later, I did another work with a similar idea, this time with a real hotdog nailed to the wall next to a silicone hotdog that , like an advertising slogan, said “Always the same, always different.” That second work was slightly more edgy. But, getting back to 88, I remember, after Pizzería...—it must have been 89—trying to paint on canvas again. I remember one work in particular—it was quite ugly—that I made for a juried show. Luckily, it was rejected. After that, sheer nothingness. I was gradually starting to connect to something new, but I didn’t have any plans. I started fiddling with materials I would find or buy, with no pretention, a sense of insecurity, and low expectations. When I felt the need to pin something down, to make a human figure, I portrayed myself.
F.Q: Pizzería Harte was the first self-referential work in that you use your name in the title. After that, you began to make self-portraits.
M.H: There was something therapeutic about that exorcism. On a conscious level, though, I started making self-portraits because, formally, the use of the human figure bothered me—I felt it clamored for attention.
I had also reached the absurd conclusion that representing a human being entailed an extra responsibility. Making a portrait of someone necessarily meant talking about him or her. It was something beyond me and I found that overwhelming. It didn’t allow me to focus on myself. Anyway, I think I drove myself crazy with all those ideas because they were part of a universe I had to leave behind, a past that had run its course. I guess it was a reaction against Pablo’s universe, which was peopled with references to social and human conditions.
The self-portrait granted me impunity. I used it however I wanted, with no consideration of its implications or traditional symbolism. I called a piece of broken Formica with glass eyes, a row of eggs with duck beaks, a sausage with a dog’s snout, “self-portraits.” Anything that resembled a being was both me and a representation of the human species—I needed to believe that in order to keep going and to clear my head, to feel I was alone with the materials.
With Arrojado al vacío [Tossed into the Abyss], a self-portrait that illustrated my sense of a free fall, something happened for the first time that would then become more important to my work, mainly, the use of a material to generate ideas and its striking ability to influence the changes that would take place. Imagination depended on the material chosen. Everything was tied together. The body of the figure in that portrait has holes in it that perforate the support as well so that you can see straight through to the wall. The material register was as important as the fantasy, and they blended together on the surface.
Miguelito’s Strange World
F.Q: The first Harte-Pombo-Suárez show was held at the Galería del Rojas in 1989. How did that show come to pass?
M.H: It was Pablo’s idea. Pablo and Marcelo already knew each other. When Pombo was showing at Rojas, Pablo told me, “You’ve got to see the show of this guy Marcelo Pombo, he’s great.” I went to see it and, of course, I thought it was great. I also thought he was delightful. That same afternoon, Pablo told him, “We have to organize something together. I’d love to have a show with you and Miguel.” It was a bold move on his part because I was in the middle of a crisis when I had no idea what the hell to do.
F.Q: How did you three get along?
M.H: We were really tight; we felt we were working on something that went beyond what everyone else was doing. We laughed about that, understood it was pretentious, but the truth is we felt self-sufficient. We wouldn’t get together all that often, but when we did it was intense. Pablo would start up countless conversations and Marcelo is very sharp and full of surprises; I was lucky enough to be at really memorable get-togethers.
Marcelo tried to take a position against Pablo. They had some big run-ins, but it was fun to listen to them. Both Marcelo and Pablo were always questioning their work, their languages, which was great, and they formulated those questions in relation to one another. I questioned everything as well, though I’m not sure if it was in relation to them. I was in the process of making a break from what Pablo had passed on to me. It was a secret, silent rupture with no confrontation.
Pablo was our catalyst and also the one who stood between us. Years went by and he never stopped singing the praises of Marcelo’s work to me, talking about what a great artist and how successful he was. And he talked to Marcelo about me in the same way. Marcelo and I always laugh about that.
F.Q: You said that you were going through a crisis at that time. What was causing it? What direction did you take in its wake?
M.H: For a few months, I would say, before Pablo became a peer, he was what could be called a teacher, a guide, something like that. I had always listened to what he had to say very carefully. That had inevitably conditioned what I had done up to that point. Clearly, what I had been doing was not a reflection of myself, of my core. I realized that because the only way I could find to move forward was through sheer will power or by playing tricks. I felt I was becoming Suárez-dependent. I’d already been through that many years before and it was pretty frustrating to find myself in the same situation. At that point, a few months before the show at Rojas and meeting Marcelo, I had come to a sort of internal ultimatum. I understood that, if I wanted to exist on my own terms and not find myself on that dead-end street again, I had to build something different for myself, build a different self, even. I felt so bad during the months leading up to that show that I was tempted to throw in the towel. I felt hopeless and couldn’t find a way out. I needed to find something about which Pablo, who was a daily companion, did not have anything to say. And that’s what finally happened.
I took a piece of formica and glued it to a piece of styrofoam. I would try anything at all, putting together materials and designs in pseudo-minimalist combinations to which I would add ready-mades. But, crucially, none of it had any apparent meaning. It was sort of kitsch, I guess, which might be a possible connection to what I had been doing right before, but everything seemed to go against Pablo’s interests. I didn’t do it to provoke him—I doubt I would have dared. It just happened, almost despite myself. Luckily, he was able to respect it… After that, he never again talked about my work, expressed an opinion, asked a question.
F.Q: Never again?
M.H: Not in the way he had. Not during the twenty-some years that our relationship lasted after that point. I may be exaggerating, but I think he might have been disconcerted by my new work… Notwithstanding, he decided to organize that show that would give me so much strength and get me out of that crisis once and for all. I remember that at that time I also wanted to do something that went against what was happening in the eighties—expressionism, blotches of paint, the pictorial gesture, all of which were very market driven by that time. The idea that that was great art had taken hold and I thought it was a bunch of nonsense, a cliché. Much more interesting was having something to work against. A motive.
F.Q: In its early years, Rojas can be seen as a juncture between the groups that started working in the nineties and the underground scene of the eighties. Did you ever work with Batato Barea, Humberto Tortonese, Alejandro Urdarpilleta, all of whom were part of the Rojas scene?
M.H: No, barely at all. In the eighties I would go to Rojas occasionally, but it took a while before I stopped feeling like an outsider. I wasn’t familiar with Argentine rock or the Buenos Aires scene; I was connected to Pablo and, through him, another time. I did have a social life, though, and I frequented underground cultural events: there was no choice, that was all there was. But I was pretty wrapped up in my own world. I didn’t really get the way people related and, besides, I was shy. Later, Gumier wrote a text for one of the shows Pablo, Marcelo and I did called “El águila, la gallina y el huevo,” [The Eagle, The Hen, and The Egg]. I was the egg. I had been pretty egg-like for some time.
F.Q: What do you think of the way you have been included in the history of the nineties’ art scene? In 2011, for example, you were included in a group show at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin,Texas on the artists who showed at Rojas in the nineties. How have you experienced that inclusion and other exclusions?
M.H: It was great to have been included, a real source of pride. For me, it’s really gratifying to be associated with a period that witnessed the emergence of artists I find not only interesting, but also important. But I don’t feel like part of a movement or a representative of anything, let alone a follower of an idea (there was no idea). I’m not really sure what they see when my work is placed in overviews of that sort. I’ve never really understood what I have in common with most of my contemporaries, or with categories like Arte Guarango or Arte Light . I think we are just sort of lumped together as part of the same generation. Maybe with time awareness of the need to fill in the gaps will set in. In fact, I’m sure it will.
Being left out of readings and of shows takes a toll on your ego. I accept the fact that not everyone likes my work. I don’t like most people’s work either. I have a sense of who I am, I know my work occupies a certain place in my generation, and I understand that I can be seen as part of certain traditions. Iommi , for instance, spoke poorly of my work in the mid-nineties because it reminded him of Kosice . And what he had to say wasn’t bad. With time, I have learned to value associations of that sort even when they’re used to put me down. But there are just a handful of associations like that one, and they are not made by critics. Due to its interest in space, my work could also be associated with [Lucio] Fontana, [Rubén] Santantonín, and Emilio Renart… or, to look to other times, with the playful Madí spirit, with the popular humor of Molina Campos or the more twisted humor of Suárez. It would be a good thing to trace those lines and traditions, to draw a large body with all the associations possible in Argentine art from the beginning.
F.Q: In what context did you start selling your work? Were you interested in the possibility of forming part of a private collection or the holdings of a public institution?
M.H: The greatest thing that could have happened to me, in the early nineties, was for Laura Buccellato to agree to show my work at ICI. She almost included me in the first show held there after she became the director, but she decided against it at the last minute and another year went by until she made up her mind. She said she had me under observation until the second show Marcelo, Pablo, and I did at Recoleta. The show I did at ICI was with Marcelo. For me, it was a really big deal to show there. But, until then, I didn’t even consider the possibility that I could sell work to anyone or have access to a collector, let alone an institution. It was something I wished for, but it was a remote possibility. I wasn’t overly concerned with selling either: I made a living as a house painter and that was fine with me. Gustavo [Bruzzone] was the first collector to have a sizeable group of my works, many of them earlier works that I was going to throw out. I told Gustavo that I didn’t have any room for some of the large works and I was going to get rid of them.
F.Q: You were really going to throw them out?
M.H: I’m not sure I would actually have done it, but I never thought I could sell them. They were very big and delicate. Gustavo told me he could keep them for me. That was the first time my work had a relationship with a collector, even though he was not a collector yet. He was just getting started and he did me the favor of keeping them. Years later, we made a deal. When Pablo and Marcelo and I had the third show, at Fundación Banco Patricios, almost everything sold. That was when I met people who bought art with the intention of collecting. It was unexpected and sudden. The next year, in 92, Pombo, Pablo Siquier, Ernesto Ballesteros, Eduardo Álvarez, and I had a show at Galería Ruth Benzacar and, once again, almost everything sold. That’s when I became aware of the art market, of being chosen to form part of something that, up until that point, I didn’t really know much about. And I quit my job as a house painter.
F.Q: So you found yourself in the coveted Rojas-ICI-Ruth Benzacar triangle of the nineties. Things were going well, you were selling your art and could work on it full time. What was that like for you? Was it exciting and stimulating? Was your work affected by this new context?
M.H: In 1992, after I started working with Benzacar, I said to myself, “OK, now what?” I had shown everywhere I wanted, from the most underground venues to the best gallery in the city. It was no longer such a kick. I’ve always enjoyed having shows at unknown venues more than anywhere else. Showing in the same place twice is less exciting from the get-go. At the same time, I also felt somewhat alone.
Until I started working with Ruth , I had only taken part in group shows. Now I had to come up with something on my own. An era had come to an end and I had trouble adjusting, knowing where to go next. The tension was diminished, in a way, and I had to stop and regroup a few times. I started experimenting with complex objects, new materials and processes, works with mechanisms and technological effects.
I became a really hard worker in those years, almost like a watchmaker. I would work only if I had a show coming up, with great pressure to get everything done in time. I didn’t produce much, but the works I made were very dense. At that time, I either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to work with assistants; I liked learning what I needed to know and then doing it myself. I would sometimes find myself penniless. During those years of dearth, I started playing chess with Claudio Baroni every day. I got so into chess that it occurred to me to make pieces by hand with a lathe for a game that would also be a light fixture for a table. It took me months to make them. Like a prisoner, I would do the work in the patio. I got by with practically nothing. And my work turned obsessive.
F.Q: Starting at that time—in the late eighties—you began working on the basis of other premises and your art seemed more and more bound to hard work, to the juncture of design and production.
M.H: That is the crux of much of my work. Sometimes I think that’s all it amounts to: the meaning of hard work. Still, I don’t always manage to get where I want to be. That doesn’t trouble me, though, I let myself get swept away. I like the idea that I can work like a machine, but one without a clear sense of order. I like the fact that the object produced can be read as something uncertain that exists somewhere between the industrial and the organic. That may be my constant goal in recent years. And, to that end, I engage my senses, my sense of touch, of vision, as well as being with the object, recognizing and gradually discovering the body. After the object has been formulated, I reshape it until I consider it perfect. I make small additions to yield tiny, but inevitable, changes and I do a lot of work with sandpaper; the crux of the work lies in details that may not be very evident.
Lately, I’ve been grappling with the use of color in my work. I’m color blind so I’m insecure about color. I would imagine shapes in pale colors, but most of the time that didn’t work. I vastly preferred the same things in darker shades. Then shapes that, from the very inception, were in darker tones came to me, forms linked to the night, to things perceived intuitively like groping in the dark. I remember that even when I was making the first works with hammer paint I said that I felt like I was drifting along in a submarine, being guided vaguely by a sound… What I’m doing now partakes of the same spirit, the same uncertainty. Though I am, by now, better able to see what I’ve done and to recognize, at least partly, what I’m doing, I’ve returned to that darkness in the sense of a blind sense of touch.
I’m talking about the spirit of the work, not only thinking and planning, but also seeing the whole movement through. And that’s something, since I’ve always considered myself very visually oriented.
F.Q: Ernesto Montequin wrote an article entitled “El extraño mundo de Miguelito” about your first solo show at Galería Ruth Benzacar, which took place in 1998. In it, he establishes connections between your work El Jardín Filosófico [The Philosophical Garden] and the language of alchemy. He speaks of “a celebratory appropriation of one of the myths of traditional alchemy: the legendary Tree of Life where the masculine and the feminine, with their entire binary and symbolic repertoire (sun and moon, gold and silver, etc.) come together. Amidst its roots lies a lake of mercury—mythical substance that grants knowledge of all the mysteries of the universe as well as the ability to turn metals into pure gold.” Was that understanding of your work basically accidental or is it—or was it—consistent with readings and images that run through your imaginary?
M.H: My relationship with the language of the occult is pretty superficial; it mostly takes place on the level of images. I’ve always been curious about the occult, but I’ve never gone very deep. I like symbolism, generally speaking, and I’ve always liked symbolist painters because they are so strange. I’m particularly interested in the special charge to their work which often borders on madness. The images in books on alchemy and other occult philosophies also open you up to oddities, to what you can sense but not see. The other day I was looking at some very odd and chimerical paintings in a book called Imágenes de Ayahuasca or something like that. I liked them. They had a crazy vibration akin to the psychedelic. They vibrate because of their color, but also because of how they condense meaning with symbols.
Dinosaur larvae and black holes
F.Q: A little while ago you were remembering making the frame for a work by Emilio Renart in Cangallo studio. Some have compared your work to his, a formal connection due to the use of organic, rounded forms like a magma or lava that expands from the painting into the space. Is Renart, for you, a fairly explicit point of reference?
M.H: Yes, he is. I was about sixteen when Pablo and I framed some of Emilio’s drawings. The works I made a few months later were clearly influenced by his image and technique; they were almost direct copies, in fact. A drawing I did of a crack with a portrait of a woman added on was very similar, in terms of treatment, to his craters. That drawing was a really tacky work that, as an adolescent, I sent to a juried show. I don’t remember seeing other works by him until much later. I remember I was at the Museo de Arte Moderno one time—it must have been in the year 2000—checking out a show of the permanent collection when I saw a painting I was sure was mine. I was startled because I didn’t remember having donated it. I walked over to see what collector had donated it and… it turned out the work was by Emilio Renart! I jumped back with a start. I thought it would be ludicrous if someone else, a viewer, thought what I had thought. After that experience, and after seeing his entire body of work—especially his Bio-Cosmos, which I adore—I realized how similar our work is and I recognized him as a point of reference, perhaps the single most important influence on me in Argentine art. I even put an image of his work/I mention him in the catalogue to the show at Bellas Artes. I am very connected to his work.
F.Q: If you think of your work as a chain of situations, images, or elements that appear, disappear, and reappear, what would you say has left for good? What always comes back? What never leaves?
M.H: Over the years, I’ve pursued a whole range of interests at the same time, perhaps to keep from getting bored. It has kept expanding and, even if a long time goes by before I return to certain things, that doesn’t mean I’ve left them for good. Certain mechanisms have come back time and again since the beginning, though. One method I started using early on—even when I was making expressionist work—to call attention to the work, for example, was focusing on something specific in order to bring the viewer in closer. I’ve used humor in my work since the beginning, also as a way to capture attention. I wanted the viewer to be able to engage the work playfully, at least on the level of vision, and to be able to find something—whether naughty or mocking—that would establish an alliance or an understanding. What I feared most, like a specter, was being a solemn or gloomy artist. That playful or comic quality is no longer so central to my work… I no longer live in dread of that specter.
The holes first appeared during my expressionist period as well and they reappeared later as cracks in formica, then in some paintings with hammer enamel and, every now and then, in objects. In the nineties, they took the form of slits and tubes and they reached their greatest height in the following decade. I used the idea that there’s a whole world to be revealed behind the canvas in a number of different ways. I made my first self-portrait in late 89 and the last one in 2008. I made them in a great many formats; even though I may not be making them now, it’s hard to believe they have disappeared for good.
I started using resin and insects in the early nineties as well and I’m still using them; my treatment of those materials gets better and better, I think, and more and more elaborate. I also think that my interest in stories that ensue between the human and the material, the natural and the artificial, the organic and the industrial, could be seen as ongoing.
At a certain point, I also took an interest in making sculptures that could serve as useful objects or pieces of furniture. Light fixtures for the wall, shelves, a coat rack. That might have begun when I started working with formica, a material that, I was aware, I had removed from its context. I didn’t try to hide how odd it was to bring the domestic and the useful to the world of my objects. I liked feeling that what I was making blended into its surroundings, the idea of making a work of art that nobody realized was a work of art—and not only because I was shy and so if nobody saw what I was making as art, all the better.
I remember a lot of works that make use of the theme of water in one way or another, from a dinghy with an image of Iemanjá and waterfalls with fish sticking out as if playing or in danger to other liquids and real water like a baroque fountain I made not all that long ago. Another work with water is a tribute to Pelopincho y Cachirula , works somewhere between Pop art and items at a toy store.
F.Q: What about the characters from the children’s magazine Anteojito?
M.H: I loved them. They were falling down a waterfall of paint and colors. It was pocking fun at the eighties. The Neo-Expressionist waterfall. The work consisted of a lined two-meter-by-two-meter styrofoam screen. And the pizzas in Pizzería Harte had an anchovy. Then I made cans of anchovies. Then I made a self-portrait called Río Seco [Dry River] where a river runs through me. Next, I started making works with resin or glass drops on formica that were often seen as sweat or tears. Plus all those works in hammer paint, which has such a liquid appearance. I never got tired of encapsulating little worlds with insects in bubbles or volumes that looked like water. I’m from the Jurasic Park era, though I made those works a little earlier.
F.Q: In the movie, those close-ups of the drops that are the dinosaur eggs look like a work of yours from those years. The imaginary of science fiction is a point of reference in your work. Is that ever explicit?
M.H: I like that kind of story. As a kid, I was fascinated by the 1958 version of the movie The Fly. I was scared of the image of the tiny scientist screaming. The determination to alter and to pervert nature had a pull on me. I eventually made a tribute to that movie: on top of a small picnic table, I put a large bubble inside of which there were three flies surrounding a fourth, very large fly whose head was a self-portrait.
I was drawn to science fiction from the time I was a kid. I would read stories by Verne and comics, and watch movies like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, and TV shows like Land of the Giants and The Twilight Zone. I was fascinated by the idea of time travel. I would watch The Time Tunnel almost every day. I loved all that stuff.
F.Q: Speaking of The Time Tunnel, I would like to ask you about the works that make great use of tunnels, passageways, and caves. The folds, orifices, and textures in which viewers find sexual connotations are often quite explicit. What, for you, are those images tied to?
M.H: Sometimes those holes are organic and sometimes they are spiritual. They are undeniably bound to the sexual. The holes I make often border on becoming bodily orifices. But I don’t want to make that the sole focus of the work. They are also passageways to somewhere else: black holes, cosmic holes, gateways. They can be related to the orgasmic and to death. The sense of nothingness is what I find most compelling in the image of the hole.
I remember a photo of a shot in the head. The skin around the hole looked like a hemorrhoid, I mean, the bullet wound looked like an anus with hemorrhoids surrounded by strands of hair.
My interest in the sexual has never faltered. It’s been with me since my first contact with classical art, that is, since I was very small. Even in grade school, as soon as I could draw, it was one of the topics that I explored, sometimes explicitly or with an erotic intention. I still like doing that. And the sexual is bound to the work I’ve been making lately insofar as it is a form of exploration. The libido is geared to venturing into sensorial territories. The work grows blindly with forms and textures that develop as those same forms and textures are explored and turn into others. The sexual interests me when it can operate in that organic fashion in my work, regardless of whether or not the images themselves are organic.
Anyway, I’m not sure. It’s complicated and I don’t think much about it.
F.Q: It is through holes that you connect to the world. I think as well of The Tao Te Ching: “Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn't
is where it's useful./ Hollowed out, clay makes a pot. Where the pot's not is where it's useful./ Cut doors and windows to make a room. Where the room isn't, there's room for you./ So the profit in what is is in the use of what isn't.”
M.H: They are passageways, tubes everywhere. My work is bound to questions of emptiness, of nothingness. The hole is powerful, dark, you can’t see the bottom. Paradoxically, it’s both dense and nothing at all. Maybe, like you say, holes as channels make it possible to communicate, by means of emptiness, with everything. But they are also the existential ditch into which you can fall and be devoured by a large bug. The idea of the hole partakes of the metaphysical quality of the infinite. Which is why I don’t want the hole in my work to be read solely in terms of the sexual or solely in terms of the metaphysical, for that matter. That would be tremendously pretentious.
A Merciful Entomologist
F.Q: Entomology has been central to your work as a means, a tool, to develop narratives. I read once that when you were in Córdoba a moth got stuck to one of your paintings and, looking back, you consider that the beginning of your work with an entomological influence.
M.H: That’s true. I have a photo of that work. I’d been working with insects for some time when I came upon that photo along with other family photos. It struck me as ominous. It all started in 91 or 92. Soon after working with eggs, I began putting resin drops on formica. Then I had the idea to put small larvae inside those drops, larvae that would develop into a character, once again a sort of self-portrait. One day, an enormous fly came buzzing into the studio while I was in the middle of applying the hammer paint, which is highly toxic. I had my hands full and the fly was really annoying. Nonetheless, when I saw how big it was, I took immediate interest. I swatted and killed it, and then the idea for the work came to me. That was the beginning of a resource I would use for some twenty years, until not that long ago. At around that time, thanks to an accidental discovery of a way to use hammer paint, my work had been veering towards science fiction. With this second accident, that universe grew deeper. Insects ended up being the actors in many scenes that were also details of other works, the micro level, where I’m almost always baroque, taken still further.
F.Q: It was through the tool of entomology that you were able to connect the self-portrait, film, comics, science fiction...
M.H: That’s true. At the beginning, I made mutants with insects, but later I changed them a little, humanizing them with positions and activities. I first came into contact with entomology because I started to get ideas for flying or swimming characters that, therefore, had to have wings, but it was impossible to make wings that small. I investigated where to get them and, through Marcela Cabutti , I got in touch with Javier Muzón, an entomologist in La Plata. We became friends and he not only invited me along when he would collect insects, but also gave me some. Nicola Costantino also put me in touch with a guy, a sort of international insect trafficker from whom I bought a few amazing creatures—the head of an insect in one of my favorite works came from Borneo. Friends and acquaintances started bringing me any dragonflies or cricket that might fall on their laps. I learned how to work with them, how to position them. There is a whole artistic world around insects, people with great skill. I’m particularly fond of two Russian artists who worked with insects: Ladislaw Starewicz who, at the beginning of the last century, made a few great stop-motion films with insects, and Victor Pelevin, a contemporary writer whose book The Life of Insects inspired me. A lot of the beauty of the live insect gets lost when it dies, which is too bad, but when they are immersed in resin some of that vitality is restored. I admit, though, that I am now hesitant to kill them. I once trapped an insect—a large and beautiful ant, so soft with a hairy black bottom with white dots—that looked like it was screaming. I think it was a winged ant that didn’t have its wings anymore. I found it while I was walking on the beach and I didn’t want to kill it. When you go out to collect insects, you expect to bring things to a close, so to speak, later by dunking them in acetone in a process that, though scientific, is messy. When I got home, I put it in a jar. Days went by and the ant did not die. Insects are quite resistant. One day, I couldn’t find it in the jar. Confused, I opened it up and there it was, hiding, tangled up in the plastic on the lid. I guess it wanted to escape. I moved the lid aside and heard this steady shriek that really touched me. It reminded me of that first version of the movie The Fly that had made such an impression on me when I was a kid. It was too much for me and I had to let it go. It’s a silly story, but I like to tell it. Today, I have a hard time killing insects. I guess I have grown sentimental.