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Starting in your first photogrpahic works, there has been a constant on which you reflect: identity. How would you explain the evolution of your work as regards this theme?

My reflections on identity have dominated my projects since practically the beginning. I started very young, and initially my ideas and personal issues revolved around gender and my immediate social space, including the family. In the nineties, I developed series such as Gallinero Feroz (1994) and Pasatiempos (1997-98) around these themes. In those projects, the studio provided the setting for the images. Gallinero Feroz used completely analogue techniques whereas Pasatiempos was created with incipient digital technologies.

A deeper examination of personal stories led me to explore my physical space and how it determined my personal relationships, including relationships with the city. I grew up in downtown Caracas, where the city’s urban history is written on every corner. From its colonial past to the brutalist designs of the seventies, via the forceful modern spirit of the rationalist architecture of the fifties that has dominated the city ever since. Like it or not, urbanism and architecture determine your relationship not just with your city, but also with its social and political history, and with the ideas that shaped its architecture and its different sectors.

Today, my work focusses completely on the ideas or circumstances that prompted the architectural configuration not just of my city, but of other cities where I find an echo of my own history.

Throughout your artistic career you’ve questioned the idea of progress within the context of Venezuela. Where did your interest in the city and the advent of modern architecture in the 1950s come from?

Caracas is an eminently modern city, and the center of Caracas, that was my immediate context, allowed me to establish a practically organic relationship with it. The school I attended, designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who also designed the famous Central University of Venezuela (1940-1960), was the city’s first one to be built with modern architecture. I also lived very close to the Towers of the Simon Bolívar Center (1954) by Cipriano Domínguez and El Silencio housing complex (1942), also Villanueva’s work, which was the setting for my youthful daily life.

However, much of that legacy was part of a kind of social pact between the State, the military establishment and the civil society. This legacy has been challenged and delegitimised by the gap between expectations and State responsibilities for the housing, education, healthcare and labour needs of the population. This gap affects not just infrastructure but also the social and political pact that generated the illusion of an already frustrated welfare society. Today, it has been supplanted by another diametrically opposed system that has generated deep social, economic, institutional and political cracks that have aborted any possible kind of national agreement.

Your photographic project “Residente Pulido” (Polished Resident) shows examples of these buildings as a representation of failed modernity, specifically in Caracas. What does the title of this project mean? How does their digital treatment turn these buildings into enclosed, brilliant monuments?

The citizens of Caracas are the ultimate heirs to the modern project. Unfortunately, Venezuela is a very centralised country, with Caracas embodying the modern city concept. It has incontestable heritage buildings such as the Central University alongside pharaonic projects with an impossible aura such as the Humboldt Hotel (1956) by Tomás José Sanabria (on top of the city’s highest mountain), as well as anodyne residential buildings that fill various sectors of the city.

These anodyne buildings are important not individually but as an accumulation or urban ensemble that both outlines the city and reflects the emotional fabric of its inhabitants. These buildings symbolise a project for a country, where the best future is probably the past we had. This whiff of nostalgia combines with today’s terrible urgencies, where representation no longer has a place or permanence, and allows no way out. This is why, in Residente Pulido, I block up digitally the possible doors and windows of a residential development that is the emotional framework which, ultimately, remains as a monument.

The buildings in Caracas are identified not by numbers but by women’s or geographical names, or things, which are, in any case, not very effective as addresses. For this work I chose buildings named after porcelain producers, such as Capodimonte, Meissen and Lladró, which also stand out for the shiny, crystalline surface of their walls (hence the name: Residente Pulido, like a given and a family name, too). With the chosen names and the crystalline surface, I try to exemplify the very real fragility affecting the modern project in this country. There was a belief that the growth of infrastructure would magically and immediately bring about growth in social and political areas, but it was a kind of popular fantasy at that time; what we actually saw was Caracas, and the country as a whole, becoming a kind of fragile backdrop struggling to stay afloat above the deep, insurmountable cracks that emerged and ate away at each of us.

Besides “Residente Pulido”, you later developed another project called “Residente Pulido: Ranchos” (Polished Resident: Shanties). How do the two series of photographs relate?

Resident Pulido addresses buildings spread out in the valley of the formal but frustrated city. Resident Pulido: Ranchos is the response of marginalised society to the urban development that shaped its homes as a mirror of the formal city, in which both deny their reflection. They are two subjects, two examples of frustration and two ways of understanding and creating an emotional framework as the protagonist of the urban scene.

Although you now live in Madrid, how do you see the new architecture in Latin American cities, particularly in Venezuela? What kind of representative role and relationship do new buildings have with the contemporary city and its inhabitants?

In Venezuela, the Chávez government’s investment in the country’s infrastructure has been purely propagandistic, with little architectural or urban value. This did not stop him leading the new urban relations created in the city. Three projects over the years are worthy of discussion: the Misión Vivienda and Misión Barrio Adentro, and Torre David.

The name of the first project stated its aim, and consisted in providing housing to marginalised sectors in enormous beehive buildings located in the main areas of the formal city. Plots earmarked for squares or prominent buildings were chosen as the location of these prefabricated buildings, making them propagandistic or even a kind of revenge against the formal city. Unlike the experience of many European cities, they were not located with sufficient urban and service guarantees to create a productive social network, but as a weapon against the urban heritage of the formal city and its social fabric. There was no gain on either side, thereby deepening the persistent social fissures in the city. These buildings have the magnified signature of Chávez stamped at the top of their façades.

The Misión Barrio Adentro mission was a social programme of medical dispensaries in marginal areas of the city, surely the best of the Chávez period, though it raises major issues. The two-storey buildings were hexagonal bare-brick modules with small windows. The dispensary was on the first floor, and the doctor lived on the floor above. The programme was controlled by Cuban doctors and built beside the pre-existing health system, with little or no communication. Despite being a star project for the government, it was developed parallel to the official health sector, operating with a traditionally marginalised population. The Cuban resident doctor lived a marginalised life inside the dispensary in an absolutely alien and, in some cases, hostile environment. I find the image of the blind hexagonal towers reminiscent of medieval times, emerging at various impossible points in the city and raising so many readings of segregation and marginalisation, highly metaphorical.

Torre David was not a government project, but it is a metaphor of the degradation and cannibalisation of the city in the midst of the Chávez years. It is the third tallest skyscraper in the city, owned by a bank that failed during the financial crisis of the nineties. The crisis helped, among other things, to bring Chávez to power. The tower was unfinished inside, with no partition walls or lifts, but it had its glass cladding. After the crisis, it was included in the bank’s assets to be confiscated by the government and was abandoned to its fate.

First, its façade was looted by sellers of glass and metals (with the incessant noise produced by breaking framed glass), and later it was occupied by influential armed groups in the wave of expropriation of private property. These groups negotiated the entry of homeless families into communities that were differentiated by floors. More than a thousand families settled there, the world’s highest squat. Bikers were organised to work as “lift operators” on unprotected stairways. The community, ranging from families who simply needed a place to live to criminals who turned the impregnable territory into a criminal den, became the fantasy of intellectuals and the media who embraced the fate of the building as a community project of the twenty-first century. The case was exhibited, in the form of a kind of idealised, liveable model, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, winning the Golden Lion. Six months later, Chávez died with high levels of popularity, the skyscraper was plunged into kidnapping scandals, and, finally, the resident families were evicted. Today, speculation about its future is ongoing.

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Image credits. All rights reserved © Alexander Apóstol

Residente Pulido (2001): Limoge, Meissen, Rosenthal, Capodimonte, Sevres, Copenhague
Residente Pulido: Ranchos (2003): Ladrillo, Ladrillo, Blanco, Blanco, Ladrillo, Blanco

Posted
30.Apr.2019 1342 views
Author
Alexander Apóstol Alexander Apóstol

Alexander Apóstol (Venezuela, 1969) is a multimedia conceptual artist who lives and works between Caracas and Madrid. He engages with a politically charged history of Latin America through the lenses of urban planning, culture and architecture. His body of work is comprised of photographs, films, installations and texts. He has exhibited in numerous museums in London, Madrid, Leon, New York, Rotterdam, among others, and has been invited to various biennials, such as the Shanghai Biennial, the Gwangju Biennial, Korea, and the EVA International, Ireland, in 2018. He has published the monograph Alexander Apóstol/Modernidad Tropical and La Salvaje Revolucionaria en Horario Estelar/The Savage Revolucionary.

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