Susana Oliveros Amaya:
beautiful rocky but smooth texture
Interviewed by Elizabeth Burmann Littin.
This conversation was held virtually between Santiago and Bogotá, while Susana was suffering fever, surrounded by all the surfaces and domestic affairs of her family house.
Elizabeth Burmann Littin: I wonder If your background is in sculpture? because your work is based on objects and how we experience their ontologies...a very sculptural problem.
Susana Oliveros Amaya: No, I have never taken any sculpture classes until now. I studied both art and art history and took a lot of drawing and painting classes. I felt sculpture classes were based on learning the traditional techniques associated with sculpture and I never found them interesting. Besides, I think the teachers from drawing classes were always more willing to talk about other things besides drawings. I think that was what made me really bored in painting and perhaps what most of us like about "sculpture" as a department.
EBL: I can see that the main part of your practice explores materials, surfaces and how we experience them through the market. How do you select the materials that you work with?
SOA: Most of the times I buy them in thrift stores, Home Depot or collect them around Providence. Right now I am using a lot of cardboard which I collected when I was walking around. Before coming to RISD I used to gather a lot of things from different places. I knew that the truck that took the garbage away from my building in Bogotá came every Friday afternoon so Thursday was usually the best day to go to look for the things people had thrown away during the week. Christmas and New Years were also good dates because people bought new things and threw away the old. When I came to RISD I knew the dynamic of collecting "garbage" was (not?) necessarily going to change because I had/have been interested in working with building being recursive and using "cheap" materials so I decided not to bring anything with me from Colombia and wait and see what I could possibly found here. This is how I came across the thrift stores in Providence, first with Savers, then with the Salvation Army and at the end with Goodwill, because I do not have a car, and these places are accessible either by bus or on foot.
EBL: So in that sense thrift stores are the center of the resources that previously you had just found in the urban waste, mixed without any preselection than the eventual trend of consumption. How has been starting working with thrift stores and their curator of objects?
SOA: I started working with thrift stores, and I guess I should clarify I am also working with donation centers, because thrift stores are also often associated with the kind of store that sells second-hand clothes, so they gather things through a fashion-filter (vintage). I am not so interested in this kind of places because they have a different dynamic. Donation centers, on the other hand, work under the idea of generating capital with a "social" objective through the circulation of things that are donated or bought and then resold. The customers are very different and what initially struck me about these places was that I found so many different things mixed together: parts of objects that were functional, and not, besides other weird things; objects from so many times and places, histories and qualities, just living together.
EBL: If objects are holders of particular material histories with social and local implications, Then what differences you see between objects that circulate in thrift stores in Providence versus the ones that you found in Bogotá?
SOA: Sometimes I find the same things and sometimes I am amazed when I discover things I did not know existed. In this way I think the relationship is very different from the experience that you may have on a regular store of "new" products where everything is spelled out for the costumer (like the use and value). I knew that a lot of artists must work with things they buy on "thrift stores" so in my project I have been trying to bring, literally, those spaces back into the sculptures. I also reflect on the conditions these objects are sold there and what it means when I get involved in the circulation of the capital by paying for them and repurposing them. I made a video also to advocate for the kinds of sculptures I was making in my studio because I felt like it was not enough just to say they came from these places.
EBL: With your intervention of ordinary objects, what drives your specific material and meaning transformation? Are you trying to convert them into sculptures? Are you interested in petrifying them? Preserving them in their obsolescence? Hybridizing them?
SOA: The piece that I presented for the exhibition Crescendoing started from a vacuum cleaner that I collected near my house and then connected to the electricity. I found it was still working, meaning the motor was turning on but it was not working as a vacuum which made me think, about what, precisely, made a vacuum cleaner a vacuum cleaner. How could I use this in my favor and redesign a vacuum cleaner that would not work in a conventional way as I connect it to the wall and "turn it on". How could I speak about this layering of shells that cover up all home appliances so they hide their "indoor" hidden system. I was also thinking about vacuum cleaners from before in Colombia where I found a beautiful steamer once. The "body" was like a rock. It had a really beautiful rocky but smooth texture so I started thinking about the urge to incorporate "nature" inside the house. I am more interested in making vacuum cleaners instead of sculptures. The notion that we need something like a green plastic plant in the bathroom, that the vacuum cleaner needs to look like a rock, that the kitchen marble is fake and the wood is fake all seem very exciting for me because of the domestication of nature in the house. I also found an episode in a Netflix series that spoke about the history of Transformers, and I enjoyed the moment when they were designing ordinary objects that turned into robots/machines like watch-robots or binoculars-robots, before they all developed into car-robots. This is similar to how I created this sculpture that assembles and disassembles, that has a cable cord and that uses artificial textures for each piece.
EBL: I understand that you are interested in how the sense of “artificiality” operates in the design of everyday objects. In the process of covering them with new surfaces, how much do you want to reveal the provenance of the objects that you use in your work? Is the origin or what they used to be still important?
SOA: I am interested in thinking about where the drive for artificiality comes from, why we need it, and at the same time, how it works in different scenarios. We relate to the surfaces of things that are meant to look a certain way, and we never encounter what is on the inside. I have been working around the idea of how we desire to encounter the things around us and have come to realize artificiality is very interesting and is almost everywhere. Of course I understand one could almost argue artificiality is necessarily defined according to something that is considered natural, so I understand it as a way of transformation. This principle is very exciting for me because it basically means everything can become something else and this is based on the fact that the essence of things is also kind of "hidden". This is why I work on covering and layering and then revealing specific sections of the sculpture. I think the origin is still important and it is usually what drives all the decisions in the first place. But for me the object is not defined solely by its function but also by its materiality. In this way, I have been working with techniques that are based on the idea of commodifying artificiality—the transformation is something that comes from the application of spray paint, or a certain surface or technique. This is how I started using paper mache and then changed it to joint compound with toilet paper. I copied this technique from an old US lady that has a website and a special recipe and she makes sculptures for the garden and the house. I liked it because the technique was based on things you might already have in your house and she created really ugly/pretty sculptures with interesting textures and finishes so I thought it had a lot of potential to use it in different ways. With time I decided to adapt the recipe and took away a lot of things she was using and kept just the basics.