Born and raised in Argentina, José Luis Torres immigrated to Canada fifteen years ago, and the process of displacement and adaptation became the root of his current artistic practice. He has a Bachelor's degree in visual arts, a Master's degree in sculpture and training in architecture and integrating art with architecture. Torres is equally informed by the study of architecture and sculpture, as he is by observations of vernacular construction and unplanned urban development, his intricate artworks address, under the guise of playfulness, the serious turmoil of life in transition. Torres is attentive to the bifurcations and changes of direction that shape our way of life today. Through his installations he brings our attention to patterns of consumption and the indiscriminate creation of 'stuff' made of plastic and other non-bio degradable materials. He looks at objects, its value as witnesses of history, and their paradoxical status, as they are both fundamental and incidental.
STIR caught up with him to find out what goes on behind his stirring and captivating exhibitions and public art projects.
Georgina Maddox (GM): How did your engagement with public art and waste materials begin? What triggered it and what has been the impact of your public art works? Do people come up to you and ask about it, do they interact with the art?
José Luis Torres (JLT): I make exhibitions from ordinary materials - things from construction sites, offices, and other parts of our regular environment. By taking these items out of their usual locations or away from their intended use, by turning them upside down and inside out, my artistic work encourages people to pay attention to the ‘stuff’ that makes up our lives. From there, it becomes easier to see things we take for granted, to question assumptions, and perhaps to find paths to address the big issues of our times.
In relation to my engagement with public art, it all started with a need for a calling on society to recognise their 'excessive consumption and collective insecurities' (quoting from catalogue text). For me every public art project is an effective activist art work, taking a subtle but powerful approach to addressing some environmental issues. The message in my work is shared in a more subtle manner that society has become accustomed to. With people beginning to ignore the depressing reports on the decline of the environment, my work in public art appears welcoming on the surface as it attempts to change the consumers’ habits with its use of colour, common household objects and waste materials, but it has a hidden message under all this gaiety. Meshing common junk together highlights the significance of the amount of this non-degradable waste and the severity of the issue. While the pieces appear playful, it forces observers to confront this issue as the plastic items appear as if they could fall at any moment. This gives the impression that one’s over-consumption is threatening the very space they walk on, demonstrating that excessive consumer purchases are, in fact, having a negative impact on society as a whole and their environment.
Often times, people avoid critically thinking about environmental issues and their individual contributions to the problem. Instead, capitalist societies encourage people to be self-interested; plastic items are usually cheap, people tend to focus on how this benefits them personally, and consumers avoid addressing the negative environmental repercussions of their purchases.
The manner in which my message is conveyed was not deliberately shocking in nature. One may feel that this takes away from impact that the installation had on the audience. However, the playfulness and subtlety help the observers to come to terms easily with the message about the environment. By using vibrant colours and several common household objects, it is more welcoming for people to observe. It is then through further inspection that people begin to feel as though the plastic pieces are overwhelming, and realise this growing problem. With people constantly being told of the drastic negative impact humans are having on the environment, it is not uncommon for them to begin to ignore the message due to the harsh reality of it. In this way, my public art works has a new approach to having people come to understand how humans are affecting the environment by allowing them to determine this message for themselves. This approach, rather than using a more explicit one, is more likely to be accepted by the public since they will feel like they have accepted this idea on their own rather than having it being forced upon them.
GM: We are at the tip of an environmental crisis with climate change, geo-political refugees and serious nuclear and chemical waste hazards; what role can art play in all this?
JLT: Art has become an important channel through which people encounter issues related to the environment and migration. Indeed, members of the scientific community also consider contemporary art an effective tool for communication. The joint efforts are needed because the vast repercussions of migration in the global climate change are difficult to grasp for most people, and individual artistic responses can make problems and solutions more obvious and comprehensible.
I am very interested in how artists can play a more central role in addressing the complex issues of our times - making environmental and social sustainability into tangible experiences is a primary goal.
GM: Which have been your most successful and challenging project so far?
JLT: I think that the project that had the most challenges but had the most impact and successful was Question d'Adaptation at Koffler Gallery, Toronto (Curated by Mona Filip, August, 2018).
This exhibition brings up the thematic of migration and integration in three different parts - 'camouflage, reflection and construction'. The walls of the lobby of the gallery have been covered with dozens of mirrors so we can check where we locate ourselves before getting into the eye of the storm. The visitor walks through a maze, inside this gigantic in-situ installation. We can see piles of all kind of different objects and furniture, witnesses of the past, physical or mnemonic souvenirs that any migrant carries through life. The path forces the visitor to bend, check around, to make sure there is a freeway, and search for the exit. We crowd a space that was already overcrowded. As we move on, the surroundings cleanse, becomes less and less busy. We then face a long corridor of red and bare walls. The end of the labyrinth, the exit is made of a sunny yellow and brings us to a patio, supremely symbolic of North American’s sedentariness and accomplishment. This quiet space in the backyard is where the warriors finally get a rest.
It is both fantastic as a Disney castle and trashy as a slum, both a nightmare and an idealistic dream, this installation requests some time for the visitor to ingest and understand its entire scope. One could not want to linger too much into the installation. It is more or less comfortable as you can feel the worrisome precariousness of the roaming. The slick coldness of the monochrome walls might be a representation of these never-ending bureaucratic complications and the difficult task of adaptation that any migrant must go through, the sensation of always facing a blind wall. Does all this turmoil lead to eventually have the privilege to possess a few chairs on a nice green lawn? How can we define success and accomplishment?
This artwork is a social criticism and it is open to a whole spectrum of understandings. Each of us will experience Question d’adaptation accordingly to his / her know-how, past and desires.
GM: Tell us about your plans for the future.
JLT: In my next project I plan to continue exploring and identify the nomadic, more globalised existence of contemporary society as a key theme in my work. As we are living in an era of constant physical and cultural movement - so maps and identities are being redrawn within or beyond entire countries.