Article | Apr 2010
By Johan Lundh
Runo Lagomarsino was born in Argentina, raised in Sweden and is currently based in Malmö. After studying art at the Academy of Fine Art Valand, Gothenburg and the Malmö Art Academy, he went on to attend the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. His work focuses on how today’s political and social environment has developed through historical processes, and how this creates metaphors and pictures from which we read history and society. The exchange between Runo Lagomarsino and Johan Lundh took place between Malmö, Sao Paulo, and New York City over email in March 2010.
Johan Lundh: I want to begin this exchange by asking about your background. You were born in Sweden by Argentinean parents. However, your name doesn’t sound Argentinean, in fact, it sounds more Italian to me. Would you mind shedding some light over your personal history?
Runo Lagomarsino: My last name is Italian, my grandfather was from Genoa, and like many Italian families they immigrated to Argentina during the First World War. Lagomarsino or LAGO/MAR/SI/NO (lake/sea/yes/no). The name has never had this division and meaning (at least I never heard about), but maybe it is an interesting metaphor for the discussion regarding ones background, its importance and implication of how we read and re-read biography and history. Am I Swedish? SI/NO. Am I Argentinean? SI/NO.
One’s personal history is always in a state of flux. Things that before I thought were important I today see as something trivial. Like thinking about my last name as a word game: Do I travel by LAGO or MAR? Do I prefer to swim in LAGO or MAR? Is my political interest in LAGO or MAR?
After my parents were exiled from Argentina, they moved briefly to Spain and then to Sweden. That’s my background, but it is also the telling of this background. The memory of, and lack of memory of, this journey, and the dreams and fears it brought with it. It’s also the view of Alhambra in Granada when I was a kid. The privilege to have two languages as well as the strange moment of forgetting one of them and being forced to learn it again.
In Swedish 20th century writer Willy Kyrklund’s novel Om Godheten (“On Goodness”), the protagonist dies and comes to heaven, where he encounters God. However, God is a crocodile or so it appears. After the shock of meeting God had passed, the protagonist asks him: Why are you a crocodile? God replies: because that’s how you see me.
Johan Lundh: This intertwining of historical developments and personal stories seems to be key to understanding your art practice. Several years ago, you made a piece that captures your concern with historical colonial discourse and attributions of identity and language,We all laughed at Christopher Columbus (2003). The work consists of a single slide-projection on a small MDF-board. I have found myself coming back to We all laughed… many times, and it also appears to be a seminal artwork for your practice. Would you mind elaborating a bit on it?
Runo Lagomarsino: It is an important piece for my practice. It connected several thoughts that I was dealing with conceptually, politically and visually at the time. The phrase comes from a popular jazz song; the lyric starts with the line “They all laughed…” so I just change “They” to “We” incorporating myself into the work. Whitout really telling so much about whom this “We” is, or why this “We” are laughing at Christopher Columbus. The work was my way of reflecting on the relationship between memory and colonial project that have influence on the way we understand history, society and culture. In what way is contemporary Latin America’s status contingent on a colonial history? Another aspect is the emphasis on the connection between language, translation and time, which I think exist in several of my other works as well.
I was and am still trying to develop an aesthetic language that doesn’t follow ‘mono-lineal narratives,’ avoiding the documentary language that so often is used by artists working with theses topics. I was searching for a conceptual and visual framework that moved in and out through these questions, where precise images and poetic gestures became central elements. Letting the work have heterogeneous possibilities and openness for different and contradictory directions. Where ambiguity is linked to poetry and doubt is linked to criticality, and where the viewers may engage in multiple conversations at ones. My aim was to create ‘a place behind the image’, where things would seem to be slightly ajar.
Johan Lundh: I have a quote written down in my notebook that I have been coming back to again and again. The quote is for art theorist Boris Groys essay The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction from his book Art Power (2008): “… above all, it is today’s artists and intellectuals who are spending most of their time in transit–rushing from one exhibition to the next, from one project to another, from one lecture to the next, or from one local cultural context to another.” Over the last few years, you have participated in artist residencies in Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Sweden and Turkey, as well as traveled extensively. How has residencies and travel shaped your work, and do you find it problematic that we all expect to be nomadic as cultural workers?
Runo Lagomarsino: I think there is a difference in the idea of transfer and travel. There is this quote, don’t know from whom: “its not so strange that the metaphor ‘beautiful as an airport’ in never used.” First of all, it’s the people you meet–friends, colleagues, new friends, new colleagues–that are vital. The moments, the discussions, the walks, the cafés, the bars that I think are the most important part. To move from your own context and see and learn from others, to challenge your view of how things are and should be. Travel as a political space, a space for struggle, is something that I have been interested in for a long time. The idea of places–how they are named and by whom–are central to this creation, a feature that my work mirrors in the historical connections between cartographies of colonialism and cartographies of Diaspora.
I think that different residencies are valuable for different reasons. Some are more focused on production as for example Baltic Art Centre, located in the medieval city of Visby on the island Gotland of the coast of Sweden. Other residencies have been important because of the specific context of their locale. Argentina, in this case Buenos Aires, was significant because it was the first time I traveled to Argentina as a professional, and not just visiting family, it was important as a departure of myself, a movement of the self. Brazil, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, because the cultural production from the manifest of Antropófago as a alternative postcolonial praxis, to the movements and artistic practice such as Helio Oiticica and Cildo Meireles and the development of modernism in the architecture of for example Lina Bo Bardi and Oscar Niemeyer has inspired my work in many ways.
To answer the second part of the question, I think there is confusion between the concepts of nomadic and traveling as a cultural worker, I don’t think it is really the same. The positions of privileges are very different. Similar to the romantic notion of activism in some art discourse, I think we over estimate our work as nomadic.
“An individual piece of paper from one of the stacks does not constitute the “piece” itself, but in fact it is a piece. At the same time, the sum of many pieces of the identical paper is the “piece,” but no really, because there is no piece, (rather, there) is only an ideal height of endless copies”
I think the way that Gonzalez-Torres “stack pieces” work(s) as traveling and as a metaphor for traveling is an interesting departure and position regarding the complex narratives of belonging and nomadic movements.
Johan Lundh: Speaking of the Baltic Art Centre, you just finished a residency there. This was your second residency in Sweden, the country you grew up in and where you still live. I participated in the same program a couple of years back and found it both interesting and peculiar to do a residency in my native country. How did you find this experience?
Runo Lagomarsino: In relation to the narratives of geography and the idea that there are directions in the world despite the fact that it's a globe, I would like to reply by sending you this short dialogue:
Treebeard: I will leave you at the western borders of the forest. You can make your way north to your homeland from there. [Pippin suddenly looks up with a gleam in his eyes.]
Pippin: Wait! Stop! Stop! [Treebeard comes to a stop.] Turn around. Turn around. Take us south!
Treebeard: South? But that will lead you past Isengard.
Pippin: Yes. Exactly. If we go south we can slip past Saruman unnoticed. The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm. It’s the last thing he’ll expect.
Treebeard: Mmmm. That doesn’t make sense to me. But then, you are very small. Perhaps you’re right. South it is then. Hold on, little Shirelings. I always like going south. Somehow it feels like going down hill.
(Script from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)
In a practical way it was good, I produced a new piece that I have been researching for a while. It has as a starting point the drawings of the marquise in the Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paolo inaugurated in 1954 and designed by Oscar Niemeyer. To me, in this moment in time, to be in a place were there is this focus on production–conceptually and economically–where the institution is flexible and open minded, supports, follows and questions the way a new work is being produced. I found very important, as it can be a very complex situation being in a new place and context producing a new work.
Johan Lundh: Finally, you recently presented one of your largest solo-exhibitions to date, Las Casas is Not a Home (2009/10). It featured both previous and new works and was shown in London and Malmö. It must have been exciting to tease out the connections between different works. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Las Casas is Not a Home, and what you have planned next?
Runo Lagomarsino: Las Casas is Not a Home is a piece that I have been working on for long time, adding and removing things, almost like the work was an endless notebook. The point of departure for the installation is the Spanish Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas (1486–1566). He was one of the first and fiercest critics of colonialism, who strongly disagreed with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on the occasion of the Valladolid debate (1550–1551), which today is acknowledged as a core discussion of the status of indigenous population. The title of the installation plays with the notion of home and placement, using the double meaning of Las Casas–both as a name of the priest and the word for homes in Spanish.
A central aspect and development for the work was the production and inscription of six photographs from the wallpaper preserved in a village restaurant in Ötlingen near Basel, which became a part of the installation. The wallpaper produced in Paris 1820 by Dufour & Leroy, it was named “Inca Panorama” and it is based on the novel The Incas; or, The Destruction of The Empire of Peru (1777), by the French Enlightenment writer Jean-François Marmontel. This altered version of the wallpaper was first exhibited in Kunsthalle Basel, in the group show Report on Probability (2009), and later as a solo-show at Elastic in Malmö (2010):
“Lagomarsino traces the history of Latin America by means of fragments, making it possible to move backward and forward in time and to overlap individual stories. The arrangements are reminiscent of school or of scientific categorization: Although they suggest learning situations, they nevertheless leave the information to be communicated to the viewer open. The meaning of the things is connected to the direction of rhizomatous readings—from the journeys of conquering to the current political ambitions of Western countries, from modernist forms back to the art of ancient cultures, from the colonization of South America to industrialization, from the current global currency system back to the effects of the cold war.
In the video The G in Modernity Stands for Ghosts (2009), crumpled pieces of paper in a small cardboard box are lit with a match. The balls of paper are blank, undiscovered areas
Lagomarsino cut out of an atlas. The film ends with them carbonizing completely, but, shown as a loop, the action of the burning begins over. The sequence shows a symbolic act of destruction but also of return: the small box becomes an open coffin that holds the terrae incognitae of the world, which are repeatedly ignited anew. The image of smoke and fire is also connected with the manifestations of ghosts, as the title of the film suggests. Lagomarsino’s title refers directly to Anibal Quijano’s essay “Of Don Quixote and Windmills in Latin America” (2005). Quijano’s text contributes to the current debate in South American cultural studies and social sciences, which is an attempt to reflect anew on the impact of modernity on Latin American society. According toQuijano, that society continues to develop under the preconditions of a colonial discourse on power and under the influence of Eurocentrism. In order to find a way of out this labyrinth, “where our unsolved problems haunt us like ghosts from our past,” these phenomena have to be brought to light and used to understand historical experiences so that Latin America can develop a new, self-confident identity.”
(Excerpt from the text Slow Explosions, on Las Casas Is Not a Home by Simone Neuenschwander, 2010.)
I have just finished a new piece that will be exhibited in Mexico in April with the title Horizon (Southern Sun Drawing). It’s a work that consist of almost 100 small drawings where I have covered a thin line in the middle of the paper creating a line which could be interpreted as a horizon. The papers are then put against the sun in the window of my studio for several weeks. As the sun burns, the paper turns yellow except for the covered horizon. As Avi Alpert writes thinking about the work;
Let’s start with a question. Is a line what connects two points, or are two points what are formed when we draw a line? When we think of a line as connecting two points, we think of it as making connections. When we think of a line as creating two points, we think of it as making something new exist. Perhaps a line can do both. Let’s take an example. On October 12, 1492, Rodrigo de Triana saw a speck of land in the sea. The empty horizon, the never-ending line, suddenly closed in. A map could now be made. A line could now be drawn. From the Canary Islands to the Bahamas, one could run a pen over a map to mark routes of trade, bodies to be thrown to the sea, the outline of the future. But the line does only connect the points: the line makes the points. There is now an “Old World” and a “New World.” Without the line of connection, the points themselves do not exist.
1) We all laughed at Christopher Columbus (2003)
Singel slideprojection on Mdf. 45,5 x 25,5 x 42,5cm.
Courtesy the artist and Elastic Gallery, Malmö
2) Las Casas Is Not a Home (2008-2010)
Objects, collages, photographies, video, sculptures and shelfs. Variable dimensions.
Courtesy the artist and Elastic Gallery, Malmö