interview: Alejandra Almuelle
Alejandra Almuelle is an Austin-based sculptor. Although she grew up in Peru and lived for a time in Písac, a city known internationally for its ceramics, it was not until she moved to Austin that she began seriously working with the medium. We spoke with her about The Silent Narrative of Things, an exhibit she displayed at Austin’s Dimension Gallery earlier this year. The show presented an impressive array of materials, including coral-crowned busts, colorful spices, and long spools of red yarn. Insightful commentary on the historical nature of commerce tied everything together and offered a scathing critique of how capitalism commodifies the very substances of our bodies and the essential nutrients we need to live.
Your exhibition at Dimension Gallery this year, The Silent Narrative of Things, was a tour de force both conceptually and materially. I found it really impressive. Your exploration of the spices and salt as both currency and nutritional compounds, and as elements of the body, shed light on the paradox of living in a society that commodifies all these elements that we need to live. And I thought your sculptures—they would sit awash in these spices, and yet they could not hold them. The spices would slip through their fingers or pour through their holes, and this so perfectly mirrors the poverty and inequality in our society, which dictates that we have to purchase the very things that are intrinsic to our ability to survive. We’re always trading one component of our livelihood for another just to get by. I was wondering—how did that idea for the exhibit come to you? What was the inspiration?
AA: Everything started with the  election. And more than inspiration, this series began based on an idea that I had some time ago. I wanted to develop a body of work based on pre-Colombian ceramics. So the ones that are right there, the gray ones? [she points to another collection of busts] This is something that I made a few years ago that I didn’t quite… I haven’t developed it yet. It’s an exploration of the proportions of the human body in the form of a vessel. I was playing with the empty heads. They are hollow and open.
Is that common in pre-Colombian ceramics?
AA: This one, in particular? No, this is a Mochica-Chimú portrait. They used to make these kinds of clay portraits as well as ceremonial pieces, which were human- and animal-shaped. They were made to be used. I love that. They were not just ornamental. They were meant to be used, to touch and drink from.
I love the idea of hollow heads and hollow bodies, the body as a vessel. You can get a sense of the emptiness and form at the same time. The appearance of clay, for me, is a bit too heavy, too solid. I like to texture the surface and pierce it, creating openings, crevices and cracks, until I feel the piece is breathing, in a way. It gives me a sense of permeability, in which the interior and the outer space are one and the same. But you asked me a question. What was the question?
I asked about the inspiration for the exhibit, especially the use of salt and spices. How did you come to have that idea?
AA: I started with Seven, which is the name of this series [gesturing to the pieces] because it is made of seven pieces alike. The idea was to make a vessel, a vase, a vase with a head. And they had little hands, [but] I was kind of forcing them. The feeling that I was having was of frustration, of loss of agency. [I was struggling with] the problems, the implications of the current political situation, not just on a national level but on an international level, too. So I began these figures, and they were kind of… bonded, you know? Constrained. But at the same time, they were safe, self-contained, and the expressions on their faces mirrored my feelings: they were pensive, they were deep in thought, weighing things out. So I placed them in a line, as they were made. Then the question was, What color? I went back and forth—No color, yes color. Also, I was debating about the hands, because they didn’t really “fit” anymore. I felt I was forcing them, because the figures somehow refused them. So a friend of mine came and I asked her, Color? “No color.” Exactly right. The hands? “They don’t fit.” Exactly right. She was inside of my head! That is the way I work—there wasn’t a statement. I arrived there later. In a way, I allow the work to emerge first and then listen to it.
But going back to the piece—I decided to leave them white. I am not too fond of pedestals and I liked the way they looked on the table, so I decided to make a platform covered with salt [on which] to place them. It was more of an aesthetic decision: white on white, the different textures of white, but later it dawned on me about the significance of salt in history and how it pretty much echoed how I felt while making those seven pieces.
It emerged organically, then, your use of the materials.
AA: It emerged organically, and everything was kind of tied together. I didn’t know that everything was tied together until I was writing the statement. I have the belief, by observation, that there are three kinds of attention. One is the attention that focuses on making the object that you are working on. Then there is a second attention that sits in the back and watches yourself working and being engaged—it is a bit like a resting place, but a very grounding one from where I can observe and be still. So the first attention is in the making, in the action. The second one is more like a witness. But there is another one, a third attention that resides in the unknown. It is the one I feel that makes a lot of the decisions in the creative process. It is as if each kind of attention informs the others. So what I thought was just for pure aesthetic reasons, but in reality, it is much, much more than that. And maybe the third one is your subconscious.
It’s like instinct. The aesthetic impulse.
AA: Exactly! And I always see that I did it again, it’s like, aesthetics made me decide that, and I think that is the subconscious choosing. What do you like and what don’t you like? It’s not just liking or disliking something—there is a reason. But the whys are not necessarily clear right then, at that moment. When I was in the gallery presenting the show, I had to pause, reading the statement. I was welling up. It was like going back to the beginning, when I began working on the series of the salt pieces. It is our tendency to put a price on everything—on life. So, before, it was salt, and now it’s going to be water. There are places right now where they are privatizing water.
I know. Look at Flint, Michigan. It’s terrible.
AA: Right? So what are we doing? What is our tendency to do this, since… always? Why are we doing this?
AA: So that was salt, and then spices. The idea of spices is associated with trading and immigrants. We bring our flavors, we travel—that is what we have done. But it is also a very bloody history.
Even now, immigration is such a difficult thing. There’s so much violence in just trying to move to different parts of the world—it’s fraught with danger for so many people. And that piece is where the hands ended up from the Sevenstatues?
AA: Right. That was what I had in mind.
AA: The hands moved to the Spice piece.
They work so well there.
AA: Something really interesting happened with the Spice piece. The hands have a lot of movement in their gestures, but when I placed them in the boat made with the spices, all of a sudden I saw them as disembodied hands, a trace left by the people they belonged to, people from that history of colonization and violence.
History just glosses over that bloodshed and strife and talks instead about the commercial value of it, and how great it was, and we forget the value of the human life and what was sacrificed for that.
AA: Why do we have to abuse power and conquer others to gain something that is valuable for that culture at the moment? Salt and water are fundamental for life, you know? Why is there this persistent tendency? To say that is human nature, well, human nature is many things. How as a civilization did we end up turning in this direction, and not in another? It always puzzles me. Maybe we will never know why, but it always puzzles me. So yes, this is how I began this series. So there was Seven and Spice, and then there were the Moiras.
I was going to ask about that. How did they fit into this concept?
AA: The Moiras are, in Greek mythology, the Fates. [Editor’s note: they are referred to as Moiras in Spanish and Moirai in English.] In other [mythologies] they were one person, one character. But the three in one is nice, right? Because they are together.
I was listening to an interview with [the biologist] Humberto Maturana, and he was saying something like life comes when certain circumstances, the conditions, are right for life to emerge. So what he was saying was that there is confianza—trust—that the butterfly is going to be born into life and have enough food, nutriment, nourishment, and there aren’t going to be insecticides, etc. For me, it’s not just the trust, it’s the circumstances, the conditions for life to happen—but that condition is hand-in-hand with the end of those conditions. That is death. They come together, and to separate that is what freaks us out. When we stop seeing that, I think what comes is fear and the need to control and to have power. When you somehow extrapolate yourself from the nature of life and death, then you need to have these securities, this false [sense of] security. No, there is nothing secure. There is nothing that is for sure, and the uncertainty is what makes [people] gravitate to certain controlling [tendencies].
How does that tie in with the three Fates?
AA: The three Fates basically are that—the aspects of life. One makes the thread of life, the second one measures how long you are going to live, and the third one is the one who cuts it. This one, the second one, has coral.
Why coral? A lot of the statues have it.
AA: This coral, as you can see, is in a process of bleaching, and coral bleaching is an indicator of pollution and global warming. Being the Moira that measures the thread of life, this seemed like the right element for it.
The juxtaposition of these organic, natural forms that are not humanistic, I think, creates the impression that these are supernatural beings that are more in touch with nature than we are. I like that symbiosis. But to return to the thread—I was reading about the thread of life that the three Fates control. Is that the inspiration for the red yarn in 1,001?
No? I thought for sure that it was!
AA: No, that’s what I’m saying—everything was tied together at the end. For a long while I wanted to create something with those brick walls. I really like that space. I mean, there are many different aspects that come together to create a body of work—some are obvious, like those tall brick walls, and others more subconscious.
So the holes were already there.
AA: Yes, the holes on the wall were there. Every time I went there I would be looking at the space, wondering, What to do? What to make? I imagined strings coming out and down from the walls—And what am I going to do with all the strings? I wanted to connect them with something. A figure? No—Needles! Needles fascinate me.
AA: Yeah. It’s like a 40,000-year-old tool! I mean, a little stick is a stick. How did they come up with the idea to make a hole—the hole is what makes it a needle, right? A genius tool! So I imagined a pile of needles. I went back and forth, from one idea to the next.
How many needles were there?
AA: I was making them… One hundred? Three hundred? Five hundred? It was not enough! But okay, where am I going to stop? A thousand? A thousand and one!
Wow. So there were actually 1,001?
AA: A thousand and one! And then the idea was that 1,001… So 1,001 is the story, you know? The Arabian Nights. Do you know that story?
I do. I didn’t make that connection until just now, though. That’s why you chose 1,001?
AA: It was because of the name—like, Ah! 1,001. Plus, 1-0-0-1 is our language now basically, right? You can draw a lot of connections with just about anything.
But using the existing holes—those holes were made by somebody, by many people using that space in a particular way. There is a story there, but I have no idea what it is. What’s interesting is that the empty space is what is useful. Take, for instance, a bowl—you are not using the bowl, per se; you are using the empty space it creates. A room is not only its walls but the space within. It is the eye of a needle that makes the needle.
It seems that the holes in all of your pieces give them a meaning, which I think is really interesting. You say the holes represent the permeable nature of the self and allow our connection to other things around us. Would you say the holes are a good thing, then?
AA: I don’t think that they are good or not. It’s part of it. It’s part of what I was saying, you know, visible and invisible, tangible and intangible—that is our reality, right?
It’s just so interesting because I think our cultural connotations of holes and emptiness are generally negative. We think there’s something missing, like, These pieces have holes in them—they’re not complete. It symbolizes some missing part; but that’s not what they signify in your work. In this exhibit, the holes are what connect everything together, whether it’s the string in the walls or the salt moving through the holes in the body, or just the fact that everything is kind of a vessel for these other materials. And I just thought that was a really interesting perspective.
AA: Let me tell you another thing. I was going to dye all the strings. They were going to be white, and then I would dye them with turmeric, because it’s just lovely. Turmeric… I just love it. But I was like, Oh, I don’t know how much material I’m going to use, and I was looking for something that wasn’t done already, and I didn’t like the yellow, so I picked red. I started looking at all those deep reds and I was immediately drawn to them.
The red is beautiful. Again, it reminded me of blood and the thread of life.
AA: Exactly! So when I was doing it I thought, again, that the red and the brick was not going to look good, but I’m attracted to it, and again, you’re choosing something that you are drawn to.
AA: Yes! So I was drawn to the red yarn, and later, when I was in the middle of the process of the installation, I thought, Oh, wow, it looks like blood. That was not my intention! You know? That was not my intention. I think that is what makes it so interesting—those surprises. So 1,001 is an allusion of this tale, a tale of survival. We are constantly creating meanings to interpret reality. Aren’t we Scheherazade, in a way? We have created a whole world of meanings and stories. The same way I might be doing that right now. Maybe this installation piece was not only that reference [to the Arabian Nights], but the pure joy of working in that space, you know? Choosing the materials and simply going through the motions of installing the red yarn and the needles, the spices, the salt, while listening to the rapport of each kind of attention.
The rest of this interview can be found in our autumn/winter 2017 issue.
Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photography by Sean Redmond (artist image), Jen Jenkins (Seven), and Alejandra Almuelle.