Absence and Presence: An Interview with Adriana Corral

Anna Mecugni talks to Adriana Corral, who is currently an artist-in-residence at New Orleans’ Joan Mitchell Center.

Installation view of Adriana Corral’s Unearthed: Desenterrado, 2018, at Rio Vista Farm, El Paso. Courtesy the artist and Black Cube, Denver.

Editor's Note

With her sculptures, performances, and site-specific installations, Houston-based artist Adriana Corral is often interested in the distinction between the visible and the invisible.

For instance, her 2016 work Sous Rature ‘Under Erasure’ came out of intensive fieldwork at concentration-camp sites in Germany and Poland. Around the time of her research, Corral was invited to attend a session of the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, an initiative to help people contact relatives who have been abducted by governments or related agencies. In Sous Rature, Corral’s theoretical investigation into the mechanisms by which a government defines who is human or who has the right to exist takes poetic and practical form. She recreated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in soil and ash and eventually buried these tablets beneath the gallery floors at Artpace in San Antonio.

In another installation, Campo Algodón, Cuidad Juarez, 21 de Febrero del 2007, 2011, Corral used classified court documents from the trial following the murder of eight young girls in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Transferring the texts with acetone onto a wall, Corral layers her source materials until they are illegible, suggesting the inability of words to fully represent people in their absence.

This month, Corral began a residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, and Art Review contributor Anna Mecugni talks to the artist about her process, her influences, and what she’s looking forward to during her time in the city.

Anna Mecugni: Over the past several years your work has been informed by a deep concern with human rights. For instance, Impunidad, Circulo Vicioso, 2014, reads as a powerful, though ephemeral, memorial to the women and students slain in Mexico as a result of narco-state violence. The work consists of the victims’ names meticulously transferred onto a wall from Xerox copies using acetone imbued cotton swabs. A more recent installation, Sous Rature ‘Under Erasure’, 2016, presents the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights carved into tablets made of soil and ash. How do you see your role as an artist in relation to human rights and social justice?

Adriana Corral: My hope is that my works serve as a catalyst for reflection and create a space for civic participation. An integral part of my process is collaboration with human-rights activists who assist with each project’s development and, often, installation. Partnering with institutions that have strong ties to the affected communities is fundamental. My method reaches across a variety of demographics and disciplines, encouraging meaningful dialogue. I endeavor to connect scholars, students, and others to engage in a rich and meaningful dialogue about the human condition. Indeed, the creation of this dialogue is as important as the piece itself.

Installation view of Adriana Corral’s Sous Rature ‘Under Erasure,’ 2016, at Artpace, San Antonio. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Adam Schreiber.

AM: I admire artists who, like you, engage relevant socio-political issues in their work, and sometimes I wonder if they ever feel frustrated about the effectiveness of art to spur dialogue and promote change. Do you?

AC: I don’t intend for my work to be read or perceived through an immediate response. It asks the viewer to participate, even implicate him or herself. Artists are constantly questioning, so part of my task is to pose questions. When I attended private sessions at the U.N. on enforced and involuntary disappearance cases, I could not disclose the material that was discussed. I wondered how I could translate my concerns to the viewer. Sous Rature ‘Under Erasure’ and the 2017 exhibition, “The Trace of a Living Document” [at the University of Texas at Arlington], are my efforts to describe the experience.

I see protest as a declaration of dissent—an opposition to something the protester is at first powerless against. And power builds. When we exercise our right to protest—when we are vocal and speak our minds—we change the world. This also involves serious personal risk. Challenging the system by being vocal—or visual—about injustice may place individuals in precarious positions in which their very lives may be at stake. Whether it’s human-rights attorneys fighting for the victims’ families and against the failures of the judicial system or artists making work about these topics, we feel the compulsion to speak out.

AM: That’s a great point. In this respect, what project or work would you say has been the most successful and why?

AC: I would say Sous Rature ‘Under Erasure.’ It was an installation that challenged me in a profound way and allowed me to expand and develop my practice much further. I was able to translate and apply research I had conducted in Germany, Poland, Greece, and Switzerland. Entering spaces where there had been a mass genocide or where I was surrounded by U.N. members addressing current atrocities granted me the opportunity to reevaluate space in terms of the language or objects we create to protect the human condition.

AM: Sous Rature was commissioned by Artpace in San Antonio and, in addition to the tablets inscribed with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, comprised a sheet of bulletproof glass and a six-foot-deep burial plot dug through the gallery floor.

You borrowed the title from Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s English translation of this work. As Spivak explains in her preface, “my predicament is an analogue for a certain philosophical exigency that drives Derrida to writing ‘sous rature,’ which I translate as ‘under erasure.’ This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)” In what sense is your installation “under erasure”?

AC: In the sense that the work signifies at once the absence of presence and the presence of absence. The form of absence addressed in this installation is the erasure of human life and the erasure of basic human rights. This work considers layered and complex questions: Do we assert our right to life or do we bury it? If the letter of the law was created to protect us, why do we find ourselves in a continually repeating cycle, constantly fighting for the right to life? Is the fight endless? What drive perpetuates the cycle?

AM: This brings me to my next question about your use of materials. Your works seem to incorporate both ephemerality and endurance in your process. For example, at the end of your installation of Sous Rature at Artpace, you left your tablets in the burial plot and also took out some soil for use in a future installation of this work before the gallery floor was restored. These gestures echo the mingling of presence and absence. They also hint at the ambivalent combination of transience and resilience that is characteristic of the human condition, and perhaps speak to the impossibility of erasing past atrocities, social justice efforts, and history in general. Do these observations about your use of materials resonate with you? What prompted your idiosyncratic approach?

Adriana Corral, Campo Algodón, Cuidad Juarez, 21 de Febrero del 2007, 2011. Site-specific installation. Courtesy the artist.

AC: Certainly there is a coexistence of ephemerality and endurance within many of my works, from Campo Algodón Cuidad Juarez, 21 de Febrero del 2007, 2011, to Memento, 2013; Per Legem Terrae, 2014; and Sous Rature. This is the result of a process that is both disciplined and intuitive.

The installation that began this process was Campo Algodón. Transferring the text onto the walls is a long and laborious process that requires detailed precision and the help of others. After transferring the classified documents to the wall of the installation space with highly flammable acetone, the material needs to be discarded with the utmost care. Burning the documents became a process itself, spanning a period of three to four hours. The ritual ends in ash. Ash, then, becomes the material I sift onto the floors of the exhibition space. The ash has been an integral material that I have developed over that past few years. Each of my materials indubitably feeds into the following installations.

I was thinking of the archive I have developed in my process. In large part, Campo Algodón was the catalyst for documenting my process and then archiving the residual matter. This gave me the opportunity to consider what traces we leave behind and what we preserve.

AM: When you spoke at the U.S. Latinx Arts Futures Symposium in New York last year, you said that walking into the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin in the late 2000s and seeing Teresita Fernández’s exhibition was a defining moment for you. How so? Do you remember any specific works or thoughts that they inspired?

AC: I first responded to a work entitled Epic, 2009, which has an intense tactile quality—it was a visceral, emotional experience. The exhibition felt somewhat like a cenote, or as if I had entered a dwelling in which I encountered a new but familiar language. For me, Teresita’s work is transcendent, as it transcends materials in a profound manner. In the sculptural installations with reflective surfaces like Ink Mirror (Landscape), 2008, and Portrait (Blind Landscape), 2008, I recognized a distorted image of myself within the space. It resonated with me, particularly because I was at the tail end of my recovery from a severe car crash. My walk was more of a shuffle and my neck was cradled in a brace. This exhibition was a sheer sensorial experience that also gave me the opportunity to confront and realize so much about my work and about myself through a visceral feeling.

I had long felt a kinship with the artistic practice of Eva Hesse. Yet, here I stood, in the Blanton Museum, encountering an extraordinary artist with whom I could more directly identify. This was a defining moment for me because it introduced me to a strong and fierce woman making excellent work. Rarely can you walk into a museum and see the welcome name of a Latina artist with a solo exhibition on display.

AM: This year, you will be an artist-in-residence at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans. Have you been to New Orleans before? What do you plan to do during your residency?

AC: Yes, I loved New Orleans when I attended a convening at the Joan Mitchell Center in 2016. It was a brief but wonderful stay. I look forward to spending more time there with my partner, Vincent Valdez, as we are attending the residency as collaborators.

As life partners and as artists, we consistently support each other through critical dialogue and the production process of the work. We recognize the ways in which our artistic visions overlap. Our mission and artistic focus on the human condition remain constant in our practice. Over the past few years, we have been in constant dialogue about the importance of a collaborative project. The Joan Mitchell Center residency will be a point where we can finally come together to refine, focus, and bring to life the collaborative work we have been envisioning.