Since it opened at the end of March at the Contemporary Austin, some of numerous happenings staged within the exhibition “Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” include performances by Bowie High School’s Percussion Ensemble, the Texas Roller Derby, the Chulita Vinyl Club, and Body Shift Dance Company. A University of Texas performance art class staged a karoke show and numerous experimental music ensembles have played.
There’s also been a book drive for Texas prisoners, author readings and writing workshops. A distillery hosted a sotol tasting, a spirit made from the Chihuahuan desert plant of the same name. A mother-daughter pair presented a mole poblano recipe demonstration. One recent Saturday, there was family-friendly celebration of carne asada, grilled beef.
Cruzvillegas practices what is known in art theoretical terms as relational aesthetics. With exhibitions like “Hi, how are you Gonzo” Cruzvillegas’ intention is to create a stage for social experiences to happen, acting less as a maker of art objects than as the presenter of events that are experienced — or “activated” — by others. And while relational aesthetics may have been codified in the 1990s, the practice remains popular in our internet-fueled experience economy, even though any social experiences offered by an art museum are ultimately circumscribed and institutional.
People nevertheless crave events.
“Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” is co-organized by the Contemporary Austin and the Aspen Museum of Art where, in a slightly different iteration, the exhibition will go on view in October. Cruzvillegas derived the show’s title from rapscallion characters from each location: the outsider Austin musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston — creator of the “Hi, how are you?” mural that’s now a selfie spot — and the late Aspen-based gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson.
The Contemporary’s Heather Pesanti and the Aspen Museum’s Heidi Zuckerman share curatorial credit for the show. And for its Austin presentation, Andrea Mellard, the Contemporary’s director of public programs, took on the Herculean task of wrangling a plethora of collaborators for the ever-changing schedule of events (or “activations” as they’re referred to) that happen every Tuesday and every Saturday, audiences coming and going. (Tuesdays admission is free; other times admission to the Jones Center is $10.)
Providing the stage for all the activations is an assemblage of semi-functional sculptural objects made of scrap materials. The sculptures fill both floors at the Contemporary’s Jones Center. Audiences for the activations have varied in size. At the activations I attended, there was little if any socializing among those there to watch and most left as soon as the action was over.
Born in 1968 in Mexico City, Cruzvillegas bases his artistic practice in what he terms autoconstrucción — an idea of “self-construction,” that for the artist also embodies a sense of transformation and playful exchange. In Cruzvillegas’ childhood neighborhood of Colonia Ajusco, houses were built on a rough landscape of volcanic rock and constructed by hand. Additions were made in a very ad hoc fashion, built as a family’s needs dictated and only as economics allowed — a not uncommon approach to house-building in any world community with limited resources.
Cruzvillegas is the first Mexican and first Latin American artist to be spotlighted in a solo exhibition at the Contemporary since the Contemporary formed as an institution in 2011, the result of a merger between the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse. Mexican artist Sofía Táboas was among the 14 included in the Contemporary’s 2015 group exhibition “Strange Pilgrims,” Táboas’ single installation displayed at the UT Visual Arts Center, one of the exhibition’s three sites.
As is his practice, the globe-trotting Cruzvillegas, who currently lives in Paris, sent schematics to museum staff with instructions for constructing sculptural objects. The staff then scavenged materials from the Contemporary — and some from the Aspen Museum of Art — including plywood, two-by-fours and other building materials; also beer kegs, plastic milk crates and even signage. The result is a series of various platforms, a quarter pipe ramp, a small set of risers as well as some chairs and stools. Potted plants and some vegetables — potatoes, cloves of garlic, onions — serve as a kind of quirky decoration. And everything — plants and vegetables included — is moved around the galleries, upstairs and down, repositioned according to the needs of each event.
Cruzvillegas also directed the museum staff to invite groups, artists, and communities that were particularly unique to Austin and that would stage activations that he wanted to invoke “warmth, ease, and necessity.” He personally invited artist colleagues from Mexico to come to Austin to create activations for the days following the opening, and at several times through the course of the exhibit.
During the exhibition’s installation, Cruzvillegas drew a number of images that are part of his ongoing series “Nuestra imagen actual,” or “Our current image” — sweeping line drawings, some quite large, of cartoon-like primates. On the wall of a first floor restroom, Cruzvillegas drew a nude male figure, its face in a funny simian scowl. Out in the gallery, Cruzvillegas also scrawled his ode to Austin, “Keep it weird” — the title a reference to the now-cliché slogan for the city.
One of the few installations that stays in place is a reading table of sorts over which hangs a constellation of books, the volumes dangled by their spines from the ceiling at various heights. Hanging awkwardly as they do, the books are impossible to hold open and read for any significant length of time. They seem more a roster of carefully curated titles intended to impress: “Professionals of Hope: The Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos,” “The Book of Chuang Tzu,” and “Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings” edited by Susan Sontag, among others.
And in any case the chairs — while funky and fun constructions — are too uncomfortable for prolonged sitting.
Like everything Cruzvillegas presents in “Hi, how are you Gonzo?” there’s nothing authentic about the reading table. It’s not a functional site for the public to sit and to read, nor does it even feel like a sincere gesture to share information. Instead it’s a simulacrum, a superficial version of the thing itself.
You pass by the table and perhaps you flip through the books. Or maybe you try out one of the chairs to feel what it’s like to sit in — for a moment. And then you leave.
“Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” continues at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center through July 14.