Born in San Carlos de Bariloche in 1959, Argentine artist Mónica Giron deploys a diverse range of mediums in her work: polylactic acid (PLA), oil paint, watercolor, merino wool, and more. Her research-based work focuses on the migration patterns of birds, the movements of water, and the ethics of how humans exist within nature. Having spent her childhood in last century’s Patagonia, her connection with nature is an intimate and empathetic one. This interview takes place concurrently with her solo exhibition, Elemental Vortex, on view at BARRO until November 4th. From the knitted pullovers for birds to the PLA sea sculptures, Giron speaks about the various entrances for the interpretation of her artworks, exploring linguistic nuances, fabrication techniques, as well as material and colonial history.
JW: In your solo exhibition, Elemental Vortex, the first things I noticed upon walking into the gallery were the sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Can you explain their fabrication processes and the use of PLA in these pieces?
MG: The Earth has been my model since 2013, and I wanted to make shapes or sculptures that would maintain the convex qualities of the planet. When reading about the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Seas, I saw that they are similar in size, so I created the shapes of those two seas and installed one across the other. What you see are the shapes of the seas without the land, conical as if the water would go to the center of the Earth. If we envisioned the Earth as a perfect globe, the dimensions of these figures would be in proportion to their sizes on the globe and to each other. They also relate to Christopher Columbus’s trips: he left from the Mediterranean and ended up in the Caribbean.
The Mediterranean piece (Lilac Sunrise, 2021) and the Caribbean piece (Golden Sunset, 2021) are both done with oil paint on polylactic acid (PLA). The process of figuring out how to materialize this idea took some experimentation. Tracing the irregular outskirts of these water bodies from Google Maps on a flat screen was tricky, since you can get an infinite number of dots that later have to become a shape that the machines can print. 3D printing is a result of algorithms moving through several different softwares and machines.
JW: How did you first encounter these subject matters? Has the changes in ecology, science, the climate, and even technologies like AI over the past few years affected your practice?
MG: I have always had more or less the same set of philosophical and existential questions in my life. These questions can always relate to the shapes, landscapes, and territories that surround me. Since I have lived quite a long life now, these questions change as a result of how technology, art, collective consciousness, and paradigms of knowledge change.
But then it was always about the landscape: I started out with Patagonia, my homeland, as a basic arena for asking questions or starting a dialogue around culture-building. We all now have an idea of the globe as a round thing. When I was a kid, long before Google Earth existed, the shape of the Earth was not so easily visualized or accessible even. I would have dreams of flying around the Earth. Maybe these early dreams or memories manifested in my later obsession with studying the Earth, a lot of which now happens through the internet. From 2013 onwards, much of my work has been about continents, seas, water currents, and demographic statistics. Thinking about culture-building in a world where economists and nations are deciding many things according to different agendas, one can imagine or expect either apocalyptic or fantastic futures.
JW: Your series of knitted pieces that spans from 1993 until now is titled Ajuar para un conquistador (Trousseau for a conqueror). What does the title mean?
MG: “Trousseau” was a way of defining the legacy or the heritage that a bride would bring into the household when getting married. This series includes scarves and gloves for Patagonian birds; each pullover is knitted according to the size and the color(s) of the bird that it’s supposed to be evoking, but of course, the birds can’t really use these pieces.
When Argentina took over Patagonia, occidental culture took over as well. The occupation meant, of course, that aboriginal cultures were decimated, displaced, or fundamentally changed. This piece, knitted from merino wool, is also a metaphor for material and technological exchanges. The merino wool was concurrent with the influx of other products that occidental culture brought into Patagonia. The pieces were done by needle-knitting, while aboriginal weaving was done on a loom—it’s a completely different way of producing a knitted piece, and more importantly, it’s a kind of historical legacy that is still relevant today. Using merino wool, industrially fabricated pigments, and buttons, as well as needle-knitting as the technique, the piece serves as a commentary on the colonial legacy. At the same time, as an image, they are pullovers which, in our collective and individual subconsciousness, means protection for ourselves or for the birds. Paradoxically, if you actually put the pullover on the bird, you will kill the bird.
Ajuar para un conquistador is full of different entrances. I didn’t think about these things prior to making these pieces. I had an idea about women preparing garments for soldiers, and then the piece came up. Almost always, the process of intuition is more “lightning-like.” My mother taught me how to knit. She was an artist, one could say. Although she didn’t practice as an artist publicly, she had been working with a very well-known commercial designer. She knew about design. When she taught me how to knit and when she did the pullovers for me, we were always discussing those garment designs. Among the different art forms, knitting was the easiest for her since we were five children—she didn’t have much time to do art in a classical way. Due to the limitation of time and space, it was not so easy for her to find time to paint, draw, or do ceramics because you would need a studio. Needle knitting for her was an easy way to create things—she could carry it around. In this way, this piece is also an homage to my mother.
JW: It’s incredible that knitting, which is often associated with the domestic space and women’s domestic labor, now finds its way into the public sphere and becomes a force of creative empowerment. I see a lot of diagrams in your work, such as in Salado dulce (Salty Sweet), 2021-23. What does this emotional diagram mean?
MG: I have been studying many different knowledge traditions, and one of them is Taoism, which offers different entrances to shape. One of them is through feng shui. I studied a lot of Taoist medicine, together with tai chi because it relates to change, health, and well-being. As I learned about feng shui in books, I put it in balance with the art of all ages and started playing with feng shui, often with very good results—I worked with the space in my house, my friend’s house, and my family’s house. Therefore, I’ve been acting on space, on shape, and on matter, freely and openly using “recipes” that come from not only art and architecture but also from feng shui.
I like the Taoist tradition of observing the transformations of energy and movement. Shapes, elements, and emotions are all in movement. Therefore, this diagram came as a very quick drawing, putting a diagram onto an arena of emotional understanding.
JW: You used a variety of mediums such as watercolor, oil on PLA, merino wool, and graphite. How did you develop your artistic language in relation to mediums? Do you have a primary/favorite medium?
MG: Actually, I have never been able to study any of the classical academic techniques, except for drawing. I never studied painting or sculpture in a classical way. However, I did do a lot of drawings in an academic way—a lot of model-making, nude drawing, landscape drawing, and you know, sketching from life with, for example, a bottle or an apple—that’s what was taught in academies before the ’70s. As time went by, I was able to study contemporary art in the ’80s. We were exposed to the masters of conceptual and land art, as well as arte povera, all of which were already in the system of formal art education when I started studying and showing as an artist at age 19.
My first show stemmed from a portfolio I made to apply to ESAV (now HEAD, Geneva University of Art and Design), the art academy in Geneva, Switzerland. Previously, I had applied to the academy with the bottle and the apple, but they told me to come back when I figured out what I really wanted to make. I made a new portfolio, went back, and they offered to show it before I even applied to the school because it was considered coherent, or valid, as contemporary art. It was a proposition. From then on, I was able to see that everything was possible. I had a very good education in contemporary art, with a lot of group interpretation sessions; professors and artists used to come into the school to look at our art quite publicly. That was very interesting. And after that, a medium would come in because the work would require a certain structural material to upkeep its conceptual coherence. The material is part of the art piece. Soul and matter are one thing.
I don’t have a favorite medium, but maybe drawing is the closest thing to a “lightning moment.” Sometimes I do a sketch, and in order to produce an artwork, I have to figure out what material it needs to exist as art. Then I have to produce the artwork. Sometimes it takes a while until I understand what is the exact medium or material that I will decide on. For example, the SX watercolors that are in the gallery—I thought they were going to be drawings with colored pencils. But they couldn’t be drawn with colored pencils. They had to be in watercolor because they were all about osmosis. It took me over a year: I had the paper, I had pencils, but it simply wasn’t happening. Finally, I understood that it had to be in watercolor, because of the osmotic quality of the water that carries the watercolor and deposits it into the paper, only then they start happening.
JW: And what was missing in the drawings with colored pencils?
MG: The pencil is very direct. It’s more mental, whereas water is liquid with osmotic qualities. You can’t draw the contour so easily, although the sunset and sunrise are water maps, and they are cutouts on the water. But in SX, I wanted to actually present the “osmotic” capacities of understanding the qualities of change, exchange, permeability, fluidity, dissolving, passages, and such.
Mónica Giron: Elemental Vortex is on view at BARRO until November 4th, 2023 in New York.