Xavier Lujan’s thesis show opened at the ICP/Bard Long Island City Studio on Thursday March 6. The show is a mix of gorgeous black and white photograms of sinuous peeled fruit, fragrant clementine oranges, painted collage with torn photographs, grocery lists, and brightly lit photographs of obelisk shapes made with greasy food. I got a sneak peek at the work and then emailed Xavier some questions to gain a better understanding of his perspective.
Stephanie Colgan: First of all, where were you born, or, maybe more relevantly, where have you spent most of your life?
Xavier Lujan: I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. But have been living in New York for the past five years.
SC: What type of pictures were you making before starting graduate school at ICP/Bard?
XL: Before the program I was making photographs about my family and my relationship to them. Some of the work I’m making now is still related to that, but in a somewhat different way.
SC: You recently mentioned that the decision to look at your own family was an intentional departure from documentary work you’d been making about the larger world around you. Do you have specific objections to documentary photography, or is it just not right for you anymore?
XL: Although the photographs you’re referring to had to do with the world around me or places I went to, I never thought of them as documentary images. But I did feel uncomfortable having to depend on something I wasn’t a part of, some exotic person or locale, another, in order to make work.
I do have certain objections to documentary photography, but it’s not like I feel there is no room for it, things are not so black and white. In the class From Critique to Rehabilitation: Documentary Today we spent a semester reading and discussing critical texts by people like Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler regarding some of the issues around documentary practices and how some artists are trying to approach them in different ways. Right now in Venezuela there is a situation of social and political unrest, large groups of people are protesting because of shortages of food and medicine, the rampant violence and widespread corruption, and the protests are being met with police brutality, and censorship in the media. Since the news is not being reported through traditional channels, people have taken to photographing with their cell phones and using the internet and social media to go around those barriers, helping to make the issues known and situations heard in other places where that information is not getting there otherwise. SC: Your thesis show is titled “I want to take a picture of my favorite camera with my favorite camera-Obeliscs”. To me, the first part of the statement reflects both a reverence for photography-specifically analogue CAMERA photography, but yet it also reveals a bit of frustration with what you may or may not be ABLE to accomplish with photography, since, aside from a using a mirror, you can’t actually photograph your camera with your camera. Am I on the right track? XL: You could say that. SC: When you gave me the sneak preview of your thesis show, you talked about the role your father plays in this body of work, and that on some level the obelisk is a nod to him-a self made monumental, successful person, whose shadow you’ve tried to come out from. Obelisk shapes occur in several of your photographs. Not traditional stone monuments, but obelisks of your own making-with french fries and paint cans! Is this a way for you to address your changing ideas about who your father is and your relationship with him or am I reading into things too much?!
XL: I got to this work through trying to make work about my relationship with my father and wanting to do something that was not just a re-creation of situations or events, but understanding what the underlying dynamics about them made them important for me. Part of what gives obeliscs their authority is the one we grant them ourselves. In realizing this I thought about ways in which I could reassess my relationship with figures of power and find a way to utilize that energy in creating my own Obeliscs.
SC: You’ve been painting as well as photographing, and you describe painting as being very liberating for your photographic practice. How?
XL: It was just a different way to make work where I wasn’t so concerned with the outcome. Since I’m not a painter my expectations are different. I read somewhere that creativity can be compared to a lake, if you always look for the same type of fish, there will come a moment when there are no more of what you’re looking for, whereas if you diversify and explore, it allows for the ecosystem to replenish itself and grow stronger over time.
SC: Your Slideshow presentation at ICP last spring engaged the audience to actively participate in what you were doing, and this thesis show also has an audience participation element (in addition to including a heaping pile of clementine oranges on the gallery floor meant for viewer consumption, Xavier transformed the studio bathroom into a mini-darkroom where art viewing guests are presented with a set of instructions for making and printing a photogram). Is this a direction you see yourself moving towards?
XL: It’s definitely an aspect I’m interested in. If a work of art is completed when a viewer sees and interprets it, what are other ways in which the viewer can be a part in completing it?
SC: Lastly, If I stole your phone what kinds of photographs would I find?
XL: Pictures of light!