Roberto Vega Cornejo is a friend, a close friend. He is also a visual artist, a young one. He is in the process, in the seeking. He is 26 years old, and his work has been shown in Germany, Spain, and Ecuador. His first solo exhibition, “Cuando Despierta dice me Recuerdo” (When she wakes up she says I remember) was his undergraduate thesis. Instead of showing it in a gallery he rented a house in a traditional neighborhood in Quito for four months and lived and worked there. He filled the house with drawings, drawn from his family photographs, pieces of furniture made by his grandfather, pieces of ceramics with drawings on them and a video that was shown inside of a closet in the bedroom. Now he’s working on a piece that will be part of a group show in the gallery Arte Actual FLACSO. This project is constructed with drawings that are also from photographs but from a digital archive. The pictures that he takes every day with his phone. The pictures that we take, schizophrenically, every day with our devices.
Roberto is a native Spanish speaker, as am I. To leave our friendship aside, in some way, I persuaded him to conduct the interview in English. We confronted together with the impossibility of language. In his work, Roberto is concerned with this too: the limitations of the mediums, their borders.
JPL: In Cuando Despierta… you chose family photographs and you drew them. How was the process?
RVC: Cuando Despierta… is an exhibition mainly formed by drawings. I started collecting photographs from the family archive and then I transformed them into drawings. That was the first stage. I chose photographs as a point of departure; they allowed me to start the conversation with my family.
JPL: Why drawing? I mean, why did you choose this medium, although you’ve worked with ceramic and video too.
RVC: When drawing, everything is done by you. Everything passes through you. Through your hand and its movement.
I like to think that the process of choosing a medium is a conscious and unconscious one. I believe that you cannot say I only draw, or I only work with watercolor. You have to be open to the materials, be aware of them in some way. Not just technically but in relation to the ideas that you have.
JPL: In terms of process, it is about finding the proper medium not just for you but for the piece…
RVC: You can find beautiful drawings that are just that, beautiful drawings. The medium is not an answer or the answer. When I’m drawing with ink, for example, ink gives me the texture that I need or I think I need. Drawing gives another rhythm to the image, it changes the rhythm of time, not only in the image but in the process. Especially with ink, I have to be very careful when I draw. It is really difficult to not spoil it, no mancharlo. And that gives you a special attitude towards the image you are drawing.
JPL: Okay, so you collected the photographs…
RVC: And I began classifying the archive. I created categories: marriages, baptisms, birthdays, portraits, family trips, and photographs by which I felt attracted, seduced. And from each group, I chose the ones I was curious about, in terms of the stories behind them. But I also chose the ones that struck me visually, without a conscious reason. I knew that I was going to create a map from those images. So it was not just about choosing an image to turn it into a drawing but about drawing a story, connecting the stories that my family was telling me. Unconsciously I was trying to create another family album, one that included also that part of the family history that families do not talk about. At the same time, I started to think about the video, it was a way to record the process but with a poetic and reflexive tone rather than an informative one.
JPL: In some way, you are dealing with the photographs as objects, objects that bear memory and time. And you are translating these objects…
RVC: I like to think, it is more a kind of a transcribing process, but between different mediums. The word transcribe is more connected with the physical process of drawing. When I was working with photographs I used carbon paper, I made a photocopy of the photograph then I put the drawing paper, the carbon paper, and the picture’s copy, and then I re-made the image. When I draw from an image that is already created, when I’m rewriting it, I have to be more aware of the pressure I make with the pen. Now when I think of the process and in the work as a whole, I can see it closer to a translation exercise.
JPL: In one drawing there was more than just one photograph. In this sense, it is like translating a lot of poems by the same author to create just one poem. Taking one sentence from one poem, one from another and so on. In my hypothetical example it would be a kind of an obscure map of this author’s work and in your case, it is a sort of obscure map of your family. Maps of fragments…
RVC: This idea of putting fragments together is a really nice way of thinking about it. I’ve never thought about it in these terms. Most of the time I was constructing these images only visually. I put this portrait of my grandmother and next to it I drew a portrait of my grandfather and next to it an image of a public bus that my grandfather used to own. This union of fragments was like a game. It was not a conscious or an intellectual process. Like, I’m going to put this there because this means that, or this goes here because this specific reason or this will represent blaa blaa blaa. No, I didn’t think about those things, I was just playing. Also, this act of joining fragments, it is not related just to the drawings but to the exhibition as a whole, to the process of gathering together all the elements that were part of the exhibit: the video, the drawings, the pieces of furniture and ceramics. Because in some way that is how we remember and how we understand life in general.
JPL: In fragments,
RVC: Yes, because we don’t remember time in a continuous line. We just remember fragments of life and these fragments are always changing. It is from there that we construct our memories. It is blurry. That’s why I also included fragments of text in the drawings but thinking of text, words, as drawings. I wrote, drew, mainly names: personal names, songs names, places names. I used text as a connection line.
JPL: We’ve been talking mainly about the drawings. Tell me about the other part of the work…
RVC: I started thinking about where I was going to exhibit the work, so I had the idea to show it in a house instead of a gallery. I looked for a real house, I found it and I lived and worked there for four months. When I was there, living and working, I understood that the project was about the space too. It was about family memories but always inside a space, a house. In that moment it became a reflection of what and how is a space to live, work, love, and share. In this realm, I realized that the drawings and the video on which I was working weren’t enough, in a way. So I collected some pieces of furniture that my grandfather made –he was a carpenter– and which were owned by different family members, and I placed those in the space.
JPL: So, what you did with the pieces of furniture was something similar to what you did with the photographs, a kind of re-writing process, as we were talking about.
RVC: When I drew the cuna, cradle, I was thinking about this match between the drawing and the furniture. There are a lot of decisions that you are not conscious about, but in this case, I was really aware of what I wanted. This cradle constituted a really important object within the family. It was made for my oldest brother who was born in 1968 and then it passed through generations. We all used it: my brothers, my sister, me, my nephew, my niece, and a couple of cousins. I put the cuna in the bedroom and I made a drawing of it with all the names of the people who used it. So it was about creating a map too.
The sofa was made by my grandfather, I think he did it for himself. My mother told me he spent his lasts days in this sofa and when he died my grandmother gave it to her.
These objects were similar to the photographs, in some way. They were objects passing through time, but they are objects that are still alive, they are still useful and they have a presence inside the house. If you are thinking about creating a home you have to put a table, a bed. They complete the space when they are there. It is a different presence than the photographs.
JPL: I don’t know if you agree with me on this, but for me, the photographs and the pieces of furniture are sorts of reliquaries of memory.
RVC: Yes, memory is condensed inside these objects, and inside of the photographs. They are marks of time. With the pieces of furniture it was about putting them in the house, but with the photographs I had to transform them, using the hands, giving them another time.
JPL: I think you are doing a similar exercise in this new project on which you are working now.
RVC: Those feelings related to family history could become too intense, it could be an overwhelming experience. These old pictures are charged with melancholy and nostalgia, and sometimes the past is too heavy to carry. So, now, I’m working with a digital archive, with the photographs that dwell in the digital space, in the cloud. But it is hard because sometimes there is too many of them and the photographs feel dry in a way. However, I think that in this new project, the idea of maps and mapping is more complex because it will be a map of images that are easily forgettable, without a trace. So the gesture of making a mark of time, a scar, is a totally different labor here; a more difficult one. But, yes, it is a similar exercise.
Interview by José Peña Loyola.
Quito-New York. October 2015.