For this artist, self-improvement is a kind of death.
Artist Carla Perez-Gallardo is preoccupied with issues of identity and death, personality and memory, space and our connection to nature and to each other. Placing her own body inside carefully crafted environments, Carla creates art that provokes audiences to join her inside the work, so much so that she’s had to contend with–and incorporate–viewers who lay down beside her on one of her elaborate funeral pyres. We got the chance to talk with Carla about her recent piece “A Funeral For My Selves,” and about her upcoming performance at the Hyperplace Harlem festival. If you’re in the New York area, check out Carla’s work this Sunday, October 5th at the Tatiana Pagés Gallery from 5pm-8pm.
BLUNDERBUSS MAGAZINE: Let’s jump right in. Tell us about your piece, “A Funeral For My Selves.”
CARLA PEREZ-GALLARDO: “A Funeral For My Selves.” I’ve done that piece a few times now, and trying to trace back to the original impetus, I think it was during a period of my life where I was doing a lot of self-reflection. I’m always in therapy — I love therapy — and I was thinking a lot about how, growing up and aging, we take a look at ourselves, an inventory. You ask, “Oh, how have I changed in the last 5 years?” You have these moments of assessment where you’re like, “Am I better, am I worse?” You rate yourself, deciding to work on a certain part of yourself in order to become a better person.
I started thinking about that process as a kind of death, in a way, and a kind of rebirth. I’ve always been really drawn to funeral ceremonies, different funeral rites and rituals that vary from country to country. The whole project definitely was fueled by this idea of self-improvement as a kind of death. I had an idea of burying myself, but it became clear that it wasn’t just about this singular self, it was about multiple selves, about this expansion of possible selves that happens in real life. And it’s not linear. It is formed by reflecting on past selves that are put away and then pulled back out, recycled and refreshed.
BbMag: Do you think you draw from the insights you’ve gleaned from therapy?
CPG: This is definitely the first piece I can think of that was deliberately drawing from things I had learned in therapy. But also, more indirectly, my work is often about feelings and memories, which are things that you always touch on in therapy. I imagine that I’ll always be dealing with issues of like identity and memory but I don’t think it’ll necessarily be as direct as this. Even this piece, I’ve performed it three times now in three different spaces and it’s been pretty different every time.
BbMag: How did the piece evolve through re-working and redoing it? How did installing it in three different locations change the performance?
CPG: The actual physical structure and physical manifestation of the piece had to change each time. The first time was in a friend’s apartment. They had a one-night show with a bunch of noise bands, and my piece was kind of the centerpiece, in the central room of the house. There were multiple musical performances happening in adjacent rooms. This foot traffic is happening while the music was played, creating this automatic soundscape that was [conceptually] unrelated, but spatially, experientially related.
BbMag: Walk us through the performance.
CPG: It’s a second floor walkup, my friend’s apartment in Hudson. The dining room is the first room you enter and that’s the room that I was using. It’s fairly large and there was a big chimney at one end across from the door, and these architectural elements to informed my use of the space. The fireplace was the “pyre,” and I built a platform using tree trunks that still had bark and everything on them as the base of the platform, and then laid down a piece of wood over that with live grass sod on top. It was this grassy platform emanating from the hearth. To influence the way people navigate the space, I created a projection screen right in front of the door so you would enter the apartment and get hit by this wall of cloth that I had hand-dyed with coffee. It created the barrier but there was also this projection coming from over my body.
I created a secondary entrance where there was a pedestal on which I had put hand-made lollipops meant to represent past, present, and future. The rose flavor was the future, grass was the present, and coffee was the past. My intent was for people to enter the space, choose a lollipop, and for this sensory experience to create a portal for them to access the rest of the work. Whatever memories were brought on by eating a lollipop that tasted like roses, they would enter the viewer’s headspace, framing his approach to the rest of the work. There were no written instructions, but in this one [people] felt comfortable taking the lollipops and participating the way I had hoped. Being in someone’s home was really perfect because it felt intimate, it felt like you were stumbling upon something maybe you shouldn’t have. I mean, this is obviously me putting a narrative on someone else’s experience, because I wasn’t experiencing it, I was lying there for three hours.
BbMag: Your work tends to have that sort of intimacy in it, drawing people in, getting them to open themselves up to it, which is tough.
CPG: I love to force people to be intimate (laughs). I would say that about myself as a person, and I think also as an artist. What’s been weird is that, in two of the shows, people have “fallen asleep” in the installation.
The performance at the apartment, this kid just like laid down on the ground next to me and eventually Lexi, my girlfriend, just walked up to me and was like “hey, there’s someone lying next to you, just though you should know so you don’t get freaked out.” I don’t like to talk or break character during performances, so I just grunted the equivalent of “it’s cool.”
Later, I asked this guy what had happened, what his experience was and he was like, “You know, I just felt so comfortable in that space and fell asleep. I don’t know.” I don’t ultimately know if he’s telling the truth or not but the second time something similar happened where someone just laid down next to my body, when I was imitating a dead person on a funeral platform.
BbMag: So its kind of like people are taking your intimacy and like going for it, just lying down with you.
CPG: Yeah, I guess so. Like, really going for the gold.
BbMag: How did you feel about that? Were you concerned about how it would interferes with other viewers’ experiences?
CPG: I didn’t mind at all when it happened initially, I was curious as to the reasoning behind that decision. The second time I felt less chill about it because it made me wonder, is there something about the work that invites people to do this? Does this mean something negative about the work? Most times people are in an installation, they don’t just touch things or rub themselves on it or sleep in it.
And from the outsider perspective, would someone else think that the sleeping guy was part of it, and that it was intentional decision that I had made? So I’ve been questioning it a little bit more, but the first time I felt honored, and I’m not completely removed from that. It’s still a compliment to the whole project that someone felt able to do that, inspired, moved. I just wish I had gotten to like ask these people a little bit more about it.
BbMag: I like the idea bringing more of the senses into an installation, so it’s not just a visual experience.
CPG: Besides trying to make a life as an artist, I have cooked professionally for three years now. Flavors and taste memory are things I think about a lot. One of the last assignments I had as a sous-chef before quitting was to think about how to make a dish that tasted like winter. So many of my pieces are about how memory functions as a filter or a lens through which you view your current self, and my personal memories are layered and so many tastes and so many smells. When I think of my grandma, I get flashes of this smell and I think it is really important for me to try to fuse those elements together a little bit more. The space [for “A Funeral For My Selves”] also had rose incense burning, the projection screen was dyed in coffee. My being in this piece makes it about me and my experience, but my hope is always that someone entering it has their own associations they bring, and the flavors and scents were meant to propel that.
BbMag: Your physical presence has always been a big part of your work.
CPG: The way I use my body has and hasn’t changed. I describe my work as durational, all my performances are hours long. “A Funeral For My Selves,” the first show was three hours long. I get set in place before anyone gets there, and then don’t move or break character until everyone leaves. For that piece, my body got extremely stiff and cold, which also is obviously what happens when you die.
I’ve slowly been more intentional about completely obscuring my face, preventing myself from being able to see which serves these simultaneous roles, preventing me from relating with the outside world as its happening, and obscuring me from them. There was one exception to this, in Madrid, where my face was exposed. I sat on top of an abandoned water fountain that was 10 feet tall. I had bought 13 pounds of strawberries, sewn them all onto these garlands, wore these as my clothing, and then sat on top of the fountain and ate over 13 pounds of strawberries over the course of probably four hours. That piece really directly was about my body’s limits and in a way that my other work isn’t. Although my body is always at risk, simply because of how long these performances are and how physically demanding they can be.
BbMag: You also use a lot of natural materials. Where does that come from?
CPG: I’m from Queens, I grew up there, I went to school around there, and had a city experience for the beginning part of my life. But in middle school, my mom and I moved to Vermont and New Hampshire for two years, then back to New York, and I think this kind of split happened. I identified very much with being a New Yorker, but also I identified very much with this freedom that comes with living in the country where you just got to run wild and weren’t afraid to go around the corner on your bike alone. I think the experiences that I had in the country were always really formative and always made me feel like I understood myself a little better. That’s why I continued to stay living up here in Hudson, [New York], a super conscious decision and I think my work reflects that pull that I have towards natural things.
BbMag: How do you think living in upstate New York has affected your work?
CPG: Well, the cost of living makes it possible. For this upcoming show I’m borrowing my friends barn because I’m making 16-foot prints. The reason I can borrow my friends barn is because my friend bought a house in the neighborhood, and that’s something that maybe happens in the city, but I feel like it’s much less frequent. In NYC, studio space is not that accessible. As someone who doesn’t come from a lot of money, its really freeing to have access to pretty much anything that I need up here, which in turn has let me continue figuring out how to make an installation. A big fear of graduating school was how to make work that feels like my own work, if my work needs to be large and take over spaces.
I’ve always felt really in tune with nature, as lame at that might sound. I’ve always identified heavily with that. My mom gave me this book called her blood is gold when I was 13 which is all about woman’s menstrual cycles, and so my relationship to my body, and my body in relation to nature or the moon, has always been in the forefront of my understanding.
BbMag: Speaking of nature and commanding a space, the tub full of rotting milk?
CPG: In the way that “A Funeral For My Selves” was about renewal and death, that tub was also about that, something healthy that you use for sustenance that can go through this insane process and become something completely different. Decomposition and transformation are where everything happens, where all the action is. And that smell, actually. Not entirely intentional, but I was real happy about that.
BbMag: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming show.
CPG: It’s my first gallery show and I’m very excited about it its part of this larger festival called Hyperplace Harlem that I’ve been organizing with LoVid, who I’ve been working for. We started curating different artists and contacting different venues, and somewhere along the way one of the galleries was interested and they invited me to show my own work.
I’m going to be showing at Tatiana Pagés gallery. It’s open from October 5th through 25th, though the opening night is the only performance. From 5-8 pm, I’ll be debuting my newest piece, “unnatural selection.” It deals with some of the issues we are addressing in the festival, like location-specificity, identity through place, and inside versus outside spaces. I’m creating an immersive installation that has a performative element to it. I don’t know how much I want to give away here, but part of it is these prints I’ve been making off of 4 x 4 foot woodblocks, and I’ve printed over 250 feet of them so far. I’ve had to create this pulley system I’m really proud of to hoist them up as I’m printing them, and then to readjust them to get them in the right places. The space is going to be completely covered in this single pattern, and myself and two other performers are going to be wearing these costumes that are also completely made out of the same material and same pattern.
BbMag: So you’re working with other performers this time?
CPG: It’s exciting. I’ve never worked with other performers before. It’s also a really scary moment for me because I’m letting go of control, which is hard for me to do.
BbMag: Is this a departure from how personal your work usually is?
CPG: Yes, but I’ve also been thinking about what it would mean to start involving other bodies and I’m ultimately really happy that I’ve decided to do so. It’s never just about one person, it’s important to try to negotiate how to make something the way you envisioned it when you have all of these other people and their ideas and their physicality to contend with. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
In terms of choreography, none of us are professional dancers and it’s not going to be a dance per se. But we’ll begin together, and over the three hours, we’ll go through a slow progression of changing our relationships to the installation, positioning ourselves in different ways that both obscure the fact that there are actual people present, but also make it more clear as time goes on.
I’ve deliberately never rehearsed any of my performances, which brings a certain energy to the space, like we’re all in this together. It can be electric.