Studio Visit

Pancho Westendarp

May 2019
Pancho Westendarp

Pancho Westendarp and Lana in his Mexico City studio.

In April of 2019 we visited Pancho Westendarp in his Mexico City studio and talked about the origins of his work, what he is working on now and where he may be headed in the future.

RHC: Pancho, where did you grow up, where did you attend college and when did you graduate?

Westendarp: I grew up in Queretaro, Mexico. It's a very calm place three hours away from Mexico City. I did a Bachelor´s in communication at ITESM Queretaro (Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Querétaro) from 1996-2001. In 2004, I went to Barcelona and earned an MA in Documentary Film Production from the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona in 2005. Most of my friends and myself wanted to be filmmakers. I realized that getting funds to make a film could take several years. I didn´t want to wait, so I thought that documentaries could be a way of producing movies with fewer resources and making more personal work. In those days video art was a thing too, so I just jumped into it and that led me to contemporary art. I finally decided to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship which helped me land at SUNY - Stony Brook in 2009 to pursue my MFA.

Pancho Westendarp, Personal Jetee, 2009, Mixed media installation, Approx. 36' x  52" variable (91.4cm x 1.3m) ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: While we are talking about education...are there any other
educational experiences outside of formal institutions that have effected your work?

Westendarp: New York City was my best school. I was living in Bushwick by 2010 and Bushwick Open Studios happened in the fall. Laundromats, bodegas and apartments used to show artwork...seemed quite cool at the moment. I remember a performance that happened in the living room of an apartment where a woman dressed as a bride was whispering something to a hen. I really liked the vibe. That was also when I first stepped into Robert Henry Contemporary and just thought, "I want to be part of this." The city also showed me how competitive the art world can be. While in such a small artistic community like the one in Queretaro, I used to think of artists as layed back people with tons of free time. When I got to NYC, reality smashed me in the face. I don't remember having ever worked harder and in such harsh conditions in my life.

Pancho Westendarp, An instant film photograph from an unfinished work-in-progress titled: Tower of Nothing
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Are there specific experiences you can remember from your
childhood that have a direct bearing on your work today?

Westendarp: My dad was always participating in the games I invented as a kid. I remember we were  once watching the Guinness World Records show and there was a guy that had the biggest collection of lighters in the world. I wanted to have the biggest collection of something too, so just started to pick up rocks, pencil sharpeners, soda cans, paper clips, etc. I ended up with a bunch of stuff and that wasn't very impressive...but decided to show it to my dad anyway. He stared at the pile of things and told me: "Did you realize that you just started a collection of collections?" That made me feel I  had something special in my hands and the idea of a meta-collection was definitely an early approach to a conceptual way of thinking.

Pancho Westendarp, Last Days of 2013 A, 2013, Manipulated Found Objects, 3" x 12.5" x 9.5" (8cm x 32cm x 24cm), ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You work in a lot of different media, drawing, photography, sculpture, performance, video, etc. Which comes first...the idea...then you find the right media for it. Or the other way around? Or both?

Westendarp: It depends. Because of my background in media production, video and photography are media that I handle better and I kinda know how these materials will react and can control some technical aspects. So in this case the idea comes first. On the other hand, with media like drawing or sculpture, it's always an adventure. I start playing and discovering the qualities of the materials, eventually something interesting will happen and, then, I have to see if it fits with the ideas I'm working on. Sometimes I have to let work rest for a long time before realizing that there's something appealing in it.

Pancho Westendarp, Greenland, 2005, Video still, (A project where Westendarp provided blind people with cameras to record their lives.) ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: A common focus of your work has been time and different or
alternative ways of recording or marking time. Why?

Westendarp: Process based art was the tool that a group of Mexican artists used to break with the academy in the 90s and early 00s. it was also a chance for people from other backgrounds to participate in art. So, I started to think about process that could led to poetic results.  Repeating an action compulsively, using photography to compress time, slowing down things to the absurd, overlapping images that belong to different periods; all of this can be considered as time manipulation. It is a way of developing personal rituals that can help to challenge the stiff idea of time related with productivity. Measuring, recording, marking, archiving is a way of leaving a trace of our passage through life.

Part Two:

RHC: Your large collection of 73 photographs called LIRR seems to be a good example of the type of process that leads to a poetic result. How did you make that piece and what is it about?

Westendarp: When I got to Stony Brook on Long Island I was constantly taking the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) going back and forth to NYC. Commuting can be very monotonous and watching the landscape while I was traveling was some sort of relief. Depending on the schedule for the day, the train stops in fifteen towns approximately before getting to NYC. By using a pinhole camera to register the trip from one town to another, I could get long exposures of each stop. This was a way of making a journal log of my commuting. On every journey, it was the landscape conditions (season, time of the ride and weather) what determined the results of the photographs. Whenever I jumped in the train I never knew what the landscape was going to offer for that day. Chance and the development of a recording system played a big role in this work. This creates a frame where unnoticed things can emerge and become visible.

Pancho Westendarp, LIRR, 2010-12, 73 C-prints on mat board and Dibond with UV protective coating and aluminum stretcher, 4" x 6" (10cm x 15cm) each, 23.75" x 88.25" (60cm x 2.4m) overall, Edition of 4, ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Your piece Anna Atkins will be part of Riga Photomonth featured in the exhibition “Eating Pineapples on the Moon” at the Museum of Occupation of Latvia….opening May 15. What can you tell us about that piece? How it was made…and what about its relationship to that game of collecting you mentioned that you played with your father as a child?

Westendarp: It is a tribute to Anna Atkins, considered to be the first female photographer. I reproduced Anna Atkins's work using the virtual reality platform Second Life, which was quite popular in the early 00´s, but that has been mostly forgotten nowadays. After creating an avatar with Atkins's name, I explored Second Life´s oceans collecting images of its corals, anemones and seaweed. These images were later reproduced as cyanotypes.

Pancho Westendarp, Anna Atkins, 2016, 12 Cyanotypes, 10" x 8" (25.4cm x 20.3cm) each
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

Westendarp: I recently read an interview with Chilean artist Patricia Domínguez where she states that objects have some kind of emotional vibration. I think that´s what my dad made me realize with the experience of becoming a collector. This vibrance can be easily transmitted by objects like antiques or old family photographs. With internet images is hard to appreciate these psychological aspects, like in a meme or an Instagram story, but that doesn´t mean they don´t have them. With this project, by downloading images from a forgotten platform and finding a way to bring them into the physical world, the emotional aspect attached to them emerges and they become archeological objects that talk about image making history.

Pancho Westendarp, Atlas, 2016, Ink on Paper, 6" x 32" (15.2cm x 81.3cm) approx.
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: After going abroad for your graduate education, first to Spain and then New York, how has returning to live in Mexico effected your work? If at all…How does place or a sense of place factor in your work?

Westendarp: It really did, Mexico City is a totally different playground. This is a quite complicated city, you can spend a couple hours in traffic any single day, pollution can be really bad sometimes, subway and buses are always packed. Moving too much, too far away is something you want to avoid. So, even if you live in a big city like this you try to remain in a certain zone. This led me to think of ideas of territory and the memory attached to it. Mexico City has so many layers of history overlapping in every corner that it is easy a very fertile ground to explore.

Pancho Westendarp, The Map and the Territory, 2015, Ink on Paper, 10 drawings: 11" x 8.5" (28cm x 21.6cm); 1 drawing: 30" x 22" (76cm x 56cm), ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

Westendarp: This is a very simple example but just a couple months ago I realized that in the sidewalk in front of my place there´s a 1000 peso coin from the eighties that got stuck in the pavement and that has been there over the last thirty something years. That coin, contains the history of the very heavy depreciation that our currency has had and the policies that our government took to try to hide it. In 1993 the 1000 pesos coin was discontinued and it was substituted by the 1 peso coin. Just like if depreciation never happened.

1000 peso coin imbeded in street pavement in Mexico City ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

Westendarp: The city is full of little discoveries likes this one but small things demand slowness in order to be found, which is a luxury not everybody can afford. However, these personal discoveries are necessary, they are what make you feel you belong to somewhere. Slowness and contemplation are needed to find these subtle vibrations that help you to connect to a place.

Pancho Westendarp, One Meter in One Hour, 2019, Performance at Salon Acme, Mexico City, February 2019
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Speaking of slowness...back in February of 2019 you performed One Meter in One Hour as part of the 2019 edition of Salon Acme. How was that experience…being in front of a live audience for such a long, slow piece and was that your first performative piece?

Westendarp: It is my first and only performative piece for now and I had never performed it live before. Considering that it was going to be presented in an art fair made things a little more complex. Walking one meter in one hour requires concentration, focusing on breathing and in keeping a pace. This totally abstracted me from what was going on around and from all the buzz and business talk that happens in an event like this. After an hour I just emerged back to reality. Performing in front of an audience made me aware about how slowness was antidote to noise. This has led me to make plans of repeating this performance in other public spaces, crowded areas, conflicting avenues, etc. as a symbolic/silent resistance against the sense of urge that the city imposes on us.

Part Three:

RHC: Now that you have your first public performance under your belt at an art fair, what other spaces and why would you like to perform that piece (One Meter in One Hour)?

Westendarp: Well, there´s a pedestrian bridge, close to my place that goes over Circuito Interior, one of the biggest and most crowded avenues of the city. I feel specially attracted to this location as it offers an spectacular view of the financial district and the slow movement of cars at peak rush hour. The relationship between time and productivity are important components of the statement about the it comments on slowness as a way of rebelling against the idea of speeding up our lives by finding ways of doing more in less time.

Pancho Westendarp, One Meter in One Hour, 2017, Video, Edition of 3, 1 A/P, Stills 1-6
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Our experience of time and space…or our perception of time in space and ideas around that topic permeate your work and you have used different media to explore these ideas. Which media to you prefer…meaning out of photography, video, drawing, installation or performance…which one best articulates what you are trying to communicate to your viewer and why?

Westendarp: I feel that photography is what lets me communicate ideas better. Time is a key component of photography. So it is a medium that is directly related to all these concepts from its origins. The earliest photograph of a person, was taken in Paris by Louis Daguerre. It is a view of one of the city streets where tiny silhouette of a man having his boots shined can be seen. The materials that Daguerre used were so low-light sensitive that moving objects won´t show up. It was because the man stood there for about the whole exposure time (seven minutes) that his image appeared in the photograph. So, this is a great example of the very early relationship between photography and time.

Pancho Westendarp, Days Go By, 2012, Video, 5 minutes 19 seconds, Edition 5
©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Can you tell us about your video "Days Go By" and how it was made?

Westendarp: I was walking to my studio using a path through the woods on Long Island when I encountered a deer. It stared at me for a while, so I had time to take out my camera and record the moment before it ran away. I used that path almost everyday. So, I just set up the rules of a game where I would record that spot whenever I passed until a similar encounter happened again. One year and two months later a deer and her two fawns crossed that same path. I like the idea that the ritual of repeating an action can have a certain influence over things that are out of our control. It talks about the idea of faith, of being certain of the uncertain. At the end, faith is what helps us feel less alone in the world.

Pancho Westendarp, Tension and Compression, 2018, Installation detail, Thread, magnet, needle, rier stone and 1 A4 size print, Dimensions variable, ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: In the description you wrote of a recent installation from 2018 Tension and Compression you mentioned the Stridentist Manifest. Can you tell us more about that movement in Mexican literature? Also, how has literature and language in general effected or influenced your work?

Westendarp: Stridentism was the proposal of a vanguard Mexican literary movement in the 1920s. It was heavily influenced by ideas of Futurism from Europe. As its name proposes, one of its goals was to create upset and challenge the literary scene and society in general. In the case of the piece you mentioned, I typed all the words of the manifest over each other. Creating a symbol of the size of a single letter. I like to see the result of this as a seed. It is a very tiny thing that contains the possibility of something bigger, of a new vanguard movement in this case. I see language as a material to work with. Naming things is a way of bringing them to human existence but if a word can´t be read, the thing that it is attached to can´t be known. So, I like to work with the idea of suggesting things through words that don´t exist, or symbols that look like words and let the viewer imagine what are they about.

Pancho Westendarp, The Point Where All Points Converge, 2013, Ink on book pages, 21 drawings, 7" x 5" (18cm x 13cm) each, ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You also made a piece using a Borges short story. How does that story and your drawing made from it relate to your interests in perceptions of time and space?

Westendarp: Time and memory were some of Borges preferred themes. So, I wanted to pay tribute to him by intervening using The Aleph, one of his most famous stories. The tale describes a spot where everything that exists in the universe could be seen without overlaps or transparencies. He calls it "the point where all points converge." For this work, I took the actual pages of a book the story was printed on and covered the text with very small ink dots. The story hides below the drawing in the same way the whole perception of the universe is blocked by the limitations of our memory to process and remember everything that exists, thus turning our recollections into a blurry map of scattered images.

Pancho Westendarp, Ghosts Aren't Attached To Places But To People, 2016, Magnifying glass, LED and batteries, Film slide, Film holder and a Rock on a Shelf, Component 1: 8" x 6" (20.3cm x 15.2cm) approx. Component 2: 7" x 5" (17.8cm x 12.7cm) approx., ©2019 Pancho Westendarp/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: One of your more ephemeral pieces Ghosts Aren't Attached To Places But To People is also one of your most enigmatic. The idea that something can be concrete and intangible is an interesting one. So, how do the materials this piece is made of relate to these dual ideas?

Westendarp: The materials of the piece could be easily found in a workshop, the piece runs on batteries, so at the end it isn´t affected by the fact that it won´t last forever. One of the main components of the piece is the shadow projected that will eventually fade down. So in many ways the piece plays with materiality and immateriality.

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