My work explores different capacities of time, place, and memory. My practice is both inherently conceptual and deeply personal, as I will detail next.
Conceptually, I employ theories of visual culture, conceptualism, minimalist sculpture, scientific research, and photography. I allow these concepts to interbreed and create an innovative body of work. At heart, my practice stands in indirect relation to my personal trajectory. My mother and I immigrated from Guatemala to the United States when I was 10. We rejoined my father who had been living there ever since I was born.
My work strives to bring a universal dialogue on cultural displacement. Cultural displacement invokes a nostalgia for the land that one might actually barely know. The memory of time and place is a constant process of recreation. This explains why I relate traces of objects and landscapes to a human presence. I freeze the memory of time and place in materiality. My work strives to redefine the boundaries of art and form. Technology plays a central role in this process. I combine new and archaic technologies to create unusual arrangements of vernacular objects and materials. I developed this fascination with technology when I was young. When I arrived in the US, the universal language which helped me adapt best was technology. I found comfort in this medium because it did not require that I speak a distinct dialect. This also explains why I decided to become a programmer. Actually, I still see myself as a programmer. I develop sets of instructions that manipulate each piece to create an unrealized function. Thus the technological world plays a dual role: it is the enabler and the driver of my work.
The challenge for me is to write a chapter of a universal story. I speak of nostalgia obliquely, by creating conceptual minimal work and by not referencing my own story. I believe this gives breath to the work and allows for ubiquitous interpretation. Cultural displacement is a universal story. However, in the art world this story is frequently told by its observers rather than by its subjects. I employ the word “subject” on purpose. Subject designates three things: that which is being discussed, that which is under the rule of, but also that which is the cause of. There is a tension between these three components, which is meaningful to me. I use conceptual minimal work to tell the story of cultural displacement in my own terms.
What follows is a brief description of my work trajectory and my sources. _
During my time at Yale, I became interested in a psychological theory called primal therapy. I was searching for a primitive and direct way to engage a collective experience. Janov (1996), who created this trauma-based psychotherapy, said: “There is one neurosis, many manifestations, and one cure – feeling.” I was looking for a way to trigger the senses in order to invoke feelings. I created an installation of five different artworks. They all played with each other to create a certain order in a non-confrontational space. By this, I mean that they reflected the emptiness of the room from a distance. It was a safe space, architecturally empty, almost like a hospital white padded room. Its format questioned if a white cube can truly be empty yet filled with moments of friction.
Ahern (2012) described my work in the following terms: “These objects focus our perceptual and psychic energy on physical reality, thus helping us come to terms with personal and collective traumas. Vela-Prado's work enacts a kind of psychoanalytic Kantianism: physically assertive and powerfully neutral, his objects make us conscious of both the intricacies of our perceptual apparatus the undeniable power of our unconscious memory. We sometimes talk about healing and understanding as though these are soft things. Vela-Prado’s work suggests the contrary: that healing requires stamina and rigor, which it is at times a brutal affair.”
The installation first started with the work Teeth(Basium VIII). The title is derived from Johannes Secundus’ collection of poems Book of Kisses (1541). In the variations of his poetic explorations, Johannes Secundus designates the kiss as being nourishment, healing, bringer of death or the exchange of souls. Teeth(Basium VIII) is a video work in dialogue with this poetic perception. The video piece lied on the ground on a large 1980’s CRT monitor looping a video of two individuals biting each other’s teeth in darkness and light. It was filmed using film, but transferred to this monitor to accentuate the whiteness of the teeth and reds in the flesh. The audio track was the constant sound of clashing enamel. This aural interference filled the space with a faint murmur. The work engages the viewer visually but also permeates their sound periphery and physical awareness as they travel through the rest of the gallery.
This encounter could be viewed as a natural act or as a symbol - perhaps the memory of a relationship gone wrong. It could be designated as “a kiss of tongue and teeth, the tongue that sings of the beloved (and becomes the member tumescent with passion, …and the teeth that molest it” (Wolfreys, 1999). The familiar places of tension, anxiety, fear, and pleasure expectedly arrest the viewer in this space. This piece evokes my personal violent history with my father, and my philosophical take on relationships. It epitomizes those moments when intimacy gets lost and becomes something more physical – brutally, almost repulsively physical. This work was recently exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.
This piece was flanked by four others: Bulkhead, Primates, Dune, and Why Father’s Work. They engage with elements of Teeth(Basium VIII) either materially, visually, or anthropomorphically. Bulkhead and Dune are both material explorations. Bulkhead is a painting 16 feet tall and 4 feet wide made of plaster, rock sediments and incandescent interference, visually hidden by a remnant of a fossilized Japanese paper imprint left on the surface. As the viewer walks by it, certain parts fade or glow below the surface. This material turbulence creates a space of uncertainty. The scale of the work makes it difficult to see the whole painting from a short distance. The viewer has to decide to view the surface or to move away to see it in its entirety. From a distance, the work resembles an aerial view of the Arctic.
Dune is a physically complicated work, is made of 100 pounds of grounded glass meticulously placed upon a flat surface. The conglomeration of the ground glass creates a seemingly flat surface from a standard height. The surface almost appears to be a soft photograph of a white space much like snow. However, when examined the image and surrounding space caves in on itself and is distorted into rainbows. The manipulations of surface and space in Bulkhead and Dune forced the spectators’ unconscious movement throughout the gallery space. Meanwhile, the sounds of teeth trying to grapple each other continued. With their movements, the observers shape the view of the art works and inform the architectural space.
Two more image-based works faced the viewers. The first work Why Father’s Work is 16 mm spliced looping film created using excerpts from four sources: I Never Sang for My Father (a 1970s film starring Gene Hackman), Cattle Insemination (and educational army film on the research of new ways to cryogenically freeze bull sperm), Why Father’s Work (a 1967 educational film for elementary school students on the absence of fathers and the patriarchal system in the United States more generally) and silent 16mm family films showing the Guatemalan landscape in the 1960s-1980s.
The resulting work presents a conflict of both visual and aural manifestation with the scientists explaining the freezing process of biological material, the machinery constructing skyscrapers, and the sound of bodies moving in the cinematic world. This emotional and inconsequential landscape offers a moment of reverie for the viewer. The film plays for a duration of 8 hours until it turns itself off. This coincides with a typical work day. These formal and aesthetic choices create a finite limit for viewing, but also an incomprehensible narrative that can be slowly reconstructed if watched enough.
The final work Primates could belong in a museum of natural history. The picture shows two apes in front of a cave. The piece echoes a familiar representation in its iconography and its presentation. Apes, which evoke our ancestral identity, are frequently used to analyze human relationships in popular culture. The artwork mimics the format of the matted photograph with its white large border. It gives the illusion of an old picture, perhaps from the 19th century. In reality, the image was created digitally, and the oxidation fabricated artificially. I engineered a large format camera from a flatbed scanner. The image is captured on a glass surface by moving across it. The result is a peregrination through space but also through time. The slight movements are captured as they happen on a photographic plane from left to right over the course of 20 minutes. The slow passage of time is captured by vertical blurs. The picture evokes dreams with its representation of the slowness of time and violent dormant creatures.
Ahern (2012) described the work in the following terms: “The photograph paints a physical space that we cannot imagine walking into and inhabiting. This invented third space (or third world, even) mediates between viewer and referent while remaining radically different. Yet the photograph’s ties to physical reality remind us that there are ways of encoding space, time, and matter that don’t adhere to human logic. To use Svetlana Alpers’s term, it is an image of deanthropomorphized vision. It throws our humanity into relief, while allowing us to peer just past it.”
In Primates, I emphasize the materiality of the photographic object to present it as a sculpture. The photographic object resists this definition by its nature. A three-dimensional object cannot be captured on a flat surface. Two practices collide. My work resolves this tension by emphasizing the technological aspect of the object. The photographic image itself can be accentuated to the point that the latter becomes an object. This echoes and contradicts the flatness of the space and the other work. This work was recently exhibited Palazzo De’ Toschi in Bologna.
Recent projects push further the exploration of the interstice between different art forms. The tensions between forms are where other truths emerge. I explored the interweaving space between painting and sculpture in Olympia. Its creation process involved several steps. I took a high-resolution photograph of Manet’s Olympia. I then mapped the painting surface for the physical cracking of the paint. I carved these marks and filled them with graphite. It was striking to see that the halo around the black servant was deeper than the marks around Olympia.
My aim was to add a natural and historical depth to the painting. The marks on the panel reflect the breathing of the painting. They focus the viewer’s attention on the black servant rather than on Olympia herself. An artwork as Manet’s Olympia is seemingly confined in its representation. I reveal rather than create a new layer which echoes the social passage of time. The politics of both Olympia are at the crossroads between artistic expression, historical document, and public survey.
I also pursued my almost impossible ambition to capture, or even diffuse movement through a still form in Records. I cast the negative space of collected classical records. When played the “music” is not only reversed but plays an un-existing groove, therefore, creating a completely new composition. In Muonionalusta, I took an asteroid and shaped it to the size of an American penny. The structure of the metal within is formed by the high heat and speed of travel through the earth’s atmosphere. In both cases, the lines crystallize the movement of light and sound in material form. A meteorite is a natural record of cosmic origins. Shaped like an inconsequential American currency, it becomes a domesticated, ordinary object.
Overall I delineate a space where nature, technology, and culture harmoniously coexist. Rather, these elements are indistinct. Everything leads to a single, multidimensional world, where diversity is a normal mode of existence. I invite the viewer to decipher from their personal history what could potentially be a subjective encounter. The work loses and gains significance by alienation. I create slow unfolding moments to be experienced. The seductiveness of something happening slowly can be mesmerizing. One becomes lost in curiosity and pleasure. It leaves the observer vulnerable and open. The observer is in fact in a state of neurosis trying to familiarize themselves with the works. Going back to the theories of primal therapy, there is no cure, and there never was.