A tribute to the anonymous and unsanctioned creativity of the slums

Mike Gonzalez explains how Empty Lot, an installation at Tate Modern by Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, reflects the social realities of Latin American megacities.

Artwork Empty Lot by Abraham Cruzvillegas
Photo: Andrew Dunkley © Tate 2015

It begins at night; silent figures crouching in an empty lot. It will usually be on a hillside, on an abandoned piece of building land in a public space – fenced but untouched over time. Even on that first night, however inhospitable the terrain, something will be raised – if nothing more than a marker, a sign of presence. The passing pedestrian will see very little. You must first look up, into the haze above the city, to see it – almost floating above the formal urban landscape.

In the first few days access may only be up a steep path of loose stones quickly turned to mud by even the shortest rainstorm. There will be no electricity or water, though the water tankers will soon appear to sell their dubious overpriced product in plastic bags. The high voltage cables will begin to sprout shoots that lead straight down into the mud, occasionally sparking with menace. And steps will be cut into the hillside – the first suggestion of permanence.

The city could be Caracas, Bogota, Rio or Mexico City. The slow emergence of mud brick houses with zinc roofs, of makeshift sanitation, of small stores, workshops, local transport consisting mainly of motor bikes or beat up 4x4s will be the next stage. Because of the circumstances of their construction, these collections of dwellings that emerge slowly, piece by piece, out of the rubble – jigsaw puzzles of found materials – will seem transitory, impermanent to those looking on from a safe distance.And they may seem to lack any pattern, any ordered development, any process marked by planned stages of growth. It is not architecture, not design; and nor is it the work of certificated plumbers, electricians, builders. In some ways the very survival of these communities is a mystery.

And yet they do survive, these apparently random cities within the city, and they grow organically, though not in any manner that can equate with urban planning. They grow out of themselves, houses on top of one another, attached wall to wall, built into the landscape and of it. They survive because they follow the contours of the hills where they perch, line the creeks and rivulets. And their materials, like their shape, emerge out of the place. That process, collective and anonymous , is the impulse behind the work of Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, whose “Empty Lot” will occupy the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern for the next six months.

He calls the process autoconstrucción or self-building, a title nuanced to embrace not simply the physical making of houses but the creation of collective identities to which individuals come to belong as organically as the materials of which their homes are built. In some ways the title “Empty Lot” is a false clue, a trick played on the audience by the artist. Because it will be populated soon enough by new and unpredictable forms. The art critics have been deeply irritated by the triangular wooden planters that march in file up their wooden platforms.  They contain soil from a number of London parks; they are not deliberately planted with anything, but things will grow nonetheless. For this is a construction through time, and it is to be expected that as it changes it will mirror the creation and growth of the barrios that surround so many contemporary cities, like the Pedregal area where Cruzvillegas himself grew up. On the outskirts of Mexico City, the Pedregal is a frozen lava field, a dramatic natural sculpture in whose cracks and folds people like his family have made homes that grew with them, living spaces that were personal and expressive, connected by narrow lanes and makeshift bridges. And as each new element was added, each new event changed the arrangement, there were adaptations and transformations.

As an art work “Empty Lot” poses problems, as the indignation of some critics, irritated by the absence of a finished object, has shown. Yet no work of art is ever fixed in time, though it may be anchored in place. A painting’s material reality changes as the paint darkens and the frame ages, and its meaning changes too in the space between object and viewer. So this work too will evolve and become its final expression, though that in turn will be an arbitrary point on an endless line. The soil will yield its secrets, perhaps new found materials will appear. The sloping platform echoes the hillsides on which so many communities are built. Certainly its meaning as a lived space would be clearer if it were possible to walk between the triangles and it would seems less static.

This may not be architecture, or at least not the work of trained architects. But it is art, a tribute to the collective creativity of the anonymous barrio builders, the shadowy nocturnal figures who create living spaces in a landscape in the vacant lots of megacities. And in that sense, the work itself should grow and change through time, in unexpected and exciting ways.

Empty Lot continues in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern until 3 April 2016. Admission is free.


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