Berlin / Miami, Dec. 2012 - I spent most of my last summer’s afternoons accepting invitations to buzz about a spacious loft atelier with Berlin-based artist Chaveli Sifre, reviewing and discussing recipes for deadly concoctions—a collection that would make up her new project of perfumes. A recent addition on the scene in Berlin, her practice is an all-encompassing avalanche of ideas that dip into multiple mediums. The result is the fascination with a broad spectrum of concerns that scrutinize everything from human relations and biology and art's oft self-referential nature. In the weeks leading up to the Miami art fair season, I sat down with the Würzburg-born Puerto Rican native to discuss her past, upcoming projects, core obsessions, objects of beauty and cautionary tales.
A quote from Rutger Hauer’s improvised Blade Runner soliloquy plays in the background as a fish flaps hopelessly on a dock and a duck bobs upside-down in water condemned to the prolonging of those final moments, which promote the expansive revisiting of the truly important. Chaveli is showing me Suspended Sigh, a video work from 2011 as she distributes cheese across a lasagna she is about to pop in the oven. “That was my first conceptual approach to art. Because under that assessment you can allow every type of art to be valid.” With her back to me and a fist full of cheese she explains her view on the collaborative experience and how art is no more an object, that it is how it’s shared, perceived and communally reflected upon.
Chaveli Sifre, SUSPENDED SIGH, video loop, 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
Nicole Rodriguez: What caused you to formulate this theorem about your own practice?
Chaveli Sifre: Perhaps I was looking for a way to justify why I made art to begin with. Searching for why I do what I do, why people are compelled to look. I find that it’s this, the ability to have a moment with someone else, being able to discuss, reflect. My works are simply guidelines in which one can project themselves, mere clues an artist gives—because in the end all artworks are clues—to a type of interaction with oneself or others.
NR: What references do you find yourself revisiting or utilizing as clues for your own works?
CS: The references I use are perhaps a bit antique, but figures like Gaston Bachelard, the poetics of space. Utilizing words like Echo, he explains that what an artist does is impart a poetic presence in space and that resonates. I enjoy these thoughts because in the end all art acts like waves.
NR: Do you find your work acts like waves in the way Bachelard might propose?
CS: For me art works like a cake. My approach has always been constant layering.
NR: Which would you say are your core obsessions?
CS: I am fascinated by language and science. I would say language was my first obsession. I always wanted to be a writer.
NR: Didn’t we all?
CS: I guess it’s a symptom of avid readers. And one of the things I like to read above all are definitions.
NR: Dictionary definitions?
CS: Yes. There is nothing more poetic than a definition. That one thing would inform or lend importance to another separate thing as language does with concepts or objects.
NR: If you think about your work in these terms, it does bring to light that they function very much like punctuation—your collection, An eye for an eye, exhibited in Amsterdam recently, comes to mind. I find it very appropriate we are conducting this interview in this language since in Spanish punctuation does not necessarily symbolize finality by arriving at the end of a sentence. It can also lead into an idea by opening up a sentence with a concretized symbol of interrogation or affirmation.
Your work is in this way small encompassing nodes of information that always seem to serve a purpose beyond them, whether it be contemplative or otherwise. You may lend an audience the first few words and an ellipsis but nothing more.
CS: And I have no qualms with that. In 2007 I started working with definitions, particularly definitions with a scientific characteristic to them. The first work that treated language in such a way dealt with words like virus, germ etc. I would take these words and extract them from their context—the encyclopedia—and I would construct a text that would in turn become a narrative. I treat them like points of departure that allow a viewer a greater participation. Which brings us to my second obsession. I began constructing work that concerned spectator participation. Pieces like Together We Sing, a dual performative karaoke gesture and tapestry.
NR: In which you sang?
CS: I wanted to construct something, because for me the construction of an art space is of utmost importance so the work is not lost. For me, manual labor, the gesture of making something, is a way to reflect on my own work. Because this is my profession, and as an artist—although I find it equally valid to print a sheet of paper and stick it on the wall (this doesn’t really bother me)—I need the process of producing something. So at the moment of conceiving this performative piece I was making tapestries and paying a lot of attention to textiles.
The way Together We Sing came about was I began to collect tracks and curated a list of fifty songs. Then constructed a piece, seven feet in diameter, as a theatrical backdrop to the would-be karaoke duet performance—a spotlight in which two people share the experience of completing the art piece together that would not exist at all if not for their collaboration—with the idea that an artwork is to recreate the setting for an encounter. In the end the piece was never presented, but I am always saying that someday I will. Another similar work was I.C.U, a conical sculpture that when you gazed into it with someone you would see their reflection instead of yours.
NR: What about your own reflection? Who have been the influences that you have stared down to find yourself?
CS: A few. Among them the traditions of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark have been momentously influential. Lygia in particular with work that provokes viewer participation like La Baba Antropofágica and Los Bichos—constructed sculptures in eternal transformation thanks to their audience. Both their work is so referent and out-there for their time. When in the US they were concerned with Abstract Expressionism Oiticica was creating the Cosmococa!
NR: Your very young career already is expansive in terms of media. You jump around between language, tapestry, painting and a collection of reworked objets trouvés. Do you have a media that grounds you?
CS: I went a while without making art. Time passes and you begin to ask yourself what is worth it to make. Question like these arise and I return to painting which always seems to organize my thoughts.
NR: When did you start again?
CS: I started again after my first move to Berlin and I worked on a series of paintings created on printed found imagery.
Chaveli Sifre, ONLY FOOLS, fresh flowers, trashcan, sound, 2011 (ongoing); Courtesy of the artist.
NR: The first of your works I ever saw by you was Only Fools, a sculpture installed at The Dependent art fair in New York last Spring, which also incorporates flowers. This seems to be a consistent re-visitation of yours.
CS: Only Fools is an ongoing series that developed into an urban intervention. It has to do in part with my interest in nature and science, but also their dual function in life as in death. You utilize them both at a funeral and to court a new love; as a celebration of life that also includes death. The works that touch on the themes of Frühling also address ideas of the imminent end of something which we would rather not see pass. I had my own Frühling, before touching on darker subjects. This is also what I’m treating in the series of island paintings I am working on for NADA Miami.
NR: What is the name of this new series?
CS: It doesn’t have a name yet. It’s a series of paintings of volcanic islands. The idea that a natural disaster that promoted the island into existence also causes a constant threat to its sustainment. Any moment it could cease to exist, exiting the same way it entered.
NR: What are you referring to exactly when you mention “darker” subjects?
CS: In the exhibition This Will Be Terminated With You Inside encompassed a few of these works. Reverse Black Hole, a sculpture that questions what would happen if a black hole overflowed, what would it toss out? It’s not scientifically correct, but often a persistent image in my head will cause me to create a work. A black hole is something that sucks it all in, but what if it had a capacity?
NR: What would come back into existence? Like a collapsing and expanding. A lung that needs a push to pull.
CS: Exactly. And in life this is necessary. Everything in this exhibition has death (in some way) as a point of departure. Double-headed Pigeon is perhaps a more humoristic approach to this question.
NR: You know of all the times I’ve seen images of this painting I’ve never identified it as a double-headed pigeon.
CS: It’s a romantic portrait for me. In reality something that taxidermists could create but only available after death, or an end of sorts. Only two dead pigeons can make a double-headed pigeon.
Chaveli Sifre, WILL EXHIBIT NO EMOTION, quartz, glass, taxidermy cat, 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
NR: Are any of these works also traveling overseas to Miami this season?
CS: Will Exhibit No Emotion I’m exhibiting again since it’s only been shown once before. Another taxidermy object, this time of a ring-tailed cat whose face has been removed and replaced with a cluster of semi-precious stones.
NR: At the beginning of the summer you were working on a book of perfume recipes for Miami.
CS: Yes, a series of recipes of deadly perfumes but they won’t be shown at Miami this year. These works were similar to I Exist. It Is Soft So Soft, So Slow: one of my favorite pieces. I fell in love with the idea—although I don’t remember how I conceived it—of making a perfume out of chloroform. But what I most enjoyed was the production process.
NR: What about the process made it different from other sculptural pieces?
CS: It’s such a weird career that you come up with an idea and tell yourself you must move forward with creating it. It forces you to contact people you ordinarily wouldn’t, have contact with information you ordinarily might pass over. For I Exist. It Is Soft So Soft, So Slow I worked with a professor from the University of Puerto Rico after a failed attempt at finding chloroform via a Craigslist post—obviously scientists in Puerto Rico with access to chloroform don’t use Craigslist. A friend connected me with this guy who after some correspondence agreed to meet me. It was like a drug transaction with his parting words being, “I’ve just brought you this. Don’t open it. It might explode.” But this is what I like to do: projects that promote interdisciplinary exchange.
NR: But you could have just used water potentially as it’s a sculptural piece inside a sealed glass bottle?
CS: I need to go 100% if I’m going to try and realize an idea. So I found it and mixed it with sandalwood and rosewater—because I wanted to go classic. It was then placed on a very low pedestal, a time bomb in the gallery. I thought eventually people would knock it over accidently and collapse. I hoped for it but it didn’t happen.
ArtSlant would like to thank Chaveli Sifre for her assistance in making this interview possible.