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A Colossus in Clay Speaks a Generation’s Message

February 17, 2012


The fourth floor of the New Museum was in ruins. It was almost impossible to walk without stepping on a piece of wood or a pile of rubble, and a fog of dust hung so thickly in the air that it had begun seeping into other parts of the building through the vents.

Any visitor to the museum in early February might have thought that the floor was being gutted, but there was something odd about this scene of destruction: In the middle of it all, a kind of rough gray tower of what appeared to be cement rose from floor to ceiling, looking in places like detritus designed by George Lucas for the planet Tatooine, in other places like something left by the Incas and in others like the underside of an old highway overpass. More than anything else, it looked like the product of a very large rogue 3-D printer infected by a virus, randomly downloading schematics and plans.

 Robert Wright for The New York Times

Adrián Villar Rojas beside his towering sculpture, one of the works on display at the New Museum’s Triennial.

But the object, expected to be one of the showstoppers at “The Ungovernables,” the museum’s Triennial — which opens on Wednesday with more than 50 young artists from around the world — was made by human hands. Using mostly clay, one of the world’s oldest and plainest art-making materials, a crew of six men and women from Argentina assembled, shaped and carved the piece, working seven days a week for the last month under the direction of a 31-year-old sculptor named Adrián Villar Rojas.

Until only a few years ago, Mr. Rojas, who was raised and educated in Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city, was little known even in his own country, working out of a studio in his parents’ garage. But he rapidly gained a following after beginning to show in Buenos Aires, and he was chosen to represent his country in the 2011 Venice Biennale, where a towering forest of his deranged clay structures became an unexpected hit. (Roberta Smith, in The New York Times, proposed that they might be a “new kind of visionary assemblage.”)

He began using clay partly because it was cheap and plentiful and its crude physicality tacked against the ethereal look of a lot of Conceptualist-influenced work by established Argentine artists. But the clay itself — because of what happens when it dries — began to shape his ideas about the kind of work he wanted to make.

“Look at this, we finished this only yesterday,” he said recently in strongly accented but perfect English, showing a visitor to the New Museum a piece of the sculpture. Mottled gray and scarred by deep cracks, it looked as if it could have just been unburied by archaeologists. “It’s an instant ruin,” said Mr. Rojas, who looked almost ancient himself, his hair and glasses dusted with clay powder. “It’s the gift the material gives us.”

He thinks of such pieces as ruins from the future, the wreckage of civilizations yet to come and difficult even to imagine, beyond the fact that they will eventually collapse, as civilizations have an unfortunate habit of doing.

Like many ruins, the piece itself will be demolished, not long after the Triennial ends on April 22, both because there is no good way to take it apart to get it out of the museum and because, Mr. Rojas says, “I really love the idea of not having a body of work.”

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