An interview with artist Adrián Villar Rojas by the Art Gallery’s Justin Paton and Lisa Catt.
A world where humans evolved with seven fingers. A future city on Mars racked by revolution. The remains of life on Earth after the seventh mass extinction. A museum commemorating the end of post-colonial deterrence on the moon ...
In 2020 the Argentine-Peruvian artist Adrián Villar Rojas embarked on a remarkable sculptural experiment, which took place not in a physical studio but in times and places that no human has visited. Developing a new software system dubbed the ‘Time Engine’, he and his team created a series of intensely detailed and constantly evolving worlds and placed virtual sculptures within them. Simulating ambient conditions – from weather to warfare – across timescales ranging from hours to millions of years, Villar Rojas was asking unanswerable questions about the life of art through time.
Extreme things happened to the sculptures during their time in these other realities. Fires assailed them, altered gravity distorted them. Unrest toppled them, wars left them wounded. Other life forms took shelter within them; organisms bloomed on their surfaces. And as their travels through time continued, the sculptures became increasingly fractured and complex, their skins and structures accumulating evidence of all they encountered. The resulting objects are documents and witnesses of turbulent change – geological, political, environmental.
Two years later, in late 2021, these objects underwent another journey – from the virtual worlds of the Time Engine into the physical world. Establishing a large workshop in his hometown of Rosario in Argentina, Villar Rojas and his team began (re)constructing, with forensic intensity, these time-travelling sculptural bodies. Using unconventional techniques that ranged from delicate tinting to violent scorching, they pushed materials to their limits to manifest these objects and their temporal trials.
These are the sculptures – at once haunting and visceral – that you will encounter in The End of Imagination, the inaugural project in the former World War II fuel bunker called the Tank that forms the last and lowest level of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new SANAA-designed building. First visited by the artist in 2018 when it was still partly flooded, this vast space, with its oil-stained walls and forest of concrete columns, is itself a document of conflict and material change. In Villar Rojas’s project, it becomes a container and holding bay, a strange stillage, for the slow observation of his ‘impossible objects’. Are they survivors or prophets? Should we revere or fear them? What discomforting knowledge do they bring us from other times and places?
Wonderfully, for me and my co-curator on this project, Lisa Catt – curator of contemporary international art at the Art Gallery – the answers to these questions are not yet settled. Here we talk with Villar Rojas, just weeks out from his arrival in Sydney, about the Tank, the Time Engine, the Rosario workshop, and obj ects for which we’re still finding the words.
—Justin Paton, head curator of international art, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Justin Paton: Adrián, tell us about that first moment of descent into the Tank.
When I first visited the Tank there was almost no infrastructure in place, except the scaffolding that served as a staircase and a couple of temporary flood lights. We entered the space through a huge metal hatch within the parkland that surrounds the museum, which gave access to this vast subterranean bunker. We had to wear boots because the floor was still partly flooded. The space was raw, damp, cold and with a profound echo and reverberation. We used hand-held torches to explore, creating incredible shadows as our lights hit over hundred columns. It reminded me of being in a pitch-black forest, where forms and shapes only become visible within the single, moving light source of a torch. It was magic.
Lisa Catt: I remember you saying, over and over, on that first visit, ‘this is all a fantasy’. You grasped instantly that, when the new museum was open, visitors would not see the same flooded dark space that we saw.
Yes, it was critical for us, from the very beginning, not to forget that the space was going to completely change once the museum had moved in. The magic of the ‘untouched’ oil tank was not going to exist in that form again. So it was important for us to remember every single detail of that fantasy – how it felt, smelt; the darkness; the reflections in the water, the way it was lit by only these dramatic, cinematic floodlights. The Art Gallery’s conservation team shared this fascination and care for the Tank’s layers and changes.
Here was a space that had existed for some 80 years; it had its own history and life. Tree roots had grown into strange forms, lines of sediment stretched across the walls – but no human had ever inhabited it. This led me to think about the stories of places we haven’t yet seen.
LC: You also spent an immense amount of time in the archives, talking to colleagues and other curators, researchers and academics, in person and later on countless Zoom calls, learning about the history of the Tank, the political and social conditions from which it emerged, and the land and waters that surround it.
Firstly, let me say, that I resist all vocabulary that draws a clear line between content and container, between ‘artwork’ and ‘art space’. I am interested in every square centimetre of a space. From things as overt as the historical use of architecture and the political specificities of a given geographical location, to things as seemingly meaningless as the electrical outlets, cables or unpainted walls. For me, everything generates meaning.
Conversations with my hosts and the process of ‘housekeeping’ are therefore very important to me. Following the many conversations, I had with people in the Art Gallery and across Sydney, I started to see the Tank as a portal opening a view to stories of human conflict – from colonisation to modern global conflict, to fossil fuel extraction and post-industrial change.
Like many other art spaces and institutions, The Tank is itself a document of human conflict. Take the Louvre in Paris, or the Arsenale in Venice – these too were places of confrontation and struggle. But these histories are often forgotten and rewritten when the space is repurposed for art. And so, like with all of my projects, I see this work as an avatar for my own doubts – and those of others – about the highly Western, colonial project of the museum and its apparent function to save, gather and present culture.
There’s a remarkable connection and contrast between the temple-like neo-classical architecture of the original Art Gallery of NSW building and the shadowy wartime space of the Tank now beneath it. They’re like conscious and unconscious aspects of the same imperial project, now connected.
I must express particular gratitude to the young team of Indigenous staff who gave me the biggest perspective shift by taking me to sites of cultural significance in Sydney and beyond, and who, along with other Art Gallery staff, shared their own concerns, questions and hopes for the future of their museum.
LC: Let’s talk about the other city in this story – Rosario. Tell us about this city, your hometown, and the studio space you set up from scratch.
I am very proud to have created this new work in Rosario. Making work in Rosario is not like making work in the outskirts of LA or in Queens in New York City, where artist supply chains and networks of resources already exist. In Rosario, you must first create the infrastructure that you need to then create the work.
My parents, my brother and my partner in one way or another were involved with the daily life of the work. We all spent several months in early 2021, during the pandemic, searching in Rosario for somewhere we could use as a studio space. My mother was the one who eventually found the space, and it was kind of a miracle as it had proportions that were pretty similar to The Tank.
This huge, hangar-like space had many lives before: once a primary school, then a factory for making air conditioning units. It was in need of maintenance and alterations to transform into a functional and safe workshop. We had to install full-time security, ventilation, kitchens, office space, multiple bathrooms, for example. Once we had a usable working environment, we then had to go about customizing the space for the project itself and what we would need to physically create the work.
In many ways, my team and I worked in symbiosis with the workshop and the city, and at the same time, the work itself was shaped by those limits and capacities. I feel that the workshop and Rosario modified the sculptures just as much as the sculptures modified the workshop. And when I say workshop, I also mean us – me and my team.
JP: As well as the workshop space, you had another space that had existed for some time beforehand – a highly detailed virtual tank, a digital twin, that you were using to test and model the installation.
Yes, that’s right, we developed a 3D model of the Tank – with every column, stain and shadow – even before the museum had made its own model. But there was another, much more important digital tool within our studio that was used as the sculptural force for the work. We call it the Time Engine.
JP: Tell us more about the Time Engine. It’s an idea – and a kind of capacity – so key to your Sydney project. I recall many excited WhatsApp messages in which you shared the discoveries you were making.
The Time Engine is a software system invented by me and my team; it is an idea that we intend to keep evolving, so this will be the first of many applications in my work. It emerged because I was feeling extremely frustrated with the way we were using other digital modelling tools, that is, software platforms that are designed to replicate the analogue, human-centric experience of modelling in the digital realm. With the Time Engine – it is completely different. Here, I model a digital space that itself has agency.
JP: Why was this external agency such an important thing to achieve?
The Time Engine is a way for me to model worlds that model sculptures. Before now, I had been modeling sculptures that have the imprint of the real world, that are shaped by the physical, social and economic realities of their time and contexts. For this project, I wanted to find the next step – artistically and ontologically. And that step was the Time Engine.
The Time Engine can simulate environmental conditions across small and vast timescales and in different places – from landscapes and seascapes on Earth to the geographies of the Moon and Mars. My team and I then place objects and forms inside these modelled realities and see how they are affected.
What if we left Rodin’s Kiss in a jungle in the Jurassic period for 500 years? Would a bird’s nest survive the seventh mass extinction? What would a coffee mug, or a car, look like if it was left in the canyon of the Valles Marineris on Mars for 15,000 years? Or if it was subjected to the forces of wind in 7,374,000 BC? What textures would form? What would remain of their volumes?
JP: Which leads to the next phase of your project – the immense labour of hauling these forms out of the virtual and into the real. How do you describe the resulting objects?
They are like documents or witnesses to these extreme forces of time and change. They are impossible objects that perhaps no human being in our lives, the lives of our grandchildren, great-children and great-great-great-grandchildren will ever witness. Their skins and structures carry the evidence of all they’ve encountered.
LC: Tell us how you went about translating impossible objects into material reality in your Rosario workshop. You once began a Zoom visit to the workshop by welcoming us to your ‘kitchen’.
I love this metaphor of the workshop as kitchen, with a lot of experimentation. In our workshop in Rosario, we created rooms dedicated to CNC-milling and 3D printing, as well as areas for working with metals and wood, and areas with heavy extractor fans where we could safely smelt and experiment with amalgams of recycled plastics, with different types of soil and sand and dust, and experiment with various metals and textures from the found materials we sourced in Rosario. We pushed methodologies and materials to the extreme to create the techniques that would themselves create the sculptures: their sub-structures, their skins, and even their crates (which we made too).
The way I work is entirely ‘in-house’, meaning no aspect of this labour was outsourced to another company or fabricator. I always work and collaborate with a team of craftspeople, including artists, carpenters, welders and masons, many of whom have accompanied me now for more than ten years.
LC: Even though we have looked at endless images and made many virtual visits to the workshop, those of us in Sydney feel we will not know these objects truly until they are present in the Tank.
Even in reality, they are very hard to locate, hard to name. Because of the many processes that they have gone through digitally and materially, the weight and space that the physical sculptures occupy is ambiguous: sometimes they look very heavy but they are in fact very light. Sometimes they look like they may crumble, but they are extremely solid. Many times they occupy a lot of space, but due to branching and tendril-like forms rather than mass. In a way, the scale of the sculptures comes from the density of the information they hold. Their skins are like reservoirs of data. Every sculpture is many sculptures. There are hundreds of pockets for thoughts to get caught in.
These sculptures are without a doubt the most complex shapes and textures that my team and I have ever tried to produce. They took us nine solid months to make, not including the preceding period of research and experimentation. We worked around the clock and made a completely new set of skills. To make these sculptures we had to remake ourselves.
This article was originally published in VAULT magazine issue 40 (November–January)