I have known Mónica since 2007 when we met in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. We were both enrolled in a seminar about sound that had a profound impact on both of our practices, and became friends exploring links between sound and experimental approaches to drawing. We continue to discover new moments of overlap and interest. This conversation — initiated in Fall 2020 and completed in late Winter 2021 — is wide-ranging, including volcanoes, the definition of awe, technically-illegal art performances, and how ideas of ritual play into Mónica’s work. Our conversation started in the Summer of 2020, was completed in early 2021, and published in June.
Mónica Palma studied visual art at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Veracruz. In 2008 she received her MFA in Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been living and working in Brooklyn since 2008. Her work has been shown at TSA (NYC), 245 Varet Street (NYC), Ortega y Gasset Projects (NYC), the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City), Soloway Gallery (NYC), Underdonk Gallery (NYC) and Essex Flowers (NYC).
Leah: I love seeing your new work. I’m looking at it having known you, and your work, since 2007 when we were at VCU together. My viewing of these pieces is rooted in what I know about you and your interests in duration, performance, place, texture, layers, time … among other things, of course.
One of the first things I respond to with this group of images is the relationship between surface and volume. The surfaces of the drawings reflect the surfaces of the objects, in some cases. But then the drawings themselves become volumes, and the space “inside” the drawing — or the space the drawing creates — is obviously as important as the surfaces of it. Together, those pieces suggest time in a really interesting way.
I recognize the obsidian, too, because you gave me a piece of it a few years ago, and I still have it here, in my studio! I know it’s a souvenir from Mexico City that you often use in your work. Obsidian relates to volcanoes, volcanoes relate to material, time, layers, and texture, of course… so here’s a funny question to start our conversation: how much do you think about volcanoes or volcanic material when you are working?
Mónica: Hearing your question, The Volcano Lover, a novel by Susan Sontag about Vesuvius that I read many years ago, popped into my head. One reviewer of that book described Naples as “the capital of natural disasters,” but I think Mexico City, with its earthquakes and volcanoes, is the real capital. The geography of the city is molded by the eruption of the Xitle volcano, and walls made by volcanic rock are abundant in the city. Aztecs constructed their pyramids with these rocks, and the Spanish disassembled those structures and re-purposed the material to build their churches. People try to polish and shape those rocks, but the rocks re-assert their identity – they resist human control and cannot be fully domesticated. At the UNAM, the National University in Mexico City, in many ways the cultural heart of the city, a massive compound of several acres is built on volcanic rock. Two other volcanoes — the Iztacihuatl and the Popocatepl, the latter still active — are entwined in the lives of the people of the Central Plateau. They are our Mount Fuji. Growing up on the top floor of a small apartment building the volcanoes were ever present, presiding over our days – if we were able to see their peaks, pollution wasn’t that bad; if we saw that the Popo had a white coat it meant that we needed to put our coats on. So to answer your question, yes, I grew up with volcanoes and I think a lot about their force, the material they carry, the latent energy and the vibration that they produce in the earth. And I also think about their central role in the mythology of Mexico, a mythology which, far from being lost, remains a powerful presence in the social fabric.
L: I’ve only traveled to places with volcanoes. I became very fascinated by them when I was in Iceland for a residency a few years ago and there was the threat of an eruption. I was struck that glaciers could live atop volcanoes, too: that fire and ice could co-exist like that. When I went to Ecuador last year, I caught a view of Cotopaxi, a major volcano just outside of Quito. But really living near volcanoes, and having them be a part of day to day life, is obviously nothing I have ever experienced. It must be really affecting, as a child, to look out your window and see volcanoes every day: geological elements with such extreme power over our lives and societies… something we cannot come close to controlling. I also love that the volcanoes around Mexico City were able to be a kind of weather-forecasting device for you.
I’m interested to hear more about the mythology you describe, especially in terms of how it affects the way that you look at the world, and how you make and think about your work. Would you say that these volcanoes and their mythology are central to your studio practice? Or are they forces which pervade your life so completely that it’s impossible to consciously separate their influence on your work?
M: Glacier on top of a volcano, I need to see that! I was looking into the Cotopaxi and it seems to be very similar to the Popocatepetl – both are conical and both are active and while I was searching I found a slightly sentimental poem about both volcanoes by W. J. Turner.
Speaking of my interest in the underworld, I wonder if my attachment to this myth comes from a need to feel grounded in a country (the U.S.) where history is often diminished and where I certainly have no roots. I’m not sure if I have always been this symbolically oriented or if my many years in psychoanalysis created a mental disposition for such tendencies. I know that mental and real trips to Mexico form part of my current persona. Over the years I continue to gather physical remnants of these mythologies, and when I can’t physically go to Mexico, I get my mom to send me materials. I see the same happen with other Mexican friends – they need certain ingredients and objects to feel at home, even if it’s just for a brief period.
I’m interested in the underworld, and my direct experience with volcanoes are a big part of that interest. But there are other objects linked to both Mexico and to geological forces – obsidian, for example, which was used extensively in pre-Colombian cultures, and raw tar, which was also used by native cultures. Sometimes obsidian is the material that speaks loudest to me; other times it is tar, ink, or charcoal (the latter two being very familiar drawing materials that are also drawn from the earth). The obsidians are fascinating, being the direct fruit of a volcanic explosion – there is so much wealth of information in a single token. From the ashes and the blackness of the obsidians grew the curiosity to work with tar and activated charcoal. I see all of these materials as speaking of a similar experience, being forced by natural forces colliding to be what they are, and concurrently by playing a key role in the spiritual and healing practices in many indigenous cultures.
Thinking specifically about mythology one Aztec deity that comes to mind is Tezcatlipoca; he is dualistic and has many egos and multiple representations. The specialists talk about him as a god that is capricious and fickle and takes over the infra-world, the earth and the sky (like an obsidian formed by the chemicals mixing when a volcano erupts). For me the most interesting aspect of this god is that in some representations he wears two round mirrors, smoking mirrors made of obsidian: one attached to his foot (for guidance on earth?) and the other on his headdress (for guidance in the sky?). When confronted with others the mirrors are used to reveal deep truths.
In street markets outside of museums and archeological sites, it is easy to find obsidian figurines and reproductions of these mythical mirrors for sale to tourists. In the last 6 years when I’ve gone back to Mexico, I make an effort to purchase my souvenirs, which I use in drawings and performances made back in the US.
L: I just found the Turner poem you mentioned. It is sentimental! But there’s something sort of nice about his sentimental romanticism, maybe? An attempt to communicate how old and powerful a volcano is, compared to his fleeting life. I can imagine the awe that Turner felt — coming from Australia and England — at seeing a volcano for the first time. I remember when I saw a volcano for the first time, in Iceland, It stopped me in my tracks. Romanticism certainly has its problems and its limitations, especially since it was overwhelmingly a genre for white men. But when so much these days has a touch of irony attached to it, do you think it’s important to communicate awe? I imagine Turner’s to be a very different kind of awe than you feel for volcanoes, growing up right near one.
So maybe I will ask, do you think that a “familiar” awe feels different than seeing something awe-inspiring for the first time? I’d be curious to read some poetry about the volcanoes written by Mexican or Indigenous poets to see how they express such ancient power, compared to how Turner did.
It strikes me that the “underworld” materials you described are a kind of physical evidence from regions of the Earth that we cannot directly experience, simply because the conditions are too extreme. As you know, I’m really interested in aspects of the world we can’t directly see or experience. I use digital tools in my work to refer back to this separation. You use elemental materials to work directly with this evidence. I love what you said, that there is a wealth of information in a single token of obsidian. I fully agree with you, and I’m so obsessed with the information present in all forms of nature. How much information is in one tiny rock or plant… and how many processes came together to make it!
Is there any difference between how you work with materials you’ve brought from Mexico yourself compared to the materials sent by your mom (when you are unable to travel)? And does your work change when you haven’t been able to go home? Maybe before you answer those questions, you could describe your practice a little bit, talk about the drawings and the performances… they have similar roots, of course. Your drawings are made in a performative way, even if that “performance” is not made public. How do you decide when to let your viewers see the performance in action, and when do you keep it private? Since you described Tezcatlipoca and his many egos and multiple representations, I like thinking about the different aspects of your art practice bringing forward different aspects of you and what you wish to give to us, your viewers.
M: I had to go and look up the word awe; I have used it over the years but wanted to be sure I understood the real meaning. I thought that it was a kind of onomatopoeia, and I guess it is, sounding a bit like a short breath or lament. I was also looking for a poem in one of the many native tongues, but I couldn’t find anything (being only a Spanish speaker puts some limitations on my search). I don’t know if you have heard about the tiemperos? Tiemperos (Time keepers, though the word “tiempo” is understood equally to mean time and weather) are chosen people who are in charge of creating a bridge between the volcano’s will and the residents of nearby villages. The tiemperos communicate to villagers about changes in weather (which are attributed to the volcano) and they are in charge of organizing pilgrimages to the top of the volcano. There are many beautiful rituals involved, and the more I think about them, the more these rituals make sense to me as perhaps the closest approximation to “poetry” as we (outside this culture) understand it. In an animistic paradigm, there is no meaningful boundary between poetry, religion, and philosophy – they are all distilled versions of an everyday reality in which everything is “truth” (and everything is “awe”).
Back to the tiemperos, I recall an image from a documentary on el Popocatepetl that a good friend of mine made: Don Antonio, the tiempero, is filling CocaCola bottles with water, sealing them with wax and, from bottle to bottle, delicately connecting a colorful skein of yarn – he then digs holes and sets the bottles into the ground around the skirt of the volcano. My grandfather wasn’t exactly a tiempero, but my mom tells me that he used to do a ritual that involved a ceramic plate, seeds and prayers to call for rain (and she said it always worked). When you directly witness these situations in your family there’s not much space for irony. I’m fully aware that my disposition away from irony comes in part from being raised in a Catholic family which comes with many complications. I work hard to untangle the damage that came with being a woman raised under the Catholic oppressive powers, and from that syncretism I chose to keep the pagan part.
M: I hear you when you talk about awe and irony. Certainly, nature with its ungraspable dimensions is not something that I can aspire to take with me; a token or a memory, as we were talking before, is the only part that I am capable of recollecting – something bigger would be contemptuous. All of this also makes me think about your work, in which it’s not really the immensity that you want to take with you, although you still manage to name the parts. Am I right? One-four minute year, the title of one of your sound pieces, somehow summarizes my thought.
You asked about “familiar awe,” and I guess I would call that “reverence.” Seeing something grandiose for the first time – say, a canyon – is definitely awe-producing but going back to my country produces a different kind of surprise, it feels like a continuum and an anchoring and a humbling exercise. I travel to other places besides Mexico, but not that much, because the only time and money that I have left I tend to save it to visit my family and my country. The sense of wonder then shifts to an observational state where places and people slowly, and occasionally abruptly, change. Sometimes I wonder if reverence is also related to class: I grew up knowing that not everything that lay in front of my eyes was for my grabbing, consumption, nor even my understanding! Irony sometimes seems to be too comfortable in its presumption that it can take ownership over and possess an idea or an object.
I’m going to go ahead and describe the drawing-performance relationship. Most of the works on paper are derived from body actions; they are small “local” rituals that involve hugging, biting and spooning with the paper. Before the action, though, I fold the edges of the paper onto itself, as if the paper needed to recognize itself as a tactile material before I impose my force and weight on it. My approach with the surfaces varies – sometimes I make my own compounds of activated charcoal that I chew and spit on the surface; other times I use a thick layer of ink or casein. The actions are finalized with subtractions and cuts made with various cutting manual and electrical tools where the fibers of the paper are exposed. Another part of the work focuses on generating “recordings” of actions; for example, a commute into the subway where I carry with me a painted paper surface, and whenever I come across a public door, I open and close it around the paper, creating folds and marks. I consider the pieces done once that they have gone through an experience in the city and they have their own urban story.
The door pieces have an element of disobedience, and with my performances this element is also very present, combined with ritual, like lighting a fire in the street or climbing a tree or inking a manhole cover, all of which are enforceable violations in the state of New York. It’s not that I go around looking for a dictionary of illegal activities but it’s also not a coincidence that the way I want to be in the public crosses the line of what is permitted in the state of NYC. It is illegal to spit, climb a tree, and make a fire in New York City, but it happens that those same activities in Mexico (and I’m sure in many other places) are associated with ritualistic healing practices. My ideal viewer is the passerby that barely wants to look: I prefer the eyes to hold a vision rather than to hold a narrative. I get very nervous with “official” viewers, a stable audience that knows I’m doing “a performance” – they seem to expect a neat conclusion and I’m bad at closing circles.
After the performance is done another kind of token is left, or what I sometimes like to call a recording. Since the sound seminar that you and I took with Stephen Vitiello, I continue thinking about the idea of encasing sounds and actions. I believe that you do something similar, right? Like sampling the sound of a rock or ice cracking, or a piece of ether? My recordings mostly take the form of molds, rubbings, and pathology samples. Lately I’m playing on materializing words and sentences in Spanish where I masticate activated charcoal and sugar and speak phrases in Spanish into the paper. The visual results are quite medical looking, truly, like the pathology test of a lymph node.
I noticed that the work becomes more formal and minimalistic when I don’t have imported materials from Mexico on hand. In those cases, the work is mostly paper based with surfaces soaked in casein and ink, plus the hugging, tearing and folding that I was previously talking about. When I travel and personally gather materials like obsidian and tar, I often feel the need to generate a public performance, but many times I end up integrating some of these materials in the paper pieces as well. Whether I acquire the materials myself or get them from my mom, the Mexican materials are definitely associated more with ritual. So, yes, the work changes depending on the accessibility of materials, maybe an obvious consequence, but also a driving force to research more materials and to organize more actions.
L: Wow, I love what you said — that poetry, religion, and philosophy are all “distilled versions of an everyday reality in which everything is “truth” (and everything is “awe”).” That’s beautiful, and I would agree, though I’ve never thought about it quite in those terms. The distinction you make between awe and reverence is also really wonderful: reverence being a kind of awe that you experience every day. Perhaps that could explain the connection between reverence and ritual — rituals become ways to openly have, and express, your reverence.
I don’t know if you would attach the word “reverence” to your work, but certainly this discussion creates an interesting context for the performances, drawing practices, and rituals you described. I’m interested to talk more about the idea of ritual in your work. Certainly all artists have tendencies or habits, interests, and ways of working. But it’s not so common to hear artists talk about these tendencies as rituals. The word “ritual” suggests spirituality, or reverence, as you put it. I’m thinking back to what you said about volcanoes and finding ground for yourself here in the US. And to what you said about your grandfather’s rituals, and your leaving the Catholic church and retaining pagan ideas. It all suggests your work is a way for you to build your own rituals that perhaps help create a ground for you? Again, something many artists do, but with different linguistic terms in mind. Why do you choose to use the word ritual?
And about my work, yes, everything you said is definitely true! I haven’t worked much with sound in years, and want to get back to it. I am interested in alluding to an immensity because that immensity itself is impossible to capture, at least with photographic and sound recording tools. Maybe even impossible to capture with language. So I try to work in ways that present a small token — to use your word — of a landscape, but simultaneously suggests how much has been left out. It asks the viewer to fill in that immensity in their imaginations.
Thanks for reminding me about the idea of encasing sounds and actions from our seminar with Stephen. What a great class that was. It’s wonderful to think about a drawing as just that: as a result of actions, or an encasing — in visual form — of those actions. I’m curious, since there are a lot of specific processes and references that go into your work. When is it important for you that the viewer knows the details behind your process? I’m thinking, since I just saw it (via zoom, sadly), about your latest work, Tianguis, at Ortega Y Gasset projects in Brooklyn. It was astonishing, even virtually! So beautiful. There is so much narrative behind that. Or maybe it’s like the pieces of obsidian we talked about earlier… each object containing a wealth of information. We know the information is there, but we don’t always need to know what it is.
M: Hello Leah, now it is 2021; I’m just coming back from my daily walk outside. Thank you for your response. I was lingering with half-cooked responses in my head, so let’s see if something coherent comes out. I keep looking at your works through “sound” lenses, although I’m so far away from being an expert on that topic. I mostly wonder about the sounds you hear and imperceptibly (or consciously) record in your head while looking at nature. Maybe some of them slip under the door and get into your images?
There are a few things to say about habits and routines and why I don’t use those terms when talking about art. Good habits, bad habits, and simple habits have the burden of morality; they tend (or pretend) to bring order, a sense of time and structure. As good as a habit can be, it does not really tap into mystery. Routines, although necessary and healthy, also seem to go hand-in-hand with some idea of productivity, efficacy, or self-improvement. What I like about the idea of ritual is that it does not obey good morals or bad ones, it does not respond to effectiveness or sensible timing, although it might reply to cycles, it is a tick-tock that is not a device but a pulsation. A ritual does not care about convenience or judgment. I might argue that the ritual is not really a strong part of white American culture!
I used to feel awkward and out of place because I’m incredibly impractical. But over time I realized that my impractical ways and long circuitous paths can actually be valuable assets when making art. The deviations allow me to become a kind of flâneur, meandering, so that I notice things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This comes into play very literally when I am gathering materials from the streets of my work, and the piece at OyG focused intensely on this aspect of my work. When choosing ritual over routine, I’m hoping to be free from the good and evil. I use it as an aspiration and as an antidote to combat the habitual.
In the case of OyG, the piece was a team effort to bring the audience closer, to make sure that the fallen tree in the forest was heard. I wanted to literally display the process and make relevant questions about origin and sources. Some people came multiple times to see the project as it was evolving, and I answered their questions in person, and I saw those interactions as part of the piece, as well as my interactions with the vendors in Sunset Park. So the making and the “narrative” were synthesized, which I guess is what needs to happen on some level in any performance, or other visual art forms, like film, that is temporal.
To answer your question about the importance of viewers knowing the narrative, I’m hoping that the form and the process can be the primary conveyors of meaning, but occasionally it is desirable, or unavoidable, to lean on narration. I am wary of the seduction of background stories because they can deviate the viewer’s attention from what is. Specific narratives are also encoded in my materials, like obsidian and tar. Just by looking at the list of materials, people know that they come from a different hemisphere. I like the work these materials do, by conveying their own history, even if they do it in a foreign language.