“I account for the context, and I ask myself, what is this going to do to the experience of the work? I don’t forget that many different people might visit the space, from the most sophisticated intellectual to someone who is encountering art for the first time.”
In 2013, I first became acquainted with Enrique Martínez Celaya and his work when I was an intern at contemporary art museum SITE Santa Fe. Martínez Celaya created an exhibition called The Pearl. I was struck by its myth-making and how it built an immersive environment as a point of entry for audiences. The installation created a world around Martínez Celaya’s childhood experiences and felt like a guided meditation full of different paintings, sculptures, and sounds. Each weekend, I would spend four to five hours giving tours of the exhibition and noticed a visceral audience response, mainly regarding The Cascade, a sculpture of a boy crying into a bed of pine needles that ran the entire length of the exhibition space. The tension of holding back emotion was broken in this room, and I found that on more than one occasion, people began to cry. At the time, I was interested in the in-between space of public and private displays of grieving. Reflecting back years later, his exhibition was the catalyst for my thinking about audiences and the intimacy of dialogue. I started to ponder if art could create opportunities of authentic emotional expression within a present and engaged audience.
Additionally, I was interested in Martínez Celaya because of his story and how he decided to commit himself to his art practice. Born in Cuba and raised in Spain and Puerto Rico, he started painting seriously as a child, but embarked on a career as a physicist, researching superconductivity at Brookhaven National Laboratory and patenting designs for several lasers. Then he pivoted sharply back to creating art. He works in many mediums, creating site-specific paintings and installations for places as diverse as the Berlin Philharmonic (2004), the Cathedral Church of St. John The Divine (2010), The State Hermitage Museum (2012), and SITE Santa Fe (2013).
Over the years, I have been contemplating his process of pondering questions, regardless of the pathways which he found to pursue answers. For example, though Martínez Celaya had an extensive career as a former physicist, within a singular moment at a lighthouse decided to commit himself fully to his art practice—noticing and honoring the nuances within himself that began early as a child, nuances that could only be explored through art. Martínez Celaya challenges the idea of what an artist does by embodying what people often think of as opposite sides of a spectrum: art and science, left and right brain. I have myself spent a portion of my career in the finance industry using my mathematics skills to prevent money laundering and elderly abuse, and though I did not have a dramatic moment of clarity, I found that my practice at the bank became social practice in nature. I realized that the nuances of my questions were always present and I knew the answers could only be explored through art. My clients became collaborators to the environment of my office within the time we spent together, much like how I felt I was a participant in the world of The Pearl as an audience member. Years after experiencing his exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, I thought about what it means to be multifaceted within my own art practice by combining my knowledge on socioeconomics and art. Now that I am in graduate school at Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Program, I have the chance to talk with Enrique Martínez Celaya about subjects like audience, gatekeeping, context of environment, and the future of status-quo systems of the art world all these years later.
Shelbie Loomis: In 2013, I was struck by how completely you were able to encompass the exhibition space in a way that allowed for the audience to wander through using multiple forms of artwork, like your sculptures, paintings, writings, music, to form a created environment. I had really felt invited into this space as a collaborator and participant in the experience alongside your artwork. What role do you think the audience plays when experiencing your art?
Enrique Martínez Celaya: People (artists) talk about the importance of the audience, but I find that one can make a lot of assumptions about audiences that are often incorrect. For instance, the assumptions revealed by a phrase like, “Our work forces the audience to question,” don’t usually apply to sophisticated audiences who are likely to have already considered whatever is being thrown at them.
I primarily try to make work as an inquiry guided by the values and judgements that reflect my need for clarity as well as by a constellation of thinkers, writers, artists, and scientists who have been influential to me and whose work I respect. They are my first audience, which is, of course, an imaginary audience. In the case of SITE Santa Fe, it was a bit more specific than that because the exhibition space had a movement, and I wanted to imagine how people would move through the space. I was actively thinking of the audience as somebody who is present in this space moving through it, so I considered how that person would be invited or nudged in one direction or another by their words. When I create environments, I think of that movement through space—that unfolding of the audience—in a similar way one encounters a poem that unfolds in time. Beyond that, I am careful with the assumptions I make about the audience for my work, and I am especially wary of the facile wisdom and challenges artists sometimes like to impart on the world.
Shelbie: It’s interesting to me because you are in a way assuming a guide position, by allowing the artwork to guide the viewer. But has there ever been a situation where the uncontrollable variable (which is the audience) shifted or unintentionally shifted the environment, so that it might be interpreted differently? Have you ever experienced the audience shift the presence or the essence of an exhibition?
Enrique: Oh, yes, of course. I can think of a man—who I have since gotten to know—who cried for a long time in the space with the crying boy (The Cascade). That man’s tears changed that space by his engagement. So, the work is placed in a space as a catalyst for possibilities, and those possibilities come in many different forms. The audience is transformed by the environment, and in turn, it is transformed by their response. I did a project for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. People go there for worship, and in an environment like that, the work is directly or indirectly part of their worship, which is very different from a museum when visitors see the work as part of a cultural conversation. So, that shift, for example, makes the work and the audience have a different relationship to one another than what is usually assumed.
Shelbie: Is it intentional for you? Or is that a wonderful surprise, like a byproduct of just creating and putting a lot of effort from yourself outward?
Enrique: No, it is intentional. I chose to do the project at St. John the Divine because I felt it was an environment that demanded more from my work and me. There’s a kind of clever or self-important conversation that is common in museums or galleries that doesn’t make sense in the context of a place where somebody prays for their dead son. For someone like me, who is interested in certain kinds of questions, I want to take those questions to a place where they matter. Context and audience are related but they are not the same things. I account for the context, and I ask myself, what is this going to do to the experience of the work? But I don’t forget that many different people might visit the space, from the most sophisticated intellectual to someone who is encountering art for the first time.
Shelbie: It seems like you’re alluding to the fact that there is a certain amount of gatekeeping. And in that anticipation, you’re essentially eliminating gatekeeping and allowing it to be accessible through multiple gazes, regardless of who audiences are, to allow people to project their own humanity in the work and allow them to come away with their own assumptions.
Enrique: Gatekeeping is one way of thinking of it. There seems to be a tendency for people in cultural arenas to appoint themselves to the role of deciding whether you’re good or not good enough to respond to the work appropriately. Ultimately, I make my work to try to understand something about the nature of things. So, when the work goes into the world, it interacts with the world in a way that might be unexpected to me. A work of art that is dimensional enough—has enough going for it, enough points of entry and enough references—can be approached in many different ways, so to prescribe what that experience would be like, and try to determine or control it, will not only do disservice to the work, but it also underestimates the possibilities of the artistic experience. The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the Berlin Philharmonic, SITE Santa Fe, and The Hermitage, are all very different contexts, so over-determining what will happen in one of them because I know what might happen elsewhere is a mistake. It is better to let the work do its thing.
Shelbie: This kind of ties into a question that I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of your work. If you hadn’t been a physicist and gone through a certain amount of formalized training, would you still be doing the work that you are doing today?
Enrique: I truthfully don’t know the answer. On the one hand, everything I have been and every training I have undergone affected me. On the other hand, when I look at the work I was making in my early teens, and notice the preoccupations I had, the kinds of things I wanted to make, the part of the world I wanted to understand better, they seem similar to what concerns me today. For example, a lot of the literature I was interested in when I was thirteen and fourteen is the same literature I’m interested in at this moment. My understanding is perhaps more sophisticated now, but the things that moved me then, still move me today.
Shelbie: Do you feel there is a strength for artists who are pursuing multiple complexities of fields of knowledge and combining it under the gaze of artwork?
Enrique: It’s not an easy question to answer because I think there are different embodiments of that question. I think the possibility of combining different fields of knowledge and sensibilities can be very powerful. And I think ultimately, the divisions between these fields are often arbitrary in the sense that what we’re after is understanding things better and expanding the island of what we know. So, physics, poetry, or art, are different versions (more or less) of the same thing. On the one hand, there is power in combining all these disciplines and moving seamlessly between them. On the other hand, there is a tendency when people work with multiple disciplines to become dilettantes. Instead of offering new ways to get deeper, the approach becomes an addition of superficially-understood concepts brought together. The result is five concepts that are superficially understood and superficially developed, but because not everyone knows all five concepts you brought together, you appear to yourself—and perhaps also to the world—as some sort of messiah of knowledge. I am all for movement across fields, but I’m also interested in depth within them, in really trying to understand the consequences of a particular line of inquiry or thought by understanding it. If you’re going to use philosophy, then try to understand philosophy. You don’t have to use it, but if you’re going to use it, use it well.
Shelbie: 2020 has brought a lot of interesting obstacles for artists. What do you think the future of art, the artist, and the artist’s role is moving forward after this year?
Enrique: First, I will tell you what I would like it to be, then what it is likely to be. The reflections and clarity artists can provide are more needed now than ever. The connectivity of social media and the triumph of greed and capitalism have made us more lonely than ever, and many feel alienated and disenfranchised. Artists can bring forth self-awareness and connection to a value system that is not dependent on how sellable or popular something is. However, what’s likely to happen is that artists will become voices for trendy ideas and subjects. I think galleries and museums will be damaged—at least temporarily—by this pandemic, and there will be fewer opportunities for artists. Also, the situation is going to get harder for artists in terms of livelihood.
Shelbie: There’s an interesting component, which is the ability to exhibit or engage with a community. Do you think that there are other means of outreach and bringing art into communities apart from the gallery?
Enrique: I think you can be engaged with the community as a part of your practice. You can do projects in the world or you can create your own opportunities. I think artists are shockingly conventional in that they often wait for permission before doing something. You can show your work on the sidewalk if you want to. You can go to a public school and work with kids. Artists wait for the system to allow them access to the alternative space, to the gallery, to the museum or the biennial. This can be very limiting, and I think if anything has been revealed during this pandemic, it is what happens when those things are not there.
It will be a rough time, but I think there is hope. Unlike a movie director, who usually depends on a big network of people, as an artist you can make a show in your living room, or you can collaborate with people. The possibilities are open to your imagination, and we don’t always take that seriously enough.
Enrique Martínez Celaya (b. 1964) is an artist, author, and former scientist whose work has been exhibited and collected by major institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and many more. He is the author of books and papers in art, poetry, philosophy, and physics. Received a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics and a minor in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University, and a Master of Science with a specialization in Quantum Electronics from the University of California, Berkeley. Part of his graduate research was conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and while there he painted the Long Island landscape. Martínez Celaya was born in Cuba and raised in Spain and Puerto Rico.
Shelbie Loomis (b. 1992) is a multidisciplinary artist and self proclaimed economist who explores issues of class, labor/housing/food rights and critiquing economic systems of indentured servitude like debt. She explores these issues through the use of story-telling, archiving, drawing, and social organizing. Her socially engaged projects are a commentary on the subversion of labor norms, nomadic lifestyles through RV-ing, temporary housing, and self-sustainability through the growth of food. She is based in Portland, Oregon, and is originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program