Sprawling, ancient, chaotic Mexico City is Pia Camil's birthplace and birthright - her knowledge of the city and the ease at which she has learned to navigate it informs her work at a basic level. Born and raised there, it was her mother who introduced her intimately to the sensory overload of Mexico City, ‘knowing every nook and cranny like a cab driver’ and this, she says has had huge impact on her intuitive, intimate and subjective work.
At 16, Camil left for boarding school, then to the US and finally London for grad and post grad studies at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Slade School of Fine Art. The plan was to become an artist ‘somewhere else’ but from London she was deported and returned to Mexico City: this forced reorientation forms the basis of her significant work. ‘I was quite surprised by the city and had a new perspective on it because it had been decided for me. Now most of my work deals with the relationship between me and the city and how I find ways to access it or comment on it.’
The other overarching strand in Camil’s work is an intention to destabilise things ‘in order to fuck things up, to find new meaning in things and not just take them at face value.’ Camil’s 2015 Frieze show in New York was a starting point for her kind of destabilisation - she flipped the phenomenon of the major international art fair and art market on its head by giving away 800 ‘habitable paintings’ in the form of ponchos for free. Camil’s other works with disused billboards, abandoned highway buildings, repurposed shop fittings, formalised paintings and participatory performance work are ‘contradictory and layered and complex, and woven within these ideas is Mexico City itself because it is a complex city - a monster.’
What is it about Mexico City that inspires you?
The spirit of Mexico in general is always an inspiration but I tend to target specific areas of the city. I work with lots of outdoor secondhand markets in marginal neighbourhoods with a large working sector and they are informal and conflicting and plagued with lots of economic, social, and political issues. Intuitively I seek these places out because they are engaging visually, aesthetically, even by the sound. Everything is an experience, an overload of shit, so sensorially charged and it is not the experience you get from an ordinary city. It is crazy, noisy, the smells are intense, everything about it is intense.
I like the nature of when things are in a chaotic unstable place, because I find points of engagement more easily as opposed to things being in a gentrified state. In New York I find it incredibly boring and some places in Europe I think ‘fuck, man, it’s so orderly and perfect.’ I hate to generalise but perhaps artists feel drawn to this instability, like New York in the 80s, which goes to say that Mexico is not the ‘it’ place to be. I think that Mexico City has always been like this, inside, forever.
In what way has your experience of going away and coming back given you a different viewpoint? Do you need distance and absence to be able to claim a thing and see it more clearly?
Yeah, going away helps. It had to become unfamiliar for me to recognise it again, otherwise it is too much part of your everyday landscape, but the other side is that you realise it works because it is familiar to you and you know how to navigate it properly. An artist friend showed me an Instagram photo of an artist who is not from Mexico City and she had on a disguise of a wig and glasses and a hoodie and she was proud she was going to a badass neighbourhood which is still badass but not what it used to be back in the day. We both laughed because you get such a different understanding of the city when you are here; you know the codes and the language. It is interesting to me how these codes get broken down when you are from here, or you are not from here, and how you perceive that. In my case, it is a mix of enough familiarity that I can be very fluid and go in and out of these places quite naturally, but then when I am in there I am not necessarily 100% part of it. I am seeing it with a type of subjectivity, I guess.
All the labels dilute as you grow older and you get more immersed in your work.
What do you consider yourself? Sculptor? Painter?
That’s a tricky one - I don't know. I trained as a painter and I remember a teacher at Rhode Island Design School saying that no matter what medium you do, you always think as a painter. That stayed with me, because I have done lots of different shit but I always see them compositionally, in a very formal way, like a painter would. But I don't necessarily think of myself as a painter even though the work looks to a formal engagement and aesthetic. That’s been changing more and more with my interest in offering an element of participation in the work. It is a conscious decision to let that formality go a little bit and introduce more play and a little bit more of the unexpected into the work and the formal element has been slowly diluting. All the labels dilute as you grow older and you get more immersed in your work.
Is that where your creative journey starts - seeing things differently and also putting different questions to the same stuff that everyone else sees?
For me, yeah that is part of it, but the other part has to do with an urge to use your work as an output for something. If you don't have that output, you find it quite frustrating to deal with your own stuff…it is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, it becomes a world you can easily access in and out of, like a very personal language. My work now is on a different scale but it is exactly what drawing used to be for me when I was little, just this little place I could go to to express stuff; then you become older and it’s much more of an elaborate vocabulary.
Your work has increasingly highlighted the importance of collaboration. Can you tell me about that?
I have always liked collaborating and after I became a mum it seemed like the idea of me being alone in the studio just wasn't going to fly. My textile work is with groups of seamstresses and it became natural - this relationship I was building with women I was working with is intrinsic to the work. I am trying to bring this to the front of the work as opposed to an element that never gets discussed. Not ‘Oh look, what amazing work Pia does’; instead there is a whole story behind. Lately I have been titling the work with the first names of the seamstresses as a way for me to recognise them.
Most of the seamstresses I am working with now are part of a collective. They live in one of the areas have been going to and I think of it as a place I don't just go to as a tourist, where I might buy a t-shirt then go back to my house - no, I go to the market and I stop by at the seamstress’s home and I am there for a little bit and they talk to me about the issues of the neighbourhood and whatever - you just shoot the shit and talk about their problems and I talk about mine and it is a climate I like to foster when I make the work.
So what happened at Frieze 2015?
The free poncho thing immediately set off an incredible response from the public from the most positive to the most negative. In the end it was a successful piece because it brought all this stuff out - I remember after the first day I went back to the place I was staying at with my boyfriend and I just cried. He was like ‘Why are you crying? It’s been amazing, great…!’ and I was like ‘It was horrible!’ I hated seeing that! It was crazy.
Some visitors were bribing other people to be able to cut the line, or name dropping - ‘I am so-and-so, can I cut the line?,’ people offering money - $1000 for a poncho right then and there. This was not the point of the project - you needed to fucking get in line. Other people were so mad: ‘I’ve been standing for three hours and I didn't get a poncho so, whatever, I will just take this one’ and just ran off. It was incredible. Then you see the good side of people coming up and exchanging shit for the poncho, saying this was such a nice project, the energy you put into it, and they gave me little things they had with them in return.
Your 2016 work ‘A Pot For A Latch’ was an extension of the idea of exchange. What was different this time?
I wanted to emphasise the importance of getting something back in return and generating an idyllic economy system in a bubble. Visitors were asked to bring an object of no significance except to themselves and to exchange it with other objects in return. It was in the New Museum gallery where one facade is just glass, so I thought it would be nice to do a store front - where you can be window shopping, typically New York. It was a simple setup based on how markets in Mexico City put things in a minimal formal way - a grid system. First we started being really strict about what the objects were but then I realised the more you let go, that’s where the heart of the piece lies. People were bringing very significant stuff and it was much friendlier than Frieze. For me this piece is important because it gave so much value to the spectator formally and conceptually - they make the work. I set up the structure and the rules and the public made it happen, bringing amazing shit and great stories.