This interview between Frieze New York Frieze Projects artist Latifa Echakhch and curator Cecilia Alemani was originally published in the Frieze New York bespoke newspaper created by Mulberry and Construct London.
The displacement of objects contradicts perception in the installations of Latifa Echakhch – for Frieze Projects she brings home the iconography of the American West.
Latifa Echakhch is a Moroccan artist based in Martigny, Switzerland. Her installations and sculptural interventions frequently populate galleries and public spaces in Europe and the Unites States. Recently the solo exhibitions “From threshold to threshold” at Museum Haus Esters, Kunstmuseen, Krefeld (2011) and “Le rappel des oiseaux” (The Call of the Birds) at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo (2010) celebrated her work.
Cecilia Alemani: For Frieze New York, you will install hundreds of tumbleweeds on the lush green grass at Randall’s Island. How did you come up with the idea?
Latifa Echakhch: The idea of using tumbleweeds comes from the Western movies I’ve watched. I have always been fascinated by these poor pieces of dry vegetation, which enter scenes only to accentuate moments of suspense, or underline the eeriness of deserted ghost towns and dry cities. I only learnt recently that it is completely natural for the plant to be carried away by the wind—leaving the ground to sow seeds as it tumbles along. They are an iconic part of the American landscape, and they are what I thought of when I was invited to do an outdoor project for Frieze New York.
Alemani: Every time I think of this project I imagine it as a mirage, an uncanny vision in the middle of nowhere. How do you think people will react to the installation?
Echakhch: I do not know how people will react, but when anybody sees tumbleweed, they know exactly what the plant implies; its meaning is logged in our collective memory.
Alemani: There is something slightly romantic about appropriating one of the most iconic symbols of Americana and translating it in such incongruous context. Do you often play on similar contrasts?
Echakhch: The island, with its gigantic psychiatric hospital — almost entirely abandoned — is such a specific context. The majority of the land is used for sport events or farming; it has a quiet promenade, but it’s not far from the crowded city. I imagine the island once all of the visitors have gone, when it is empty. I am interested in the fact that visitors will come from the city to discover something semi-rural, a place that looks like somewhere much further away than it actually is, and find something that accentuates that feeling.
Alemani: In other works, you have invited the viewer to re-examine a familiar object that is unexpectedly presented to us in an idiosyncratic context. Can you talk about this strategy of displacement?
Echakhch: This idea of strangeness is a central point in my interest in art, and I often accentuate it by using objects that you can recognize easily, placing them in situations or environments where you wouldn’t normally expect to find them. There is no mystery, no idea of genius, or extraordinary ability in the objects’ making. Doing this leaves only a few gaps for aesthetic fascination, so one can go directly to questioning the object itself and the context in which it is found.
Alemani: This is not your first public work. For “ILLUMInations” at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, you presented an installation of several flagpoles in the Giardini in front of the Italian Pavilion. How does your work change when presented outdoors, in a public space?
Echakhch: There aren’t that many differences, but conservation, sun damage, and risk of wind all come into play. On the island, the fragility of the installation is the opposite of the Fantasia (2011) installation in the Giardini in Venice. Maybe the fact that the work is outdoors accentuates the idea of landscape. In an indoor exhibition, it’s about the building of a landscape, as a viewer you can almost forget the objects and become completely absorbed as you walk through the installation itself, and then be surprised again when you step back and see the installation as a whole.
Alemani: Your work often seems to exist between physical sculptural presence and its dissolution: I am thinking of a work like Erratum (2004–9), in which you smashed several Moroccan tea glasses against the gallery wall. Can you talk about this polarity?
Echakhch: The difference is between the gesture and its meaning. First, the sculptural installation is aesthetic, contemplative, and it’s mostly about colour, materiality, and space. One can also recompose the temporality of the gesture: the how, the why, and what is behind its intention.
Alemani: Your work seems to hover between a very poetic approach and a deep political involvement. How do you reconcile these two elements in your work?
Echakhch: Poetry is a system of feelings, but also an end in itself. It can be so easy to construct but also so difficult to find, because there is nothing more fragile than the poetry around us. In the same way, I consider the political in an art work as a layer of understanding that could easily be ignored, like it often is in society. But because there is so much around us, in history and in other objects or images, it has to carry a kind of necessity. I just organize, in different ways, how one edits, perceives, and considers these two layers in the installations I make; from there the viewer is free to take it as far as they want.