pia camil brings sample sale psychology to frieze ny
Meet the Mexican artist shedding a little light on the social dynamics of art fairs by giving away 800 free pieces of wearable art.
Photography Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy Marco Scozzaro/Frieze
You've seen that slow motion video of people absolutely losing their shit at an Alexander Wang sample sale, right? It's terrifying, but it's also an insanely fascinating take on consumer psychology. Although Frieze New York doesn't exactly feature racks of $10 T, it does boast its own sample sale of sorts. For her Frieze Project installation, Mexico City-based artist Pia Camil revisited the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who explored the relationship between art and the body in the late 60s through his series of 'habitable paintings,' the Parangolé. Yet Pia takes the project a step further: she's giving away 800 pieces of this wearable art for free in hopes to illuminate viewers' behaviours and explore overarching social dynamics in an art fair context. As Frieze NY visitors lined up to snag one of her pieces, we caught up with Pia to find out what she's learned.
How did this project come about?
Cecilia [Alemani, the curator of Frieze Projects] was very specific about doing something participatory, and at the time, was looking into the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. I came across an essay that he'd written describing the Parangolé, which were capes or 'wearable paintings,' as he called them. He described this idea of how the pieces disrupted the dynamic between the spectator and the work. I have made work that revises other artists' work in the past, and I was interested to set that piece within the context of an art fair specifically. I tried to understand, or perhaps more so expose, the kind of social dynamics that happen at art fairs. By giving people something to wear, they become the point of focus and give us some understanding about behaviours in these kinds of spaces.
How did you design the pieces? Were you constructing any specific shape or silhouette?
I wanted to work within a modular pattern and knew I wanted to do the least amount of cutting as I could with the fabric that I had. All the fabric that I used is remnants, discards, misprints, or anything left over from local factories in Mexico that are part of the consumer fashion world. When you buy these kinds of fabric, it comes already half cut up or in bits and pieces, so we worked within a square on the floor and used as many pieces as we could to fill up that square, kind of like building a puzzle. There wasn't much thought in terms of the design, other than using a traditional poncho pattern. The material itself kind of gave us the design because of the way we had to position it in that square. We also had to work as fast as we could—we were producing about 60 ponchos a day for 4 weeks!
What has the reaction been like? What kinds of behaviours have you observed?
For me, it's been very surprising to see the responses, and we've had all kinds of them. I think it's been successful in shedding light on some sort of behavioural dynamics. But then there's also the other side of the piece that I'm quite surprised about—mostly this total build up of desire and expectation around the work that I didn't expect at all. The work is set up specifically to mimic consumer strategies in the sense that they're not just copies of Parangolés; I've done a remake of them and branded them specifically with a big 'W' that stands for wearing and watching. The way the installation is set up is that all of the pieces are on a rack, people line up and pick their poncho as they would in a regular store. I think that set up mimics existing dynamics in our culture, and these behaviours get even crazier because the pieces are free! I don't want to say it's been aggressive, but people have gotten intense about it. They line up, they take it from each other's hands—it's what you would see at a sample sale. But that's part of the idea: that the work kind of develops with its own set of dynamics and people just sort of make it their own.
Then there's a side to it that I've enjoyed the most: people being really appreciative and really surprised by the fact that they can get something free at a fair. They're very sweet and very interested in the project, so there's been all sorts of reactions. Most importantly, I think it's been incredibly engaging with the public, which is I think the main point of this project—setting up different dynamics within the fair that aren't just about watching the art, but really seeing the pieces and being a part of it.
How is the rise in popularity of art fairs impacting the art world in general?
We sometimes forget that fairs are essentially big marketplaces where the work is displayed as attractively and beautifully as it can be, but falls pretty short of what it was context it was really made for and made in. It's also starting to become something of a norm for the viewer; it's almost easier for people to see art in this context than to go to a museum. Even the way artists produce work is starting to be guided by the schedule of the art fair world; my galleries now usually contact me before an art fair asking if I have a work or if I'd like to produce one. All of that is informing and changing the way artists produce work, as well as the way the public sees work. I, kind of perversely, wanted to see how an art fair crowd behaves and just shed a little light on what art fairs are about, without asking too overly ambitious questions because I'm not trying to solve anything or pose any big theories on my ideas of the art world.
Do you think fashion is or can be art, and vice versa?
I think there's a very close relationship, and they're two industries that have always informed each other back and forth. Art fairs have specifically become these kind of public and showy aspects about them, so people take the opportunities to showcase themselves, so the context almost lends itself for that bridge to be closer.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy Marco Scozzaro/Frieze