Rodrigo Valenzuela: Future Ruins at the Frye Art Museum

Future Ruins, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, is indeed monumental, incorporating a range of media including print, sculpture, video, and sound. The exhibition does not present a quiet, post-apocalyptic landscape that fetishizes decay; rather, Valenzuela addresses divisions of labor and the nature of work, making these complex issues manifest through the specter of the 21st-century economic landscape. And though it is discordant at times, the installation requires sensory friction to make its point.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Still from Maria TV, 2014. Digital video with audio. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Maria TV, 2014 (still); digital video with audio. Courtesy of the Artist.

It is the artist’s firsthand experience as an undocumented worker that lends dimension to his creative practice and vehemence to his politics. Valenzuela emigrated from Chile to the U.S. by way of Montreal in 2005, and for three years, he picked up odd jobs through labor agencies and by waiting on the street, bouncing from Boston to Olympia before finally settling in Seattle in 2006. “Minorities often get invisible jobs,” he remarked in a 2014 interview. “When you get to your office, school, or restaurant, look around. Look at the trash and the bathrooms. If you don’t see anything, then that is a well-done, invisible job, often executed by disposable people.”

Valenzuela’s vision of the future is a close examination of the present. The exhibition is organized in three sections, and each of the varied components operates similarly to a stage, serving up satire to make way for speculation. The visit begins in a darkened room where two short videos, Maria TV (2014) and Diamond Box (2012), are shown on a loop. It is here that we are introduced to the laborers whose contributions to the mechanisms of daily life are undeniably crucial yet remain invisible.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Future Ruins Installation View, 2015. Photo: Mark Woods

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Future Ruins, 2015; installation view. Photo: Mark Woods.

The Marias of Maria TV are recognized as nannies and housekeepers—an easily identifiable trope relegated to the margins of homes, hotels, and telenovelas. Their counterparts are the men of Diamond Box: day laborers and custodians. These characters, while readily known, are largely unrepresented in mainstream cultural and political life. Valenzuela’s videos become venues for a counter-narrative. The men speak of their experiences immigrating to the U.S., relaying their personal stories with poignant candor. Similarly (albeit more dramatically), the women reflect on their relationships with family. They deliver their lines with passion and nuance, evoking the pain and excitement of lived experience through the fictional lens of a performed TV melodrama.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Still from El Sisifo, 2015. Digital video with audio. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. El Sisifo, 2015 (still); digital video with audio. Courtesy of the Artist.

Moving into the adjoining gallery, the viewer is confronted with El Sisifo (2015), a three-channel video projection commissioned by the Frye. This piece lends a view into the act of work itself—a Sisyphean task according to Valenzuela, in which the laborer is hired to build walls, clean floors, and eventually tear the whole thing down in the name of urban redevelopment.

El Sisifo features documentation of the crew responsible for cleaning Rice University Stadium in Houston. On one wall, we view the full scope of the arena as a lone worker quietly sweeps the stands; on another, we see hands loading bag after bag of garbage into a trash bin; and on a third, we watch a coach-like figure as he scrawls unintelligible plays onto a chalkboard. Cacophonous audio plays in tandem with the piece, locker-room pep talks interwoven with unnerving instrumental sounds. The result is an ineffectual drone that feels endless and bleak. The motions are repetitive, and the outcome mundane—so much so, the cleanliness of the stadium goes completely unacknowledged by the hordes of spectators as they take their seats.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Hedonic Reversal (installation view), 2015. Inkjet print. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum and funded by the Frye Foundation. Photo: Mark Woods

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Hedonic Reversal, 2015; inkjet print; installation view. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum and funded by the Frye Foundation. Photo: Mark Woods.

The third and final component of Future Ruins is Hedonic Reversal (2015), a newly commissioned piece comprising graphite wall drawings and seventeen monochrome prints on aluminum. The installation is presented within a fictive construction site—scaffolding lines the walls and scuffed paper is taped over the floors. In this vignette, the role of the laborer is absent but implied. The stage has been emptied but remains dramatically illuminated, as if action has recently occurred or is about to play out.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Hedonic Reversal #7, 2015. Inkjet print. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum and funded by the Frye Foundation.

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Hedonic Reversal #7, 2015; inkjet print. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum and funded by the Frye Foundation.

Valenzuela’s prints stand out brightly against their industrial backdrop. The images were made using industrial plaster and Styrofoam—remnants of the building trade—and set in a way that they become vaguely architectural, with a nod to Constructivist-era graphics. The question of temporality emerges again in the subject of the photographs. Is this a construction or demolition site? In the context of labor, the answer is irrelevant. Work is a cyclical process; indeed, urban development is a cyclical process of putting up walls and tearing them down. In Seattle, there is a curious tension between the physical labor required to construct new development and the immaterial digital labor that will eventually occupy it. In one industry, the worker is highly visible—a prized addition to any regional economy. In the other, the worker is invisible—a non-entity devoid of any official presence in our political and economic landscape. The irony is not lost: The infrastructure of our cities—of our municipal landscape—is constructed, cleaned, and rebuilt by individuals who technically do not exist within the very structures they create.

Last month, poet Philip Levine died. For Levine—a Detroit-based writer noted for his volume What Work Is—work was physical labor and class identity, but it was also a way to build and develop relationships with family and community. The political and economic policies that structure labor in this country may be bound for profound readjustment, beginning with Obama’s legislation for the Dreamers; within that, it is my hope that the social and cultural value of work will be made visible, supported, and allowed to thrive.

Rodrigo Valenzuela: Future Ruins is on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle through April 26, 2015.