West Sacramento has been going through many changes and turning an empty riverbank into a bustling district is one of them. Recently, The Bridge District in West Sacramento has been morphing into a location where food trucks, musicians and locals converge for commerce and entertainment.
In keeping with that cultural facelift, West Sacramento wanted to incorporate public art into its burgeoning landscape. However, unlike the $8 million statue of Piglet that welcomes guests to the Golden 1 Center, a custom art piece in West Sacramento was made to reflect and interact with its surroundings. Instead of seeking out a specific artist, there was an international competition, which was won by Federico Díaz.
A Czech artist of Argentinian descent, Díaz is known for his abstract art installations that combine the reality of everyday life with methods that incorporate science and technology. I sat down with Díaz hours before the unveiling of his contribution to the city, titled Subtile.
Once Subtile was delivered, Díaz was unable to help assemble the art piece because he did not have American contractors insurance and could only direct workers. Though he did admit it was strange only being able to watch his art piece be installed, he felt comfortable with the process.
“One of the city managers came to Prague to see how the installation would work, so they had experience before it got here.” Díaz explained. “I was kind of the brain around it, and they felt quite comfortable having me around, so I could pinpoint things that I saw. There was good cooperation.”
During our conversation, Díaz was willing to share his creative process and the passion he has for society as a whole, but when asked how he felt about Subtile Díaz became soft-spoken and humble.
“It’s not about me,” Díaz said when talking about his recent addition to The Bridge District. “It’s about the space.”
The inclusion of public art in The Bridge District of West Sacramento is very exciting. What led to you being selected for this project?
One day I received an email—and thanks to another installation I made for MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] called Geometric Death Frequency-141, they found me. They invited me to enter the competition and I sent my portfolio. After about three months, they selected six artists. Then they invited me to see the space and to observe. I was here for three days, looking around. Because it was nature, I was really interested in the natural processes.
So you created the piece after touring the area and being inspired by the location of the art installation?
Yes, it was really site specific. I used a special algorithm that simulated the trees and simulated different levels of growth in nature around the river.
I noticed that incorporating science into your artwork is very important to you.
Yes, I use algorithms and digital processes that are connected with nature.
When you reference algorithms, what specifically are you talking about?
I’m talking more about the trees and bushes in the area, how the wind hits them. You will see on the surface of the sculpture, the targets shimmer when the wind hits them, so they are connected with the nature and movement of the area. I wanted to capture it like leaves. So it’s also about attention. We don’t have time to see something that is natural and primitive so the sculpture activates our attention to something that is part of the space and surrounding area.
You’ve been known to use media and technology as a catalyst for social activism. How do you connect activism with a public audience?
I’m always thinking about activation, visual activation, or political activation. I think it’s important to create something that is not only a representation of the soul of the artist—of course that is really important —but if the piece is in a public space, I think it is a big responsibility to make the connection between the art and the audience.
You mentioned that one of the reasons you were contacted was because of your art piece at MASS MoCA, can you tell me a little about that piece titled, Geometric Death Frequency-141.
Yes, It was based on light and shadows from the museum.
And it was built by a machine right?
Yes, untouched by human hands. I believe our bodies are limited, and for this reason we create devices which are made because of our fear.
Fear of what?
That something and everything will come to an end. So we devise these tools to prolong our fragility of life.
Your art speaks to society in many ways. Since your approach can come from a social activist’s point of view, have you ever experienced backlash?
I was invited by one of the most important museums in Beijing, China, named the CAFA [Central Academy of Fine Arts]. They invited me and I went there more than 20 times during several years observing. Always if you look at the periphery of a city you will find new information. There, in the middle, everything was perfect. But, if you are on the periphery there is always something coming to the surface.
What came to the surface in China?
During these trips, I saw that transportation like bicycles and rickshaws disappeared. Then one day I saw in one district a poster that said rickshaws were banned in that area. After about a month, I went back again, the government of Beijing pushed the people that used rickshaws, and repairmen that welded broken rickshaws and bicycles to the fifth circle, the periphery. From the first to the fourth circle, it’s impossible to weld. If you think about this problem from the point of view of a Chinese worker, it became really hard [to get around] and thousands and thousands of workers lost their jobs.
So, one month before my exhibition, I saw a small demonstration and one of the rickshaw men was killed. So after one year of observing, I was interested in the momentum of that movement, interested in the momentum of that war.
How did you transfer what you saw into your art?
I noticed that all of these techniques and rituals were disappearing, so I decided to transfer it into my art using an old technique, which was Chinese ink combined with modern technology onto a big canvas in the museum. Then, one day before the opening, I invited a repairman and he stenciled the mechanism of the rickshaw gears.
Would you say you were protesting through your art?
I don’t know if it’s a protest, but it was deliberate. I didn’t want to do any kind of political action on purpose, but at the same time I wanted to show something that the Chinese society creates. I wanted to tell something about the society, but everything is political in China.
How long was it on display?
It was only complete for one day before the opening. The next day the managers of the museum got an email from the Ministry of Propaganda that stated the exhibit had to be replaced by another exhibition.
Wow, so this email was sent out on opening day?
Yes, on the day of the opening. So we protested a little bit. We applied some political pressure through certain channels and they backed off a little bit and said the repairman in the exhibit had to be removed and only the static installation and the accompanying video can stay there.
Although what I created wasn’t a direct confrontation with anything or anybody, I felt the powers working behind the scenes. My friend went to the exhibition a week later and there was almost nothing left. All of the signs were taken off, the accompanying video was gone and there was only the canvas, which really said nothing since there was no visual connection.
Would you call yourself a political artist?
I want to stress that I’m not interested in being a political artist. I’m mainly interested in society and the process in society. That could be the downward process we have discussed, or that can also be positive things. I believe this way, change can be achieved in a more effective way as opposed to if I used political language. For me, political language is very complex and sometimes also misleading, so I want to keep my distance from it.
I can see that you are very passionate about the effect your artwork has on society, whether it’s connecting people to their heritage and livelihood like in China, or making someone stop and appreciate the simplicity of the natural world like in West Sacramento.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #255 (Dec. 18, 2017 – Jan. 1, 2018)**