If Donald Trump were to invent a contemporary artist to berate on Twitter (how’s that for fake news?), he might dream up in his fevered mind someone like Pedro Reyes. Reyes might even be too on the nose. Unabashedly brainy, proudly socialist, the Mexican conceptual artist works in an overtly political register—his self-designed home studio pays homage to the work of Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman, who was responsible for Trotsky’s burial site in Mexico. Reyes first gained notoriety abroad for artworks that effectively functioned as gun control: Paletas por Pistolas, a program in which firearms could be traded in for shovels, and then Disarm, for which he melted down firearms into musical instruments. Just before the 2016 election, in Brooklyn, he showed Doomocracy, a haunted house of politics addressing abortion, gun violence, and wealth inequality in no uncertain terms. Oh, and he also reads. A lot.
On a recent afternoon during the Zona Maco art fair in Mexico City, where Reyes lives and works, he mulled over the current political climate and his upcoming show at Lisson Gallery in New York, opening February 28. We met in his studio, which is planned around his vast, two-story library. The way other people consume food or the internet, Reyes consumes books. He rides his bike to his go-to second-hand stores daily, estimating that he buys around 100 books a month. From 7 PM to 2 AM every day, he compulsively rearranges them.
“It’s like your bandwidth. My mind is up there,” Reyes explained. He wore square, professorial Saint Laurent glasses, and sat across from the stacks upon stacks of books. “And then you wake up and see all this Trump shit,” he added.
It seems to follow that his latest exhibition would be a show largely made up of works on paper, in a departure from his conceptual work—and from any requirement to look at a screen. For the past few months, Reyes created quick, expressive drawings of the intellectual heroes found in the pages of his books: there’s Sophocles and Epicurus, as well as modern icons like Lina Bo Bardi and Lee Lozano. (It’s a process he has been documenting on Instagram.) These drawings (all 150) will surround concrete, marble, and volcanic rock sculptures in “an environment,” he said. “It will feel cave-like, forest-like.”
Reyes wanted to make “art that cannot be outsourced,” he said, in a political nod behind the largely apolitical work. He hires local workers to create his sculptures because, he said, “I can’t do it in the the U.S."—noting the technocracy that led to many of the anxieties that fueled the election. “A robot will do it.”
Days after our interview, Mexico City had its first major protest against Trump’s proposed trade policies and border wall, which Reyes called “a delusional slogan.”
“He is bringing everyone together against him,” Reyes said of the response. “That corny idea of winning—it’s cheap. I don’t know any rich people as corny as Trump.”
Next up, Reyes says he will work on a new lab at MIT, where he teaches, studying how to decode and fight tyranny—with one obvious target in mind. “You have to understand the system to make it work backwards,” he said.
For him right now, a show that sidesteps politics can be more political than ever. “It’s important to think of art as a kind of sanctuary,” Reyes said. “These are the things we are fighting for.”
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