NICOLAS LOBO with Hunter Braithwaite
Nicolas Lobo’s art maps the conduits linking flesh to industry, the porous bedrock beneath cities dedicated to banal leisure and amorphous capital. For the past nine years he has lived in Miami, creating objects out of systems clotted to a trickle. A terrazzo sculpture models the flight path of planes descending into Miami International Airport. Scholar stones made of homemade napalm float atop thousands of bottles of an expired aphrodisiac energy drink. Fifty-gallon barrels of bootleg celebrity perfume douse a downtown intersection with a personality fog. Lobo’s constant material experimentation reveals the obscured connections between our own bodies and the networks of pleasure and power extending past all horizons.
This spring, his most ambitious project takes place at Red Bull Studios New York, as part of BIO:DIP (February 20 – April 17), a two-person exhibition with Hayden Dunham curated by Neville Wakefield. For the show, Lobo acquired three spa-sized swimming pools and used them as molds to cast sculptures formed out of homemade soap. The pools were then inverted and placed within the exhibition space to display the soap sculptures. Additionally, he obscured the windows overlooking the street with a heavy layer of lipstick sourced from an industrial cosmetics lab. On the occasion of BIO:DIP, he spoke to the Miami Rail’sfounding editor, Hunter Braithwaite, about his work.
Hunter Braithwaite (Rail): Tell me about a piece that affected you early on.
Nicolas Lobo: It was an Allan Sekula photograph, Boxcar (1971), a photo of a nondescript industrial building, a photo he took from a boxcar as it passed the chemical factory where he used to work. Apparently he had just walked off the job. For him, if I remember correctly, it was about the relationship of the individual and movement to globalized industry that sparked a thought leading to all of his work from then on.
That piece made me understand how the core of an artist’s work could be so simple and how for Sekula, that moment was about looking at the individual’s relationship to industrial systems from the other side of the mirror, as it were.
Rail: You yourself often return to logistical systems and transportation in your work.
Lobo: I think what I’ve really looked for is some kind of physical, systemic short circuit. You can think of transportation and industrial logistics as the ultimate manifestation of an algorithm, and my job as an artist is to conceive interruptions—new paths of travel in that frictionless flow of material and capital.
Rail: Can you give me an example of one of these short circuits?
Lobo: The project I did with René Morales at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) comes to mind. The idea behind The Leisure Pit (2015) was simple: use a residential swimming pool as a concrete-casting factory for storm-drain parts typically used in a city’s infrastructure. This was difficult to accomplish technically, but it touched on this type of disturbance or crossing that I want to pursue. I stood in the shallow end of a backyard swimming pool casting these concrete slices of storm-drain openings. They were bolted together and stood on end in the gallery, creating this circular latticework—totally devoid of their original purpose, but conversant with Minimalist sculpture. Beyond that, it was an important moment for me in the sense that I used a swimming pool—an engine of leisure—to accomplish a very industrial process.
Rail: For BIO:DIP you’ve used pools to cast sculptures made of soap. Can you tell me about these pools?
Lobo: The pools are spa-sized. They’re larger than Jacuzzis, but they’re not quite full-sized swimming pools. The interesting thing about that is, as soaking pools, they are designed to be adaptive to the human body, much more so than large swimming pools, which tend to be rectangular. They’re biomorphically shaped because they’re really too small to swim any distance in.
Rail: Inverting these empty pools highlights their shape, effectively turning an absence into a presence. Are they sculptures as well, or plinths? What happens to them after the show?
Lobo: This is one of the keys to the project as I see it. The pools return to the factory to be finished, sold, and installed. They will re-enter the normal industrial cycle they were designed to inhabit. The pools are mostly finished; when they’re returned, the gel coat will be polished and the imperfections will be taken out. The gel coat, the interior surface, is in a raw state. I like the idea of interrupting the industrial flow, and then reinserting what was temporarily extracted back into the system. The company, San Juan Pools, was very helpful and enthusiastic about the whole thing.
Rail: Tell me about producing the sculptures themselves.
Lobo: It was very fast. We made fifteen sculptures in twenty-three days—from developing the process to packing and shipping. It was an entire climate-controlled tractor-trailer full of soap: 9,000 pounds, more or less. I honestly don’t know how we did it. We mixed the soap in fifty-five-gallon barrels and then elevated the barrels with a forklift to pour the soap into the pools using gravity hoses. I saw this as a factory process, as a tangential interlude to all of the normal industrial life of this stuff. I approached it from a direction of industrial efficiency.
The marks of the production process are recorded onto these vacant soap surfaces; they become the content. If you see the holes and PVC pipes sticking out, those are the buckets used to mix the soap as well as the plumbing pipes used to install the pools. There are still these holes and plastic sleeves on the surface of the soap as well as marks from the straps used to remove the soap from the pool molds, which I think is very important.
Rail: Though they index the industrial system that led to their creation, they have this autonomous grace once they’re in the gallery space.
Lobo: I really think of them as modernist shapes. People like Henry Moore and Jean Arp. Maybe a little Brancusi. For me it’s interesting to reference modernism here because there was a very high or lofty ideal that was ascribed to those forms at the time, both by the artists and the people looking at them and circulating them. I think that it’s constructive for me at this point to find those same forms in a very crude process. The objects I’ve made really are an industrial byproduct in so many ways.
Rail: BIO:DIP’s curator, Neville Wakefield, talks about the exhibition being half-laboratory, half-spa. You’ve worked with numerous arenas or products of pleasure: aphrodisiac energy drink, bootleg perfume, the designs of sunglasses and ecstasy pills, and now the pools and the lipstick. Could you speak about your continual interest in these leisure products or sites?
Lobo: Right now, I’m in this period of clarifying and refining my area of interest. I think all of this stuff is getting focused, not only on the economics of the body and what a body is, but on what the human organism can become. All of these products have a transformative effect. Since the body is a permeable vessel, the transformation may become internalized. What happens when these transformative materials and behaviors are no longer transformative, when they become the normative human body?
Rail: The spa—be it a mineral spring or a public bath—has been around since classical times, but by reinserting the pools in the supply chain, this project depends upon the Industrial Revolution.
Lobo: It turns out that soap, as we know it, didn’t really exist before the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, soap was a textile-conditioning product. It was also liquid. Solid soap is a product of a massive change of human society and human bodies.
Rail: Is that because the industrial processes required to manufacture solid soap were lacking?
Lobo: As I understand it, the soap was a result of byproducts. Other industrial processes produced fats and oils that didn’t have other uses. There were caustic materials that were combined in these products, and there was a need to create a demand for that product.
Rail: Can we talk about how you approach production? It’s not just the unexpected materials, or how they’re used/abused to create sculptural objects, but how you actively insert yourself in the production process.
Lobo: I’m very interested in the way bodies work, but I’m not really interested in reproducing the human form. When I start a thought process it works concentrically. First I think of my body’s relationship to the idea, then the bodies of others specifically known to me, and finally a more general notion of the human organism. Without generating this personal experience of an idea I don’t think I can really understand it. I need that experience to think through the project physically. Maybe it’s the difference between my body and those of others, that friction which generates a certain human energy to the project.
Rail: For Bad soda/Soft drunk (2014), you re-floored Gallery Diet in Miami with shrink-wrapped cases of energy drinks—effectively creating a gallery-sized platform that had to be precariously navigated on foot. Situated throughout were sculptures that were made using the energy drink. In your mind, how should a sculpture interact with the space in which it’s physically encountered, and beyond?
Lobo: When you make something, it’s a tremendous responsibility, a commitment. One way I want to take on that responsibility is to intend the thing as a way for people to think about their bodies and other people’s bodies as they encounter the physical situation or the object.
Rail: So the art object is a sort of socially connective material.
Lobo: Sure. When you make an object like a sculpture that exists in our space, it always leads back to your own body. The responsibility of making an art object leads back to a set of thoughts about one’s own body and the bodies of others. When I do something that relates to the relationship with the ground, I’m interested in having people think about their interface with the ground, but also the way that interface can change.
Rail: Could you describe your commitment to making objects, and how it relates to an earlier lack of commitment, or a commitment to something else?
Lobo: That’s a question with a complicated answer. The turning point for me was in 2012. I got a residency at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on the subject of analysis and interpretation of images in mass quantities. This exercise of interpreting or finding meaning in terabytes of image data exhausted me. I’m less interested in images now than ever before. I think that the conversation about the image has had so many permutations that I’m just giving it a break. I’m much more interested in physical properties, which images rarely provide. The images I am interested in looking at and producing are very much concerned with documentation of physical situations. They are placeholders for tangible systems.
At the same time as the DARPA residency I did a piece at Florida Atlantic University where I negotiated with the Buildings and Grounds department to block a hallway which was bureaucratically impossible to block. The form that resulted from that negotiation was the sculpture. I thought that I was excited to arrive at that form, but I became really interested in how people were negotiating the shape in the hallway, flowing around it. I decided that I needed to focus on the human body in a tacit, indirect way.
Rail: When I visualize an art object connecting different bodies in space, it plays out on a horizontal plane, spreading out north, south, east, and west. But by excavating and inverting the once-submerged pool, it gets to be somewhat sepulchral.
Lobo: The body is emotionally a pretty dark place. The discussion of abjection comes up in conversation about this work. That’s not a bad read, but I think this is taking me to a different place perhaps less horrific. There is also a current of positive transformative power with the pool reversal. Collective bathing has a sense of suspending the social order, no? Like wild animals at a common watering hole.
Rail: What connects the lipstick-obscured window to the pool sculptures?
Lobo: On a formal level it’s the magnification of the economics and material scale of body care. We use soap in a specific size. As soon as you change that size, it begins to take on different characteristics. The same thing goes for lipstick. As soon as you change the scale, its method of use becomes lost and invites a rethinking of its relation to the body.
The lipstick also repeats the idea of interrupting an industrial process. It’s extracted from an industrial pipeline—obtained in a form that is usually fleeting, before being cast in molds, chilled, and packaged in lip-sized tubes.
Rail: When applied to the windows it emits this hellish, intestinal red.
Lobo: There’s something interesting about lipstick color. It’s an extremely bright dye, but it’s extremely light-sensitive. The idea of putting it on the window is to decompose the color. The color of the façade will change during the three months that the show’s up because of the nature of the dye.
Rail: This relates back to the abject, no? Glorifying the decomposed.
Lobo: Yes, well I can see how that interpretation would lead back to a discussion of abjection. Was it you who were telling me about one of the theories of the discovery of soap, which had to do with the Ganges? When the corpses are burned on the side of the Ganges, the fat flows into the river, where it mixes with the ash, which was extremely alkaline. People bathe in the Ganges as a matter of principle and so it was an inevitable discovery. There are people who dwell in these charnel grounds. They’re called Aghori. They practice taboo ritualistically.
Rail: I don’t know if I told you that, but the mix of industry and rejuvenation—religious or not—seems particularly appropriate here.
Lobo: It’s taboo to make a byproduct of the human body. For example: lipstick. It goes through this tremendous industrial process, and then it disappears. There’s no idea of recuperating lipstick, or recycling it. Do you feel that the body is an ending point?
Rail: I have the feeling, at least when it comes to your work, that it’s neither a beginning nor an ending. It’s more like some porous middleman in a larger network.
Lobo: You know, that kind of gets to the core of it. On the one hand, we experience this looming end-of-body experience—post-humanism, downloading consciousness, etc.—in our popular imagination, but on the other hand, the very functioning of the planet has been drastically affected by the functioning and needs of the human organism. Our bodies are in fact massively distributed outside of ourselves.
HUNTER BRAITHWAITE is a writer and the Founding Editor of the Miami Rail. He lives in New York.