Hispanic artist Irene Mohedano moved to the U.S. from Spain a mere three years ago as an intellectual scholarship recipient, hoping to learn from and contribute to the New York City art scene. Leaving behind a country that no longer could support the young professional and a traditionalist culture, she began to push new boundaries of art through performance and installation in the U.S.
These spiritual, social and political changes have made her art into an experience of symbolic and physical movement while viewers explore how she harnesses major personal and societal shifts into a unique philosophy about modern life. Since starting her journey, she has exhibited at Instituto Cervantes, BRIC and the Greenpoint Gallery in New York and CentroCentro, Centre de Carme, Casa Velázquez in Spain, among others and is currently producing a number of works for future exhibitions in her home studio in Crown Heights.
Your family is from a small town in Spain, yet you grew up in Madrid; your background is very traditional, though you opted for alternative expression in art; you moved from a Hispanic country to the hustle and bustle of New York’s “melting pot”—How to have these moves and dichotomies affected you and your art?
I think one of the things that impacted me when I first moved to New York was the cultural difference. Coming from a Spanish and more Hispanic sense of family, culture, and friends, to New York, people seem colder until you start getting to know the American character. I was struck by the lack of support and lack of community. I just remember the first year, being in New York, not knowing anyone and enjoying the city that way. I think that this way I started meeting a lot of artists and thinkers and people from different fields and I realized that the people I was getting along with were Spanish people and people from Latin America; Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Colombians [etc.]. So, I think that the Spanish language was connecting us, apart from sharing some cultural values like where friends and family are part of your life and your core. I think that got me to also investigate topics about colonization and the Spanish role in it—how we could acknowledge what we’ve done in the past and what symbolic actions could be taken for social repair. I think that was a big part of my first year and my first relationships that I then developed throughout my three years in the city.
What changes in Spain pushed you away from making a more permanent home there? Is it something recent that changed, or is it a building history?
I think Spain is a great place, but I don’t see a lot of professional options. I wanted to pursue my artistic career and look for jobs in the cultural field, and I will try to follow that path, whatever it is or wherever it leads.
If you think about the United States, founded in the 18th century, the founding fathers, the American Civil War, and slavery as a building block for the country, it’s a different period, but I’m also very interested in learning about how this country was built.
What’s your favorite way to move around in the city?
Walking. If there’s something I love about New York, it’s all the walking. Especially those winter or fall days with good weather. It’s the main way I have to explore and know a place, and it’s the way I notice details about architecture, for example, and ask questions.
What’s your favorite food that you’ve discovered here?
Everyone that knows me well knows that I love ceviche. [I order it at] every Peruvian restaurant in New York, Queens and Brooklyn. You have to go to la Cevichería at Rockaway Beach and Chimu Bistro and Chimu Express in Brooklyn.
Do you notice any changes between your art in Spain as a “citizen” and your art now in the US as an “immigrant” occupying a different role?
I’ve always been interested in the conflicts of the society or culture in the context I’m living in. I like to work with the place, the site, the culture and think about the world I’m in touch with every day. I’m especially interested in things that are invisible and that people don’t talk about; things that are not much a part of our common ground or of the field of the sensible. So, when I came to the US (my previous artwork focused a lot on Spanish history and the Spanish Civil war and why my generation still couldn’t speak with complete freedom about the topic—it’s still very sensitive), I felt like, “wow—I don’t have the Spanish soil, or the connections between the Spanish Civil War and the United States.” There are some (like the Lincoln Brigades), but it didn’t seem the moment to dive into it. The first year, I didn’t explore anything related to the conflicts or the specificity of the United States. Little by little, I started discovering subtle signs on the streets or in the people that I was having exchanges with, and I came back to the “Spanish Issue,” especially with the changes in the American panorama. Seeing how policies and society have changed, it’s impossible for me not to engage to the extent that I’m able to. I recognize my limitations, lack of knowledge and that I don’t really represent and can’t act as anyone’s representative, but seeing what’s happening has been the primary reason or motivation for me to engage more with performance art.
What’s the most inspiring place within the city that you’ve discovered?
It depends a lot on the moment. I recently went to the Rockaways in October. It definitely wasn’t summer, and it was chilly, but I picked up some shells and found a place to rest and clear my mind. [I also like] spots close to the river and the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.
How do you know that something you are working on, creating, is complete and you’ve “arrived” at the conclusion?
I don’t really get the feeling that I’ve gotten anywhere [laughs]. I read a lot, so my artistic process is based on research, investigation from sociology, art theory, politics and then observation. I think art is a part of life and should be connected to it. So, for me, it’s very important that art is grounded in our everyday lives. I [take on projects] with that idea. When I’m performing something, I think of the performance more as a process, especially if it’s a performance in the public sphere where I’m engaging with people. Usually, I have an idea, but I cannot predict how people are going to interact with me; I cannot predict what the effects are going to be or the consequences of performing a specific action in a specific place or context. There are a lot of things that, when you are asking people to engage with you and participate with you, happen, and I’m open to following those new ways that I haven’t thought about first.
I’ve always been interested in the conflicts of the society or culture in the context I’m living in. I like to work with the place, the site, the culture and think about the world I’m in touch with every day.
A lot of your works incorporate the past. In Spain, you were calling to the Spanish Civil War, and here, you appeal to U.S. and world history. How do you get audiences to connect with this historical content and make it relevant for them?
For me, the past is relevant because it informs the present. In order to better understand the present, we have to understand where we come from. Currently, we deal with a lot of conflicts that have their roots and origins in the past. Just understanding the past and being aware of those stories that haven’t been told or [have been] hidden from hegemonic discourses or narratives, in a way, we can better understand why we’re having the problems we’re experiencing and try to find better solutions.
Have your audiences been receptive to that?
I’ve had more trouble in Spain with stories of the Civil War, which happened almost 80 years ago. It’s still a very sensitive and problematic issue in our history because people have very closed and determined ideas about the past. The education they received during the dictatorship also framed their minds, and it’s almost a mindset of, “we have to leave the past, and we should forget about it” or not wanting to open new scars when they haven’t even healed. For me, it’s not so much about giving an answer or offering a solution, I think I aim to open a dialogue, to create a space for a conversation and let it happen. I’m not so interested in what the outcome is going to be; I’m not looking to change people's’ minds. If that happens, it’s great but the most important thing, especially now, is to open a dialogue.
Is there a difference between the ways that Spain and the US deal with history?
As [an outsider], I can say that in Spain, people and victims of the war are asking for acknowledgment of what happened to be able to heal. I think that a part of Spanish society, politicians and even historical discourse haven’t acknowledged that. What the United States has in common with that is maybe the question of recognizing the barbarism, slavery, and repression committed in the past. And I think that’s very important for new generations to heal.
For example, I am very interested in what’s happening with Confederate monuments and people tearing them down, parallel to Franco’s monuments and street names that commemorated fascist symbols. I’m most interested in the power of those symbols; how a statue or a name of a street or a flag or an anthem can stir so many feelings, passion, and anger. That’s something that really strikes me. I’m really curious about how we got to the point where a flag symbolizes a nation and how we can put a flag before people.
What is the period in history is your favorite to investigate?
I’m more interested in contemporary history, especially our recent history and the end of the 19th and 20th centuries. I think those are the closest origins of the world we live in now. Of course, the [entirety of] history forms a part of it, but I’m fascinated by that part of the past.
You’ve been involved in the “western” art industry for over 10 years now. Do you think that the industry itself in this area of the world needs a change of mentality?
The art industry is complicated and obscene in some ways. I usually go to art fairs in Brooklyn, and I consider what kind of art you have to make to be in an art fair. Usually, it’s something you can hang on a wall. I was talking to a friend who said you can produce things you can hang on a wall and sell as objects or you can do more institutional artwork that’s more likely to be purchased by collectors or galleries.
Speculation and fetishization of art are things that preclude its purpose which, for me, is to open dialogues. I like to motivate people to ask questions. I love street art and public art because you don’t have to pay to see it, it almost goes and encounters you, you don’t have to go encounter it. So, in this sense, I don’t know if the industry has to change. I also think that there are very alternative options. Some of them are also based in the ideological way of being an entrepreneur, and I think that’s very ideological because it puts all the responsibility on the individuals instead of the system.
Honestly, I think we should stop making so much bullshit.
So should the art world be more accepting of things that aren’t as profitable in the traditional sense?
Yes—I think that also, for example, I make art and I have been paid [very few times]. I would like to live from my art, but I don’t look to make money from it. It would be great if I received a salary, but I don’t look to be rich from the things I do. I also think it depends on the artist. If I could have a job and still make my art, that to me would be the best way because of the freedom to say whatever I want to say and do what I want to do. I don’t depend on the market, stipulation, a gallery or an art fair in order to survive and still create.
How do you feel your art moves different audiences?
It’s weird because I find myself thinking about an answer and repeating some sort of bullshit about how my art is universal, which I hate. I try to develop complex ideas or concepts and express them straightforwardly and directly. The world is already very complex and, so I’m not trying to make everything more difficult. I take very simple ideas or express them in straightforward ways, but people interpret them in different ways. When I was performing Wash Lies All in Spain at Accion!MAD, I was washing the Spanish flag for three days for eight hours a day. The flag was built on a consensus, so socialist and right-wing parties decided to forget about the past. I wanted to wash away all the lies on which we have built our recent history in order to start again and re-acknowledge this fact. It so happened that this was at the exact same time as corruption was being unveiled in my country, so people were eager to wash all the corruption away. I didn’t even think about that when I was conceiving the idea of performing it, and it’s entirely legitimate that people interpret it that way too.
The piece I perform with the national anthem, Tengo Miedo; No Tenemos Miedo, is a very conflicting piece for me because I’m not an American citizen, I wasn’t born and raised here and I was only here for a few years and I find myself singing the national anthem in Spanish and asking people to join me. I know what my political stand is when performing but I don’t know what the motivations that lead people to participate; is it because they think people should share their “American values”? Is it because they see the symbols of their nation? Is it a nationalist expression of themselves? Or is it because they want to support the people whose voices are not being heard? There are those things where you cannot control the whole part of it.