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Interview with Pablo Helguera

Through his two-decade artistic career, Pablo Helguera has worked in a wide variety of mediums — collages, drawings, videos, and installations, as well as performing as a variety of characters based on personal stories or historical accounts. Throughout his work, Helguera does not ask us to decipher meaning, offering instead straightforward explanatory prose that illuminates his sources and ideas.

Yulia Tikhonova: Your interests are very broad and you’ve been very prolific. Is there any overall theme that unites your practice?

Pablo Helguera: I sincerely hope that I never find out “what I am about”. That is the battle that most artists lose. To me, once you are told what you “are about” you have effectively been taxidermied by history.

YT: Are there any specific things you find yourself reacting against?

PH: Growing up in Mexico, I saw my father struggle with money and humiliated by stupid rich people. I remember once feeling identified with the boy in The Bicycle Thief. I am particularly intolerant toward hypocrisy, pretentiousness, injustice, and classism.

YT: You are in charge of the educational program at MoMA. Has this figured into your works that deal with education and pedagogy?

PH: I have done museum education for 20 years and been an artist for just as long. They are two sides of the same coin. I find communication, cognition, and collective experience to be inextricable from art.

YT: How do you see yourself navigating the different roles of artist, educator and museum employee?

PH: I see myself as a vague, nebulous formation that someone sees in a telescope but it actually is the ghost light from some long-extinct, faraway galaxy.

YT: Is there something specific you are trying to teach?

PH: I don’t try to “teach” anything. I don’t see education as a medicine that people forcibly need to take and swallow like in Catechism. Instead, I see it as a liberating force that equalizes situations and creates unique individuals.

YT: Could you think of other artists whose interest in education prefigured your own project?

PH: I can’t think of a single artist-educator at the moment. I just can’t deal with the artist list game. But I will name a few educators whom I consider important: Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

YT: History, language, teaching — these are often seen as flirting with a certain kind of didacticism. How do you navigate these issues? Is there a moral component to your work?

PH: History and language are not didactic subjects. I am for facilitating critical exchanges and creating an environment where people gain insights about things, without the pretension that we all are equally knowledgeable. And if you have to bring up morality, I think I rather see myself as a closeted ‘immoralist’ (in the sense of Andre Gide’s novel The Immoralist).

YT: What do you see in the future for you and your work?

PH: I think I will go nowhere and die broke, forgotten and abandoned and that the totality of my studio will end up somewhere in a storage container in the Chicago suburbs for 20 years after I die.

by Yulia Tikhonova