In search of unknown memories: an interview with artist Donna Huanca

by Daisy Nam*

August 2011

When I learned that artist and friend, Donna Huanca, was awarded a Fulbright and was leaving for her research trip to Mexico City in a few months, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask her some questions.  Through our conversations, I’ve learned about her artistic process and personal memories.

An artist’s process constitutes a murky and tenuous state of anticipation, anxiety, alienation and excitement. Navigation, being en route, through an unknown space requires experimentation and faith in the artist’s intuition.

Daisy Nam, New York:  At the moment, we’re both in a state of flux in our living situation.  Your apartment and studio in Berlin is being torn apart and reassembled for renovations, and I’m moving apartments in New York.  The other day, I was despondent as I hadn’t found a place to live. I was reassured  when I read this Adorno quote: “for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” [1] For Adorno, writing could be an invented space when he had no claims to a state.  For you is it about your art-making?

Donna Huanca, Berlin: I love that Adorno quote, I completely agree.  That’s one of the beautiful things about using clothing in my work; they excite me because I love hunting for them wherever I am….

DN: Is that what draws you to using textiles as material in your work – the universality of them? Everyone needs clothes and so you can find them anywhere.  What is your relationship with textiles?

DH: Most of my work begins with traveling, in search of materials and experiences to inspire new work. I like to get to know a place through its discarded clothing and objects.  I have many times posed the challenge not to take anything with me on my journeys, forcing myself to search for new clothes, random objects, or trash to make my work with.  The DNA of the place is then present in my work.

As a kid, my mom and aunt would take me thrift store shopping every weekend in downtown Chicago, places mostly run by nuns. These were some of my favorite object and clothing collecting moments; I could be anyone and have anything that I found. We would spend hours sifting through piles. And when we got home, we would sit in a circle, carefully taking out the tags of our newfound wardrobe and then show each other and share how we were planning to use it. We would consult each other about outfits and even trade items.

These moments developed my love for the hunt of energy through clothing, as I really believe this exists. I developed my work surrounding the re-creation of these ideas.

DN: That such a great story.  You speak of objects and their energy. I recently went to this show at Murray Guy, A form is simply something which allows something else to be transported from one site to another and Gregg Bordowitz gave this amazing performative lecture.  He stated that objects have emotions. Do objects have agency for you?

Video from “Testing Some Beliefs”, Performance by Gregg Bordowitz at Murray Guy, July 7, 2011

DH: Absolutely. Throughout time, cultures have created adorning objects that are labored upon to communicate an emotion that can transcend time, a container of sorts. We have all been at a museum only to be haunted by an object staring back at you.

DN:  Yes, definitely.  Even though these objects are taken out of their functional contexts, they can still speak to you in the present.  Regarding time, do you have feel that you’re trying to grasp something that’s fleeting as you’re mining for memories of the past through textiles? Fashion, after all, is temporary.

DH: Significant events mark time.  I pay attention to things that are urgent to me and let them lead me.   That’s the best way I have found to navigate my time.

DN: I know you have an interest in the Mayan Calendar, which basically has a concept of no-time. There’s just an ongoing cycle really.  I mean the world is supposed to end in December 2012, but they viewed this as another end with another beginning.

DH: Yes, I collaborated with AIDS -3D on a few performative works in 2007 and 2008 about apocalyptic anxiety.  The protagonist was a girl who survives and becomes a hologram and is transported to the future. Here’s a one of the  projects in August 2007 at Program, Berlin.

Still from “Jerusalem 2012”, Performance Donna Huanca, AIDS 3D (Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas)

And here’s another at Exit Art in July 2008, where I created the stage for a piece called Network of Love.

Donna Huanca, ETAPA DE FUNCIONAMENTO (SEGUNDO), 2008, for Network of Love Performance in collaboration with AIDS 3D

They were hopeful works.

DN: I do find your work hopeful.  Your installations, sculptures and fabric collages are incredibly dynamic and tactile.   How do you arrive at an idea or project? Do you distinguish from the beginning that certain works will be wearable and functional and others are just objects?  

DH: I let the material lead me.  My process begins with the initial hunt for materials that connects me to different geographies and economies where I select the most vibrant, alive fabrics I can find.  Since I work with mostly used clothing, I feel some that are more energetic than others.  Sometimes pieces want to hide behind layers of paint and I leave them alone, while other times they are desperately begging for attention.

All the materials are then fair game back in the studio, whether it’s for collages or clothing.  Sometimes it’s necessary to deconstruct the garment and recreate it (like the shorts I made for you) and for others, I either collage the piece with other complementary pieces to forget the shape completely. They definitely intersect in the final work. Here are examples as to how these silk pieces were transformed into an both installation and wearable:

shorts created by Donna Huanca for Daisy Nam, 2009

Donna Huanca, I was you and Never knew it (after Rumi), Installation for Puno Moca, Puno, Peru, 2011

Donna Huanca, Collaged Silks, with custom made boots (source of materials: Cuzco and Puno, Peru), 2011

This dress is made of a silk scarf and silk jogging pants from Poland:

Donna Huanca, dress, 2011.

DN:  Do places ever find you during your art-making process, your hunt? I know one of your previous project, you visited Potosi, Bolivia.  Historically this is a place with a rich Incan history which then became a prosperous mining town in the Colonial era. But it is also where your father is from.

DH:One of the reasons I decided to have my “alternative” art-grad-school experience in Germany at Städelschule, an academy that claims to reinvent the art-school model, was because I knew that would make my dad proud, he might “get” why I make art and of course it would force him to visit me. When I first realized I would be moving to Germany, I immediately thought about my dad’s stories about his crush on German girls in grade school while growing up in Bolivia. Since his mom owned a business in town, he was one of the only indigenous faces to attend his school.

DN:  So there is a personal relationship to place.  Bolivia and Germany are linked through the stories of your father.  Could you tell me of your experience while in Bolivia? Is this where your performance took place?

Donna Huanca, Nomadic Performance (tracing the Etymology of Huanca): Replicating Golden Phallus in Dream, Peru, 2011

This series, Unearthing, was made with Roy Minten and was funded by Art Matters (thank you!). We actually traveled  throughout Peru, not Bolivia, as the original plan, due to heavy protests and transportation strikes in Bolivia.

In this series I was attempting to forge myself back into the landscape where I am genetically, historically tied. I visited several sites tracing the etymology of my last name, Huanca.  What I discovered while on the trip is that I definitely do not belong there.  I felt so much more of a tourist than in previous trips to Latin America. I felt like an outsider…I was not wanted. The people who I came across were a bit embarrassed for me.  Perhaps my romanticism with “my” past was actually not mine at all.

DN: How did that effect your present?

DH: This experience forced me to take responsibility for the present moment and context that is unique to me. It was a bit painful but definitely pushed me into the present tense, which I am immensely grateful for.

For years, I have been returning to the idea of genetic memory as a source of inspiration for my work. I was trying to decipher the deep wells of the past through stories from my father.  I guess this stems from a sense of dislocation of culture. As a kid of immigrants, my parents were always trying to preserve their culture through me. I’ve realized while living and traveling outside the US that wherever I go in the world, others see me as undeniably American. Although I see myself a hybrid of many cultures.

DN: This goes back to Adorno who said, “the concepts of native land [Heimat], a country, are all shattered.  Only one native land remains from which no one is excluded: mankind.” [2] Is there a place you can call home? Is there a physical place you are drawn to? For me I feel like I have many homes, but inexplicably I do love the desert, is there a place like that for you?

Dessert, Palm Springs, CA.

DH: I feel at home in Berlin, so much that I decided to throw an anchor down after many years of being nomadic. Because of its heavy history, the city is still under construction making it experimental and financially forgiving. Berlin has a certain confidence about it where time is not so much of an issue as it is in other cultural capitals. It’s the perfect base to develop and contemplate new work.

Park, Berlin, Germany.

I also feel at home in Mexico City.  I’ve spent time over the past 10 years visiting there as a tourist. I am so excited to finally have the opportunity to decipher that labyrinth of Mexico City especially in 2012. I have had some of the scariest experiences in my life there as well as the happiest.  As I mentioned, I have done a few performances about apocalyptic anxiety. What a better way to put myself in the “eye of the storm” than live in this insane city? I am too excited.

Street, Mexico City, Mexico.

DN:  Anxiety is a part of your process; it fuels you and creates excitement. That’s an inspirational way to begin and end a journey.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (Frankfurt: Verso 1974), 87.
[2] Detlev Claussen,  Theodor Adorno One Last Genius. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press 2008), 25.

*Daisy Nam is first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.