Abraham Cruzvillegas tells us about his Tate Modern Hyundai Commission in the Turbine Hall

We talk exclusively to Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas about bringing hope, togetherness and tonnes of London mud to the biggest space in contemporary art
Abraham Cruzvillegas with his installation in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Photo: Rob Greig
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Since opening in 2000, Tate Modern has showcased some of the most monumental site-specific exhibits in the world in its Turbine Hall. At 152 metres long, the space – which once housed the massive electricity generators of the old power station – gives artists the opportunity to go beyond their comfort zone and present Londoners with something truly spectacular. Olafur Elíasson brightened up our grey days with his giant sun for ‘The Weather Project’ in 2003. We were reminded that art could be fun with Carsten Höller’s slides for ‘Test Site’ in 2006.

Now with a new sponsor, Hyundai, the first in a new series of Turbine Hall commissions launches with ‘Empty Lot’ by 47-year-old Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas. On a raised scaffolding platform that extends from the Turbine Hall bridge towards either end of the space, Cruzvillegas has filled 240 wooden planters with over 23 tonnes of soil from open spaces in London including Acton Park, Brockwell Park, Clapham Common, Greenwich Park and Hackney Marshes.

These beds of earth lie dormant, but Cruzvillegas has constructed lampposts from material found in and around the Tate to light them. The idea is that we wait in anticipation of what, if anything, might sprout from them over the next six months. The Turbine Hall becomes ripe with possibility. So what can we expect?

Why did you use soil from all over London?
‘It speaks about identity and how different we are in the same place. I think we have about 35 different types of soil from around the city. It describes the diversity of the soil in London. So, you can see some earth is very clay-like, some is very sandy, some looks and feels like tar, and some is just like compost. I hope it brings seeds, roots, bulbs, worms, beetles, bugs and many different types of life. But I’m not trying to make a map of London.’

Did you go to all those places?
‘Of course, this has been a very good exercise to get to know the city better. I knew some places like Peckham Rye but I’ve never been to Hampstead Heath before. Also they are so different just because of the names. In Spanish we don’t have so many different types of names for open spaces, but you have “meadow”, “rise”, “heath”, “green” and “common”. This became very important to me.’

'The main material of "Empty Lot" is hope'

Were you daunted by working in the Turbine Hall? Is it the biggest space you’ve worked in?
‘I like working in the street. For the last “Documenta” [art show in Kassell, Germany] I used the whole city. But this is the biggest enclosed space I’ve worked in. And of course it’s very challenging not only because of the scale but also the many heavyweight names who have made projects here.’

What do you hope people will take away with them?
‘The main material of this sculpture is hope and I really hope people can make it their own. I hope that something can grow here: ideas, questions and concerns.’

What will you do with the earth at the end of the commission?
‘We’re still thinking about that because the scaffolding goes back to the company, and the wood is good to recycle. Maybe we can return the soil to the original places. We’ll see.’

'Everything is democratic'

Why have you made lampposts from stuff found around Tate Modern?
‘I asked my fantastic team to bring me materials that I could use to construct the lampposts. As I didn’t choose them, there is no aesthetic approach – I just accepted what ever they brought me. It’s like a blind date. It should be seen as a group of things that I made in collaboration with people here, so everything is democratic.’

You live and work in Mexico City. Do you think its urban landscapes and that of London act in a similar way or they are different?
‘I find many similarities but also profound differences in history, culture, society, religion and politics. In Mexico City we are 30 million: it’s like a small country and it’s very extended like London. It’s very busy, fun, crazy and chaotic, but it’s not as organised as here.’

You’re best known for your ‘Autoconstrucción’ works. What does the term mean and how does this work relate to it?
‘When I embrace this concept of “autoconstrucción” – which means “self-constructing”– it comes from a very particular environment in Mexico in which people construct their own houses, not having an idea about architecture. They don’t know the language of architecture, they don't deal with a budget or planning permission, it’s about responding to a need. My family constructed their own houses by hand with whatever they could find. So I approach this idea in terms of trying to understand my own work.’ 

What is ‘Empty Lot’ about?
‘“Empty Lot” is a metaphor for identity. Something that is kind of a void but in fact is not. It’s waiting for something to happen. I see identity as something that is evolving; it’s in permanent transformation, but maybe we don’t notice that. There is something happening all the time, every day, every second. There is something alive, something moving, something changing. “Empty Lot” is about hoping, waiting and seeing what happens. Hopefully something will.’

How would you describe your work?
‘I’m a sculptor. I find that everything is beautiful and everything can live along with anything else. It’s like the way you find a person you love being so different to you and suddenly you are absolutely happy with this person no matter the differences. That’s togetherness. I’m a sculptor working with togetherness.’  

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