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Reality Check: Rodrigo Valenzuela and Ghosts, Monuments, Labor & Time

Hedonic Reversal #13

Hedonic Reversal #13, 2015, Archival pigment print on Dibond. Courtesy of Frye Art Museum

I’m walking through an unnamed zone between Belltown and South Lake Union, a tabula rasa. Somewhere skirting the edge of Denny Way, the sidewalk’s closed ahead, so I’m standing in the gravel curb, waiting to run across a highway exit because there’s nowhere else to go. A whirling cement truck stationed outside one of the embryonic new buildings fills my head, enters through my ears. Workers are everywhere in neon orange vests. Another set of workers, a subset in neon yellow, wheel trash cans and industrial-size brooms down the street. As I pass Whole Foods, the uniforms shift to pendants of electronic keycards.


I walk into the Frye Art Museum, late morning on a Thursday, to view Rodrigo Valenzuela’s three-part exhibition, Future Ruins. It’s his first solo museum show in Seattle.

If you follow art locally, you’re familiar with Valenzuela’s work. His photographic landscapes are digitally manipulated until there’s no actual there; in his figurative self-portaits he props himself against city structures, caught in mid-gesture somewhere between up and down; and his more recent color photos Auratic Workers (shown for Goal Keeper at Bryan Ohno Gallery last year) segway into this current commission for the Frye. For that series he in turn commissioned his subjects’ participation.

I’ve always admired Valenzuela’s integrity, intelligence and poetic gesture as an artist. He never stops working, and his work’s consistently, undeniably strong. Past work–heavily laced with autobiographic threads drawn from his experience entering the country illegally from Chile, subsequently working under-table in a string of construction jobs before landing in art school in the Northwest–was somewhat difficult for me to access. Earlier prints are so meticulously constructed, so seamlessly fused between cinematic and real, the ‘in’ door might also be a trapdoor. This of course is a big part of the point. Now, Valenzuela’s work reveals more of a felt state while continuing to confound realities. It’s a brave move.

Upon entering the back galleries we’re greeted with a three-channel video, El Sisifo. It’s titled after the King Sisyphus character of Greek mythology, who’s compelled to push a rock uphill only to have it roll back down, over and over. It’s a doomed activity assigned as punishment for the king’s deceitfulness. To Valenzuela, it connotes a moral duty.

Sisyphus, (detail of Tartarus [Tantalus]), Abraham Dircksz Santvoort, 1668, Etching.

Sisyphus, (detail of Tartarus [Tantalus]), Abraham Dircksz Santvoort, 1668,

El Sisifo depicts workers in a football stadium engaged in various rituals–taking out trash, and in one video a macro of a man’s hands inscribing a strange array of marks on a chalkboard. These are the Invisibles, cleaning up the party, restoring order from frenzy. Valenzuela ruminates, what would happen if the workers received pep talks like athletes do? After all, such pep talks have more to do with what the players can achieve in life than with atheletic performance. It’s a system of emotional currency.

El Sisifo

El Sisifo, 2015, 3-channel digital video with audio (still image). Courtesy of Frye Art Museum

The videos are loops not movies. It doesn’t matter at what point you walk in on them. Existing outside of time–that is without beginning or end–these videos and their subjects are the gatekeepers of Future Ruins, giving way to the exhibition’s focal point, the large installation Hedonic Reversal.

The term ‘hedonic reversal’ refers to a phenomenon of taking pleasure in decay, specifically a practice prominent in the 17th century in which replications of historic ruins were erected, adding nostalgic charm to cultivated spaces like gardens. The Greathouse Gallery–which notably housed the Frye’s permanent collection of 19th century paintings before Valenzuela collapsed it–is now a luminous mess, a ghost town in which timescapes break down. Darkened walls are stained with what resembles dense layers of ancient grafitti, glyphs not unlike those depicted in one El Sisifo video. Jutting a few feet out from the walls is a network of scaffolding, upon which a total of 17 black-and-white prints hang, their lighting and distance from the wall making them appear to hover like specters. These compositions of half-formed, half-disheveled architectural structures comprise Valenzuela’s studio work. To Valenzuela, their physical labor’s like Sisyphus’ fate of rolling the heavy ball, in retribution for the ‘indulgent’ work of thinking/not-thinking.

Hedonic Reversal #3

Hedonic Reversal #3, 2015, Archival pigment print on Dibond. Courtesy of Frye Art Museum

At an after party opening night, I processed thoughts with another artist. A painter with an appreciation for the singular work of art as complete circuit, he wanted to see just the prints on the gallery’s bare walls. He found the photographs, as objects, somewhat eclipsed within the installation. I prefer to have an experience in which all material details matter–that the scaffolding’s rented from the perpetually-under-construction City by the Frye, the floor protection covered with faint footprints during installation is left intact, that Valenzuela himself produced all labor for his show about labor–from plaster blocks depicted in his prints, to the simple presentation frames. It’s a formal strategy I think of in terms of as ‘honest material form’–work that actually is what it represents.

And yet, if this work clearly is what it represents, what of the fiction that’s such a strong aspect of Valenzuela’s work? In a way the work becomes inverted, which is fascinating–I’m searching for the illusion, but I’m aware of the truth. This conundrum makes me further guess and question what’s real.

If El Sisifo is a sort of eternal anchor, like its laborers, and Hedonic Reversal an experience in the form of scrambled timescape, the video-films screened in the smallest gallery, which has been converted into a black-box cinema, are the literal passage of time. Their stories unfold in full only through watching from start to finish. Diamond Box (2012) and Maria TV (2014) employ immigrant workers and maids through their production (the roles are paid). Maria TV is modeled somewhere between a reality show and a telenovela; the female cast air out their closets–tales about family, resources, work, self-sustenance. Diamond Box is set in the back of a moving van. Male workers speak of their experiences coming to the border, of leaving, of arriving.

Maria TV

Maria TV, 2014, Digital video with audio (still image). Courtesy of Frye Art Museum


A woman featured in Maria TV states, ‘…everyone comes…with an abyss…of not knowing what is going to happen’. Earlier in this essay I said Future Ruins is brave. Myself inclined toward high levels of autobiographical subjectivity in art, I speculate about what Valenzuela is searching for. After all, to be human is to search. Clearly there’s a search for empathy–through laborers he shares personal and political resonance with. There’s also a search for unknown nostalgia, like the hedonic reversal of worshipping at the altars of unreal monuments. If the search is for authenticity, Future Ruins nails it at every level.

One Response to “Reality Check: Rodrigo Valenzuela and Ghosts, Monuments, Labor & Time”
  1. Julian says:

    I thought the neighborhood you walked through is called Cascadia.

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