Juan Garaizabal, reconfiguring memory through art

Through his monumental sculptures, the Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal recovers spaces gone with time in an attempt to bring them back to life with all their greatness

Juan Garaizabal, reconfiguring memory through art one fragment at a time
Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal at Zona Maco 2020 - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English
English 08/02/2020 18:19 EL UNIVERSAL in English/Miranda Perea Mexico City Actualizada 19:37

Mexico is recognized as one of the most important culinary, financial, and cultural centers in the world. With a vast list of internationally renowned artists who have been highly influential in the development of art, Mexico has long been a cultural hub also sought after by artists abroad due to its particular combination of art history and promotion.

Moreover, Mexico City is always full of artistic events that further promote the appreciation of different arts and artists, both national and international. One of the most notorious and expected ones is the so-called “art week” that takes place in the first week of February; a time when museums hold special activities and galleries open their doors to the public.

This artistic circuit was created 17 years ago with Zona Maco, which is currently the most important contemporary art event in Mexico and has become a referent in Latin America.

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It was precisely in Zona Maco’s framework that EL UNIVERSAL in English had the opportunity to talk with the Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal about his work and inspiration.

Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal at Zona Maco 2020 - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

Juan Garaizabal is a Spanish conceptual artist whose work goes from drawings and light and acoustic installations to video art and engraving. Nonetheless, he is perhaps best known for his sculptures; whether they are monumental or represent small objects, his structures embody the recovery of spaces gone with time in an attempt to bring them back to life with all their greatness.



Una publicación compartida de Juan Garaizabal (@juan_garaizabal) el

For this, Garaizabal merges a series of skills and techniques that include forging, carpentry, electricity, plasticity, and masonry, among others, which have allowed him to present his work in places like Germany, the United States, Spain, and Italy. Soon, he will present installations in Madrid’s ARCO art fair, a big reconstruction of the Palais des Tuileries in Paris, and public sculptures in Buenos Aires and Tokyo.

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For Garaizabal, it is essential to work on the absence, to recover history, “I base my work on recovering the energy of elements that are not anymore in the cities, that disappeared at some point in history.” This is precisely the idea behind his Urban Memories project, with which he has created monumental sculptures that recapture the soul of lost architectures that were once representative of a city’s identity.


Garaizabal is best known for his monumental sculptures - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

With Urban Memories, the Spanish artist has created installations like "Havana’s Balcony" in Miami, the "Bohemian Bethlehem Church" in Berlin, and "Memories of the Garden" in Venice. Likewise, he has worked in the recreation of fragments as in the case of Chicago’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store or London’s Nonesuch House.

At the same time, Juan Garaizabal also enjoys working in smaller absences, like one of the projects he presented at Zona Maco 2020: a series of lost street lamps from different cities. For this endeavor, the sculptor made thorough research that included a photographic investigation on which he based his sketches. Garaizabal mentions that his graphic language is built on the lines of a structure; he tries to translate all the essence into the minimum amount of lines. Once the sketch is ready, he always becomes manually involved in the piece using the techniques he has acquired through time and experience.

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Una publicación compartida de Juan Garaizabal (@juan_garaizabal) el

Needless to say, memory is one of Garaizabal’s key concepts. In his words, it is his raw material, but it is not memory for the sake of it: what inspires him the most is recovering forgotten times and spaces that had heroic features. That is, he wants to recover the adventurous aspects of history since for him recovering “is more than creating, I’m working with an energy that gets me, that already existed,” he says.

He takes inspiration from architecture - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

“At the end of the day when you are facing someone else’s adventure done in the past, you can approach it in different ways. You can be literal and try to do the same thing, but that is not an adventure anymore. Something that was an adventure needs to be recreated in an adventurous aspect, so what I like to do is to create something that is really challenging.”

For Juan Garaizabal, his role as an artist is to point out the previous existence of elements that inhabited cities, that were representative and special and in the process, he creates a dialogue between the past and the present that projects to the future and that makes people reconfigure the concept of their city and their history.



Una publicación compartida de Juan Garaizabal (@juan_garaizabal) el

In accordance with his graphic language full of lines, Garaizabal’s sculptures intend to convey the maximum amount of feeling with the minimum and so his fixation with fragments can be understood for he regards them as the minimum expression of architecture, one of his biggest inspirations, “I spend my whole life looking at cities. I like to walk and think about their evolution; I want to know what it was like before. It is a natural trend of myself.”

The Spanish artist also creates smaller sculptures - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

Therefore, the tridimensional quality of sculpture provides him the necessary freedom to reconfigure public spaces through their own history. Since sculptures are surrounded in many ways, he thinks that they allow the creation of new spaces as well as promoting reinterpretation from memory.

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But how to choose between small and monumental objects to represent through his art when there are so many things worth remembering? Garaizabal says that it is like love, “How is it that you choose someone? Because you suddenly think it has special elements that really touch you and you identify yourself with that thing. Sometimes it’s myself in a completely individual way but I also participate in a lot of debates so I’m open to receiving any kind of ideas. You learn a lot by allowing people to be part of your project and give their opinion; everyone has a lot to give.”

Garaizabal's language is based on main lines - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

In his 2007 artistic manifesto, Juan Garaizabal asserts that time does not exist, that “the only reality are the extraordinary happenings that have or will occur in one place” and in this regard, he told EL UNIVERSAL in English that the way he sees time is exactly the same way he sees love: “You can spend 100 years with someone but typically there are particular moments that justify your love.” Time does not exist for this conceptual artist because he does not measure it in a linear way, “Imagine that this is a place that is completely average; imagine that the great Aztec empire existed here. For me, that thing exists, will always exist, and this place is nothing because only the extraordinary things that happen really have the right to be forever.”

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Una publicación compartida de Juan Garaizabal (@juan_garaizabal) el

Time and memory in Mexico are also present in Juan Garaizabal’s artistic work. Regarding lost architectures, he has worked on the recreation of an Aztec entrance of a Calmécac that used to be in downtown Mexico City over 500 years ago. Calmécac was the school where noble Aztecs received education and a great part of Mexico’s identity still resounds of the Aztec empire. Hence, by recreating a fragment of an element of this kind, Mexicans can engage in a reinterpretation of space and time with which they can identify regardless of the temporal distance. In this sense, Garaizabal’s language creates a contrasting feeling of proximity with extinct elements through their spatial recreation while it also fosters the awareness of the lost, of what will never be fully recovered.

The artist likes to engage in the whole creative process - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

Another instance of his recovery of Mexican memories is present in his street lamps project that includes cities like San Francisco, Istambul, London, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Havana, Tokyo, and Mexico City. For this project, the Spanish sculptor welded and bent the steel structure himself and then, with the help of Mexican crystal blowers, he introduced small portions of the glass elements that used to be present in the lamps. This part of the artistic process was particularly challenging for him since he had never worked with glass in that way, but that was the challenge he was looking for to recreate the adventurous aspect of the lost memory, “That is the way I see memory, the memory of people who did extraordinary things. If you want to approach that, you have to think yourself what can you do that really makes you jump to the unknown, as they did,” he asserts.

His key concepts are time and memory - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

In general, the objective of his pieces, regardless of the place they are, is to promote debate, to make people think about their city, about other cities and history, as well as about the role of contemporary art. “I always think that my mission is trying to keep people’s attention on that in a very non-invasive way, by adding, not by interrupting their activities. Normally, my sculptures can also be part of their lives without taking a lot because they are light and you can see through them.” This promotes continuous feedback from his audience, whether they are interacting with his big or small sculptures. Nowadays when everything is connected, Garaizabal feels lucky to be able to have the opinions of people living on the other corner of the world and so he welcomes a continuous dialogue between the audience, the sculpture, and himself. Regarding social media, he considers it is a privilege to communicate with thousands of people in a way that would be impossible otherwise.

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Una publicación compartida de Juan Garaizabal (@juan_garaizabal) el

Nonetheless, when the viewers interact with his Urban Memories he does not expect them to do so in a fixed way; he believes in freedom: “Sometimes it’s very symbolic and everyone can apply that to another thing that you cannot even imagine. You learn a lot from watching the process in people’s minds. I like to leave open questions and not to be evident. Art is a lot about what you cannot explain. I know the way I understand things but I don’t want anyone to understand it the way I do.”


"Art is a lot about what you cannot explain." - Photo: Miranda Perea/EL UNIVERSAL in English

Regarding more projects in Mexico, Juan Garaizabal mentioned that he is planning many of them in the long term, not only in Mexico City but throughout the country, since he believes Mexico is “so huge and [full] of good memories to recover and good people to collaborate with, which is also another important element because when art is alone, it’s nothing.”