The butterfly in the mud: in conversation with ASMA

“…a mythological open narrative of an encounter at the shore of a lagoon”. This is the opening line of the exhibition text for a show titled Half Blood Princess by Mexico City based artist duo ASMA. This liminal image of the lagoon, a fluid, fluctuating transition zone where fresh and salt water meet is one of several recurring metaphors in the pair’s work that speak to duality, permeability and metamorphosis. Mythology and science fiction are likewise central tropes in ASMA’s work. The duo are interested in the chimeric and hybrid figures that exist between worlds or forms and which allude to the coexistence of differences. The two-faced god Janus in classical Roman mythology, and the title of their most recent exhibition, signifies beginnings and endings, transitions, time and duality. With his two faces looking in opposite directions, he sees both the past and the future and acts as a passageway between worlds. In her seminal feminist essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway writes that “my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities”. She argues for rejecting rigid boundaries notably those separating “human” from “animal” and “human” from “machine”. The text for Half Blood Princess continues: “Some fragments of this narrative suggest a hybrid being, a recognition of otherness and an embrace of different bodies: two facing characters that become everything and change over and over into the landscape. This speculative fiction takes place in a possible ancient past or a faraway future where technologies have become organic.” This idea of permeable boundaries and embracing otherness is a radical antidote to our hyper-polarised and burning world.

ASMA is artists Matias Armendaris from Ecuador and Hanya Beliá from México. The duo work exclusively through active collaboration and their sculptural practice is guided by a poetic approach to making that is receptive to experimentation and intuition. They are deeply interested in materiality and the relationship between surface and support. ASMA extend their conceptual interests into tactile forms, and frequently mix ancient craft techniques with futuristic materials. Their artworks often resemble screens, wings or membranes. These are installations in configurations that interact with and affect the space around them creating psychological and sensory environments.

In this interview we speak with Matias and Hanya about their way of working together and speculative imaginaries for the future.

portrait by Andres Navarro

AMM: Hello Matias and Hanya! To start us off, please tell us the story about how you met and started working together as ASMA?

ASMA: Hi! We first met casually in a café in Mexico City and started hanging out, we eventually started collaborating organically as we began to share a studio together and slowly our work became very influenced by each other. It was at the beginning of 2018, during the last semester of the MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, when we decided to start a collaborative identity and focus all our energy on ASMA and develop its own aesthetic and conceptual language. After that semester we did a residency in Saõ Paulo at Pivô where we felt that our project really took shape and direction.

AMM: You evidently share points of common interest, but what differences or distinct perspectives do you think you each bring to the partnership?

ASMA: We both grew up in particular creative environments with both our parents being non-practicing artists in their own way. Hanya had more contact with theatre, literature, photography and music while Matias grew up around drawing, printmaking and gaming. One of us is more painterly by nature, observing forms, silhouettes, colour and composition while the other is more linear, finding symbology and graphic components in the work due to their drawing and printmaking background. We both are responsive to materiality without being too knowledgeable so our curiosity for sculpture brings us together. There was a clear interest in gender and identity politics by one side of our collaboration and the other was more drawn to fictions and anthropology but through collaborating we have made these common interests for both of us.

‘Feeling like a freak on a leash’; brass, silver, silicone, pigment, wood; 56 x 44 x 4 cm

AMM: You describe your practice as “developing work produced exclusively through active collaboration”. Please tell us more about this creative approach and why it works for you.

ASMA: We are interested in a practice that isn’t fixed, that changes constantly and accumulates nuances. As individual artists we often found ourselves limited by our own moulds and self-perceptions. ASMA allowed us to free ourselves from our own definitions and linear investigations. Our process in the studio starts with ideas conceived through conversation and it begins to transform as we work on its materiality. It becomes a completely different thing towards the end. The works in the making often leave the trace for the new curiosities or explorations ahead. This process cannot be planned, as we constantly face ourselves with the need to add and subtract each of us from the works until there is no clear division line and feels like a cohesive and integrated object. We believe a collaborative practice is in a way our small attempt to learn how to coexist and practice integration, horizontalization and tolerance.

AMM: Your emphasis on collaboration and interest in hybrid and mixed media suggests a kind of radical openness to experimentation. Does this notion ring true? In what ways are you aligning or challenging conventional art discourse in your work?

ASMA: We are interested in experimental processes and that is why we often choose to attempt new techniques and play a lot in the studio allowing our own imagination and naivety to inform the process of making. We can’t really tell if this openness to play is radical in relation to other art practices and discourses but it certainly is radical in relation to ourselves as it is our desire to expand exponentially as we continue to produce collaboratively hoping to arrive at wider ranges of our own creative endeavours. We are not consciously attempting to challenge convention but by allowing change and not inhabiting a clear category we believe we can bring something fruitful to the conversation of possible fluid and affective ways of making.

‘The Nymph by the Window’, bronze cast fence , patina and felted steel wool, size variable

AMM: The idea of the hybrid and liminal is central in your art. Please tell us more about this concept in your work.

ASMA: We are attracted to the potential of all things to become something else, transcend their own definition and acquire a new life or meaning. All things and beings have this inherent capability of containing beyond their apparent limit and we are drawn to how this transcendence occurs by creating interrelations. The hybrid as a main character in our work comes from our desire to escape ideas of purity or an “ideal nature”. We search for impurity as we believe it represents an even more natural state of things where everything becomes polluted with its environment and its cohabitants and becomes nourished by these mixtures. As a continuation of this desire for impurity we look into the liminal as a tool to explore the way in which different bodies become hybrid and polluted. We think of division lines as connecting membranes, that at the same time become containers, environments or even creatures in themselves. A lot of our bodies of work attempt to inhabit the barrier in a metaphorical way and contain elements from different worlds simultaneously.

AMM: The shapes and forms in your work are at once futuristic and primordial. What are some of the references that influence this visual language?

ASMA: We are very inspired by natural forms specially insects and how they have appeared both in an ancient and alien imaginary. One of our exhibitions really began as a result of an encounter with a strange insect exoskeleton standing intact on a branch while we hiked up a mountain. We were very absorbed by its form and its poetic feeling and made us think about armours and bodies. We don’t really search for specific references to make a work but often stumble into things that catch our attention. We also like craft and how there is a certain beauty in the way things carry the marks of their process of creation and we like to infuse our work with those traces that come from the life of objects.

‘Encuentro del tercer tipo’, white paraffin wax, encaustic paint, 53 x 40 x 5 cm

AMM: Extending this idea of the hybrid, your visual aesthetic interestingly often incorporates quite ancient materials and techniques—such as wood carving and bronze casting. What informs your choice of media and what is the relationship between materiality and concept in your art?

ASMA: We choose to use traditional techniques and materials to provoke antinatural or unorthodox results as we are not really classically trained in any of these processes, this pushes us to create with intuition. A lot of the time we need to problem-solve and discover new ways of making while navigating the technicalities and the qualities of each material. We frequently pair ancient techniques with a certain artificial or synthetic materiality that brings the object out of being a mere echo of the past. A lot of the times when we make objects we make decisions based on the feeling we want to convey. We try to create some tension and even confusion on the nature of our object and their meaning hoping for a feeling of intrigue.

AMM: You’ve developed an alphabet of symbols, signs and notations that recur in your artworks and which you use to contextualise your work in the digital space on your website. In a video on your website you say that you “think about objects through the language of painting”. In what ways do you engage with poetics of language, both in a specific and symbolic sense, in your work?

ASMA: We like to think we have a poetic approach to making more than a critical or discursive approach, specifically when thinking about how we want our pieces to be experienced. Our process is very much sculptural but contains a clear painterly spirit, as we are actively developing a specific personal vocabulary. We look at a lot of paintings and really love the way they hold mystery and romance and something that goes beyond its materiality. Most of the time when we want to make paintings we inevitably incorporate sculptural qualities as we consider a lot the relationship between the surface and the support.

When starting our collaboration we read the book of short stories by Clarice Lispector “Para No Olvidar” where we thought some of her stories felt like paintings, where the real and the psychological collide and a non-rational affectivity is delivered with an internal resonance that opens up within through the use of poetic figures and symbolic gestures. Since then we have tried to deliver in a similar fashion through our work, focusing a lot on narrative and how to construct an inner world for our exhibitions.

‘Agua dura’, mdf, forton mg, hydrostone, fiber glass, dry pastels, cast metal nails with silver bath, 40 x 50 cm

AMM: Please tell us about your interest in text and intertextuality in your art.

ASMA: Reading and writing is a big part of our private process in the studio and it informs the way we make decisions. We find ourselves constantly finding new references which interconnect with works we are making or we made in the past and we like to continue to build a constellation of intertextuality that expands their meaning. A lot of the time these texts reveal new avenues and push the new body of works into different facets of our general motifs.

We use narrative and word play in our exhibitions as a way to create synapsis between works which helps tie them with an overall feeling. We often develop stories and characters as tools for developing figuration and symbolic elements in the works but hold back from making it too clear or apparent to allow for multiple interpretations.

AMM: Working in installations requires an engagement with space. In addition to the physical exhibition space, your work also references separate and intersecting organic and built environments. Can you tell us more about your interest in space, place, and real and imagined habitats.

ASMA: When we travelled to Brazil for the first time we stayed at a small room in the historic downtown area of Saõ Paulo which eventually became our muse for an entire body of work entitled “fantasma”. Because it was such a new experience we paid attention to a lot of details both in the city and its architecture as well as in the room and all the objects that were contained in it. We learned there how to bring a lot of elements into the work from the things that were around us, not only from the physical but also the sensorial and evocative experiences.

A lot of the time when conceiving a show we start by defining how we want to transform the feeling of the space. Sometimes these gestures are subtle as just changing the way you will naturally move through it, sometimes it is by defining connecting windows or semipermeable divisions and sometimes it can be highlighting certain architectural features to heighten the presence of the space in the room. We don’t necessarily work in hyper complex installations but we do think a lot of how the space affects the pieces and vice versa and how the experience of the viewer is affected by these two things together. We also play a lot with a fantastical or imaginary space that exists parallel to the physical space and slightly spills out through the various elements contained in the works. This alter-space can be very symbolic and psychological, and plays between an evocative world and a material visceral experience.

‘Veneno’, pigmented micro paraffin wax relief, apple seeds, oil paint, metal cast with silver bath, 25 x 43 x 15 cm

AMM: One gets the sense that your practice is research-led. Have you developed a particular way of working together, or does this change depending on what you’re working on at the time? Please tell us about your work process.

ASMA: We have a very organic way of working and don’t really have any equation to make our research. We constantly bounce ideas together no matter where we are and what we are doing, a lot of the times we find connections everywhere, it can be while watching a movie, playing a board game or reading an essay. We collect everything together with our phones, sometimes we record our conversations, take snapshots of objects we find or collect PDFs and online images and we save it all in shared folders.

AMM: Like your most recent body of work, Janus, your art seems to simultaneously look backwards to ancient civilizations and mythology and forwards towards technology and speculative futures. How does this relate to contemporary experiences and this particular moment in world history?

ASMA: When we began working on “Janus” there was a lot of speculation about 2020 and at the same time there was an eerie feeling about impending chaos. When we arrived in Puerto Rico to install the show a meteorite fell close to the island while we were landing. “Janus” in a way was addressing a figure of transition, a door or passageway. A month after our show opened the pandemic hit hard and it felt like a series of catastrophes and world tensions had unleashed after that. In that respect to us “Janus” feels like a premonitory show about a possible end of the world which hopefully brings a new beginning with it.

In our thoughts about the future we have incorporated a mythological imaginary as we speculate of a possible return to a fantastical hybridity that is organic in nature instead of a mechanical cyborg projection of the future body. This translates into our work as a mixture of mythological and sci-fi visual references.

We are intrigued by the concept of Hauntology as defined by the philosopher Mark Fisher and how it describes society’s attraction to apocalyptic narratives as a consequence of neoliberal experience and a feeling of negation of possible alternative futures. We believe imagining other narratives work as a way to change our fear towards difference and alternative outcomes. Our work fantasizes about this point of transition but it occupies a very allegorical structure to speculate about the future.

‘Ángel caído’, oil paint on panel, brass cast with silver bath, 28 x 34 x 7 cm


AMM: What ideas or concepts are you currently exploring in your work?

ASMA: We are currently thinking a lot about the concept of monstrousness and also thinking about what constitutes weirdness. How do we avoid alienating what feels different to us? How does our rational understanding of the world limit our capacity to experience magical or supernatural phenomena that might happen around us? Why does our society mock alternative knowledge and how can we reclaim these tools as valid avenues for experiencing the world? Another concept we have in our mind is the idea of the sentient robot or the idea of romanticism as an inherent human quality that perdures through time and ties together our past with our future.

AMM: Your studio is located in an old building in the historic centre of Mexico City. What does your shared space look and feel like? Do you have any creative rituals or routines?

ASMA: Our studio is a 4x5m room in a 3rd floor apartment, is a little bit small for two people but we have a special love for it. In the last couple of years we have been able to build practical furniture that makes our work easier. The rest of the apartment is the home and studio of our friend Bernardo who is a programmer and has a huge library. We live in one of the downstairs apartments, so we spend so much time in the building. It has a very unique ornamented Neo-Baroque facade that is so inspiring to us, we feel very lucky to have found this place five years ago for a good price. We are night owls and we don’t have a lot of very clear rituals or a routine, but the one constant for us is to have lots of conversations amongst ourselves as some sort of shared introspection.

‘La gran esfinge morada (The great purple sphinx)’, white paraffin wax, encaustic paint, mdf, 37 x 27 X 4 cm

AMM: How did you come up with the name for your collaboration? What’s behind the name ASMA?

ASMA: We both have asthma (asma in Spanish), and that was one of the first things we knew about each other when we met. When thinking of a name we thought of asma as something we both had in common. After researching about the history of the word we found that the philosopher Hippocrates coined the word and defined it as the symptoms of a divine or supernatural presence. We were interested in how something that could feel very clear and singular in meaning could have more than one way of understanding it. In this sense asma embodies what we attempt to contain within our work as something with shifting essence and multiple readings.

AMM: Have you been working during the pandemic? Has this affected you creatively?

ASMA: We are lucky to have our studio and our home in the same building so we have kept working in the studio while being in quarantine but it has obviously shifted our ideas and affected our life in many ways as it has affected everyone. The pace of things has slowed down as everything in our agenda got postponed or cancelled. Nonetheless, we have taken advantage of this change of pace to dwell a little longer on ideas and processes which has affected the end result of our upcoming body of work. We also got carried away at some points and imagined very crazy but possible scenarios of the end of the world as it felt closer than ever.

‘Floating in the Swamp’, acrylic, colored pencils, dry pastels on brass with steel frame, 33.7 x 23.5 cm

‘Mountains Shadow’, acrylic, colored pencils, dry pastels on brass with steel frame, 33 x 25.4 cm

‘Cage’, acrylic, colored pencils, dry pastels and crackle medium on brass with steel frame, 35.6 x 24.1 cm

AMM: Does your relationship extend beyond your artistic work? When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

ASMA: As we are a romantic couple we spend a lot of time together outside of the studio. We like to tattoo, alter old clothes and play board games when we have free time. Sometimes we visit a small town outside of Mexico City which has a lot of character. It is a really close and inspirational place to us. We hike up the mountain there and eat really fresh food.

AMM: What are you each watching, reading and listening to right now? Does this influence your art at all?

ASMA: As we make our work in some sort of chapters, we allow the different situations and surroundings we are involved in at the time to filter into the work. We often get inspired by the movies and the music we listen to while producing. We relate some specific movie or text to each project and then during the production we create a playlist to listen to when we work in the studio. We recently finished watching the series DEVS and The Outsider, which we found amusing and related to our work in some ways, but we are now on a vampire wave when it comes to movies. We also just got “The Philosophers’ Secret Fire” by Patrick Harpur which was a great find and feels quite aligned with our current interests.

AMM: Do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for ASMA?

ASMA: We hope things get a little better and we can travel more next year. We recently sent some works for an exhibition that is going to be part of Manifesta Biennal in Marseille and we are really excited because it’s our first time showing in France and it takes place in a really ancient church, the Abbey Saint-Victor. We have some group shows towards the end of the year and a solo exhibition in March at the Orange County Museum in Santa Monica. We are also looking forward to a solo show in Montreal with Projet Pangée next summer.

Find out more about ASMA:

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Blossoming Carcass’, bronze cast, oil paint, gypsum, volcanic sand, flowers, 48.3 x 58.4 x 10.2 cm

‘Nude’, bronze cast frame with oil paint, foami, 27.9 x 22.9 cm

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