What Happens in One Place Affects Us All: A Conversation with Artist Adriana Corral

University of Texas at Austin MFA grad Adriana Corral has been working with themes of gender-based violence since she came to UT in 2010.  Based in San Antonio, she has exhibited at the Visual Arts Center at UT Austin, Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, the Grounds for Sculpture in Trenton, New Jersey, the Bellevue Art Museum in Seattle and will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Invasive Species: Landscapes by Justin Boyd, Adriana Corral, and Joey Fauerso” at Artpace, in San Antonio, opening September 11.  

Curatorial Assistant Amethyst Beaver caught up with Corral to talk about growing up in El Paso, her experience at UT, the first time she went to the Blanton, her process of breaking the silence about violence against women and her upcoming project at Artpace.

Amethyst Beaver:  Lets start from the beginning.  Who were some of your earliest influences?

Adriana Corral: There are four people that I think really shaped me into the person that I have become today: my mother, my father, my aunt Marti and my uncle Charlie.  My aunt Marti was an anesthesiologist and my uncle Charlie is a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon.

AB: You mentioned that your mother, aunt Marti and uncle Charlie all worked together and that you grew up in their offices.  When did you attend your first surgery?

AC: I went to one of the first surgeries when I was about eight or nine.  It was a family environment. My uncle performed the surgery, my aunt put the patients under and then my mom did the autotransfusions. One of their dearest friends was the nurse. They would play music and they would be in their environment.  Now looking back, watching them extend the lives of these patients really had a strong affect on me.

At an early age, the idea of life and death was an important thing that they taught us.  My mother fought with all of the physicians and nurses for my older brother and sister to be in the operating room when I was born because she said to watch life is extremely important.  It is the most beautiful thing that you could ever witness and that is life in its purest form.

AB: Did you witness death in the operating room?

AC: I didn’t experience that in the operating room.  My aunt Marti was the physician and then became the patient when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  During undergrad I would take her to chemo and radiation. I think going with her to chemo and radiation I was seeing the reality of it. And I was watching her body deteriorate, literally, in front of me.

As I was taking my aunt to chemo she would look over my drawing anatomy homework and say “Okay, the anatomy on that is not correct.” (Laughter) “You’re not doing this right.” And she knew it. She was very honest with no sugar coating.  She was probably the toughest person on me: her and my dad.  They were extremely critical. They pushed me in a good way.

AB: They were your advocates as well as your challengers.

AC: Yes. My aunt wanted me to pursue medical school.  She saw that I was an artist but she just wanted me to go to medical school. She said “you can do so much when you are in the medical field.  When you are a physician you can save lives and really help people.”  But I had this love to make art and once I proved my dedication she understood.

AB: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

AC: When I was junior in high school I fell ill with Epstein Bar—it’s when you have over exerted yourself and your body basically shuts down. I was out of school for three months. I started drawing, working with pastels, and I started painting. It was then that I decided this is what I want to do; I knew it.  During that time my aunt Marti gave me art books and she gave me my first journal.  And that has been a huge part of my practice; journaling, sketching and writing. I have so many, many, many journals and it all was because she gave me my very first one.

AB: How did your parents react to your decision to be an artist?

AC: I remember sitting down with my parents and saying, “I am going to go to undergrad, and then I am going to go to grad school and that is what I am going to do.”  They said, “what about pursuing medical school?” When I was young, my aunt would take me to conferences encouraging young kids to go into the medical profession.  And I loved it, but there was something that was just really pulling me to do art.

AB:  You completed your BFA at UT El Paso in 2008. When did you first look into UT Austin for grad school?

AC: I went to stay with my sister and her husband in Austin and I asked Margo [Sawyer, a UT professor] if she would meet with me.  She graciously did and I remember sitting with her in the sculpture studio. I asked her a lot of questions about the program, about her practice and her work.  I showed her my work and she said, “I am going to fight for you. I believe in you. I believe in your work.”

AB: This was your first meeting?

AC: It was an instant bonding and the conversation was wonderful. It was just an amazing connection with someone. I left so enthusiastic. I returned to El Paso and then a few weeks later I got into a severe car accident, which put me out of commission for almost two years.

AB: Oh no! That’s terrible. Someone was going to fight for you, you were going to apply to grad school, you were ready to take on the world and then—

AC:  —then the world said, “Whoa, slow down girl.” I had severe upper body injuries.  I was in physical therapy, Monday through Saturday, three hours each day for a year and a half.  When the accident happened, I wrote an email to Margo and told her that I wouldn’t be applying to any grad schools, I can’t even lift myself out of bed, we’re going to have to put everything on hold.  Probably the most amazing thing to come of that was an email from Margo who said, “If we can’t physically do anything, mentally we can prepare you.” She would send me TED talks, lectures and artists to look at.

Margo Sawyer and Adriana Corral in front of Momento, 2012 at the VAC.
Margo Sawyer and Adriana Corral in front of Campo Algodon Cuidad Juarez, 21 Febrero del 2007.

AB: That is incredible.

AC: I lived for those emails. My dreams of being an artist were not lost.

While I was recovering, I went to Austin to visit my sister and Margo told me that the one thing I had to do was go to the Blanton.

AB:  Really? 

AC: She said, “I think that this artist is going to inspire you.” That was in 2009 and that was when I first discovered Teresita Fernández’s work.

AB: That was the exhibition, Teresita Fernández: Blind Landscape (November 2009—January 2010)It was in the downstairs gallery, right?

AC: Yes. My sister said, “Well, we have to go see it.” And we went with my two nephews and I was shuffling around in my neck brace. I thought, “Who is this person? This is amazing!”

AB: Was that your first time at the Blanton?

AC: I think it was the first time.

AB: What most inspired you about the exhibition?

AC: I think it was the fact that she was a strong woman making work of this magnitude. Her use of materials blew me away!  It was just so hopeful for me. I felt like I could do it, that I had to keep fighting for this. And so for me, it was that moment of thinking, “yes, you have to apply to school. You need to get through this.”  I remember leaving the Blanton and just being floored.

Installation shot of exhibition Teresita Fernandez: Blind Landscape (November 2009-January 2010), photo by Rick Hall.
Installation shot of exhibition Teresita Fernández: Blind Landscape (November 2009-January 2010), photo by Rick Hall.

AB: So then there seems like it wasn’t even a question, you had to go to UT? 

AC: Of course I considered other schools; I wanted to go outside of Texas!  But when I applied to grad school, I decided that I wanted to work with someone who had already invested so much time in me. If Margo had a commitment like that, she was going to have a lifelong commitment to me.  She introduced me to other art faculty and grad students and told me about amazing resources on campus.

AB: You mentioned that you had family in Juarez and you would travel frequently back and forth.  Can you talk a little bit about your personal experience of living in El Paso and your relationship to Juarez?

AC: We would go to Juarez to eat, to be with family.  My father became a site selector for American companies looking for maquiladoras [factories] in Juarez and New Mexico. There were times when I would go with my father and he would show me what they were making in all of the maquiladoras. But the questions started to arise, “Well, what kind of conditions are these people in? What are they doing? Why do American companies have to go somewhere else to make something?” Being young and constantly asking these questions “Why? Why? Why?”  I think my dad wanted to say, “Why are you asking so many questions?”  (Laughter.)

Adriana Corral
Adriana Corral transferring the revered names of the women slain in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, for her installation at Artpace, San Antonio. Photo by Vincent Valdez.

AB: When did you begin focusing your work on violence against women and the femicidios (women murders) in Juarez?

I would constantly read about the slain women in the Diario or the El Paso Times and to me it was just unbelievable. It wasn’t just an issue in Mexico; I saw it as a universal issue. I was reading about what had and has happened to women in parts of Africa and Pakistan.  To me there weren’t these separations; it was the question of “Why is this happening, overall? Why are women targets weather it’s a drug war or a civil war?”  I kept seeing in the newspaper about what was happening in Juarez and I remember thinking, “Why aren’t people doing anything about it?”  I knew that it was a complex issue and yes there was some work being done about it, but I felt that there needed to be more awareness.

AB: It seems like this relationship between Juarez and El Paso is a vital part of your work.

AC: It is, it is extremely important.  I think that growing up next to another country is very important to consider. Even though El Paso and Juarez are considered sister cities, twin cities, there is still a division.  There is that line. I think that had a huge impact on me.

Why is Juarez one of the most dangerous cities in the world when El Paso is one of the safest cities in the nation?  That dichotomy, that juxtaposition, that really made me start questioning things.

Voices of the Lost
Adriana Corral, Quebrar el silencio [Break the Silence], performance, 2011. Four hundred and fifty one ceramic body bag tags.
AB:  In 2011 you performed Quebrar el silencio [Break the Silence] where you smashed approximately 451 clay tiles that you had specifically made to look like body bag tags with the names of the victims. What brought you to this work and how did you start doing performance art?

AC: I had first heard about one of Yoko Ono’s performances when I was in undergrad. It was where she was in a white–

AB: —Cut Piece?

AC: Yes, Cut Piece. And for me that was just the power behind that. For me, that was just amazing. The fact that she was left nude and in such a vulnerable state due to the actions of others.

AB: That is a really powerful work, also because she asked other people to cut her clothing off of her.

AC: Yes. They were using scissors to cut and just that closeness of a blade, something caressing you that is so threatening, right?   That really resonated with me.

At that point I had done Voces de las perdidas [Voices of the Lost] (2010) at Mexic-Arte in Austin.  For that installation I worked with a tile company based out of Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico.  They made me clay body bag tags from the soil collected from the site of the Campo Algodonero (cotton field) murders.  The tags are suspended from the ceiling.

Quebrar el silencio
Adriana Corral, Voces de las perdidas [Voices of the Lost], site-specific installation, 2010. Ceramic body bag tags, soil from crime site, dimensions vary.
[UT Professor] Teresa Hubbard was conducting critiques and she pulled me aside. I remember we were right in the middle of all of these hanging ceramic body bag tags—and she held one of the tags and she said, “You know, this piece is really quiet. Now, to go forward with this, what if something happens to these?  What if they’re not so silent anymore?  What if there is a break of some kind?” I thought, “This is great!” (Laughter) I thought, “What if I can work with this company again and they can make me more tags and I can break them?”  Literally breaking that silence.

AB: Could you describe the sound of the breaking tiles?

AC: When I first started to break them, you hear that loud crashing break and inadvertently, this circle started to form from all of the shards evenly cascading out into the space. As I continued, that circle started to close and it became harder to break those tiles. The sound became muffled.

The performance concludes after I have finished picking up all of the pieces of the broken tiles and put them back in the boxes that I received them in. I was thinking about how we have to be vocal about this but we need to be tactful in the way we address this.  It is the mothers, the fathers and family members who often have to clean up after these atrocities. Of course there was anger that came over me, but it was also about letting go of that anger and looking towards solutions and continuing to bring an awareness.

The other works I was creating were quiet.  They were more contemplative spaces, a way to mourn the loss of these women.  So this point for me was the breaking of the silence.  There is this fear too.  When you are vocal about these issues, things can happen.

AB: You mean you bring danger to yourself when you speak out?

AC: Yes, and I think about that. Look at what has happened and is currently happening to journalists. I try to be very strategic because you have to be cautious.  It is not only in Juarez. When you are vocal, you have to be very careful at the same time, because threats can accompany exercising rights.  This piece was really important in that I was trying to break that silence too.

AB: Would you ever want to perform Quebrar el silencio in Juarez or redo that performance in other locations? 

AC: Yes, yes and yes.  After I had done that performance, I really wanted to go back to Juarez and actually wanted to go back to the site where the eight young girls were found, regarding the Campo Algodonero case. But right at that time, you had the drug war in its prime. It would have been a great opportunity but not the right time.

AB: What are some of the questions your professors would ask you about your work?

AC: They would ask me questions about authenticity: Why are you doing this?  What is the importance of it? Think about how the universal is in the specificity.

My second year I met [former UT professor] Michael Ray Charles and I worked with him my last two years. He became another amazing mentor for me. He would sit with me and talk about writers or music. One day I was with Michael Ray and he said, “We need to listen to some music,” so he put on Jimi Hendrix’s The Star Spangled Banner. He said, “Listen to that. Do you feel that? Do you feel the intensity?” He had me put earphones on and said, “You got to listen to it really, really loud.”  We would listen to Billie Holiday, old blues! Gosh! Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are some of my faves. And we would sit there and listen to this music and you would feel it in your gut. And he said, “You want your work to do that to your insides.” He was another one who pushed me.  No sugar coating. Always asking me “How can you propel this work further?” He was just so incredible to have and still have in my life.

AB: You mentioned to me earlier that you had a dream team of professors that you worked with during your time at UT.  Can you tell me a bit about them? 

AC: In the art department I worked closely with Beili Liu, Jeff Williams, Mike Smith, Amy Hauft, Michael Mogavero, Michael Ray Charles, Ann Johns, Jack Stoney, and Ken Hale.  I worked very closely with Ariel Dulitzsky from the law school and he introduced me to Luis Cárcamo-Huechante who was the lead in creating a human rights working group at the Rapoport Center. Ariel also put me in touch with Cecilia Balli, an anthropology professor at UT who has been working in Juarez for many years and Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba from the Spanish and Portuguese department. I had so many supporters throughout campus. I should also mention Charlie Hale the LILAS director. He was great.

Adriana Corral
Adriana Corral installing Per legem terrae [By the Law of the Land] at Artpace, San Antonio, 2014. Photo by Vincent Valdez.
AB: It seems like you have had some significant mentors and advocates in your life. You met Amada Cruz, the director of Artpace in San Antonio and she has asked you to be a part of a group show.  Can you tell me a little more about the work you are currently installing, Per legem terrae [By the Law of the Land] and the process you go through when creating site-specific work?

AC: Amada has been an amazing advocate. It is a tremendous honor to be in this exhibition. Amy Hauft, Jeff and Margo really helped me greatly when it came to site-specific work.  They provided great readings and advised me to sit in the space. It is important to be aware of your environment, to be very considerate of the space, to study the architecture. At Artpace I would go and I sit in the space for periods at a time, then I photographed it, and I made mock ups of my ideas in the studio.  Then I would put it all into Photoshop to see the layout. I finalized some images and I took those to Amada and we had a discussion about the work.

I wanted to create a counter-monument. For this work I have created a rhombus (diamond) shape of the names of the women who have been murdered. Once the names were transferred to the wall, I obliterated, erased and blurred them. For me the obliterated text is commenting on the failure of a system that is not prosecuting these violent acts.

On the floor, mirroring that wall of names, I have installed a large rectangular shape made of half ashes and half soil. I obtained the soil from along the border.  I was thinking about this line that divides us, this unnatural line. And just because these atrocities are happening in our neighboring country doesn’t mean, like you said, that it doesn’t happen here or concern us. What happens in one place affects us all.

Invasive Species: Landscapes by Justin Boyd, Adriana Corral and Joey Fauerso” will be on view in the Artpace Hudson (Show)Room from September 11, 2014 through January 4, 2015.

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