Some years ago the American artist Andrew Birk packed his belongings and moved to the heart of Mexico. Engulfed now in a culture that certainly mirrors in many ways that of his former own, Birk has taken on a journey filled with an endless set of different realities. A conversation about the nature of art, leaving home but finding rest everywhere, falling in love not just with people but time itself.
Andrew, you’re originally from Portland, Oregon, and currently live in Mexico City. What brought you to Mexico?
Yes, I grew up in Portland (b. Corvallis, Oregon) and I live in Mexico, however the story starts before 2011. When I was four I wanted to learn Russian, but for some reason it didn't stick. When I was five I started at a school called Ainsworth in Portland, Oregon that was Spanish immersion, meaning we studied all subjects (math, etc.) in Spanish for half the day and English the other half. The program wasn't based on translating one language to another, but introducing and producing fluency inside of a completely Spanish-speaking context.
My teachers came from all over the Spanish-speaking diaspora. Mexico, being the next country over, naturally had the most presence. I joke that the first words I learned in Spanish class were Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl (which are actually Nahuatl words, not Spanish)- the volcanoes that can be seen on a clear day from Mexico City.
While you experiment with different mediums, painting seems to be the art form you most often return to. How come?
My mom says I drew obsessively before I could walk. She’s a teacher, so there were always boxes of paper and supplies laying around. As a little kid I understood drawing and painting as fluidly as I understood walking. Looking back, I relate drawing with the root of art and with being home.
You wrote something which I thought explained things well, “If I am feeling heart-broken I focus on details that reinforce that. If I am in love I focus on details that reinforce that. Everything in-between. A dog pulling the leash from smell to smell. I focus on my experience, it's just mine, and it's a bottomless well that I'll always be able to draw from.” When we’re in love, whether happy or unhappily in love, details around us become so much greater.
When are we not in love? I wanted to express a tonality of openness and affectedness. My friends say I'm a romantic. Is that a pejorative? I don't know and I don't care jaja. We (artists) are in such a lucky and rare position to be open, totally open. To try to be, at least. I don't sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I don’t have to process a x number of y per hour. As such, I feel it's my responsibility to observe and respond to the elements that are swirling and shifting around me at all times. To focus on what’s right in front of my nose. To use the looseness of my positionality as a tool. It has been my experience that if one just pays attention, the world will provide all the impetus for art-making that one could ever need.
In my journal I recently wrote: “Part of contemporary success is killing parts of you that don’t obviously benefit (financial) growth. An artist requires all the sentient leaves of the plant, not just to grow as high as possible towards the sun, but broad, deep. Protect the possibility of the sublime, protect the possibility to be compelled by any instant, protect the possibility for appropriate recourse. An artist cannot afford not to be impacted by the world. An artist cannot afford not to be flexible to the high potential of plans disrupting, shifting, dissolving, evolving. All paths lead somewhere new. At the option of a new path we must be able to fix on the jugular, instantly killing the past, shifting total focus like a dikdik, setting the hook on the god-marlin of potential, future, forward, deeper, elsewhere.”
One time I was leading a dialogue at an art school in Mexico, in an open-air space, and an airplane flew low over our heads. The students compensated by speaking louder and louder, trying to ignore the noise, but eventually everyone was yelling at the top of their lungs. The only thing heard was the airplane. It was perfect. This is how ideas work. This is how life works. This is how art works. Things come out of left-field and completely uproot our attention and we must be prepared to drop everything and go in a new direction. My entire life is now built around allowing the possibilities presented by that airplane.
Your work often seems to explore the sensation of foreignness, of existing within a country that isn’t one's own.
Do artists really actually interact with the world or do we just observe it unfold, reporting on our observations? There are certain realities that are redundant to hide, conceal, or ignore. I was born and raised in the United States of America and I do live in Mexico, there is no other way to present this. As a focal topic, the notion of being a foreigner or feeling like a fish-out of water used to have more impact on me than it does now. I don’t think it’s so rooted in this particular place as contrasted to that particular place. When I go to New York I feel similarly. When I go to Portland, especially so. It’s shocking, unnerving to be stuck in a subway listening and understanding all the small-talk all around me. I enjoy sitting at a big table with people arguing in other languages and not understanding anything, it feels comfortable, somehow. Also, for what it's worth, every day I feel more “me,” regardless of external conditions.
While going through your website, I sensed some kind of longing for your hometown. The coast, nature more than anything. Any truth to that observation?
More than longing, it’s a certain kind of inevitability. When I’m in front of the ocean, everything melts away. Urban power-grab capitalistic bullshit becomes redundant. Legacy becomes redundant. Ego becomes redundant. History halts its subjective perversion and flashes as some kind of understandable continuity of everythingness. I’m ultimately reminded—as a human, or as temporary vessel of life—of where I come from and where I’m going.
At this very moment, I’m on a bus to Acapulco. The ocean shows us that our things are small and that the universe is big and that we are part of both the big universe and our small things and that everything is everything. I urge the perspectival shift that happens to a human in nature. The internet is a great tool for learning and communication, but I could learn and communicate without it. I like hugging and kissing people and looking into their eyes when I’m talking to them. Standing in lines at banks in subways, at nightclubs, chic restaurants, purchasing cellular plans or flying in airplanes are not my forte. Manifesting ideas into physicality is my forte. Some would say a bank is an extension of our tools. I try to think of a world without money, but I always hit a dead end. I don't know what the world would be like without violence. I don't think the world has ever not been violent, nor will it ever. I think often about Herzog talking about plants screaming in the jungle. I don't know if this answers the question.
After your move to Mexico, it’s somewhat impossible for your work not to have shifted in some ways. Perhaps color has something to do with it?
For a while, yes it affected more surface things like my use of color and a lot of material choices, but now on a less superficial level something is happening that has to do with deeper concepts like function and economy and directness. There are simply more layers of mediation to life in the United States. People who live in trash-filled concrete cities and are scared of bugs. Mexico has a beautiful pragmatism that I deeply admire. Not everything can be purchased online and delivered to your doorstep. You walk to a market and interface with your community. Every day I am less interested in assistants and high-fabrication and more interested in solving problems with tools that are within my immediate reach. I do not want to be a machine or a corporate entity or an image, I want to be one human with two arms and two legs, a brain, and some lungs. I can carry two big jugs of water, maybe three, at once.
You have lived in two places that are known for their absurd yet very different beauty. Portland seems to possess a certain melancholic beauty, at least its coast, whereas Mexican landscape inhabits a general idea of exoticism. Has your mood shifted because of it?
We have so much to learn from nature. Everything. I don’t agree that Portland’s beauty is melancholic, but that seems to be its image. RIP Elliot Smith. I also don’t agree that Mexico’s beauty is exotic, but that seems to be its image too. They are both vast, and vastly, vastly varied.
For me, Oregon has been about prima materia. Mexico has been about essence. Or it could be the other way around. Sometimes both. Neither. Inside of both of these places I have changed tremendously. Outside of these places, too. My mood has shifted, and will continue to shift, because every day I learn, and learning connects me to different parts of myself and my humanity and the world and all of the world’s systems and life itself.
I read somewhere that a huge portion of the great artists of the twentieth century came from a different country than they ended up in. I watch a lot of cooking shows and most chefs have gone to Paris to study sauce or New York to study cockroaches or Oaxaca to study mole, then return to where they are from. People combine information sets, find inter-zones, approach old problems in new ways and new problems in old ways. Things shift, things move, things combine, things change. Farmers shift crops. Animals reproduce. Sharks hunt further down the coastline. Weather patterns oscillate. Eruptions birth islands. Societies grow and atrophy and grow again elsewhere.
My aim is to evolve no matter what, no matter where. To keep asking and thinking and looking and feeling and trying. That is success for me. To keep falling in love over and over and over again with everything.
Images courtesy of Andrew Birk
interview LARA KONRAD
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