“You Are What You Eat!”: Exclusive Interview with Mexican Artist Pablo Llana
Contemporary art is often aimed at a critique of society, and consumerism comes in for its fair share of criticism. The artistic critique of consumerism boils down to five words: “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT !”
For Pablo Llana, a Mexican artist born in Tijuana, with various exhibitions worldwide and numerous awards, the critique came naturally. He abandoned the conventional way of painting in 2010 and began to employ recycled junk food wrappers, provided by the Tijuana community. This was new pictorial material, perfect to express his message and carry forward his fight against consumerism. The process of metabolism of pop language, with its iconic nature of standardization and commoditization, and the use of figurative art in terms of social protest are what make his art so appealing.
In Pablo Llana’s words:
“Junk food is a reflection of an economy that is based on a capitalist and consumerist society
Therefore, from many points of view, junk food is a damage and no good for society. I use products that are popular as are the wrappers of Coca Cola, McDonalds, Starbucks, so products that do not have to be advertised on tv since they are firmly placed in the market because of how popular they are. Besides this, I play the theme of consumerism which is a popular topic that unfortunately surrounds us every day more and more and makes us the victims.
Llana’s language is undoubtedly pop then, but his intelligence was to renew the communication and upsetting the message: his is not merely a challenge to the commercial production or a criticism of the way it is propose, but a direct attack to the social effects made through the icons, the best known brands deeply ingrained in our daily lives.
What follows is an exclusive interview released by Pablo Llana the Mexican artist, whom I came across by chance, on 6 May in Frankfurt at the opening exhibition of “ La Frontera” at the ART VIRUS gallery. It was in this context that he was able to talk to Pablo about his art and the issues he faces.
Question: “Coca Cola is greater than the power of the human being.” What do you mean?
Answer: And so it is, humans do not have free willing to decide when to take it or not, it’s inertia. Clear example are the following figures: in Mexico 675 bottles of 8 ounces (237 milliliters) were consumed last year. Coca Cola, recorded sales of $ 100 million in 2010 and plans to increase these numbers in 2020 only in Mexico.
Q: Why have you forsaken conventional painting and what inspired you to use junk food wrappers as new pictorial material?
A: Before leaving the market, junk food wrappers are painted. I stopped using materials like oil, acrylic, pastel etc to explore a new material. I wanted to highlight with this the high consumption rates based on what people give me, since all the raw material employed is recycled. It all started with the phrase “You are what you eat”, so if we are what we eat, the clothes that we would use, metaphorically speaking, would be the products consumed.
Q: What is the most common reaction of people to your art?
A: People think that I was the one who ate all those sweets or chocolates and often they wonder how long it takes me to make a piece. These are the most common questions when they see my work for the first time.
Q: In contemporary art, the material used often carries a significant meaning. The material you use, junk food wrappers, is substantially plastic: do you also intend to convey a message this way?
A: We live in a society in which everything is consumed, consumed and consumed some more. It’s a society full of superficiality as we cannot fill a void regardless of how much we buy. I highlight this aspect by using plastic, a material that is artificial and fully integrated in the content of products, while having absolutely no nutritional value at all.
Q: We first met at the exhibition “La Frontera” where your works were exhibited together with those of other Mexican artists from the border between Mexico and the United States. What is the relationship between your city , Tijuana, and you work and what about the artists along the border?
A: Sharing space with even my best colleagues in Frankfurt was amazing since each one showed samples of their work expressing different aspects of Tijuana, not the typical one connected with wanting to cross the US-Mexico border, but other faces of Tijuana. Tijuana has attracted the attention of several people the last few years and this has made them turn to look what is happening here.
Tijuana is a hybrid city, constantly on the move, where what does not serve you serves others around you. It’s a city of recycling, what is not useful for the Americans is sent to Tijuana; and Tijuana sells this recycled stuff and gives it new life. All these elements are strongly related to my work in several ways, in particular the concept of using a material that is considered trash by some while for others it is their raw material.
Q: You often address themes such as consumerism and exhibitions like “Mouthful” touched the theme of obesity. Why does it affect you that much?
A: It affects me because it is a reality: according to statistics, Mexico is first place in the rankings of childhood obesity in the world. At the same time, Mexico is in first place in Coca Cola consumption worldwide, and the state of Baja California in Mexico is the state that is first at the national level for obesity in my country.
So there are alarming numbers that concern me, and as an artist I must express this problem. As previously mentioned, nothing I work with I have bought, everything is recycled, and it shows the statistics are true since, for example, wrappers people give to me are more often those of Coca Cola than of any other brand.
Q: “I COMMUNITY CODE ” was also an exhibition about the theme of obesity . However, the message was communicated in a way that could not be captured immediately, except through the network connection . Do you see this as a challenge – the fact that technology nowadays is canceling every form of direct dialogue , increasingly filtering everything through the net?
A: Exactly. In “I COMMUNITY CODE ” , the walls of the museum were interspersed with QR codes which were made of candy wrappers; these QR codes contained messages related to obesity, figures , statistics , quotes from food, food slogans, advertising , etc. I decided to make this show since most people do not communicate with each other, everyone uses their phone to browse and to dialogue. Junk products come with a QR code on the back extolling wonders about the product but you are never told of the consequences if you eat too much of it. What I did was precisely that: to alert to the devastating consequences of frantic consumption. It was strictly a dialogue between you and the item.
Q: Consumerism can lead to either adoption (purchase of products that make us believe they are essential to our lives ) and/or alienation ( alcohol and drugs). Want to talk about your personal experience and how this has influenced you artistic journey?
A: As I told you, for me this theme started in 2010 with a piece made with Reese’s bags, which I entitled “Dress To Kill” and with another piece, a shirt made with sheer Coca Cola wraps entitled “Irreversible Gas”. These two pieces were made with products wraps I ate! The wrappers in those two pieces are the only parts I bought. Why? I was going through a transition, leaving behind a period of alcohol abuse, and I replaced it with these chocolates and that soda. I have collected the wrappers as the colors of both products fascinated me , until one day I decided to do something with these wrappers. It was in that moment that I came to realize what the phrase “We are what we eat” really meant. And so I started with those two pieces and pursued the research on the issues related to consumerism.
Q: What color are Consumerism and Capitalism for you and what are your plans for the future?
A: The “ Yellow Mcdonald’s “ for me represents consumerism, and “Red Coca Cola” means capitalism to me. Well, on 6 June there is the opening of the 6th National Biennial “Miradas” in Tijuana Mexico, where I won first place and the awards ceremony will be made that day. And next year I will participate with the gallery Art Virus Ltd. at an art fair in Berlin, and I’ll have in the same gallery a solo show in 2015, these my future plans.
Thanks for talking to Impakter, Pablo, and good luck on your daring journey armed with wrappers to fight the twin giants of consumerism and capitalism; we shall all follow closely your struggle!