“Learn to trust the unconscious process.”
Analia Saban is an artist based in Los Angeles. Originally from Argentina, Saban moved to the United States to earn a BFA in Visual Arts from Loyola University in New Orleans. She went on to receive her MFA in New Genres at UCLA, where she studied under the guidance of artist John Baldessari. Saban blends painting and sculpture techniques to explore issues of fragility, balance, technique and experimentation. Her work has been exhibited internationally at numerous museums and galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College in New York, Norton Museum of Art in Florida, Centre Pompidou in Paris, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires.
In this interview, Analia Saban shares how she went from wanting to become a mathematician to becoming an artist, what her relationship with John Baldessari was like, and where her ideas come from.
TGL: How was your childhood?
AS: I grew up in Buenos Aires in the eighties. There was not a lot of art to look at, because Argentina’s dictatorship until the late seventies wiped off all the arts. Most good visual artists had been in exile, mainly in Europe. By the time I was growing up, it was back to being a democracy, and it was a peaceful time, but there was no real art. I grew up more interested in science. I never took art seriously. I saw people drawing in the square, but it seemed more like a hobby. I never thought I would become an artist.
TGL: How did you first engage with art?
AS: I only took one art class in high school that was part of the curriculum. I liked it, but I wasn't particularly good at it. I was better at math. I went to a public school with a lot of video equipment, and I found a mentor there, he was making the films for the school. After hours, he worked on his own projects, which were documentaries about artists. I spent my high school years under his wing, learning about video making.
When I had to decide what to study at university, my first choice was to become a mathematician, and my second choice was to do movies. I loved math, but I thought making movies was more playful. I enrolled at a university in Buenos Aires, but they only had one camera for 200 students. I knew my choices were either to come to the U.S. or go to Paris. That's what people used to do. I was dating someone who was going to go to Loyola University in New Orleans, so I applied to the same school. Then I got a full-time scholarship, because I had this prolific video portfolio.
TGL: How was your transition from Buenos Aires to the United States?
AS: In Buenos Aires, I had my own time to do whatever I wanted, and I hung out with my mentor who was artistic. When I was studying film at Loyola, it was all about producing a commercial movie. It was the opposite of what I wanted to do. After my first semester, I went to New York for the first time. I saw MoMA and the Guggenheim and the Whitney, and I was completely blown away. I'd never seen anything like it. It was instant, I thought to myself, "This is what I want to do. I want to be part of this dialogue." I went back to New Orleans and said, “Enough with these film studies. I'm going to try the art department." I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew I found it.
TGL: Did you continue working with film in the art department?
AS: There was one professor in the art department, Gerald Cannon, who was doing video art. He was ahead of his time in 1999, getting the latest computers, fighting for grants and believing that digital art would really have a place in the future. It was a good match, I found a place where I could practice what I had been practicing in high school - this slow process of producing a film in a thoughtful, caring way. I was also learning about conceptual art and ideas and technology, and I learned how to program. I also took other required art classes: drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography…I started thinking about ways of combining more traditional art practices with technology, and that gave me the foundation for a lot of the work I'm doing now. It was an exciting time. I lived in the computer lab for all my undergraduate time.
TGL: When did you move to California?
AS: Gerald Cannon told me to go to grad school. I had no idea where to apply, because if you go to school in New Orleans, you have no idea what your standing is. It's not a fancy school like Yale or Columbia, where you’re already in the game. I applied to 10 universities at all levels. I got into UCLA without even knowing that UCLA was such a great school. Paul McCarthy called me at my house and said that I should come in for an interview. I was like, "Why is Paul McCarthy calling me about UCLA?" I was such a fan of his work. I hadn’t looked at who was teaching at the schools I had applied to, so I looked it up, and saw Paul McCarthy, John Baldessari, and Chris Burden all taught there!
I had two options: UT Austin, which gave me full-time tuition plus a stipend and a place to live, or UCLA, which gave me nothing. I was broke, and Argentina was going through one of the worst crisis in history in 2001, so I couldn't ask my parents for support. I didn’t know how it would work out. I met with Paul McCarthy; I was expecting him to be such a weird person because of his work, but he was the most gentle person. He said, "We're not giving you anything, but that's the life of the artist. You better start now." I said, “Okay." I moved to Los Angeles, and I did a three-year MFA program in new genres.
TGL: You had a studio which used to belong to John Baldessari. How did you develop your relationship with him?
AS: When I was accepted to UCLA, Paul was my mentor. He had accepted me to the school, it was great to hang out with him, but he retired shortly after. I didn't know where my work fit in. It was a tough time for me, feeling intimidated by the faculty. Everyone is important, and everyone has completely different ideas. It took me a while to find what I wanted to do. John Baldessari saw I was quite lost, but he was the only one that also saw the ambition and the drive, while most other professors didn't know what to do with me. John stopped and said, "I see you're trying to do something. It's not working out at the moment, but I truly believe this has potential." Just hearing that changed everything. I needed one voice to validate my work and John became that voice. After I finished UCLA, right after working on my first exhibition, I was looking for a studio and it happened that he was leaving his studio. He had this building he was using as storage, so he let me have it for a while. The moment I could afford it, I took over the lease, and I kept it for 10 years.
TGL: When was your first exhibition after you graduated?
AS: I finished in May, and the first show was in September. Thanks to Kim Light, she had a gallery named, LightBox. It was one of the first galleries in La Cienega Boulevard back in 2005. It was great, because it was also her first show at the gallery, so we really had to trust each other. That's what was so great about UCLA, a lot of people look at the graduation shows. Even though it took me two years and nine months to figure out what I wanted to do, I really got it in the last three months. I understood what I wanted to do and how to do it. A lot of people came to see my thesis show. Some people I still work today are because they saw that show.
TGL: Your concrete work has become very famous. How did you arrive at that?
AS: It's a long process, the first piece I did in school that I was finally okay with was turning video into sculpture. I printed a video frame by frame, so a 30-second video at 30 frames per second became a pile of 900 pictures. I felt that time could become a material and could take a three-dimensional shape.
After that, I started thinking about materials. What’s the history of the material? What's in the formula of paint or the formula of concrete? What's the piece of plywood? These materials that say so much about industry and society are important to think about. I did a lot of work about trying to understand that a painting is a three-dimensional object, even though we see it hanging on the wall. I became interested in concrete as a way of looking at a material that is all around us. We're standing on it, but it's almost like we don't see it anymore. It's a high-tech material; they have so much control over how it cures, when will it harden, what will be the its use and so on. If I can turn a video or painting into a sculpture, then I thought about turning something as hard as concrete into something flexible, like hanging a towel or draping a piece of fabric. It was interesting to produce this work in LA because of earthquakes. The earth looks hard but it’s constantly moving and shifting. I wanted to see if I could control and emphasize that.
TGL: Where do your ideas come from?
AS: I do a lot of psychoanalysis. I don't think that's exactly where the ideas come from, but you learn to trust the unconscious process. A lot of my ideas come from traveling and reading and living life, just walking through concrete or taking a shower and looking at the bathroom tiles. A lot happens in this process of looking at materials in different scenarios. I try to pay more attention to things that we tend to disregard because we're busy looking at something else. I also look at a lot of art, but then I try to forget it all. I let my unconscious process the information, and all of a sudden some idea shows up. I'm not sure how it happens, but over time, I've been learning to trust the process more and more.
TGL: What is your process for building an exhibition?
AS: It is nice if I have the option to see the space first. It's always inspiring. I recently did a show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. I was already working with the idea of weaving circuit boards, because it combines the traditional practice of weaving with a circuit board, which is all about connecting information. Then I got this invitation, so I researched Fort Worth and Dallas and found out that they made huge milestones when it comes to computers there. They invented the semiconductor, which is a crucial part of the computer. Because I was doing that show, I focused my circuit boards idea all around the semiconductor. It was interesting to use their history as a source of ideas.
TGL: Do you like to oversee the details of your shows or do you let the curator of the museum take more control?
AS: If it's a museum show, it is good to work with curators, because they're used to the space and the context and how people will receive it. When it comes to a private gallery show, I allow myself to take full control. It’s like writing a book, it’s an opportunity to make a new statement. So I try to make sure that I have something to say first, and then I call the gallery and ask "Hey, do you want to show?” I'm in a nice position now. I’ve worked with the same three galleries for the last 20 years. They understand that I can just call, and they are usually open to doing it. With time and experience, you earn your freedom.
TGL: What is it like having two children and working as an artist?
AS: It is still taboo in art, I was afraid of having children. I was 25 and I read an article by Marina Abramovic. She said, "You only have one type of fertility. If you have children, it's over. You apply it to your children, so your career is over." I worked hard, and I didn’t want everything to end because I had children. In the end, everyone was extremely supportive. I remember John Baldessari saying, "You can do this. Make sure you also spend time with your children. This is something that our generation didn't do so much, because we were so focused on art. Make sure that you care about the work, but also make sure you spend time with your children."
To my surprise, I've been more productive. First, I wanted to prove Marina Abramovic wrong, this is not the right message to send to young women artists. And, second, I became happier after I produced such beautiful children. I produced beautiful children, so maybe I can produce better work. It gave me confidence in what I do.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
AS: The more I go through life and I read about him, I'm a big, big fan of Steve Jobs.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
AS: It sounds cliche, but believe in yourself, know your strengths and your weaknesses, but believe that you can do things.