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A Slippery Fish: the work of Juan Ortiz-Apuy
Tuesday, April 20, 2021 | Zinnia Naqvi

Juan Ortiz-Apuy, Photograph by Brandon Brookbank.




The objects in Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s work are carefully found, selected, auditioned, polished, and eventually put on immaculate display. Many do not make the cut, but those with particular stage presence and tactile appeal gain the honour of being brought into the limelight. His most recent exhibition, Tropicana was set up and then closed for four long months. The objects were left to dream. Did they eagerly await the day that the doors would open, and the lights would be cast upon them again? Or did they enjoy the peace and quiet of the gallery space, relishing their undisturbed moments on the pedestal?

Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s work is rooted in sculpture and installation. He works with everyday household objects and brings them into the realm of the uncanny, creating forms that are almost irresistible to touch. His pieces include custom-made ceramics, oversized plush spray bottles, large pieces of minimalist furniture used in dysfunctional ways, video works rooted in ASMR, digital collages and more. The artist speaks about his exhibition-making practice as an immersive experience. His study of architecture prior to sculpture allows him to think of the unique qualities of each space and how a visitor might move through the path that he sets. He creates an environment that rewards curiosity, and as he describes, leaves little gifts for the viewer that can only be found if they spend enough time in his world. 

I met Juan when I had just moved to Montréal from Toronto. He is a true joy of a person with a bright charming smile, and this warmth extends to his work. I have always been fascinated by his constellation-like installations which bring together many complex ideas about modernism, consumerism, and the natural world, and yet create an atmosphere that is refined, sleek and inviting. 

In a moment in which many are viciously consuming online content for comfort and seeking small bouts of pleasure through ordering disposable items in the mail, how can we allow ourselves to indulge and yet acknowledge the harm rampant consumerism can cause? In bringing together these paradoxes and creating a satisfying physical environment, Juan’s message seems incredibly clear, and yet as I attempt to articulate it, I am reminded of the coveted quality of good artwork that he strives for. Like a slippery fish, as soon as you think you have a grasp on his thesis, it slips out of your hands. We are left with a surreal experience which alters light, space, colour, size, scale, and brings us into a fantasy of his design. 



My favorite artworks are the ones that, if you can explain it in words, it just kind of doesn't make sense, or you just almost cannot explain it. You have to see it in person and it's only as a body with all of your senses, in your gut, and your emotions, that's when you actually understand it.



Zinnia Naqvi: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your early career, because I know you moved to Montréal at a very young age to pursue arts education. I was wondering why you chose Montréal and Canada to come and study.

Juan Ortiz-Apuy: I graduated from high school and did not know what I wanted to do, and my dad is a veterinarian. I love animals but I knew I didn't want to do the same thing. Then I thought, the closest thing maybe is to be a doctor. So I left for Mexico City and enrolled in medical school. I went to school for a few weeks and then abandoned the whole thing. I remember the first time that they walked us into the morgue at the university and they had this guy who had died from drinking too much alcohol and his whole abdomen was purple, I stormed out. I knew this was not for me.

Then I didn’t know what to do, but Mexico City has an incredible number of museums. By chance, when I was walking out of the university there was this person giving out tour guides of the city and one of them was just about the museums. I picked one up and was like okay well I'm just going to go to museums for the next few months and try to figure out what to do. So I went through every Museum in the city and then I thought well you know, maybe I could be an artist and study art. But then I ran out of money so I went back to Costa Rica. There were no art programs in Costa Rica at that time, so I enrolled in architecture.

I studied architecture for about two years. While I was studying architecture in Costa Rica I was working for this American company that does sportsbook betting, like online gambling. They're pretty high paying jobs, and the only thing that you needed was to have some English. I had only a little bit of English, just enough to do it, so I got that job and I was working there while I was studying architecture. Then I got good at the job and found out they were going to open a branch here in Montréal. And they said, well, if you want to go to Montréal to train people and help with the transition you can. At that point, I was craving to go somewhere else so I can study art. So I came with this company, and I ended up here.

And how was the transition into studying art?

Well, it was kind of overwhelming. I think it still drives a lot of my interest in teaching because I was just so humbled by walking into the EV building at Concordia, which had just been built, and seeing eleven floors of facilities for art and workshops that were enormous, that to me was unheard of.

I felt pretty overwhelmed and happy to be part of it, I felt privileged to have that access. It felt like a bit of a dream to go to a studio and hang out with a bunch of radical people who wanted to be weird and liked strange things and didn't care about any sense of normalcy or being average. They wanted to be different and think different and I felt like that too, so I felt at home.

I kept working for the company but it was pretty hard, because I was working full time. I had to pay for everything myself, I was paying rent and then paying international tuition fees and my food, all of my expenses. I took care of myself for all of my studies. I definitely love Montréal, but the winter was hard, and I still hate it.

You just received a full-time position as Assistant Professor in Studio Arts at Concordia University, which is your alma mater. Where does your desire to teach or mentor come from?

I think it really goes back to that moment, going through the undergraduate program at Concordia and majoring in sculpture, and how much of an impact that experience had on me. It really changed my life; I became a different person. I was introduced to critical writing, and postcolonial theory that was never even mentioned in Costa Rica, and it was this irony, because it was so relevant for us as a post-colony. It wasn't really being taught there or talked about much. I learnt so much about identity, agency and language and things that I had experienced but didn't really have words for.

It really had a tremendous impact for me, and I'm hoping that I can do that for other people. Maybe not grant them a life changing experience, but as much as I can do to help people grow, change and learn.

I think at the most fundamental level to me teaching is just about sharing knowledge. I'm learning too when I'm teaching, we're all learning. That's why I love universities. We're just learning different things. My students are learning something and I'm learning from them. But this idea of, I'll show you how to do something and then you'll show me how to do something and we'll just exchange knowledge and skills, that to me is radical. That to me is what motivates me to teach.

I can see how your time studying architecture has had a direct influence on your practice, and especially how you design exhibitions. 

I like to think about space and how people occupy space, and how the built environment regulates so much behavior. As you travel through a space, it really dictates so much. The difference between a curtain and a wall, there are subtle differences that make a giant difference in how you approach or navigate a space. For exhibitions, I think a lot about how people would navigate the space and what they will see first and what will be revealed as they move through the space. I think about what they will see first and what will be concealed, and what will you discover as you navigate through it.

I think experiencing art is a time-based experience. It unfolds in time, and I try to think about that unfolding and how to plan for it in a way, how to put things at the beginning, at the middle, at the end.

Would you say that your exhibitions are site-specific? Or are you responding to the available architecture of a space? 

Yeah definitely. For all the projects that I've been doing for the past seven or so years, they've all had a specific place in mind. Whenever I have a chance to show them somewhere else I adapt them in one way or another, because they're always kind of meant for that space in particular.

Whenever I can I definitely do visits and I take photos, and then I work on that and make my maquettes. I also communicate a lot with the people at the gallery, asking them questions about the number of visitors, if there are windows, what are the natural light conditions, etc.

I read this children's book by Lawrence Weiner and it's called “Something to put something on”. It's really fun because it's a story about these two characters; Character A and Character B. 

Character A goes “I have a gift for you”. 

Character B goes “Well what is it?” 

Character A: “It’s on the table.”

Character B: “What is a table?”

Character A: “Something to put something on.”

It goes on like this, deconstructing what is a table, what is a gift, what is an object. And I think about that when I’m thinking about my audience because I want the exhibitions to be something that you walk into and feels like “I have a gift for you.” I want the exhibitions to be materially and visually seductive so that people want to spend time with them. And then I'll try to reward that curiosity, like I'll have these small little details that only if you spend enough time, you'll find them.

How long does it usually take for you to plan for these exhibitions?

They're usually like year-long investments. This one at VOX took about a year and a half. The moment that I first talked to Marie and then she talked about the framework behind the exhibition because there's a particular framework to it, being a children’s exhibition. 

The exhibition really grows organically throughout that time. I did have the idea for the video pretty soon after we talked, because it seemed like something that I wanted to do as an evolution of this other project that I had done about unboxing videos. It was a collage from YouTube of unboxing videos. Then I thought, well I want to make my own unboxing video.

I was also really into ASMR because it felt like it was this cousin of unboxing. So I thought, I want to do my own ASMR too, and in my mind it could also be an homage to sculpture. In that the kids will find that fun and interesting and worth thinking about materiality, engaging people through an exploration of objects through touch and sound.

When I was working on the unboxings, I watched YouTube for like thirty days, eight hours a day. Reading about unboxing trends, I came across the story of this woman from Brazil who is one of the first people who started doing the unboxing videos. She grew up in a favela in Brazil, and in the videos she paints her nails with polka dots and tiger stripes. She started doing it as a gift for a family member then she posted it on YouTube and it became a sensation. Then she started getting contracts from companies to unbox their products, and she's now a millionaire and lives in New York City. I was fascinated by that story. She now goes by DisneyCollectorBR, and a lot of the aesthetics in the Tropicana video were in reference to her.



Tropicana, 2020. Installation, dimensions variable.
Video projection, pendant speakers, inflatable made with recycled nylon, video light with C-stand,
lighting gels and spring clamps, 3D animation, inkjet prints on backlit film, lightboxes, found objects.



The exhibition Tropicana, currently at Centre VOX is framed as a Children’s Exhibition. I want to know about how you see children interacting with this work in a different way than adults or in a different way than your other exhibitions.

It was definitely a challenge, because I felt like I wanted to engage the audience more than before. I felt like I could do it in the way that I normally work, where I have bright colors and funky shapes and sound and color. That would have been natural for me, but I wanted to do more than that.

I wanted some kind of critical space for kids dependent on their age, but I wanted an opportunity for them to think about these themes I’m addressing. That was a conversation that I had a lot with the gallery, they have a person who is an educational programming person, the curator, the technical director and another person who's in charge of touring shows, and they all gave their input on what they thought would work and would not work for youth audiences.

But the biggest challenge was how to make something that is not just nice to look at but has space to think more critically. The team has programs that they're developing with the exhibition. They are going to aim to talk to youth about the languages of marketing and advertising, and how things are presented to them as consumers, to be bought and sold, and how to be critical of that language. How to tell when something appears to be natural or organic, but maybe it isn't.

That was one aspect, the other was a look into materiality, which I felt I could apply to audiences of all ages. I can encourage them to explore objects or think about materials and objects through their hands and promote the sense of exploration through touch. With smartphones and screens, touch has been reduced to just a swipe with your finger on glass.

To me as a sculptor obviously, I want to promote touch as much as I can, so I thought this could be a way to offer something more than getting them hooked into watching something. This way they could start thinking about how materials also sound around them and what the differences between them are.

Visually, in your work I see a balance between the natural and artificial. You've spoken about the artifice of nature, which you saw a lot growing up in in Costa Rica and witnessing the way the tourism industry was manufactured there to appeal to Western tourists. I was wondering if you could speak about this balance of the natural and artificial in your work.

This is twofold for me so, on the one hand, I’m interested in this idea of the eco-tourism in Costa Rica, where all these artificial experiences of natural environments are everywhere to be found. You can zip-line through the rain forest, or rent a cabin with satellite TV and AC in the jungle. You go to the rain forest and there’ll be a dirt road and four by four, and all of a sudden there's a state-of-the-art hotel resort with all the latest facilities. There is always a mediation of that natural landscape. 

But also I grew up there on the edge of that rain forest, and there is an incredible diversity of colour, shape and form, and I think that influences my aesthetic in many ways. Now I’ve lived half my life there and half my life here in Canada. When I arrived here, I remember walking into Dollarama for the first time which also has a diversity of flora and fauna, but this time it was plastic. It was just as brilliant and stimulating as the rain forest that I grew up in, but it was all plastic.

Then I found there was an overlap in the language that advertising  uses. They often use this lure of the tropical and the exotic and natural but in an artificial way. I was interested in finding the ways in which I can link up these two experiences in my life, and I still feel like walking into a Dollarama is an incredibly tactile and visual experience. Obviously, there's also a criticism to be made because one diversity of plastic objects is threatening to replace another diversity of natural objects. I'm also interested in the tension between the two.



Tropicana, 2020
. Installation, dimensions variable.
Video projection, pendant speakers, inflatable made with recycled nylon, video light with C-stand,
lighting gels and spring clamps, 3D animation, inkjet prints on backlit film, lightboxes, found objects.



The theme of the Momenta Biennale in 2019, which you took part of was “The Secret Lives of Objects.” I know object-oriented ontology is a big part of your research. Do you think that the objects you acquire as part of your work, or the ones that you make, are alive?

I think they're really alive, I mean I think objects are inherently weird. I feel like you can never really access an object, and that's something that object-oriented ontology supports, that they have an agency and a way of being that is completely removed from you, and you can never perceive it in its own reality, because it’s always filtered by your human senses. And I believe that, I believe that objects are animate on their own. I believe they have a separate agency. I believe that there is a gap in between how an object looks and what it actually is and that is always a deceiving gap.

It’s hard to explain without sounding too new agey. I think the best way for me to explain is, if you think about it in bigger terms, like if you think about the universe. The universe moves and is regulated on its own accord. It does not care one bit about us and it's already functioning under its own laws. 



These inanimate objects, what do they dream of? What do they aspire to be? What are the fetishes of all these objects that have been animated by the market? My animations are a way for me to make these questions kind of literal.



You’ve also made new animations and computer-rendered images which are giving a new life to these objects and extending the notion of fantasy and autonomy in the way they move. You have converted the 3D objects that you create and brought them to life, and yet you include things like the leg of a tripod and bring back the reference to documentation. I’m wondering how documenting your sculptures and the works living on screen extends the life of these objects.

Okay, to back-track a little bit, one thing about object-oriented ontology, the guy who coined the term Graham Harman, I don't agree completely with the way that he talks about object-oriented ontology because he would say that a rock and an iPhone both have agency, that they're on the same level. Whereas to me, from a Marxist critical perspective, an iPhone, as it is shaped and animated by the market, is a completely different kind of object than a rock, because it's gone through speculation, it’s gone through commodity fetishism. That alone has given the object a life and infused it with power. 

The animations were a way for me to project something onto the objects. I was thinking about advertising and design, they play such a huge role in infusing things with all kinds of anthropomorphic and magical power onto an object. So, if you take a Tropicana bottle, from the moment that it is just raw matter, just plastic, until it is shaped into a bottle, gets a label, put in advertisements and commercials, does a Tropicana juice bottle dream of becoming an orange? 

These inanimate objects, what do they dream of? What do they aspire to be? What are the fetishes of all these objects that have been animated by the market? My animations are a way for me to make these questions kind of literal.

You also had another exhibition this past fall at Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Québec, called Midnight Poison.  I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the process of putting that exhibition together and how light was used to transform the space.

The show is called Midnight Poison. I was really into this idea of how an exhibition can change during the day, because of the changes of daylight. The gallery has really big windows on top, and because the show was in late fall, it would get dark over there around 4pm. Because of the massive windows the space would really change during the day. Those windows are facing north and south, so there was tons of direct sunlight coming into the gallery in the morning, which changed to pitch black by like 4pm when the gallery was still open.

I thought, well wouldn't it be nice to make an exhibition that changes during the day with the light. So there are light gels on the overhead lights. When you come in during the day, it looks like regular kind of lighting and then, as it gets dark, the lights change to this deep magenta saturated color, into like a midnight poison sort of thing.

All the bottles and objects are on this structure that looks like an inside out piece of furniture. It’s essentially an Ikea display case that I assemble without following any instructions. I intuitively put it together, just how I felt impulsively. That's why it looks like a display case that kind of exploded out of something. And all the objects around it, there are on pillows or they kind of look like they metamorphosed into an animal or another shape. The idea was that they were dreaming, they are in a dream at midnight poison when they are becoming something else.

Again, I was questioning, what do these bottles dream of? What do they dream of becoming? I wanted to give them space for that.



Midnight Poison, 2020. Installation, dimensions variable.
Modified IKEA LAGAN refrigerators, glazed stoneware, velvet pillows, IKEA BESTÅ furniture and hardware,
Begonia Maculata plant, lighting gels, inkjet print on backlit film, and light.


Midnight Poison, 2020. Installation, dimensions variable.
Modified IKEA LAGAN refrigerators, glazed stoneware, velvet pillows, IKEA BESTÅ furniture and hardware,
Begonia Maculata plant, lighting gels, inkjet print on backlit film, and light.



Now that I know that you studied architecture, a lot of things about your work make a little more sense. Particularly, Ikea furniture appears in a lot of your work and you seem to have this kind of fascination with minimalist design. You also did a residency at the Ikea museum in Älmhult, Sweden. Where does your fascination with Ikea come from?

I always feel very conflicted about it because I feel a genuine love and hate relationship with Ikea. I do like Ikea and then I always feel guilty that I do. But I think it's okay to feel like that. It's the same way that I feel that I'm an artist as much as I am a consumer. I legitimately like things, but I do try to be critical of that capitalist consumerist thinking.

I like Ikea for several reasons. I like the aesthetic, like you said, that minimalist aesthetic seems like this rip off of the Bauhaus. I was interested in it because of that. The Bauhaus was this incredibly radical movement, they wanted to democratize design and make it accessible, they wanted to mass produce and for everybody to have beautiful things in their house. That was their goal, and it was a radical goal. They're one of the first movements that started injecting design into everything, a spoon or plate, everything in the house. Before that, a spoon sometimes was just a spoon, more of a user object.

But with the Bauhaus it started becoming a symbolic object, it was something that was designed.

I see Ikea being the realization of that dream but turned into a kind of nightmare. They make cheap, mass produced things that people can throw away very easily. I feel like the dream of the Bauhaus has been realized but perverted. And then now in an environmental crisis, that obviously resonates very differently than it would have in the 1930s.

And so, did you apply for the residency or did the museum reach out to you?

They invited me. I was skeptical in the beginning, because I felt like, on the one hand, they're being pretty progressive for a big institution. I was hoping that, when they saw my work, which I was pretty surprised they knew about, that they would have seen that there was a critical component to the work.

They have a dedicated museum with the residency program so it's separate from the company. So I went there. There were things that I wanted to do that I wasn't allowed to do and it was a little bit restrictive at times.

Can I ask what you weren't allowed to do or see?

Well, I wanted to go and see the prototype section, for example. They have this warehouse where all the failed models live. Anything that doesn't work, that doesn't make it into the design process goes there. I just really wanted to get my hands on all the failed Ikea things but they wouldn't let me see that. They wouldn't let me see some of the production buildings. But they were also super generous. I basically had $20,000 worth of credit to go to the Ikea store, and the Ikea store there is the biggest in the world, it's insane, you can rent little bikes to go around it.

To go back to the exhibition, I was particularly interested in the Ikea fridges in Midnight Poison, because they make what to me looks almost like Bauhaus looking fortress building. But then I realized when I was reading about it that they are fridges that are meant to be kissing. I realized that this is a piece that you really need to experience in person, because you're missing the sound, the temperature and humidity, and all of that is not captured through documentation. I was thinking a little bit about documentation in general, because this is a show that most people are seeing through documentation and that can extend and at the same time limit your work. 

I’m super picky with documentation. I've driven photographers mad. But I try to do as good of a job as possible, whether working with somebody or myself, of representing the experience. Especially the angles of things, because there are a lot of details that I care about.

Even going back to when we were talking about curiosity and things that I leave for people to discover if they spend enough time with it, I care about getting images of all those details. At the end of the day, it's hard for sculpture and installation, it's always going to be better in person. In the end you just end up with a flat image and there many aspects that will be lost. 

In the two fridges, they are working independently of each other. One would turn off and the other one would turn on to try to compensate for the other one losing cold, losing its temperature. They're constantly trying to regulate each other, because they have an internal thermostat. The fridges have no doors and they’re up against each other, so it's kind of like mouth to mouth resuscitation, like life support. They're constantly regulating each other. 

Also there's a strip of plexiglass in between them, where you can peek and see the inside, and I really liked the interior space of the fridge that was red. I changed the bulbs of the fridge to the same color as the overhead lights so it's like this red or magenta. I like all those places in between the hot and the cold, like the color of the light in the space that looks kind of like a sexy hot body but it's cold, they're contained within this cold environment.

You are able to balance an incredible amount of research and themes into your work, yet they remain visually cohesive. How do you find the balance of bringing all of these different concepts into the work?

I think it’s just the way that I think. I think that's why I'm drawn to collage, because I tend to think in this desperate networked way, making different references. I used to do a lot of mind maps and then I did a mind map at one point, like right after I finished my MFA, it was kind of like an artwork too. It was a fictional map of sources of books and references to literature and music and all kinds of things that I was exploring but turned into an actual map with  valleys, sort of like the valley of 100 years of solitude.

I like to have quite a few layers and entry points into the work, because I feel like for the audience, then it becomes broader. More people can think about it in different ways and there's more time for doing that, if you want to take that time.

I feel like it's just one of those things where I don’t set out to do it like that, but it’s just the way that I think and the way that I work. I just read little bits of this and that and then try to find common grounds. It's all kind of like a conceptual Venn diagram of sorts. All those overlaps between like Bauhaus, Ikea, modernism and consumerism and that space where they overlap; that's where the exhibition happens.


Juan Ortiz-Apuy, Photograph by Brandon Brookbank




Well that brings me to my next question. I know that you're an active reader and have also explored language in some of your past work. I feel like there's definitely a balance between lived experience, intuition, and also words in your practice. I was wondering about the role of writing and theory. Does theory help to validate lived experience or otherwise, or what role does it have?

 I don't read a lot of theory anymore, I used to quite a bit, I think around my MFA. I tend to give it a little bit less importance lately, I try to do other kinds of forms of research, like intuition. Intuition is just as valid a form of research. And sometimes just following my eye or following a kind of unarticulated, nebulous thought that I might have about why I think that piece might work in a certain way, I’ve been actively trying to pursue that approach more.

Right now, I’m trying to start a new body of work, and I've just finished one piece of what I think will become an installation. I'm really following that piece and examining what's happening in the work itself. I try to look at that and spend time with that, learn from one element, that can help give shape to the rest.

I think I’m really hoping that the work can produce its own theory. That's my ultimate goal. If people can write off of it something that didn't exist, and the work can actually propose something new, that's what I'm really interested in.

I’m less interested in the work translating something that was already written. But if you can do the opposite, if it can generate its own ideas and theories, that's my ultimate goal. And, especially because I feel like art has the power of communicating very complex things in ways that escapes language.

My favorite artworks are the ones that, if you can explain it in words, it just kind of doesn't make sense, or you just almost cannot explain it. You have to see it in person and it's only as a body with all of your senses, in your gut, and your emotions, that's when you actually understand it.

Is there any work like that that comes to mind for you right now?

Well, I'm really fascinated by the practice of Magali Reus right now. Magali Reus has been doing these semi-functional objects that reference architecture. Sometimes she's done kind of like seats and benches, like the seats that kind of go up and down in public, and all kinds of semi-functional furniture or objects, but she's kind of abstracting the function of them, to the point that they become these very ambiguous and strange objects to look at. And then she emphasizes that even more by making those objects out of materials that are not what you usually encounter them with. So you see that seat and then recognize it as a seat, but then, when you see it closer is made out of rubber and some kind of strange other type of plastic. She unites them in function and also material in that way.

They just have this kind of way of being where if you try to say what they're about, they do that kind of a slippery fish thing. That's what's happening to me right now, like the moment that you feel like you know what they're about they just kind of escape your hands.

The slippery fish is a good metaphor. I feel like that's what good art is to me. You can’t quite pinpoint its meaning, it's always kind of in flux.

And how is your momentum? Constantly making new work, does it energize you or do you feel like you need a break?

No, it does energize me. I’m always getting motivated by trying to do something better than what I did before, as hard as that is. Because when you get down to it, what makes that project better than that one, how do you define exactly what it is?

It becomes like a slippery slope, but I think of it as a driving question. I feel like that's what motivates me, the possibility that I can make something that is even more complex and stronger than I've done before. So then I spend my time thinking about what better is, and reading catalogs and books of people that I admire, who, I think, are doing really good work and try to really understand it, what it is that makes that work really good.

The above conversation was conducted by Zinnia Naqvi, an interdisciplinary artist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal and Tkaronto/Toronto.

Special thanks to Juan Ortiz-Apuy for sharing generously throughout this conversation.