Artist Alexandre Arrechea on architecture's hidden stories and that Black Sabbath ballet

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When artist Alexandre Arrechea was 9, his father, Jesús, took him to the sugar mill where he worked as a machinist. The Arrecheas are from Trinidad, a graceful Spanish colonial city on the southern coast of Cuba that emerged as an important center of the sugar trade in the 18th century. For Alexandre, the tidy furrows of cane that surrounded the city were a familiar part of the landscape, but stepping into the mill was a whole other experience.

Arrechea, now 53, says he was overwhelmed by the scale. “We’re talking about these giant pieces,” he says. “It’s these ginormous wheels and these incredible machines.” Seeing them was an experience so indelible that it has shaped his work since.

Currently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Arrechea has long been intrigued by architecture and its meanings. Another formative experience was watching protesters target colonial buildings during the turmoil of the Mariel boatlift, a massive migration of Cubans to Florida in 1980. “Those stories hidden in those buildings,” he says, “have been a way for me to understand architecture.”

Organized by MOLAA chief curator Gabriela Urtiaga, “Intersected Horizons,” Arrechea’s first solo museum show in Los Angeles, brings together sculptures, watercolors, installations and video that present architectural forms in strange, uncanny ways. In one watercolor, a townhouse is rendered atop a child’s spinning top. In another, a vast landscape of prefab buildings extends into an endless horizon of gray. The structures are inspired by Alamar, a Soviet-style residential complex built outside Havana in the 1970s; Arrechea renders them as devouring the human scale.

Arrechea launched his career in the early 1990s as a member of Los Carpinteros, a Cuban collective he co-founded with artists Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Castillo. The trio shared a preoccupation with the intersection of architecture and social issues. Their 2001 installation “Ciudad Transportable,” first displayed at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City (now known as MoMA PS1) and later at the Los Angeles County Museum Art, took key structures of a Western city — a capitol building, a factory, a school, a prison — and presented them as a series of collapsible tents.

“Ciudad Transportable” marked a moment of rising global migration, including the artists’ own journeys.

“We were in a situation that we were thinking of living outside of Cuba and what goes through your mind is that your heritage is going to be left behind,” recalls Arrechea. “So we built a portable capital. … You take this place to another place, you take it with you.”

Arrechea left Los Carpinteros in 2003 and now divides his time between Madrid and Miami. The MOLAA show focuses on his independent work and includes mock-ups of pieces that may be familiar locally, like “Katrina Chairs,” created for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2016, a series that shows bright yellow apartment towers stacked precariously on chairs. The show also features an elegant, mural-size watercolor, titled “River and Ripples,” that was created last year during a residency at ArtYard in New Jersey — a work that seamlessly blends elements of landscape (including literal river water) with architectonic forms.

In addition to Long Beach, Arrechea has been spending a lot of time in London, working on the set design for a new ballet inspired by heavy metal band Black Sabbath for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. (You read that correctly: Ozzy Osbourne & Co. have inspired a ballet.)

I caught up with the artist via Zoom in advance of the ballet’s premiere in England. In this conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Arrechea talks about architecture’s legacies, literal demons and his favorite Sabbath jam.

How did architecture come to be such a prominent part of your practice?

I have to blame the city that I come from: Trinidad. There is a pride in the colonial architecture in Trinidad. As a young student, you are trained in drawing, but instead of doing live models, the school would take us outside and we would do our drawings on the streets, drawings of the buildings and the city. One day, when I looked up, I see that my uncle is at the top of a building working on the roof — he is a carpenter. To see a member of my family activating that made me think that the building is not foreign to me, it’s part of me, it belongs to me.

And of course, there is my father. When I was a kid, he’d be doing all of these drawings, these intricate things, and then he would build them.

The sculptural objects in the show at MOLAA are presented on white stands with serrated surfaces. Are those also inspired by architecture?

They actually reflect on the idea of the plowed field, plantation fields. For me, it’s an idea that is very recurrent. The plinth, or the base where you put art and sculptures, the idea is generally that you want to create something “neutral” so that whatever you put on top is more prominent. But I want that stand to be meaningful. The plowed field is the first architectonic production of humankind in a way, and that is very important to me.

“Katrina Chairs” has been one of your most visible works locally. (They were 50 feet tall, after all.) What led you to want to create a work that commented on Hurricane Katrina?

One of the things I love about “Katrina Chairs” is the gesture that led to that piece: When you are in a dangerous storm, you put your objects on top of other objects in order to put them in a safe space. That’s what guided “Katrina Chairs.” I’m not referring directly to the architecture of New Orleans; it’s more oblique.

What’s meaningful about Katrina is that in 2003, my friend Rosa gave me a book on the history of the Mississippi River and what it means for the United States. [Two years later], I am at the hospital with my mother and I’m reading that book at the time that the storm is going to hit Louisiana. Katrina was headed to New Orleans, and it enters, and at that precise moment, my mother died. I felt I had to do something.

I was lucky that [three] years later, [curator] Dan Cameron invited me to Prospect.1 in New Orleans, and I created a piece called “Mississippi Bucket,” which is a bucket in the shape of the estuaries of the Mississippi River. It was made out of wood recovered from the river itself. When I had the opportunity with Coachella, I wanted to dedicate a project to New Orleans.

You play with language a lot, in your titles but also in a work from last year titled “Shared Words,” where viewers are invited to generate phrases for a piece that shows five Black faces. What’s the story behind the work?

The five faces you see there are five young Black Cubans — neighbors. There was a big strike in Cuba in 2021. People were protesting their life conditions, but the censorship in Cuba is real. People were beaten and taken to jail. I wanted to pay homage to those who fought in that uprising, and I wanted to create a structure that gives voice to those faces that are mute in a way, because their mouths are cropped out. I want to give a possibility to those who can exercise their voice, to do so.

Of course, the museum won’t allow people to directly activate the work, but people can write their wish or drawing, and the museum will place it on the grid [which is made up of a series of black slots filled with pieces of white chalk used to generate a design]. The idea is like a computer bit.

I imagine some of the concern is what viewers might submit when facing five Black people.

Exactly. It will all depend on the reaction to those Black faces and what people really want to say about them.

You were one of two artists who had commissions for public art projects at SoFi Stadium stuck in limbo. Do you have any updates on where that stands?

They have been in touch and I’m waiting for the contract. Hopefully we will have another meeting in October or November.

You are now in London fine-tuning “Black Sabbath — The Ballet.” How did that project come about? And what did you conceive for the set design?

Four years ago, I met Carlos Acosta, [the Cuban-born artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet] in Havana. He told me he would like to do something with me one day, and last year, he asked me if I was ready to collaborate. At first I thought, “What the hell is this? What am I going to do with Black Sabbath?” In Cuba in the 1980s, when many things were forbidden, professors would slip you things and when I heard them for the first time, I was like “What the hell is this music?” That’s how I was introduced to Black Sabbath.

But then I started researching about Black Sabbath and Birmingham and how they were born. It’s an industrial city, and it’s a place that makes a lot of sense for them to do something like that. I thought about how they unleashed this demon in Birmingham — the demon is the music they created — and this demon takes over everything. So I created this demon on an upside-down car. It’s turning history upside down in a way, turning upside down the linear, and that links with the story of my work.

I also have another set where you have all of these light boxes that capture moments in the career of Black Sabbath — like [guitarist] Tony Iommi, who lost two fingers while working on a machine so he had to create this fake finger joint to play. He was told he could not play and he was like, “I’m playing no matter what.” So I’m selecting these iconic moments and putting them on circular light boxes that fluctuate amid the dancers.

So what’s your favorite Black Sabbath tune?

For the last six months, I’ve been listening to Black Sabbath daily, and Marlene [Barrios], my wife, wants to kill me. But the artist needs inspiration! [Laughs.] “War Pigs” is my favorite song. This is during Vietnam. They built it very poetically — it’s dark, but at the same time peaceful, and it creates a balance that for me is really interesting.

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