In the last few weeks, when the evening sky begins to darken, a downtown building radiates magnificent colors in the streets: magenta, pink, green, yellow, royal red.
The nighttime light show passes through the large glass doors of the MOCA-Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art.
But the source of this rainbow beauty, surprisingly, is a lot of discarded T-shirts.
Inside the huge museum hall, shirts – brilliantly dyed and sewn together in giant tarps – hang from the ceiling. Attached to the ship’s rigging, they move and navigate above the gallery.
In honor of the humble origins of T-shirts, artist Pia Camil from Mexico City calls the work “Bara, Bara, Bara”, the song used by Mexican street vendors. It is the abbreviation of “barato”, Spanish for “cheap”.
Both painting and soft sculpture, this daring fiber work is visually dazzling and intellectually intense. “Bara” has taken over the Great Hall entirely, once a garage for gigantic fire trucks, when the building was a fire station. It is large enough to house his huge three-part installation.
Under the “Bara” swing, there is a floor element, the “Autonomous Space Mat”, where visitors can sit or lie down and gaze at the colored canopy. The carpet came from a relics outlet in Phoenix, and Camil designed its swirling patterns.
A third piece of the installation, “Air Out Your Dirty Laundry,” sits outside on the museum’s front patio. Instead of a flag blowing in the breeze on the outer pole, old shirts and jeans float on a clothesline. Residents are invited to donate their old clothes to fly off the clothesline. They can also request to use the mat as a place to host socially distant book clubs or other events.
The work is beautiful and even joyful. But he poses a critique of the consumption, the exploitation of labor and the destruction of the environment caused by the manufacture of clothes, in particular the use of dyes and too much water. It is estimated that it takes about 713 gallons of water to make a t-shirt, from the cotton field to the mill to the final wash. Those gallons would be enough drinking water to satiate a thirsty adult for more than two years.
Camil’s work follows the life cycle of shirts. T-shirts begin with orders placed in the United States when a football team, for example, wants to celebrate a win or a dealer wants to sell Irish shirts on St. Patrick’s Day. The work usually goes to underpaid workers in Latin America. The shirts they make, adorned with words and thick with slogans, travel to the United States
Proud Irish Americans and happy football fans wear them for a while, but soon enough they either pass them on to charity or get rid of them. As Commissioner Laura Copelin says, “they are becoming garbage in the United States”
Back in Mexico, they leave, to be sold to the poor or thrown in the dumps. But thanks to the artist’s intervention, some of those crumpled T-shirts are destined to return once again to the United States (“Bara” also made appearances in Dallas, in 2017, and Glasgow, in 2019.)
Camil buys second and third hand T-shirts from a discount store outside of Mexico City. She dyes old shirts in brilliant colors, then sews them by color, red with red, green with green, etc., making giant tarps.
Once they arrive at their designated gallery, the tarps are hung so that the words are placed face down, so that visitors can read them and think about their meaning. For Camil, these texts are a kind of poetry.
The mute side of the fabric faces the ceiling. The artist also provides holes for fans to stick their heads in and marvel at the pure, pristine colors.
COVID-19, unsurprisingly, disrupted Camil’s usual practices. Instead of coming to Tucson to supervise the installation of the work, she was stuck in Mexico. It was up to the museum to assemble “Bara”, under Camil’s instructions.
“We communicated by phone and had a lot of conversations,” explains the curator Copelin. The piece is meant to be site specific and “changes over time.” The way the sails work, they look different in every place.
The pandemic has also led to major changes in “Autonomous Space Rug”.
When work was in Scotland in 2019, Camil created a cozy floor space by converting dozens of pairs of old jeans into comfy pillows. The photos show visitors curled up, side by side, lounging or resting or gazing at the fabric canopy. Obviously, this iteration was not going to work in the corona era.
For the Tucson show, Camil requested a plush carpet to cover the entire floor of the Great Hall. She designed an elegant pattern of circles and lines that unfurl across the carpet. Inspired by images of 18th century French gardens on cards, Camil chose lines that would serve as boundaries to remind clients to keep a social distance.
Outdoor linen also has a COVID origin. Last fall, Marfa, an arts institution in rural Texas, offered commissions to artists “to do something they CAN do during the pandemic,” says Copelin, who also works with Marfa. Camil won one of the scholarships. Working from Mexico, Camil came up with a piece that “blew up what a flag could be,” Copelin says. Instead of national flags, discarded real-life clothing floated in the open air; the play started again in Tucson, with different clothes.
Camil, who earned a BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, has gained international attention for “Bara, Bara, Bara” and other works that evoke the ” Mexican cityscape, ”she writes in her bio.
“I’ve been interested in her for a long time,” says Copelin. After learning about Camil’s exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary Museum, the curator contacted the artist and finally invited her to show her work at MOCA. COVID allows, “We hope to get her here before the show ends.”
Pia Camil: three works
Until September 19
MOCA-Tucson, 265 S. Church Ave.
From noon to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Free during the pandemic
ADDITIONAL: From the beginning of May, you can participate in the installation in two ways. You can ask MOCA for a mini-grant to temporarily use the carpet space for your own event – book club, dance, etc. denim garment and allowing him to fly high in the sky on the clothesline. Check the website for details.