Material and Its Images
María José Herrera

In 1984, Osvaldo Decastelli embarked on a singular adventure: exploring a material and symbolic possibilities of that single material— corrugated cardboard—that has many uses in daily life but, until then, none in art. He chose it for several reasons, one of them its very familiarity. “I felt the need to look for less gloomy images that might be closer to the larger public,” he said.(1) Thus, this highly suggestive material, charged with the connotations of its extra-artistic uses (light, rustic and industrial, it is used for boxes and other packaging), was a creative challenge to Decastelli, as he sought means to work with a material outside the art tradition. Unbound to styles or prior models, he has engaged, from that moment on, in invention as close to what the material suggests as it is free from the conditions that it might impose. When I was nine, for my birthday I got a soccer ball and a tennis racquet, as well as a canvas stretcher and an easel, things related to art. My interest in art was natural and fluid, but I never thought of it as the beginning of a career . I was supposed to be an accountant. When I was a kid, I remember I would often wake up in the morning and sit on the side of my bed and say to myself: Today I will make something up! In the summer , I felt the need to get a job related to art. In the mornings I would go to the club, play tennis and paddleball and go swimming, and in the afternoon I usually worked at a workshop of some sort: once a book binding workshop, another time a porcelain workshop where it was my job to paint figures, and then a window dresser’s workshop that was working on the springtime window display for Thompson and Williams. (2) When I was through working there, the window dresser told my father that I had talent and suggested that I go to art school. Until then, that was unthinkable for me. But I guess it was somewhere inside, latent, because when my father mentioned it to me, I immediately started looking into how to get in. And so I prepared and took the exam. I didn’t tell my parents until it was all set! I studied at Belgrano (3) thinking that I would be a painter , but then I discovered that I loved working in three dimensions. Then I went to Pueyrredón, (4) where I majored in sculpture. That changed my life; my classmates and I formed a very tight group and the teachers were good: Juan Batlle Planas, Aída Carballo, Ana María Moncalvo in printmaking; Mario Arriguti, Luis Balduzzi and Labourdette in sculpture; Miguel Diomede and Aníbal Carreño in painting; Irene Crespi and Marta del Castillo in composition. Blanca Pastor was my Art History professor. The same teachers taught at De la Cárcova, (5) so once I had graduated from the Pueyrredón, there was no reason to

(1). Luis Aubele, “De lo simple a la fantasía”, Buenos Aires, La Nación newspaper , April 24, 1995.

(2). A traditional tailor shop in downtown Buenos Aires.

(3). Escuela de Bellas Artes Manuel Belgrano, first level of study in the fine arts program.—Trans.

go on. It was not common in those years to take studio classes… the best ones were at the schools.
I consider Luis Balduzzi my true mentor . He told me whatever he thought about my work, not only the good things, and that allowed me to grow. I stayed in touch with him after I had graduated. Although at that time no one spoke of “crits,” that was what we were doing. I took him the work or he came by my studio, and we talked for hours. That went on until 25 years ago, exactly the same number of years that I have worked with corrugated cardboard. I remember showing him my first works in cardboard. When I went to see him, I was agitated; I didn’t know what he was going to say. Even though it was the 1980s by then, sculpture continued, as it always had, to value traditional materials. But Balduzzi encouraged me a great deal and said, “Whatever it is you are doing you are doing it well.” He said something to me that later proved true: “If you keep working with this material, it’s going to become a sort of mark of your identity. People are going to associate Decastelli with corrugated cardboard.” And he was not wrong…
Would you say that your sculptures are textile in nature?
Not my sculptures, but some of my works are. I distinguish between these works and my sculptures because in the latter volume, space and form predominate. Lately, though, many of my works are textile in nature, because the material is crucial and they are wholly abstract. I realized that before the material was, for me, just a support; now I dialogue with it and observe how we communicate. I provoke the material to get a response; I hit it so that it vibrates; I scrape it and respond to it; I tear and uncover , generating confrontations. That’s how I get the best out of it, forcing it to reveal its soul. I render the formal qualities of corrugated cardboard subjective. I recycle it until it becomes something else and thus continues its course. To reinforce this idea, I like the notion of disemboweling, that is, removing or taking out its innards. Investigating, discovering the Luis Balduzzi and Labourdette in sculpture; Miguel Diomede and Aníbal Carreño in painting; Irene Crespi and Marta del Castillo in composition. Blanca Pastor was my Art History professor . The same teachers taught at De la Cárcova, (5) so once I had graduated from the Pueyrredón, there was no reason to go on. It was not common in those years to take studio classes… the best ones were at the schools.
I consider Luis Balduzzi my true mentor . He told me whatever he thought about my work, not only the good things, and that allowed me

(4). Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Prilidiano Pueyrredón, now part of the IUNA (Instituto Universitario Nacional del Arte).—Trans.

(5). Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes Ernesto de la Cárcova (the post-graduate level art program), now part of the IUNA.—Trans.

to grow. I stayed in touch with him after I had graduated. Although at that time no one spoke of “crits,” that was what we were doing. I took him the work or he came by my studio, and we talked for hours. That went on until 25 years ago, exactly the same number of years that I have worked with corrugated cardboard. I remember showing him my first works in cardboard. When I went to see him, I was agitated; I didn’t know what he was going to say. Even though it was the 1980s by then, sculpture continued, as it always had, to value traditional materials. But Balduzzi encouraged me a great deal and said, “Whatever it is you are doing you are doing it well.” He said something to me that later proved true: “If you keep working with this material, it’s going to become a sort of mark of your identity. People are going to associate Decastelli with corrugated cardboard.” And he was not wrong…
Would you say that your sculptures are textile in nature?
Not my sculptures, but some of my works are. I distinguish between these works and my sculptures because in the latter volume, space and form predominate. Lately, though, many of my works are textile in nature, because the material is crucial and they are wholly abstract. I realized that before the material was, for me, just a support; now I dialogue with it and observe how we communicate. I provoke the material to get a response; I hit it so that it vibrates; I scrape it and respond to it; I tear and uncover , generating confrontations. That’s how I get the best out of it, forcing it to reveal its soul. I render the formal qualities of corrugated cardboard subjective. I recycle it until it becomes something else and thus continues its course. To reinforce this idea, I like the notion of disemboweling, that is, removing or taking out its innards. Investigating, discovering the most difficult and hidden part of something, penetrating those hidden parts of a material… Removing, tearing out the innards.
The actions that the artist describes yielded works like the series Vibración [Vibration]. The various layers that make up the corrugated surface are subject to pressure and blows. Thus, the pre-fabricated forms of the material reveal a hidden appearance, generating other references which Decastelli makes use of or not as he transforms it. The cardboard reveals its textile “soul,” the malleable fibers of its wooden past.
What is the advantage of working with this material as opposed to wood? With cardboard, you know what you are in for , right?
To a certain extent. I can organize things such that I know what I am in

for , because if I lay out the cardboard so that the bumps are facing the same way, a certain thing happens. If I turn them over , something else happens. But it also depends on the cut; if they are cut perpendicularly, diagonally or even on a more accentuated diagonal, that also has an effect…it’s not that predictable.
The cardboard is made from three papers: two liners and one wavy sheet. The wavy sheet is always darker. It is usually made from recycled paper and, as a result, softer. The different components mean that there are variations in color. I use the hardest cardboards there are, the ones made from actual wood, not recycled cardboard.
When we speak of a textile quality, I am also referring to the fact that the material is vegetable. Historical records have shown that paper keeps better than canvas. In that sense, this is a very noble material, though it is often called “precarious.”
And that is exactly what I am trying to get across. Many people ask me how this material is preserved. I speak of early printing. But actually I don’t worry about that very much, because I think that what really matters is that the meaning and constant values endure over time… I am more concerned with that other time, which is unrelated to the preservation of materials. I joke and say that we could make a hologram of the work and then it would exist forever! The image in your work makes reference to play, to toys of the sort “what can I make up today?” How would you describe your creative process?
I am going to tell you about the phases of my work. When I started with the corrugated cardboard, I had been working with the human figure. I started with the profiles of two figures, one male and one female, standing up. I divided each one up into five equal parts with parallel cuts in each, so that I could later recompose them. Depending on where I later put the fragments, different images arose, giving a sense of mechanical, non-organic movement despite the fact that these were human figures. I was surprised by that and started to concentrate on it, making a series of characters. Furthering this idea of mechanical movement, I started modifying the scale of the objects we use every day. I made these sorts of hinges that caused many people to wonder if these pieces moved or were imbedded, when they were really just one piece. When I finished that series, I kept working with the idea of movement, but this time with real movement. It occurred to me to work with box-objects. The box is inherent to corrugated cardboard and the movement of opening and closing, showing the content which is also the container . I also made a series of book-objects using

(6). See Jean Baudrillard, El sistema de los objetos, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI Editores, 1969 (English title: The System of Objects).

(7). Jorge Romero Brest, Nuevas modalidades del arte, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Culturales Olivetti, 1970.

the same criterion. Furthering this idea of opening and closing, content and container , I made purses that were intended to be household objects but, if you wanted, could also be taken out and become functional.
The object was one of the terrains conquered by 20th-century art. It furthered the development of Dadaist, Surrealist, Informalist and Pop Art imaginations… In that exponential proliferation of objects of which Jean Baudrillard spoke, artists have used humor and intelligence to challenge the necessarily impossible categories of a world first mechanical and then digital. Though objects are defined by function, they exceed use or , at least, do more than satisfy functional needs. They are fruit of the mental and cultural structures of each era. (6) This is very clear in the sphere of art. So, Decastelli’s aesthetic experience extends the meaning of the work of art by combining it with the messages found on the street. In keeping with the theories of Jorge Romero Brest, this is an “art for consumption” obviously geared towards “the body as a whole,” not just the eyes and mind, the way traditional art is.(7) After starting to create objects, I was invited to participate in a series of group shows, like Rostros de la máscara and Calzar el arte, the latter with the shoe designer Sylvie Geronimi. Each artist made a piece of footwear in keeping with his or her image; both shows were curated by Silvia Ambrosini. (8) I also participated in group shows of screens and fans, toys and games, artist’s books…
The origin of the “artist’s book” lies in the early 20th-century avant-garde and it reached its height in the 1960s. With the crossing of genres that took place at that time, many artists combined painting, sculpture and poetry in books. Though based on the physical form of the book and the codex format (a set of pages put together in sequence), “artist’s books” attempt to break, modify, transgress or emphasize the book and its format. Some focus on literary or visual contents, on different experiments with conceptual aspects of the Western conception of the book. Decastelli’s books entail metaphors and references based on the codex format. In Buscando una mujer I [Looking for a Woman I] (p. 49) and Existencia orgánica [Organic Existence] (p. 53), for instance, the structure of the object is the sheets of bound cardboard. Historically, books have created and shown worlds, and Decastelli works with this idea when he engraves forms at the heart of the object that are revealed as the pages are turned, engaging the temporal nature of all reading. In the cross between zoomorphic characters and sculptural books, Garrá lo libro que no

muerden [Grab at Them Books, They Don’t Bite] (p. 50) manifests the artist’s sense of humor , combining a common phrase with the playful and threatening shape of an animal’s maw.
…Then came the years when I made small pieces of furniture to store things. But I gave that up when I walked into MoMA in New York and I saw one of my chairs! (9) Of course, I was familiar with Frank Gehry as an architect, but I knew nothing about his objects. When I put mine at the store in the Museo Sívori, everyone said, “This reminds me of something.” So I said, “Enough.” It was, in fact, just a passing moment in my work, a logical outgrowth of the constructive properties of cardboard.
After that, I started this current phase of dialogue with the material. Along the way, and in the interest of going further , I took an X-ray of the material, did tests with small cardboard objects that I later cast in bronze using the lost wax technique. That technique is very precise and it allows you to reproduce tiny textures and folds…
The way that you “estrange” the material with that passage to bronze is ery interesting. The resulting piece looks like it is made of cork or tone. You are intentionally working in very different ways. When and ow did photography appear in the course of this evolution of the mage and the objects that you have told me about?
One day I was looking at family photos and I cut off the head of one of my grandchildren. I put it on cardboard and that made way for everything I am doing now. I was not only interested in the outcome, but also in the association with printed boxes, packaging. I saw the way that photography reinforced one of the images associated with cardboard.
You made a similar association at the beginning, when an industrial material, cardboard, created in your mind an image of the mechanical world: hinges and gears. All materials are always associated with other things. In the industrial and the virtual movement that emerges, see comics. Something like the comics that you tell yourself through hese objects. Have you ever been interested in the work of Fernand Léger?
No, I have never been interested in being part of any ism, nor have I felt influenced by anyone. If you ask me what artists I am interested in, I wouldn’t know! I might say… Alberto Heredia, Antonio Berni… but I don’t know exactly how they might have influenced me. Maybe something about their playfulness and their use of somewhat raw, unmasked materials. How does an image take shape in your mind? When you start working, do you make a sketch?

(8). In 1970, Silvia de Ambrosini founded, along with Germaine Derbecq, Artinf, a prestigious art journal. A disciple of Romero Brest, Ambrosini was in charge of the education department of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. As a freelance curator and on the basis of her work at the journal, she has organized anthological exhibitions of object art, the first of which was Más allá del objeto in 1989.

It is different at different stages. Early on, I made sketches and drew. When I arrived at the image, I took the drawings to scale. The objects and installations were a mix of drawing and mental construction. And the others… just trial and error . Your description sounds like a “Cubist procedure”…
I think so. My thinking is totally rationalist and I believe in the simplification of forms and the representation of objects according to man’s image; that might fit into the Cubist procedure.
I truly believe that you tell stories through your objects. Is there any connection between what you read and the stories you want to tell?
Any literary influence?
No, I think my inspiration is more psychological in nature, though anything you read affects you in some way.
Decastelli tells me that he has read a good deal of Julio Cortázar and I see a certain amount of Surrealism in his installations with fantastic and threatening animals or in the altered scale of his giant knives, wheels and gears. I can see that he is interested in science fiction and Zen philosophy, and I understand that the precision of his forms is born from the discipline of his imagination. Specifically, in the 1995 installation Estigma [Stigma] (pp. 31-35), he formulates “the dilemma of contemporary man before a society that demands the homogenization of the individual, the erasure of differences, domestication.” That’s how Corinne Sacca-Abadi put it, comparing his work to Cortázar’s House Taken Over. “As the internal spaces are occupied, the inside and outside are fused, contaminating the house, rendering that universe uninhabitable.”(10)
What is your relationship with technology?
I am fascinated by the Internet… everything is there. My daughters had computers from the time they were small, the Commodore back then. I learned about computers and made some programs that generated shapes, and I then made some of them in three dimensions. My current photographs are also the product of digitally modified direct shots.

Are you in analysis?
No, never have been, but I am interested in it. One of my daughters is a psychologist and I have had many psychology students at my studio, so I am somewhat familiar with the field. I have the vision of someone who wants to know deeply.

(9). He is referring to Gehry’s Easy Edges series, created from 1969 to 1973.

(10). Corinne Sacca-Abadi, “Estigma y dilema. Decastelli en el Museo Sívori”, in ACI (Arte, Crítica, Investigación), newsletter of the press office of the Asociación Argentina de Críticos de Arte (AACA), nº 2, Buenos Aires, 1998.

What, for you, does “inventing” mean?
I associate it with constructing, making up a toy or mechanism for myself. I am drawn to everything that entails movement… one day I came up with the idea of an object to make square hard boiled eggs. A student of mine was studying industrial design, so the two of us started working on that. Then I made a “bench for crowds,” a bench made from corrugated cardboard that looks like a folder . You unfold it and sit down, then you fold it up again and take it with you: very useful at concerts! Another student, an architect, and I had a cubic meter project: a meter of concrete, glass and iron to be placed in Puerto Madero, San Telmo (Chile and Balcarce, say), naturally peaceful places that encourage contemplation. A space for artists to do interventions. A cubic meter , or more, for each artist. We would have to get sponsors and authorization for it, though… I believe in formulating life such that creativity is developed at the daily level, starting with childhood and through maturity. Because many things come from life itself. Let me give you an example… in the year 1994, the students at my studio started getting together for dinner here, at the studio, once a month. We decided that each of us would cook his or her specialty. In two year’s time, each of us had cooked. At that point, I proposed that each of us organize a meal with the help of another . The idea of getting together was a constant, but no longer in the studio or in restaurants or private homes. The get-togethers were to have a creative aim. So we moved from place to place, like theaters, railway bridges, parks and so forth. Though friends and others wanted to participate because of what they had heard, we decided to keep it for us, within our codes. And that is how Cena “Arte a punto” [Dinner , Art at the Perfect Coction] came about, a project that was eventually taken to the café at the Museo Sívori. Now we invite artists to share in the project’s aesthetic, conceptualization and sentiment, which means expanding into another art form, the art of cooking. There are interventions in the space, the tables, the dishes… and other art actions.
How did you go from sculpture to photography?
I started with the photograph of my grandson and I kept testing things out. The first works were objects in which I included a photo. One day I was “peeling” a piece of cardboard and, as always, I was very aware of the process. I was struck by the shavings that were being produced. So I photographed them, and that led to the photographic works. The idea is that they are part of something that

they were (the cardboard) and they come together to become something else. In the midst of this, I was invited to show at Arte x Arte. I don’t consider myself a photographer , though I am interested in experimenting with photography. That’s why I decided to do two photographic installations on that occasion.
The photographs are an outgrowth of the textile phase. They focus on the textural qualities and the images that arise from them. As in Malas hierbas [Bad Herbs] (pp. 12-15), where through an object the artist reconstructs the feeling of the wind, of movement through a field. A fleeting feeling from a trip to Africa. Decastelli exhibited that object along with photographs that show things that the human eye cannot see straight away. Zooming, scanning and digital intervention open up the meanings of an object whose identity, whether in the original or the photographic reproduction, lies in the material, the corrugated cardboard.
Lastly, considering all the years that you have been working and the images you have brought to this world, what do you think is at present the function of the artist?
I don’t think you can speak of a universal function of art or the artist, though their fields are immense. While the conception of both has changed over time, in the end their essence is the same: “discovering” the self and, thereby, revealing the historical moment in which we live.
According to Jean Duvignaud, art has the power to anticipate by hinting at what is possible in life as well as in the experience of groups and individuals...