NGV Magazine explores the majestic worlds of Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou and shines a light on the physical environments that have influenced the artist’s carpentry, the sociopolitical significance interweaved within them and how good intentions can breed magic.
Over the past ten years, Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou has been producing immersive carpeted landscapes that simulate the extraordinary topography and textures of the natural world. Kehayoglou’s Greek family has operated in the carpet-making industry for generations, and from them she has inherited this centuries-old tradition, adapting it on a monumental scale for exhibitions all over the world. Kehayoglou’s major work, Santa Cruz River, 2016–17, premiered at the inaugural NGV Triennial in December 2017.
Kehayoglou works from within her family’s industrial park on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the city of Munro, and describes her studio as ‘a dream come true’. The artist recovers materials for her rugs from the industrial production of her family’s company, and working with a small team of around eight to ten people laboriously hand-tufts these reclaimed materials into the expansive and spectacular carpets that have earnt her international acclaim.
Upon graduating from Argentina’s National University of the Arts, Kehayoglou went in search of a medium that would best communicate her interests and ideas. She distinctly sensed that painting and photography (her majors at art school) lacked something she needed, and that this ‘something’ had to do with space. While working in the family business designing carpets and learning the production process, Kehayoglou came to realise that the medium satisfied the spatial feeling she was longing for: ‘It produces and can reproduce land,’ she explains, ‘it can reproduce a world’. Kehayoglou felt that she could transmit specific feelings through wool and that her ideas fit with the medium immediately. Ever since this realisation, carpet has been her exclusive medium and means of communicating her message.
The artist’s unique works differ from conventional carpets in that in her hands, carpets become vehicles for communicating artistic intention. Rather than reproducing patterns or designs for decorative ornamentation, Kehayoglou’s carpets attempt to replicate nature. Recognising in principle that the first purpose of art is to reproduce the world, Kehayoglou believes that carpets bear a likeness to the earth in surface and association, explaining that, ‘they run together in the same direction, towards the same place’. For all their powers of mimesis, however, the artist’s works possess an element of chance – introduced by the incorporation of industrial leftovers – and Kehayoglou must adapt her designs to the materials she has on hand, adding more abstract, impressionistic colours and shapes to her designs.
Kehayoglou’s woven landscapes are interactive; they are designed to be enjoyed in public spaces. For the artist, this interaction completes the work and elevates its purpose beyond simply eliciting admiration or veneration as a work of art. The human body’s reaction to a carpet, to a floor or to a feeling, and the tactile enjoyment of a work as an holistic experience is what interests Kehayoglou the most, and what brings her work to life, ‘because a carpet – a landscape carpet – is still a situation’, she says. ‘Time has stopped there and if someone interacts with it, it’s the same as someone interacting with a still landscape.’
Kehayoglou’s interest in landscape stems from the profound experi-ence of being within nature. Her initial explorations concerned the forgotten pastizales (grasslands) long since buried beneath the high-rises of bustling Buenos Aires. Although they have not disappeared entirely, most of the native La Pampa grassland landscapes of Buenos Aires and Argentina have been destroyed, leaving native animals unprotected. Recognising that the inhabitants of Buenos Aires were largely oblivious to this ecological history, having little awareness that their region was once inhabited by animals such as the pampas deer and fox or the rhea, a large flightless bird closely related to the emu, Kehayoglou started rendering the pastizales in carpet as a way of sharing information and honouring collective traditions. On a more personal level, the work united her family’s carpet-making heritage with their adopted homeland. Holding the belief that artists should talk about what lies within them, Kehayoglou reveals her truth as where she lives; Buenos Aires and its pastizales. Since coming to this realisation, the artist has focused on the disappearing landscape, using her work as a means of raising consciousness around these issues.
Kehayoglou feels a responsibility to ensure that her work as an artist and designer can communicate something of the significance of these issues. Argentina is a vast country with immense variety in its ecosystems and landscapes – from the sublime, glacial icefields and arid desert landscapes of Patagonia to the steamy jungles of the north-east province of Misiones. Kehayoglou feels that Argentineans lack an awareness that these rich ecological resources need to be taken care of, explaining that routine destruction and exploitation of the land has taken place through agriculture and industrial pollution. She speaks from an Argentine context but identifies that this issue of disconnection is really a global problem. ‘Ultimately, I want to defend Argentina and take it out to the world’, she explains, ‘because it seems as though we don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge that the land given to us should be taken care of. It’s all on loan. It’s not ours and we are not doing a good job at preserving it’.
No Longer creek is a work from 2016 inspired by an issue much closer to home for the artist. Kehayoglou lives in an inner-city suburb of Buenos Aires where, amid her daily routine, she happened upon the natural oasis of nearby Raggio Creek; a place so untouched in the very heart of the city that it was difficult for her to believe. Although Buenos Aires has innumerable waterways, decades of industrial waste siphoned into the rivers has rendered ‘clean’ creeks a rare sight. Raggio Creek was one of the last remaining unpolluted waterways in Buenos Aires. Last year the government abruptly and markedly transformed the creek, uprooting trees and removing large tracts of earth to create a marine club canal there. Given an opportunity to make work for an international art fair, Kehayoglou decided to reproduce the natural state of Raggio Creek and took her work to Brussels to be exhibited. At the same time, a neighbourhood collective formed to denounce the decimation and was successful in bringing about an end to the development.
Kehayoglou is often quoted as describing her works as portals to collective memory, with a connection through tradition to ancient art forms of textiles and carpet-making. Carpets were traditionally made by women, and Kehayoglou likes to think that there is powerful information treasured in mantra-like production of the work; repeating and repeating through the hand-tufting process and across time. Kehayoglou discovered this ritual aspect of her process while working together with her team, as if con-ducting a magic spell or prayer; the idea is ‘that if a group of people inject feeling or intention into the work, something magical can happen’. This is an aspect of Kehayoglou’s work that interests her because it has to do with something not often spoken about, something almost taboo because very few people believe in magic. Kehayoglou likes to think that this kind of magic can be possible and that her work can help to bring it about.
Her work for NGV Triennial in 2017 concerns the highly contested landscape of the Santa Cruz River – one of the last free-flowing rivers in Argentina, connecting the glacier fields of Los Glaciares National Park with the Atlantic Ocean. The Santa Cruz River runs approximately three hundred kilometres, traversing the entire southern tip of the country. It holds valuable paleontological information and is a river that has histor-ically been explored by Mahajanas and Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was inspired in part by this landscape. Currently, a contentious hydroelectric project is planned for the construction of two dams on the river, proposed as a solution to Argentina’s mounting energy crisis.
This was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 4 May–Jun 2017.