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Images without Images

Interview with Mario Reis by Stefanie Lucci, 10.10.2004

S: Mario, you realized an art project in Ironton. That is a ghost town in the Southwest of Colorado, USA. If one enters the derelict buildings of this ghost town one is confronted with empty stretchers, which you have installed on the walls. You have done such installations in 4 buildings, so that the visitor always comes upon these frames while exploring the location. Before we will discuss the art project in detail I would like to talk with you about Ironton itself. Ironton is situated between Montrose in the North and Durango in the South. The entire area is known for its gold mining activity. Ironton is literally nestled in this landscape of mines, which is marked by so many yellow slag heaps. Also, this area is one of the highest points of the Rocky Mountains and one of the most beautiful and roughest. You know this location for a long time. How did it come into your focus?

M: In 1991 I started with the North America project. As you know I am working on a worldwide project creating Nature Watercolors. I take untreated canvases and install them in flowing waters. Because of the naturally dissolved pigments and sediment in the rivers, the streams create a hydrodynamic self-portrait during that interaction. At that time I worked first in all states of Mexico. In 1992 I began to explore the United States. On that first trip through the US I traveled through Colorado and came upon this location. But initially I was aware of the Red Mountain Creek.

S: And this creek was actually the main reason why you crawled through the bushes and finally discovered this ghost town, Ironton.

M: Yeah, this was the main reason. It was about the creek that is full of iron oxide. The creek paints orange pictures.

S: This creek runs in orange color through the landscape?

M: Yes, it is clearly visible because of the orange colored stones on the riverbanks. While working there I explored the field and, by chance, I hit that ghost town.

S: On the photographs one can see that Ironton is a pretty rotten place. Very few constructions are in a good condition from the outside, others are nearly gone. As one can currently learn on displays, the town was abandoned only in the 1950's.

M: I think that around 1950 the last person who lived in Ironton died. I, for my part, found the whole situation extremely exciting. Having the huge red mountain in front of me where I worked all the time. And then, on the other side, this cozy accumulation of constructions, which have a great atmosphere and also, a great quietness. In addition, at that time, the whole area was not that popular. Maybe you saw a jeep every other day, but that was all. There was simply nothing.

S: For 12-13 years you camped each year in direct vicinity to that ghost town, doing your Nature Watercolors there.

M: I always returned because I was so interested in the colors of the Red Mountain Creek and the Gray Copper Creek. Of course I visited Ironton each time. For me, Ironton is the most beautiful place on the whole North America project. I always had a great feeling when I strolled through the town. Even though there is nothing special I feel connected with Ironton. During the years that feeling deepened. Once, I even drove to Ironton with my van. The roads were in very bad condition at the time, so the journey was quite rough. I even slept there. I simply wanted to spend a night there. Anyhow, this place never let go of me. I always had the idea to do something with it. In 2003 it was apparent that the North America project finally came to an end. I had worked in all states of Mexico, the US and in all provinces and territories of Canada. During the last years I had concentrated my activities on the West of the US. And I always returned to Ironton. There, I created huge series, up to 40 pieces of work. But somehow, it was clear that the project was done. Suddenly, as I looked at my stretchers the idea for a site specific work came up. These stretchers were heavily used. Over the years the patina had changed.

S: These stretchers have accompanied you for some 14 years. They were installed in uncountable rivers of the continent, whether in the glacier streams of Canada or Alaska, whether in the big rivers of the US, or in the streams of Mexico. If they could speak they would have surely a lot to tell. They are, metaphorically spoken, imbued with specific locations and landscapes; they are literally saturated with history and stories.

M: Yes, they feature the marks of their usage, they are washed out by the water, and they have different colors. Indeed, they all carry tales, even my and the history of the North America project. Also, this ghost town embodies so much history. I thought the situation very exciting. One always tries to imagine how things actually were at that time. I have always dreamed about looking 50 or 100 years back. In Ironton there still exist constructions that are nearly intact, of course they do not have windows or doors, but they will keep you dry when it rains, I guess. Each building has a different aura, even if you are actually in the buildings. There, it must have happened a lot, there were that many mines around; it was a huge gold rush then. I assume that many people lived in tents. Maybe the owner of the mine lived in Ironton, but I am not sure. But, one always dreams that something has happened. For instance, in the beginning I believed that the one big building must have been a bar and brothel. Of course, it was not a bar, but a regular home for living. This you could see later because of the architectural stile. But anyhow, one tries to fill up the scenery with live and images. At that point, the idea came up to visualize that process by using empty stretchers in order to elucidate the process of imagination. A stretchers stands for a picture, and a picture stands for imagination. Probably, everybody, who comes to Ironton, has some imagination of this town. So, I thought if I would do installations of empty stretchers, so to speak, as projection surfaces for own imaginations, the fantasy would be stimulated even more. At the same time one is more conscious about that process, because the stretchers are unusual elements in that surrounding. After having worked out the plan, I looked carefully at the constructions and I choose 4. While doing this I took in account in how many rooms one could mount a regular picture. It was most important that the installations look dynamic and that they give the specific site a special atmosphere, a special aura. The rooms should be perceived as structures of tension. I have designed the whole work in a way that the viewer is able to perceive it actually as an installation. One senses that there must have been somebody, who chose specific points and rooms in order to mount the frames. On the other side, the buildings that fell into disrepair are filled with live. One has the imminent feeling, that the situation is cozy. When looking at the stretchers, one thinks immediately: No, this is not an abandoned house, this building is not deadů

S: When entering the buildings the stretchers do not stand out immediately because they blend into the background, the walls.

M: That was my intention. I even had new stretchers in my van, but I thought the old ones better, exactly because they blend into the background. Somehow they are integrated now. They give the feeling that the canvases are gone, but the stretchers have been hanging there for the last 100 years. They simply aged with the constructions. As there is nothing more in the buildings, the canvases disappeared too.

S: Like it is with memory? That memory fades and comes back again, in the same way that the frames can be filled again by each visitor that comes to Ironton and brings with him his own tales?

M: That is the point of the work. This site and the surrounding should be filled up with the spectator's own fantasies, not with given patterns.

S: What I think is of great interest, is that you have done this installation in 2003. It was not for sure that the installation would be in place in 2004. Somebody could have taken it down easily

M: Yes, I was surprised. I assumed that they would do exactly that. Anyhow, the whole installation was still there and what is of interest is that in one building, that houses an installation a change had happened. In the room with the installation were 2 doors that lent against the wall. These doors have been carried out of the room and now, this room features the same clarity as the others of the whole installation: only walls, windows and the empty room. Before, the room resembled a storeroom where simply 2 doors were deposited. So, they did not take down the frames, but they removed the doors with the effect that the installation stands out even more. I guess that somebody did that consciously.

S: You said that Ironton belongs to you somehow.

M: I have somehow adapted or adopted the ghost town, or how could one say?

S: And, you have marked the site by your installation.

M: Yes, when I did the installation I also wanted to irritate and therefore to sensitize the people, who come to this place, not expecting something special. One enters the buildings and suddenly one is aware of the frames. Maybe it shakes the people a little bit and they ask themselves: Oh, why are these frames here? And finally they think more about the place itself, about Ironton and the whole area. This was, of course, also my intention.

S: So, the installation is also about the specific place, Ironton. You wanted to bring it more into the present?

M: Exactly. For sure, one can see that each installation is individually designed for the chosen building.

S: The way I know you, you are eager to go back to Ironton in a few years to look if the installation is still in place?

M: Of course. I am more than curious if the installation will be still there in a few years. What I'd like most would be to mark the whole area, over the mountains to Silverton. There are still some ghost towns, too. Imagine this: Everywhere installations of images without images, which generate images in the viewer's headů