During his career, late Argentine artist Victor Grippo chose to utilise a motif traditionally alien to the realm of visual arts: the potato.
Since his death in 2002, international retrospectives of his work have celebrated Grippo’s ability to invoke significance and conjure magic out of even the most uninviting of materials. And who could think of an object less alluring than the humble spud?
In his hands this modest everyday entity becomes a powerful metaphor for transformation and latent energy. In a simple work, ‘Síntesis’, he juxtaposes a potato with a lump of coal, emphasising its status as the fuel of the people. In ‘Analogía’ he presents a collection of the tubers, wired up in order to produce electrical power, blending a scientific approach with an artistic one.
He describes this work as an overt analogy between the potato and states of consciousness. Grippo explains: “I established an analogy between three states of the potato and three states of consciousness: 1) the dictionary definition; 2) its everyday use as food; 3) non-conventional use, to obtain electrical energy. For consciousness, the same: 1) dictionary definition of consciousness; 2) the everyday use of consciousness; 3) non conventional use: increasing one’s consciousness of energy.”
Aside from their metaphorical potential, the purely physical presence of so many vegetables in a gallery is remarkable. In the work entitled: ‘Naturalizar al Hombre, Humanizar a la Naturaleza, o Energía Vegetal’ (‘Naturalisation of Man, Humanisation of Nature, or Vegetal Energy’) potatoes are piled onto a long table, dominating the gallery space. Their organic presence forms a contrast to the permanence and sterility of more classical forms of art. One wonders how quickly they might rot, having to be replaced by the gallery assistants. The hands-on relationship with the artwork that this demands challenges the notion of art as untouchable, valuable, immutable, and converts it into something more humble and alive.
Grippo’s analogies between matter and spirit elevate the potato to something of higher status, alluding towards an alchemical practice – the ancient art of transforming common metals into gold. Elizabeth Ann Macgregor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney describes how during a live performance where Grippo conducted experiments: “…he seemed to be transformed himself, into the eccentric professor obsessed with alchemy – the magical power or process of transmuting an ordinary substance into something of great value.”
About this relationship, Grippo says: “In art as in science, there is an approach to the sacred.” Yet there is also an element to his work that alludes to the political.
In ‘Vida, Muerte, Resurrección’ (‘Life, Death, Resurrection’), 1980, Grippo fills lead boxes with beans, which slowly grow and burst out of the bounds of the metal. Considered within the context of the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-83 in which it was made, the work’s simple beauty becomes symbolic of the power of life to withstand efforts to contain it. The work alludes towards the potential for grassroots resistance, in a time of oppression and state control.
His work was subtly subversive. During the tense political climate of 1972 he built a bread oven on the streets of Buenos Aires in collaboration with another artist and artisan. They gave out bread to ordinary people passing by on the street. Perhaps it was the utopian allusions of this work that caused the police to destroy the oven two days later? In an analysis of this work, Macgregor comments: “Political art does not need to be sloganeering or banner waving to be effective.”
The bread oven project is typical of Grippo’s elevation of traditional craft and trades. In other works he displays the tools of manual trades, hammers, bricks and spades within the gallery space.
The enduring star of the show remains the potato however. The key to its successful employment in the gallery is the symbolic associations and poetic potential that can be unlocked from this unlikely source. One is reminded of the potato’s social history and the poor communities for whom it has been a staple, whose importance was never more clearly proven than during the Irish potato famine. It is also a particular symbol of Latin American history, having first been cultivated by indigenous Andeans, going on to be ‘discovered’, or one might even say ‘conquered’, by the Europeans in the 16th century.
The Incans revered the potato, recognising its vital importance to their civilisation. One could see Victor Grippo’s works as a modern day worship of this everyday food. Most people will absentmindedly ignore the potato’s greatness as they munch on their next plate of chips, but those acquainted with his works will surely chew with a bit more reverence.