Federico Uribe Lets Us Into His World

Last week, I reviewed the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s new show, “The World According to Federico Uribe,” a spectacular and ambitious new spin on the outdoor sculpture garden. The artist constructs massive tableaux out of everyday objects, making political and educational messages even if, as he indicates in our interview below, they were never his intention.

I think that viewing your installation is like walking through a three-dimensional nature diorama, and it occurred to me that it’s not unlike something you might see in a science and nature museum if it weren’t so artistically and aesthetically groundbreaking. But do see a sort of educational component to the installation?

Yes. But it’s not my intention. My intention is purely aesthetic. I understand it was educational from the reaction of people, but I’m just doing my work as an artist. I’m not trying to teach anyone anything.

Is there also a political component to it?

My answer it about the same as the education question. My intention is finding beauty in objects and finding beauty outside of objects, in nature. It is a political statement in the sense that there are too many objects we don’t see, and in the sense that I am making people think about things that people don’t think about normally. But my intention is beauty. Even when people design objects that are supposedly practical, they made them with an aesthetic view. For the person who designed a screw or any object, it has an aesthetic part of it that it came from the designer. People in China decided chopsticks were a beautiful solution to eat without using your fingers. We do it with forks, because somebody thought it was a beautiful solution for us. We think things are designed just for practical reasons, but they are all designed for beauty. It’s about perception and about thinking that everything can be seen differently.

Why is it important that the animals interact with one another?

It’s about telling a story, making a fable, knowing that something is happening. There’s always something happening everywhere. We are relating to animals, to objects – we are relating all the time. It’s about being conscious that this is not an exhibition of sculpture. It’s an installation that has an echo of life, and life is all about relations.

How do you obtain your materials?

I got the shoes from Puma; they donated them to me. I got wood from friends that are carpenters and pingpong balls from a friend that plays pingpong. Sometimes I’ll find things on the street, or when is see a store that is going out of business … most of it I obtain by chance. With the time I have been doing this, I’ve come to understand that every object has symbolic weight to me, if not to everyone else. And through my experience, I’ve been learning to get at what it means to me. Some objects I choose, and some objects come to me.

Where did you find all of those books that had the exact shade of green that you needed?

Most of them come from the Miami-Dade school system. It has a warehouse somewhere in Hialeah. Apart came from that, and the rest came from this company called Book by the Foot.

It seems like the cost of obtaining these materials isn’t as high as I’d imagined.

No, not at all. Books are considered garbage; it’s incredible. The amount of garbage that is printed is incredible, too! Most of these books are about how to be happy, how to make money, how to gain friends, how to play golf, all these self-improvement things – these really bad books. In the beginning, I checked one by one and separated the valuable literature from the rest, and the percentage of valuable knowledge was 20 percent. The rest of it was garbage.

When you first started doing this kind of art, was there a learning curve in discovering which objects worked for your art and which didn’t?

Every object requires a technique, so I need to see how I can manipulate these objects in order to make them work. It’s a challenge to try and make every object functional for artistic purposes, because it’s not the objects – it’s about the sculpture. It’s not about recycling, it’s about making sculptures that look beautiful. Then you go to the fact that it’s made out of something. I don’t want the first step for people to be seeing what it’s  made of. I want them to recognize a tree, a cat, a monkey and a cloud, and then realize what they’re made out of.

Are there new materials you’re still discovering?

Every single day of my life. You remember the game we all did when we were children of finding shapes in clouds? I do that 24/7. I’ll think, this group of chairs can look like a horse, or if I put this lamp upside down, it looks like this or that. Every stain in the floor looks like a fish. This is the way I see. Now, the next project will be paintings made out of all kinds or wires: phone wires, computer wires, electrical wires, phone chargers, all sort of electronic wires. And I am making for the first time sculptures for outside; they’ll be insects made out of boats. I’m always influenced by the environment I work in, and there are so many boats in Florida.

Do your creations usually mirror exactly what you had pictured in your mind before beginning them, or do they become something else through the process?

The limitations are technical. I do have an image in my head, and I get as close as I can to it. They don’t always look the way I wanted to.

What was it like molding your art around the physical contours of the Boca Museum space, and how did the specifications of the museum alter your vision?

The space is challenging in the sense that it has a hallway and mirror. It would have been easier and more spectacular to handle if it was all one space. Instead, I had to create two stories in which one was domestic animals and one was wildlife. It forced me to create separate realities. What was beautiful was the possibility of making huge drawings all over the space, which I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, in galleries where walls were not permitted to draw on. That was fantastic for me. It expanded the perspective of the show, and grew the space.

I find your art to be as original as anything I’ve ever seen, but is there a particular school of thought or artistic genre or discipline that you feel you belong to?

No. Because I want to be myself. I don’t think art is collective in any way. I don’t think classifications are real for the people who make the art. This is about being as truthful to yourself as you can be. And if you are truthful to yourself, you cannot belong to anything. I understand that people can quantify it as conceptual, but I’m not a reader of art magazines, or knowledgeable on contemporary art, and I’m not saying this out of pride. I’m not saying this because I despise it or anything; it’s just boring. I’m more interested in literature and theater than classic art itself. As a result, my work is more influenced by contemporary dance, theater, music and especially from literature. That’s why it tells a story. I have hope that every one of my characters has the depth of literary characters.

I left your show feeling such a sense of peace and tranquility, like I’d just visited an idyll. Is that what you want the show to communicate?

Yes. But I’m not trying to. I want to give a memorable experience for people. I want people to remember it as something beautiful that they saw. If you go to a show and you came out with a smile, you will remember it. This is about making people smile. Essentially, this is entertainment. If people are ready and willing to think, that’s good, and if they’re willing to be fascinated and impressed, that’s good. I’m not pretending to teach or impart knowledge or information to anybody. Art is about feeling.

“The World According to Federico Uribe” is on display at the Boca Museum through Dec. 4.