Sculpture Magazine: Pia Camil

November 12, 2021

Sally Hughes

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Pia Camil’s work has consistently engaged ideas of power, consumerism, and collectivity, using the mass-market waste of Mexico City’s urban landscape to create theoretically complex objects and participatory installations. Her new body of work, produced after she relocated from the city to the rural countryside during the pandemic, takes these themes in a different direction. In her recent exhibition, “Nidos y Nudos,” strange, amorphous sculptures and drawings look to the natural world to generate alternative models for relating to and counteracting the isolated, capitalist world that we’ve created.

Scattered through a large gallery, 10 freestanding and individually titled “Nidos” (“Nests,” 2021) resembled a field of totemic beings, their forms inspired by Camil’s encounter with labyrinthine termite mounds on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Using an extensive system of tunnels and conduits, millions of tiny insects collectively build climate-controlled mounds that can rise more than five meters above underground nests. Camil’s “Nidos” are constructed from concrete, mortar, and recycled newspaper over steel frames and painted in bright pigments such as turquoise and terra cotta. Their architectural shapes suggest dwellings, designated places of protection and germination.

Each “Nido” contains small windows, inviting viewers to explore in more detail, but the offered views do not penetrate the interior of the sculptures. Instead, the apertures frame images cut from recycled newspapers and removed from their original context. The subjects range from comic and serene to grim, recalling the cacophony of daily news. In Pietà, a person wearing full-body PPE naps in a metal office chair; VR features a cow wearing a VR headset alongside a Zoom screenshot with users named “peepee,” “Pillow Princess,” and “JerryfromCheer”; and Inframundo (Underworld) includes images of a field of marigolds, a wall of skulls discovered in an ancient Aztec tower in Mexico City, and a group of people carrying a coffin over a subway turnstile.

The biomorphic forms, textured surfaces, and apertures of the “Nidos” bring to mind the plaster lairs and cocoons that Louise Bourgeois created in 1964 on her return to the art world after an 11-year hiatus. Bourgeois (quoted in Louise Bourgeois, London: Tate Publishing, 2007) described these works as “a thing you build yourself in order to avoid a trap. It is a place where you can be safe. You have built it yourself.” Camil’s nests, however, reject self- preservation and retreat to propose a form of communal living and the notion of the hive mind, or a collective networked intelligence. A termite mound is essentially an intelligent sculpture where social interactions influence foraging activities, which in turn modify the form and content of the nest.

Camil’s “Nudos” (“Knots”) drawings expand her reflections on nests by exploring “sympoiesis, or making-with” rather than “autopoiesis, or self-making,” concepts taken from Donna Haraway’s 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Camil’s wandering lines of ink, oil stick, and clay mimic the intricate pathways created by insects, the coiling of an umbilical cord, and the knotted and intertwined nature of human and non-human relationships. With the “Nidos” and “Nudos” works, we find an expression of the dilemma between inside and outside, alliance and isolation, vulnerability and aggression, exposing the borders and depths of conflicting, chaotic feelings around the body, home, family, and society at large.

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