José Montealegre’s work puts on display reality and fiction in their perpetual game of balancing authority. Intrigued by historical documents and pre-Renaissance manuscripts, José has been using this interest as a starting point to inject fiction into the knowledge they present.
We talk about a specific mysterious manuscript, called “Nova Plantarum Animalium et Mineralium Mexicanorum Historia”, that has had a great influence on his practice. The book was made by the Spanish Empire during the early years of America’s colonization and circulated for hundreds of years as a natural encyclopedia in the western world. José points to the compounding effects of such documents, but he also explains how he uses a similar strategy of fictionalization in his work and in his writing to weaken any aura of authority. We also talk about fiction, dominance, and what it means to anthropomorphize nature.
José Montealegre (1992 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras) lives and works in Berlin. He studied philosophy and literature at the Universidad Centroamericana de Managua, Nicaragua, and fine arts at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, class of Willem de Rooij. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions at Kölnischer Kustverein in Cologne (2022); Klosterruine in Berlin; Mountains in Berlin (both 2021); Convent Art Space in Ghent (2019), and in group exhibitions at Dortmunder Kunstverein in Dortmund (2022); Lantz'scher Skulpturenpark Lohausen in Düsseldorf (2021); Städelmuseum in Frankfurt am Main; Natalia Hug in Cologne (both 2019); Futura Gallery in Prague; Gillmeier Rech in Berlin (both 2018); and Kunsthalle Darmstadt (2017, 2014), among others.
AB: Your recent source of inspiration for many of your sculptures and installations has been the manuscript Nova Plantarum, Animalium et Mineralium Mexicanorum Historia - considered to be the first natural history of the “New World”. How did this work begin for you?
JM: During the pandemic, I started looking more and more at Incunabula: a type of printed book that predates the Renaissance and is predominantly printed by hand. Prior to this, images in manuscripts had been hand-drawn, whereas these were the first examples of images being printed alongside the text, like captions. For the first time in history, books became accessible to wider audiences, and the dissemination of knowledge went hand in hand with that. From there I got more interested in these types of books, especially the ones made by the Spanish empire in the early years of the colonization of America. I found examples of some on a website called biodiversitylibrary.org, and the one that really puzzled me was the “Nova Plantarum Animalium et Mineralium Mexicanorum Historia”. In the ‘Nova Plantarum’ there are hundreds of drawings of plants found in Central America and Mexico, but also moments where fiction sort of interrupts the ‘science’. I saw there were depictions of strange animals, dragons, two-headed snakes, and three-eyed sheep. What were the roles of fiction and trickery? Despite its purported encyclopedic nature, it seemed that the entire book was at the same time a departure from reality. I wondered how narratives were manipulated, and how I could forge a picture of what happened during those early years of colonization.
It was a way for the Western Empire to classify the world, to monopolize and capitalize on this categorization but as they separated animals and plants from their real nature, they also entered a different reality that was nothing but fictional trickery. Over time, the book was reinterpreted by various translators who had never been to the Americas and these effects compounded. They freely filled in the gaps and further distorted reality.
Another thing that was really curious about the book was that all of the plants in the book have a name in Nahuatl and a Latin name. The Nahuatl name has been mostly forgotten by processes of evangelization and colonization that occurred in America, and the Latin name was predating modern systems of classification for plants and animals. So, in a way, both the names found in the ‘Nova Plantarum’ no longer circulate. I felt like I was stuck in a loop and the book was creating its own world, gravitating in its own fiction. Any time I wanted to find a plant depicted in the book I would search for it by the name given to it in the ‘Nova Plantarum’ but the only results of that search would be more images of the book. This self-referentiality and world-building were really what kept me interested in it.
AB: It’s interesting how you play with the illusion of neutrality, highlighting that specific moment of translation of indigenous knowledge of the natural world into a supposedly neutral Western scientific history. Can you tell me more about how this approach expanded beyond Nova Plantarum, through other bodies of work?
JM: In 2017, I started making these silkscreen prints on pages I’d rip out from used books. These books had patination and all sorts of markers of authenticity. If I then printed onto them, the authenticity would become my own; I could print my own stories which would look like authentically ripped-out-of pages from books. My interest in the Incunabula manuscripts was a continuation of this, as they also contained illusions of neutrality. Its authors believed they could concentrate the entire history of humanity in 500 pages. Looking at the images, they feel authoritative, depicting power in ways we still do, using the same powerful connotations. My interest in making these fake pages was similar, camouflaging something so well that it became an illusion.
If you manage to trick a page in a book, that means every single other page has the potential of being fake. Its authenticity doesn’t matter since it is able to become fake. I want to reveal how easily authority is transferred. What authority does a page or patination hold? Why is it that something that is old, weathered, or formal, is more powerful than something that isn’t?
AB: So what comes after shaking reality's scaffolding of beliefs? Is there an alternative?
JM: I wouldn't be able to suggest an alternative. There's power in fiction which is as real as any sort of bureaucratic document. Here, in Germany, it’s Kafkaesque. Documentation is so consequential and has the power of overturning lives that it seems like complete fiction.
AB: How do you perceive the viewer in relation to your work?
JM: I think a lot about the viewer, not everybody does this. To some, the viewer is nonexistent, it’s merely about the work and its materials. But if you think about how to establish an illusion, you have to think of the recipient, what is taken for granted and what is not. I like to observe the fluctuations of an object’s meaning by switching its materials or placing it in a different area. I also question the authority that viewers have in sculptures, the power structures involved, and questions of ownership involved in that. I place objects low on the ground for a top-down perspective; it minimizes the work and makes it smaller or more charming. That affects someone, can make the experience more personal, and imbue it with a sense of ownership. It becomes the viewer’s moment. So there is a lot of power given to the viewer, but to look and “discover” also means destroying. Like Helio Oiticica’s concepts of devouring the viewer.
AB: This also makes me think of anthropomorphizing nature. Certain parts of the Amazonian forest in Brazil were given the status of “personhood” so they can be protected from loggers and urbanization. This feels like a temporary but necessary solution to protect natural environments or animals. It's kind of a strange turn considering the discourse against anthropomorphization. What do you think about this?
JM: It’s tricky, how can we define an “ethics of nature”? Because it is giving voice to something. By giving nature a voice, we are again interpreting something. But everybody can interpret that voice in different ways, right?
JM: So can interpretation be un/ethical? Then it gets complicated. But it also helps in questioning our own personhood. What does it mean to be a person if you don't have nature? If a river can be a person, this complicates an anthropocentric view.
AB: I love the complexity that this opens up. I'd like to leave our conversation on that note, but I'm curious to know what have you been working on, and what are you are excited about?
I have been working on an exhibition that opens February 4th at Thomas Schulte gallery in Berlin where I live and, simultaneously, I have been writing fiction for an upcoming book that will be published sometime this year by Miriam Bettin. Miriam curated my solo exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein last year, and the book was designed by Laura Catania and Thomas Spallek.