Omar Kholeif: This work is anchored by a particular obsession with Alighiero Boetti and the rumor that he had a guesthouse called the One Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as your subsequent realization that there were inaccuracies surrounding this story. Your process began with an earlier series of works, which included a project in 2006, a film treatment where you sent faxes to Boetti. I am curious about this context. Did you feel that sending these one-way messages was a form of negotiation, or catharsis even?
Mario García Torres: Maybe catharsis is a good word to describe it. I see the art stories I sometimes use as starting points to begin research. Then, they become excuses to talk about something else. In the case of Share-e-Nau Wanderings (A Film Treatment), the work you mention, it was both my position as a foreigner living in the US and the US’s involvement in a war in Afghanistan at that time which made me consider Boetti and his hotel as a medium to do a piece of work. It was a means to mildly state my position in regard to the situation.
OK: You subsequently made a piece titled Have You Ever Seen the Snow (2010) where you recount the story of Boetti over a series of slides, which show you attempting to locate the site of the One Hotel. Could you tell me about this piece and the research that it entailed?
MGT: I wanted to go and look for the One Hotel from day one. I had a lot of doubts, though: should one go to a country which is at war in order to look for a story like this, which might be of interest only to a few people? Some time after I wrote the treatment, I discovered that there was a sudden boom in image production from Afghanistan, due to the war, of course. So I started to think that maybe I could find the One Hotel through somebody else’s images. So I started collecting photographs and arranging them, at least to define the shape of the neighborhood where the hotel was with many borrowed images. This research, this methodology and its findings, became the narrative in Have You Ever Seen the Snow.
OK: After that you were invited to go to Kabul as part of a commission for dOCUMENTA (13). This is significant, because there was already a connection with another edition of the exhibition in Kassel.
MGT: Yes. While thinking about the possibility about doing something in Kabul as my participation in dOCUMENTA (13), we discovered that there was a previous link to the exhibition. That was important, as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Artistic Director, wanted to also reflect on the history of documenta. The link was not to the One Hotel itself, but to Kabul as a production location, due to the fact that the tapestries (later known as Mappa) that Boetti was having made in Kabul were largely intended for exhibition in documenta 5. In my installation for Kassel (Tea was only shown as a screening in Germany and installed as a video piece in Kabul, actually), I chose to show, among other things, the correspondence between Boetti and Harald Szeemann, where they discussed what piece to exhibit. The first Mappa by Alighiero Boetti was also a central part of the installation.
OK: The context of Kabul is a complex one, politically. Its public image has been marred by a Western defecation to its image, if you will. How did you negotiate your perceptions of this site compared to your experience?
MGT: The Western media, as you say, have portrayed (created I should say) a place that is very far from reality. Even though I had read a lot about the place before going there, that media-influenced perception was present. Once there, though, it felt almost familiar. I had arrived in a wholly different place, which had very little to do with decisions of conflict; there was a normalcy. While filming I was very conscious of trying to depict my own experience of the city, in contrast to what the media does.
OK: You’ve mentioned this idea of hosting or being hosted, which is interesting to me in the context of dOCUMENTA (13) because the exhibition was held in numerous sites: Kassel (the headline site), Kabul, Cairo/Alexandria, and Banff. Did you feel like you were invited into this context? Were you being hosted, and if so, how? Or did you feel like an outsider?
MGT: I certainly felt like I was invited by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to explore the possibility together of doing something in Kabul. Once there, we were very much welcomed. I feel like there was maybe a certain suspicion, from some, but also a great deal of curiosity, from most people: the role of the guest is a delicate one, to be sure, personally and politically, but one that also has the potential to create the context to make an interesting exchange, even out of an swift visit.
OK: I want to think about the form of the work and how you pieced it together. It functions as kind of travelogue. You move across different sites, weave through spaces and develop a different sort of proximity to individuals. Can you tell me how you decided to structure the work? Did you have a set idea in mind, or did it unfold in response to your interactions? And while shooting, were you alone, or accompanied? I suppose I wonder how your subjects negotiated your presence…?
MGT: There are two important elements regarding the structure of Tea. Like other past works of mine, it does flirt with the idea of the film, or of cinematographic language. This is a tool I used to set up the film. On the other hand, I see the work’s genealogical reference being the history of artist documentation. So the work really is the latter, a recording of an artist’s act, a concrete action. Now, it might be a bit more ambitious than recording the act: it presumes to find the rationale for the act, as it develops; it explains why one would do such a thing, and then elucidates on its findings.
In that sense, the work is definitely not a film, but the act of at least temporarily taking care of the building that once hosted Boetti’s hotel. That was clear from the beginning. The way that it would evolve, and the way I could interact with that context, was negotiated, however. Once we finally got the lease for the place, the work started and the filming started. We started to work with the house, and every change we made to it was documented. During that time I was going back and forth between Mexico City and Kabul, writing portions of text in both settings. While filming was happening in Kabul, filming was also happening in the north of Mexico, in the region where I grew up.
While shooting in Kabul I was at least with one person, the photographer. It was all a very simple and humble venture. It didn’t take long for me to find my own place in the city, and to become a neighbor, at least to the people I interacted with on a daily basis (the fax office guys, the taxi guys, the corner restaurant, and of course the people we were working with). I feel like I made the film as the foreign neighbor who came to live temporarily, not as an artist arriving in a foreign city to film.
OK: I’m eager to know the difference between “activating” the site in Kabul with your own presence as opposed to seeing it as an elusive or imagined context…?
MGT: Well, the One Hotel building was activated by my presence, and that of many others in Kabul. What is true is that there was very little of Boetti in that place. I had arrived 30 years too late. Arriving in a place that you have imagined for many years is both exciting and disappointing. It gives you a kind of certainty to be there, to imagine things again, from up close. At the same time, it is just that, a house like any other, so it still requires a story to be reimagined, and then becomes the starting point for something else. That is what Tea is.