Rodrigo Valenzuela: Sculpting Photography

The Chilean, LA-based artist talks about giving machines a second life in his dystopian images of a post-worker society

in Frieze Los Angeles , Interviews , Videos | 28 FEB 22
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We talk to LA-based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela (b. 1982, Chile) at Frieze Los Angeles. Often using landscapes and tableaus with day laborers or the artist himself, he explores the way an image is inhabited, and the way that spaces, objects and people are translated into images.

At the height of early industrial steel production, workers were treated as engines, their bodies wrung out of vitality, transformed into glowing steel bars, sweat and capital. The smoke in Rodrigo Valenzuela’s new series of photographs invokes the blazing steam and white heat of steel in the process of formation, but also the perspiration of labor indefinitely suspended in air. In these depopulated photographs, viewers are left to their own imaginative devices. Valenzuela’s contemporary Frankensteinian contraptions are uncanny, and some have a sinister edge, embodied by the threat of metal chains and hooks. Others are delicate, almost sympathetic.

These images suggest the roaring steel mills of the past, quickly abandoned once outdated, while also offering a retrofuturistic vision in which workers and machines devised a better plan than their mutually assured futility. As stand-ins for the growing numbers of workers dispossessed due to automation, the pictures—in their invocation of histories of labor, and of industries created by humans to displace themselves in the service of capital—intersect with the struggles for unionization, a longtime interest for Valenzuela. They stress the body’s worth—both single and collective—as well as that of rest and pleasure.

In their projection of a post-worker’s world, the series speaks to the elimination not only of individual laborers but of the idea itself of the work force, pushed aside by the very shapes we see here: odd machines and automation, engines that no longer require an operator, but that rage when no one is watching.

Valenzuela received his MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2012, a BA in Philosophy from Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA in 2010 and a BFA from the University of Chile, Santiago in 2004. In 2021, Valenzuela was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship Award and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. His work is included in the collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA. He has presented solo exhibitions at New Museum, New York (2019); Orange County Museum of Art, CA (2018) and Portland Art Museum, OR (2018), and has participated in group exhibitions at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (2019); The Drawing Center, New York, NY (2017); Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA (2016); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (2015); and Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA (2017).