This past July, before he returned to his home in El Salvador, I had a chance to meet and chat with sculptor Simón Vega at the Arlington Arts Center (AAC). Simón was an international artist-in-residence at the AAC for one month and we met in his beautiful sunny studio to talk about his ephemeral sculptures, the cold war, and Rocky IV.
Simón is no stranger to the international art scene. He attended graduate school in Madrid, and has exhibited his work in Baltimore, New York, Miami and Mexico. This past June, he was in New York creating a sculpture for the Museo del Barrio’s biennial in Socrates Sculpture Park. His friendship with Peruvian American and D.C. artist Jose Ruiz led him to the AAC residency.
Simón grew up in El Salvador in the late 70’s and early 80’s when the cold war was well under way when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying for influence in Central America. As a young boy, Simón’s understanding of global politics was connected with popular culture, Hollywood movies and video games such as the iconic Rocky Balboa, the free spirited yet determined American boxer in the Rocky movie series, and Ivan Drago the model stoic Russian who appeared in Rocky IV as Rocky’s rival.
When he found out he would be coming to the Washington, D.C. area for the residency, Simón began conducting research on the reasons behind the large population of Salvadorans that immigrated to the United States and specifically within the DC area in the 1980’s. What he found was during the late 1980’s, at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War, the Reagan administration was injecting large sums of money into the coffers of the right wing military government, and permitting entrance to thousands of Salvadorans who fled their homeland that was erupting with violence.
He came to realize the civil war that took place in El Salvador in the late 80’s was a bi-product of the cold war. “El Salvador and Nicaragua, other countries in the world, were just play spaces for these two big powers.” Playing off of this idea, and his love of 80’s pop culture and iconography, Simón had initially intended to create a series of arcade pieces, yet when he saw the immense space that was to be his studio in AAC, he decided to create something more grand. Monumental even. Yet still in dialogue with the effects of the Cold War on ‘our’ tropical countries.
At this point in his career, Simón’s work is temporary sculptural installation. Although heavily influenced by the informal architecture and colors of the marginalized neighborhoods near his home in San Salvador, Simón gathers material specific to his current place of work — in this case Washington D.C. and Arlington VA. He told me that he had been impressed with the cleanliness and order he encountered in D.C. The scarcity of weathered materials he collected influenced the look of the work he made here. The discarded materials he found were mainly construction materials, new pieces of lumber and tools; elements that reflected the changing nature of D.C. at the moment.
So with this found material and a head full of extensive research conducted on the politics and circumstances of the Cold War, he erected “The Anti-Monument to the Third World Cold War”. This piece is a towering structure that stood in the center of his studio. Anti-monumental being that it is temporary rather than enduring or permanent. The construction reliant on the tension between the materials rather than on an inherent stability — a clear reference to Tatlin’s Tower which was designed but never constructed and was to be a utopian monument to the workers’ revolution in Russia.
Elsewhere in the studio were several other mid-scale wall mounted pieces and set up individual pieces meant to exist in dialogue with each other. My two favorites were both built around a central linear horizon; a progression of events over time. Appropriately titled, “Timeline”, made up of discarded strips of wood, cut paper, tape, plastic tubing and curly phone cords, marked a progression of important historical events both personal and political. Specifically events such as World War I & II, Death Squadrons in Central America, rock band KISS’s Hotter Than Hell, his parent’s divorce and the release of The Smurfs (2D). “Timeline” speaks to those events that shape a culture as well as an artist. For the piece titled “Uzis and The Nuclear Threat”, he turned plastic cylinders and nylon rope into a rocket launch, and curved lengths of laminate into a trajectory. Through his childlike ability to imbue refuse with meaningful identity combined with his deep understanding of socio-political events, Simón creates work that is both didactic and whimsical that exists in a state of delightful irony where the high and low brow comingle.
By now Simón is back in El Salvador and the work returned to the dumpster from whence it came. He told me that he has plans to build a cardboard space capsule prototype next, and perhaps explore some means of commercially viable production. Although I don’t doubt that any product Simón would sell would come with a grain of salt as well. To see more of his work visit http://simon-vega.blogspot.com.