Elena del Rivero was in Madrid when she saw the Twin Towers collapse on the television, on 11 September 2001. She watched as clouds of dust engulfed her studio located at 125 Cedar Street, just opposite the South Tower. With a special permit, she returned to her studio and collected her works, her memories and even some dust in bags and sealed drums. Over the next 20 years, she would painstakingly explore this trauma of both personal and historic significance through her art.
This September, The Archive of Dust: The Photocollages (2011-2021), an exhibition featuring a selection of 20 photocollages by the Spanish, New York-based artist, goes on view in public for the first time. The show, commemorating two decades since the attacks, will be accompanied by another at Es Baluard Museu d’Art Contemporani de Palma in Mallorca, Spain, with each weaving together the different threads of her approach to the subject.
We had the privilege to speak to del Rivero about the 20-year process of this monumental yet highly personal undertaking. Time, memory, personal and world histories, discipline, chance, creation and destruction are all marked within the different facets of the project. The exhibitions, meanwhile, are a moment of interconnectedness, one that pulls together the tension of beauty and pain through the process of art-making.
Christie’s: Let’s jump in then and talk about this project [Archive of Dust]. It would be interesting to hear what it means to you now, and what it means to have it installed in multiple places.
Elena del Rivero: I was born in Spain, [but] I’ve been in the United States now for 32 years, and have been a citizen since 2003. My studio and home were in New York, and I happened to be in Spain when the towers collapsed, so it’s very important to me that [Archive of Dust] is in both places at the same time.
The idea that people in the two locations are going to experience something about 9/ 11 at the same time… perhaps people can start using the memory to [help them] mend. Because this project that I have done is about mending, mending life, mending a big wound.
C: Can we talk about the different components of Archive of Dust across the two venues?
ER: There are many works within the project: we have the collages in New York. Then, in Majorca, we are going to have A Chant (2002-2006), an installation comprising 3,150 fragments of paper that I collected from the floors of my studio [memos and other documents that had blown in through the destroyed windows], and photographs related to it. We are going to have Nine broken letters, written by me across nine consecutive sleepless nights after 9/ 11 and later calligraphed by a medievalist. And alongside them, works made before 9/ 11, such as Letters to the mother (1988-present).
I’m also showing a project about community in Palma, which is an installation on the terraces of the museum built out of dish towels sent by people all over the world. It is a homage to home; 9/11 framed by home.
C: What can you tell me about the film work in the exhibition?
ER: There will be 100 hours of video, taken at my studio after the attacks. I would go there and stay there every day: from morning until probably 6 pm. I didn't know the dust was so dangerous at the time. I bought a video camera and I started to videotape everything around me, and after a few months, I started to do performances all alone, with my camera on a tripod.
When the police informed me that it was the last day I was going to be allowed to go to my building because it was going to be sealed for renovation, I called my assistant and I said, ‘I need you to come to Cedar Street.’ I placed the camera on her shoulder and a light on her head, and I got completely nude. I went up to the eighth floor and said, ‘I'm going to start leaving home completely nude,’ playing off Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier, 1912. ‘I'm going to have only my mask to protect me.’ And that's how I left my building. That piece is a 20-minute-long video.
C: A Chant is at the heart of the show in Spain. Can you talk a bit about the process of putting that work together?
ER: I collected all the pieces of paper, which were covered in dust, from the floors and I put them in garbage bags. I didn't know what to do, so I talked to a friend of mine, who had a farm in upstate New York and I begged her to take me. I bought all these plastic containers, sealed the pieces inside them — with the dust — and put them in the back of her truck. She created a tent around 200 metres from her home and I brought everything there.
Every day I would put on my mask, my white suit, and I would start cleaning the pieces one-by-one. At the end of the day, my friend would come to wave to me that it was time to come for dinner. I’d get completely nude, leave everything behind and she would start hosing me down, then I had to go to the bathroom with this soap that she had bought.
It lasted for two weeks, and after that, with my papers, I went to Manhattan where I had found a safe room to live in again, and I would vacuum them. I cleaned them three times and then catalogued them using ‘9/11’ and a number. I also burned all the names [on the papers], because you have to understand that with the pieces of paper, I had [those people’s] lives, their social lives: social security numbers, checks, everything. I couldn’t use these papers with proper names.
AI took 6,300 archival photographs of the pieces in total — 3,150 before the names were burned and 3,150 after the names were burned — and then I started to separate the piece of paper by shape and by size with my assistant. It [ the sorting] took us three years.
C: How did this work develop? And what relationship does it have to your collages?
ER: One piece has taken me to another. Chant I started in 2002 and finished the complete work in 2006. I began the photocollages at the very end of 2010. The photocollages depict works from my studio destroyed during 9/11 and also Hurricane Sandy, when sewage waters flooded them while they were in storage. Some of the [later] ones, finished in 2020, have been influenced by Black Lives Matter, too.
The prints are exquisite silver gelatin, and they’re selenium toned. I decided that these photographs were going to be my photocollages; that I was going to destroy them. I sweated when I started to rip the prints, because I knew what I was doing; it’s quite expensive work, to do all this!
C: Is there anything about the choices you made to create the collages that surprised you or that you thought was interesting?
ER: I looked at a lot of great collagists, especially from the 1930s and 1940s, and got a lot of inspiration from them. I didn’t know how the pieces were going to be ripped, the photographs, or how the shapes would work. It was quite exciting to work that way, without a preconceived idea of how things were going to end up looking.
I had postcards by some of my favourite artists — such as Goya and Bernini — on the wall of my studio and I added them, too. These photocollages are the last works for the Archive of Dust. I was worried, because one thing that I wanted for sure was to have the complete archive finished by 2021. But I’ve done it.
C: How does Archive of dust fit into your overall artistic practice?
ER: Well, I put the photocollages together by stitching in much the same way that I have always done. Really, it was continuing with the thread of my philosophy as an artist to work in time and space, to work with my experience above all, and with poetry. It’s about marking, about space. And it’s about time stretching.
C: What is it about space and time that interests you so much?
ER: I am space and time, as a person. We are space. We are in space and in time. Now. Even though my life is not going to be eternal, for the time that I'm here in this world, by playing with time and space, I find that I can percolate eternity through me… from what and where I came from, where I will be going to.
C: What does the term ‘archive’ mean to you?
ER: For me, an archive is a collection of items or ideas [used to] apprehend the world. In my case with this project, the ambition was to apprehend pain, percolate it through [the act of] mending to heal.
Through the archive comes knowledge. I have learned so many things working with my personal archive, because it has helped me to understand others and to understand the pain of people who have lost everything. I had been working with the remains from my studio. And with those remains, I built a new life.