Since the age of 16, Liza Ambrossio has been combining her own photographs, archival photographs, cryptic paintings, installations, performances, texts, videos and other means of expression to form a rich and varied practice. The artist’s first project started with an air of mischief, when she asked a housekeeper of her mother’s house to steal photographs from family albums.
Living in Mexico City at the time, Ambrossio portrayed her passage from adolescence to adulthood with a rawness and brutal honesty, looking for ways to survive the process of emancipating from her family. On the side, she also worked as a photographer for a local newspaper, covering murders in the early morning hours. It was during these moments that she discovered the hell she held inside was the same as outside.
In this interview, Ambrossio talks to Eefje Ludwig for LensCulture about her drive to make art, her inspirations, and tapping into personal obsessions as a way of self-discovery through photography.
Eefje Ludwig: How and why did you start using photography, next to other tools and forms, as a tool of expression?
Liza Ambrossio: Art is for me the possession of a life that decides to surrender to its demons. I surrendered probably before I realized that I was going to discover myself in it. During my childhood, I studied classical painting for several years and was always very imaginative. I liked to play with lifeless objects, under the influence of my grandmother who liked taxidermy and witchcraft.
When my grandmother died, I was reunited with my mother who soon discovered that I wrote well, though she didn’t like what I wrote because it was always radical. This skill earned me several trips to the psychologist. For almost ten years I studied classical, folk and contemporary dance. It was just another activity that women do, and questioning this was not very feminine, according to my mother.
Sometime later, when I was about 15 or 16, I woke up, took a stack of money from a drawer, went to a store in the historic center of Mexico City and told the first seller of second-hand cameras I saw to give me the best I could buy with what I had. Less than two years ago, video art and the drive for cinema came to me. The rest has been a mixture of falls and jumps, on the fly.
EL: How would you describe your work? What themes fascinate you and how do you communicate them?
My work is political, it’s rhythm, it’s music, it’s vice, sorcery, obsession, challenge, sensuality, danger, power, feminism, flight, game, desire, revenge, sensation, and anarchy…
LA: Death is the song that echoes in all of my projects, unfolding in a psychological, magical, human, sentimental and scientific way. It is an ancestral drive from my culture. Mexicans feel a strong desire to keep this ‘something strange within us’ alive and I sublimate this through art.
Death can also symbolize the need to finish with something or someone. I think I have died and been killed many times. My projects grow from the core of my existence to the cultural and the global, going through the contemporary history of my country of birth and my own life. It’s a life that questions the idea of pride, our capacity for self-deception, origin, tradition, morality and the limits of politics, religion and gender.
My work is a complaint to a state of collective psychosis that implies that life in Mexico, as the singer Jose Alfredo Jimenéz said, is worth nothing. In my view, my country is living in a kind of undeclared dictatorship where for a euro, a public declaration of freedom or showing femininity, sensuality or desire can get you killed. And justice will never exist, especially if you are a woman or do not belong to the Mexican political oligarchy.
EL: Your work seems to be your life, and your life is your work. Tell me a bit about your way of working.
LA: I am full of obsessions related to the encounter with, and the search for, my demons. I don’t know why they have chosen me and in general, I am too busy to ask. I have simply assumed them. I am very ambitious, I have many dreams—distressing ones—that I need to free myself from. Until I meet any of my goals I have no peace. I have already been able to throw everything overboard: honor, pride, love, security, happiness, everything, as long as I build myself.
I am addicted to controlling my own pleasure through a transgressive aesthetic search between the strange and everyday, the built and the fortuitous, being subtle and magical at the same time. My projects discuss the rawness, subtlety, complexity, and emotions of living outside the structures, illustrating my existential, mystical and psychic exodus. I travel through the medical universe of strange disease, both mentally and in the physical world. Through the monstrous, the violence, the chaos of the cities, the madness, the encounters, the old age that drags on, the cursed childhood, the food, the carnal acts, psychology, and destiny.
EL: So your personal experiences are the base and sources of inspiration for your art work?
LA: In my opinion, a powerful author is the result of having lived sharp experiences—it is difficult to trust those who speak about things they have never experienced. I know that near me the air boils or freezes because I am always in the presence of the evil and the cursed. Going into these issues was the result of living with my antagonistic family and its great capacity for psychological torture. This has distilled over time, developing my interest in medicine, shamanism, linguistics and, later, narrative to express my situation.
In my most recent projects, I have opened up my practice to reflect on the perverse and unnecessary social structures of family, religion, nationality and names to express how I have experienced them; a blood curse in the context of Mexican sorcery. In my most recent experiment, honest and intimate journeys through my mind and reality intermingle, exploring the consequences of violence against women.
EL: You worked for the police press or ‘nota roja’ at some point in your life. How did this influence you as an artist?
LA: Many terrible things happened in my life during this time. I inherited the job from my best friend who committed suicide. As a teenager, this work formed a kind of shock therapy in which I confronted my inability to feel anything for the dead, tortured and killed by the war declared against drug trafficking in my city of Mexico. The work that followed was a song of freedom where my heart, my thoughts, my soul, my spirit were responsible for creating the images that I made.
EL: What project are you working on at the moment and how did it got started?
LA: I am currently working on three projects. The first is for sure photographic and speaks about the relationship between magic, feminism, love and power—the things I learned from my grandmother. The second is a film related to the project The Rage of Devotion that will surely devour a couple of years of my life.
The third one, that has already taken three years, is a novel where I rebuild my mother’s childhood and adolescence as a kind of pious letter and, in turn, examine a human monster from an extremely macho culture that made her a tyrannical mother—an event that I don’t consider unique but rather part of a cultural symptom. Tyrannical mothers like mine are so responsible for the construction of dictatorial psychologies, psychopathies and sentimental deficiencies in children. As well as the extreme violence, murders, rapes, kidnappings, disappearances and assaults experienced by the women in my country. Few like me manage to find art to sublimate their anger and that is why my country is becoming a cemetery that expels us.
The three projects are a result of a lot of life lived and the need to explore new languages outside the photographic circuit. I think I have a lot to say and as Marshall McLuhan said: ”the medium is my message”.
EL: Over the last few years, you have traveled a lot and lived in different places. You currently live between France and Spain. How has your move from Mexico and this new, nomadic lifestyle changed your practice?
LA: I am in the brightest period of my 26 years of life. I had never seen so much, done so much or had such a lot of information come at me in such a short period and with so many powers involved.
Living without a clear commitment to geography or rather, committed to many, is a form of freedom and freedom is my strongest intention in life. The romantic claim of calling myself a citizen of the world has allowed me to discover exciting spaces. It has given me the pleasure of greeting the people that make me vibrate, discovering the secrets of the languages that have filled my imagination and made me rethink my story in comparison to contemporary history.
EL: Your work seems to have received visibility and recognition in Europe. If I am not mistaken, you have also shown your work in Mexico. Do you feel it’s understood in the same way in the different locations?
LA: Europe is so diverse and so complex, and it is the place where me and my work were understood for the first time. I have a lot of love for this territory and the many people who have taught me that traveling is necessary. I think it has been a totally different experience to present it in Latin countries like Spain or Portugal, to countries like the UK, Luxembourg or Iceland. The idiosyncrasy is absolutely different, the possibility of imagining that there are parallel realities in other regions of the world is more complex in countries with very structured and modern cultures than in more countries flexible to madness, religion, and chaos. It is definitely never the same, because the work also depends on who observes it, their age, education, expectations, traumas, etc.
EL: To what extent do you collaborate with other people in the production or presentation of your work?
LA: Photography is a trip that is reputed to be taken by lonely beings, but always well accompanied. Because I think we are never alone, even if we are. For me, this practice is a complete passion that requires, in football terms, that although I am the queen of my court, I pass the ball to my gallery owners, my editor, a bookseller, a museum, a festival, etc. Although I make my images, the formats in which my work is finally presented is in most cases the result of 70% of my idea and 30% that of the people who collaborate with me.
EL: When does a project finish for you?
LA: It ends when you get tired of “putting lemon on the wound.” When you have said what you want to an audience in a period of your life you have listened to, when you have advanced in learning your own imagination and when you have reached a certain limit of representation of the image, you need to change projects.
EL: You have shown your work in different forms, exhibitions, online, in books. In your opinion, is there a way that suits your work best?
LA: They are different languages, each with their own possibilities and limits, that over time I have begun to discover. But the book has a special space in my heart as the storytelling seed for which I want to produce a film project. On the other hand, the exhibition is a metaphysical journey that authorizes you to destroy and build imaginary borders, a field in which I think I have much to discover, confront and re-pose.
EL: Your work is clearly very personal and through your art and photography, you deal with and interpret certain experiences and emotions. What do you hope your audience takes from entering this personal universe?
LA: I want to represent my belief that reality is overrated and fantasy is underestimated. In my view, the richest thing in life is fabulation and the power to imagine. That is why my photography is loaded with performative and cinematographic gestures, but alludes to the pictorial and documentary archive at the same time. It has become an exercise in sinister freedom, carried to strange consequences that are shaped by a strong relationship with chance and instinct.
I try to use all the different tools and techniques of narrative to create emotion within a kind of imperfection. I see it as an affront to terror and dehumanization because I believe that human passion is itself an act of defiance. I believe that you have to be totally crazy and deeply sane to “break the mould.” At present I can only speak from the trench that I am creating; art, science, and philosophy are for me that “amorphous” space that serves to give voice, life, and death to what I can see.
In the words of the French thinker Simone De Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I suspect that I am at the starting point of self-construction. The utopia of creative freedom—with all the loneliness and pleasure that this implies—is what I have been able to achieve so far. And, of course, I want more. It’s evident that nothing can harm the work of an artist when you play to find the first position in the game. It is only you who can break yourself, and nothing can help you, too. That, in my opinion, is one of the purest forms of beauty and intelligence.