The following interview was excerpted from the book Salad for President, a conversation between the author Julia Sherman and the mixed media artist Yoshua Okón.
In one of Yoshua’s videos, he documents himself breaking car windows and stealing stereos. In another video, he coerces uniformed policemen to dance like creepy strippers on camera, a disturbingly funny snapshot of the perversity of institutional power. In another, he manages to convince the management of a McDonald’s to let him videotape an obese customer splayed out nude on one of their dining tables.
Furthermore, he is the co-founder of one of the most important artist-run spaces in Mexico City, the former Panaderia, and he later went on to establish a completely independent, non-accredited art school called SOMA.
There, artists come from all over the world to do everything but make art—they talk, collaborate, and incubate, but material production is not encouraged. Familiar with this work before we met in person, I assumed Yoshua would be brash, intense, maybe a little intimidating. To the contrary, the home he shares with his fashion designer wife, Mariana Vargas, is serene but lively, with a litter of newborn puppies, a sweet hairless dog, and two parrots living in harmony. Their kitchen is hot pink, they love to cook, and Yoshua cares deeply about the politics of food and farming.
Julia Sherman: You were born and raised in Mexico City, and you have shaped the art world here. Now you are leaving the city and moving to a ranch. What’s the idea?
Yoshua Okón: We are moving to our ranch part-time. We will have studios there, but we will still be dependent on the city, which is okay—the city is great. But I don’t need to be in my studio here every day of the week, and we want to have the best of both worlds. The air at our ranch is amazing, and we are making a really nice kitchen. Our plan is to be cooking a lot.
JS: Is your interest in food largely a political one?
YO: Any sensible person with a minimum level of education, and who is somewhat health conscious, can understand the negative impact of agribusiness on our health and on our culture. It’s especially tangible in a place like Mexico, where processed food is a relatively new phenomenon, and the majority of the population still relies on fresh produce. I believe that we are what we eat.
JS: Growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, did you have many role models or mentors, people whose practices you emulated?
YO: I didn’t have specific artists in mind when I chose this life path. I was more committed to the idea of being an artist. When I was an adolescent, I figured out that what I cared about most was agency. That is the most important thing for a human being. I had a romantic notion of the art world as a place where I could make a living and enact my philosophical perspective every day.
JS: Has that changed?
YO: Yes—following the rapid growth of the art industry since 2000 or so, artists increasingly work within the framework of a corporate structure, rather than the framework of cultural institutions. Most contemporary artists cater to an industry that is run with business logic; they do not operate as free agents. The commercial gallery system is limited. I don’t want to demonize it, but I worry about it being the only option. What happened to the do-it-yourself mentality?
JS: I felt the same way, but have found some of that agency again by creating a work that doesn’t entirely belong to one “world,” be it art or food. Did something similar happen for you when you started your own art school, SOMA?
YO: Yes. By founding our own cultural institutions, we can define the role of art in society for ourselves. This is one way we might reclaim agency. For me, art is a way to engage. Artists operate in a political arena; our language and approach is just different than those of activists or politicians. And, even if art’s impact on society is difficult to qualify and quantify, I believe that, as artists, we can shape the world around us.
Julia Sherman is the blogger behind Salad for President, and the author of a new cookbook by the same name. Snag a copy to get the recipe for the salad that Yoshua and Mariana made for Julia during their visit.