To the moon and back

Written by Kelsey Matheson

Photography by Ronja Penzo

From Mexico to Guatemala, Norway to New York and back again, Javier Barrios appeared less restless than the man in the stories he shared over the course of our day together. For an artist that has never really felt on the inside of the Norwegian art scene, the shared facility on the outskirts of Oslo has been providing Javier with the space and tranquility that was needed for him to shift into the next phase of his career.

As we sat down Javier asked ‘So what do you want to talk about?’… ‘SPACE’, we both laugh… ‘Great, that’s my favourite topic’ he replied…Space, in every sense of the word, became the principal of our conversation.

I was curious to know why the themes of creation and destruction appealed to him…’It is something that just happened,’ he says. The product of a lifetime of curiosity that started with a young boy becoming fascinated in the universe and later contextualised during his time at the art academy. The pressure, both external and internal, started the journey of Javier pursuing only the things he was motivated by; 

‘I came to an agreement that I would only work on things that interest me. I couldn't come to terms with spending so much time and energy investing in work if there is not something motivating me. The more I explored, the bigger the field became and the more questions I had…In the end I was sucked in, the topic is so big and there is no answers…To pinpoint a specific truth? It doesn’t exist.’ 

Space and Sci-Fi, as a genre, has so much to draw on, a real opportunity to challenge perspective, dig deeper and pose questions that stick with you…However, what we more commonly end up with is another action movie, in space. ‘That’s not interesting to me and I feel the genre is being misused. The great thing about science is it is constantly being updated, it is experimental and it has a certain honesty to its approach in uncovering life mysteries.’ Admittedly he has been trying to get out many times, ‘But I keep returning’ he laughs, ‘The size and the ability to explore the unknown keeps on pulling me back. I have a real interest in this and I cannot escape it.’ 

Many people do get scared when they think about the size of space, the bigger picture and their place in the universe. It is a provoking topic and although we are more often than not left wanting more ‘There is certain movies that hit the nerve. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those movies. You won’t understand all of it because it is this big and open question…’

Javier moved to Norway at the age of five, to a place ‘Out in the forest’ where he was lucky enough to have a neighbour of a similar age. ‘Kids are amazing, I didn’t find it isolating at all. I only knew a few words of English at that time and him as well, but we communicated… Now I speak Spanish with a Norwegian accent’ he laughs. The move was exciting and he still remembers it vividly, ‘We came in late October, then two weeks later it was snow. It was like a fairy tale, I had never seen that before and I was super excited. It was like that Christmas postcard you see as a kid.’ 

Moving to New York later in life, Javier tells us the story of Vector, an art project he is part of with good friend Peter Gregorio. The purpose of the project is to spread the ideas and work of visual artists around the world. This also includes a book format where they focus on a city, invite 25 artists to contribute and print up to 500 copies which they then give away for free. Right now they have completed issues from New York, Oslo, Bergen, Berlin and Toronto with the last issue being launched at the Whitney Museum. As Peter was the Studio Manager of Bjarne Melgaard in New York and Javier was running the artist gallery in Oslo they had met a couple of times previously, but bumped into each other daily when Javier moved to New York. ‘One day I asked him about the project and he asked me to be a part of it. He’s really good with the bigger picture and I'm good at getting the money. He’s a real American, thinking global with these big ideas and then I figure out how we can get some money to do one issue…It’s a good balance.’

Originally the plan for Javier was to spend six months in New York, but he ended up staying three fantastic years. The experience, he says, was also necessary for him and he describes the feeling of returning home, having really needed that time away to love Oslo again. Coming back from New York he had lost some connection to the Norwegian scene and remembers having to pull every thread to get something going (which is where Morten Viskum came in) and he was able to get a space in Vestfossen. Firstly, in the basement, which was ‘Weird and creepy… Morten has all of his figurines down there, but I was able to get on my feet and now I have this studio up here and I am taking over the one next door as well.’

New York to Vestfossen is a huge change and since getting his studio he laughs ‘I haven't left much’ and it is understandable. The place is so nice, spacious and peaceful, giving him the chance to think, breath and work without distractions. ‘You get so much done when you remove the noise from around you…It is also something with the space. I could not get this kind of space in Oslo and something happened when I took over the studio here, the format of my work just went up!’   

More space has led to more site specific installations and Javier's' interest in using the architecture and surroundings as part of the work. A lot of this work he admits is ‘Idealistic projects’ and the creation and destruction element is not just present in the themes, but also in the work itself. ‘I liked the idea of the tape falling off’ he says pointing to his work from 2006, which commented on the fragility of the electrical field, ‘If it falls apart we won’t know what to do.’ There was also some concern that the material for his project in Oslo Central Station wouldn’t hold up and his project in Mexico could be washed away with the rain. ‘There is an honesty to that,’ he says. 

There is a certain beauty in making art not meant to sustain and it is also a statement against the many forces driving up the monetary value of art which, he says, can kill the creativity. Javier is also particularly fond of the idea that everything disappears. ‘I like the poetical aspect of it. I wouldn’t mind if all the work I did disappeared…For me it’s the creation which is important and once it leaves the studio I don't have the same connection to it.’

Working in an art gallery during his education, Javier got his start vacuuming the floor, hanging pictures and doing basic tasks for established artists. He outlines the differences between his education and working experience identifying the hands on nature of the gallery as a very important factor contributing to his success as an artist. ‘Thanks to that experience I am able to do this full time. I lost all of the naivety, seen behind the curtain and seen the business side of the art world. By the end of my time in the gallery I was in charge of the art fairs, some sales and promotion which really aided my career.’ We all agree that this is something missing in creative education, the importance of internships, knowing where the money comes from and how to communicate to those handling funding. Although being taken advantage of, in some ways, he was also using the established artists knowledge and network for his personal gain and that is something he says was bigger than any paycheque.

The art scene in Norway is a strange beast that has been called tiny, high-quality, pretentious, welcoming, old fashioned, selective and closed minded to name a few. For someone like Javier who has moved around and now spends most of his time alone in Vestfossen, it was not really surprising to me that he does not feel super connected to the Norwegian art scene. ‘I am part of the art scene here, but part of me feels on the outside and I'm not sure if that is because I choose to be or because I don't fit in? Maybe everyone feels a bit like that…? I do not know.’   

Although growing up, studying and living in Norway, Javier feels like his work has more appeal overseas and the amount of opportunities he receives abroad with his work also adds to the appeal. ‘There are really good artists in Norway which is due to the support and the funding you get as an artist, which you don't get in other places… I kind of have a love/hate relationship with the art scene. Part of me just wants to give the whole scene the middle finger, do what I want to do and not care what anyone thinks…But at the same time I am a hypocrite and I do want them to care. So I'm kind of fooling myself,’ he laughs.  

Curiosity has never left Javier and he took control of the questions at times asking about our backgrounds, the motivation behind the magazine, the realness of physicality versus online and our thoughts on Oslo as a city. This opened up a topic that all three of us shared a surprising amount of love for.

‘I moved to Oslo to study, but ended up staying. I think it is an ugly, but beautiful city and I get bummed out when people come and say it is a boring city and all these other Scandinavian or European cities are better without spending the time to find what is interesting’ Says Ronja. Oslo is one of those places where you will not be readily entertained, you really have to dig and that is one of the things that has kept me in the city. It is low-key and also ‘Very small where you bump into people you know on the street and have connections everywhere’ says Javier. ‘Coming back from New York I was surprised. “Wow people are genuinely happy to see me," I thought to myself. They showed that they like and appreciated me without wanting anything back. People are super sweet here and it was one of the main things I enjoyed moving back from New York.’   

‘I do kind of wish I was 10 years younger, living in Oslo right now’ he laughs. ‘I think it is going into the golden age and I'm just a bit too old to be a part of it. I think there is an energy in Oslo right now and it is interesting to be living in Grunerløkka and seeing this whole thing happening…which I'm not really a part of’ he laughs again. The change has happened naturally, however, the appeal of smaller bars, making different connection and appreciating different experiences… ‘Life got more serious’ he says and the importance of getting enough sleep so he can do his work became more of a priority…’I’m also about to become a father’ he says with a big smile on his face.  

On the eve of fatherhood, Javier is really looking forward to being at home and spending an extended period time with his family. It is something he admits he has been bad at previously. A self described workaholic with a tendency to take work home has been problematic in the past, ‘But i’m learning to disconnect and enjoy some sort of a social life! It sounds really boring but it’s something I haven't been good at for many years and just hanging out with those people close to me is something I want to do all the time, it’s just not always I have the time.’ This year has been one project after the next for Javier and having just returned from Mexico it is time to relax, kick back and celebrate…