Ziran Muse: Victor Yañez-Lazcano

Ziran Muse: Victor Yañez-Lazcano

Introduction by Lucien Shapiro

The same day my better half asked me if I would write the introduction to Victor Yañez-Lazcano’s Ziran Muse story was the same day I went to a Tibetan Bowl Meditation. So this introduction lingered in the back of my head unknowingly as I approached the mat. Which I am only noting because I know Victor (of all people) would appreciate the fact that he crossed my mind in the middle of a session traveling through time and space. When a three-eyed mask appeared, after I had traversed through not only the deepest darkest depths of the ocean, but hung high with the star lights twinkling… I only rant on because this is precisely how I have always felt with Victor. I go rambling and chewing away, as he ever so calmly listens, no judgment, no looking at his phone, nothing to distract him, except maybe Busca barking and trying to attack my foot tapping away neurotically under the table. For those that don’t know Busca is his very small, very loud guard dog with a passion for barking at me, especially when Meilu is on my shoulders.

Let’s take it back to the beginning so you all can get some roots to the equation as I babble on acting like you know our lives. Victor was a fellow RAiR resident. Not only a fellow but our next door neighbor, which loosely means probably the only person you will actually see unless you walk around the compound regularly. Upon first meeting I could tell he was doing the work, trying to be a better human, giant heart, huge brains, and ever so giving. Later to find out he is probably one of the most sentimental people I have ever known. I quickly learned this upon first entering his home which was covered in collections, gifts, reminders of his past, and records just like those things. Anyone that owns records will know exactly what I am saying here.  Everything is cherished in the hands of this man. Family, friends, strangers… just don’t fuck up cause I feel like he may just move on without you… hahaha…. Luckily we really bonded and I met a forever friend in this man. Did I mention he writes like a poet, takes better photos with more purpose and heart than you? Or maybe equal to you (who am I to judge)? Art is subjective so let's talk about skill. 

This human masters his craft. From photography, to writing, to ceramics, and I must mention cooking, community, and listening. He will most likely help you if you need a hand. He will meet you for a coffee and a talk. He will even carve out a multi-mile hike in the middle of a Roswell desert so you can enjoy a morning, or evening, meditation walk. This was the first thing I found out he had done at the residency besides some experiments. He literally handmade a trail that not only was a great walk but mimicked a snail trail he experienced and documented. Some may think that's crazy, NOT ME!!! 

While his show at the Roswell Museum may have left everyone stumped, and inquiring about if it worked properly, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The absence of it, the whole of it, the it of it. His family and friends made up almost his entire subject. Now that's heart! Not to mention what he accomplished while at RAiR. Someone like me could never utilize time like that. I have to produce, explore, build endlessly even if it goes in the trash or is ripped to bits after. Victor thinks, he sleeps, he processes healing, and gets one of the best teaching gigs in Washington a professor could ask for. Well he didn't ask. He earned it by cutting his teeth, sharpening his claws, and open heartedly charging into the rain clouds. 

While I write this so many memories bubble up. All these memories that aren't really important to you but they are to us, also because I am sure I have already written too much and my beautiful and talented editor is probably gonna make me hack this thing in half. I will just end with this: every time I wondered what kind of father and husband I was going to be, he would surprise me with a comment about how we, my family, make him feel, and what he experiences watching me learn to dad. Literal tear drips down a cheek. 

Ok enjoy the interview, and if any of you want to talk shit you gotta step to me first… byeeee. Ohhh one last thing I have to end with, because it’s how he would start everything. 

trust your work.

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt

Some background!

I'm from Southeastern Wisconsin. I'm the child of two Mexican immigrants. How I got into art… I was interested in a lot of different things, but there was a moment when I was 17 or 18. We went to Mexico City and I had a point and shoot camera with me. I took a bunch of photographs and I came back and hung out with my sister Marisa and her friends. This woman named Jennifer Ward looked at the photographs and she said, “oh, you should be a photographer.” She and her partner have given me unwavering support from day one. They had no doubt about what I was capable of and they saw something in me. At that young age I just understood that she was a very intelligent person. I trusted her opinion, so I was like, “cool, I'm gonna be a photographer.” Then it took a really long time to honor that decision because of cultural and socioeconomic things, and just whatever kinds of lived experiences young people have that prevent them and kind of beat the dream out of them. Like being pragmatic about life decisions and whatnot. But I can definitely point to that moment where this woman looked at my work and I believed what she said. So there was enough belief in myself to pursue that. It just took a while to figure it out. 

Your show at the Roswell museum was about the American dream. That has really stuck with me because my mom is an immigrant and she's always telling me stories of other immigrants who’ve worked really hard. She fully believes that she achieved the American dream… she came here with $60 and worked at a Chinese restaurant and now she's a world renowned philosopher and owns multiple homes and travels the world. She taught herself English by reading the dictionary… It goes on and on. But in your show you analyze the American dream and its' flaws… so when you hear a story like this, what do you think? Does it perpetuate the stereotype? 

I used to be way more critical because I had my own understanding of what I thought the American dream was, and I was really critical of the life choices that my parents made. I probably said some really hurtful things to them, but I don't know what they aspired to. I think it was just all survival. Maybe not unlike your mother. Like, you come here with nothing. And maybe the dream is just to survive. I don't know. But I feel a little choked up about it, because it's like how can I be critical of people just trying to survive in this country, who fled or left other countries to come here with some sort of a promise? 

It’s a different reality. Sometimes I feel like the American dream is like a McDonald's hamburger advertisement. You see the billboard, you want that thing, and then you actually get the hamburger and you're like, “what the fuck?” This is not what's in the photograph. Sometimes that's like what the American dream makes me think of. You're not actually getting that thing. And I have the privilege and luxury of being here and my parents worked really hard so that I wouldn't have to suffer in the ways that they have, despite the fact that maybe other people got a glimpse into how hard it was for me to get here. 

You can be both critical and still grateful. I think sometimes people are like you're either grateful or you're critical, and you can't be both. But I think in many ways the pursuit of an American dream comes at a great cost. What I was thinking through for the exhibition was like, what are the costs? I got to see some, but for my parents, there was a price they had to pay. Like when I think about language, food, cultural aspects of our identity, the project of assimilation… and what that's asking someone to do when you become an American citizen and pursue this American dream. 

I feel like it comes with great sacrifice and I think they try to highlight that, right? Like, “well, it's all about sacrifice.” But what are you actually sacrificing? It makes the way that my parents' bodies have been depleted by working in factories seem like a natural thing because that's just what working hard is. But they've actually sacrificed their bodies to achieve certain socioeconomic status and things that they're really proud of having. 

When I met your dad one of the first things he said, like within the first 30 seconds, was how you’re a teacher. I could see it brought him so much pride because that's both a marker of success for you, but also for him as a parent. Do you feel like your parents are proud of you? 

I feel like they are but it's a difficult thing to verbalize. But the day that they left Roswell was the very first time I heard my father say he's proud. That was tough. I think my mom demonstrates it a lot. But what I've learned on this journey is that if you're not an artist, it's really hard to understand the decision to become one because it doesn't fall into this checklist of any kind of occupation that has a schedule that you follow. When my family would hear how busy I was, but then hear how broke I was, or how poor I was, or how hungry I was, I think they were like, “what the fuck are you doing? Like we never see you because you're always working, but you're not selling work and you're broke. Like, what are you doing?” So now that I will be teaching, it's like, “okay, finally he got a job.” That means he's gonna go somewhere for a certain amount of time and make a certain amount of money and have certain kinds of benefits. It’s tangible. 

Yeah, my mom is always like, “what are you so busy doing!?” Family is a huge part of your work. Why choose your family, and something so personal to share? 

When I first entered art to be a photographer I was thinking, “cool, like National Geographic or Fashion.” Then when I got a year and a half into learning all those things I saw a lot of really compelling work that made me feel like I wanted to have a greater impact. The artworks I was seeing were making me feel something that I hadn't felt before. And being around a bunch of people who were studying who came from privilege, who had evidence of their family from many generations ago in a photograph, it really fucked with me because at that time, like in the early 2000s, we had just a few photographs of my grandfather as a young person. But there were no photographs of his parents. I mean he's the bastard son of some wealthy guy in Mexico. So he's a part of two families, but we don't have that evidence. And I was like, that really sucks. So I just set up to create something, a lifelong project to just ensure that there's proof that we were here. 

The photograph is like a document and there's theory and all that other shit about how a photograph functions. But I wanted my family to have something. I haven't even photographed everyone in my family and they're already new people. There's always a baby in the family. And now it's becoming more urgent because a few years ago one of my aunts died and I never got to photograph her. So now the elders of our family are in that place where we have to think about that loss. I just feel like I have a gift and I get to use it in a very specific way. It gets to function both as art and as something that doesn't have to be art. They tell you to invest in what you're interested in. And I'm interested in my family. 

That's so beautiful. It’s like you have a duty to give back to them, and you’re a continuation of your ancestors and by documenting your family you’re that string that helps the generations keep going. It’s gonna be so amazing one day that you have a huge ass show when you're like 70 and all the future generations and whoever's left goes and sees it!

You're very thoughtful, careful, and conscious with how you speak. Is that something that comes naturally to you? Or something you’ve worked on? 

I used to be too afraid to speak because of how I was treated in school. Then I got to a place where I got really comfortable speaking and saying whatever was on my mind. I think I hurt a lot of people, family, friends, and strangers. I said a lot of really hurtful things because I felt like, “you're supposed to express yourself.” I started becoming conscious of speaking in college. There was a friend of mine, I almost guarantee he was in therapy at the time, and he's my friend who recently committed suicide. But people would ask him questions and critique his work. He would just sit there and think before responding. I really, really appreciated that about him. 

I try my best to honor the thoughts as they're coming. But I also try to invite myself to slow down so that I don't regret saying something, or so that I don't feel like I said something in mistake. So I can also feel proud of the thing that I'm saying and maybe have some conviction and confidence in the thing that I'm saying. It’s also just being around other people that have spent time practicing being thoughtful. I think as I've gotten older I'm surrounded by more thoughtful people like yourself and Lucien. I feel like everyone here is really thoughtful. Which is probably why we're here… a thoughtful approach to our work, to living, to interacting with people.

Looking around your home, you’ve written notes to yourself and placed them everywhere. What are some of your mantras? 

I made a promise to myself that I would “almost absolutely do what I want almost absolutely all of the time.” And within reason, right? Because I could be super broke and not be able to afford something. Or maybe the thing that I want to do is going to cause harm, so maybe I won't do that thing or self harm. I'm not willing to do things. But if it's something for my practice, or something for community, or something for family or friends that I think will elevate an experience or open up doors…. I'm gonna do that thing, even if it's difficult to accomplish, like art. I wanted to do that and now I fucking got a job. It just took a while.

Another is “trust your work.” That's my favorite poem by Nayyirah Waheed. I give it to all my classes, all my students. I tell my students within reason. Like if you’re trying to do things that are not helping… maybe do something else!

There is also this artist named Jen Delos Reyes, she teaches at Cornell now. I listened to one of her talks. She's an incredible artist and incredible thinker. She said, “progress not perfect perfection.” I was like, whoa. I often get caught up in trying to perfect something in my mind, but I think the way that I work with materials is not the same. But reminding myself that the progress is the better part of this journey.

So you’re about to start a big new job as a tenure-track university professor. What are some important things you value in this role? What do you want to impart your students with? What space are you creating for your students? 

It really bothers me when people in positions of power, especially educators or adults, shit on young people’s dreams or try to dissuade them from doing what they want to do. I don't even try to make my students be artists. It's like, if you're here and you don't want to be here, let's figure out what you’re actually interested in. Let's nurture that. 

I don't find value in telling an artist No. That's a greater risk than to say Yes. And I think it’s really risky to tell students, or artists, or a young person No. Especially as an artist, the world is already always telling you No. You're an artist because you don't accept No. When you say No, it morphs into all these other things because you received a No. It makes me think of putting a liquid that is negative into your drinking vessel, and then you drink it and you get intoxicated because you're just like, “oh, like they said no, they said no, they said no.” And all of sudden you're in this delusional place, and then you just tell yourself, “No, I won't even ask the next time. Because they're gonna say no anyway.”


You talk a lot about going to therapy, why do you prioritize your mental health? 

I want to feel good! I don't feel bad all of the time, but I want to be the best version of myself. And I think that a lot of the “No’s” I received growing up were the result of being in a small white community in rural southeastern Wisconsin, and being one of the few brown people in that community. I know that there's a lot of people that would be like, “don't let that fucking affect you,” but it did. It had a lot of really fucked up ways that it affected me. Then in turn I was unaware of how I navigated the world, being a hurtful person. I didn't do terrible things, but words can really destroy people. I didn't find therapy until I suffered from severe panic attacks and I thought I was dying. But the practice of going to therapy, especially when I finally found a good therapist, was peeling the onion away and like saying, “okay, this thing and this thing and this thing.” I feel like I was always functioning in a supportive way for my friends, my partners, and my family. But I wasn't taking care of myself. 

There’s a lot of things to tend to, the weeds have taken over the garden and we're just slowly tending to them. Some weeds are important, and we leave those there. Just trying to feel good and be a good person, and help other people understand that they are good as well. 

Ziran means “natural, spontaneous, and free.” To push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. The direct translation of Ziran means "nature." So nature is free and it doesn't hurry, but everything is accomplished. It's spontaneous but with a purpose. In your practice or in your life, do you feel like you’re Ziran? 

Maybe some days. This residency has allowed me to get closer to that and I aspire to that. It's like I'm honoring the pace at which I work now, and allowing things to enter when they need to enter, and working with things that are asking me to work with them. 

I'm at the service of my ideas. So I think that just means that I have to be spontaneous and sometimes slow moving, like a slow moving spontaneity. I don't know if that makes sense. I think that's cool that you've taken that on as something you make clothing under. It's pretty incredible. 

Cool. Thank you. The end! 

Words: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)

Photographer + Muse: Victor Yañez-Lazcano (@yanezlazcano)

Shot in Roswell, New Mexico. August 2023.