May 30, 2023

Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez

On a rather vacant corner in Los Angeles’s garment district, the former retail store turned artist-run-space that is Canary Test presents Porvenir/Portátil. An exhibition of seven sci-fi assemblages made by Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez-Delgado from repurposed materials which, though undergirded by a general memento-ization of home and family, serve as prototypes for the cultivation and sustainment of life on an inhospitable Earth or extraterrestrial environment.

Jíbaro (2023), a totem in yellow, blue, and white, wood, plastic, and electronic cables, stands over eight feet tall. New life, in the form of a Bejuco plant from Rodríguez-Delgado’s native Puerto Rico, crowns its tribute to family, home, and the stuff that makes and sustains us. The totem is also a backpack, a respirator, an irrigation system, an altar. Form may follow function, but here something akin to spirituality defies it.

This uncommon contraption, devised to sustain the Bejuco and its carrier on a theoretical trek across a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland, uses existing devices—drill batteries, light switches, a windshield water pump, two gallon plastic water jug, tubes, hoses, and cables—to power a PAPR respirator and circulate water from the jug to the plant and then push any reclaimed water through a charcoal-sand filter before returning it back to the jug. With this work Rodríguez-Delgado effectively nourishes what is generally considered to be a weed in Puerto Rico, but in the future-space posited by this object, the vine has gained new value for its resiliency and ability to proliferate.

Named after rural Puerto Rican farmers like Rodríguez-Delgado’s grandparents that adhere to traditional practices, Jíbaro is a technically functional art object that carries both the stuff of life itself and tokens of the love and family that make life worth living. A machete from the artist’s grandfather adorns the side of the Bejuco’s container; seemingly fixed in place, its purpose is not utilitarian but symbolic. The Virgin Mary, affixed with white binder clips to a gold foil ground and a decorative frame of black squiggles and blue dots, stands as a similar tribute to the artist’s grandmother, from whom this very praying card was adopted after her passing. Meanwhile, a plastic container holds mementos of home: a river stone, the artist’s grandmother’s rosaries, Puerto Rican soil, and broken blue and white ceramic tiles with an arabesque floral pattern popular throughout the island’s public recreational areas and private dwellings.

The future in which Jíbaro is necessary isn’t the one that Rodríguez-Delgado imagined on evenings after school at his grandmother’s house watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. There, a brave new world of technological advancement and exploration, a veritable utopia unburdened by scarcity, seemed just far enough away to be within reach. And so, scavenging in his grandmother’s kitchen draws for discarded objects with which to construct a makeshift spaceship or a laser gun, Rodríguez-Delgado perhaps unconsciously initiated the practice that would come to define his work.

An uncanny resourcefulness thus recurs throughout all of the works on view here. While each is a functional object—whether respirator, irrigation system, or hermetically sealed environment—they are also carefully considered sculptures, each with a unifying color palette and a custom crate adorned with warnings and instructions particular to its care and transportation. Though written in Spanish, the labels may at first appear unreadable, as they’re transcribed by the artist in Orbital Basic—a font of his own invention made up only of straight lines, which would theoretically be used by astronauts in bulky space suits that impede the articulation of curved letters.

Orbital Basic is part of a larger project, as Rodríguez-Delgado conceptualizes not only near-future outcomes of climate change, but also scenarios pertaining to interstellar space travel. In such a future-space, the artist’s series of “SpaceCapsules” may serve an increasingly reliquary function, preserving and monumentalizing the environments of a lost world. Islander (2020), for example, contains fragments, images, and artifacts that effectively re-create a Puerto Rican landscape. In what looks like an airtight, refrigerated container, feathers wave in the breeze of a centrifugal fan above a video of a plantain tree leaf over the ocean and various topographical artifacts (those same blue and white tiles from Jíbaro, a river stone, and a vial of soil from the shore of river). Housed in a custom crate that doubles as a backpack, this micro-ecosystem is further protected by a kill switch—it’s ready to self-destruct should its sanctity be contaminated.

Busto para el Molde de San Cristóbal Santo Patron de los Viajantes (Mold for the Bust of Saint Christopher Patron Saint of Travelers) (2023) possesses a similarly sacred function. Having grown up on an island where the greatest distance one can drive is two and a half hours, Rodríguez-Delgado more recently found some unexpected comfort in a praying card given to him by his grandfather that features the Patron Saint of Travelers. Though not particularly religious himself, Rodríguez-Delgado has come to see this icon and others like it—such as the Virgin Mary in Jíbaro—as landmarks in the construction of one’s identity and familial history. Affixed to the sun visor of his car, San Cristóbal thus accrued significance as a protector during the artist’s treks into strange new cities across the United States.

In the exhibition, San Cristóbal is represented as a plaster mold mounted on an enlarged wooden base akin to those used for Santos de Palo—a traditional form of statuary in Puerto Rico—which was hand-carved by Rodríguez-Delgado. The artisanal finesse of the base contrasts sharply with the electronic contraptions protruding from the bust. Where San Cristóbal’s face should be a screen displays footage that Rodríguez-Delgado gathered during his travels, interspersed with digitally rendered landscapes sourced from Google Earth street view along the I-10 where he drove on recent trips from Los Angeles, to Houston, Roswell, Kansas City, and Washington DC, then back to Galveston, and finally Roswell. As the sole work rooted firmly in the past and present, this piece breaks away from the largely future-oriented perspective of Porvenir/Portátil and Rodríguez-Delgado’s practice more broadly. It instead professes an uncommon sincerity and reverence for the journey we call life and the infinite unknowns we encounter along the way.

Rodríguez-Delgado notes in the press release, which he drafted in the first person, that “The future caught up with me and I never saw it coming. My technological utopia never materialized.” And yet, his exhibition remains distinctly hopeful that there is still a future to be had: embracing a DIY modality for existing on a blighted planet—the very fusion of subsistence-living with deeply personal symbolization and what can only be love bequeaths to viewers an innate belief in our own resiliency, the possibilities of mutual aid, and the power of imagination.

Hannah Sage Kay is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.

Canary Test Hannah Sage Kay