an audience with Denise de la Rue

The demimonde at the V&A launch party last month for Fragile Beauty, Sir Elton John’s exhibition of his photography collection, was a who’s who of famous faces. Perhaps even more interesting was who wasn’t there. And so also for Denise De La Rue, one of the singer’s favorite artists, whom he has been collecting for years and whose photo of the matador Juan Pablo Sanchez he sold in February during a Christie’s sale of his private collection. De La Rue was in Madrid to launch a show of her own – at the decadent Liria Palace, no less, home to the Duke of Alba. Called A New World, it is the first to be held in the hallowed halls of the palace, and now takes pride of place in the garden’s brand new art annex until July 31. There I meet De La Rue, who shows me around her spectacular show.

Too modest to brag about her famous fans (just a quick Google reveals them), she prefers to talk about more historical patrons and her current hosts: the Albas. Their collection has been among Spain’s most prolific artistic patrons for centuries and includes works by Goya and Velásquez, and furniture made for Napoleon III.

De La Rue is obsessed with history. Her new show draws inspiration from “new worlds” of history, including the archival letters of Christopher Columbus, which are housed in the Liria Library. The artist has turned side notes from the explorer’s notebooks into 3D replicas of objects from the Apollo 11 rocket. One of the most striking works is an arrow from the hatch of the Apollo 11 Command Module ‘Columbia’, with the RESCUE highlighted in bold capital letters.

Art explorer: Mexican photographer and sculptor Denise De La Rue (Denise De La Rue)

Art explorer: Mexican photographer and sculptor Denise De La Rue (Denise De La Rue)

De La Rue itself knows new worlds. She grew up in Mexico City and attended boarding school in Switzerland. She returned to her hometown to study art history and then attended the Academia delle Belle Arti in Florence. As the daughter of an architect, her transition to sculpture after years as a photographer has some poetic justice. “I see myself as a multidisciplinary artist,” she says.

Her works can be found in the Jumex Museum in Mexico City, alongside Warhol, Koons and Twombly; at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts alongside Cézanne, Rembrandt and Van Gogh; and she was the first Latin American artist sold by Gagosian. Her work A Cry for Peace, which uses Picasso’s Guernica as a photographic backdrop, premiered at the UN in 2014.

Beyond history, matadors have been a leitmotif in De La Rue’s work (Mexico, like Spain, has long been host to corridas). What characterizes her work, regardless of the medium, is her eye for framing. “I see frames in everything I encounter,” she says, and so “art is everywhere.”

A cry for peace, 2017 (Denise De La Rue)A call for peace, 2017 (Denise De La Rue)

A call for peace, 2017 (Denise De La Rue)

Art is certainly everywhere in the Liria, which we experience together on a Sunday. We enter an Italian living room full of Renaissance masterpieces; a Dutch room decorated with old masters; and a ballroom, where a replica of the Voyager Golden Record, recorded aboard the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, stands proudly next to a phonograph. However, the sound comes from a different speaker, playing a version of the record, The Sounds of Earth, remixed by a friend of De La Rue’s, a techno DJ. “So funny!” she beams. The original record, of which two were made and launched into space, contains sounds and images depicting life and culture on Earth. Their intended audience? Aliens. In her show notes, De La Rue writes that she is fascinated by exploration, “first of the planet and now of the cosmos”; efforts that she ultimately sees as “an exploration of our soul.”

My show is about highlighting the need and desire we have as humans to explore.

Denise de la Rue

It would be easy to label such a view as Eurocentric; her decision to rehabilitate Columbus as part of the same legacy as Neil Armstrong raises eyebrows in an era with little enthusiasm for imperialism. But like many outside Europe (and the US), De La Rue does not subscribe to the ideological currents of Western education and adopts a more positive, perhaps neo-evangelical view of conquest and colony. “I am often asked this question,” she says. “[My show is about] the discovery of new worlds and new realities; it is about emphasizing the need and will that we have as humans, to go beyond our limits and fears.”

By discovering new frontiers, Columbus also pushed the boundaries of knowledge and fueled the desire for limitlessness that De La Rue sees personified today in NASA’s space explorers. “I think the colonization of Mars is amazing,” she says of the project led by the US Space Agency and by more controversial parties such as Elon Musk’s Space X. Would she live on Mars if she had the chance? “Um, no,” she fires back, “but I would definitely like to travel into space.”

Inside the Liria Palace (Denise De La Rue)Inside the Liria Palace (Denise De La Rue)

Inside the Liria Palace (Denise De La Rue)

She is quick to point this out, expressing hope for the future of humanity on Earth and pointing out the false dichotomy at the heart of the debate surrounding our journey to other planets: the idea that those in favor of space exploration have decided that it’s too late to save the earth. . “Many of NASA’s experiments,” she says, “are specifically designed to protect our planet.”

Well aware of the environmental impact of space travel, she brings up the Astra Carta framework launched by the Sustainable Markets Initiative, the seal of which was unveiled by the King at a ceremony last June. “There is so much space junk,” the artist acknowledges. Could this serve as inspiration for her next installation? De La Rue prefers the term ‘intervention’: she sees her work as taking over the place where it is shown. She even wants to take over the next World Economic Forum conference in Davos, with the centerpiece being a recycled plastic sculpture modeled on Hope, the blue whale skeleton that hangs in the Natural History Museum. The purpose of art, she says, has always been to “raise consciousness.” No wonder Elton John adores her.

A New World can be seen at the Liria Palace in Madrid until July 31.

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