Photographer-turned-conceptual artist Dmitri Zurita is as much a work-in-progress as any of his provocative installation pieces. Born in Tijuana and educated in California, the bi-cultural artist has probed corners and pushed boundaries of art practice throughout his four years at UC Santa Cruz.
“I began with photography because it was ubiquitous,” says Zurita whose striking black hair and eyes echo Frida Kahlo self-portraits. “It is second nature for my generation—in fact, for our entire culture.” Soon he was interweaving his photographs with found work, and re-imagining the results through unexpected manipulations. Approaching his mid-20s, Zurita currently spends his time between research in collaboration with environmental art pioneers Helen and Newton Harrison, and renovating a 1968 Karmann Ghia near his family home on the Mexican border.
“The big point about making art for me was that it had to answer the ‘so what?’ question—I wanted to do something important, something that focused on contemporary dialogue,” Zurita says. He believes contemporary art acts as a filter through which we understand life around us. “So it has to operate in a way that contributes to conversations,” he explains. “It also has to serve a social function, some form of engagement.”
What does a conceptual artist actually do? “My work involves a lot of sitting and thinking. Or laying down and thinking,” he says with a grin. “Concepts continuously come and go, and when something clicks, I write it down and put it up on my wall. Then I like to live with it.”
Photos, texts, other artists’ images—it all serves as a graphic muse to stimulate or evolve ideas that end up as a bit of conceptual art.
In 2012, Zurita filled an entire windowfront of Santa Cruz’s Rittenhouse Building with surplus clothing.
“I’m interested in interventions into the ideological circuit,” he says.
Surplus filled 90 square feet of window with clothing gathered from friends, local thrift stores and Goodwill, and was intended “to reveal the invisible structures within capitalist systems.” As an Irwin Scholar during his senior year as an art major, Zurita created an installation of text referencing child labor practices, on 8 x 16-foot screens. “The text was invisible unless you walked past and looked at a certain angle.”
The border is a concept—and reality—permeating Zurita’s most recent work, including a one-person show at the IMAC and an artist-in-residence project, both in Tijuana. “The border is more and more present in my work,” he says scrolling through staged “tourist” photos of himself in full mariachi sombrero and saddle blanket, astride a burro. “I like to work on lots of projects at once,” he confesses. Some are photographic pieces, such as an ongoing “cut-out image” series in which he literally removes the specific information from iconic photographic images. Others combine image and concept, such as the photos of himself posing on the painted, decorated burros. “I was re-creating an image that goes back many generations to turn-of-the century tourist photos. Thinking about the continuation of this tourist photo practice as an allegory for Tijuana itself, is stimulating.”
Born two blocks from the U.S./Mexico border, Zurita went to community college in San Diego before transferring to UCSC on full scholarship. “There’s no reason to leave Santa Cruz just yet,” he says, adding that he will probably be attending an MFA program next year. Eclectic in his personal life as in his artistic one, Zurita’s on-going music practice includes guitar, violin, piano. And he’s a passionate foodie. “I’m all about fusion cooking,” he grins, citing India Joze and Malabar as two of his favorite local eateries. Part of a young generation of unbordered, boundary-less art practitioners, Zurita restlessly tracks what he calls the “ideological curators” of the 21st century. His mission: to “jar our consciousness into seeing exactly where all the seams are.”