Finding Meaning in Forgotten Objects: Pamela Ramos Interviewed

Pamela Ramos, Carta Encontrada, 2021. Installation view, Malraux’s Place, Brooklyn, NY.

Two years ago, Los Angeles-based artist Pamela Ramos went digging through a storage room at her dad’s moving company, Ramos Envios. She found myriad objects missing their delivery addresses—forgotten photo albums, dolls, and other personal items. After picking her favorites she considered their origin and meaning, both as found objects and as sculptures.

This undertaking resulted in her recent exhibition, Carta Encontrada, which opened at Malraux’s Place, a satellite space for the NY-based gallery, tucked behind a bank in Lincoln Heights. The show included an anonymous film of an anonymous wedding in Mexico between a young couple and happy relatives, photographic prints, and a constellation of sculptures and found objects. 

I first became acquainted with Ramos’s work in 2019 when I interviewed her about her roving art space El Clasificado. To explore issues of class, labor, and visibility through site-specific artworks Ramos used the bright yellow El Clasificado newstands that sit half empty outside many small shops and high-traffic sidewalks in Southern California. 

Over the span of a month, Ramos and I corresponded over iMessage discussing memory, transformation, and our mutual obsession with objects and their slippery meanings. In that time she was also in the process of installing work in a two-person show, Sixth Planet from the Sun at LVL3 in Chicago, which focused more heavily on her relationship to the image in photography. —Angella d’Avignon

Angella d’Avignon Whose wedding are we watching in your latest exhibition? 

Pamela Ramos I don’t personally know the people who are getting married in this video. Like all the other works in the show this DVD comes from the unclaimed or lost items at my dad’s shipping company, Ramos Envios. 

Ad Tell me about the process of picking out these objects. Was this your first time surveying all this stuff? What did you feel drawn towards while going through them?

PR About two years ago I found a box filled with things in the back room at Ramos Envios. I asked around and found out that these items were considered lost or unclaimed. Some of them had been sitting there for months and even years. I learned that eventually they would get thrown away if they weren’t claimed. I was immediately moved and puzzled by these objects—items ranging from photos and letters to hair clips were just sitting there. I couldn’t help but think about their singular stories, the intimacy that they were embedded with, and how time and distance had transformed them into anonymous objects. I sat with them for a long time and each object evolved singularly. There are objects that are still unresolved, like a beautiful letter written by a wife to her husband or a ripped family photograph. 

Others, like the wedding video on view at Malraux’s Place, or the image of the baby with the golden retrievers, aligned with my discourse around image making and that evident connection helped me sort them out as artworks.

Pamela Ramos, Carta Encontrada, 2021. Installation view, Malraux’s Place, Brooklyn, NY.

Ad Did I ever tell you I had a job going through dead people’s stuff for an antique dealer?

That’s a weird segueway, but I bring it up because as I would walk through people’s homes to assess the value of their more expensive items, I was magnetized to more personal items like a bottle of a woman’s leftover nail polish, or like, untied shoes left at the door. Things that were sentimental only because they were someone else’s and left unintentionally by way of death. A total absence. Death is so messy. It’s like a transformation occurred after they were abandoned. 

How do you see the objects from Ramos Envios shift meaning once they’re placed in the new context of the gallery?

PR Oh wow. That’s such an intense job. I had no idea you did that and I guess both the items you were finding and the ones I found have a specific energy to them because they weren’t voluntarily given up or forgotten. I think in both instances these items demand a kind of care and respect when handling them. I tried to understand each object’s original narrative—why it was sent, why it was meaningful to someone? Then once I was able to relate to them, I could insert myself and my own thoughts surrounding their aesthetic or their poetics and mythologies.

That said, I think once the objects enter a gallery narrative, viewing them is more complex than when I first encountered them in a box. As artworks they raise questions about voyeurism and the ethics of representation while still retaining (I think) the beauty that gravitated me to them.

Ad The influence of that antique dealer job led to a project where myself and a handful of artists picked objects that signified pain or absence and recreated them in multiples, then sold them at the local swap meet without any context whatsoever. I didn’t interrogate the actual objects as much as I did the way they sparked an emotional or even just an interested reaction in anyone who looked at them, especially when we presented them on a card table at the swap meet later. It thrills me to think that we’ll never actually know what the objects meant to someone else, but we can still feel the weight somehow.

PR I identify with the progression in your text so much. The way in which you journey from going through dead people’s objects to the swap meet and the arrival at secrets exchanged and erased. My journey with the objects I found are as intimate as what you write about but carry a different weight because death isn’t the assumed cause of why they’re left in storage. This ambiguity flattens out what was important. Arbitrary things like a baby keychain held the same intimate weight that a love letter did. It wasn’t necessarily because someone had lived through these objects but because there was an urge to share and connect through them.

Pamela Ramos, Carta Encontrada, 2021. Installation view, Malraux’s Place, Brooklyn, NY.

Ad I’m curious about the terracotta figurines…what drew you to those specifically? 

PR The terracotta figurines are so layered! As far as this project’s method, I found a bag filled with the heads at Ramos Envios. These heads are commonly used on Day of the Dead bread in Oaxaca. The breads I’m talking about have some human-like qualities like the illusion of arms or legs, and so it only felt natural to mimic those gestures.                                              

At the same time, when I started working on these sculptures I was going through immense physical pain, and making these was both a way of passing time and an expression of certain aches. I think this is why there are so many lumps and suggestions of the female body on each sculpture.

Ad Hearing this about how you made these figurines/sculptures makes their placement all the more poignant. I was overly aware of them the entire time I was watching the video piece, and I was acutely aware of my body. I was laughing at the drunk grandmas on the video and kind of bopping along with the scene and music, meanwhile I was desperately conscious of my feet!

PR I love hearing that the sculptures made you feel more aware of your body. I think the placement was key. Had they been on pedestals or displayed in other ways I think the tension between us/our bodies and them and their scale and fragility would have been reduced. That was honestly something that developed at the gallery and not something I was aware would be happening when I was making them. 

Ad That attention to physicality leads me back to a connection I wanted to examine between objects and embodiment…and how your dad moving these special objects back and forth across the US/MX border is so beautiful—he traced a path of communication for so many people.

PR I agree. There is a lot of beauty in that trade and distance. What makes me feel deeply connected to it is that my dad arrived at that decision through our separation. The energy that Ramos Envios holds as a business and as an analogy is very physical. 

Still, all the beauty facilitated by the analogy of Ramos Envios is conflicting and unresolved. 

As beautiful as it was, the analogy I found in going through Ramos Envios feels unresolved to me.

It’s poetic, yet I can’t allow myself to only get lost and seduced by that. What is poignant for me is that it raises Western questions about love, otherness, joy, loss, etc.

Ad When you say it raises Western questions about love, otherness, joy, loss…I think of the hairline fracture separating sentimental attachment to objects and commodity fetishism…what other nuances do you see there?

PR The archive is all around us. Someone just sent me Stuart Hall’s text on ”reconstruction work.” I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but what I gather from it is that through images from the past we can work through the present and towards the future. The problematic readings of the past can be reactivated and reassigned. How exciting! That our archives have that power! 

Ad This is thrilling! In relation to the project and thinking about moving things across borders…Envios Ramos was a transporter of memories and love in many senses.

PR I think I know what you mean, and perhaps the initial state of these objects did function within commodity fetishism, but in this specific gap of time and distance I think these objects are sent with the intention of replacing absence. The absence of a loved one, of closeness, of touch, etc. With that in mind, it’s hard for me to see them purely as commodities. Even though capitalism is the root of why this distance is being created and why Ramos Envios even exists. Like I said before, the whole thing is quite poetic, but it’s also evident to me that it feeds off labor. 

Ad I want to get back to this idea in the Stuart Hall text: “The problematic readings of the past can be reactivated and reassigned,”—a glimmer of hope!

PR Yeah! I think it’s very hopeful, but with any glimpse of hope it’s important to acknowledge that the work needs to be put into reactivating and rebuilding these meanings. Otherwise the image becomes fetishized and stagnant.

Pamela Ramos, Untitled (Bouquet #1), 2022. Newsprint, flowers, ribbon. Dimensions variable.

Ad Yes! I think that’s what I was trying to get to (maybe less to do with your show at Malraux’s), that without intervention—reactivation and rebuilding—art gets consumed by capitalism and object fetish. That said, I’d love to hear about your Chicago show…is it a departure from Ramos Envios or more of a continuation? Or something else entirely?

PR I think commodity fetishism is a conflicting topic because even with the most pure intentions a lot of art gets commodified. Not always but the transactional reality of art is integral to artists being able to produce. (Using the word production reiterates how the language of capitalism is embedded in all segments of society). 

The works I’m showing in Chicago are completely different from Ramos Envios. The wall pieces are Manuel Alvarez Bravo photographs that I sourced and printed from the internet and then rephotographed after inserting myself into them. This gesture was an admittance of the influence and love I have for the kind of work Bravo produced, and how impactful it has been to my photographic practice as well as to the photography discourse in Latin America. 

A lot of my photographic work is about defying tradition, and with these pieces I wanted to embrace it. 

I am also showing some flower sculptures that consist of flower arrangements wrapped with images I’ve taken and printed onto newsprint. As the flowers decay they leave traces of their death on the paper. The image is constantly changing.

Ad This description of dying flowers against the photographic newsprints is evocative. There’s a May Sarton quote where she says she or any maker cannot understand the nature of life itself if they don’t witness flowers dying in real time.

One aspect I’m hearing you discuss is the idea of witnessing—as Ramos Envios moves memories, love, family connection, etc through vehicle transport. Then through your careful selection and rearrangement and through the inimitable transformation that we talked about earlier, what do you think about the idea of communing with the spirits of the objects in Carta Encontrada? Is that too woo-woo?

PR I am always so careful between the spiritual and the material. But even when I was talking about the show with people, I acknowledged the “past life” these objects had. They carry an essence, an energy perhaps that I do acknowledge and in a way surrender to. I think this is what initially helped me gravitate towards them. 

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