Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi on functional objects of art, fitness, and pleasure 

In conversation with , June 14, 2023

Art, Photography, People

Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 

Introduction by Don Antonio

Gym weights taking sculptural forms influence Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi, a model and an artist, to fuse fitness with art. His 20-pound gym weights glisten in steel, mirroring the surroundings through their semi-prismatic and always rippling reflections. Their bulbous heads are almost rounded, smooth, and erect. Fingers may want to graze above and below their slitless forms until they grip the handles of the weight, designed to follow the curves and folds of the user’s hands. Every lift is a gift of strain, a contrast between the sweat pooling on the user’s forehead and dripping to their face, and the constant allure of the gym weight’s rock-hard material and sensual shape.

Vagujhelyi awakens the pleasure of fitness and the movement of the body through his next artistic object, a pair of steel handcuffs. Its irregular contours slope up and down like ragged concrete roads. Shaped like royal crowns without embellishment, the handcuffs may accessorize the user’s wrists as they pump their arms with Vagujhelyi’s gym weights. A sinuous thread that sews an intangible yet visible connection between the objects and the user encourages Vagujhelyi to release his collection of sculptural and functional wellness pieces.

Editorial images shot to introduce the collection appeals to the loyal readers of health magazines in the bygone decades. Black and white photographs of bodybuilders showcasing their bulked-up forms and tanned skins appear in the frames, at times only details of their sculpted bodies. At times, the spaces where these objects are photographed echo the places that kindle joy to Vagulhelyi, as if they were treasured souvenirs he can always pocket and bring with him anywhere to recall and revel in.

For his entire project, the model and artist names it VAGUJHELYI, a homage to his Hungarian roots, upbringing, and surname. Below, he narrates and bares his artistic journey, penned as a journal entry viewers are privileged enough to read.

Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi

Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi as told to Don Antonio

Growing up in Madrid, Spain, I was exposed to a lot of art forms by visiting Museo Reina Sofía and Museo Nacional del Prado. I saw “Saturn devouring his son” by Goya at the Prado for the first time in the early 2000s, and since then, art as an inspiration and a career to pursue has stayed with me. My mother is also an influence on my artistic career. She was a model when she was younger and encouraged me to use modeling as an outlet to travel and take photos. She used to take me with her to photo shoots when she became a makeup artist later on. Through her, I got used to being within that setting.

VAGUJHELYI, my sculptural project, came about as a new means of expression for me. I had been inspired by sculptures and their physicality and wanted to create something viewers could interact with and use. I pictured a set of solid-stainless steel weights with an ergonomically conscious handle, tailored for the right and left hand respectively. The idea of weights came about during the pandemic when we couldn’t use the gym. I thought it would be a great start to create an object that was both useful and visually appealing.

Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 

The name VAGUJHELYI is rooted in my familial background. My mother has been, and always will be, one of my main in􀀁uences and supporters, so I wanted to use my second last name to honor her and my family from her side. It is a Hungarian last name that my great-grandfather created in order to celebrate his heritage during the war so we are the only ones with that last name. VAG is an actual river, UJ is new, and HELYI is place. Together, it means “new place by the river.” When I first moved to the US, I moved in with my uncle and went to school using that surname instead of Villarreal. It was a way for me to uphold my heritage.

The concept of VAGUJHELYI is to create items that any individual could use and/or need. After designing and producing gym equipment, I thought it would be interesting to incorporate a rather playful object. They are based on my personal experiences and explorations, so they come from objects that I myself would want to have. For the weights, I use grade 304 stainless steel while for the handcu􀀃s and other objects, I use brass as it is an easier metal to work with. The creation process varies as well as the people I work with. The weights, since it was quite an unusual item, took us a bit of research to 􀀂gure out where we could produce them. Luckily, we found a foundry in Milwaukee that could make them in the US. For the smaller objects, I am able to produce them in New York.

Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi
Photo Diego Villarreal Vagujhelyi

I have shot editorial images for these objects of art. I love referencing old health magazines, thus the visuals may remind viewers of those. With the 􀀂rst round of images of the weights, I wanted to create this feeling as if these objects had existed for many years. To realize that, I went for a black-and-white approach with the color of the photographs. The handcuffs are more lightweight than the gym weights, so bringing them around wherever I want to is easier, whether it is in a hotel room or even at my friend Steve Klein's home.

I try to be spontaneous with when and how I wanted these objects captured. I wanted to be in the moment and with these objects at the same time, so I also imagined and placed them in several spaces and scenarios that give me joy. The moment I saw the results of the editorial photographs, both for the gym weights and the handcuffs, a sense of nostalgia immediately came through. This, I think, is what I want to achieve in all my images. It is this feeling of standing the test of time that I use 􀀂lm to shoot the images. In a way, these images are also a reflection of where I am.

VAGUJHELYI aims to transfigure the relationship between the object and its holder. I wanted to create objects that viewers feel a strong connection with when they see and use them. I wanted to encourage people to interact with objects from a new perspective. Once personal perspectives merge, the results excite senses which can allow viewers to see these objects as fun and beneficial in someone’s life.

Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 
Photo by Andrés Jaña 

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