Universes in Universe / Columna de Arena / No. 50
The spring issue of ReVista, the magazine of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, was dedicated to Colombia. The following article was published in this context. The complete issue can be found at: http://drclas.fas.harvard.edu/publications/revista/colombia/tcontents.html
Images for a political geography of plants
Plants play a role in the moral and political history of mankind; if it is certain that the history of natural objects can only be considered a history of nature, then it is no less certain-according to the definition of one profound thinker-that the very changes in nature acquire a legitimately historical character if they exert influence over human events.
Humboldt and Bonpland, Ideas for a Geography of Plants, 1803
Colombia's worsening conflict has caused millions of people to move from rural to urban areas and a significant exodus of the middle and upper classes to foreign countries. It has also created a culture that, by witnessing numerous images of death on a daily basis, has come to visually accept violence. Given that Colombians see crude images on television and in the newspapers almost daily, their visual sensibility has been, in a sense, “anesthetized.” In this contex, I will argue, the artistic image -with its evocative and allegorical power- can be more effective than an image found in the media with respect to its ability to reinforce the associations between image, feeling and meaning.
This exposure to violence is not new. When we talk about “The Violence” in Colombia, we do not refer to the current situation in the country. We are specifically talking about the 1950s political violence between conservatives and liberals that created a predominantly urban country due to the massive influx of peasants into the cities. This accelerated urbanization generated widespread misery, common delinquency and hybrid cultures at the periphery (urban-rural). The fact that we still refer to the 1950s as “The Era of Violence” is rather ironic, since one would assume this phenomenon of violence would have ended by now or at least diminished in its intensity. On the contrary: diverse political and economic factors (particularly drug trafficking) have caused the situation to reach truly absurd extremes, with more than 30,000 violent deaths per year, millions of unemployed people and millions of legal and illegal emigrants. As a result, there has been a progressive and accelerated pauperization of the “oldest democracy in Latin America,” one of the rhetorical phrases which we Colombians use to bear with all this misery we face.
Latin America's first voyagers were well aware of the deep inequities in the social and political structures that they encountered in their travels - this was evident in their criticism of them in their journals and correspondence. One can say that the true discovery of America took place in the second half of the 18th century when these European scientific expeditions traveled to the New World with the intention of mapping the territory and classifying its flora and fauna. Although voyagers (that rare combination of both an artist and a scientist) were primarily interested in the region's geography, zoology, and botany, their attitude toward their exuberant surroundings and flora contrasted sharply with their condescension and disdain towards the societies they encountered. In the 19th century, many of these societies were in the process of establishing themselves as a nation while they dealt with internal power struggles. Part of the tragedy that derived from this “new conquest” arose from the fact that the scientific viewpoint supported a social order that was based on the idea of exclusion. This social hegemony, blatantly unequal and unjust when viewed from a modern perspective, was made to look as the natural order of things, an order which was by nature unquestionable. Many of the social dysfunctions that have characterized our arduous post-colonial history have sprung from that worldview.
Botany, a discipline associated with the scientific view of the 19th century, has been recaptured from a critical perspective by various Colombian artists. They have established connections between the classification of natural resources in the colonies, in itself paving the way for the capitalist exploitation of the land, and the “scientific” establishment of social inequalities as one of the roots of the country's current situation.
José Alejandro Restrepo has turned to video language to establish the historical genealogy of the violence within a continent that was colonized through the use of force. In Musa Paradisiaca (1993-1996), an installation using bunches of bananas and video news clips, Restrepo shows the strong bonds between violence and the image of the tropics as a terrestrial paradise, an exuberant and exotic America both in natural and sexual ways. In fact, Musa Paradisiaca is also the scientific name for one of the most common varieties of banana, a plant that has long been associated with the history of violence in our country. The violence associated with banana crops can be traced back to the days when the United Fruit Company controlled the plantations (the banana workers' massacre referred to by Gabriel García Márquez in A Hundred Years of Solitude). On a local scale, this violence relentlessly continues into today's conflict in the Urabá banana-growing region, involving large landowners, banana companies, unions and workers, and guerrillas and paramilitaries. At the same time, internationally, the excruciating negotiations over commercial preferences and market quotes in the so-called “GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) Round” illustrate the tension imposed by globalization.
In the context where crude images have lost their powerful ability to make an impression, the aesthetic process of violent images gives back this visibility to the image. And if death has become aesthetic, what better symbol for it than a flower, the image of which is associated with beauty in all cultures, and sometimes with funerary rites as well? It is not mere coincidence that the image of the flower and a renewed interest in botany in general have reappeared in Colombian art at a time when the war seems to be worse than ever. Just as the view of the natural landscape simultaneously reveals the scene of conflict, the flower metonymically substitutes death, its direct consequence.
The series of works with plastic flowers done by María Fernanda Cardoso since the beginning of the 1990’s maintains a logical relationship with her previous works which involved dissected animals, although its formal aspect makes one think the opposite. In both series the artist recurs to the ready-made -the fake flowers are industrial products while the dead animals are bought at taxidermists' stores- and in both instances there is a reflection on death. Flowers are part of the rites of mourning, usually in the form of crowns that are envisioned as posthumous offerings to the relatives of someone that has passed away. Cardoso’s crowns “recreate a contemplative state of death. What is morbid is not what is contained in the work but rather the pain and its manifestation in the colorful groupings of flowers, symbols of beauty, fertility, and life, in order to celebrate the death and feeling of loss that it conveys,” as noted by the critic Ana Sokoloff.
One of the visual legacies of “La Violencia” is a series of photographs that document the atrocious practices of the rural guerrillas in the region of Tolima. The famous cortes or “cuts,” in which the victimizers proceeded to desecrate cadavers using a series of visual codes: corte de franela (a cut on the base of the neck, just like a t-shirt); corte de corbata (the tongue would appear through a cut in the neck) and the macabre corte de florero in which the cadaver’s arms and legs were placed where the head would be, using a rather perverse “floral arrangement.” The series of images titled Corte de Florero by the photographer Juan Manuel Echavarría makes reference to these sinister practices. Echavarría makes artistic arrangements with the bones of anonymous people; he photographs them, names and organizes them in a series of images that are truly beautiful. Its formal composition makes explicit reference to the prints done by the Botanical Expedition, the scientific enterprise of the 18th century which had as its primary goal the classification of American species for the benefit of science and the Spanish crown. These macabre practices are still firmly ingrained in our collective memory, despite the fact that few people in the urban centers of the country actually viewed or experienced such atrocities. Echavarría's work gives an actual shape to these blurry memories and impressions in a very poetic manner.
In 1997, Juan Fernando Herrán began a series of images called
Somniferum, the scientific name for the poppy flower. In his travels, Herrán was able to contrast the differences in perception that are held about poppies in such diverse cultural contexts as Europe, the Middle East, and America. Herrán turns to the poppy plant in order to speak about a crucial problem in the recent history of Colombia: the violence arising from the repression of drug trafficking and production. This problem has serious implications in society, as well as in the distribution and organization of the land. Herrán's series “Papaver Somniferum” uses the image of the poppy, usually associated with concepts such as beauty, romance or solidarity, as a visual representation of the current political and social situation in Colombia. The artist appropriates press images and establishes visual relationships that put into conflict univocal perceptions, the official and privileged versions through strategies of contrast and juxtaposition. In Untitled 1999, Herran amplifies and reproduces a photograph of a soldier who candidly holds a freshly-cut bushel of poppies (as a symbol of the effectiveness of the action taken by the military to eradicate illicit crops), generating two symmetrical images. Between the two images lies a great colored surface with horizontal lines of different colors evoking a psychedelic motif. This central image is in reality a fabric that was acquired in Turkey (where the government controls the poppy crop) with a floral imprint on a low-relief surface that can only be seen when viewed from a horizontal angle. The work requires the viewer to give up his privileged position and obligates her to relocate, placing her in a position of marginal vision. In the context of what has been called a “drug problem” - something that involves production and consumption, offer and demand, developed and Third Worlds - this repositioning of one’s visual angle brings into questioning the official account and its “correct” point of view.
In the work of Antonio Caro, the botanic appears as a theme and as material. Since the 1960’s, Caro used the cornstalk, a symbol of continental character, in order to refer to indigenous communities whose presence has been systematically removed from all political representation. As is characteristic in Caro's work, this image has been redone in various versions and in a variety of mediums, from the real plant to a drawing made in graffiti over a public wall, making its way even into a mass-circulation postage stamp. Corn relates to another work of Caro that touches upon the problem of the indigenous people in Colombia: Homage to Manuel Quintín Lame, first created in 1972. Caro learned by heart the signature of Lame, a 1930s indigenous leader who studied law to defend his people from the evils of the colonizers and their primary accomplices, the local governments. Quintin Lame’s signature is highly symbolic: a syncretism between typical 19th century calligraphy and an indigenous pictogram. This signature has a formal quality that goes beyond the individual, signifying the presence of two communities in an uncomfortable coexistence. Each time that Caro does the signature in a new context (he has done the last versions in achiote, a natural pigment that is found in all of Latin America), he is reinstating a presence that the official histories have systematically obliterated.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Miguel Angel Rojas created a series of works with tiny round pornographic photographs made with a paper hole puncher. With these miniscule images, Rojas made drawings in the walls based on children's sketches. These mural drawings were related to previous photographic works covertly taken in pornographic cinemas in downtown Bogotá, many of which have turned into spots for gay encounters. In a conservative and intolerant society, Rojas’ work managed to expose the social violence enforcing the exclusion of marginal groups and minorities (Rojas speaks from the perspective of his own homosexuality and indigenous roots). He put the viewer in the uncomfortable position of being watched in the act of watching; therefore, he was making the viewer both an observer and an accomplice to the acts that society usually violently represses. The formal technique reappears in his late 1990s drawings, but the material changes and with it, the political nature of the work.
When viewed from a distance, the drawing Go On evokes an illustration taken from a book about the Far East. Viewed up close, it becomes evident that the piece has been constructed patiently with specks of green shaped from coca leaves with the help of a hole puncher. Rojas' installation reminds us of history's bad habit of perpetuating its methods: the conquest of a territory through violent action finds another stage and other actors, but the roles have not changed. Alluding to the conquest of territories through “blood and fire” -converted by Hollywood in mythological saga-Rojas inscribes his work in the current political scene.
In a later version of this work, the title of one of the pop icons (the well-known work of Richard Hamilton, What makes today's homes so different, so attractive?) is created with pieces of coca leaves in a futuristic typography. The ironic commentary refers to the double moral standard of the international community regarding the drug problem. As Colombia is stigmatized as the principal drug producer, the consumption of drugs in industrialized countries is not only not stigmatized, but it is also associated with a certain glamorous lifestyle, the world of top corporate executives, stockbrokers and artists. In moral terms, the consumption of drugs is something strictly personal, and in a democratic society, the decision to consume or not to consume comes from the right to freely develop one’s personality. But criminalization generates the current scenario in which the business prospers, the big dividends stay in the countries that consume it, and Colombia provides the dead people. The drug chain presupposes a series of intermediaries of which Colombia is just one of many: there are the producers of chemicals (they are generally European or North American pharmaceutical companies); the trafficking; the consumption; the money laundering through international banks in countries where the banks’ secrecy prevents the circulation of the true dividends of the drug business and guarantees the wellbeing of citizens.
The consumption and the production are intimately related: what is it that makes certain social practices so different, so attractive in some contexts and so condemnable in others?
The interest in botany, a science identified in the imaginary collective with the classificatory craze of the 19th century, has sprung up again as a theme and as an artistic strategy in Colombia. But in the same place where the voyagers saw the symbol of savage nature, pre-cultural and contemporary artists identify the long-term effects of a transplanted economic model and of the resulting asymmetries in the distribution of wealth. The territory that they map is also different, transformed and altered by almost two centuries of internal wars of varied intensity. Jesús Abad Colorado, photographer for El Colombiano, one of the most important newspapers of Medellín (which has witnessed the most violent confrontations of the past decade) has had to visually document the most atrocious events perpetrated by all acting parties in the conflict. One of his series, however, is closely related to the visual tradition of the scientific view concerning territory. Abad Colorado has documented human displacement caused by Colombia's internal wars, showing the transformation of the rural landscape due to the political violence. These black and white photographs are ambiguous: where one believes to be seeing an incommensurable lake, Colorado has documented the blowing up of an oleoduct. Similarly, the image of a deserted landscape, vaguely resembling the moon's surface, turns out to be an area bombarded by the army in its war against guerillas and their sympathizers. A dark streak in a virgin meadow, which appears in its geometric layout to mimmick “land art” interventions in the landscape, is actually a trench carved out in the middle of the jungle.
Every possible form of violence has taken place in the Colombian territory, from the fratricidal struggles to establish the nation's political model to the anarchic and multi-shaped violence of today, not to overlook the bipartisan fights, the violence of military dictatorship, state terrorism, leftist terrorism and drug trafficking violence. Consequently, it shouldn’t seem absurd that our national flower is the “black flamingo flower,” a particularly somber variation of this flower commonly used in mortuary rites. Necrological flora, social taxonomy, political botany. When dealing with acts of barbarity, only the most aesthetic image seems to be capable of recovering, by opposition, a critical sense.
José Roca is a Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. A longer version of this article was published in the December 2001 LAPIZ magazine. Parts of the text appeared in an article on Colombian art in the 1990s in the exhibition catalog for the Politics of Difference, curated by Kevin Power.
Pullquote: It is not mere coincidence that the image of the flower and renewed interest in botany in general have reappeared in Colombian art at a time when the war seems to be worst than ever.
<< Columna de Arena no. 50 (Spanish)
Text and Columna de Arena: José Roca
Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder