Universes in Universe / Columna de Arena / Nr. 51
4 July 2003, print version
The canary and the boar
Popular graphics, or common illustrations that reach the general public, have historically, in their different forms, served to create our collective visual memory. Not just cheap reproductions of classic works of art, but also the immense repertoire of images, which today we might consider kitsch or tawdry, are responsible for consolidating that visual culture we didn’t come into contact with at school or university. Many of these images reproduce the "benchmarks", reference points, of what is called Great Art, and in this sense contribute to its diffusion, though they are mere subsidiaries and hierarchically less important than their referent. At the same time, however, these popular graphics have been reclaimed by artists and used as groundwork for their productions, thus closing the circle (or rather prolonging the chain of reference, from the original to the copy and from the copy to a new form of original). This type of art exacerbated in the last twenty years, during which the use of quoting and appropriation, as artistic strategies, was validated by postmodernism; but the truth is that the "subsidiary" art work of a popular graphic has been constant in western art. There are innumerable examples and historical precedents: Van Gogh and the Japanese graphic artist, Ukiyo-e, Warhol and the Lichtenstein labels, and comic strips, just to mention a few. In all cases, the image – technically reproduced for commercial, or educational purposes or whatever but in any case with the intention of reaching the general public – is made unique by the action of the artist and returns to the ambit of art where uniqueness is characteristic. It recovers, so to speak, its Benjaminian  aura. In our medium (Colombia), artists such as Álvaro Barrios, Antonio Caro and Beatriz González have pondered deeply upon the role of printed media in creating a local artistic iconography and diffusing art images. That is, to state it differently, they have pointed out how art images come to us through a long chain of interpretations, from the original to the photograph, to massive reproduction, to marketing of popular prints or advertising, to the final consumer. In the 70s, González created a work of art based on reproductions of classical painting masterpieces for a Country in which, due to lack of possibilities for having direct contact with originals, Art History is replaced by the history of images of art. But nowadays the distinction between an original and a copy is not clear, borders are not as dense and boundaries are imprecise; and this distinction is not even relevant: Images are constantly moving between the fields of what is considered "great art" and popular art - commercial, advertising, informative, decorative or educational - (hierarchy that ought to be questioned).
In his essay, "On Collectionism of Art and Culture" , art critic James Clifford proposes a scheme to analyze the status of objects in relation to their relative value in the art-culture duple. This scheme comprises four fields or areas (art, culture, not-art and not-culture); the intention is to study the flow between areas, which far from being fixed, constantly reassess within the temporal-cultural context. For example, Campbell’s soup can, which is found in the not culture area , at a specific moment, as it becomes characteristic of a peculiar society (North American consumption society), migrates to the culture area; from where, by way of Andy Warhol’s gesture, it flows to the art area where the graphic image of the can –its advertising image– is the iconographic referent of a series of serigraphies the artist started creating in 1962. A similar process is that of Coca-Cola: From apothecary's potion, in 1886, it went to popular beverage; its massive success turned it into the metonymy of postwar America; and through Jasper Johns, Warhol and a pleiad of artists from all over the world, the beverage entered the artistic medium without losing its topmost characteristic of cultural object.
What Clifford makes evident is the role of context in validating a specific object, the transit of the object from the inauthentic to the authentic, its increase in value as it transits from the generic to the particular, from multiplicity to uniqueness; context (institutional, social) has a role in this incessant process of validation. Museums, as well as the artistic medium (galleries, critics, curators), are some of these contexts; and of course so are art-publications, those museums "without walls" that Malraux  so precisely defined.
From where do we speak? Who is, or has, the authority to validate an object? Who defines what is important, why it is important, and for whom it is important? In Colombia, like in many Third World regions, textbooks, not very long ago, taught such disciplines as History and Geography from a Euro-centric point of view, marked by ideologies that supported the status quo and maintained the hegemony of a precise political and social class. Narrations of historic periods such as "The Discovery of America", "The Spanish Conquest", "Colonial Days", and "The Republic" maintain such a predominance of race and class that natives and groups of African ascent have, at the most the role of victims without any significant participation in history or any space at all in the mythologies that helped build this Nation. These narrations have symbolically continued the process of erasing (literally "whitening") to which entire groups have been submitted throughout history. As stated by many scholars, artistic genres such as Landscape and Portrait "immigrated", together with the very notion of art, from western tradition. These implantations are certainly most evident in landscape paintings; in Colombian paintings of the 17th Century the geographic medium depicted is the European, the American landscape was not present. Even today, there are many scientific textbooks in which classification of local reality is still based on foreign categories; thus, the right to auto-representation is established as resistance and a way of generating identity. Uttering the word "igloo" is equivalent to forming a mental image, and attesting that both image and concept are products of a collective act of faith, believing in the existence of something no one has personally seen; encyclopedias and in general, scientific images, which are sustained by an objectivity that is supposedly inherent to them, establish truths that are hardly ever questioned. And, it is interesting to see how they have persuasively contributed, at the same time, to the education of the community and the creation of a culture full of foreign referents; in some cases, inclusively to its dis-information.
The Jet Natural History Album is part of Colombian visual tradition and its virtues and defects shall not be subtracted from what has been formerly stated herein. Created in 1968, this Album has been a companion to several generations of Colombians and has been consolidated as local cultural reference of great symbolic importance. It has functioned as introduction to the world of botany, zoology, astronomy, and geology; also as first approach to "Collectionism" and the notion of the relative value of things (when I was a child the most difficult prints to get – and thus the most valuable – were the Duckling, the Dodo, and the Valencia orange) as well as to systems and categories of classification, not to mention the value of exchange and feeling of belonging to a group.
El canario y el jabalí (The Canary and The Boar) is an adequate title for the exhibit of Jorge Julián Aristizábal’s most recent work; he turned the Jet Natural History Album into his source of iconography. Aristizábal is part of the generation of painters whose work consolidated in the 90s and who perceived painting as a genre meant to be questioned and debated. The result: a style that could be called "conceptual painting" because here, the work of art is a vehicle to a series of reflections that, in many cases, occur outside of it.
In El canario y el jabalí, Jorge Julián Aristizábal has interpreted, pictorially in big format, images chosen from the album prints to generate – through change of technique, format and context – a new perception of what is represented there. Aristizábal’s reflection goes beyond the issue of giving the image back its aura. Selecting two foreign zoological species as title for his work, Aristizábal stresses two important facts; on the one side, the fact that this Album – cultural heritage of our Nation, inevitably present in Colombian homes for over three decades – is responsible for bringing us, in an amiable, accessible, amusing way, closer to Natural Sciences (where the acquisition of knowledge is accompanied by instant gratification, associating pleasure to knowledge); on the other side, it makes the disparity between local reality (geographical, zoological, botanical) and knowledge acquired through scientific publications whose paradigms are still firmly anchored to western tradition, where the so called "peripheries" continue to have a minor role. In the Album, geographical referents are mostly from North America: The Colorado River, Niagara Falls, and The Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The situation is similar where botany and zoology are concerned, though in these fields species from Europe, Africa, and Asia are included: moose, reindeer, and bison share space with ostrich, hyena, elephant, and rhinoceros; animals that are characteristic of South America and specifically Colombia are scarce: the chigüiro and pink dolphin are exceptions. For a Country where 15% of the World’s biodiversity is found, the presence of local species in the Album is relatively low; foreign fruits such as prune, apricot and Japanese quince are present but not lulo, curuba, mamoncillo, guanábana or guama, all of these very popular in our Country and characteristic of different regions in Colombia . This is most probably due to the fact that the Album was designed at a time when European and American paradigms were still dominant, and the need to create local values that would define us before "the universal" was not yet evident. Nonetheless, this changed in 1999, though only partially. Colombian "symbols" (Palma de Cera [wax palm], orchid, but not the condor) substituted some zoological and botanical species from other countries and regions. It is interesting to see what corrections were made to the current version of the Album: Pacífico Colombiano replaced Valencia orange (significant when you consider that this print was one of the most difficult to get); basic Colombian agricultural products that were absent in the first edition substituted foreign ones: Maize instead of Regaliz, Coffee instead of Radish. It is important to note that Cacao, one of the most important agricultural products of Colombia and, precisely, the raw material of Compañía Nacional de Chocolates – the company that makes Jet chocolate bars and issues the Album and prints – was not included in the first edition. Ironically, in the current edition Cacao replaced one of the vegetables children hate the most: brussels sprout.
In his famous essay on taxonomies, Borges shows us an absurd classification, causing us to ponder on the fact that scientific truths are temporary, contingent and provisory, and on the impossibility of grasping, by means of rational categories , the complexity of the world. And, history of Natural History proves him right. Linneo, encyclopedist par excellence, set himself to the impossible task of classifying, in their totality, the flora and fauna of the world. When confronted with the Ornithorhynchus anatinus, whose characteristics did not fit comfortably in any of the existing categories, Linneo created a new one: varia . In this sense, the Jet Natural History Album is much more interesting than any encyclopedia since it organizes knowledge by means of a series of categories that overlap, deny each other, or repeat themselves in a creative, playful taxonomy that responds more to the intention of motivating children than to an interest in rigorously categorizing knowledge. In his unforgettable essay, Borges mentions a certain Chinese encyclopedia (The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge) in which animals are divided into the following categories: (a) pertaining to the Emperor, (b) stuffed, (c) trained, (d) sucklings, (e) sirenians, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in this classification, (i) that shake like crazy, (j) innumerable, (k) painted with a very fine camel-hair paint brush, (l) etcetera, (m) that just broke the vase, (n) that seen from far away look like flies . The Jet Natural History Album brings us a no less surprising classification: armored animals; luminous animal; unicellular animals; decorative animals; land and water animals; music virtuosos; animals that nourish man. Inclusively, there are parallel categories such as animals that attack and those lying in ambush. This taxonomy, of great conceptual beauty, allows us to reach knowledge by way of numerous doors, rejecting the straightjackets of scientifically organized knowledge.
But, there is another interesting aspect, and that is how this knowledge reaches its addressee: Coming inside inexpensive chocolate bars, it is affordable for everyone, associated to visual pleasure (Who hasn’t, full of expectation, opened a jet bar to discover instantly their missing print?), and to olfactory and taste delights. A correlation between knowledge and gratification is established in a subliminal way, which without doubt contributes to bring children closer to subjects that they would otherwise find very boring. This strategy of dissemination in information has important precedents in Colombia and particularly in Medellín (as shown in Santiago Londoño’s text in this same catalogue). There is also an interesting referent in one of children’s literary classics: In "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Roald Dahl 1964), five golden labels are placed within five of the thousands of chocolates produced by the mysterious Willy Wonka, and the children who find them will have the privilege of visiting the factory no one has ever, never, been in . The idea of reproducing works of art at low costs is not new; several magazines and publications have included prints or offset copies as gifts for their subscribers. But, what is remarkable about the Jet Natural History Album is the possibility of collecting the small prints as a coherent publication, completed in time when the image complements the textual information. In this way a mental image is constantly being generated in the child’s mind through the text descriptions, stimulating imagination, and when the cromo  (small print) is finally obtained there is most probably a distance between imagined and reality. For Aristizabal this functioned in an opposite way: he says that when he first saw a cherry tree, he doubted that it was a cherry tree, because it didn’t seem, to him, at all, like the one he had learned about in the Album. This distance between reality and representation is one of the axes of El canario y el jabalí: The paintings confront the spectator with something familiar, yet at the same time they have a different connotation for each person. To quote Aristizábal: "they function as a tool used not just to verify reality but also to activate past memories."
In El canario y el jabalí, the image, amplified to monumental scale generates such an uncanny sensation, we have to look at it again: The original colors of the small prints (which although strident do not clash because of minimum size) acquire an overwhelming presence; the environments are no longer neutral and are perceived as precise constructions, conceived to put the represented animals "on stage": gray tones emphasize the dangerousness of a tarantula, vivid colors stress the canary’s kindness and harmless character. The change in scale generates an additional problem: Whereas printing technology and small size reduce the subtleties of the original illustrations (executed in gouache) to graphic schematism, in the amplified version all pictorial characteristics become evident.
Proust pointed out how the olfactory sense is capable of unleashing a series of memories through the association of an aroma with a specific moment or precise situation, previously marked by that smell. And evidently, Aristizábal’s project refers to the different ways in which memory acts. For Aristizábal, the Jet Natural History Album is indissolubly associated not only to visual tradition but also to childhood, and the smell of chocolate activates memories, creating, in the artist’s words, "the opportunity to return to childhood, offering the spectator the possibility of being a child again". Someone mentioned that the images of man landing on the moon, because they were shared by all of us, no longer speak to us about the moon or space conquest, what they generate, in the spectator, is a very personal reflection: Where was I at that moment? Aristizábal’s painting operate in a similar way, for these images, instead of referring us to what is represented, activate our memory and refer us to our own memories.
1. I am, of course, referring to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, "The work of art in times of its technical reproducibility" (1936). Benjamin claimed that as an effect of its reproduction, the work of art loses its "aura", a characteristic attached to the condition of its being unique, which is impaired by multiplication of the work of art through technical means such as photography.
2. Clifford, James. "On Collectionism of Art and Culture", (Habana: Criterios # 31), 1994.
3. There is room for argument in asserting that all non-natural objects are, by opposition "cultural", but in my opinion what Clifford refers to by "Cultural" are those manifestations that become characteristic of a specific social conglomerate.
4. Malraux, Andre. "The Museum Without Walls" in "Voices of Silence", (Buenos Aires: Emecé), 1956.
5. According to the information found on web page www.bogota.humboldt.org.co, Colombia, which represents only 0.8% of the surface of the planet, is home to between 45,000 to 51,000 vegetable species (which means close to 15% of those species in the World) as well as 1,752 species of birds and 583 species of amphibians. The biodiversity of Colombia is surpassed only by that of Brazil.
6. That it is for children is a hypothesis; we all know that the Album is as popular among adults as it is among minors.
7. Colombian artist José Alejandro Restrepo has developed a theoretic and artistic work around the problematic issues of taxonomies. I borrowed the aforementioned idea from his article "Musa Paradisíaca" (Paradisial Muse) published for the presentation of the video-installment with the same name at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art in 1997. As pointed out by Restrepo, Linneo, in his Natural System of 1735, classifies human beings into three categories, which today are evidently arbitrary: Homo Monstruosus (giants, dwarfs, midgets); Homo Ferus (savages) and Homo Sapiens (civilized and normal).
8. Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", in Other Inquisitions.
9. This book inspired the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971), featuring humorist Gene Wilder as main character. Possibly, the book (which –with the movie– turned into a cult object) might have inspired Compañía Nacional de Chocolates (although it had formerly offered other albums); anyway, the strategy is similar to the one in Dahl’s novel.
10. In Colombia these collectible small prints are called "cromos", "caramelos" (because they come with the chocolates) and "monas".
<< Columna de Arena nr. 51
Text and Columna de Arena: José Roca
Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder