Universes in Universe / Columna de Arena / Nr. 53
María Elvira Escallón: Nuevas Floras (New Floras)
In an artistic process full of formal heterogeneity and where each work follows its own, unique and precise path, one nevertheless finds a constant that leads the works of María Elvira Escallón: the questioning of the boundaries between the natural and the cultural which, as the artist herself states, places "different moments of one same matter in continuity and contiguity". But, for Escallón, boundary does not necessarily imply opposition. The natural is to be understood here as the "natural state" of things- that, precisely by being naturalized, is accepted as an indisputable order. The work of Escallón sets itself out to disturb the naturalness of this order, through introducing an element that questions the order. Hence, it can be stated that, departing from what seemingly is the natural state of things, and making evident how this "natural" order is frequently the product of a cultural manipulation, the work of Escallón points out the vortex where this dual condition of opossition/continutiy is bargained. The very same categories that converge around it, escape a stiff definition.
In In Vitro, - an installation work exhibited at the old Sabana Train Station , Escallón placed a huge glass to obstruct the access flow into one of the corridors of a place deteriorated by time and neglect. The glass - which completely closed the area that had been assigned to the artist-, set the limit between the building, - just as it was left, with dusty patina accumulated through years-, and the space that had been recently renovated and painted for welcoming the exhibition’s works. In this case the artificiality of the cosmetic renovation of the context evidenced, by contrast, the deterioration that years of institutional negligence have caused on this heritage building. In In Vitro, what was constructed by the artist was, paradoxically, invisible; her subtle intervention made what had always been there now visible. The work was not located at any of the two sides of the glass, but precisely within itself; in the context of an art event the glass of In Vitro established itself as the convergence vortex of a criticism of the artificiality of the artistic object which at the same time highlighted the ability of art for making reality visible.
In In Memoriam (an ice column immersed in a glass show-case filled with water), the limit that defines sculptural form was in constant flow; slowly but inexorably, the column recovered its original form, turning one with the surrounding water, to become its own matter . This relationship between two states of the same material (in this case cultural), was also present in "El Reino de este Mundo". A wall built by the very same artist with cement blocks and, on the floor, its co-responding shadow, assembled with debris, just as it was collected in a demolition site. The work drove into tension the work of the artist and of Fanny, a woman whom the artist met in the demolition site where she collected the debris, and who, from the debris of her own demolished house, built her new home: specular relation between "the real" and "the created", between the domain of art and of daily life.
Nuevas Floras (New Floras) is a project developed inside time, its initial stage being what it is now exhibited; this means that tracking what happens in the future, will keep on adding new levels. Nature has always been part of the artistic practice, either as theme - the landscape genre- , or as material. New Floras simultaneously books itself into several of the traditional art genres: literally, it is landscape; it is earth art in the sense that, with its own materials, it is an intervention on a territory; it is also sculpture in the most conventional sense of the term . However, by virtue of forcing these three instances into coincidence, through the sculptural action in the life source of the material and in the landscape, Escallon achieves a very complex work in which she points out the relationship between "the natural" and an artistic intervention which, with its singular action, temporarily disrupts the natural flow of events.
The process of Nuevas Floras is conceptually clear but its development entailed a complex process which included a preliminary botanical research, getting experts in wood carving, and a subsequent photographical record of the result. Escallón entrusted experts the carving (and the application of parts - as if they were prosthesis -) on trunks or branches of living trees, following forms that reference classic architectural orders - Spiral columns or balusters - or even parts of wood furniture . The result is visually astonishing, as elements with geometric contours seem to be growing from the trunk or branch of a tree in its natural milieu. As it is well known, classic architectonic orders, an many latter styles (such as art Nouveau) were abstractions or stylizations of natural forms; thus, through carving, the symbolic elaboration by culture, of the tree’s features, is restored. As living sculpture, New Floras could found antecedents in the XIXth century’s French art of gardening, when botanical species acquired precise - often geometric  - shapes. Or, even more directly, in the different Japanese techniques whereby, through pruning, shaping or through a shuttering caging the plant during its growth process, a plant was led or forced into adopting a particular shape. At a more allegorical level, Nuevas Floras refers to the tendency towards adapting (ourselves) to external circumstances - the rules imposed to our nature (body and behavior) by socialization processes- and, even more specifically, it refers to the will to control natural processes, which today, through the real possibility of "designing nature" through genetic engineering, have reached an exacerbated level.
Even though the artist is aware of the fact that discarding some branches is part of the developmental process  of natural growth as well as of professional cultivation of many species, she was very careful when intervening on each tree so that its survival would not be at risk. But it is impossible not to project oneself in the tree and anthropomorphize it. It is impossible not to create an analogy between the trunk and the branches, and the human body, and to feel the cuts and pruning in terms of categories such as pain, mutilation and scarring, even though, in the real world, the trunk and the branches are parts that a tree is capable of regenerating and give itself back. It is continually startling to envision a tree as a living being that incorporates the scars of culture in its "body" . Nuevas Floras is precisely capable of eliciting this empathic feeling that leads us into questioning the relationships we engage in with others.
It is difficult to foresee what will happen with these "living sculptures" in the future. Will the branches dry or will the tree die as a result of sculpting? Will the intervention be, even partially, reabsorbed, just as it occasionally happens with the electricity cables that constrain a tree during its growth? Will marks remain in the trees, conveying, - in a not too far future -, inscrutable signs (in a manner analogous to what encountering the indigenous - therefore fantastic - flora of the New World could have meant for Europe)? Nuevas Floras is a project which ends "on edge", open to multiple interpretations.
1) Salón Regional Prize, 1997.
2) This work was exhibited at the Alianza Colombo-Francesa, (north site), June 2001. Escallón participated as invited artist.
3) Nuevas Floras would clearly exemplify the notion of “expanded field sculpture”, as defined by the North American theorist Rosalind Krauss in her well known homonymous essay. Krauss has pointed out that many sculptural practices - which can no longer be defined using traditional categories as architecture or landscape -, in their dialectical relation with the site in which they are placed, lead to a change in the way the place is now experienced: sculpture is no longer a privileged middle ground term, set between two things it is not; instead, it is a term located on the periphery of a field that already includes other differently structured possibilities. The work is also a kind of wink to Constantino Brancusi and to the continuity solution he uses between the base of the work - integrated into the sculpture - and the floor.
4) As legs carved or turned in different styles.
5) Topiaria is defined as “the art of pruning trees or hedges in artificial and decorative shapes”.
6) For example, pruning has the ulterior benefit of favoring the growth of the highest branches which look for light and guarantee the survival of the tree. Goethe’s aphorism (Law of compensation or growth equilibrium) comes in hand when dealing with (¿human? nature :“Nature, In order to spend on one side, is forced to save on the other”.
7) I remember a sentence in Tom Robbins’ novel, Jitterbug Perfume, that moved me greatly and which referred to totally striping the aromatic cortex of a tree for the purpose of preparing a perfume: “Somewhere in Africa, there is a naked tree”.
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Text and Columna de Arena: José Roca
Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder