Biennial Artists Question The Nature of Things

By:Jeanine Spellman Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Nature of ThingsBiennial Artists Question= Like Hermes and Mercury of ancient times, artists are messengers. These talented beings possess a special ability to sense the world around them and express their observations in ways that ignite imagination, peak curiosity, evoke emotion, and stimulate social discourse. Using images, words, and sounds, artists touch the spirit of humanity.

Following the footsteps of artists whose works captured and depicted social statements of their times, France's Jacques- Louis David, Spain's Francisco Goya and the Mexican social muralists - Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the contemporary artists exhibiting at the 2010 Biennial of the Americas gave voice to topical issues ranging from heritage and consumerism to sustainability and connectedness. While their media, video, dimensional art, and photography, may differ from the paintbrushes of their predecessors, their works continue to question the nature of things. While their media, video, dimensional art, and photography, may differ from the paintbrushes of their predecessors, their works continue to question the nature of things.

A Question of Heritage

A blatant act of vandalism at the pre-Columbian ruins of Chan Chan set off a cultural storm within Peru and was the catalyst that galvanized Peruvian artist Gabriel Acevedo Velarde to confront what aspects of heritage are revered.

Located near the northwest coast of Peru, the Chan Chan Archeological site was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 1986, in response to natural threats such as earthquakes, flooding, and impacts of climate change. However, it was an act of humans rather than nature, which damaged this cultural icon.

On a graduation trip during November, 2009, four “indígeno” students armed with an idea and a video camera set out to secure, “15 minutes of fame.” The students kicked and stoned a section of millennia old sand and mud reliefs at the ancient ruins, as they recorded their actions and talked of posting their "achievement” on YouTube.

When the video was uploaded in January, 2010, it created a national uproar. The desecration was deemed an attack on Peru’s image and its cultural heritage. Swift responses came from the highest levels of government, including Peru’s President Alan Garcia, who publicly deplored the behavior, asking, “Is this what we are teaching our children?”

While Peruvians were enraged at the act of desecrating a cultural treasure, Velarde graphically pointed out that the same national outcry over vandalized ruins does not exist regarding the ongoing and widely accepted discrimination of Peru’s indigenous population, the descendaents of those who built Chan Chan.

“Racism is prevalent in Peru,” said Nathan Cline, a Biennial docent, who lived in Peru for six years working with at-risk families and orphans. “The country has a class-oriented society, where the unspoken practice is the lighter the skin, the better. As a general rule, this fuels the discrimination of the darker-skinned indigenous descendents by the lighter-complexioned colonial Spanish descendents,” Cline explained. Set against this cultural backdrop Velarde’s video and rap commentary depicts two “indígeno” viewing their ancestral images housed in a museum juxtaposed against images of the new Peru with its high-rise buildings replacing older structures, Inca Cola, and storefront displays of uniforms, indicative of positions people hold within society. All the images are interspersed between the moving sands of time, which along with the carnage of the scraped buildings, ultimately engulf the indigenous viewers.

And the kids of Chan, Chan, how are they? Even through its pixilated I recognize their color From the highlands we had to be Indians we had to be You’ve confused me Which Indians do you mean? the punks in the video…? …Or the ones who made Chan Chan? — Excerpt from, Hijos de la Nada by Gabriel Acevedo Velarde and Rafael Polar Pin.

A Lost Community?

In a photo series entitled Clausurado, Columbian artist Victor Munoz, of Medellin, Colombia presented an eerie series of large panoramic images depicting his former hometown. Empty streets are lined with abandoned homes and storefronts, all standing with walls and doorways brick-filled in response to ongoing strife related to drug cartels and guerrilla combat. Although residents have fled the city, the structures depict an odd tenacity and resilience. Munoz leaves viewers questioning, how many lives were disrupted and forever changed due to pervasive conflicts and acts of violence? Has the community really lost its city, or is it a hostage of the times, waiting to be revived? “The country has a class-oriented society, where the unspoken practice is the lighter the skin, the better. As a general rule, this fuels the discrimination of the darkerskinned indigenous descendents by the lighter complexioned colonial Spanish descendents.” - Nathan Cline

Sustainable Communities?

The multi-screen videos of Guatemalan architect Teddy Cruz called out problems of urbanization and socio-economic issues related to cities that share the same geographical area, but are divided by borders. Highlighting a stretch of border between San Diego, CA., and Tijuana, Mexico, Cruz showed areas of poverty, where discards from wealthy communities north of the border, such as used tires, wood platforms, and garage doors, are repurposed and become housing by those living south of the border. At other points along the border, tract home communities mimic California suburbs in layout and architecture. Each of these models of architecture evolved based on either scarcity and conflict or abundance. To build sustainable communities, new models for urban planning are needed, models that involve much more than the recycling of materials and LEED certified buildings. Urban planning that integrates economic, social, and environmental elements will lead to the development of truly sustainable communities.

Is Perception Reality?

Chilean Martin Alonso’s Slow Walking Machines featured simple, small mechanical vehicles that appear to be standing still. However, they are moving, albeit at a minuscule pace of 12 inches a day. This calls into question, what does the viewer see? What does the viewer miss?

Current research indicates that the time it takes to make first impressions has decreased from 7 to 10 seconds, to the blink of an eye in the past decade. Alonso’s work poses, what are the consequences of instantaneous judgment in a social context? Would perceptions and experiences be altered if people were to slow down and see the bigger picture?

Folkloric Ties the Bind

Biennial Music Artists=

In a world where cell phones and Internet access are available in even the most remote communities, what impact are these technologies having on folklore, the music and traditions that bind communities together by place, beauty, identity and values? Argentinean Luis Maurett is exploring this phenomenon. Maurett’s lifelong passion for music inspired his interest in studying how cultures interpret the natural world and ecosystems through sound. This interest led to his Transfolklorico (Across Folklores) project, which records the distinctive music and traditions of communities and studies the impact Western culture is making via its infusion through technologies.

Maurett has captured colorful costumes and music tied to traditions of indigenous peoples living in Argentina, Colombia and Peru. Although their folkloric music and dances are linked by generations, they are not static. According to Maurett, Western culture has a romantic idea of what folklore is, attempting to freeze it in a past place and time; however, that purity doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, he said folklore is constantly adapting, as illustrated by the integration of the guitar into indigenous music, which the Spanish introduced to the continent. Like the introduction of the guitar, Maurett emphasized that cultural folklore is constantly evolving, as new sounds, and costumes are incorporated into existing music, celebrations and practices. He views exposure to new ideas through technology as part of the natural adaptive process, which will enrich versus dilute cultural identities and traditions. However, he expressed that sustaining folklore and its ties to the meanings behind heritage traditions falls on community elders who must engage today’s youth. For when the songs, dances and rituals become mere entertainment or no longer serve a social function, they are forever lost.

These Biennial artists have planted seeds for thought and put forth essential questions, the answers impacting the legacy created for future generations. Will new solutions and behaviors be adopted to address the extraordinary challenges now facing modern citizens? Or will fractured systems and ideologies prevail, ensuring a lesser quality of life for all? The answers will be found in the mystical realm where human nature intersects with the nature of things.