Review by Micah J. Malone
Let’s be clear that this is a crucial primer for anyone interested in the contemporary art scene in Colombia. Somewhat of a curatorial project in print funded by JP Morgan Chase, two of Colombia’s most respected curators, José Roca and Sylvia Suarez, assembled the book in conjunction with Paralelo 10. They chose 47 artists, each accompanied by short, astute reflections, as well as an introductory essay that frames the discussion of the artists.
In Transpolítico, the featured essay co-written by Roca and Suárez, the curators frame the period of discussion as a time in which grand narratives were ending. As seen in many other countries across the world, “hegemonic discourses” were fractured, leaving artists who disliked the hierarchal battle over previously accepted artists or styles linked by, “relationships of affinity”, making the field of art more “enlarged, democratized and diversified.” With such diversification, it would make little sense for the curators to group artists by medium or theme. Rather, they list the artists in alphabetical order, who “were symptomatic of the critical crossroads that characterized contemporary art at a world level.” I am most interested in what this “world level” means for today’s art discourse.
Transpolítico claims that post-studio work, the reconsideration of modernism, the mutation of political art, among other familiar tropes, gave artists newfound strategies to address the contextual reality of not only the exhibition space, but also the country’s political situation. In one of the more interesting passages, they write: “… the art of the eighties in Colombia appeared to be unlinked to the context in which it was inscribed— since national reality wasn’t reflected in the artistic production—it is nevertheless evident that since the mid nineties to the first decade of this century the social-political became dominant in Colombian art.”
The transition from “unlinked” artistic production to practices that are more reflective of their environments (in both physical and political space) gives a very general definition to what the authors refer to as the “Transpolitical.” Though there are various factors that enabled this transition, it is not a stretch to say (and is implied throughout the essay) that new experimental strategies such as performance, video, public interventions and installations that engulfed many countries throughout the world in the late 80s and 90s, and seen globally in countless biennials, art fairs and festivals, gave Colombian artists new tools to articulate the complexities of their own political situation.
The contemporary art scene in Colombia took years to assemble and critics did not emphatically embrace these new practices and strategies, in part, because “art criticism rested on a few ‘star’ figures who, in many cases, based the veracity of their reflections on the use of categories adopted from the hegemonic art scene (minimalism, pop hyper-realism, etc.), mainly in the United States.” Artists wishing to venture beyond the familiar risked being ignored by the establishment. The curators cite the “political correctness” of the U.S.A. that forced international curators and institutions to include artists from more marginalized areas, such as Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Pacific-Asia. Moreover, they use a metaphor from 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most emblematic work, to describe the situation of artists returning to Colombia from abroad. In the novel, Garcia Márquez’s character speaks of the wonder that happens when ice is first brought to tropical Macondo. Here, the writers position artistic knowledge outside of Colombia as something to wonder at, to be imported and adopted as artists see fit.
If the vast institutions and networks for art (museums, biennials, art fairs, and in particular, art schools) have opened up new opportunities for countries previously outside these systems, it seems logical that new forms of discourse have been invented to find artists for these various circuits. I see Transpolítico as a worthy endeavor for this exact function. In this light, Roca’s and Suarez’s insightful reflection on the role of the curator has increased significance. They write that contemporary curatorial work might be called the “curation of author,” in which the curator acts as mediator before the presentation of the artwork, evaluating and establishing different patterns of understanding outside of the “hierarchic ordering of artists, media, techniques and trends.” And perhaps, supplementing the traditional role of the critic as the ultimate arbitrator of value.
There exist so many biennials, art fairs and festivals across the globe; one could question whether an “outside” even exists anymore. Furthermore, with so many artists now exposed to similar practices and strategies in comparable educational systems, along with being more interconnected than ever through online social networks, how different can the art around the world really be? This is not to say that the artists in Transpolítico are not admirable. Most are fantastic. However, one gets the feeling that Transpolítico exists to make the artists involved available to this messy network loosely called “the international art world,” complete with a nod of approval from the curators, mediated a priori for the public and other international players. Strangely, this feels like that old hegemony all over again.
José Roca and Sylvia Suarez, In Transpolítico: Art in Colombia 1992 – 2012, (J. P. Morgan, 2012)
Images: Cover and interior of Transpolítico: Art in Colombia 1992 – 2012