Critical texts by author
by Mercedes Casanegra
Despite the existence of art biennials, it has taken the Argentine art scene a long time to establish the fluid exchange it currently enjoys with other Latin American countries. Due to its European background as well as the strong influence of the United States cultural model starting in the sixties, Argentina has tended to establish direct relationships with those centers, putting off more assiduous contact with neighboring and akin countries. This has not, however, hindered other types of bonds: individual contacts out of specific interests, mostly artists drawn by the distinctive characteristics of these nearby nations, by the likeness that a common language, Spanish, establishes and, essentially, by the socio-political and cultural circumstances that bind us together.
Matilde Marín’s decision to be connected to the region is longstanding. She has lived in Venezuela and her husband was born in Colombia but, more importantly, her sense of identity with and belonging to Latin America arises from her work and thought. In her imaginary, Argentina is entrenched in its context. Her career has often taken her from one place to another, making her knowledgeable about not only an array of art scenes but also about the people, customs, idiosyncrasies and landscapes of these nearby nations. For years a well-known printmaker throughout the region, she is aware of the events in the region and often compares the traits of different territories and nationalities.
All of that life experience ripened while Matilde Marín was looking for new modes of expression. Ten years ago, this ripening led to the advent of photography and video as new work tools, taking her back to a possibility that was present at the beginning of her career. She felt the need to develop a poetics that, in some cases, would bring her still closer to direct testimony. Hence, one of the features that has distinguished this period of her work is the extent to which she has become involved in places and situations, to the point of including herself in the scene of many of her works; she does this by means of photo-performance or by the inclusion of her shadow, which announces her as a witness. The unique nature of her approach to and intervention in these realties has shaped her art and its proposals.
The groups of work chosen for this exhibition are Contemporary Bricolage (Bricolage Contemporáneo), 2002-2005, Carts of Rummagers in Latin America, New York and Spain (Carros de papeleros en Latinoamérica, New York y España), 2002-2005, the photographs and the video Karina’s Day (The Illusion) (El día de Karina (La ilusión)), 2004, on the one hand; and Itinerary (Itinerario), 2006, Altered Landscapes (Paisajes alterados), 2008, Turbulence (Turbulencia), 2008, Disturbance (Perturbación), 2008, the photographs and the videos Not Too Far (No demasiado lejos), 2005, and Cold River (Río frío), 2008, on the other. Here, these two groups of works are two sides of the same coin. The first group focuses on a vision of the urban from the excesses of cities both large and smaller and on related social issues; and the second on different visions of the natural environment.
Marin has processed her language through very concrete, real situations: the crisis in Argentina in 2001 and its consequences, and research into the ways human beings and nature interact today. She has developed, constructed and recorded images of specific situations and landscapes. And while her point of departure is her own habitat (both Argentina and the rest of Latin America), her vision of the world turns back in on itself while becoming universal, attempting to give responses to lived issues in the present global culture. Born of these situations, her art partakes of a sort of ecology broadened for these times. Somewhat melancholy,
The two groups of works in this exhibition are inextricably bound; although chronologically one precedes the other, in terms of the above idea of ecological consciousness, the consideration of one immediately engenders the consideration of the other.
The works of Matilde Marín are contemporary milestones; their nature is contemporary and, as such, they not only arise from this time but also confront history, and not just art history, but the entire history of culture. They bear a permanent memory of being. These images make us review the nature-culture relationship, considering these terms parallel; their reciprocity is at times loose and at times tight and, to a lesser extent, balanced.
In Latin America, the presence of nature is powerful: the Amazon, the Andes, deserts, long and varied coastlines, lakes, ices, Patagonia, the end of the world. At the same time, certain fairly constant issues keep its nations from rising: the discontinued history of its original cultures and the long period from the conquest to the present, the socio-political problems of nations still young, the North-South polarity. In her travels through the region, Marin has experienced this reality firsthand.
A brief review of the notions of nature and culture from antiquity to the present allows us to understand this group of works as one of the possible responses to the way that the human being has, in recent times, forged a set of ideas and modalities of its own life on the planet.
“In the Greek world, the divine was manifest in sculptures and temples that stood in the open, in broad daylight, never closed off to the eternal forces of nature.”
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, “The body was inextricably bound to nature. Corporeality was thrust towards the mineral, vegetable world, towards the wide celestial sphere and rich textures of the Earth’s beings and forms.”
Though not without exception, Modernity’s conception of the human body marked a hiatus between culture and nature. “Modern culture has created a body enclosed by the limits of the skin.”
Heir to the most widespread modern scientifist stance, the 20th century, after the 1950s, assembled a reaction to this distance from nature with two major contributions: ecology, a discipline at the height of its development, and human rights. Though the aims of these movements were largely socio-political, they also saw man as part of nature. Indeed, man had moved so far from nature, a method –ecology– had to be created to give rise to a new consciousness of the issue.
The sixties and the onset of post-modernity, with its “explosion of the notion of artwork” gave rise to, among other things, land art. In some cases, shortly after the beginnings of this tendency (circa 1965), an incipient ecological awareness became part of some art forms. That mythical decade served to trigger utopias, but with the passing of time and the coming of so many natural, as well as manmade, catastrophes, humanity finds itself today at a crossroads: there are no more utopias, but rather heterotopias. Ecological consciousness has had to raise the stakes, because destruction, need and decay are in such urgent need of repair. In Marín’s work, there might be a touch of romantic inspiration, of return to an atavistic memory that includes the secret desire for greater balance. But there is also reflection on the state of the late industrial biosphere, as well as the anomalies that arise from taking nature off its course. This notion of anomaly also pertains to the situation of the human body in this late Modernity, for it too, as part of the natural environment, has been taken off course. The coming of the kingdom of the artificial, as well as bold experiments like genetic transgression, to name one of so many, is as true for nature as it is for man. This is the setting in which Matilde Marín’s art takes root.
Today’s large cities suffer the effects of overpopulation and pollution of the atmosphere as well as of fields of vision and sound; the accumulation of waste and its consequences, the biodegradable and that which, because made from artificial materials, will never go away. In such cities, it is almost impossible to evoke the essence of nature or to recompose the idea that we human beings are connected to a greater dimension.
As a traveler, Matilde Marín has not only visited urban centers for professional reasons, but has also, for more personal ones, explored various parts of Patagonia. For many years she has visited the Los Alerces nature reserve, in the province of Chubut, a space of solace that she has held close.
A four-minute video, Cold River (Río frío), 2008, records moments from the course of the Rivadavia River (Río Rivadavia), which connects Rivadavia Lake (Lago Rivadavia) with the Escondida Lagoon (Laguna Escondida). The underlying concept of this work is felt at the beginning and throughout the entire exhibition. This river is one of the few uncontaminated bodies of water left on the planet. The images come from literally diving into its transparent waters, a view as close as that of the oar of a rowboat, the only permitted means of traveling through it. The water’s transparency and crystalline green hue make it possible to see the vegetation on the riverbed as well as the nearness of the shore. At times the camera looks up to the surrounding landscape and the aged trees and at times it captures a ray of sunlight in the vegetation. Though fragmentary, the vision attempts to totalize the overall atmosphere sensed by the traveler during the six- hour journey. The sound of the moving water, the birds singing and the unpolluted silence are part of this scene.
Conceptually akin, Cold River (Río frío) and Not Too Far (No demasiado lejos), 2005, constitute the starting point from which the artist builds her worldview on the basis of the aforementioned notion of a broadened ecology. The video, shot from inside the lighthouse at Cabo Vírgenes, the southernmost point on the Earth’s mainland, steadily shows different shots of the sky, some of which are almost abstract. Only the passing of some clouds seems to make it, at times, more concrete. The voice of the singer Victoria de los Ángeles gives the work a lyrical quality. Towards the end of a group of turns, the horizon line begins to appear, “not too far.”
These two opening works make reference to two philosophical concepts. The first is physis, an ancient Greek term that refers to nature in the broadest sense. The word includes the idea of “to engender”:
The second concept, which draws on Kant’s idea of the sublime, formulates a vision from the receptive point of view, not from the structure of the world. It is the powerful force of nature that embraces the human being, so small in the face of that nature.
In the almost abstract purity of water and air, both terms suggest a notion of originary non-contamination, like that of the newly created: something not only devoid of any intervention whatsoever –human or otherwise– but also of any corrupting agent. A utopian state with no doubts. For Kant, the beauty of nature was greater than art, and art was beautiful insofar as it resembled nature; the genuine nature of Marín’s images leads, then, to this Kantian formulation.
Nonetheless, the artist’s primary intention in these two videos would seem to be to show the closest thing to a state of grace in nature, almost a lost Eden. The difference from other conceptions of paradise is that here the symbolization involves only two elements, water and air, both of which are translucent and uncontaminated, whereas other paradises have been populated by an array of animals and vegetables.
This idea of a purity so pure that it seems forced to a maximum degree begins to change in the Turbulence (Turbulencia) series, 2008, and in Disruption (Perturbación), 2008, where accidents, flood and fire seem to have affected an idyllic, positive conception of nature. Here, a certain deliberate fragmentation in the scenes is combined with other more panoramic images. The Kantian concept of the sublime returns, now dynamic, joined to a force of nature that is at times hidden or dormant only to arise unexpectedly and become destructive, both to itself and others. This is the case of, say, a flood or a fire, whether artificially or naturally occurring. That is, the cause of most of these processes is nature itself.
The works in the Itinerary (Itinerario) series, 2006, show the immense, straight horizon of the Argentine pampa and the Patagonian desert (a characteristic accentuated by the landscape-format of these photographs), one of the features typically identified with the Argentine as well as the Latin American landscape. The artist has approached these scenes contemplatively, in a spirit similar to the videos and, indeed, one that runs throughout the entire exhibition.
Nonetheless, on a closer look, one begins to sense the presence of some elements foreign to the landscape, suggesting some sort of anomaly: within this magnitude, strangeness is felt. The viewer is likely to ask himself if he has projected this feeling or if it is actually in the landscape. Here, the sense of classic unity or of wholeness felt in the videos begins to break down, though one wonders if this anomaly is provoked or naturally occurring.
More exacerbated, the same spirit is found in Altered Landscapes (Paisajes alterados), 2008. Here, the assemblage of fractions is explicit, and it seems as if a search for stillness were at the base of the construction of these images. If we heed a symbiotic conception of man and the natural environment, an altered landscape is symptomatic of an altered human consciousness.
The next phase of the exhibition’s narrative is Rummagers’ Carts (Carros de papeleros), 2002-2005, and the video Karina’s Day (The Illusion) (El día de Karina (La ilusión)), 2004. With this work begin the allusions to the urban and its social and material unrest.
The rummagers’ carts have become common denominators not only of Latin America but also, as is evident in one of these photographs, of major First World cities. Neither waste nor the unemployed has a formal place in urban society. Nonetheless, vital need incites the creativity of marginal positions. The carts are anonymous objects that Marín painstakingly puts in perspective; she focuses on them, views them as unique entities, a sort of mandala that centers and sets the viewer’s gaze. At the same time, each rummager has organized his or her cart according to a –in some cases artistic– method. There is a subtle dose of Duchampian criticism in these readymades.
Karina’s Day (The Illusion) presents the reaction of a creative and poetic traveling saleswoman to the 2001 Argentine crisis. Marín shows her to be a unique performer who challenges political and economic tumult with creativity and passion of an actor who must overcome his personal life and give himself over to others to make a living. As in Not Too Far, certain shots in this video blend into the atmosphere only to come against a transparent soap bubble.
that would enable us to hold
the sacredness and the interconnectedness of life in mind
The images at the end of this exhibition are, in fact, the earliest chronologically: the long series Rummaging (La recolección) (2002-2005), photo-performances of the artist in different bodily stances, holding her arms, hands and an array of objects in different ways. Desolation is implied and, as Laurie would write, “Once illusions have been cleared away, it is up to our arms to coo and build an uncertain, harsh but not impossible future.”
In Marín’s The Catch (La pesca) and Natural Precaution (Cuidado natural) a fish and a piece of meat are lovingly held at heart height, suggesting a possible reworking of the flaw Gablik speaks of. Citing Karl Marx, in 1977 Victor Grippo made Naturalize Man, Humanize Nature (Naturalizar al hombre, humanizar a la naturaleza) using real potatoes. These warm images by Marín show, with a symbolic gestural quality, the symbiosis, interconnection and reciprocity to which Grippo, an Argentine conceptual artist, also referred. But in the late Modernity of peripheral countries it is possible to give this notion another twist: naturalize the artificial created by man, that is, attempt to redeem artifice.