Anyone with a casual, unprofessional, interest in the current art world might find it hard to list the number of well-known Colombian artists on one hand. That is true in my case and struggle even to do that, I have three fingers with substantial names and yet one or two of those causes me to pause. These three have occupied my thoughts over the last few days as I search for a plausible path into the countries culture which continues to be elusive despite my frequent visits over the last decade. I accept most of the blame; Bogota, which is the only part of the country I have seen, reveals itself and its failings from the moment you arrive. It is striking how it is so unlike a post automobile city in the USA (such as LA) where domestic lives, ambitions and energies are hidden behind office walls and manicured residential picket fences. But it is also equally unlike wealthy European cities where you can easily waste a day strolling through a medieval core where a wrong turn could lead unexpectedly to a charming neighborhood café and the indulgence of watching the world pass by. Instead it is somewhere between the two, possessing the advantages of neither, I’m struck by an open city with barred windows on vacant houses, roads apparently crawling to nowhere special. But this negativity has its roots in self-imposed limitations; a hotel in a shopping district and an office by the airport, you might say that a similar experience could be had in almost any city under these circumstances, but my corporate hosts suggest that security is still a threat, although I see little evidence of home grown terrorisms now, its shadow still seems to exist in the minds of its residents.
It perches on a plateau nearly 9,000 feet above sea level snugly placed in foothills of the grey Andes Mountains, a persistent light rain seems to fall each time I’m here. On arrival there is an immediate heaviness to my breathing which becomes an unwelcome companion, a suffocation which extends to the streets which at times are narrow, at others wide boulevards, but all regularly blocked by traffic, a constant grid log which becomes a defining characteristic of place reluctant to move forward. You might take the literal view, arguing that it is simply a lack of spending on public transportation, poor administration, rapid growth in the population, unwanted recent immigration but I sense something else which is hard to articulate, which I am ill equipped and a little afraid to describe and rationalize.
I have been here about twenty times and take a perverse, macabre pride in how little I know of it. In the hotel I lie in bed bored, and still early in the evening, the sound of the manic soccer game on TV, where the ceiling will offer no clues about how quickly sleep will take me or on what journey. The only certainty is that the next morning I will wake in my familiar fury for the day ahead as I’m here on a work schedule which scratch’s the countries underbelly, offers insights into a grim bureaucracy whose lead protagonist is “government” of course, it always is; the legal regulations, the tax policies and the mindless Orwellian bookkeeping routines. The locals accept it with resignation as it provides something to complain about. “It’s terrible” they will say to me when I look uncomprehendingly at them, trying to unravel the pointless complexity, they know I value simplicity, but shrug with impotence.
The first finger should be overly bloated and sensuously painted as it represents Fernando Botero, an artist whose subjects are inflated to a humorous degree; you suspect a bitter parody of Renoir or a subversion of folk traditions, either way, his work is now so familiar and popular that any magic it might have once possessed feels worn thin. It’s interesting to compare him with a younger American painter who adopted similar strategies, John Currin, whose work contains a rawer sarcasm and social commentary (and lacks the folksy sweetness and studied charm of Botero) to understand why he resonates more with a contemporary viewer. Will Botero prove to play a significant role in Art history? Many would bet against it at this point: is the work vacuous or subtly political? Is it overly decorative or profound? Living first in New York then Paris he has the air of rich cosmopolitan making work for others of his ilk and he is archetypical of the wealthy, successful Latin American. Supporters might point out his political, serious work which all rendered in the familiar robust, humorously Rubinesque style and claim sly subterfuge, searching for power and meaning in these images which now are more likely to find themselves relegated to “easy on the eye” decorative tote bags, covers of notebooks and posters in student dorms. The paintings, drawing and sculptures walk a fine line between being silly and being hugely expensive which is always a toxic mix.
The second artist is Doris Salcedo who is altogether different. I first encountered her work called “Atrabiliarios 1992-1997” in a European museum where I was drawn in by the works subtly and refinement. It comprised simply of women’s shoes embedded into a wall and covered by a semi translucent cow bladder. It power derived from the scalability of its interpretation, on its simplest level you can feel the power of a familiar object belonging to someone who has died. I’ve known friends who have talked about nothing other than the feel of a fathers well-worn glasses or an old watch at that moment of grief. These shoes which were donated by relatives of lost Colombians are particularly poignant as they wear the struggles and honor the miles walked, in possession of something profoundly human. Beyond the micro tragedy of personal loss there is the wider political one of societal injustice, many of the people the artist talked to were relatives and friends of people who disappeared by actions of state government or outlaws and so this memorializes a somber moment in the country history. Wider still, the use of natural materials hints at our long standing, but fragile, interdependency with the natural world as farm animals such as the cow gave us leather shoes. Politics have a deep place in her work, and she makes subtle interventions that hold great meaning; famously she created a rift in the foundations of the Tate Galleries Turbine hall in 2007, a slight but risky intervention which is known as one of the most successful in that gallery’s history. There is depth and earnestness to her work which speaks of the suffering of the Columbian people who had, until 2016, endured almost fifty years of civil war.
I detect a hesitancy which still pervades the city of Bogota where acuity is not required; its poverty and cheerlessness are apparent during the long drives to and from my office, in the dark restaurants and cafes after work, television screen flicker inside the apartment windows. The road takes me past some new bland buildings, a few older properties remain which are poorly kept with high sad walls, aggressively barb wired, then side streets with low rise concrete housing and stores, a chaos of western imagery; I note exclusively southern European models on the posters advertising mainly European luxury brands, rarely the Indian physiognomy we see around us on the street. I’ve often been taken down these narrow dark lanes late and night or early in the morning to or from the Airport, rolling down the window to enjoy the cleansing smell of the rain and to hear the cab’s exhaust rasp reverberate between the close buildings, only to be admonished by the driver and to endure several anecdotes of daring car thefts and kidnappings. I’m a non believer; instead I see shadowy figures that look very much like a people with a serious work ethic, moving steadily to some early bus after a night shift. There is a sepia quality to these scenes, the quality of a faded and torn photograph, half memories of the London and Paris I knew in the 1970’s. Perhaps it is the changeable weather, or the feeling of defeatism, this city holds false memories, nostalgia for a past that never happened, a sadness for internal political conflict and the shame associated with being violently divided and conflicted, I see it in the omnipresent rain clouds, the comportment of those on the streets, in their jeans and anoraks. In a way I am happy about the lack of the fake happiness and forced exuberance that pervades some South American countries; the clamorous rattles and wails of the Latin music each time you step into a cab or hotel foyer, I prefer this culture of survival, defiance and pragmatism.
This week on the first taxi ride to the office the usual band of motorcycles darted to and fro recklessly between cars. The driver mentioned that there is usually at least one fatality a day. This was sadly proven true by midweek when we slowed down to see an empty road with the traffic diverted because of the presence of a bloodied white sheet covering half of a motorcyclist’s body in the middle of the road, surrounded by disaffected policemen, if this wasn’t gruesome enough, our driver pointed out the other half wedged under a nearby bus. A medieval sight, a human tragedy that leaves you shaking during a commute and I thought constantly of a families distress, but apparently it’s such a common occurrence that you sense resignation, and so maybe faith of some sort is a necessary defense.
The third and most recent well known Colombian artist is the (still young) artist Oscar Murillo who catapulted to fame and riches thanks to the machinations of a tiny global art world and the benevolence of a strategic collectors family. He was educated and lived for a while in London and got to understand how to navigate the international art world. His paintings acquired a buzz despite being in my opinion somewhat aligned with 1980’s New York – there was the scruffiness of Basquiat, the use of words and letters, a expressiveness that owed much to Julian Schnabel, the fact that he was from Colombia might have helped. The main break was the residency offered by the Miami based Rubell family, hugely influential collectors. Then the market took its predictable course and dizzying auction prices followed. Now he seems to be walking back from this and attempting more thoughtful installation work which I doubt will catch on as most collectors want recognizable paintings on their walls. I think what attracted many people to his work was that he clearly had a plan and soaring ambition, an understanding of what people wanted and a forged a place in the market for himself.
This strikes me as atypical of the Colombians I meet through my own work. The persistence of religion and family might be comforting but I’m not sure if it is always healthy for individualism. I sense it is a country still overpowered by the benign presence of Catholicism and to some degree autocratic structures, both of which can suppresses creativity and lead to complacency. Faced with this propaganda there is a tendency to float like a balloon, drifting above the world and observing it from a righteous superior position, which in the western world was pricked a long time ago through education and science. It’s frightening to have self-determination, but it is also a reality jolt; praying won’t help you pay the mortgage, worshiping a dictator won’t free you.