Aim High

Cuenca, Ecuador

Left: Curator Theodor Ringborg, artists Meriç Algün Ringborg and Pedro Neves Marques, and Cuenca Bienal cocurator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti with artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck. Right: Cuenca Bienal cocurator Manuela Moscoso. (Except where noted, all photos: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)

IT’S NOT EASY TO GET TO CUENCA, and if you were going a few weeks ago it may have been under the guise of the Bienal—one of the more extrasolar on the circuit. But it’s also likely that you went for the Andes, the Inca ruins, the hot springs, the shamans, etc. The participating artists, curators, collectors, dealers, visiting journalists, and others in town for the opening of the show’s twelfth edition didn’t distinguish so much between spending time with art or with nature. And many—whether incoming from New York, Sydney, Paris, Mexico City, or São Paulo—logged at least three flights to arrive at a tiny airport that was a $3 cab ride to their quaint, city-center hotel. “Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and aspirin if the altitude gives you a headache!” we were told (in place of an agenda). Accordingly, perhaps, there were no banners advertising the show in the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, no VIP previews or extravagant dinners, and mostly the staff simply seemed pleased that the work arrived on time. Imagine if all the biennial countries had mascots, which passed a baton in some grand ceremony: an ominous Great White in Sydney handing it over to a mellow llama (or maybe a guinea pig, a delicacy!) in Cuenca. And that’s your visual for this local, low-key show.

Cuenca’s distance is also distancing. Curated by Manuela Moscoso and Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the show gathers works by forty-two artists, with 35 percent born in Ecuador, Peru, or Colombia. “We wanted to emphasize historic and economic connections,” the curators noted over breakfast on a sunny Friday morning. “We wanted to move away from polished discourses.” And if the spirit moved you, there was a series of “dialogues” offered on Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30—under headings such as “History, Body, and Aesthetic Condition,” “Appropriation,” and “Material Movement: Forests.” The shows themselves offered plenty to think about, particularly during your short walks (or long ones, if you wandered) amid the city’s eighteenth-century buildings and countless churches to the exhibition’s unusual venues—the Museo de Arte Moderno, the Colegio Benigno Malo (benign evil?), the Salón del Pueblo, and the Capilla del Museo de la Medicina, to name a few. You might, for example, contemplate the tame title of the show, “Ir Para Volver,” or Leaving to Return—a phrase that suggests “a physical and temporary absence (frequently without a definite duration)”—which is maybe just more contemporary art “nomadism” or an (admittedly oblique) reference to Julian Assange caged up in Ecuador’s London’s embassy. You might also ponder issues apposite to Ecuador, from the nation’s 2008 incorporation of the Rights of Nature in its constitution to its ongoing, disastrous oil drilling in the Amazon.

Left: Museo de Arte Moderno, Cuenca. Right: Artist Saskia Calderón.

“Well, it’s not every Friday morning that you find yourself looking at art in a middle school with a Che Guevara mural,” said a friend as we toured Benigno Malo alongside students playing basketball and heading to band practice. Were they part of the show? Sometimes. Marinella Senatore choreographed several teenagers for her The School of Narrative Dance—a series of performances in the school and on Cuenca’s streets. It was one of many works that belong to a category of biennial-prompted art. Sara VanDerBeek had shot photos of Chorrera artifacts in the Casa del Alabado museum in the nation’s capital, Quito, while on an “eye-opening” short residency. Jorge Satorre had encouraged Cuencan artisans to make expressive and nonutilitarian craft objects with their routine materials for his project, Lo Otro, also made on a residency. Felipe Mujica had worked in collaboration with the employees of a Cuenca sewing shop to produce his colorful fabric flag-curtain-painting-sculptures. Meriç Algün Ringborg had engaged a local library to produce The Library of Unborrowed Books – Section IV: Centro de Documentación Regional “Juan Bautista Vázquez,” an episode in her ongoing series.

One big plus for small biennials, such as Cuenca’s, is that bonds are formed fast and thick between visitors and participants. Have we ever laughed harder or longer over languid dinners? Or was it just the altitude getting to our heads? Even the show’s speech-driven award ceremony was slightly more tolerable. Quito-based artist-singer Saskia Calderón won first place that Friday night, with a prize of $30,000 for her work in the show, including Opera Onowaka—a score that invokes the names of spirits, which she learned while practicing rituals with the Huaorani people of the Amazons. It was also a win for Ecuador, as some headlines trumpeted the next day. Hope she stays put.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Artists Sara VanDerBeek, Victor Costales, and Julia Rometti. Right: Visitors with Meriç Algün Ringborg's work at Capilla del Museo de la Medicina.

Left: Colegio Benigno Malo. Right: Artists Jorge Satorre and Felipe Mujica.

Left: Assange grafitti. (Photo: Theodor Ringborg) Right: Artists Cecilia Szalkowicz and Runo Lagomarsino.

Left: At the awards ceremony. Right: Curator Pierre Bal-Blanc.

Left: Visitors with Martha Araújo's Hábito Habitantes. Right: A llama in El Cajas.