Blurred Lines

Daniel Culpan at ARTBO 2019

Leyla Cardenas, El final de otro comienzo, 2019.

WHERE IS THE LINE between ideas and feelings? I dwelled on this blur when I arrived in Bogotá—an eleven-hour hop from London—to plunge straight into ARTBO 2019, the city’s fifteenth international art fair. The short-circuiting effects of jet lag, plus Bogotá’s infamous soroche, left me drifting between the booths, yet I quickly found this porousness mirrored in the fair itself, which showcased contemporary art from across South America. Certain themes began to emerge across the Corferias convention center: border crossings, loopholes in consensual reality (both political and bodily), counter-narratives against official history. Mere weeks before ARTBO director María Paz Gaviria, daughter of former Colombian president César Gaviria, welcomed visitors at the fair’s press conference, the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, which had promised to end the longest-running conflict in Latin America, began to unravel. This sense of historical contingency—fragility, even—stood in stark contrast to London fairs, which so often feel like flashy interior-design showrooms for the wealthy.

I chatted to young Puerto Rican artist Manuel Mendoza Sánchez, whose deceptively kitsch ceramic vases scorch the retina from fifty paces. Pulling you closer in, their collaged surfaces take an aslant look at the deluge of image-driven narratives fed to us by mass media. “I’m interested in the stories we’re told by globalization,” he said, surrounded by the reproduction of a tea ceremony from a previous show, in which visitors were invited for a cup. One work dwells on the “wellness” craze of yoga. Another is embellished with scenes of poppy farming, linking Latin America’s drug wars with the Sackler-sponsored opioid crisis in the United States—and the media supplying our 24/7 fix.

Manuel Mendoza Sanchez.

Despite tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela, its neighbor was represented by the Caracas-based gallery ABRA, whose booth included Oscar Abraham Pabón’s unfurling Hierofanía, 2019, cut out from several ornamental carpets like a huge piece of embroidered jewelry. Also working with fabric, Colombian artist Carlos Castro Arias (showing with LA galería) presented Bayeux-esque tapestries that refashion the hubris of power into curdled fantasias. In one surreal tableau, Hugo Chávez lies on his deathbed, surrounded by skulls and weeping courtiers, while Simón Bolívar lingers, revenant-like, in a vanity mirror. In another, Pablo Escobar oversees a minion in a Nike beanie transforming a horse into a unicorn by driving a spike into its head. Political reality slides into deranged fantasy.

I met Colombian (via Berlin) artist Edgar Guzmanruiz, whose black tabletop sculpture was inspired by Isle of the Dead, 1880–1901, the Arnold Böcklin painting admired by both Freud and Hitler. Guzmanruiz said he was interested in “the kinds of images that people are drawn to.” Simple enough. He jested that the tutors at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, who twice rejected the boy Adolf for his mediocrity with the brush, felt such guilt that “they let any neo-Nazi through their doors afterward.” Guzmanruiz’s black humor points to a disturbing truth of history’s unconscious: the haunting question of what may have been.

Doris Salcedo, Fragmentos (detail), 2018.

I was repeatedly drawn to French gallery mor charpentier, a volcano of outsider energy. Teresa Margolles’s photographic series “Pista de baile,” 2016, shows trans sex workers posing defiantly amid the rubble of razed nightclubs in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Margolles rejects the “progressive” narrative of urban gentrification, which has precipitated the loss of working-class LGBTQ+ spaces in cities around the world. By spending years living with her subjects on the margins of society, Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz undercuts the reigning discourse of appropriation with her intimate Pinochet-era portraits of cross-dressing prostitutes and masked circus performers. They recall the subterranean majesty and direct access of Nan Goldin. Meanwhile, Iván Navarro showed how the unruly libido can disturb the division between public and private. Using candid Twitter photos of Colombian soldiers having gay sex, Navarro enfolds found things—discarded mattresses, soiled sheets—into tapestries both startlingly explicit and tender.

Edgar Guzmanruiz.

Friday found me visiting San Felipe, Bogotá’s unofficial arts district, with its graffiti murals, body shops, and gritty hipster vibe. SKETCH gallery greeted me with the anxious crunch of glass underfoot—part of a work by Adriana Rosell, who takes aim at modern vanity by turning mirrors into cracked windows for our empty self-regard. At LIBERIA, Dick el Demasiado and Francisco Toquica’s show “Hablemos por sky” was equal parts cartoonish and deadpan. The ground floor re-created the detritus of a burnt-out party entirely in ceramics, including cigarette butts and decapitated pineapples. Upstairs, the visages of Kissinger and Pinochet mutated into two grotesque portrait busts decked out in traditional Colombian folk skirts. Pointing to two decidedly NSFW collages, Demasiado joked that his work had often been considered too “pretentious” for porn magazines and too X-rated for the art press.

Finally, Doris Salcedo’s Fragmentos installation at Espacio de Arte y Memoria left me both awestruck and devastated. Nearly nine thousand guns used by former guerrillas were melted down and reshaped by the hands of women raped during wartime, creating an “anti-monument” to the power of forgiveness. Salcedo and her collaborators, whose moving testimonies are on view in an accompanying video, enact a symbolic reversal of power that becomes foundational: forging the very floor of the gallery on which all visitors stand. Left stunned and close to tears by a work that everyone should see, I left the gallery to a blaze of sunshine: the first after days of cold and relentless rain.

SKETCH director Liz Caballero with the work of Iván Navarro.