New Normal

Dawn Chan at the 8th edition of artBO

Left: Collector Ella Cisneros. Right: artBO organizer María Paz Gaviria and former ambassador Ricardo Gaitán. (Except where noted, all photos: Silvia Mora).

“THE CITY’S FULL of dogs with jobs,” noted Irene Hofmann from within the white Citroën van transporting us through Bogotá. Hofmann—the director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe—was referring to the Rottweilers and golden retrievers who, at the bidding of security guards (or sometimes soldiers in fatigues), nosed through the bags of visitors to the upscale high-rise buildings that compete for views in the foothills arching around the metropolis’s eastern edge. Security seemed permanently heightened. Downtown, at the Corferias convention center, not one but two rounds of metal detectors greeted those of us who’d come to see the eighth iteration of artBO, Bogotá’s international art fair.

Bogotá was far less anarchic now than one might think, everyone said. You had to understand that these security measures were precautions and not definitive indications. But if danger was imagined, hospitality was real. You could feel the excitement of a city ready to return to normalcy, welcoming visitors and beckoning back nationals who’d exiled themselves over the past several decades as Colombia went through unimaginable mierda. With my limited knowledge of Spanish, I had to look up that up—mierda—as in PAÍS DE MIERDA, written in script on a building’s facade along one of the city’s main drags. Country of shit. The words appeared next to a spray-painted portrait of Jamie Garzón, a much beloved journalist who was apparently slain in 1999. Just as striking, and not too far away, were enigmatic black-and-white icons on exteriors of several vaults in Bogotá’s central cemetery. They turned out to be silhouettes, created by the eminent Colombian artist Beatriz González, depicting victims of political violence.

Left: LARA director Amanda Briggs. Right: Tate curator José Roca, Pablo Zuluaga, and artist Juan Fernando Herrán.

Were the pieces on view at artBO political? Not overwhelmingly so—perhaps, in part, because there seemed no shortage of political art in the streets. José Roca, adjunct curator at the Tate Museum in London, surmised that the practices of recent Colombian artists epitomized a “backlash against the aesthetics of violence in the 1990s.”

Roca, in a beard and blazer, and knowing everyone, was fresh from celebrating the launch of a book he’d coauthored on the past decade of Colombian art. He was among the many speakers featured in artBO’s program of lectures, stationed just across from a monstrously tall tornado built of wooden slats by Otoniel Borda Garzón. Borda’s wood whirlwind dominated the main space of Pabellón Artecámara, the curated portion of the fair, which featured thirty-three projects divided into three loosely thematic areas. “I’m very cautious about instrumentalizing art,” said Conrado Uribe, Artecámara’s organizer. “So I didn’t end up using the proposal I had submitted [to curate the space]. I prefer to think of myself as an ethnographer rather than a curator—though of course I am a human being, with preexisting ideas.”

Down at the other end of the hall, sales weren’t particularly fast, but few seemed worried. Carlos Marsano, a collector from Lima, Peru, said he had once been “impulsive,” but was now taking more time before committing to art. In short, no one seemed there to make a quick buck. It was great. There was ample space for works that were modest, emerging, and experimental, rather than big, red, and shiny. The fair even had, refreshingly enough, an educational wing the size of a stadium, where schoolchildren learned about things like form and new media.

Left: Dealer Jacob Karpio and ARCO director Carlos Urroz. Right: Artist Miguel Ángel Rojas and Cartier Foundation curator Leanne Sacramone.

“Fresh ideas” were, in part, what had drawn dealer Renata Bianconi from Italy to participate for the first time. “The art’s not as schematic as in North America,” she said. Her booth was getting a lot of attention for its photographs by Colombian artist Maria Elvira Escallón of trees whose trunks Escallón had carved into colonial-style columns—noninvasively, so the wood would still live on in the forest. Escallón also had a show on view at the university museum downtown that featured a video of dirt being poured into an abandoned hospital. (Count on college students to use the darkened room, with its casual floor seating, as an opportunity to make out.)

According to curator Jaime Ceron Silva, artists escaped to the safety of universities in the 1990s, after art got a bad name when “drug men used [it] as a way to wash their money.” It seemed he was saying that Colombian art was better off, now, for the time it spent incubating in ivory towers. Like everything else, the art scene was “complicated”—the response I received throughout the week to so many questions. Everything was complicated.

Left: Dealers Christopher Paschall and Alberto Magnan. Right: Collector Jorge Di-Terlizzi, curator Julia Diagahovic, collector Adriana Martínez, and dealer Renata Bianconi.

AS WITH ANY OTHER FAIR, the week was filled with side trips to exhibitions, including a show by artist Gabriel de la Mora at NC Arte (a nonprofit space up in the hills) and a group exhibition at Galería Casas Riegner that paid homage to Beatriz González, the auteur of the silhouettes on the cemetery vaults we’d seen earlier. A group rode through the hills to La Candelaria, the old part of Bogotá, where in the midst of brightly painted buildings, a contortionist did push-ups in crow pose on the sidewalk. There, too, was the Banco de la República’s museum, where a new exhibition of contemporary art was being installed, and across the courtyard, another show featured unforgettable colonial-era paintings of nuns, depicted in their final, bloodless states of repose. Rain clouds had been gathering all morning, and in the plaza down the street from the bank, protesters mourning the disappearance and murder of three hundred members of the old Unión Patriótica political party pulled transparent tarps over the folding tables that held photos of their lost ones. It rained off and on nearly all week, but that day the downpour grew fiendish, and the streets of La Candelaria, lacking the sewer system of newer parts of town, had quickly become whitewater rapids.

“This is the gods punishing us for skipping the Botero Museum,” someone said from the back of the van that had come to rescue us from the downpour.

“How much does a Botero even cost nowadays?” said artist Christopher Ho.

Dealer Sebastian Campos laid down the gory figures.

“Too much for me to buy one ironically, is what you’re saying.” said Ho.

Left: Otoniel Borda Garzón's installation at artBO. Right: Critic Silas Martí and collector Alfredo Herzog da Silva.

Campos was the one who noted to me earlier—as we ate arepas at collector Solita Mishaan’s home up in the hills—that Colombian collectors really do seem to mostly buy Colombian art. We all saw four collections in total; each different in flavor but all of them committed to emerging Latin American artists. At Alejandro Castaño’s two-story, unfinished space crammed with artwork, the crowd ate paella indoors and spilled out into the streets.

I was loosely assigned a guide that week: Maria Lucia Buraglia, an art history student, on some days resplendent in a fur-collared coat and fuchsia stockings. She said that often during her childhood she’d been sent to school with a sleeping bag, whenever guerrillas were close to seizing control of the route home. “The reason I want to work in culture is that it’s a way for Colombians to be proud of our country again,” she said. Our van driver had the radio set to a station that played 1980s hits, and “Ghostbusters” was on—Ray Parker Jr. snarling I ain’t afraid o’ no ghost—as we rode past hardware stores and fruit markets. Parker recorded “Ghostbusters” in 1984. That was also the year in Colombia that the government and the FARC reached a ceasefire that lasted a short three years, during which the guerrillas kept their weapons and consolidated forces. That Thursday, nearly two decades later, there was yet another round of negotiations. “It’s complicated,” said Buraglia of the compromises being hashed out. But she also said: “Many people left when things were really bad, and now they’re coming back.”

Left: View from the Banco de la República’s museum. Right: SITE Santa Fe director Irene Hofmann and dealer Alberto Magnan. (Photos: Dawn Chan)