“THIS CITY IS A MONUMENT,” remarked Berta Sichel, artistic director for the first Cartagena Biennial, at a recent talk launching a weekend of performances, parties, and discussions organized as a kind of “second opening” for the show. She wasn’t speaking in tropes. Walking around the still walled-in Old City of Cartagena is like being inside a huge diorama. The place wears its colonial history like no other (unwilling) seat of the Caribbean slave trade, all whitewashed walls, carriages, and tchotchkes. The touristy environment provided a fertile and sometimes surreal backdrop to Sichel and her team’s curatorial ideas, and led to several surprise juxtapositions. For instance: an elegant sound piece by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh positioned in a well in the same courtyard as, and just adjacent to, objects and models of torture at the Museum of the Inquisition. Or the lugubrious room of an old church housing an installation by Anna Boghiguan, itself filled with dried-out beehives and bird carcasses. It smells like sugar and death.
Taking the thematic route to biennial curation, the show is divided into four primary ideas—craft, loss and trauma, ecology and culture, and colonialism—divided among four primary spaces. As serious as that sounds, it all plays out in a breezy, loose way. The exhibitions include a sizable percentage of trademark works from American and European names (Charles Atlas, Lothar Baumgarten, Julie Mehretu), probably obligatory in the context of a small city’s first-ever major international art showcase. An open call to Colombian artists helped shift the balance, resulting in the selection of a few dozen artists whose work was installed at Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art and a ground floor space at Plazoleta Joe Arroyo.
Presented in a more traditional, roomier layout than that of the four primary spaces, the works represent an impressive swath of Colombia’s contemporary scene. And though the biennial doesn’t stretch beyond the walled city, a few pieces were placed in its least polished neighborhood, the Getsemani, where Satch Hoyt’s Say it Loud!, a small tower of books tricked out with a microphone and speakers, sits in the middle of a foot-traffic intersection. “Apparently it’s mainly used by one woman from the neighborhood, to complain about the biennial,” artist Eduardo Sarabia told me.
But aside from that modest protest, boosterism and excitement prevailed among the artists, professionals, and passersby with whom I spoke, and there was much speculation about what impact this event could have on visual culture in the city. At a party at the Tcherassi Hotel attended by a significant roster of local society, Bogotá-based curator José Roca argued that the biennial was gravely overdue: The city has long-standing international music and film festivals, but the contemporary art scene is nowhere to be found. But whether a biennial can be a force of cultural change in a place with scant galleries or alternative spaces, and no visible framework for artistic support, is hard to predict.
On the other hand, there was clearly an audience beyond the small group of invited guests and Colombian patrons. An outdoor solo dance, in which Bulgarian performance artist Svetlin Velchev wove himself through a box of tightly pulled strings, was packed with people, many of whom seemed surprised that anyone else had heard about it. At the Naval Museum of the Caribbean, one of the four main sites, I watched a group of plaid-skirted schoolgirls carefully scrutinize Nick Cave’s colorful, dancey soundsuit video Drive-By. And on one of the hottest days, our group joined weekending families to climb down into the moist, underground depths of the fortress at the pinnacle of the city wall, to watch Jesper Just’s Llano—a video about the California socialist colony that collapsed when it lost its water supply—inside the cavernous vessel that once held the city’s water reserves. On the last stop on that tour, at the intersection of the “fantasy city” (as our guide put it) and the real one, we came across Yoko Ono’s Wishing Tree for Cartagena. While the seasoned art travelers in the group rolled their eyes at the sight of another Wishing Tree, a fully uniformed and heavily armed security guard hung up his wish.