Federico Guzmán

Since October 1997, Federico Guzmán, an artist from Seville, has lived in Bogota, and for his recent show in Madrid he used Colombia’s luxuriant vegetation as a point of departure for his art, which straddles anthropology, science, and daily life. Titled “Echando raices en el aire” (Taking root in the air), the exhibition transformed the gallery into a kind of lush greenhouse, to resplendent effect.

One of Guzman’s installations comprised a set of metallic-green slates made of iron or wood with flange edges. Some of the slates were originally part of an interactive exhibition (held last May at the Casa Cultural El Solar in Bucaramanga, Colombia), whose title, “El reencauche” (The rerubbering), refers both to the rubber tree and tractor tires that were part of Guzmán’s installation and to the dialogic process engendered by the work itself. For that show, the artist invited the people of the city to write or draw on the wall and on the slates. Their assigned theme: the region’s plants. These peculiar “canvases”—accompanied by botanical drawings and assorted texts—could be erased at the whim of the person wielding the chalk. Each slate became a sort of palimpsest where incomplete images, inconclusive writings, and various corrections gave an intriguing disorder, flux, and vitality to a work conceived out of the very idea of change. Viewers in Madrid were likewise invited to alter the slates with chalk. With these humble materials, the artist proposed that the process of recycling—or “rerubbering”—is key to understanding a world in which waste and luxury have no place. Actual Colombian plants were also on view: A telephone wire crossing the gallery was covered by “old-man’s beard,” the plant that spontaneously covers the telephone wires in Bogotá, a city where nature remains untamed. Softly but critically, the show spoke of the spoliation of the forests and the inhabitants of South America by the “civilized” hand of the multinationals.

For Guzmán, art for art’s sake is—and here I use a Latin American term—a huevonada (stupidity). Another of the projects in the show, a group of small-format photographs, served to dot the i’s: The viewer learned that Guzmán, together with some students from the University of the Andes (where he teaches the eloquently titled course “Promote Your Everyday Life”), has spent time in the neighborhood known as El Cartucho (“the Cartridge”), a slum in the heart of the Colombian capital. There, where misery is rampant and many people, in order to outwit their hunger, spend their days and nights knocked out on bazuco, a drug they inhale, Guzmán and his collaborators work at a modest health center where they are trying to bring proper hygiene (and free haircuts) to the poor.

In some ways, the practice of what we call daily life is the marrow of the work of this artist from Seville. Taking root in his new country, Guzmán is as aware of Colombians’ sense of humor as he is of their poverty. Another piece in his show is a collection of photos and texts recording a seemingly endless number of names with which citizens of Colombia have been baptized. Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, Guzmán provides documentation of a black Colombian whose parents gave him the misconceived (and misspelled) name of Hitler Rouseau.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Vincent Martin.