London

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, La Cueva Negra (The Black Cave), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, La Cueva Negra (The Black Cave), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Gasworks

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, La Cueva Negra (The Black Cave), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

The Hippomane mancinella, or manchineel tree, indigenous to Puerto Rico, is among the most poisonous plants on earth. One notorious example of its terrible powers was recorded in the nineteenth century, when dozens of German sailors ingested its fruit—also known as the “little apple of death”—and died horribly after enduring excruciating pain from internal bleeding. We are told of this tragedy in Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s Farmocopea (all works 2013), a willfully amateurish 16-mm film featuring images of Puerto Rico’s lush island landscape accompanied by subtitles about its bizarre flora. In Santiago’s narrative, we discover that the island’s government eventually set out to eradicate the lethal tree. This effort resulted in irrevocable ecological damage—a devastation of the natural landscape only hastened by the concurrent construction of superhighways, hotels, condos, and petrochemical refineries.

So far, so artist-as-ethnographer. We are now familiar with artists adopting familiar film styles (documentary, home movie) and mining texts—historical, botanical, local—to turn the narration of some off-piste episode of exploitation and disaster into a form of social or political commentary. But Santiago’s portrayal of Puerto Rico’s uncertain identity—fluctuating between earthly paradise, New World stopover, and American subordinate, somehow permanently undeserving of actual statehood—is an unusually watchable and understated example of the genre. Little of the island’s postcolonial decline is literally spelled out; time seems to stretch to far greater lengths, from a long-lost prehistory to some timeless future. This effect suffuses all the works in the show; a fable-like wall text titled Cosmogonia Futura, for example, gives a mythologized account of the island’s origins, describing a time when primal animal deities subjected the locals to behavior as violently capricious as that of the later light-skinned invaders.

A twenty-minute video, La Cueva Negra (The Black Cave), which lent its name to the show, follows the playful adventures of two boys as they roam this tainted jungle, their explorations of the claustrophobic greenery accompanied by the constantly humming sound track of unseen highway traffic. Bare-chested and smiling, the youngsters investigate first the massive vines encircling and almost strangling a towering tree; next a ripped mattress, abandoned in a roadside dump; then mysterious bubbles gurgling in a black puddle. The two explorers test everything they encounter: the overgrown vine’s spectacular strength as they pull against it; the buoyancy of the mattress as they jump tentatively upon it; the deadly depth of the “puddle,” which swallows the very long stick they push into it. As the boys pause to happily chew on almonds, one imagines their ancestors a few millennia ago, wandering through these very forests and testing the native fruit to discover which bring pleasure (like almonds) and which bring death (like the manchineel). In the intervening years, industrialization seems only to have imported new dangers to this strange land, introducing unfamiliar juxtapositions of the toxic and the pleasurable, the safe and the lethal.

In late March 2013, while this exhibition was on view, Puerto Rico announced semi-tax-haven status in an attempt to lure American millionaires to its sun-drenched shores. One imagines these friendly boys—probably among the 80 percent of the island’s population that is both young and poor—enlisted as expert island guides for the tax-evading newcomers, informing the gringos that while Hippomane mancinella is now almost stamped out, other toxins remain. The show’s underlying context of mythical origins and poisoned apples suggested the pair could represent a twenty-first-century Cain and Abel, now happily getting along like good brothers but uncertain whether they inhabit their parents’ Eden or its polluted remains. The distinction may not matter. The island has always been both fertile paradise and treacherous trap; its mix of venom and delight has been updated but remains intact, insinuating its way into Santiago’s subtle and imaginative work.

Gilda Williams