The 43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas

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The artist Mladen Stilinović once stated, “An artist who cannot speak English is no artist.” These words, which appeared in a work of the same title in 1994, are an incisive and witty critique of the cultural homogenization of our globalized world. The statement itself is in English, and is legible only to Anglophone audiences. Based in Zagreb, Croatia, Stilinović is from the so-called periphery of the art world. Yet the artwork derives its power from his very status as an outsider. Almost 20 years later, we still must ask: Why do those on periphery continue to adopt the forms, themes, and languages that are dominant in the centers of the art world?

 

November 3, 2013, was the final day of the 43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas (SNA) in Medellín, Colombia. This edition of the SNA was ambitious. Five curators, three of them Colombian, installed the works of 108 artists across several museums and other venues, including the city’s iguana-rich botanical gardens and three beautiful floors of an abandoned building recently acquired by a local university. The exhibition demonstrated that Colombia is capable of producing a large-scale exhibition that speaks to both local and international audiences. But what is the language being spoken by this exhibition, and who is listening?

 

The SNA has gone through several transformations over the years. Started in 1940 in Bogotá as an annual, juried, prize-awarding showcase of national visual-art talent, it is now itinerant and curated. It occurs every few years, and it has been opened up to foreign artists, as indicated by the addition of “(inter)” before “Nacional.” Today it is essentially a biennial with a Colombian and Latin American focus.

 

Torn apart by civil war and violent conflict for more than half a century, Colombia was on the margins of the international art world for a long time. Recently this has started to change. Artists such as Mateo López and Nicolas Paris have garnered much acclaim, and various exhibitions and publications are naming Calí and Bogotá the world’s next art hot spots. ArtBo, an art fair in Bogotá, has grown in size and stature, even generating its own satellite fairs and programming. ArtBo and the SNA are funded by various government programs, and they demonstrate what Colombians refer to as the positive “transformation” of the country.

 

The SNA certainly brings Colombian artists and curators into dialogue with the international art world. But why does the biennial format seem to be the only accepted lingua franca for doing this? Why not invent a new way of seeing and understanding local and regional art and artists? After all, the title of the 43rd SNA was Saber Desconocer (To Know Not to Know). Why not unlearn the tired format of biennials; the taking over, or “activating,” of non-art venues; and even the curatorial concepts that underlie most group exhibitions?

 

One venue of the 43rd SNA was truly alive and engaging: La Heladería (the ice cream parlor). The ground floor and a small mezzanine of the Antioquia university building became a dynamic, multipurpose space for the duration of the exhibition. La Heladería had a bar under the rosy glow of pink neon lights, and it hosted exhibitions by art school students, talks, and projects that had been chosen by the curators through an open call. Here, the occasion of the SNA created a temporary hub that was part informal gathering space, part open forum.

 

There were very strong parts of the exhibition as well, many of which thematized the pitfalls of consuming foreign or indigenous cultures. At the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, the Brazilian curator Rodrigo Moura presented his “chapter” of the exhibition, Estado Oculto (Hidden State). This section juxtaposed a vitrine full of Alzate ceramics—counterfeit “pre-Columbian” works produced by a family of Colombian treasure hunters and gobbled up by collectors and museums—with Jimmie Durham’s hilariously deadpan video Smashing (2004). In the video, Durham sits at a desk holding a large rock, which he uses to crush to bits any object brought before him. Afterward, he stamps and signs a receipt for each “customer.”

 

Both of these works show the basic poles of human behavior: creation and destruction. Behind the comparison lies a subtle critique of the ethnographic spirit with which the art world categorizes regional aesthetics or national artistic trends. To pave the way for a cohesive identity and history, there will be amnesia. Certain stories will be imagined, faked, replaced, obliterated, or forgotten.

 

– Linda Mai Green


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