The whole of last July saw the launch of Denver’s inaugural Biennial of the Americas, an international event dedicated to “celebrat[ing] the culture, ideas and people of the Western Hemisphere”—a considerable endeavor for any one city. The event culminated in citywide exhibitions, samples of cultural diversity, and a series of roundtables that brought together world leaders, dignitaries, and other industry experts to discuss the broader issues of the day. However, this is not a biennial in the conventional sense, as contemporary art played a surprisingly small role. Instead, it could more appropriately be described as a platform for the hemisphere’s 35 nations to air their grievances, with a few object lessons thrown in.
The campaign for the occasion began back in 2007, when Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, its chief initiator, chose renowned graphic designer Bruce Mau to be the biennial’s director. Mau publicly announced his grand plans in 2008, but eventually withdrew following budgetary negotiations. Nevertheless, plans continued without an artistic director to oversee Denver’s unifying vision. Paola Santoscoy, a recent MA graduate from the California College of the Arts, was chosen shortly thereafter to curate a portion of the program. Given a limited timeframe and slim financial resources, she somehow managed to pull together a thoughtful and critically valid show.
Santoscoy (in collaboration with María del Carmen Carrión) has showcased several newly commissioned projects and a number of preexisting works by 24 contemporary artists from nine countries in North, South, and Central America. The exhibition owes its title to Lucretius’ first-century poem De Rerum Natura, which focuses on perception and the diverse, often conventional means by which people interpret and construct the world around them. This premise winds through the exhibition’s multiple threads, such topics as the relationship between man and nature, geographic boundaries, community, technological innovation, and sustainability.
The venue chosen for The Nature of Things was the 100-year-old McNicols Building located in Civic Center Park, a former public library cum government office cum energy-efficient exhibition hall. Before entering the site, visitors got to walk through Mexican Jerónimo Hagerman’s radial garden installation Lime Green Corinthian over Saturn Dublin over Acapulco Chairs (2010), a satirical intervention on McNicols’ neoclassical façade and Corinthian columns, the entirety contrasted here with Mexican pink awning ribbons, and neon-green garden chairs. According to Santoscoy, the building’s tropical makeover was central to the exhibition, exemplifying the way idealized or fantasy landscapes reflect our relationship to the outside world.
Inside, the show opened with Puerto Rican Karlo Andrei Ibarra’s solar-powered neon sign, illuminating the words Vivo en America (I live in America), first shown in Havana, Cuba in 2007. A pointed rejoinder to Chilean Alfredo Jaar’s digital art display in New York City, This is not America (1987), Ibarra’s response, referring as it does to someone from a colony of the United States, is especially charged. Yet the phrase’s inherent ambivalence, particularly in its use of the reductive national identifier, which still has enormous repercussions in the region, poignantly comes through. Near by, Peruvian Sandra Nakamura’s laborious E Pluribus Unum (2010) continues this conversation with a large-scale floor installation of 347,208 pennies, totaling $347 billion dollars paid by undocumented Hispanic workers in the U.S. since the 1970s. Given the recent introduction of Arizona’s proposed immigration laws, it is unfortunate this topic seems to have been omitted from the roundtable discussions.
Many of the works in The Nature of Things share Ibarra and Nakamura’s utopian or ironic sensibilities, wherein a more considered (or less didactic) response takes precedence over hard rhetoric. This is clearly evident in Mexican Pedro Reyes’ Palas Por Pistolas (2008), comprised of pristine shovels lined up in a row on the gallery floor, as well as a number of single-channel videos, which narrated the larger project. To get his venture off the ground, the artist partnered with a local botanical garden and a Mexican government campaign aimed at reducing the number of handgun deaths. The weaponry collected during the campaign was melted down and forged into shovels, which were then used for planting trees across cities in Mexico and other world destinations. Palas Por Pistolas, a clever play on ‘shovels (or trees) for guns,’ highlights the need for taking an all-inclusive approach when redressing social ills.
While incorporating artists who use a variety of media and express different approaches to, and interests in the topics at hand, Santoscoy organized a cohesive exhibition that examines how we define the Americas and the possibilities of our collective future, which in turn pushed the biennial’s themes beyond their buzzword-like status. Though the 2010 Biennial of the Americas was more of an international conference than biennial, it certainly was a step in the right direction.
Photos by Steve Crecelius
- ARCO 2010: VIP Program in Murcia
- Quintín Rivera Toro at Museo de las Américas
- ARCO 2010: VIP Program in Murcia