TOD IN DIE TROPISCHE ERDE: “Please don’t let me die” – Oscar Ardila

News from a tropical limbo

The corresponding relationship between myth and reality, between what we imagine and what actually exists, or between “paradise” and “hell”, are some of the aspects that have been evoked since colonial times referring to the tropics and the Caribbean lands. The tropic has represented a place for wild nature, exuberance and unequalled richness of resources, as it has been the scenery for projected fantasies and sociopolitical utopias that have in great measure defined the identities of countries located in the region.

However, the tropics are “the kingdom of paradox” as affirmed by Alfons Hug [1], when he refers to the contradictions that are present in a region where, despite it being one of the richest in resources and diversity in the world, poverty and social inequality still predominate.

This exhibition looks into the many representations of the Caribbean and how they relate to the contemporary local predicaments. In this occasion, the artist Marco Montiel Soto presents two of his works in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo del Zulia – Maczul. For one, Tod in die Tropische Erde: “Por favor no me dejen morir”: Noticias desde un limbo tropical is a specific piece for which the exhibition is named after, it is an installation gathering different works and objects. And, on the other hand, the intervention The Caribbean dream is another utopia is also presented in the central patio of the museum. These two works establish a relationship between different aspects of ideologies inherited from both the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific german Romanticism of the XIX century, with the contradictions and paradoxes of the social and political state of affairs that permeates the press nowadays.

An analysis of the wording Tod in die Tropische Erde reveals the semantic game on which the greater load of Montiel-Soto’s body of work is based. In this particular case, he appropriates a term commonly used by Alexander von Humboldt in his scientific texts when describing the tropics as a sublime, paradisiacal place, where all sorts of plants, animals and climactic events can take place. Ahead of the term Tropische Erde (tropical earth) Montiel-Soto places the word “Tod” (death) to question the caribbean imaginary that has prevailed well into the present.

Death in the tropical earth evokes the perfect title for a crime novel of the first half of the XX century, a literary style in which the stories would take place in old british or french colonies in Africa or Asia. These novels would narrate adventures lead by characters born into the high class, and developed in the midst of luxury, diplomacy and wealth. In many cases, the titles for these publications was the result of the combination of a word suggesting a tragic incident and a geographical reference evoking an exotic place. Death in the Nile or Murder in the Orient Express, for example.  

With the frase Tod in die Tropische Erde, the reference is made in relation to an imaginary of great contrast between a land of exuberance and luxury, at the same time inevitably related to tragic events. Montiel-Soto insists in the loss of charm of the tropics for being linked to death by violence, culture, money, power, corruption, drugs or a simple reckoning.

“Por favor no me dejen morir” or “Please don’t leave me to die” is also a part of the exhibition title, a frase that stems from one of the myths of the death of now ex-president Hugo Chávez. According to local press, he had told this to the Chief of the Presidential Guard while on his death bed. With this quote, Montiel-Soto clearly directs his attention to the questioning of the sociopolitical reality of Venezuela, immerse in a ‘tense calm’ where deep divisions have become more visible in the realms of public opinion and society. Specially between those who support the current political leaders and those who contradict them, between those who point to the increase of corruption, drug trafficking, violence and those who don’t believe it.

With this frase, the tragedy that is currently developing in the caribbean country is accentuated. The reference to a social tragedy debates the crystallization of political projects of great magnitude, such as the Bolivarian movement, 200 years after Bolívar’s contribution to Venezuelan history.

The installation that is presented in the main room refers to an engraving that portrays Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland inside a “explorer’s shelter” filled with samples collected during their travels along the Orinoco river in the early years of the XIX century.

In this case, the shelter is crammed with dry palm leaves from the museum’s own Chaguaramo trees, bamboos, aloe vera, coconuts, plants and “taparas” (natural pots from the fruit of the Taparo tree) that were collected in various locations and in the Botanical Garden, as well as taxidermies, a desk and instruments for scientific measuring.

In addition to the reference of elements of scientific iconography of the XIX century, Montiel-Soto inserts new elements into this environment: a video of moving “maracas” (musical instrument of indigenous origins), a series of photomontages, photographic material, a painting pierced by a machete and a lightbulb that turns on with a car’s battery. The shelter presents itself as an open archive of tropical significance, where different historical documents are displayed next to aesthetic objects open to free interpretation.

The photomontages included in the installation accentuate the semantic play on words previously mentioned. The graphic material that serves as a base for these photomontages are several prints arranged in series on Latin American fauna, taken from different encyclopedic publications that came to be via Sunday newspapers or sold in kiosks around Venezuela, during the seventies and eighties. Collaged over these print sheets are different newspaper clippings from the venezuelan press referring to the common issues that concern the public opinion, such as the scarcity of products in supermarkets or the violence and insecurity that abounds country-wide.

The press headlines are dissected, as one would botanical or animal samples, to insert them in a collection where news would acquire a different value, be it scientific or aesthetic. As Montiel-Soto states: “in taking the news out of the context of the newspaper, it’s not really news any more, although if it is, […] with the narrative being switched to be accompanied by pictures of animals, it seems as though the headlines are poetry […]”

With these collages, the veracity and objectivity of two separate stories are confronted and they do not correspond to each other, which inserts a certain oddity in perception. In other words, the natural order described by a zoology encyclopedia, as Montiel-Soto uses, is broken when it is superposed to the chaos of a journalistic feature. The exotic has no place where the everyday is filled with absurdity. These photomontages recover the dramatic dimension of the news which is no less striking even when absorbing this new poetic façade.

The central patio exhibition, The Caribbean dream is another utopia, is an installation of a series of hammocks hung to the palm trees that live in the museum garden. Except the hammocks are hung in a great height where they can’t be reached, just observed from a distance. Meanwhile, in one of the access points to the interior rooms, a dialog can be overheard between two living parrots that are also present.

As described by Montiel-Soto himself, the impossible height of the hammocks and the fact that one cannot rest on them is alluding to a utopia, an unattainable wish, in his own words:“the people are invited to the museum to relax in a hammock-clad shelter, the visitor is lied to […] once again Venezuelans encounter a situation where their dreams are frustrated, unapproachable”.

The question arises: what utopia is Caribbean Dream referring to? How was the Caribbean imaginary built surrounding a hammock, coconut water and some palm trees? The hammock, a symbol of rest and pleasure, works as a vehicle to deepen the meaning of a more complex territory where the ideas of relaxation and freedom coexist with social inequality and violence.

Montiel-Soto gives us some clues regarding this paradise through a historical postcard portraying a woman laying comfortably on a hammock that dates back to the end of the XIX century. An idillic scene that becomes disorienting when we notice that her rest is due to the work force of a slave. An object so common as a hammock acquires a historical dimension and is present as the crossroad where different ideologies collide.

The Caribbean dream is another utopia deals with the visibility of a meta-narrative. Surely, the caribbean dream is charged with the “romantic” point of view of the german scientists who wrote about american landscapes as “native and exuberant” places similar to paradise. Parallel to this, was the fantasy of liberation and revolution that resulted in yearnings of independence and, fast enough, entire anti-imperialistic movements of the early XIX century under the heat of the Cuban revolution.

Thus, through this exhibition, Montiel-Soto winks onto matters of art and politics, in the sense that he promotes a critical reading into the Venezuelan present tense through irony and dark humour. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the photomontage material comes from serial encyclopedias distributed by the press in a time of extreme abundance and financial liquidity. That glorious past is contrasted with the current predicament of the national press, where paper is a scarce commodity, resulting in what appears and looks much like censorship of the press.

Noticias desde un limbo tropical makes social and political contradictions visible. Such common contrasts of the everyday that they are seemingly part of a new sense of normalcy. They are understood, they have sunk in and are now part of the narrative, apparently coherent until it is all put into evidence, emphasizing the absurdity and tragedy that the Venezuelan collective imaginary faces.

[1] Hug, A. (2009). “Was sind die Tropen?”. En Kunstforum InternationalEd. 195. Enero – Marzo. TZ-Verlag, Rossdorf Pág. 44 – 47.

Oscar Ardila, 2015