In the fractures of modernity

This text is based on two conversations held at Marco Montiel‐Soto’s studio in Berlin. Amid plants, hammocks and files, we talked about the imageries and fractures that constitute and shape his work. In an attempt to capture and share the turbulent activity of his studio, his physical and mental archives, his research trips, readings and music, this conversation has been given the form of an unorthodox written dialogue. At times the two speakers talk over one another, interrupting, finishing each other’s sentences—these are the moments when the debate seems to find something—and at other times there are gaps, unfinished phrases, as if something had been lost. Yet it is undoubtedly in those instants where we have truly found something: an enigma, a paradox, a crossroads, the edge of the known… a new problem to investigate, so typical of Marco’s work, which wanders along the fractures and fault lines of modernity, hovering between representation and the void, recollection and erasure, repetition and difference, history and extinction. 

LATIN AMERICANS: A HISTORICAL ERROR 

The term Latin American, associated with Latin language and culture, seems unsuitable for describing your research and works. ‘The “Latin American” category tries to limit us to the side of the Spanish and Portuguese… and it’s a way of situating us as colonised people.’ Like Latin America, these descriptions exclude indigenous, non‐Latin cultures. It therefore seems that this term preserves the colonial structure of modernity. 1 Conversely, in the very titles of your works I see terms that are more specific or that map transnational regions on the continent: from Caimare Chico, Maracaibo, Sacred Valley and San Antón to the Amazon, the Cordillera (the Andes), the tropics and the Caribbean. 

Latin America in turn depends, especially since the Cold War, on the perspective of America. 

The use of the word America to refer to the United States is an appropriation, in which they are the entire continent and we, Latin America, are everything from Mexico downwards. When Alfredo Jaar made his ironic This Is Not America (Logo for America) in 1987, he also posited a fracture and alluded to a historical error: the United States is not America. 

While Jaar felt it was important to de‐construct the perspective that permeates the image of America, several of the actions in your work can be viewed as the dismantling of Latin American, a double ambush. How do they represent us? How do we represent ourselves? ‘Latin America… is a term that’s been instilled in us… and it’s also a historical error.’ 

AMAZON IMAGERIES: KILLING THE FATHER 

In which works did you begin to take an interest in Venezuela’s indigenous communities? 

These roots are thinking to grow in all directions to intertwine other while they make a round (2010–2014) was the first piece based on Alexander von Humboldt’s route through the Venezuelan Amazon in 1900, travelling along the River Casiquiare, where Yanomami communities still live today. My journey in 2010 was, in one sense, a repetition of the itinerary followed by Humboldt’s expedition, which is still hard to organise as it’s certainly not a tourist‐friendly route. I went in a boat with my brother, and as night fell and we reached a Yanomami group, we asked them if we could sleep there… and if they would give us a place to string up our hammocks… I wanted to learn how they built their huts; for example, the knots they used or the shapes of the interiors. 2 

The resulting installation has elements characteristic of your work: it includes the evocation of an indigenous architectural space and a collection of objects from your journey, but it also displays a genealogy of representations of place. 

The installation’s point of reference is the Yanomami hut, with a few items I gathered along the way, such as seeds, plants and maracas. The display case also contains books on European expeditions that have represented this part of the Amazon, from the paintings of Rugendas and Anton Goering to more recent photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, like the book Uriji Jami! (1969) by German photographer Steinvorth de Goetz—in the Waika language, Uriji Jami means ‘walking through the jungle’), or the books Relatos de un Trotaselvas (1979) and Venezuela (1979) by another German, Karl Weidmann. Finally, there’s a series of photographs taken by me during the journey. 

The installation is like a meta‐cabinet, which not only arranges objects in an orderly fashion but also compiles the different imageries or visions of those objects, creating a mise en abyme that reflects the history of how the image of the Amazonian forest has been perceived, conveyed and defined. How do you shatter these travellers’ Europeanising image of the Caribbean? 

With reflection on reflection. As I like to say, ‘I don’t leave, I always return’… telling a story and being a part of it… I associate Humboldt’s journey with the photographers who later went to study the Yanomami… and… the image of the touristy Venezuelan Indian appears. 

But you also alter them… ‘I alter the images of European photographers with headlines of events that were happening in the country at that time.’ By altering Goetz’s or Weidmann’s images, you shatter the exotic image and the idea it entails of recreating a ‘wild’ experience, as opposed to civilisation. Through collage, made of photos and newspaper clippings, you confront the idealised image with the violence of daily life: ‘We’re ashamed of what mankind has done’, ‘Two car thieves killed while preparing to attack a woman’, or ‘He defended his son, and they killed him and his brother to the west’ are some of the inserted headlines. How do you approach these interventions? How do they differ from your photographs? 

In my work, I ask myself about today’s perspective. Even if Humboldt came now, he wouldn’t find the Yanomami giving them a parrot; he’d find them in the present‐day context of violence. He would be confronted with the current image of the Yanomami. 

And these images are in tension with your own photographs of the journey, which document the transformations. 

Look, all the photographs I took on that trip… they’re images that the aforementioned German photographers wouldn’t take… For example, in this photo a Yanomami woman is wearing a tee‐shirt with Hugo Chavez’s portrait as she grates yucca… In other photos we see that even the traditional wooden grater has been replaced by a modern metal one… or several photos that record traces of urban elements. 

Ticio Escobar, who has theorised about the contemporary condition of popular art and indigenous culture in his native Paraguay, rightly criticised the ‘illusion of purity’ attributed to a hybrid, dynamic cultural phenomenon, describing it as an operation that is ‘part of a romantic myth’. 3 In his analysis, Ticio argues that purity has never been necessary for indigenous communities to maintain their identity, pointing out several cases in which the decision to incorporate foreign or modern elements has enriched their rituals. In such cases, the new elements were not imposed by colonisation but appropriated and re‐contextualised. 

I think it’s the other way round in the case of the Yanomami communities of the River Casiquiare. Civilisation and deforestation have forced them to change… and there’s the question of whether they’ll continue to make hammocks or huts instead of going to the city to smuggle petrol. 

Which South American artists were important for thinking about the representation of the indigenous, and how to problematise it? 

I became interested in the observant nature of Juan Downey, as well as his part‐ anthropological, part‐artistic approach to the expedition, and above all his travels and works related to the Yanomami in the Amazon, in Venezuela… 

Like in Juan Downey’s memorable video The Laughing Alligator (1979), which intertwines scenes of Yanomami life with anecdotes about his own artistic and existential quest that become part of the story. His dilemma as a traveller shatters the objective ambitions of representation, as in this excerpt borrowed from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques (1955), which I think addresses some of the same issues you do: 

Either I am a traveller in ancient times and faced with a prodigious spectacle which would be almost entirely unintelligible to me, and might provoke me to mockery and disgust, or I am a traveller of my own day, hastening in search of
a vanished reality. In either case, I am the loser, for today, as I go groaning among the shadows, inevitably I miss the spectacle that is now taking place. 4 

The intersection of seduction and the disenchantment of representation leads to the death of the image in some of your works, as
a disruptive element. It seems as if you are identifying an impostor in every imagery. Not only do you compile images, but you also alter them, ambush them, bore into the emptiness of their clichés or their commercial value, and send them on to their fatal destiny. How did you kill the idyllic image of the Caribbean in Muerte en la tierra tropical azul [Death in the Tropical Blue Land, 2015]? 

With a machete… the image I killed is a painting by Rodríguez, a street artist who works with the image of the Caribbean tourist, which I bought at the second‐hand market in Maracaibo. 

Just as in Tod in die tropische Erde: por favor no me dejen morir. Noticias desde un limbo tropical [Death in the Tropical Land: Please Don’t Let Me Die. News from a Tropical Limbo, 2015], death marks the dystopian setting of the contemporary Caribbean. Like some kind of unconscious repression, you seem to follow the footprints that lead from Humboldt to today’s media in order to kill the father figure behind each representation. A sacrifice of the image as authority. 

THE TRUTH IS NOT NEWS 

Your series of painted and altered newspapers, La verdad no es noticia [The Truth Is Not News, 2016], references your work as a photojournalist for the daily La Verdad in 2002, and your own history with the popular iconography of this medium. Is that where your fascination with and distrust of images comes from? 

I saved the paper every day during the time I was working for the daily in 2002. My photographs were published almost on a daily basis, sometimes on the front page or in other sections. As a photographer, I was always running about, recording accidents, deaths, protests, culture, alongside a reporter who took notes. 2002 was also the year of the military’s attempted coup against Hugo Chávez, although he was restored to power two days later. At the time, the headline ‘A new Venezuela begins’ was published. Several years later, in 2016, I decided to open the box where I had kept those papers, with the idea of extracting headlines and images. 

Editing, painting and erasing. After these interventions, the news becomes part of the new pictorial and narrative system of your collages. 

I use red for news about violence; black and white for politics; green for military; silver for the economy; and gold for achievements. 

Your altered pages provide clues about the vicissitudes of Venezuelan history: ‘The world’s eyes are on the Venezuelan dawn’ (black) and your own footsteps, ‘Marco Montiel invites us to ‘sweat’ with the image’ (gold). 

Like the explorers and photographers mentioned earlier, newspapers have their own mechanisms for producing images, stories and truth. Although one might think that mass media are expanding across society, in Venezuela newspapers are on the verge of extinction. In contrast to the brilliant editions of 1970s and 80s papers, printed during Venezuela’s economic boom period, recent difficulties have reduced the circulation of printed editions to nil. Your painting and erasure of the pages also repeats the death and censorship of the media, of a news‐less country. 

La Verdad no longer puts out printed copies. The printed press doesn’t exist anymore in Venezuela. Not long ago I was in Maracaibo, and the last surviving print newspaper in my city, Panorama, put out its final edition, due to the paper shortage. 

Marco shows me the last edition with the front‐ page headline: ‘See you soon’. 

PORTABLE ROOTS 

Certain characters and terms tend to resurface in your works. A case in point is the phrase ‘portable roots’, which runs through several of your pieces and suggests a migrant identity and territory. When did you start to use it? How do you shatter that notion of roots associated with a territorial imagery? 

Ever since These roots are thinking to grow in all directions to intertwine other while they make a round (2010–2014), Caribe Portátil [Portable Caribbean, 2013], Arrivederci Maracaibo (2016) and Distanz ohne Guayabo [Distance without Guayabo, 2013]. Guayabo is a Venezuelan word we use when we miss something. It’s usually related to spite and love. You can have guayabo for a lost love, like a partner who went away. In this installation, however, it’s a foil: I don’t have guayabo for Venezuela. I’m far from home, but I don’t miss it, because roots are portable and they’ve gradually adapted to the new soil. 

In this way, you shatter the idea of the Caribbean as a geographic location, creating a more imaginary, mobile, personal place. 

Portable roots are the condition of several works that allude to the theme of travel and problematise both sides of it: on the one hand, they express the adventurous routine of the traveller, and on the other, they expose the bane of emigration. For instance, Hitchhiking without Urban Destination (2009), a piece about your experience hitch‐hiking across Europe without a map, something you did in 2002 after leaving Venezuela, shows the tourist as an explorer, but also the political flipside of the exile. And in Strudel between Confusion and Contradiction (2015), another work‐in‐progress, your disembodied voice narrates the flight from Maracaibo to Berlin, like a travel journal as you head to your new city of residence. More than the territory, what you narrate is the fact that identity resides in the wanderer’s own memory: You are what you remember. 

THE MAGIC OF INSTALLATION 

Several of your installations function as oases or refuges from guayabo, but others are magical altars, like Spell for a Few Crocodile Tears (2016). What did this installation perform? What spirits did it summon? 

In general, my installations establish relationships between times, territories and cultures. In this case, Chávez did the performative part, because on the television I show him exhuming the corpse of Simón Bolívar… our Founding Father, an event that was broadcast on the national TV network, to determine if he had been poisoned with arsenic. 

At the time you presented your piece, Chávez himself had died, and we also see symbols of his funeral wake, adding more spirits to the installation. 

Various saints taken from Venezuelan imagery are arranged round the TV, watching what is happening: José Gregorio Hernández, the Santos Malandros or ‘Thug Saints’, Saint Benedict, but also the Santa Muerte, ‘Our Lady of Holy Death’, and a photograph of a group of Yanomami looking on. The candles are lit and a candlestick revolves. At the same time, a musical piece played in the background, something I composed with the drums that mark the beat of the ritual. And there were also scattered coins, because ‘money makes the monkey dance’. In a way, the money makes everything work, and offerings are also made to the saints. 

Unlike the old cabinets of curiosities or Humboldt’s work, which studied objects in order to find scientific principles, this installation was an ultra‐ earthly means of connection (fictional and playful). 

RESEARCH: A DOUBLE‐EDGED SWORD 

What is the difference between your trips and the trips of the European explorers? What is the de‐colonial dimension of your itinerary? 

They’re trips based on artistic research. Although I use Humboldt’s maps, I don’t study them academically. I’m rewriting the journey in another time, with other characteristics and for other purposes… I’m seeing what remained, making a contemporary record of a moment of transformation and learning from its cultural forms. 

Researches animates your series of self‐taught exercises, through which you link historical images and narratives with present‐day problems. On your dissecting table (an ideal place for collage and installation work), you scrutinise the ideologies of the Enlightenment and the scientific project of 19th‐century German Romanticism, capitalist logic (and its tourism‐ orientated discourse), and the latest dramatic developments in Venezuelan politics. 

In a series of equally sleuth‐like inquiries, each piece somehow seems to revolve round the image of Latin America as an earthly paradise, a tourist destination or a banana republic. After all, this concept as such was forged in the project of colonial modernity. Several of your works sound a critical alarm about the reification, extinction and touristification of indigenous peoples, as well as the memory of slavery. In your installation Permanent Storm for a Tropical Constellation (2017), the little‐known shared history of the Congo people of Venezuela and Africa unfolds. Your investigative works, also like a double‐ edged sword, simultaneously cut the region’s image of modernity and coloniality. When we step into your installations, we enter an oasis of knowledge and, at the same time, the fracture, dissection and exorcism of that oasis. 

Paz Guevara, 2019

this text was originally written for a Marco Montiel-soto´s CAAM publication.

 

1_ Walter Mignolo traced the historical formation of the idea of Latin America from the imperial/colonial foundations imposed over the last 500 years. ‘[A]fter the revolutions of independence (North/South, Anglo/Latin) […] ‘Latin’ America would come to be seen as dependent on and inferior to the United States. The concept of Latinidad, an identity asserted by the French and adopted by Creole elites to define themselves, would ultimately function both to rank them below Anglo Americans and, yet, to erase and demote the identities of Indians and Afro‐South Americans.’ In MIgnolo, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing, p. XV. 

2_ HuMbolDt, Von A. (1995). Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. London: Penguin. 

3_  EsCobAr, T. (2008). El Mito del arte y el mito del pueblo. Cuestiones sobre arte popular. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Metales Pesados, p. 151. 

4_  Downey, J. (1979). The Laughing Alligator, 27 min, B/W and colour, sound. / LeVI‐StrAuss, C. (2001). Triste Tropiques. London: Penguin Books, p. 43.