A Journey There and Back Again: From the Ghost Ships to the Venezuelan Breakdown
Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all.
ClAude Levi‐StrAuss. Tristes Tropiques, 1955.
All machines have their master codes, and the codebook to the cultural machine of the Peoples of the Sea is made up of a network of subcodes holding together cosmogonies, mythic bestiaries, remote pharmacopoeias, oracles, profound ceremonies, and the mysteries and alchemies of antiquity.
Antonio Benítez Rojo. The Repeating Island, 1989–1998.
It would not be surprising if, while wandering through this exhibition, the interested and curious visitor were overcome by a spirit of adventure and felt mysteriously propelled by invisible driving winds. In fact, trade winds and ocean currents are primarily to blame for this show, large in both spatial and chronological scope. It speaks to us of trips and travellers, identities and customs, local and global economy, resources and politics, conquests, colonialisms, migrations and imageries. But above all, it speaks of experiences and people, from the artist himself, whose work is rooted in his own biography, to all those who find themselves forced out of their homeland by governments and wealthy elites avid to conquer more, earn more, be more powerful and rule the roost. All too often, it seems that the people are left out of the equation when discussing political and economic processes; human beings are reduced to figures and data, and everyday needs are underestimated.
This project supports a vast constellation of messages that communicate with each other through the works, creating a heightened awareness of the complex reality hidden behind vague, deceptive terms such as globalisation or migration flows. Professor Mary Louise Pratt warned us about these concepts: ‘Globalization functions at times as a kind of false protagonist which impedes a sharper interrogation of the processes that have been reorganizing practices and meanings during the last 25 years. More precise and explanatory words are lacking. Undoubtedly such words will include the term neoliberalism.’ 1 The metaphor of ‘flow’ also legitimises the term ‘globalisation’ (an advanced state of colonialism) and masks the realities of these movements, the protagonists and their different life circumstances—in other words,
the ethical dimension.
Mal de mar hacia un triste trópico. Notas sobre la otra isla [Mal de Mer Towards a Sad Tropic: Notes on the Other Island] is the third 2 and ambitiously totalising instalment of a larger project in which Marco Montiel‐Soto establishes ties between his native land and the Canary Islands by travelling to both places, like the explorers of old. He began with his journeys to the Canaries in search of Venezuelan imagery, which has been conveyed through cuisine, music or the encounters arranged by Casa de Venezuela in the islands, which he also visited. The material gleaned from that adventure was then artistically transformed, imbuing it with critical and reflective meaning. The resulting installation consists of sculptures, found and altered objects, photographs, newspapers, collages, maps, audio recordings and videos. His assemblages may remind visitors of the halls of an anthropological or archaeological museum, or of the old cabinets of curiosities, but they also have a certain immersive quality, enhanced by his decision to transform the venue with ephemeral architecture and vegetation. The artist places spectators at the centre of his travels, making them active participants in the experience.
The exhibition is divided into two intertwined sections. The first explores the reality of Venezuela, which is currently experiencing one of the most critical periods in its history. The other is dedicated to the theme of the Canary Islands, alluding to the archipelago’s decisive geographical features—its volcanic origins and singular flora, like the dragon tree or magical rain tree—as well as its history, as can be seen in the Jardín canario [Canary Garden]. There are documentary references to vestiges of the aboriginal Guanches and the islands’ precolonial past, such as the wide variety of pintadera stamps made by the artist himself, and allusions to many of the identifying symbols of this insular yet tri‐continental culture, marked by centuries of interaction with Africa, Europe and the Americas. In a curious coincidence, while the artist was still working on this project, La Graciosa ceased to be an islet and become the archipelago’s ‘eighth island’, a name historically used to refer to Venezuela, and so the title was changed to ‘the other island’.
The ties between the Canaries and Venezuela date back to Columbus’s first voyages to the New World. Both territories were conquered during the same period, and their indigenous inhabitants were colonised and absorbed into the Spanish Empire almost simultaneously. In the case of the Canaries, the indigenous Guanche people and their culture were practically wiped out, and Venezuela’s indigenous heritage was virtually buried and undermined by subsequent rulers of European stock.
As the regular port of call for ships sailing from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas, the Canary Islands were strategically situated for trade and all other types of exchange. A steady stream of Canary immigrants flowed to the lush ‘Land of Grace’, as Columbus dubbed Venezuela when he first landed there in 1498, from its discovery until the dawn of the 20th century. At one point, this exodus became so massive that authorities had to create emigration obstacles to avoid the depopulation of certain areas. To put these movements in context, and with the collaboration of Casa de Colón in the Canaries, Montiel‐Soto decided that his show should include an old cannon and prints of the ports that connect these strategic islands with other sea peoples who share similar identities and customs. The prints are engravings made by J.J. Williams for Philip Barker Webb and Sabin Berthelot, two explorers and scientists who, in the early 19th century, compiled a wealth of information on the flora, fauna and characteristics of the islands in their Histoire Naturelle des Îles Canaries. We will come back to the topic of travel literature and its influence on colonial phenomena.
In one of history’s paradoxical twists, something happened that has since become a recurring phenomenon in the contemporary world. The former colonies, once utopian destinations for the inhabitants of the mother country, are now highly unstable political and economic scenarios, and those who arrived long ago and their descendants are returning to their countries of origin. Even native Venezuelans have been leaving their country en masse for years.
The starting point here is the clandestine emigration that took place after the Spanish Civil War, under Franco’s dictatorship. Thousands of Canary Islanders were forced to flee in secret between 1939 and 1957. 3 In the harsh post‐war years, it was practically impossible to obtain permission to leave the country legally. Many fled because of the political situation, but desperate financial straits were what forced the majority to seek a better life in the promised land across the sea. Hunger, unemployment and the struggle to merely subsist triggered a mass exodus, in which many pooled their meagre resources to purchase a vessel (or, in some cases, stole one) and set sail for the Americas, travelling in very precarious conditions and sometimes even without a competent crew. Those ‘ghost ships’, packed with more sailors, passengers and stowaways than they could handle, set out on that historic route, favoured by the trade winds and equatorial currents which have long united and forged a kinship between these two lands. They landed in different spots along the South American and Caribbean shores, but most headed for the port of La Guaira. The voyage took between twenty and ninety days, depending on whether fortune favoured or frowned upon them, and on arrival the weary travellers often had thrilling stories and anecdotes to tell, almost always rooted in dramatic cases of food or water shortages, storms and other hardships. Immigrants were welcomed with open arms until 1948, when Rómulo Gallegos was ousted from power and replaced by a dictatorship that did recognise Franco’s government. The new regime began returning illegal immigrants to Spain or, in most cases, sending them to harsh labour camps. The artist retrieves the echoes of those ship’s logs in a sound piece, in which people who actually made that crossing tell their stories and describe the incredibly harsh conditions that passengers had to endure aboard ship. If we overlook the minor details, these testimonies have much in common with the experiences of people who made the voyage in other periods, and they undoubtedly also remind us of what countless other clandestine immigrants across the globe suffer today as they flee from countries ravaged by war or extreme poverty. Symbolising all these maritime hardships, the artist included several examples of African carvings in his show, on loan from the collection of Casa de África in the Canary Islands. These figures, sculpted by different ethnic groups and each placed in a tiny boat, are scattered throughout the rooms, as if guiding visitors through the exhibition.
Another work confronts us with the realities, often concealed or sugar‐coated, about which they wrote to their relatives once they had settled in Venezuela. The artist went about collecting vintage postcards and presents them here as an archive, grouped by images that depict a thriving nation at the height of its prosperity. It is curious to note that the main tourist attractions at that time were the brand‐new Caracas–La Guaira motorway, the oil fields, the swimming pools, the new buildings and feats of engineering, and, of course, the exotic natural scenery. Thanks to the oil boom, Venezuela was then experiencing a great surge of industrial and urban growth. The collages of Maracaibo monumental [Monumental Maracaibo] show ‘what it was before and what it became after’. To make these collages, Montiel‐Soto used a collection of old books on the ancient Roman Empire, placing painted transparencies over the original images to alter them. For example, he inserted images taken from those volumes in old photos of Maracaibo at its most glamorous, thereby associating the two processes of historical entropy, of the downward spiral into chaos and destruction that tends to follow periods of dazzling wealth. It is genuinely astonishing to think that a country can undergo such a radical transformation in just two decades. The shadow of this misfortune persistently haunts the entire work.
Papel tapiz [Wallpaper], consisting of currency notes that cover one of the gallery walls, is a denunciation of inflation and the radical impoverishment of a national economy. The bolívar, which the artist has used before in other works, 4 is now so devalued that it could almost be used as wallpaper. Another patriotic symbol, the Venezuelan flag (altered by Chávez to serve his iconographic purposes 5), is dressed in mourning, with three black bands and white stars, eliminating the cheerful colours to express the sorrow of a country plunged into chaos.
To underscore the dramatic extent to which a country’s abundant natural riches can be debauched, in this case its coveted ‘black gold’, Montiel‐Soto built a replica of the famous oil derrick that forever changed the course of history: the Barroso II. The legendary blow‐out in 1922 was visible from Maracaibo, 45 kilometres away. The region’s inhabitants chanted to the beat of drums, calling on Saint Benedict the Moor—represented in the exhibition by a small effigy beside the derrick—to stop the gushing flow of petroleum. This black saint, a descendant of freed slaves, has been venerated in Venezuela since colonial times, especially in the region of Zulia. The syncretism of religious beliefs in Venezuela is both fascinating and surprising. A phenomenon of great social and political importance, it reflects the cultural melting pot produced by European colonisation, the arrival of African slaves and the influence of the Asian sphere. In fact, at the beginning of the exhibition we come across a statuette of La India Tibisay, a legendary indigenous princess and part of the imagery associated with the cult of María Lionza, which has a strong following in Venezuela. 6 In this complex cult, the ‘queen with eyes of water’ presides over the pantheon of the three potentates, accompanied by the black god ‘Negro Felipe’ and the deified indigenous chieftain Guaicaipuro. There are also several courts made up of all sorts of unlikely characters, a hotchpotch of angels, saints, historical figures (like the many tribal chiefs who resisted Spanish rule) and other entities. These esoteric cults are so important that even former president Hugo Chávez (whose likeness appears on the altar beside Tibisay) performed santería rituals in the Palace of Miraflores and used its dispensations to govern the country. Apparently, and despite its purportedly scientific aims, the exhumation of Simón Bolívar’s remains also had to do these esoteric practices. Chávez was quite used to such customs, and his successor Nicolás Maduro has also embraced them.
In 1892, the German author Anton Goering published a book in Leipzig whose title might be expressed in English as From the Tropical Lowlands to the Perpetual Snows: Venezuela, the Most Beautiful Country in the Tropics. Montiel‐ Soto chose to open his exhibition with the cover of this book. A painter, draughtsman, naturalist, zoologist, taxidermist and ornithologist (those early explorers had many talents), Goering spent several fascinating years wandering through Venezuela, between 1866 and 1874, capturing everything that caught his attention in paintings and drawings while also keeping a travel journal filled with chronicles and observations. At a time when photography had not yet become widely popular, these images stood in lieu of modern photo spreads. They combine the documentary quality that the author aimed to achieve with his own inevitable subjectivity and the cultural vision of the civilization he represented: the perspective of a white, upper‐class, colonial, patriarchal European, capturing an exotic world in the ecstasy of rediscovery. Mary Louise Pratt has stated that the European view of America stems primarily from the travel books of those Enlightenment explorers, which became genuine best‐sellers. The Views of Nature presented by Alexander von Humboldt (who also made a famous expedition to the Canaries) re‐imagined a Venezuela in the process of achieving independence and offered a stereotypical description of its wild, primeval, untainted nature, but there is hardly a mention of the societies that inhabited it, as if they did not exist. In reality, his views spoke of possessable spaces to be charted, mastered and exploited. 7
Aspects of the conquest and loss of that ‘paradise’ are referred to in several works, including Mara cayó [Mara Fell]. Mara was an important chieftain who made a legendary stand against those determined to vanquish his people and rule his lands. They say that Maracaibo got its name when the indigenous leader fell. In Muerte en la tierra tropical [Death in the Tropical Land], a painting of the virgin forest is placed on a log and destroyed with a machete, forcefully expressing its catastrophic fate. In Sueño caribeño es otra utopía [Caribbean Dream Is Another Utopia], a hammock hung out of reach is rendered useless, elaborating on the theme of frustration. Another important segment of the show consists of works based on the Venezuelan press. Over time, Venezuelan newspapers grew thinner and the articles became more trivial, sensationalistic and censored, until they practically disappeared. The artist worked as a photographer at the daily La Verdad in the summer of 2002, when
he left for Europe. He saved those newspapers and altered them fourteen years later, painting the pages different colours that represent the subject of the only news item he left visible: green for military news, red for violence, black and white for politics, silver for the economy, and gold for achievements. La verdad no es noticia [The Truth Is Not News] is a metaphor for the censorship now openly practised in Venezuela, where the printed press has ceased to exist and the digital press is run from outside the country, as domestic networks are closely controlled by the authorities. In Sucesos del día a día [Daily Events, 2015], the artist used headlines from different newspapers he collected before leaving the country and combined them in a collage with photographs of South American fauna clipped from inserts from the 1970s, when newspapers still had character and substance. The headlines have to do with disasters and crimes, mostly of a lurid nature, and the juxtaposition of the text and the entirely unrelated image is therefore quite jarring. A feeling of creative bewilderment invades the spectator’s mind as s/he struggles to find a connection between the two without resorting to logic. An interesting surrealist game, and yet another symbol of the absurd.
The exhibition is rounded out with an abundance of videographic material, including new versions of Tratado de maracas [Maracas Treaty], a rhythmic appeal to the stereotypical construct of the exotic, the tropical and the Caribbean with a heavy dose of performance and ritual. Images taken from a moving car, on the artist’s last trip to Venezuela and during his expedition to the Canaries, draw us so deeply into the scenery that we begin to feel queasy, as if stricken by seasickness or mal de mer. The inverted pictures remain on the screen for so long that they create a dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere.
Marco Montiel‐Soto reveals an upside‐down world that is hard to get used to. Many artists in exile show it through their works, unable to ignore what is happening in their homeland. As Luis Enrique Pérez‐Oramas wrote in his stirring article ‘La guerra de las artes’, ‘Art never changes the world, but it inexorably anchors its truths for all eternity.’ 8 We cannot help but wonder what is wrong with the system: why are the inhabitants of such wealthy nations living in such moral and economic misery? Let us hope that art will make the unseen visible, help us to feel empathy and shed light on the incomprehensible.
Marco returned to his hometown in May to get material for the exhibition. For days I tried to contact him without success. I tried again, and still no word. I couldn’t help feeling uneasy, a concern derived from the shocking reports that reach us of what’s happening in Venezuela, particularly about events in the state of Zulia and the city of Maracaibo, where Marco’s family lives.
I’ll share just two of the many headlines I find every day online. El País (21 May): ‘Maracaibo, ground zero for the collapse of Venezuela. The oil town, once an emblem of prosperity, now symbolises the country’s decline.’ Panorama. com.ve (15 June): ‘Unbearable: sectors of Maracaibo report nearly 30 hours without power.’
I called the CAAM, but they didn’t have any answers either. Days passed. Finally, they told me they’d received a very brief reply. Marco was fine, but all sorts of things had happened to him, even an attempted robbery. At last we managed to speak: ‘The internet connection was so weak and would fade so quickly and unexpectedly that I could only answer the most urgent messages for fear that the signal might disappear again. I couldn’t even send photos; it’s so slow that you don’t even want to look at anything. The press that once expressed critical views of the regime has vanished and is now censored. There’s only six hours of power a day, things run on electric generators. Running water is also iffy. The shops close at noon and the few products they have are very expensive, a lot of them come from Colombia. The streets are filled with rubbish. The cash machines don’t work. You can’t buy anything with a credit card. The currency’s value fluctuates so much that you have to check it every day online. At the bank, you can only withdraw one dollar a day. The bolívar is increasingly worthless so the dollar circulates, people use a mixture of both currencies. The queues to buy petrol are endless. The traffic lights don’t work, people drive by their wits. At night you hardly know which street you’re in, it’s easy to get lost. The lifts in buildings don’t work. I saw a funeral lit with candles and mobile phones. It feels like the end of the world… everything is in a shambles.’ The adventure at the airport on the way back could have ended very badly. Marco was travelling with four suitcases and material for the exhibition. He removed the collages of Sucesos del día a día and the newspapers of La verdad no es noticia from their frames so they wouldn’t get damaged. He also had the machete from Muerte en la tierra tropical, a small container of petrol, bolívar notes for Papel tapiz bought on the street, a cuatro (a Venezuelan four‐stringed guitar)… He arrived at the airport five hours before departure. The airport is in a terrible state of neglect, very few travellers. As power outages were constant and people had to pay with credit cards and get their bags weighed, everything took ages. After check‐in, they called five passengers for a baggage inspection. Apparently, Marco was one of them. Orange vests, dogs, sweltering heat and ten military men. They asked for his passport and opened two of his suitcases. On seeing the frames, they became alarmed that he might be carrying images that cast the country in a negative light; fortunately, he had removed them, and they didn’t find them. Nor did they see the machete, which was in one of the other bags. Marco watched closely to make sure they didn’t steal anything. Suddenly they found some of the money, 14 dollars in 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50‐bolívar notes. We’re going to collar you for smuggling paper money! The colonel showed up and asked him questions. It wasn’t much money, but they confiscated it anyway and handed him a clumsily handwritten document. In the end, they didn’t handcuff him, but the flight was about to leave and the search was still dragging on. He closed his bags while the dogs looked at him. Then they asked to see his carry‐on. Inside they found fifty dollars he’d purchased on the street, at a rate of 100,000 bolívars for 150,000, in 100, 200 and 500 notes. This time, the officer who found it said nothing and slipped it in his pocket. They looked at each other. Are you leaving, or should I lock you up? Marco Montiel‐Soto left Maracaibo on one of the last flights to take off from that airport. There’s no direct international connection to Maracaibo anymore.
Lidia Gil Calvo, 2019
this text was originally written for a Marco Montiel-soto´s CAAM publication.
1_ Excerpt from ‘Globalization, Demodernization and the Return of the Monsters’, lecture read at the Universidad Católica, Lima, Peru (July 2002). English translation by QMS (Autumn 2007) at http://smashthisscreen.blogspot.com/2008/02/ globalization-demodernization-and.html, accessed 16 Oct. 2019.
2_ The first germinal instalment, Mal de mar hacia un triste trópico (2015), was shown at Junefirst Gallery in Berlin. The second, Mal de mar hacia un triste trópico: in the distance of the eighth island, was presented at the 11th Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre last year and will be shown at the upcoming Montevideo Biennial.
3_ FerrerA JIMénez, J. (1989). Historia de la emigración clandestina a Venezuela. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Gráf. Marcelo.
4_ In the video Reconversión, the zeros on a note are erased in a looped sequence, alluding to the moment in 2008 when
the ‘strong bolívar’, created by lopping off three zeros from the original denomination, was put into circulation.
5_ In 2006, Hugo Chávez amended the law on patriotic symbols and transformed the flag by adding a star (a nod to Cuba) and changing the horse on the coat of arms to face left. He also changed the currency, the country’s official name and the time zone.
6_ On the topic of religious syncretism in Venezuela and its ideological implications, the writings of Catalan anthropologist Roger Canals Vilageliu proved very illuminating.
7_ A revealing source of information on the important influence that travel literature has had on the creation of a post‐ colonial imperial order is PrAtt, M. L. (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London/ New York: Routledge.