Homage to Dante  and the exhibition Espacios ambientales (Environmental Spaces )

Categories: Writings by Álvaro Barrios

By Álvaro Barrios. From Orígenes del arte conceptual en colombia (The Origins of Conceptual Art in Colombia ), 2000


1965. Tinta china y collage sobre papel.

La comedia (The Comedy). 1965. India ink and collage on paper. 70 x 100 cm


Around March, 1966, the Italian Embassy in Colombia organized a series of national competitions called “Concursos Dante Alighieri” (Dante Alighieri Competitions) to celebrate the seventh centenary of Dante’s birth. Among these, the one titled “Tributo de los Artistas Colombianos a Dante” (Colombian Artists’ Tribute to Dante) stood out. It was a visual arts contest whose jury was composed by photographer Guillermo Angulo, gallery director Alicia Baráibar de Cote Lamus, painter Enrique Grau, and Guilio Corsini, a delegate of the Italian Embassy. The jury chose 31 pieces to be displayed between March 31 and April 12 in the Colseguros Gallery in Santafé de Bogotá. On April 14, at 6:30 PM, the Colombian Secretary of Education and the Italian Ambassador were to announce the winners of the literature and painting contests in a solemn ceremony.


But, surprisingly, Giulio Corsini voiced his complaint regarding the awarding of the first prize to Bernardo Salcedo and his piece “Lo que no supo Dante: Beatriz amaba el control de la natalidad” (What Dante did not know: Beatriz loved birth control). On the Record of the Jury, Mr. Corsini manifested his disagreement with the other members of the jury: “First: He considers that this piece does not fit the concept of painting. Second: It does not comply with the terms of the competition either, since the theme must be inspired by Dante, his life, and his works.”


Dr. Theodore Fuxa, chargé d’affaires of the Italian Embassy, said: “With justified astonishment, the embassy learned of the verdict of the jury it appointed. This verdict led some participants in the contest, and much of the public opinion, to react strongly, as the verdict is considered unjust and irreverent given that Mr. Salcedo’s piece is not inspired by Dante or his work, an obligatory theme as established by the terms of the competition. Accordingly, the Embassy of Italy, having no influence on the jury’s verdict, is forced to suspend the announcement of winners and invited the jury to reconsider this decision.”


The other members of the jury, however, considered the previous objections to be invalid for two main reasons: “First: In every country the new art trends have introduced the creation of ‘objects’ executed with techniques similar to those used by Mr. Salcedo in his works. Such objects are certainly not traditional painting, but they have been accepted by critics within the field of visual arts. Moreover, the competition’s terms regarding oil, watercolor, print, etc. are sufficiently broad to allow for the admission of a piece like Mr. Salcedo’s. Second: They believe that the term ‘inspiration’ refers to a subjective disposition of the artist, and therefore does not imply the need to ‘depict’, more or less conventionally, episodes from the ‘Comedy’ or from the poet’s biography.”


A few days later, the Italian Embassy issued the following public communication: “Based on the fact that the jury reasserted the verdict in spite of the adverse vote of its members and the comments and complaints from the public opinion and some of the contestants, the Embassy of Italy proceeds to declare that the competition has ended. The jury shall have the honor and responsibility of taking the decision and awarding the prizes as follows: First Prize: Bernardo Salcedo for his piece entitled Lo que no supo Dante:  Beatriz amaba el control de la natalidad (What Dante did not know: Beatriz loved birth control) and Second prize: Álvaro Barrios for his collage entitled Comedia (Comedy) 1965.”


Bernardo Salcedo, the artist who had caused this commotion in the city of Bogotá, was a virtually unknown architect. He would cause even more commotion with his second solo exhibition a few months later at the Museo de Arte Moderno (Bogotá). At the time, this Museum was directed by Marta Traba, an influential critic. Its temporary premises were located in a building at the National University that had been offered by Dr. José Félix Patiño, the head of that institution.


On the incident of “Homage to Dante” Marta Traba wrote: “Last year, Bernardo Salcedo presented his boxes and three-dimensional objects for the first time at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá He then participated in the Dante contest. The notoriousness he had not achieved with his talent was attained, as it always happens in Colombia, through scandal. His piece entitled Lo que no supo Dante:  Beatriz amaba el control de la natalidad (What Dante did not know: Beatriz loved birth control) and the uproarious laughter that cheerfully came out of it, along with the flood of white petrified eggs, did not knock down Dante, nor did it knock Beatrice off the divine pedestal. It rather demonstrated that it is impossible for a twentieth century artist to pay homage to the greatest lyrical genius of the fourteenth century without absurdity bordering on irreverence. However, that piece was enough to put a trap on him, and a trap for us, the people who commit the crime of becoming aware of the world we live in.”


I was a young architecture student at the University of Atlántico in Barranquilla. On October 26 of that same year, I had my first solo exhibition in Santafé de Bogotá, at Galeria Colseguros, at the invitation of its director, Alicia Baráibar, who, as it has been said, had been part of the controversial jury. The next day, Marta Traba invited me to have a solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno. The exhibition opened on March 14, 1967. On April 27, I traveled to Italy to study art history at the Università Italiana per Stranieri di Perugia.


During the time I spent in Umbria, two major events took place in the region: “The Festival of Two Worlds” in Spoleto, and the exhibition entitled “Lo Spazio dell’Immagine” in Foligno. The latter, in particular, left a lasting impression on me because it involved a group of prominent contemporary Italian artists modifying the spaces of a medieval building.


Upon my return to Colombia that same year, around October, I settled in Bogotá and stayed there for the rest of the year, 1968. During that time, I frequented Marta Traba’s circle. In October I opened an solo exhibition in the gallery that she directed. During those days an idea crossed my mind: to present the idea of the “Espacios ambientales” (Environmental spaces) exhibition to Marta Traba and ask her to hold it at the Museo de Arte Moderno (Bogotá). The display was evidently inspired by the exhibition in Foligno, and at first we were thinking of inviting all the young people who gave life to the museum’s activities during those days. However, even though the institution’s director received the proposal with great enthusiasm, it did not really appeal to the people we initially invited. Beatriz Gonzalez and architect Fernando Martínez Sanabria declined the invitation, although the latter is listed in the catalog. Bernardo Salcedo participated by declaring one of the museum’s restrooms, which was immaculately white, as one of his works of art. Consequently, a label was placed next to its door. Actually, the artists who worked for the exhibition and thoughtfully participated in it were Feliza Bursztyn, Santiago Cardenas, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, mason Víctor Celso Muñoz, and myself. Marta Traba suggested that a prize would be a good motivation and that it would make the event more interesting. She then accepted the offer of Lía de Ganitsky, a collector and patron of that time, who gave twenty-five thousand pesos to the winner, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, for her piece titled Sobre blanco, sobre blanco, sobre blanco… (On white on White on White…) and a second prize of five thousand pesos to Víctor Muñoz.


In his column in the Sunday Magazine of the El Espectador newspaper, Marta Traba made a prediction: “I must announce the exhibition I believe shall be the most outstanding event of the year. This exhibition is called “Espacios ambientales” (Environmental spaces) and will be open at the Museo de Arte Moderno at the University Campus from December 10 to December 23. The participants are: draughtsman Álvaro Barrios, painter Ana Mercedes Hoyos, painter Santiago Cardenas, sculptor Feliza Bursztyn, and, as special guests, mason Victor Celso Muñoz, and object architect, Bernardo Salcedo. Behind the exhibition lies an assault against the public’s passiveness, but also the utmost effort to attract it. One cannot continue to say that there has been a radical change in art regarding the relationship between the observer and the work of art. It must be demonstrated. Observers, sometimes angered, sometimes amused, usually pose their eternal “what is this” question; they expect a definition like the ones in elementary school, something like “this is painting, this is sculpture, this is a cow, this is a butterfly.” But with this kind of art it is not possible to say that anymore. The intention is the opposite: the idea is to demonstrate that: 1) Viewers will never find what they seek in contemporary art, and 2) They will find everything they are not seeking, even things whose existence was unknown to them.”


But what no one ever suspected, indeed, was that a law student and a medicine student, both from the Universidad Nacional, would break into the Museum early in the morning following the opening, and destroy two of the pieces, leaving phrases written on printed cards. The attackers, Ivan Ramirez and Pedro Berbesi, were caught by the guards as they destroyed my piece entitled Pasatiempo con luz intermitente (Pastime with a flashing light) and Victor Muñoz’s piece entitled Bogotá, una ciudad en marcha para beneficio de todo el país (Bogotá, a city on the move for the benefit of the whole country). The attackers were arrested and put in jail at the North Police Station, and the Museum’s directors raised complaints for property damage and trespassing. The damaged structures amounted to six thousand pesos. These students were members of a leftist group that had been protesting at the entrance of the Museum during the opening night. They demanded “an art for the people and not for the bourgeoisie.”


Paradoxically, one of the victims, mason Víctor Celso Muñoz, was a modest man from the working-class of south Bogotá. He was member of the Community Council of the San Carlos neighborhood and had worked for three years on a model of the city measuring approximately 16 square meters. When the bridges at Calle 26 were inaugurated in Santafé de Bogotá, he was so dazzled that he decided to make a replica of Colombia’s capital city, including the buildings, electric lights, statues of Gaitán, Bolivar, George Washington, all of its monuments and the country’s history written at its base. One of the walls of his humble house had to be removed to take the piece to the Museum’s sculpture court. Some months before the inauguration, he paved a small segment of the Avenida Caracas using his own resources to prevent damage to the model during transportation.


My piece was on the third floor of the museum. Observers would enter into a sort of auditorium that was painted in all red: walls, floors, ceiling, seats, lighting, etc. A pair of hands were placed on the backs of chairs; it seemed as if the hands were using scissors to cut a paper ribbon made of comic strips from newspapers; the comic strips were rolled up and formed a large sphere with a diameter of three meters. There were red light bulbs on the backs of the chairs. Their light was intermittent, giving the impression that they were clapping for an imaginary show.


In a room on the second floor, Feliza Bursztyn’s environmental space, entitled Siempre acostada (Always lying down) consisted of eleven sculptures from her series entitled Histéricas (Hysterical). The sculptures had sound and movement, they were illuminated and worked simultaneously within a black space where only the pieces made of steel could be seen shining and playing experimental music composed by Jacqueline Nova.


Ana Mercedes Hoyos made a wooden maze of narrow corridors where large air mail envelopes entered through an unexpected, large, illuminated window. On this work Marta Traba commented: “The award to the best environmental space given to Ana Mercedes Hoyos shows that national artists are way ahead of their natural public. The space created by Hoyos is articulated rhythmically, it goes from light to dark areas and from clear to oppressive situations in order to convey the surreal sense of her paintings. But the story about the letters without recipient that end up flying through the sky and over the ground becomes a physical experience for the public because it is happening on a real three-dimensional plane. Art becomes thus an inhabitable place with material and practical significance.”


On the first floor, Santiago Cárdenas painted a trompe l’oeil on the back wall. Its title was Espacios negativos (Negative Spaces). It created the illusion of a room that duplicates itself.  An electric wire was realistically painted on the wall and, at some point, it became a real wire that finally reached an iron that was lying on the floor of the empty room.


While reminiscing about these times some years later, Marta Traba wrote: “The Sixties in Colombia, like in the rest of the world, were assaulted by youths with a rebellious slogan. These people were channeled by the Museum, whose primary objective was to encourage change. The experience of the new generations, particularly from the facilities at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, felt in many ways like the outbreak of the time during 1966, 1967 and 1968. Both the encouragement of intelligent avant-garde artists as well as the innovation sincerely sought by young artists were favored in the ‘environmental spaces’ housed in the Museum during that time. It was there where the works of conceptual art planned by Santiago Cardenas, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, and Álvaro Barrios were seen for the first time.”


After some years, intellectuals such as Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda also praised Espacios ambientales (Environmental Spaces): “Upon visiting the ‘environmental spaces’ proposed by artists like Bernardo Salcedo and Alvaro Barrios in the exhibition held at the Museum directed by Marta Traba (located at the Universidad Nacional), I experienced the same thing one would experience after visiting the Librería Contemporánea (Contemporary Library) founded by Traba in El Lago. Namely, the feeling that in these poor editions, with no more than a thousand copies made by Arca de Montevideo or El Ateneo de Caracas, a new attempt was being born, an attempt to rebuild the basic assumptions of our intellectual history from the standpoint of critique and that of creation.”


Regarding the destruction of the works, Marta Traba commented: “I am concerned that such experiences of knowledge, which are destined to enrich the vision and understanding of educated men, may be regarded by certain types of students as a sign of indifference toward the problems of the Colombian people. It’s hard to admit it is not widely understood that the battle against underdevelopment-no matter the political situation a country may be in, be it capitalism or socialism, authoritarianism or popular revolution-can only be waged on multiple fronts.  It is necessary to encourage literacy and stimulate a creative culture at the same time it is necessary to build sewers while opening museums. Any other behavior will favor the economic, cultural, and political status quo that has prevailed in Colombia since colonial times.”


Despite the incident with the cards I designed for the exhibition “Espacios ambientales” (Environmental spaces), a Christmas tree was made in the Museum’s window. The tree had the message “Happy next year, 1969.”


We must not forget that in 1969: scientists fertilized a human egg in vitro for the first time, the supersonic airliner Concorde made its first flight, Pope Paul VI removed more than 200 saints from the liturgical calendar, actor Richard Burton bought a 62.42 carat diamond from Elizabeth Taylor, and Picasso produced 165 paintings and 45 drawings. It was the year of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. Also, on July 21, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong came out of Apollo 11’s lunar module and became the first man to walk on the moon. Marta Traba left Colombia to establish her residence in Montevideo. Gloria Zea was appointed Director of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá. And in the field of Visual Arts, Colombia was never the same again.