Mutuum

Ana González

20 August - 17 September, 2015

Correspondences

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

“Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire

 

Trees, flowers, bees, grass, rivers, mountains, clouds, stones… Nature is a great metaphor. A landscape is a projection of human feelings, a cultural construction that can be decoded as a textual system in which its objects, such as plants, animals, insects, minerals and water, are interpreted as symbols or allegories.

The romantic French painter Eugene Delacroix said that nature is just an idea. But a landscape is not only a place for contemplating; we live in it, we inhabit it, it surrounds us and affects us, we move through it, walk through it and get lost in it. In addition to valuing it, we try to dominate and conquer it. The landscape also moves, changes, it is a natural scenery mediated by culture; a place where there is an exchange between what is human and natural, between what is ours and foreign. From this perspective a landscape is not a pristine entity free from human intentions; on the contrary, it is a cultural construction, like a power agent that affects our relationship with nature.

By representing landscapes in art, the human spirit has attempted to understand its environment. However, nature doesn’t know about what we call landscape. And we know very little or nothing about how nature has evolved during 40 million years in decentralized, horizontal and transversal processes between species.

Ana María González’ installations suggest a kind of landscape in which different views of nature merge. In her projects, nature is not only perceived as an endless source of resources with economic and scientific benefits, as an indomitable frontier or a paragon of beauty. It is also an example of reciprocity, of knowledge and of different ways of exchanging the usual dynamics of possession, depredation and consumption.

In the Nymphaea salvaje installation, which was originally set in the Tropicario of the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden in Bogotá, there is harmony between natural and artificial elements, such as the paradise garden and the brutal jungle, the traces of colonization and the ancestral knowledge of the Huitoto community. In this composition of 39 handmade flowers in white Limoges porcelain, there are five native plants of the Colombian Amazonian jungle: Victoria Regia, Passiflora, Warczewiczella Martinata, Dionaea Muscipula and the Góngora orchid. This is enriched by an audio that blends nature sounds with whistles and piano music.

It seems as if Nymphaea Salvaje developed from the aesthetics and the relationship that the romantic artists and the botanist travellers from the end of the 19th century had with the landscape. However, even if the work takes into account that ideal European landscape, it is a way of contextualizing knowledge once again; it is a review of the model from the same place that has represented it. The flowers’ scientific names, the porcelain, the piano and the greenhouse are elements that are loaded with a symbolism that contrasts with the tropical jungle landscape and with the indigenous knowledge that acknowledges these five flowers in which the work is inspired, as sacred entities.

Likewise, Mutuum, her most recent project, made in collaboration with the biologist Santiago Ramírez attempts to account for a social order based on collaboration and reciprocity between different species. The work shows us a non-opposing heterogeneous relationship that merges and complements itself. Using a variety of scientific objects such as pictures, data, flora’s and insects’ taxonomy, location maps as well artistic objects like porcelain pieces, paintings and embroideries, Mutuum accounts for the sophisticated relationship between the Gongora orchid and the Euglossa bee.

For science, these species have interacted during millions of years in an equal and balanced way for their sexual reproduction (1). The orchid needs the pollen that the Euglossa bee transports for its pollination, and the bee, in turn, needs the orchid’s scent to attract the female bee and reproduce. In this balanced exchange, the insect turns into the flower’s sexual organ and the flower provides the scent that is necessary to attract its female for mating. This kind of interaction improves the survival opportunities that individuals from different species have, and is known as Mutualism (2) in biology, from which the name of the project stems.

Mutuum is about a cooperative interaction that is opposed to the interaction between a species that has more power than another one. At the same time it shows another kind of collaboration between art and science. The project attempts to broaden the understanding of certain biological processes by means of art tools, trying to inspire less devastating ways of relating to nature. Thus, Santiago Ramírez’ scientific investigation is complemented by the symbolic, romantic and affective interpretation that González makes of mutualism, since she works using her observation, contemplation, senses and gallantry as ways of conservation and healing.

This kind of exchange between disciplines is similar to the one that the installation Nymphaea Salvaje seeks to produce, by creating conditions so there is an encounter of knowledge without hierarchy; thus, it brings together a botanical garden (3), that symbolizes Western scientific thought, and the knowledge of the indigenous communities that have lived during centuries with these plants in the jungle. The installation gives a place back to a knowledge that has been displaced by the implicit violence that is within the colonization processes, which seeking a landscape ideal usually attained by exploitation, destroyed the different systems and narratives that obstructed the empires’ ambitions over the tropics.

In a kind of blend, like the one that can be sensed in the titles “mutual” and “wild nymph”, these installations suggest identity reciprocity, without fixed territories. They destroy the binary structures by showing the displacement exercises of territorialization, like the one of the orchid when it turns into a bee and the bee when it evolves into a flower. The orchid de-territorializes itself by adapting into the bee, turning into an image of the bee and the same happens to the bee when it transforms into the reproductive system of the orchid and re-territorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Thus, the indigenous knowledge recovers the scientific space and from science we recover segregated knowledge.

Displacement has been one of González’ central topics, and other ways of removal are also present in her work, although not in an explicit way. During more than ten years she has focused her work on the indigenous communities of the entire country (Córdoba, Chocó, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, Caquetá, Amazonas) that have been displaced to Bogotá, running away from violence. In a knowledge exchange, the artist teaches them how to produce handcrafted objects that can be easily sold, respecting their ancestral knowledge and traditional elaboration in exchange for information about the flowers that have the power of purifying and transforming the world (4).

 

With other kinds of gestures, González disagrees with the natural resources exploitation that has been made in the name of progress. For example, many of the exportation goods from America to Europe during the seventeenth century were vegetable pigments that came from insects, plants and tree bark from the tropical rain forest. From the Victoria Regia’s roots you can extract an intense black that the indigenous people use to dye their hair. However, the artist prefers not to dye the porcelain, so that it highlights and contrasts even more against the lush shades of green and nature’s colors.  Likewise, the great adaptive possibilities of the piano music composed by Miguel Carillo in both installations give evidence of how nature transforms into civilization leaving behind the devastating marks of the consequences of natural resource exploitation.

The Amazonian jungle, humid and tropical is the opposite of a botanical garden. Its density doesn’t even let you imagine it as a landscape, or maybe it is an imposing one that stuns you with its verticality and its countless shades of green. Only the indigenous communities that live in it have the necessary knowledge to integrate to the jungle, to use the information of each resource without conquering or dominating it, only understanding its immensity, its plenitude. The traditional taxonomies belong to an arboreal model, vertical and hierarchical. By contrast, in the mutualist model, there is no center, no root, no stem, no branch, all of them are the same, there is no power structure or authority, because it is an open, heterogeneous and multiple structure that has no measurement units.

Such as Muutum and Nymphaea salvaje suggest, the relationship with nature does not consist of conquering a dominating knowledge. Instead, it is should be a way of achieving its multiplicity, connecting it, fastening it, and alternating the knowledge. For each of the prototypes and the porcelain pieces, González takes about four to six months trying out ways of assembling and firing the parts. Then, she cuts the petals, pistils, stamens, and stem and very quickly assembles each flower or bee, between three people, in order to put it in the oven while the shape is still alive.

Mutuum and Nymphaea Salvaje suggest correspondences, they combine knowledge, and they harmoniously invoke the collective and careful work of making porcelain pieces. It is a deep understanding of a collaborative system, like the one that operates in nature, with many branches, a connectable structure, without compartments, open and susceptible to participation. It is like a kind of horizontal organism, equitable and adaptive like the rhizome; grass is a rhizome, the same as potatoes and ant colonies.

It is about a balanced organization that does not follow hierarchical subordination rules, but an interaction in which any element can affect or alter others. The Góngora’s and the Euglossa’s mutualism connect in a mutual loan in an exchange of equivalent benefits, because in spite of being different, they are able to grow, multiply and expand in a mutual relationship.

The tree and the root have been symbols of the Western way of thinking, a dualist thinking that the rhizome wants to dismantle. Facing duality, these projects form connection and multiplicity systems. Instead of reducing itself to a single species, it expands in the dialogue between them.

Nymphaea salvaje “floats” like the Victoria Regia, between the understanding of nature based on the classification model of the imperial Europe (botanical expeditions, their collectors’ gardens, and taxonomy) and the bottomless richness of the Amazonian jungle, which can only be grasped by those who have learned to extract the knowledge from the territory.

As Baudelaire said, a landscape is a “forest of symbols”. At the same time, it shows us that in nature, like in language, signs are open to infinite interpretations. The way you use each sign gives it its meaning, that way nature is freed and in our horizon there is the possibility of a fertile, including, strange, free and abundant world.

 

Mariangela Méndez
Associate teacher, Art Department
Universidad de los Andes

 

[1]  The males from the Euglossa bee species are characterized by collecting aromatic substances from certain kinds of orchids. These orchids have no nectar, which means that they do not offer food to their pollinators. However, the males are attracted by its strong scent and visit them to collect these aromatic compounds and store them in their hind legs. The males use these scents for producing the necessary sexual attraction to find a female and mate. And while they collect the scents, they pollinate the Gongora orchid.

[2]  From Latin mutuus: reciprocal, mutual and mutare: change

[3]  From the 18th century on, the European botanical gardens changed their mission of promoting learning and glorifying God, to studying and cultivating the plants brought from the new world’s colonies. Instead of being truly scientific spaces, they were a place to plant, show, collect and exchange plant seeds that had a great commercial potential. There was a time when in the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s botanical garden there was a Victoria Regia, but it died for lack of good care.

[4]  The Victoria Regia, from the Nymphaea family, is the largest water lily known. An English botanist taxonomized it and named it in honor of Queen Victoria of England. Instead, in the Huitoto etnia, beliefs are based on words: rafúe “something that comes out of the mouth” from ra “thing” and fúe “mouth”. Names refer to an ancestral tradition that takes into account the kindness and intrinsic qualities of each plant, which should be named according to its uses. Thus, the Victoria Regia or Joraimo comuide ratoki in their language is “a water plant that purifies water.”

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