We are standing outside the gallery Agustina Ferreyra, near the border between Miramar and Santurce, where we've arrived for the exhibition of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz presented in two parts. Tonight, the first part, she presents her video documentary, La Cueva Negra and I need a clarification.
"Did Bea just say I look like Leo Tolstoy?" I ask Lillian. "That makes me think of War and Peace, or Memoirs of a Madman."
"No. She said you resemble Leon Trotsky, so it would be better if you thought of Literature and Revolution. "
"Is it a good thing, looking like Trotsky?"
"Depends on who is looking," answers Lillian.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is an artist who thinks like an anthropologist or sociologist, but works more like a revolutionary theorist. During her 15 year career, Santiago Munoz, has exhibited in galleries and museums in Europe, South America, Mexico, the U.S., and here in the Caribbean. She has received several awards and scholarships and given lectures and workshops on her work. Most recently, she was invited by Gasworks, contemporary art organization in England, associated with the Tate Modern museum that offers residencies for artists. Santiago Munoz was charged with the creation of two works, La Cueva Negra and Pharmacopoeia, for exhibition in London. Both works present a view of the natural scenery of Puerto Rico.
The Black Cave, a video documentary of 20 minutes, follows two cousins, as they explore the Paseo del Indio, an important Taino Indian archaeological site, largely forgotten and located next to a stream which runs beneath a highway overpass. The children, who live nearby, come on horses to play games and weave fantasies. Barefoot and shirtless, they move through the jungle environment with a sense of belonging and a close knowledge of the landscape. Here the viewer thinks he sees a documentary that was made in the late twentieth century, but the present quickly intrudes. On the soundtrack you hear a constant loud hum of trucks passing overhead. They also find many relics of the modern environment: old mattresses, refrigerators, abandoned cars, and other detritus of our disposable culture. Undeterred, they incorporate these finds into their fantasies.
Simple in its construction, this short video at first seems to depict play and exploration. In fact, it represents a long period of study by Santiago Muñoz, who spent months getting to know the history and archeology of the site, and winning the confidence of the cousins during many sessions of filming them at their games. This intense study and promotion of trust characterizes the Santiago Muñoz's method. Establishing a relationship with individuals who are the characters in her film, and are active participants in the revelation of the story. This allows her to develop the story in a way that is faithful to the time and place - its history and its environment. Her projects function as critique and indictment, at the same time. This is the political backbone of her work. In developing this unique method while working in communities of people marginalized or suppressed, Santiago Muñoz has found a way to include thoughts and ideas of the protagonists of her studies. This process invites a political education of her subjects.
Pharmacopoeia, is a documentary about six minutes long, shot in 16mm color film instead of video. This is an important distinction to Santiago Muñoz, since the technical and physical characteristics of the film are very different from video. Video allows different forms of presentation, from small iPhone or iPad screens to video projections on a large scale. In the case of video, Santiago Munoz is open to different formats and possibilities. When it comes to film she is more particular. Pharmacopoeia is designed specifically to be shown non-stop via a 16mm projector equipped with a continuous loop mechanism. The projector is positioned to project a small 16 by 20 inch image on a wall.
La Cueva Negra is a narrative, while Pharmacopoeia is a literal document. Constructed as a series of photographs, Santiago Muñoz presents a collection of little-known native plants, used by Indians and early settlers for medicinal and hallucinogenic effects. These plants are: Nicotiana tabacum, cultivated for its narcotic effect Versicolor Brugmansia, Angel's Trumpet, whose seeds can be hallucinogenic in small doses and deadly in large quantities and Hippomane Mancinella, Manchineel tree. Standing under a tree during a rainfall can cause blisters on the skin, and burning the tree creates a smoke that can cause blindness. The Carib Indians used the poisonous sap of this tree on the tips of their arrows, and poisoned the water of their enemies with the leaves. Ponce de Leon was killed in Florida by an arrow poisoned with Manchineel sap. About her film, Santiago Muñoz says "the government's efforts to eradicate Hippomane Mancinella from the island, greatly changes the ecology of coastal areas" and she examines "how this desire to make the landscape harmless contributes to an image that deliberately promotes Puerto Rico as an idyllic tropical Caribbean island."
This exhibition was organized in two parts. In the first part, presented only the video La Cueva Negra, as avprojection entirely covering the back wall, while a high-quality sound fills the gallery with the thunder of the huge trucks. In the second part, Santiago Muñoz, selected works by artists Lourdes Correa-Carlo, Edra Soto and Ylva Trapp. Santiago Muñoz, presents her film Pharmacopeia sculpturally as described above, along with botanical drawings of the plants shown in her film.
About her work, Santiago Munoz says: "Over the last year I have developed a number of projects that have to do with the construction of the symbolic meaning of the experience and representation of the land and the landscape of Puerto Rico. I'm interested in the different ways the possibilities of representing the earth, proposing through play and improvisation a new mythical and symbolic relationship and a new visual and formal language, which can produce other relationship. You can challenge the standardization of the senses to which we are currently subjected. Both La Cueva Negra and Pharmacopoeia are the result of this interest. "
This brings us to Cosmogony, the study or theory of the origin of the universe, or cosmos. For Santiago Muñoz, this suggests a possible creation myth of the Tainos, the original inhabitants of the island, that describes the creation of the universe as a series of cycles. In the first two cycles are Yaya, the first cause, and the original cave, vagina, or cosmic body. In the third cycle, according to the text of Santiago Munoz, "For 2,000 years, their medicine has shown us the future and the past, but one day disappears the bichote and the federals arrest all the chiefs, and there are no more visions, only the bridge, the cars, the river still coming down the mountain, and a new TV show that starts today at nine in the evening."
Generally speaking, art is an expression of the need for a harmonious and complete life, that is, the need for benefits of which a society of classes deprives us. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always has creativity as part of the work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. - Leon Trotsky
Note: the work of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is included in the section on San Juan, PR in Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes, published this fall by Phaidon Press. More information about the artist can be found on her website: http://fabricainutil.com and at Agustina Ferreyra gallery on their website:
ARTICLE IN SPANISH, AS PUBLISHED IN EN ROJO, Oct 5, 2013