Colombia Is a Normal Country

Lucas Ospina on changing perceptions of the country in the context of its current art scene ‘boom’, from the Jan & Feb 2015 issue

By Lucas Ospina

Collaged screengrabs from Artforum’s online Scene & Herd entries ‘New Normal’, by Dawn Chan (9/10/2012); ‘Existential Environments’, by Kevin McGarry (10/10/2013); and ‘My Bo’, by Frank Expósito (15/10/2014)

In 1953 the US writer William Burroughs spent three months travelling around Colombia. The aim of the trip was to try yagé, a drug to which Burroughs attributed telepathic powers. The voyager, through the ingestion of this ancient medicine, was looking to advance to a level of nonverbal communication. ‘Yage may be the final fix,’ wrote the author at the end of his book Junkie (1953).

Burroughs’s impatience, and the little luck he had with his yagé doses, meant that he was unable to get liftoff from the everyday or escape self-isolation on his trip. Overwhelmed by anxiety and frustration, he let loose in correspondence. Here is how he portrayed the country’s capital in a series of vitriolic letters to his friend Allen Ginsberg:

[Bogotá is high and cold and wet, a damp chill that gets inside you like the inner cold of junk sickness. There is no heat anywhere and you are never warm. In Bogotá more than any other city I have seen in Latin America you feel the dead weight of Spain sombre and oppressive. Everything official bears the label Made in Spain… So here I am back in Bogotá. No money waiting for me (check apparently stolen)… Bogotá is essentially a small town, everybody worrying about his clothes…]

The perception of foreign visitors to Colombia has changed in the past decade, strong evidence being the impressions of one of the groups that control the distribution of the deeply felt: artworld travellers. In contrast to Burroughs, who sought to distance himself from words and their worldly noise, these art partycrashers come in search of high, merry doses of the spoken, and they have found it, to the point that Hans Ulrich Obrist, supreme curatorial head of the global village, has given this positive assessment of the country: ‘The Colombian art scene is one of the best in the world.’

Obrist’s seal of approval has been endorsed by other travellers, such as the three explorers Artforum sent over during the past three years. Their accounts, of course, were not published in the printed version

In February 2013 Obrist led a procession of more than 40 British and Austrian curators who, on a four-day trip with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary World Tour, visited cities such as Cartagena, Cali and Bogotá. These celebrated visitors received a select group of local artists, who cast aside the local language in order to practice their English and show their portfolios before a public audience (there was no simultaneous translation for monolingual natives). These travellers’ breakfasts, lunches and dinners were put on the tab of various members of the local aristocracies, heirs to the power of the Spanish crown, who took charge of serving a special menu of traditional fruits and natural products in contemporary form – typical fusion cuisine – while showing off their tax-free art collections and philanthropic foundations.

Obrist’s seal of approval has been endorsed by other travellers, such as the three explorers Artforum sent over during the past three years, always in the week of ARTBO, Bogotá’s art fair. Their accounts, of course, were not published in the printed version, which is dedicated to pages, pages and more pages of advertising for exhibitions, fairs, biennials and galleries – Adforum – alternating with stubborn, longwinded articles and reviews that privilege International Art Language.

Artforum’s society photos and notices are published in Scene & Herd, an editorial bed where astute rumour shares the sheets with camouflaged press releases, a glamorous who’s who that spews out names and boosts the reputational capital of the renowned. The entries, diarylike with a literary tint, are vignettes and gossipy tidbits that could serve as sketches for a present-day Balzac writing his human comedy with artworld personalities. Nothing but a smart editorial move by Artforum, a play to draw traffic to ‘.com’. Scene & Herd is more digestible than the majority of the Artspeak texts published in this ponderous magazine that is forever loitering around the 300-page mark.

In a 2012 Scene & Herd diary entry titled ‘New Normal’, Dawn Chan reports that Bogotá is living one of its many renaissances. The circles of private security, with their muzzled Rottweilers, are signs of a latent danger, but the Creole jetset seems ready to start spending more time in their country, and is open to receiving visitors in their immense apartments. Chan sprinkles her sketch with artistic names and events, but then seems to have the intention of abandoning the tone of an infomercial in order to go deep into criticism: she speaks of a mural featuring the word ‘mierda’ (‘mess’, ‘shit’, ‘rubbish’) as a protest against the death of a murdered journalist (Chan gets the name of the journalist wrong, writing ‘Jamie Garzón’ instead of ‘Jaime Garzón’). 

She describes a torrential downpour in a neighbourhood on its way to gentrification and mentions how, through the rain, she sees a small crowd of mourners calling for justice because, ten years earlier, 300 of their own had been killed with complete impunity (she gets the number wrong: more than 3,000 members of the old Unión Patriótica political party died). Chan intends to give her entry another layer of depth: ‘Like everything else, the art scene was “complicated”,’ she writes, ‘the response I received throughout the week to so many questions. Everything was complicated.’ So she gets to this point, and then, well, it seems this space – the social pages – isn’t the place to address social complexities.

In 2013 Chan was replaced by Kevin McGarry, who in his column, ‘Existential Environments’, describes a looser art scene, less complicated than Chan’s, and mentions different art hothouses in Bogotá and Medellín, highlighting their flower-growers and naming the cheerful social fauna of butterflies and bumblebees.

They seem resigned to showing that they are satisfied, self-satisfied and even very satisfied with what they’ve seen, including in their cautious repositioning vis-à-vis the equation ‘Colombia = drugs’

In 2014 the task fell to Frank Expósito, who in his diary entry, ‘My Bo’, reveals a safe country where the traveller feels at home, takes the place over and mingles at breakfast, dinner and parties with other artworld travellers and celebrities. The vision of these peasant-chroniclers is contrary to that of Burroughs; they seem resigned to showing that they are satisfied, self-satisfied and even very satisfied with what they’ve seen, including in their cautious repositioning vis-à-vis the equation ‘Colombia = drugs’. Chan quotes a ministry of culture adviser who tells her that ‘artists escaped to the safety of universities in the 1990s, after art got a bad name when “drug men used [it] as a way to wash their money”’. 

She concludes: ‘It seemed he was saying that Colombian art was better off, now, for the time it spent incubating in ivory towers.’ McGarry, in a bus headed towards a traditional drinking and dancing establishment on the outskirts of Bogotá where the party is safe and euphoria guaranteed in an environment as patriotic as it is folksy, reports that upon passing in front of a ‘formidable chateau’, someone murmurs: ‘Narcos love castles’. McGarry doesn’t get complicated, lets the image drop and closes the passage claiming that he left the party early, but not without first dancing a Macarena – adding that he missed an important Venezuelan collector doing the same atop a table later in the evening.

As evidence of the sophisticated and politically correct state of the local art scene, an elegant gallerist offers McGarry coke, but in the form of a tea that relieves the symptoms of altitude sickness. He also has a conversation with a play-it-safe curator who’s opened a gallery where the intention is to highlight the ‘links between art and nature’. McGarry interprets this to mean that the dynamic of the place will be one of mixing illustration with historicism, and ‘the violence that has shaped so much of modern Colombian consciousness and culture with “botanics” (drugs)’. For his part, Frank Expósito runs into a rabble-rousing artist, forgotten but on the point of being rediscovered, who tells him: “It used to be so bad here that the cartels would steal my Artforums… They needed it to sneak in drugs.”

Drugs or conflict in the country are present in all three profiles, but only in small doses, and in the picturesque terms of providing local colour. The myth of the good or bad Colombian savage seems to have been switched for that of the modern or ‘savvy’ postmodern Latino. Visitors pronounce themselves happy to have found vestiges of modernity where they would never have expected it; just as pre-Hispanic ruins are useful to archaeologists, for these hustling ethnographers of contemporary art, there is a gilded modernity that deserves to be recovered.

The fluid dialogue between enlightened Creoles and illustrious visitors, as contained in these lightning visits, gets one to lofty peaks of intensity for brief moments, instances of epiphany in which junkies and art groupies cross social and cultural lines, all with the aim of communicating and continuing to communicate the communicativeness of communication, a form of telepathy particular to these kinds of global and cosmopolitan commercial exchanges. Guatemala may be the final fix.

Translated from the Spanish by David Terrien. This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.