43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas

Medellín, Colombia, 6 September – 3 November

By David Everitt Howe

César del Valle, Restos de un falso desarrollo, 2012, Courtesy the artist

Medellín may be best known as the ‘coke capital of the world’, a designation coined by Time magazine in the 1980s that has, unfortunately, stuck. It still dogs the reputation of this sunny, beautiful city of skyscrapers and mountains in the country’s Andean interior; notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar transformed this metropolis into a violent city of murder and bribes for nearly two decades.

But while cocaine may be one lingering export of Medellín, contemporary art is surely another, with rooms of promising young Colombian talent forming the highlight of this year’s 43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas, one of the oldest biennials of Colombia, and one watched closely by the country’s artists.

Historically devoted exclusively to regional talent, this year, to some local consternation, its curators have liberally sprinkled its roster of Colombians with more high-profile, global practitioners, such as Kader Attia, Jeremy Deller, Karin Sander and Ernesto Neto, among others. Neto’s installation Lanavemadremonte (2013) forms the centrepiece of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín’s vast industrial space.

While on a much smaller scale than his epic 2009 Park Avenue Armory Anthropodino, Lanavemadremonte is still something you can take your shoes off and walk through, before plopping down on a large, plush cushion in the middle of Neto’s distinctive Lycra structure, which feels like a strange, hippie cross between tent, womb and cave marked by sagging, fabric stalactites.

The other art stars featured seemed to have dialled it in, so to speak, with Attia presenting a slideshow of African record covers – a lukewarm critique of ‘dark continent’ novelty – and Sander displaying a collection of her trademark mailed canvases, as well as a Wall Piece (2013), for which a rectangular portion of the gallery’s wall was polished to a shiny, monochromatic finish. These are great, but they’ve been seen many times before.

More refreshing are the Colombian offerings, which appropriately form the bulk
of the Salon. While many focus on regional concerns, mainly about the environment and local ecology, they do so in ways that ably trade in the formal, cool language of most contemporary art – a kind of international MFA-style rife with echoes of modernist icons.

Kevin Simón Mancera’s Aproveche el Tiempo (Take Advantage of Your Time, 2013) offers Felix Gonzalez-Torres-style giveaway posters; copies of a painstakingly rendered lithograph, offering seemingly random anecdotes about the passing of time, are stacked like columns in the middle of 
the Musea de Antioquia’s floor.

Speaking 
of Gonzalez-Torres, Martinique’s Jean-François Boclé has filled a room with a large expanse 
of plastic bags for Todo debe Desaparecer! (Everything Must Go!, 2013), as if Torres’s pile 
of candies had been exchanged for a mound 
of cheap grocery-store goods.

Using charcoal as his primary medium, Colombian artist César del Valle’s installation of delicate framed drawings, sculptures and photographs of his charcoal works are mostly abstract variations
 of a circle seemingly lost within a white picture plane. Sometimes it’s drawn, other times it’s
cut out and drooping. In the middle of the room, a table of books, each page coated in charcoal, is covered in fingerprints – a messy index of visitors.

Gauging by the quantity of roving families, it’ll become quite a big index,
 a testament to how important this Salon is to Colombians. Though if the quality and diversity of work is maintained, it’ll become increasingly important internationally, too – no small feat in this era of endless art fairs.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.