Von Bartha Basel Showroom presents Everyday Alchemy
The exhibition is curated by Andrea Hinteregger De Mayo and includes with works by Adán Vallecillo, Bruno Baptistelli, Elena Damiani, Engel Leonardo, Johanna Unzueta, Michael Günzburger, Monika Bravo, Montez Magno, Omar Barquet, Otto Berchem.
The III Havana Biennial held in Cuba in 1989 was a site and a moment of remappings. Not only did the event coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ideological and territorial frontiers solidified during the Cold War years. It has since been credited with broadening the global scope of what was considered contemporary art by impelling a shift of focus onto this socialist island in the Caribbean Sea. Given this spirit of interchange between artists from countries beyond the conventional remit of metropolitican centres, it seems fitting that the work that Brazilian artist Montez Magno exhibited at the Biennial that year was a large-scale installation entitled Caribe (1989). Like a giant textile map made up of strips and fragments all stitched and frayed, Magno's work offered a rich cartography of metaphors. It conjured shifting frontiers, diminutive islands, isolation and interconnection: a sea-soaked archipelago shaped by human landings.
As this same work resurfaces today, in the "island" of Switzerland, it does so amid new settings. The recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba has once again redirected ideological currents and is beginning to generate new flows of transnational capital that had long been staunched. At the same time, art produced in and on Latin America no longer dwells on the peripheries of the global map of contemporary art, but has been made increasingly visible. In this context, we might ask what journeys the artworks gathered here under framework of everyday alchemy allow us to embark on. To what transits and exchanges do their forms and materialities attest? And, what processes of transmutation do these artists stage before our eyes?
From the standpoint of the twenty-first century, with its widespread human conflicts, environmental degradation and economic precarity, the notion of the universal panacea held up as the ideal throughout the long history of alchemy could not seem further away from our horizon. To be sure, as Elena Damiani's Rude Rock (2015) stands before us, it is no philosopher's stone. Yet, nor is it mute matter. At once rugged and refined, this stratified landmark calls forth a deep history. Hewed into a non-figurative shape, its layers of marble and copper are suggestive of a micro-landscape that might send us back to the colonial economies of extraction that were fuelled by fantastical envisagings of El Dorado: an alchemist's dream of a city built in gold. Yet, this is no archaeological artefact relegated to the past. Its errant, hybridised geology resists easy classification, persisting instead in an in-between state, neither entirely polished nor wholly raw.
Damiani's piece reminds us that colonial economies are not a thing of the past. Copper, after all, is one of Peru's chief exports. In other works, commodities act as vectors that track histories of global capitalist expansion —transatlantic interchanges through which the colonial gaze has figured exotic and tropical realms as wellsprings of primary resources and as tourist havens ripe for mass consumption. The bleeding border between the Salvadorian indigo dye and pristine white English cotton in Engel Leonardo's Aníl (2016) suggests an entanglement of places that although distant are by no means distinct.
By presenting us with contact zones, the works conjure a cartographic imaginary, perhaps plumbing the inky blue to suggest the ocean as a site of cultural transactions, or dissolving hierarchical essentialisms of purity and otherness through the overlapping colours. These speculative associations run equally through Adán Vallecillo's assemblages, in which the reclamation of discarded tyres, which are cut up and repurposed, allows the afterlife of extraction to unfold through the work, disrupting the runaway cycle of extraction, production, and waste. Rubber has historically been ensnared in this cycle, not only through early European incursions into heartlands of the Amazon to tap its trees, but also through the modern spread of industrial plantations and automobile culture, whose contemporary vestiges include the rusting frontier zone of Fordlândia, a ruined company town long abandoned in Brazil.
In Omar Barquet's installations, castoff objects also gain a second life, confronting us with a poetics of provisionality where context becomes much more elusive. Against geometric patterns, Barquet configures alternate axes, dis-figuring, shifting, bending, and emplacing found objects that have been extrapolated from their original sites and uses, and re-assembled in ways that conjure past scenarios as spectres revived: a trail of enigmatic remnants from the unknown. Johanna Unzueta's meticulous drawings, which although anchored by their titles in specific places and times, trace vibrational fields that are more metaphysical than material. These uprooted works speak more to dimensional expansion rather than site-specificity, at once centring attention on an intimate experience and itineraries and probing the visual potential of micro-acts instead of sweeping epic landscapes. So too, Michael Günzburger, whose works chart fleeting journeys of one, two or three seconds imprinted on the paper as obscure records that are then annotated and opened up as he scribbles on them in ink...
Such works abandon the formal grids associated with cartographic charts, as with urban design and the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. Others, by contrast, allow us to retrace steps to the aesthetic modernism and geometric abstraction that blossomed in Latin America as elsewhere. These explorations of form, colour and movement constitute a living heritage with which contemporary artists continue to dialogue. Monika Bravo's multi-media Bild Objekt series (2016) probes dynamic interactions between colour and pattern, using everyday materials, like tape, cardboard and fabric, while Bruno
Baptistelli's assemblage of minimalist paintings nod both to Kasimir Malevich and the formal inquiries of Brazilian neoconcretism, as well as recalling, through their divisions and lines, the diagrammatic codings of news publications whose content, in this case, has been made elusively absent, replaced by silence. Otto Berchem's Protest Pieces series engages in related play with language. Here, he takes archival photographs of social and political demonstrations, from places as distinct as Tunisia and Miami, as his primary materials, suppressing the messages’ of their placards with bold, monochromatic forms.
This confrontation of two media produces instances of inscrutability, transforming the photograph into an uncertain document: at once an index of an event in a still- identifiable location and an adulterated record of a specific protest, which has been pushed toward the universalist precept that drove the quest for "pure" modernist form. In their various ways, these encounters between form and context, between the abstract and the concrete, generate tensions between the notion of aesthetic autonomy and the obdurate materiality of the quotidian world —those sites, histories, objects, and experiences, which through everyday acts of alchemy resurface once again to map speculative and unpredictable terrains. Lisa Blackmore
3 September - 15 October 2016
Von Bartha, Basel Showroom
Kannenfeldplatz 6. CH-4056 Basel