Manuela Ribadeneira / El paisaje eres tú (You are the landscape)
One of the characteristics of Manuela Ribadeneira’s work is the articulation of her reflections around the gradual and conflictive construction of the historical environment, which we sometimes call “the present”. Some of the notorious constants of this precarious construction in Ribadeneira’s work are the textual (as in her work El Rey Perro based on real and fictional stories); the circularity of history (events that are repeated in divergent contexts and times, as in a labyrinth of mirrors); and, certainly, the relationship of individuals with their territories, places, environments or landscapes, determining in how any historical moment is constructed.
The selection criteria for the works that make up this exhibition, brought together under the title El Paisaje eres tú (You are the landscape), focuses precisely on this last particular aspect of Ribadeneira’s work, considering that it is especially through the landscape that the artist explores how we symbolically construct the spaces of relationships where we navigate. For example, the series of works that gives the exhibition its title are literally, “mobile” places, motorized scale models of idyllic landscapes. The declared intention of the artist is to think of the landscape as a space of identity that we all metaphorically carry on our backs, but also how the landscape is by definition “a place from which by looking you define a surrounding.” One of the unavoidable references is to the romantic vision of the nineteenth-century landscape, from which it is constructed as a form of reaffirmation of man’s dominance over nature. A difference falls like heavy evidence of the artist’s intentions: instead of the man looking down from the top of the mountain, Ribadaneira ironizes this semiology of verticality, the idyllic, the erectile and the monumental by ridiculously enlarging our scale, before a landscape that is certainly identifiable (could those pastures on the edge of a volcano be somewhere in the artist’s original Andes?, it’s almost a rhetorical question), but that is barely the size of a toy. This game of scales, to which the artist has constantly appealed throughout her career, has the sense here of making us feel, at first, as superior and in control of the natural world thanks to this shift in the accepted relationships of size and proportion. However, since the landscape is not only small (what the representations used by architecture have accustomed us to) but also moves with the clumsiness typical of a toy that only deceives the delusions of grandeur of creatures with a feverish imagination, this should be enough evidence to think that this space of art in which these micro-landscapes seem to move freely, is not an appropriate space for them, but in fact its artistic limits and aesthetic motivations are questioning us so that we can see not only beyond the toxic idylls with nature but also to see beyond ourselves. They are asking us to pause in our supremacy over the rest of the natural world. This is just the first encounter or the first layer of reading of a set of works that explore with cutting clarity, the idea of how our desires and projections alter the meaning of the landscape and our relationship with it.
It is an idea also present in Temblores armónicos (Harmonic Tremors), another of the works included in this exhibition. It is a paradoxical site-specific installation for the supposedly neutral and universal “white cube,” – that non-place that has become the quintessential modern space for appreciating art. It is a work that only exists when it is installed: irregular vertical bands created by carefully removing the layers of paint on the wall, like someone who “removes” geological layers. They form, when seen as a whole, a graph that represents the sound waves produced by an erupting volcano. The work almost dramatically amplifies the fears and sometimes terror with which we build our relationship with natural effluvia: to look, or rather -since we are in an art space-, to contemplate how the vertical bands move on the wall, is to listen and physically feel the tremor of the earth, is to feel our disability and our insignificance. That the work operates in the manner of that invention of the contemporary French avant-garde of the middle of the last century, namely, the “technique” of decollage of the Parisian New Realists, that is to say, that it works not by addition but by subtraction, by economy of resources and not by ennobling the material, is a clear sign that we should interpret as a clamor or, if preferred, an alliance with the demands for sustainability that are so often heard in places like South Florida, for good reason the nerve center of many green initiatives. This would then be a possible double game that Ribadeneira proposes to us on site-specificity: on the one hand, a critique of the ever-changing, always the same identity of the white cube (everything changes to remain the same), and, on the other hand, a call to a local context where concerns of economic profitability (with masses of immigrants from the south desperately seeking to survive the ups and downs of the real estate market) are almost schizophrenically opposed to what has ceased to be just fears and have become tragic catastrophes that could have been prevented with a less blind climate awareness.
In counterpoint to Harmonic Tremors, a “mural” is presented (perhaps it would be better to call it a mosaic due to its fragmentary structure), made up of twenty-five drawings with representations of Volcanoes, the literal title of the installation. The iconography of the volcano is profuse and has a mythical legacy in Latin America. It is in the origins of the invention of the total landscape of Alexander von Humboldt1, in the abundant representations of the baron (such as the one that Friedrich Georg Weitsch made of him together with Aime Bonpland on Mount Chimborazo, in 1806), in the no less detailed representations of Popocatépetl , going through a Ribadeneira’s fellow countryman, the Ecuadorian painter Rafael Troya, who accompanied the scientific expedition of the German geologists Alphons Stübel and Wilhelm Reiss between 1871 and 1874 to record the diversity of a landscape with the highest number of volcanoes per capita in the region (24 in total)2. Johann Moritz Rugendas himself dedicated not a few of his images to volcanography, and the famous Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo, better known as “Dr. Atl”, not only became the quintessential modern volcano painter, but even in 1921 he wrote “The Popocatépetl symphonies,” a novel where he makes a passionate journey through his fascination with volcanic mountains. Particularly interesting are the political readings of Dr Atl’s volcanology, as expressed by Peter Krieger: “However, there is also a political dimension to the fascination this artist felt throughout his life for the Mexican volcanoes. His early involvement in the revolution (c. 1910–1920) recalls the iconography of political landscapes of the late 18th century, where powerful natural forces, such as erupting volcanoes, were encoded as symbols of coming revolts.”3 One of the most belligerent images of the semantics of the volcano was provided by the Russian constructivists who, rejecting the landscape as an easel painting, once said that the only landscape that would be conceivable to paint for them would be that of a volcano, because it represents the irruption of what is bellow to the top, as in the people’s revolution. This brief account, not to mention the infinite images produced by the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius, shows us the type of iconography with which the artist is dealing. In particular, I am struck by a kind of erotic landscape that I think could be thought of in these watercolors by Ribadeneira, due to the interspersed drawings of legs flying through the air (legs represented only from the waist down). That the legs at some point replicate the image of the volcanoes, with their apex culminating in the genitals, helps to remind us of this other sphere of meanings in which desire is linked with violence.
A fourth piece, also carrying mutilated bodies, complements this kind of polyptych of the stark landscape. With the place made a fragment of the body and this in turn engulfed by the territory, this kind of wild landscaping of Ribadeneira appears to us, I would say, as more heartless in the piece entitled Las Encantadas. Referring to Melville’s book where the story is set in the Galapagos Islands, it is an installation in which cardboard replicas of flipped turtle shells are scattered on the floor, portraited at that moment in which they are condemned to paralysis and absolute vulnerability. It is a devastating landscape, a landscape of human cruelty. In Las Encantadas, the artist evokes historical texts about the Galapagos in which it is narrated how pirates and refugees arrived on the islands, collected turtles and shipped them as a source of fresh food. During the voyage, to immobilize them, they were stored upside down. The artist’s interest lies in “this brutal gesture” of putting “a living being in the most vulnerable position possible, leaving it without any capacity for action, movement or defense”. On the other hand, we cannot help recapitulating Herman Melville’s own book. In one of the stories of “The Encantadas,” written in 1845 after his visit to the Galapagos Islands, the great American novelist tells the story of The Dog King, in which the protagonist of the story begins as a revolutionary who fought against the Spanish colony and received Charles Island in the Galapagos archipelago as recognition, where he decided to invite all those who wanted to start a new life. In Melville’s story you see the transformation of a revolutionary man with progressive ideas into a tyrannical warlord who has absolute control over his inhabitants. For Ribadeneira, “in the space between the doubt and the certainty of the possible answers […] the themes of geographic and political territories are ways of talking about other types of territories and borders, some more personal, others more metaphysical; of the simple being and existing.”
At the far end of the room with the turtle’s shells, a small-scale aluminum block trimmed with fine mechanical precision can be seen hanging on the wall with the question: “Are you afraid?” It appears unnoticed, insisting on questioning viewers ethically, psychologically and emotionally, asking them to reflect on these questions about how we relate to places and their identities, on how to rethink the urgencies that define them.
- According to the narration made by César Aira, “This great naturalist was the father of a discipline that largely died with him: the Erdtheorie, or Physique du Monde, a kind of artistic geography, aesthetic capture of the world, landscape science . Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a wise totalizer, perhaps the last; what he wanted was to apprehend the world in its totality; the way that seemed to him the right way to do it was the visual one, with which he was adhering to a long tradition. But he distanced himself from it insofar as he was not interested in the single image, the “emblem” of knowledge, but rather the sum of coordinated images in a comprehensive picture, of which the “landscape” was the model. Aira, Cesar. Un episodio del pintor viajero (Spanish Edition) (p. 7). Penguin Random House Publishing Group Spain. Kindle Edition.
- Alexandra Kennedy-Troya, catalogue to the exhibition Paisaje en las AMÉRICAS, Pinturas desde la Tierra del Fuego al Ártico, published by the Art Gallery of Ontario, la Pinacoteca
do Estado de São Paulo y la Terra Foundation for American Art, en asociación con Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015, p. 42.
- Peter Krieger, ibidem, p. 257.
Jesús Fuenmayor is a curator with more than thirty years’ experience in the field of modern and contemporary art exhibitions. He has worked as a Chief Curator for the 14th Cuenca Biennial in Cuenca, Ecuador, and held positions as Director and Curator of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami (CIFO, 2012–2015) and as Director and Curator of Periférico Caracas (2005–2011). In his native Venezuela, he also worked as curator at the Museo Alejandro Otero; advised collections; taught at the architecture school; and prepared exhibitions for international venues, including Apex Art and the Americas Society in New York, as well as the Venice Biennial. He is currently the Program Director and Curator of University Galleries at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
In his leadership and curatorial roles Fuenmayor combines an institutional, educational, and entrepreneurial approach with a passion for art in a global context. At CIFO and Periférico Caracas, he oversaw all aspects of the curatorial program, researching and organizing exhibitions and events both locally and internationally. He led and managed the production teams in every aspect of a program’s conceptualization and implementation. More specifically, at CIFO he managed and supervised Ella Cisneros’s personal collection of over 3,000 works in addition to the Foundation’s collection. The other CIFO programs he directed stemmed from three primary research initiatives: an exhibitions and publications program featuring work by Latin American artists; a Grants and Commissions Program for artists from Latin America; and foundation-initiated support for other arts and educational projects, including lectures and symposia. In addition to the staff, he worked closely with the Board of Directors (comprised of prominent curators and collectors); the CIFO Advisory Committee (comprised of artists, curators, and scholars); as well as museum professionals, artists, and gallerists both in Miami and internationally. In addition to the yearly thematic and grant program exhibitions, at CIFO he also organized the exhibition Permission to Be Global: Prácticas Globales (2014) with curators Jen Mergel and Liz Munsell from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition, which received positive reviews in the press, opened during Miami Art Basel and then travelled to the MFA. But perhaps its biggest contribution was the fact that it was the first exhibition ever held at the MFA that was dedicated exclusively to Latin American contemporary art. Most recently, he continued work with the foundation through his research and curatorship of the exhibition Plural Domains / Selected Works from the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation Collection, which was presented as a parallel exhibition to the 14th Cuenca Biennial and at in 2021-2022 at UF’s Harn Museum of Art simultaneously with the University Galleries.
In 2017, in collaboration with Tahía Rivero, he curated his third exhibition of the Colección Mercantil, the largest private collection of Venezuelan art. The exhibition Passages in Art from Venezuela was a special presentation at the Pinta art fair in Miami and featured key moments of artistic production from the eighteenth century to the present. Other recent exhibitions that he has researched and curated include the retrospective Eugenio Espinoza: Unruly Supports 1970-1980 at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, in addition to Gego: Autobiography of a Line at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York. In 2015, he curated Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict, which focused on abstract art in the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection and foregrounded the collection’s international scope by juxtaposing American, European and Latin American modern and contemporary art. These and other exhibitions included a research publication that he conceptualized and that featured distinguished scholars of contemporary art, among them, Michael Asbury, Manuel Borja-Villel, Sérgio B. Martins, Mari Carmen Ramírez, and José Roca.
Fuenmayor also has an extensive scholarly publication record. He has contributed to multiple volumes on contemporary art in a global context, including Laercio Redondo: Intimacies/Proximadades (Rio de Janeiro: Museu de Arte Moderno); Kinaesethesia: Latin American Kinetic Art (Getty; Palm Springs Art Museum); and the Grove Dictionary of Latin American Art. He has also edited volumes on modern and contemporary art, including the key reference volume Pulses of Abstraction in Latin America (Turner Libros). Most recently, he is author of the catalogue to the 14th Cuenca Biennial, Living Structures / Art as Plural Experience and edited the book Accumulate, Classify, Preserve, Display: Roberto Obregón Archive from the Carolina and Fernando Eseverri Collection, which documents Roberto Obregón’s first solo exhibition at an arts institution in the United States. He was also the content editor and author for the book Sigfredo Chacón. Crossings, the artist first monograph published by Turner Libros in collaboration with Oscar Diquez in 2022. His text Soto’s Multidimensionality: from Dematerialization to Relationality was published at the beginning of 2022 as part of the exhibition catalog “Soto: Materia y Vibración,” at Perrotin Gallery in New York. His text on the work of Diana López was published as part of the book “El ojo de…,” edited at Editorial Ex-Libris, in 2021 in Caracas.
Throughout Fuenmayor’s years working as an art space director and curator, he has married a desire for curatorial excellence with a keen responsiveness to public programming and educational contexts. He organized a conversation series on the theme “collections” at ArtRio and he is regularly invited to lecture and advise in international contexts on collections, curating, and contemporary art. In 2020, he spoke at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice in conversation with Ella Cisneros, and, in 2019, he was invited to speak at the opening symposium for the Oslobiennalen in Olso, Norway. He was the moderator for Panel Discussion Resilencia: Artistic Practices Post-Pandemic held during ArtBasel Miami 2021. Beyond this, he has experience in American academic contexts, most recently as Professor of the Curatorial Studies Seminar: ISLAA Iniative at UF School of Art and Art History.
As relates to modern and contemporary art in a global context, Fuenmayor has been invited to serve on various nominating and advisory committees. He successfully nominated Brazilian artist Matheus Rocha Pitta for the apexart International Fellowship program in 2019. Since 2018, he serves on the Advisory Committee for CIFO. In this capacity, he recommends emerging, mid-career, and lifetime achievement artists for their yearly Grants and Commissions program. From 2013–2017, he was a member of the Nominating Committee for the PIPA Prize (Prêmio Investidor Profissional de Arte) for emerging artists in Brazil. He has also served as a member of the jury for the Faena Art Prize, and as a consultant for an exhibition of concrete art in Chile and for the celebrated exhibition Kinaesthesia, which was sponsored by the Getty Foundation initiative Pacific Standard Time II.