Histories of Landscape during the Colonization of the Americas
Artist José Alejandro Restrepo discusses his work and the paradoxes of the colonial exploration of Latin America.
José Alejandro Restrepo, Madeline Murphy Turner
Oct 6, 2020
In 1992, artist José Alejandro Restrepo (Colombian, born 1959) produced Paso del Quindío I, an installation of 17 monitors showing a series of black-and-white images of a landscape and its vegetation from different perspectives. These images were recorded by the artist on the Paso del Quindío, a treacherous trail that cuts through the Andes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the route attracted European scientists, chroniclers, and explorers thanks to its ecological diversity and picturesque vistas. In this interview, Restrepo, a pioneering figure in Colombian video art, talks about the process of making Paso del Quindío I and his interest in the colonial exploration of Latin America and its many paradoxes.
This conversation, which was conducted in Spanish, is part of a series of interviews with artists whose works were donated to MoMA in 2017 by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The interviews explore art’s relationship with territory and nature, a topic that was chosen as the research focus of the Cisneros Institute for the 2020–23 period.
Este artículo está disponible en español.
Madeline Murphy Turner: What inspired you to undertake Paso del Quindío I? Can you tell us about the experience of filming your walks in the mountains?
José Alejandro Restrepo: In the 1990s, I was interested in the lives of the European travelers, and in the prints and chronicles they made. I found Alexander von Humboldt particularly interesting because his work (his journals and books) was interdisciplinary, and because he had the spirit of a wanderer. In the 19th century, there were hundreds of humanist scientists, whether envoys of colonial empires or maverick adventurers—and as many paths, intensities, and ways of traveling, which varied depending on the traveler. The chronicles and prints they left behind are fascinating documents of what they saw and chose to represent. Sadly, much of it no longer exists due to the dramatic environmental effects of deforestation, extractive mining, etc. I took a number of trips that followed in Humboldt’s footsteps. I recorded those walks in video and arranged that material as an installation.
Did you, in the installation, intend to reconstruct the form of the landscape?
The installation’s pyramid shape forms a sort of schematic mountain. The different moments in the video are stages in the ascent, from about 800 meters [2,625 feet] above sea level to the páramos in the highest areas at 3,500 meters [11,480 feet].
José Alejandro Restrepo. Still from Paso del Quindío II. 1999
Could you tell us about Paso del Quindío’s relationship with colonialization and the importance of that connection to you?
One of history’s great games is about who manages to elude the laws of representation and interpretation. Paso del Quindío is like the last in a set of Russian nesting dolls: Humboldt made a sketch in 1801; almost 10 years later, he gave it to Joseph Anton Koch in Rome so he could make the final drawing; that drawing was then given to Christian Friedrich Traugott Duttenhofer in Stuttgart to make a print. Humboldt’s memory and compositional criteria were used throughout (he gave precise instructions: “Put a fallen trunk with orchids here and there,” “Put rear-lit plants in the foreground,” etc.) The final print, published in Vues des cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l´Amerique (1810), is a palimpsest, a bricolage, a montage.
For Humboldt, scientific understanding is furthered and enriched by images—and this is not just any image. The initial sketches were made in situ. As Renate Löschner explained, “...once the artist has returned to Europe, his sketches, after having been reworked in the studios of Old World painters, will be able to show us the true character of those distant lands.”(1) And it is there, in that “reworking,” that the naturalist reinterprets reality. That is where potential ideological contaminations occur. It’s just one more interpretation in a long chain. In the end, no true original is left, just copies of copies, reworkings of reworkings. Making images to read the world. The victor’s images become the reference images, and his systems of representation become the models used to capture the world visually. They are also an eloquent reflection of ideological limitations and deformities: To what extent can the colonizer “see” and “represent” without succumbing to fever, without getting caught in his own prejudices? How are his ways of seeing and representing imposed on the world?
You have spoken about the importance of the Humboldt print that shows a man, a carguero, carrying another in a chair. Would you elaborate on the role that the historical quote plays in Paso del Quindío I?
The entire body of work draws inspiration from printmaking. But regarding that Humboldt print in particular, my interest is twofold. First, I’m interested in its technique: printmaking was the first medium I experimented with and one that still interests me in its “expanded graphic” possibilities (the crosshatching, use of black and white, mechanical reproduction, different instances before the final copy). And second in the figure of the carguero. The carguero is a pervasive presence in the iconography (in prints and drawings) and chronicles of 19th-century travelers in Colombia. It was mostly Indians, and later Blacks and mulattos, that carried on their backs people unfit to navigate long, perilous paths. Men weighing as much as 90 kilos [almost 200 pounds] sitting in bamboo chairs with 60-degree backrests would be carried on journeys that lasted as long as 20 days. Common routes included the mythical Paso del Quindío that crosses the Andes. The print is not in the installation but, at the initiative of curator Christine Barthe, will be included in Á toi appartient le regard (...) La liaison infinie entre les choses, a show going up this year at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.
José Alejandro Restrepo. Paso del Quindío I (detail)
In addition to installation and video, you have worked widely in theater and performance. A crucial aspect of Paso del Quindío I is, I think, the reconstruction of Humboldt’s journeys. Could you tell us more about how you understand the act of reconstruction and its ties to performance?
I don’t think there is an explicit tie to performance as such. Perhaps the only connection in this work is to walking as a perceptual and cognitive experience. Walking and narrating are ways to create spaces that cannot, in some essential way, be reduced to graphic lines. They are geographies outside the eye’s imaginary totalizations. Some narratives written by 19th-century travelers and men of letters even have the potential to turn into a theoretical corpus, a theory of practices. While we are currently witnessing a vindication of local and peripheral narratives, couldn’t walking be considered a cartography of thought and experience? My reconstruction is another layer in the back and forth of interpretations and subjectivities around the representation of place.
Would you tell us about other projects of yours related to Paso de Quindío I? Paso del Quindío II (1999), for example, and the prints you made later?
Paso del Quindío II is a video installation from 1999 born out of my encounter with perhaps the last remaining carguero. In Serranía del Baudó, in the department of Chocó on the Pacific coast of Colombia, there was still a family of cargueros when I made the work. Avelino Hinestroza (now deceased), the last of the cargueros, would transport cargo and passengers over one of the few land routes connecting the inland and the coast, a daunting stretch of dense jungle and arid mountains. The geopolitical importance of that strip of land is enormous: long ago, because of the old dream of joining the two coasts, and now because of the territorial struggle between paramilitary and military forces, and guerrilla fighters. Meeting Avelino confirmed what I sensed after reading the old chronicles. Our encounter led me to reformulate a longstanding critical question: Who carries whom? Is the one on top always the one who exercises power? This is what Humboldt wrote in his journal:
Given the effeminate nature of the Spanish Americans, he who doesn’t want to walk gets carried. (...) People are said to be “mounted” like horses; riding a saddleman [carguero] is like riding a beast. (...) The saddleman walks perfectly erect, while the passenger leans back—a wretched and helpless figure. (...) Great faith must be placed in the dexterity of the saddleman to avoid shuddering with fear up in the chair. (...) When the saddleman goes around a bend, the chair is often left dangling over a deep precipice for a number of minutes.(...) Some people are so barbarian that they actually spur the saddlemen with their heels as they would an animal. But the saddlemen know just how to exact revenge: they often flee, leaving both chair and passenger up in the mountains.(2)
As [Michel] Foucault mapped out on a number of occasions, power is defined by its singularities. Power is a relation of forces; at times, it is held by the “dominators” and at times by the “dominated.” Power is local and impermanent. The master-slave dialectic fails to capture the nature of the forces at play. It does not see the paradoxes and reversibilities. It is satisfied with what it sees on the surface.
In closing, I would like to ask you how the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown have affected your everyday artistic practice, your work and ideas.
These months have given me a chance to go through my archives, to arrange, provisionally, what will inevitably fall back into disarray (that’s the way it goes with living archives). And to work on Variaciones sobre el sacrificio (Variations on Sacrifice), a project I started years ago. It deals with the myth of Abraham and Isaac and variations on it tied to political violence, and the complex relationship between mythical sacrifice and crime. “The teleological suspension of the ethical” is how Kierkegaard described that state of exception where, for Abraham, causing death is a sacred act, not a profane crime. I have 18 variations that address sacrifice from different points of view, reinserting myth into contemporary local contexts. Myth is brought into our history, even though our ties to it have been lost: cruelty without connotations of sacrifice, crime without mediation or divinity, violence that is neither curative nor preventative, and impure rituals that purify nothing, that do not purge violence but perpetuate revenge.
(1) Renate Löschner, cited by Elizabeth Lizarralde in “Venezuela: una mirada hacia el pasado” in Pissarro in Venezuela: Works in Venezuelan Collections of Camille Pissarro’s Venezuelan Oeuvre (London: Vestey Group, 1997), 29. Translation from Spanish by Jane Brodie.
(2) Alexander von Humboldt, Extractos de sus diarios (Bogotá: Publicismo y Ediciones, 1982), 113. Translation to English by Jane Brodie.
The Cisneros Institute’s programs are conducted in conjunction with Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), MoMA’s global research initiative, which is supported by The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.
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