The Hive/El panal

Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan
Several venues – San Juan Puerto Rico

By Paco Barragán for ARTPULSE Magazine

The Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan de Puerto Rico (The San Juan Polygraphic Triennial) kicked off on April 27 under the umbrella title El Panal/The Hive, with the participation of 150 national and international artists. The budget is $1 million, which is very attractive, especially in these days of economic mayhem. Since the art fair CIRCA PR discontinued, La Trienal is basically the only signature international event in Puerto Rico, where the artistic scene is very vibrant but with a practically nonexistent gallery structure and very weak museum programming.

This edition has been curated by a team led by Deborah Cullen, former director of curatorial programs at El Museo del Barrio; the rest of the members of the curatorial team are Brazilian Antonio Sergio Bessa, Ursula Dávila-Villa from Mexico and Rebeca Noriega from Puerto Rico. The press release stresses the presence in the exhibit of blue-chip artists such as Jackson Pollock, Wifredo Lam, Andy Warhol and Vito Acconci. According to official La Trienal information, “[T]he essentially collaborative practices, especially social networks-real and virtual ones-are where artistic practices and its main protagonists come together.”

I have to admit that the adjective “polygraphic” has always troubled me. Too abstract: it means nothing and all at the same time. It’s a cul de sac, and actually in La Trienal you find everything from books and text-based works to sculpture, installation, murals, video works, painting, and many performances or performative works-in short, everything, be it graphic or not. Traditionally focused on graphic expressions, today it becomes a handicap inasmuch as the curator feels somehow obliged to or biased toward an exhibit showcasing historical references related to the matter. In this case, think of propaganda and publicity especially, as it’s there where graphics have particularly excelled: from Marx’s and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto to Hitler’s Third Reich Deutsche Mark stamps to Soviet artists such as Vladimir Lebedev and Dmitry Moor, and graphic designers such as Saul Bass.

AURA, AUTHORSHIP, AUTHENTICITY

Collaboration as curatorial premise is actually rather fascinating and connects extremely well with our Zeitgeist, exemplified in movements such as 15-M in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, and even The Arab Spring. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget the most important element from a historical point of view: the modernist avant-garde never, ever allowed the artist to betray or abandon the dogmas of aura, authorship and authenticity together with the romantic and romanticized idea of the artist as creative genius. Now, and in brief, collaborative practices were at their height during the Renaissance and Baroque period-just think of Rembrandt and Rubens. Even today, many artists have inspired themselves with their working methods: Warhol’s Factory of course, but more contemporary examples are: Jeff Koons’ Studio, Takashi Murakami or Damien Hirst. And throughout the 20th century, many artists have engaged in collaborative practices, including Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Hans Arp with Dada; Duchamp and LHOOQ in 1919; Bauhaus; Tatlin’s Productionists Group, 1920; Black Mountain College; Fluxus; Art and Language; Black Artists Group; Guerrilla Girls; Christo and Jeanne-Claude; Abramović and Ulay; Bob and Roberta Smith; and Atelier Van Lieshout, among others.

Basically, we could say that collaborative practices in the beginning of the 20th century were not necessary, fixed or closed; from the ’50s on, groups or collectives have appeared whose collaboration extended over time with more or less fixed members and with a concept of acknowledged co-authorship.

The problem with the historical part of El Panal/The Hive now is that there is no clear concept. It focuses too much on collaborative practices in printmaking workshops and also on the figure of Robert Blackburn. And this is not really encompassing the idea of collaborative practices nor its history in modern art1.

As such, we find works from Blackburn, Mestre Nosa, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Jackson Pollock, Charles White, Francisco Mora, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, Öyvind Fahlström, Lygia Pape, Raymundo Colares, Vito Acconci, Augusto de Campos, Hélio Oiticica, Ida Appledroog, Liliana Porter, Taller 4 Rojo, Mary Ellen Solt, Corina Kent, Lygia Clark, Cildo Meireles, Marcos Dimas, Tim Rollins & KOS, Luis Camnitzer, Antonio Martorell and many more. Now, the fact that artists went to Mr. Blackburn’s printmaking workshop, Jackson Pollock made some prints and Larry Rivers some lithos is just pushing the idea of collaborative practices too far and turning it thus into something too abstract and hardly representative. Just one example: Even if Vito Acconci’s video Following Piece is great, it would have been more appropriate to showcase one of Abramovíć and Ulay’s pieces; in this same sense I would have loved to see at least some works from the classical Gilbert and George, Anarchitecture and Bernd & Hilla Becher, just to mention a few.

The contemporary part is better at showcasing artistic practices of artists, artists collectives and groups that work or have worked for the occasion on a collaborative level. Think of the Dominican York Proyecto Gráfica, with a set of 12 images by four artists; Miguel Luciano’sPuerto Rican Cotton Picker installation; and Hatuey’s Ramos-Fermín with Oscar Mestey Villamil’s A Post(al) Colonial Correspondence. Two of the outstanding pieces are Tomás Espina’s Caterva, an amazingly big re-creation of a demonstration carried out with gunpowder on paper, and Vargas Suárez-Universal’s site-specific, coffee-wall drawing Outcrop: Distributary Flow, in which he mixes images from Mars with coffee beans from Puerto Rico into a surprisingly otherwordly composition. But although both are stunning pieces of art, we have to be imaginative to find the collaborative angle.

The best project by far is not at La Trienal, but a parallel event, La Casa de los Contrafuertes: espacio de trabajo. Conceived by Puerto Rican artist Charles Júhasz-Alvarado, Contrafuertes is an ongoing interdisciplinary project in which design, music, performance, installation, reading rooms, film, dance and theatre merge in an a imaginative way exploring literally, formally and conceptually the idea of collaborative practices. Guided by the idea of the hive, the upper part of the exhibit showcases a real transparent hive box with real bees that are making honey, constructed by Júhasz and artist and beekeeper Teófilo Torres. The movements and noises of the hive are being transmitted by Fabián Wilkens in his in situ sound studio. The whole building becomes literally a hive in whose chambers different artists-including Ana Rosa Rivera and her sculptural-performative space; Arnaldo Morales’ kinetic sculptures; Dhara Rivera’s hydrographic installation; Teo Freytes’ and Yrsa Dávila’s MSA project; Néstor Barreto’s reading room and the small site-specific installations by Yvelisse Jiménez; Io Carrión; Allora & Calzadilla; Vargas-Suárez Universal; Marielis Castro; Fabián Vélez and Frances Rivera.

Now, I have to admit that this proposal is by far more interesting that the official show, in which we find interesting individual artistic proposals but whose curatorial endeavour never keeps up with what it promises. Although the adjective “collaborative” is pretty new, the practice isn’t, but La Trienal fails to explain how it has changed along the way.

(April 27  – August 28, 2012)

NOTES

1. See this interview with curator Deborah Cullen explaining her idea of La Trienal,