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Re-defining cultural relations in Santo Domingo’s urban art space.

This essay focuses on analyzing how certain discourses from recent Caribbean art use the landscape and, more specifically, the representation of the urban environment to establish notions of Caribbean identity that contest the presuppositions of the official map. Since the Nineties, there have been proposals that redefine the way we view the land and the links between the different spaces that make up the Caribbean. Some of these proposals threaten to complicate the role of the artist in the context of an increasingly fragmented art system, dominated by the reinterpretation of certain roles and the consequences of the rapprochement between the local and global in respect of the visual culture of the Caribbean cities (Guerrero2009, 13).
In this case, the example of the Dominican Republic will be considered. This paper takes into account how the growth of the population living in the city of Santo Domingo and the lack of urban planning from Balaguer’s government to the present moment have led to a series of discourses that contemplate issues related to responsibility, urban life and the use of space, proposing new models of identity (Wood 33-40). Thus, there is a new creative language that calls for a change in the scope of analysis, focusing on the “micro”, and producing cartographies that are based on the local and which are to be conceived as open projects of urban dialogue. These projects have brought art closer to the investigative, conducting a comprehensive review of Caribbean visual culture (Paul 2009).
In this context, it is not strange that Dominican art has been transformed, and that the whole structure of the art system has been changing. A direct consequence of this change is the emergence of artistic proposals that interact with the urban areas of Santo Domingo and that collect and reproduce the culture of colmados, voladoras, and major highways.that I described earlier and that forms the central focus of this essay. In recent decades, new centers have emerged, while existing ones have integrated new features with their usual tasks. The precariousness of the public sphere and the difficulty to generate a national art market and an art audience has led to several alternatives taken by the artists and the art institutions, among them the creation of private centers or internationally oriented art galleries. From that point arises, finally, an aesthetic position that seeks to assimilate artistic practice with experience related to urban popular culture, often linked to the work of artistic collectives—Shampoo/Picnic, El Hombrecito, Quintapata, Modafoca, Ojos Urbanos, 16.10, to name only a few.
Artists, meanwhile, have diversified their education, combining the educational model as traditionally offered in schools of Fine Arts, dominant until the end of the twentieth century with a more ambiguous curriculum, which includes graphic design, fashion, architecture and more or less prolonged stays in the U.S. or Europe. Thus, the link with outside reality is growing stronger. Often artists are educated in the U.S.; in many more cases they have family in the United States; and often they spend some time there. In some cases they have succeeded in becoming mainstream, displaying frequently in collective exhibitions abroad. Still, however, a fluid contact between the art of the Diaspora and the art of the island has not yet been established (Dumit, Nicolás. Personal Interview. 03 Sep. 2010).
There are still significant disconnections between artist and audience, art centers and curators, museums and their surrounding area. The perspective of contemporary art in Santo Domingo in the 2000s shows serious obstacles in maintaining a minimum background for artistic creation, popularizing an imaginary connected with an aesthetic wasteland. Although there are great art schools and ambitious curatorial programs, often the artist must find his own space, carrying out the work of the curator, cultural manager or investigator. Thus, the problems of the art system, together with changes in creativity, have led many to occupy the free spaces in the city, reframing them.
In any case, this is a time when there is a general interest in determining how social conditions present themselves in the scenarios of everyday life. Far from exact and round identities, there is a search for a kind of mapping of the boundaries between reality and desire, between the popular and the « cult », and also an interest in analyzing representational systems that create acceptances and rejections within and outside of communities. In this process, the artist compromises his/her position while trying to interact with the communities that are the subject of his/her interest, and he or she also adopts an oblique way of looking that emerges as a result of the combination and the exchange of the roles of the traveler, the anthropologist and the creator. Now, if the traveler a hundred years ago could remain somehow « outside » the perceived object, isolated from the consequences of his view, the increasing transnational nature of the experiences related to cultural negotiations that take place in urban space and the porosity of the borders between social groups, make such distance no longer possible.
Dominican creativity has come close to the changing reality of Santo Domingo, representing a city which, without rejecting the contradictions of the city completely, overlaps both the city-memorial and the economic center. Few statements could express so well the effectiveness and the everyday nature of the search for the popular, as the “Colectivo Shampoo” in 2005. Being a project between art, public intervention, advertising and graphic design, Shampoo addressed the problem at the heart of Dominican and Caribbean art system. In the work La Plástica Dominicana (Plástica, meaning “plastic”, is also a way of naming a plastic chair), presented at the XXIII National Biennial of Visual Arts, the group conceived a totem both effective and irreverent by stacking plastic chairs that can be found in any colmado of Santo Domingo.
The piece, by its title, by its monumental representation—it reached a considerable height—, and finally by its location in the center of the museum where the Biennale was held, was conceived as an ironic revision of the solemnity of Dominican art, while it at the same time referred to the porosity of the current artistic practice in the country. The work, thus, could be seen as a questioning of the censorship of artistic expressions.
Further, La Plástica Dominicana introduced interesting notions on Dominican and Caribbean identity (Picnic Collective Group. Personal Interview. 11 Jun. 2010). The group made a plea for the exploration of elements that have often been left out of visions of identity based on the immutable and the definition of values. Shampoo included plastic chairs in an exhibition as an inescapable element for anyone who wants to approach Dominicanidad, as a symbol of identity, thus. However, compared to other symbols of identity, in this case we are faced with an ambiguous element, as the proliferation of plastic chairs and their location in the most unlikely spaces can also refer to a process of de-identification, thanks to a neutral and everyday item that takes on an exceptional condition.
Shampoo had already used a metaphor with similar characteristics in the earlier National Biennial, when they presented a motor—a small motorcycle—fossilized in amber, a material which is abundant in the country. El Descubrimiento, acquired by the Centro Cultural Eduardo León Jimenes of Santiago de los Caballeros (Dominican Republic) addressed the issue of urbanization in an interesting way. That is, if the title refers to the archaeological, a future—or present—discovery might indicate that in a hypothetical horizon, there may not be more of us than the abovementioned objects that are indeed trapped. Shampoo’s gaze is not, however, entirely a censure; on the contrary, the group aims to secure the incorporation of elements linked to transit and to life in Santo Domingo in Dominican Identity, highlighting the importance of certain symbols in everyday life, and keeping a close eye on the processes taking place in urban space and towards the construction of a Dominicanidad that is built through coexistence.
A similar spirit presided over the production of the artist Limber Vilorio, who already in 2001 designed a Traje para Caminar en Santo Domingo The work is now owned by El Museo del Barrio. As the artist explained to us in a personal interview, this suit, which was conceived as an element of protection and as a symbol of a new Dominicanidad at the same time, was conceptualized on a journey to his day-job at the university via a flyover. The noise, dirt, smoke and speed of the cars made the trip difficult, so he devised a disproportionate suit, which included everything needed for the unexpected that the urban reality of Santo Domingo might create.
As in the case of Shampoo, Vilorio’s work moves between social criticism, ironic gesture and the pursuit of everyday experience. Two years after presenting the Suit, the artist featured prominently in the local press with his work, Memorias en Blanco. It was an installation which comprised a stack of one hundred and fifty tires affixed with plaster, situated opposite the National Bank.
The work took on the aggressiveness of a social protest, but was revealed to be harmless (The tires, designed to burn, will never do it). By doing so, it denounced the lack of interest by the public authorities towards urban space and the ease with which the more privileged sectors can hide from the public through a curtain of technology. It was, then, an ironically aesthetic gesture that was mistaken for a political one, as was indeed intended by the author (Vilorio, Limber. Personal Interview. 28 May 2010).
To avoid a partial view of the Caribbean, it is necessary, therefore to address how these spaces are configured around the Caribbean, and the dialogues that arise in the arts that are integral to a reworking of aesthetic experience. Finally, it is necessary to develop a new map that leads us to places where Geography is materialized, transforming the local-global opposition into a dispute from the past.



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