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ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
MARCH 11th TO MAY 16th 2015
Curator: M. Paola Malavasi L.
San José – the denied city, chaotic, ugly and messy – is simultaneously a monster and a captivating case study. A city without an apparent order or center, regarded merely as a place for transit, it flaunts plenty of deformities. Its ugliness is often asserted, sometimes even boasted about, an aggravating affront when we are reminded that this was not always the case, that it is merely the palpable result of a historical, economical and cultural process that permeated other areas of society that transcend this urban space.
San José is also home to thousands of closed doors and barred windows. In private, in its everyday routine, this city, just like this country, holds enormous contradictions. The monster is outside, yet we resist when it comes to accepting that it is also inside, that it is part of who we are. Thus, the sinister and monstrous arises from this constant relation between interior and exterior: between the city and the home, between the public and the private space, between people and their context, outside and inside of certain social structures.
If, as Nietzsche affirms, when human beings “look into the mirror of things, they consider beautiful all that which returns their own image” and “hate the decadence of their type”, maybe what we see reflected in this city is actually a part of us as a society that we would much rather not see, or yearn for it to look different.
The exhibition Teramorphosis originated from a field study, an investigation of different creative practices of the local Costa Rican artistic scene that in recent years have explored this relation between the internal and external. The works depict phenomena considered to be sinister or monstrous – unpleasant and repulsive, or fascinating, curiously attractive and perhaps even beautiful – that are part of our everyday lives. Idealism has been surpassed in order to accept that what has been denied or hidden – or labeled as deformed and nasty – is also an inherent part of being human.
Perhaps these explorations are symptom of a dissatisfied yet impotent younger generation that aims to understand the contradictions and affectations that compose this society. At the same time, one could also say that this is part of a larger movement advocating for the recovery of an urban space that was considered to be a lost cause.
In this country, the myth of prevailing happiness is really a chimera, a collective illusion. Without being predictably direct, the works presented in this exhibition aim to make this illusion visible, urging us to see – without prejudices and accepting it as part of our own being – what we are often told to ignore or consider as degrading. These creators have a desire to see things for what they are, not how they are projected, or to reconfigure them to alter their negative connotation and expand the concept of what is ugly.
Teramorphosis is a term used in entomology to refer to organisms with an abnormal or monstrous form. Composed from the Greek term teras, meaning monster or prodigy, and morphosis, which indicates a state of change, in the context of this exhibition the word is also an invitation to consider the strange or monstrous as a state in this process of change. This mutation is multiple: it can exist as a conversion towards something monstrous – even if this is not necessarily something unpleasant – or it allows us to see the monstrous through transformation.
Such is the case of the project Monster as Manifesto (2014), Stefan Sauter’s architecture thesis. For Sauter, if monsters are proposed as the reverse reflections of the cultural values of each era, current fears in San José are highly related to the disappearance of its public space. At the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, the monster of this concern came alive in the exterior plazas of two of the main institutional buildings in the city of San José: the Contraloría General de la República and the Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia Hospital.
As Sauter explains, “although the tradition of caging is not a surprising phenomenon in the private space of the city, these recent events characterize a growing tendency to apply a simplified solution to the problem of urban insecurity. Instead of speaking in defense of architecture, the city of San José speaks of an architecture of defense (…) The cage is the monster of the city of San José.”
His investigation extends an invitation to reconsider our point of view about this monstrous element in an attempt to change the vocabulary on bars and cages. The illustrations about “monsters” and the architectural models presented in this exhibition are just the beginning of a pending investigation about potential defense adaptation strategies as a possible architecture of the city. “With this attitude,” Sauter explains, “the monster becomes a fundamental tool to enter new relations between the real and the speculative that becomes relevant because of its utility to expose findings about contemporary cities that are complex, misunderstood, despised and strange.”
Stefan’s digital drawings include several illustrations borrowed from the work of French illustrator J.J. Grandville. Grandville was of great influence to the renowned Costa Rican illustrator José María Figueroa Oreamuno. With the aim of fostering this dialogue, three pages of Figueroa’s notebooks were included in this exhibition.
Between 1870 and 1887, Figueroa produced five notebooks with texts and satirical illustrations that were recently found in a private library. In them, he exposes his scathing appreciations about the first liberal transformations set forth by Tomás Guardia from 1870 until the end of the 19th century. This period was the stage for transcendental changes and the unraveling of a slow process of transformation from the weak colonial institutions, to the consolidation of a liberal oligarchy that united the dominant class of criollos to outline and direct the course of the then fledgling republic.
As explained by Gabriela Sáenz-Shelby, Figueroa was thus a witness and a protagonist of the most significant change that Costa Rica underwent at the time, in which the liberal model prevailed, promoted by the political and mercantile elites that consolidated the foundations of the Costa Rican national state.
Figueroa exposes his perception about 19th century Costa Rica through a series of grotesque and satirical forms, which were conceived at the time to be diabolical, very different to those related to the aesthetic beauty and the classical ideal of the oligarchy. In his notebooks, Figueroa opted to look at that which was condemned to remain invisible or not evident, thus renovating the perceptive possibilities with regards to change.
Approaching this idea of transformation and change, but with the aim of exploring an aesthetic result, the series Arch(2014) by Andrés Gómez (aka Myno), utilizes digital art to explore and reconfigure landscapes. Arch is composed of multiple glitches made from photographs taken with an iPhone, the majority of them of San José and Chicago. To produce these results the images are processed multiple times via different apps. This leads to the corruption of the information, which results in errors.
Nonetheless, what is supposedly a corrupt image becomes beautiful and different, even though the original subject is barely recognizable. In one of them, it is possible to see the Casa Jiménez de la Guardia somewhat camouflaged, but its transformation results in a discharge of color and texture that adds another dimension to this architecture, deconstructing it within the digital space. In between all the errors, something new and interesting appears.
San José could well be considered to be a glitch city. Errors and blunders have become part of its identity. Throughout its recent history, the overlapping of multiple processes – which happened one after the other without necessarily having a defined purpose – has resulted in an eclectic conglomerate that confers this city its particular nature.
Beyond the urban space and its physical architecture, other works explore the inhabitants and the relations that are built in this city. The video El nacimiento de la natación (The birth of swimming) (2015), by Marco Arce, Diego Arias-Asch and Pablo Murillo, aims to revert the relationship we usually have with cockroaches, presenting them as the perfect pet. As perennial inhabitants of any city, we learn to despise, fear or ignore these insects, making it easy to simply kill them. Nonetheless, by utilizing humor, they are presented under a different light, even though in the end their destiny still follows the same established line, all in the name of art.
The video also emphasizes the artists’ desire to mock themselves and demystify the artistic figure utilizing their own work. Calling into question the validity of what is done in the name of art, they ask what determines if something is a video art and how someone is designated as an artist.
This is the first video of a series developed from the process of exploring torture, where the artists subject several insects to situations that result in their death. Avoiding a moralist discourse and conscious that this sort of calculated coldness can be found in all human beings – including them – they chose to approach the topic with a cynic and bitter humor. The result is a video with multiple layers of meaning, in which laughter and the absurd are mechanisms employed to deal with the implications of a calculated death. The joke extends to the spectator as well. In the end, we are all accomplices of an illusion and when the fiction is revealed, only an uncomfortable truth remains.
With a different focus but following a similar premise, the series Descomposición Urbana (Urban Decay) (2011 – 2015) by David Garrigues, portrays homeless people, real persons who are usually ignored so as to not deal with their complicated situation. By denying them it is easier not to confront our own indifference and see that repulsion present within us. The rejection is also towards our own behavior and we have resolved – consciously or not – that the best way to affront this is by being indifferent.
Made with acids and residue from garbage bags found around San José, these compositions present several deformed portraits. Bodies and faces can barely be recognized, resulting in images that are somewhat monstrous or dark. This could generate certain rejection or repulsion from certain viewers. With time, these acids and the organic material have begun to eat up the paper. This will eventually result in the destruction of the work and the complete disappearance of the image.
Addressing this same invisibility, the video-installation Sin nombre (No Name) (2013) aims to recreate in a multi-sensorial way three graves in the Calvo Cemetery. Located on the south side of San José, in a space excluded from the city, this cemetery is the place where thousands of unknown people rest. Called “the poor people’s cemetery,” it came to be as a solution to bury bodies that are never claimed: the homeless, immigrants, and delinquents, amongst others. In 2011 the Municipality of San José tried to claim this land to build a parking lot and a warehouse, in an act of complete disrespect to those who rest there and disregarding its status as public space.
This work wants to make visible a place that many ignore, questioning a value system that establishes marked social limits: life/death, inclusion/exclusion, me/other. Although it is a place that is often dismissed, this cemetery is part of a cycle that occurs in cities as the result of a social system of which we all partake.
Intertwining in a similar way the story of multiple strangers, Pamela Hernández created for this exhibition the work Patrones (Patterns) (2015). A great part of her work incorporates recovered objects or papers that seem interesting to her, composing a personal archive of her experience in the city.
Curiously enough, she found a large quantity of social security receipts, documents that contain delicate information such as complete name, place of work and salary amount. The artist collects them with a certain morbid curiosity, looking to see who are these people and perhaps recognize one of them. Patrones is a sort of fabric made up of these documents. Multiple private histories are sewn together to form a pattern that is publicly displayed, feeding the voyeuristic impulse that is often censored for being considered morbid and twisted.
Although these works stem from a relation to the city of San José, that which we perceive as disfigured or disagreeable is not particularly a local condition. In fact, it is an active part of a shared humanity. Beyond San José and Costa Rica, we share internal “deformities” that we label as monstrous (for better or worse) that exist within us and are common traits that affect how a society is build. Keeping this in mind, Teramorphosis also includes artists whose work comments on these characteristics, making evident the presence of the monstrous in the personal or intimate.
Diego Arias-Asch’s illustrations, for example, often present characters and fantasy worlds in which the absurd, pathetic and humorous unite to show another dimension of humanity. His characters are often portrayed with deformed bodies or exaggerated characteristics, converted into small monsters or disfigured humanoids.
There is a certain ironic, laughable ugliness that makes up existence and Asch makes this evident. As part of this exhibition, he was commissioned to make an artistic intervention on TEOR/éTica’s façade. For this he decided to portray, in his particular style, different situations that happen in San José. Always utilizing cynicism and irony, in this world of colorful characters, which display childish characteristics that may as also be seen as sinister, endure and enjoy what many pedestrians in this city experience in their day to day.
Precisely with the aim of occupying the urban space and approaching those who walk around the city, as part of the exhibition opening, Dino Real performed an urban intervention around Barrio Amón and near the Morazán Park, in which different characters were presented as silent specters of the city. Dino has carried out actions in multiple contexts that often erase the boundaries between the real and the fantastic, the beautiful and the strange. There is a deliberate intention to deconstruct established genders and present magical characters that are somewhat weird, yet attractive, or that could be seen as either monsters or deities.
In a complementary manner, Dino composed the installation En Casa (At home) (2015), an encounter with the artist’s mystical world and its characters. En Casa includes several elements and a costume made by Dino, as well as a video of his performative work. In this way, he was looking to recreate his living quarters within the exhibition space. In it he is constantly surrounded by all the elements that help him in his transformations.
Also focusing on the home but with a different approach, Róger Muñoz explores the sinister in the everyday. In this exhibition Muñoz presents La ruta de su evación (The route of her evasion) (2015), a series of collages that deconstruct the architecture – both physical and metaphorical – of a house. The relation between the architectonic drawings, the somewhat disfigured drawing lines and certain organic elements, create a revealing contradiction. There is no such thing as an idyllic space in the interior of this home. Likewise, the exterior is equally deceptive. In his painting Casa Roja (Red House) (2015) the subject could initially be seen as a harmless log cabin. Nonetheless, the characteristics of its construction reveal that there is something deformed and somber within it, which may not be limited exclusively to its exterior.
Questioning in a similar way social structures such as family and religion, Laura Villalta Herrera developed the series of studies Álbum Familiar (Family Album) (2012). Looking through old photographs of her family, the artist found a series of negatives with images that were not part of the family album, memories of special occasions that were left out of the official history. By enlarging them, a negative image, somewhat distorted and torn, is revealed, showing characters that are familiar, but that here seem unrecognizable.
As part of this series of studies, El bautizo (The Christening), work included in Teramorphosis, questions the importance of this religious rite. As a personal query, she asks herself how significant catholic religion is to her nowadays, seeing that it permeates multiple areas of Costa Rican society. Although it has a strong presence as part of the country’s cultural identity, it also holds a negative side that is often presented as unquestionable and occult.
Exploring this collective blindness, which is often aggravated by publicity and consumer society, but focusing directly on politics, Blinded – a new video-installation by Wiesengrund Project (Sergio Wiesengrund y Mariela Sandía) – was composed specifically for this exhibition.
As they explain it, Blinded “creates a dialogue from concrete sound and video resources from different media, looking to discuss the everyday as ‘political blindness’ via the ‘monstrification’ of matter. We consider ‘political blindness’ to be a monstrous exercise (…) The monstrous in ‘political blindness’ is inscribed in consumer spaces, establishing power relations from within the symbolic and material universe, by holding on to the same economic and cultural production system.” By “monstrifying” matter, that is, deliberately corrupting video archives and accompanying them with dismal and strange musical compositions, Blinded becomes a political action in itself that denounces political indifference.
Teramorphosis explores the multiple ways of understanding the monstrous, approaching it through different creative expressions that go beyond the visual arts: the architectural, the graphic, the performative and sound. In this way, several questions arise. Do these works actually expose unpleasant things or is this a trait we have come to accept without questioning? Is the city really the unpleasant thing or is it us? Is it possible to see the monstrous under a different light? With these and other questions in mind, some of the works expose that which we would prefer to ignore. Others focus on how to reconfigure that which we see as ugly or negative, while some only aim to portray the monstrous in people and in society.
Nonetheless, the intention is not to condemn these qualities in any way, nor display them as something negative, but to show them as part of a complex and diverse whole that cannot be conceived in binary terms: good/bad, beautiful/ugly, natural/monstrous, me/other.
What is perceived as deformed or unpleasant, what we label monstrous, is in fact a construction in opposition to an ideal, a canon pre-established by agents of power. Yet this does not mean it is unquestionable or true. There is no aesthetic form that does not respond to the interest of a determined social and political order. It is then pertinent to ask if the ideal we aspire San José to be, as the consequent reflection of a society, is not an imposed and adopted one that does not respond to our real needs, but to an idealized projection that comes from external and foreign processes.
With this in mind, Teramorphosis proposes that “anomalies” be considered as part of a new form, not as something doomed or condemned. Seeking to surpass the horror or shock, this exhibition is an encounter with the monstrous considered as part of a process, be this one of change, revelation, adaptation or acceptance. It is worth mentioning then that what is presented here is nurtured by this idea of transformation. Thus, in the spirit of Jungian thought, the monsters of today could be signs of future transformations.
María P. Malavasi L
San José, 2015
María P. Malavasi L. (San José, Costa Rica, 1987). BFA Art History, Fashion Minor, Savannah College of Art and Design. Since 2011, has worked in TEOR/éTica as Archive Manager and Lado V Research Center ‘s General Coordinator. She currently leads Revisión de las exposiciones, a series of annual workshops and future publications that aim to trace a history of exhibitions about art from Central America. She contributed to the editing of the books Virginia Pérez-Ratton: Travesía por un Estrecho Dudoso and Del Estrecho Dudoso a un Caribe Invisible: Apuntes sobre arte centroamericano. She has written for publications such as Art Nexus Latin America and Arteamérica Cuba.
ARTISTS: Marco Arce, Diego Arias-Asch, Michelle Ferris, José María Figueroa, David Garrigues, Pamela Hernández, Roger Muñoz, Pablo Murillo, Andrés Gómez (Myno), Dino Real, Stefan Sauter, Laura Villalta Herrera, Wiesengrund Project (Sergio Wiesengrund + Mariela Sandía)
This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)