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Nadí­n Ospina

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Mar 11, 2007
Location: France
Topic: Interview with Nadín Ospina
Interviewer: Manuel Neves

LatinArt:  What do you have to say about Colombia’s present reality?

Nadí­n Ospina:  Colombia’s reality in terms of the social environment, its culture and political circumstances is extremely complex, diverse and difficult to grasp. We live in a very rich cultural environment heavy with traditions that are anchored in a past officially glorified as the icon of a national reality. The pre-Columbian past and the great traditions of the Colombian aborigines still living make up a historical substratum giving rise to nationalistic narratives of undeniable value but which hide the state’s idleness and political indifference towards the real circumstances of neglect and destitution within these communities.

As citizens of a state in which social circumstances are so very convulsive, the general feeling is of an overwhelming uncertainty marked by pain, fear and rage. Paradoxically, as a recent study published by the journal Cambio demonstrated, we Colombians turn out to be the happiest citizens on the face of the earth, ranking higher than 112 other countries. The disconcerting outcome of this study reveals two aspects; first, that quite correctly, and in spite of all the misery, pain and death, Colombian society manages to remake itself and to mitigate the tragedy thanks to an almost instinctive survival mechanism. Music, humor, the constant chatter, dance, carnival, and boundless sex are cathartic mechanisms that mitigate the pain and make it possible to see reality through a different glass that sheds a playful and carefree side to life. On the other hand this seeming indifference could be interpreted as a pathological syndrome in a society anesthetized by the kind of pain that leaves a sort of permanent hang-over or madness leading it to close its eyes in face of its reality in order to be able to endure it. Many analysts have seen in this inexplicable "absence of consciousness" part of the explanation for the lasting nature of the conflict. A society used to its pain and its violence is a society incapable of finding a solution to its conflicts. The latter have already been integrated into its every day existence, and hopelessness is the very motor nurturing the struggle.

For an artist this reality is unavoidable --in fact, there is a clear awareness that making art in Colombia is very different from making it anywhere else, something which poses fundamental dilemmas: Has Colombian art turned into one of those direct victims of the conflict? Has national culture also been kidnapped by violent episodes? Probably so, and the questions do not stop: Is making art that refers to violence a moral or even a curatorial imperative? Are other more independent and less committed forms left out of the artistic landscape? It would seem so.

In any case, for better or for worse, this is a situation that we have been destined to live through, in the face of which one cannot remain indifferent. The specific evaluation that is made of this singular cultural phenomenon will depend upon the analysis of the socio-political reality that Colombian artists experience and upon the relevance of that insertion into the field of art.

LatinArt:  Could you describe this new project that you are exhibiting in Paris?

Nadí­n Ospina:  The project Colombialand is a mise-en-séne of diverse elements, some pictorial, others are three-dimensional, and one is a video representing images and situations involving Colombian violence played by figures taken from the famous Lego game pieces. The images in the work, based on the River Expedition game that a Danish enterprise came out with in 1999, are just like in the original version. Portraits of local Latin American characters are sinister scoundrels with deadly faces and stocked with arms such as knives, guns and bombs. The series shows the actors in the conflict, characters resembling paramilitary guerrillas, terrorists, Mafiosi henchmen, kidnappers and politicians. Just as with the original repertoire, a version of an irate native shaman appears who reveals sinister intentions in the game’s instruction manual. The three-dimensional pieces made with resin duplicate the characteristics of the small game pieces with their articulated and interchangeable system, only now they are enlarged to a sculptural dimension and very visible to the spectator in contrast with the Lego pieces that remain elusive to most adults.

The work on the whole is a critique of prejudiced perceptions, of pre-conceived notions that saturate the universal imaginary vis á vis people and circumstances in our continent --a land of violence, of perverse and degraded beings predisposed to vile behaviour. A reproach of the media and to a certain segment of the world of culture that sees Latin America only as a land of violence.

LatinArt:  What is it that triggered a change in your work?

Nadí­n Ospina:  As you noted before, perhaps the changes in my work are more formal in nature than in content. The basic material in my work is Latin American culture and a Colombian reality in particular. In my earlier works where I carried out a synchretic operation blending elements from the pre-Colombian past with images of contemporary media, the idea was to reveal the complex relations of power between the center and the periphery, and to make a sort of "social self-portrait" of a fragile culture permeated by the modern communications media, invested with the cultural power that belongs to the first world. These circumstances of cultural dispossession and uprootedness were, to my mind, a hidden form of violence generating further violence.

Now with my new work "Colombia land" the reference to violence is more direct but equally ironic. By means of the images of an apparently harmless game I mean to present a subtle story of prejudice and stereotyping that are part of a symbolic construction defining Latin America as a land of evil, violence and ugliness. Besides criticizing these prejudiced perceptions the work is an introspection, a mea culpa in the face of a Colombian reality. Just as sociologist Michel Wieviorka recently put it: "In the past, it was said that a nation had a national story. History elaborated that story, and it was said that the negative aspects of the past should not be shown. That is the classical image of the idea of a nation. It was big, heroic, romantic etc... Today the victims ask the nation to modify that national account; they want it to be said: "Our State can commit crimes": Such a request attaches a somber, barbaric dimension to the past, it is something that is going to generate debates and worries. But I believe that it is right for a great nation to incorporate its history, even if it is not always easy."

LatinArt:  Why do you choose or appropriate characters or elements from your childhood?

Nadí­n Ospina:  It is interesting to note Baudelaire’s ideas in his essay "The morality of the toy" (Le Monde Littérarie, April 17th, 1853), which Bernard Marcadé quotes in his texts for my exhibition, should possess such relevance vis á vis this question.

The installment of the toy as a foremost sculptural object, as a tool of creative thought and as a communicative object, beyond its apparent innocence and not very provocative quality, are themes that have always been close to my heart. My relationship with toys as a childhood memory and as "untamed" objects has always been very intense and ambiguous; these friendly and attractive objects slowly transform themselves before my eyes into objects charged with a hidden power deserving an analysis. From inert tools they change into elements with a communicative capacity that empowers them as signs charged with an unsuspecting ideological and cultural message.

From their very aesthetic nature, which raises them to the category of true icons of modernity, toys as a synthetic representation of reality carry with them a translation and an implicit interactive capacity in the exercise of a game. As a sculptural object the toy goes beyond the monolithic category of the artistic object, introducing participatory dynamics in contemporary artistic practice. In effect, I see my work as a game, primarily as my personal displacement (in a conceptual sense) and secondly as an advancement of intellectual interaction with the engaged observer. The permutations and fusions that appear in the work are eminently game strategies, movements of construction and reconstruction. The dismissal of the sculptural object recognizable to the art world, through its involvement with the toy, generates a zone of uncertainty in which one category and the other shed the clarity proper to their genre, resolving into a kind of transvestite cultural species that strikes one as uncomfortable, disquieting, and seductive.

LatinArt:  This is something that seems to generate a game of opposites between a world that presents itself as "innocent" - childhood - and another one, dramatically serious, such as that concerning cultural identity, memory and, in this last project, the extreme violence that is seemingly synonymous with Colombia today.

Nadí­n Ospina:  Evidently in this case the symbiotic operation of opposing elements generates a new category of bizarre, barbarous, and brutal objects. The blinding luster of the colors, the violence of the gestures and the decision about the toy’s shape, turn it into a powerful tool for saying things that are wounding, that hurt, and which point to a lost innocence.

LatinArt:  Some years ago I asked artist Juan Manuel Echevarria (Colombia, 1947) this same question: Can art be a kind of violence?

Nadí­n Ospina:  Certainly a work can contain forms of violence in its conceptualization or in its execution. What is most evident and perhaps most innocuous is to be found in artistic actions that are articulated with a violent, aggressive act, an act of transgression or a delinquent act, even, as a starting point. Violent action in many cases is self-inflicted with no less disturbing results. In Colombia, perhaps in response to the particular atmosphere of violence and conflict, these sorts of action are frequent. French artist Pierre Pinnoncelly severed one of his fingers with an axe at a performance programmed as part of the Cali Performance Festival (2002) in protest of Ingrid Betancourt’s kidnapping. Other young artists have put forth works involving excessive uses of alcohol or psychotropics, voyeuristic or delinquent actions such as programmed and registered thefts. All these actions self-justify as a cathartic element, as a healing mechanism for personal or social pathologies and definitely as acts that draw attention directly to the distance separating the autonomous universe of art and the disturbing reality underlying the real world beyond the walls of the artistic shrine.

Other forms of violence in art, much more complex and questionable, are directed towards the exhibition of images of victims of violence, misery, sickness or misfortune.

The victims of these acts of usurpation generally are not even aware of the assault upon their dignity or are in such a state of defenselessness that they are thereby incapable of fighting them. Implicit in these artistic procedures is a merciless, violent action that, ethically speaking, appears highly questionable.

LatinArt:  At the same time, whenever artists engage this topic, are they not falling into a sort of contradictory aestheticism?

Nadí­n Ospina:  It all depends on the approach. In the first case I mention, the openly anti-aesthetic nature of their actions and transgressions offers a resistance, a delay in becoming part of the system, yet irremediably, as happens with all forms that close in on the art world, it ends up as an object bound to be transformed into an aesthetic one. Always prone to becoming part of a collection, as is the case with Hermann Nitzch.

The second case is even more perverse here, since as a result of its exploitation it soon begins to circulate, quite cynically, within a curatorial universe and as part of the greedy collecting trends of misery-bound porno.

The third group is more subtle, does neither one nor the other, that is to say, it does not show the bleeding wound of the victim, either one’s own or somebody else’s, but poetizes the theme of violence at an ultra aesthetic level, as in the case of Doris Salcedo who we must define as a "aestheticizer" of violence. In effect, something derived from painful events is transformed into a metaphorical object that evades direct exhibition and which operates as transliteration in an action endowing its objects with a reflexive capacity that is highly sublimated. Her work equally and indefectibly is absorbed into the system of the merchandized circulation of art that evidently puts her in a paradoxical phase between the world of pain and precariousness, and the world of international art collecting that prevails in a world of comfort far removed from its problematic universe or origin.

LatinArt:  Is it possible at the present time to produce art in Colombia that does not deal with the theme of violence?

Nadí­n Ospina:  Absolutely so, it is all a matter of perception. A very intense and poetic art is being made here that does not necessarily allude directly to the theme of violence. A production such as that of Oscar Muñoz issues from an extraordinary level yet his international visibility barely now begins to emerge. The presence of diverse thematic and formal interests such as the matter of gender, of social activism, of the disregard of curatorial or institutional canons, of historical or iconic revision and, of course, of a good number of abstractions and figurations openly removed from the "violentological" imperative, speak of a pluralistic and libertarian artistic activity.

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