Set high in the Andes, some 280 miles south of the Ecuadorian capital Quito, the small city of Cuenca has hosted a biennial exhibition since 1987. Dedicated to painting from Latin America, the Bienal de Cuenca was originally organized along similar lines to the Venice Biennale, with artists representing their countries and prizes awarded for outstanding contributions. Over the years, the exhibition has expanded its artistic scope. The emphasis continues to be on work from Latin America, but not exclusively so. It still awards three prizes each year, but now takes in a wide range of approaches to art-making. The show has also taken on the vestments of international biennialdom; vague and gigantic curatorial topics, thematic panel discussions, strikingly unusual venues spread throughout the city.
The 12th iteration of the Bienal de Cuenca featured 42 artists and collectives mostly hailing from Central and South America, and was spread across six venues: the Museo de Arte Moderno (a small, whitewashed building originally established in the 19th century as a temperance house), the Salon del Pueblo, Galeria Proceso Arte Contemporáneo, the chapel of the Museo de la Medicina, Casa de los Arcos (an historic building now used as a cultural centre), and in rooms spread through the Colegio Benigno Moro – a functioning experimental high school. Cuenca, it should be noted, is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site, mostly on account of its Spanish colonial architecture. As with many biennials that use historically charged venues, the show ran the risk of being upstaged by its surroundings, but by and large managed to strike a sympathetic relationship with each site.
Curators Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Manuella Moscoso chose the title ‘Ir Para Volver’ for their show, an Ecuadorian expression which translates into English as ‘leaving to return’. As I understand it, the phrase is the verbal equivalent of hanging a ‘back in 10 mins’ sign in a shop doorway, signalling a temporary absence, elastic in length. The show’s curatorial thesis was pretty elastic in scope too; thematic to the point of meaning everything and nothing. According to the curators’ statement, the biennial was ‘conceived as an open thought process’, in which the artworks ‘form a constellation of independent yet deeply interrelated concepts’ – a definition that could stand for pretty much any group exhibition, anywhere. In the intellectual mix was Édouard Glissant, creolization, border crossing, nomadism, artistic outsourcing to industry, artistic outscourcing to traditional manufacturers, the impossibility of rational systems of measurement and a whole lotta undermining of the status quo. But despite my scepticism towards the curatorial woo-woo, Crivelli Visconti and Moscoso produced a strong selection of works that leaned heavily towards conceptual and process-based approaches, many of which demonstrated a keen grip on history, place and movement.
Jorge Satorre, Lo Otro (The Other Thing), 2014, installation view at Salón del Pueblo The strongest works in the show were subtle but pointed gestures about obsoletion and cultural translation. Ecuadorian artist Saskia Calderón (awarded first prize at the biennial) presented Opera Onowoka (2014), an eerie performance at the Casa de los Arcos, for which she transcribed ceremonial songs from tribes in the Amazon into Western musical notation and on the biennial’s opening days sang them in a powerful soprano voice; shades of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), but with the Amazon brought into opera, rather than opera brought to the Amazon. Adrián Balseca, also Ecuadorian, took an Andino truck from Quito to Cuenca and parked it outside the Museo de Arte Moderno (Medio camino [Halfway], 2014). Produced in Ecuador from 1973, the rudimentarily designed Andino was meant to symbolize economic progress for the nation. Balseca removed the petrol tank, strapped it to the roof and got the car to Cuenca using the help of people he met along the way, pushing it, pulling it by truck, towing it by horse. (The piece reminded me of similar works by Simon Starling and Michael Stevenson, also involving cars, journeys and stories of nationhood.) Given current struggles in the Amazon over oil speculation, Balseca’s journey echoed powerfully with Calderón’s use of indigenous music. For Lo Otro (The Other, 2014), Mexican artist Jorge Satorre worked in collaboration with local craftspeople, inviting them to use their skills and traditional materials to make objects which had no function, or whose function was distorted to the point of impracticality. At the chapel of the Museo de la Medicina, Turkish artist Meriç Algün Ringborg produced a version of her poignant project The Library of Unborrowed Books (2012–ongoing); a collection of books that have never been taken out from libraries, abandoned and unloved volumes of knowledge.
If ideas of nomadism, creolization, transformation, outsourcing and so on were part of the official intellectual framework of the show, the secret theme of Crivelli Visconti and Moscoso’s biennial was salvaging the past from complete disappearance.