A ream of multi-coloured office paper cast from the roof of a non-descript building at Bogotá’s National University of Colombia is the orienting gesture of ‘Mobilize’, Instituto de Visión’s two-person exhibition featuring Otto Berchem and Amalia Pica. Filmed in 2013 and presented in the gallery space as a looped video installation projected on a translucent plastic screen, Berchem’s Revolver focuses on the movement of these traffic-cone-orange, lime-green, black and white sheets as they float slowly to the ground. Contained within this work’s surface poeticism – at first glance, the project appears beholden to Francis Alÿs’s landmark 2005 performance, The Green Line (Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic) – is a deeply-rooted cynicism regarding the collapse of political meaning and the cyclical futility of collective protest.
The exhibition’s three central sculptures, collaborations between Berchem and Pica, articulate this breakdown in the disjuncture between language and object. Using thermoformed acrylic, the artists render fluid paper sheets as stagnant structures: 102 moulded forms in all have been suspended from the ceiling, draped flaccidly over a corner shelf and dashed against an overturned, blue metal office chair. Each of these related works is titled with some variant of the action verb ‘mobilize’, a term that summons dynamic resistance. When transposed to the immobile sculptures, the artists’ invitation feels impotent – the often ineffectual nature of political organization emphasized by the works’ use of corporate aesthetics. The bright paper hues in Revolver are rendered even more anodyne when filtered through the installation’s colour field of robin-egg blue, baby pink and canary yellow (the palette of post-it notes and office-wide memos). Berchem’s 2013 performance at the National University of Colombia encompassed the conflicting ideologies of public education – as a conduit for radical thought and social cohesion on the one hand, and as preparation for success in a banal, corporate system of capitalism on the other. Surrounded by this limpidly pretty and deliberately inoffensive work that explicitly takes political mobilization as its subject, we realize that these two polarities are in fact not so distinct.
A handful of solo works by Berchem and Pica surround this joint installation; a selection that foregrounds their practices’ sharp differences despite ostensible formal similarities and shared references to Pictures Generation artist Annette Lemieux. Pica’s Inventario de (in)escuchados (Inventory of the [Un]heard, 2017), the exhibition’s standout work, is composed of white plaster casts of noisemaking objects used in protest marches. Hanging from thread in a standardized formal ordering, these shoes, megaphones, pots, sticks and machetes are categorized by the thing of which they are stripped (noise). In doing so, Pica produces a monochrome reminiscent of Louise Nevelson’s abstract expressionist assemblages, recasting the most basic mechanisms through which people seek to be heard into a frieze designed to be seen. In doing so, she speaks directly to processes of strangulation by bureaucratic ordering. But where Pica’s astute interventions dive further into the intricacies of bureaucratic confinement – examining the many forms of silencing via banal regulation patterns – the individual works by Berchem prioritize beauty before insight, enacting what they aim to critique. In Rehearse (2017) his series of ‘photo paintings’, the artist reproduces a selection of black and white documentary photographs sourced from global protest movements on high-grade uncoated cotton paper. He then intervenes on these images by covering signs or banners with abstract shapes in gouache and pencil – an erasure of shared meaning in favour of the artist’s private language of synesthetic colour. Rather than articulate universal visual codes for collective mobilization, these works reduce the specific lives and experiences of those represented in the images to a pictorial field for the artist to play upon; the fetishized beauty of documented protest rendered even more beautiful, and even less capable of stimulating social change, by its sublimation through the commercially-viable language of abstract painting.
Main image: Otto Berchem and Amalia Pica, `Mobilize´, installation view, Instituto de Vision Bogota. Courtesy: Instituto de Visión, Bogota