Accumulating Miles, Or Life?October 14, 2015
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
Just because artists might accumulate miles in their frequent flyer accounts, doesn’t necessarily make them traveling artists. What’s certain is that they will accumulate life. The concept of the traveling artist is primarily linked to the 19th and 20th centuries, eras in which time and distance were unpredictable, determining factors in an agenda that was unquestionably open to change, unexpected occurrences and constant delays that could last days, months, and even years. Information about the destination was scarce and poorly accessible; there were no tour guides or package deals for travelers, none of today’s communication technologies. Artists—who were generally also scientists and naturalists, or were associated with them—set forth into the unknown, or as yet unknown, with bulky cargoes of materials, crates, the most advanced scientific tools of their time, all objects that would accompany them on their voyages and that would also require rather elaborate logistics for their transportation. These materials and artifacts represented practically the artists’ only contact with the outside world. They traveled by ocean vessel from their home countries, leaving behind their affections and belongings for long periods; they ran great risks, at times deadly.
Once they had arrived to a capital city or port of entry, artists made use of the “social networks” of the time: hand-delivered letters. By way of their country of origin’s embassy or some other representative of a friendly nation, they made contact with society: presidents, ministers, diplomats, patrons, traders, military officials, ladies and gentlemen of high society, illustrious citizens, philosophers, and others. This is where the “voyage” began: dinners, dances held by the light of the moon, romances, and a long list of events through which they established friendships and relationships that allowed the artist/scientists to collect information, letters of safe-passage, contacts, and, frequently, money and support for their expeditions.
Breaking into unknown territories, the artists also entered a series of new networks and sub-networks that allowed them to move about these new geographical spaces in which society and its actors were other: governors, mayors, lower order functionaries, transportation workers, laborers, indigenous people, cooks, servants, chiefs, ship captains, soldiers, dockworkers. This interwoven society seemed unrelated to that other society that had been left behind in the capital, but in reality, there was a powerful intrigue and a deep, close relationship linking the two of them.
Once their journeys had begun, the artists, who were nearly always painters and drafters, began to record and sketch everything novel that passed before their eyes, everything that appeared to them to be of scientific or aesthetic value. In their crates, they kept sketches, watercolors, and paintings that would later be exhibited at dinners or other events back in the home country. They would frequently continue working on these sketches to produce finished works. Years later, all of this would end up in museums and private collections. At that point, some curator or museum director would find them and include them in their exhibitions, and in this way they would become part of our shared knowledge.
The motivation for these voyages, above and beyond the works themselves—beautiful drawings, watercolors, and prints—was to bear witness to an era and a transition. The long range of time, slow movement, the impossibility of getting anywhere quickly or immediately, made these artists/expeditionaries act in natural symbiosis with local citizens, landscape, culture, food, and customs. In spite of the difficulty of the routes they traversed, these experiences left an indelible mark, recounted by the many books written by the artists or their travel companions, and by the many friends and enemies they left behind.
The traveling artists of the 21st century are better known as “artists in residence.” They invest many hours in looking for programs, grants, funding; filling out forms and getting in touch with artistic networks. They almost always travel alone and, although they are not scientists, they frequently apply pseudo-scientific procedures or trials to their artwork. They are linked to a network or a project that supports them from the start and offers them security. Time and distance are obstacles that preoccupy them in a different way, but which are not determining variables in their “voyages.” They make plans from their personal computers, electronic tablets, or smartphones. More often than not they already “know” the locale prior to ever having seen it. Their contacts are made from afar by way of social networks. Direct contact itself is limited to what is necessary once on location. They travel with a collection of compact, ultra-high tech devices: computers, telephones, photo and video cameras. They travel by jet. Upon arrival, they burst immediately into the space or territory they are coming to know. They attend meetings, give talks, participate in events, dance, and have romantic relationships. They connect with the local but also with what they have left behind, they become omnipresent. They are here but more than that they are in another place, in a future residency.
The intention, the presence, and the time spent understanding the place being visited is different, and therefore so are the results. What’s new is not novel, and it is not necessary to record it; the strategy is different: they turn to the project and its completion. Their work will not wait until their return, or take years to come to light; it arrives directly to individuals and institutions associated with art as well as anyone with a network connection. It doesn’t take mothballs to preserve it. They store the information and launch it into cyberspace along with the finished work. Their ‘project’ has concluded.
The following is a selection from the rare breed of contemporary artists and those of centuries past that I find moving and to which I feel affectively connected.
Pehr Löfling (Tolvfors Bruk, Sweden 1729—San Antonio del Caroní, Venezuela 1756). Technically not a traveling artist, but a scientist of great sensitivity and a free thinker. He is known as the first scientific researcher to set foot on Venezuelan soil, an expert in botany and zoology who was the first to bring the microscope to the country. A disciple of Carl Linnaeus, he was invited by King Ferdinand VI to participate in the exhibition that Spain was organizing to establish borders with Portugal in the New World. He was designated Botanist to the King, and in a short time he completed the most extensive classification of plants that had ever before been undertaken with scientific rigor. He made sketches, drawings, and collected specimens. He worked on the book “Plantae Americanun” in the village of Tocuyo, near Unare, and he traveled to Guayana where he archived important botanical and zoological material and penned a manuscript titled Draft of Observations Made on the Voyage from Cumaná to Guayana. During his stay in this region, he and several of his companions took ill once again with fever and nausea. He died at age 27, on the shore of the Caroní River in the Mission of San Antonio del Coroní, on February 22, 1756. Centuries later in Guayana City, around 1990, the Venezuelan Society of Guayana created a park with his name on the banks of the Caroní, as an homage to one of the first people to describe and classify the region’s bountiful treasury of flora and fauna.
Inés Romero—my aunt—was the one who took the reins of this beautiful project and who taught me to love this historical personage, and from there, together with readings of Humboldt, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, Jules Verne, Rómulo Gallegos, and Enrique Stanko Vraz, I began to dream of traveling and of “other” territories.
In the works of Alberto Baraya, Roberto Obregón, and Mark Dion, there are sensitive relationships rooted in an ideal that approaches the scientific spirit. They locate, classify, dissect, and organize installations and structured works using personalized scientific referents. Their projects are built from very personal concerns: in Dion’s case, reliance on institutional support makes this work possible. Both Baraya and Obregón develop their proposals in intimacy.
The travelers Raymond Chaves and Gilda Mantilla, Pablo Helguera, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Anna Best, and Víctor Julio González chose to travel across vast and diverse territories, constructing their works, manifested in drawing, social work, painting, photography, postcard art, out of the material of the voyage. Movement is fundamental, as it adds context, poetics, concept, sonority, silence, community, and sensitive observation.
Ferdinand Bellermann was in Venezuela for three years and three months. He painted portraits of the country from north to south and from east to west. He arrived in La Guaira on July 10th, 1942, and departed almost immediately for Puerto Cabello, where he worked in the port and in the town of San Esteban. He then headed for Valencia, and from there undertook his voyage across Venezuela. He visited the places described by scholar Alexander von Humboldt, documenting them. He took part in the events surrounding the repatriation of Liberator Simón Bolívar’s remains to Caracas, to be later returned to La Guaira and taken on an excursion through the interior. In Caracas, he met with naturalists Nicolaus Funck and Lewis Brian Adams. In May he set sail for Cumaná, the Araya peninsula in the Gulf of Caripe, where he set up camp, completed many drawings and visual studies, and explored in greater depth the cave that Humboldt and Agustín Codazzi had described . Bellermann published lithographs and had commissions for paintings of Venezuela. He traveled to Ciudad Bolívar by sea and by river. He returned to Valencia and painted its lake, and his work awakened great interest. Local hacienda owners visited him and commissioned work, and Bellermann got to know the recently founded Colonia Tovar. He headed for Mérida and Maracaibo, visited the port of La Ceiba, and the Trujillo state towns of Valera and Escuque. He completed extraordinary paintings of the Andes and the Venezuelan plains. Once back in Germany, Bellermann exhibited his Venezuelan “vistas,” and it was at this point that he relived, in many works and on many occasions, his unique experience in Venezuela, which took place over such a short time. It may, in fact, be due to his paintings that landscape, in our context, takes on importance and autonomy.
Separately, and in different years, Lothar Baumgarten and Juan Downey went into the heart of the Amazon jungle in the high Orinoco to establish direct relationships with the world to which they had not been summoned and which they try to understand by way of their works. Downey experiments with video in an eclectic manner, as Baumgarten does with multiple media. These experiences are transferred to their centers of operations, and from there they complete an endless stream of works that go hand in hand with their lived experiences and which are reconstructed from them, even creating myths surrounding them.
Auguste Morisot arrived to Venezuela in 1886, as part of the expedition led by French explorer Jean Chaffanjon. The expedition had as its primary objective navigating the Orinoco to its source. In the sixteen months that the voyage lasted, Morisot recorded geographical descriptions, studied the flora, fauna, and geology of the basin region, and made observations and portraits of the indigenous peoples’ customs and ways of life. He completed extensive work in drawing and watercolor, wrote his travel diary Journal d'exploration sur l'Orénoque, and developed an herbarium with reproductions of all the plants referenced. The voyage of Morisot itself is one of the great exploratory adventures of the late 19th century, and almost certainly served as the inspiration for the book “Le superbe Orénoque” by Jules Verne.
Anton Goering spent nearly eight years in Venezuela painting, drawing landscapes, and collecting and embalming birds. He visited and admired the Guácharo Cave in Caripe, the Orinoco River in the south, and Lake Valencia. Eighteen years after leaving Venezuela in 1892, he published his book, in which he brought together his lived experiences in the country; this work, written in German, is titled “Von Tropische tieflande zum ewigen schnee” (“From the Tropical Lowlands to Perpetual Snows”), and it was translated in 1962 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Universidad de los Andes, and it was published under the name of Venezuela, the Most Beautiful Tropical Country. Here I can perceive a kinship between his painting Mucuchies Plain and the chromogenic photograph of Axel Hütte, El Aguila Peak, from 1998.
A shared commitment and respect for the spaces they visit and temporarily inhabit is visible in the works of Richard Long, Teresa Pereda and Ragna Róbertsdóttir. There are also multiple relationships woven among them: they integrate their works directly with the landscape, and use its elements of water, stone, shells, rivers, and wind to constitute and make their works visible.
A journey is like a person in itself; no two are alike.
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;
a trip takes us.
In memory of my father, with whom I got to know Venezuela and especially the Gran Sabana, in 1978, traveling on infinite occasions with the security of his companionship.
To Viviane Chonchol, Luis Gamboa, and Oscar Godoy, travel companions, backpack and tent buddies, so many kilometers covered, peaks summited, and things experienced.
For the shared experiences, nights of cards, and friendship to Axel Hütte and Katlen Hewel.
To Tere, my grandmother, who for me always represented that unknown territory of Guayana, of Rómulo Gallegos’s Canaima, of the Taguachi territory and the immense Orinoco, only reachable by taking the Caruachi barge across the fast-running, enigmatic, and dark Caroní.