Ana Alenso: Tropical Curse
by Kenneth Hayes
In the early 1970s, I lived in the Dominican Republic for a year while my father worked on the startup of a ferronickel plant in Bonao. The plant’s smelter was fuelled by Venezuelan oil, shipped in by tanker from ports less than a thousand kilometres south across the Caribbean Sea. This tidy arrangement fell apart on October 16, 1973, when opec raised the price of oil by 70%, which instantly made it uneconomical to process the energy-hungry ore. The newly established smelter and the mining operations – in fact, the entire town site, with its large white-and-pastel-painted courtyard houses, leisure centre and model school – were rendered obsolete virtually overnight; expatriate workers quickly returned to their homes around the world; newly built buildings were shuttered and left to moulder, and the hopes of local people to hold stable, lucrative jobs were dashed. Ana Alenso would undoubtedly recognize this profoundly destructive and wasteful event as a distant reflection of the catastrophes repeatedly rained upon her home country of Venezuela by its resource extraction economy. Her recent work is dedicated to understand- ing and exposing the paradoxical cultural condition of growing poverty in the nation with the world’s largest proven reserves of oil.
In a single-room gallery, opening directly from the sidewalk, the artist installed a system of scaffolding both functional (it offered the means to climb to a second level within the relatively tall space and thereby gain novel perspectives on the sculptural assemblage) and symbolic (inasmuch as it signified a chaotic, perpetually unfinished project). From the gallery’s entrance, ramps rose to a low platform that supported an empty, green oil barrel held at an angle of about 15 degrees off the vertical by a system of ropes and pulleys. Although raised above the floor, the barrel appeared something like the nadir of a spatial vortex, as if the last drops were being extracted from an all-but-drained source. The barrel functioned simultaneously as a unit of wealth, a signifier of resources and as a sculptural volume. The artist’s statement reveals that the installation’s overriding form alludes to the infamous El Helicoide building in Caracas, a huge, multi-tiered construction built around a natural mound known as Roca Tarpeya. Inaugurated in the late 1950s as a drive-in shopping mall, the exorbitant, ziggurat-like project was left unfinished due to political indecision and inertia, and, since its abandonment, it has been put to various nefarious uses, from squatter settlement to headquarters of the repressive Bolivarian Intelligence Service. While the form of the scaffolding may reference the spiral Helicoide, the barrel makes it possible to recognize the installation’s spatial schema as resembling a particular exemplar of modern sculpture, Umberto Boccioni’s Futurist Development of a Bottle in Space (1913).
The artist festooned the crude scaffold spiral with several discrete interventions seemingly designed to exhaust the means by which a sculpture installation may be supplemented: video, in the form of a small monitor that rewards the viewer for climbing to the second level; audio, in a recording of the trading patter at a commodities exchange, emanating from the barrel; movement, in a lump of asphalt displayed on a rotating platform near the entrance; by reflection, in a mirror that provided the base of a found-object assembly of hand tools that resembles the iconic teeter-totter structure of a pumpjack; and through drawing, left on the plastic-clad walls after a public discussion. Each of these inclusions merits more analysis than is possible here, but it is the video that best exemplifies the artist’s discursive, even didactic, intentions. Composed of found footage and running for just 3 minutes and 15 seconds, it collages together phantasmagorical scenes of a television game show in which paper currency is blown into a transparent chamber containing a contestant, archival footage of an environmental disaster at an oil pumping station, and a plaza full of people looting a shipment of flat-screen televisions, seemingly only in order to wantonly smash them on the ground. These images are bluntly overlaid with graphs depicting oil consumption levels and prices. The artist has sampled the broad array of social and cultural ills that accompany the unearned wealth that flows from the ground, and in doing so, demonstrates the perpetually disrupted, unfinished modernity of a nation grown both corrupt and dependant on a volatile international commodities market.
In effect, Alenso has invented a powerful sculptural idiom, one that might be described as a disenchanted version of the Tropicália that has been referenced or represented in this space on other occasions. She makes work deliberately shorn of the ’60s movement’s exuberance and drained of its famed vibrant colour. Her sculpture reduces the informal vigour of naive art to a brutal aggression that nevertheless seems to gain in spatial interest. In doing so, she recalls the unlikely amalgam of Surrealism and Bauhaus formal- ism that strongly influenced post-war art throughout South America, but renders it with an acute awareness of contemporary macro-economic contradictions that verge on theatre of the absurd, and pursues a staggeringly direct material economy that shows up the high modern love of industry as just so much chrome fetishism. It is not by accident that this exhibition took place in Berlin, nor that the artist studied at the Bauhaus. Indeed, the industrial lamps incorporated into the installation cast harsh rays of light on and through the diaphanous scaffolding and various other perforated materials, producing shadows that vividly recall the _Light-Space Modulator _ that László Moholy-Nagy built at the Bauhaus between 1922 and 1930.
Tropical Curse presents a deep cultural analysis of the precarity, social disorder, environmental damage and general profligacy that natural bounty seems to bring in its wake, especially for countries of the Global South. Alenso takes a gimlet-eyed look back on the Venezuelan experience of modernity and at the same time peers forward to the all-too-foreseeable consequences of her nation’s resource dependency. The artist has rendered a strange, tropical depression in a small room far removed from her home; she clearly expects it will develop into a hurricane.