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ATLAS OF THE ANDES: VOLUME I
Centro de Artes Universidad EAFIT
Essay by Conrado Uribe
Published in exhibition catalog
English translation by Juan Duque
BETWEEN THE ENTRENCHMENT OF FICTION AND THE UNCERTAINTY OF OBSERVATION
The concept of fiction has served to define some of the various narrative genres to which we are most frequently exposed. Fiction defines a certain type of literary or visual work which represents imaginary events and characters. Its etymological roots refer to “give shape, to create form", to fabricate. For example, in cinematography, this concept has helped to differentiate two types of filmmaking: the documentary, understood to be more politically accurate; and the non-documentary, or fiction cinema. These classifications have been employed in order to verify a film's kinship to a particular family, or to determine behaviors which lead to either exclusion or inclusion. In the end, these are moral definitions whose boundaries have become blurred by filmmaking itself.
In the same way that the narrative boundaries between film genres are being called into question, other disciplines have also critically reviewed the relationships between reality as truth and history as its narrative. From a philosophical perspective, Michel Foucault acknowledges the importance of the problem posed by the concept of fiction: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or manufactures something that does not as yet exist, that is, 'fictions' it". (1)
Given this state of instability and uncertainty, one must reevaluate fiction’s role in cultural constructions, and even its role in understanding reality, as paradoxical as it may sound. Artists have been particularly aware of and sensitive to these issues. Pablo Picasso said: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand"(2). Following this line of thought, for Marcel Broodthaers, “fiction allows us to grasp reality and at the same time what it hides”(3). What underlies these statements, that of the philosopher and those of the artists, might be nothing more than an entrenched historical awareness of the production of images and narratives.
In the case of Camilo Echavarría, this “fictioning” or “fabrication” operates at various levels. The most evident ones concern his recognition and respect towards both art and science. Regarding the former, he appropriates visual and conceptual strategies from the work of travelling artists and photographers who created images of the “new world” between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, motivated by artistic as well as commercial interests, or simply by their attraction to the romanticized notion of travel. Secondly, he approaches in a rigorous way the importance of fidelity in description that characterizes representations made by scientists who participated and sometimes lead those expeditions. This personal pantheon includes figures such as Alexander von Humboldt, as well as Auguste Morisot, Frederic Edwin Church, Carl F. P. von Martius, Johan Moritz Rugendas, and Henry Price, among others. Some of these names have yet to enter the history of art's mainstream narrative since their work was produced with a utilitarian end in mind. However, their role has acquired new value thanks to the invaluable legacy of their images of nature and geography of places visited.
Photography, as both witness and direct document, is merely a starting point. These images seek to evoke memories of the past, from the standpoint of the present, as well as to register information that will be relevant in the future. In this process, the act of travelling plays a fundamental role, as it constitutes the source of experiences which emerge as images of the landscape. While the artist’s education in photography has been rigorous, the camera is mainly a tool which allows him to capture and collect surfaces, textures, as well as botanical, topographic and geological blocks of information (as if he were a scientist himself). Photography, including that which is the basis of his video work, is the technological support which allows him to produce these images. And landscape is his genre, selected in order to activate these memories and to register his observations.
Conscious of the complexity and sophistication present in the numerous surfaces and substrates present in his images, the titles to his photographs build bridges with their audience. Echavarría has found that it takes a lot to experience an image without "reading" it, something he calls “decompensation due to a lack of a referent”, in which the what and the where prevail over the when. In order to encourage the legibility of his works and to avoid that decompensation and a subsequent freefall, titles act as referents, anchor points which catalyze interpretation and lead to a deeper level of connection with the artworks.
Another layer of meaning in his work relates to the interweaving of the dimensions of space and time, which equates to the concept of speed. Not surprisingly, some of his pieces seem to be the result of a journey, although that’s not all. The slower someone travels, the more detail one can register and perceive. In the process of these creative journeys, the artist opts for depth, and depth demands time. This dimension is fundamental both to the process of production, as it is to the reception of the work. The objective is to offer an image which is complete, integral, and unitary, in which the detailed description of diverse components is evident at both a macro, as well as a micro level, allowing the images to be explored at different levels. This double experience of the images -of the beauty of the landscape and the complexity of the multiple interrelationships among its constitutional elements- is complementary, and it is also necessary in order to enter into a dialogue with his work. This is why the artist is attracted to images in which content is prevalent over form, which motivates him to ensure that the work will also be relevant in non-artistic contexts.
This aspect of time involves even more variables. On one hand, there exists a political dimension: his artistic practice takes place in a space of resistance, as it puts forward a position of slowness as opposed to the frenzy of modern life. On the other hand, there is the technological dimension to the artist’s work. Obviously, the means used to create this work allow him to gather information in a very efficient way. However, this forces him to return to these devices of mediation at a later time, in order to observe what he has gathered. And observation is the means through which his landscapes are created. An interesting paradox which brings us back to the beginning: the artist observes and gathers in situ in order to assemble a posteriori. But, without the process of “fictioning” (assembling, fabricating), this latter observation becomes impossible.
These tensions, present in the work of Camilo Echavarría, may be schematized into dialectical pairs, in order to provide a deeper understanding of his creative process: unity and multiplicity, totality and detail, fiction and observation, art and knowledge, evocation and description, memory and present. These tandem elements demonstrate the existence of two force fields which are not antagonistic, but complementary. Oscillating movements, whose forces at times lean towards one of the two poles, emerge from that interaction. However, both polarities are always at work, operating as a sort of Moebius strip, with no beginning and no precise end, in which both apparent faces of the figure are intertwined into the manifestation of a singular flow.
(1) Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, Colin Gordon, ed. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1980), 193.
(2) 'Picasso Speaks,' The Arts, New York, May 1923, pp. 315-26; reprinted in Alfred Barr: Picasso, New York 1946, pp. 270-1.
(3)Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000): 47.
ATLAS OF THE ANDES: VOLUME I
Centro de Artes Universidad EAFIT
Interview by Tom Griggs
Published in exhibition catalog
Originaly published in:
Tom Griggs: How did you come to photography?
Camilo Echavarría: Images in my mind from family roadtrips are some of the strongest memories I have. I started to take pictures on one of these trips and took several photography courses when young.
TG: Some images evoke landscapes visited or seen in your past. You do so through a variety of ways: straight still photography, composite photographs and also videos/still image hybrids. How does each of your ways of creating landscapes allow you to speak differently about your motivations?
CE: Recreating past experiences is an important aspect of what drives me to go out there and work on this project but it is more a starting point than an end in itself. I am interested in landscapes that both convey emotions and provide information. Having a comprehensive knowledge of not only the history of landscape representation but, in a broader sense, of how man explores and describes his environment is essential in making images that are relevant in different levels of perception.
Each landscape communicates in different ways and has a different strength. Some whisper to the viewer, others are more explicit in their message. I try to balance elements such as content, narrative and mood differently in each image. The presence of precise geological and botanical information is ever more important to me. The projected image, the use of video editing tools and the inclusion of sound allows me to expand the sensorial experience and incorporate subtleties that are not evident at first sight but come to the surface after dedicating some time to a piece. I try to reproduce something similar to experiencing reality. The longer you stay in a place or the slower you travel through it, the more information you will perceive. Experience has so many layers.
TG: In a previous interview with Oscar Roldán you said that, “I look to relive aesthetic and sensory experiences". Have you been successful in being able to relive experiences through your work of your memories of places visited as a child or is the work more about the search to do so?
CE: Some of the photographs are closer to a state of mind or a memory which I wish to relive and others are more about describing a place in an idealized manner. Some are more successful than others in achieving this. Panorámica del valle del río Cauca... is probably one of the works that has the strongest connection to memory. However, as I mentioned, this is not the only purpose of this project. Recent trips are motivated by curiosity, by an interest to look forward, not backwards.
TG: You have expressed your interest in establishing "questions regarding the way intangible elements pervade representations of landscape throughout history". Can you expand on this statement – what types of questions would you like to establish? What types of intangible elements are we talking about? Are these historical representations/paintings? Photographs? Literature?
CE: I am interested in exploring why some landscapes, both real, and represented are more potent than others. I'm curious about which elements make a place more memorable than another. It has to do with survival, comfort, the feel of safety, the need for knowledge, the pleasures offered by the otherness of a place, aesthetic balance and harmony and even geometry but also a lot to do with the viewer's emotional and intellectual baggage. All these aspects have played multiple roles throughout the history of represented landscape. Landscape representation has been at the service of many of man's concerns: it strengthens national identity and have been used as a metaphor of the power of god, or an unreachable arcadia. They also represent nature as an endless source of aesthetic and material benefits.
TG: Talk with us about the idea that the human being is necessary for the existence of the landscape as a concept.
CE: Reality is subjective to the observer. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Time, weather, geological forces and sunlight where basically the only forces that shaped our environment until the last three or four millenniums. The multiple elements that make up a landscape (land, water, vegetation, sky, rock) have been out there for millions of years. However, the landscape as concept, as something that conveys emotions and incites reflection, cannot exist without somebody looking, representing or thinking about it. The concept of landscape is also widely discussed as something that's born out of man's urban condition. The innocent eye is a myth, asserted Gombrich.
TG: How important is the Colombian landscape to your project? Could you create work that would have the same basic meaning based on a childhood trip you may have taken to another country? That is to say, is there something essential about working with the Colombian landscape and your memories of it?
CE: I photograph the Colombian landscape because it is accessible to me. In addition to recreating memories, I also seek to achieve images that invite to contemplation and rediscovery. My strongest visual memories not only come from physical travels but also from pictures seen in the past in all sorts of sources. The Colombian landscape is the subject matter of many pictures in Illustrated Landscapes, but it is not the theme of this project.
TG: Are there any ways to generalize historic ways of representing or considering the Colombian landscape by Colombian artists? Are you considering those representations in your work? By this, I mean US painters in the 19th century, in particular, considered the landscape through the prism of the sublime as well as the frontier, the West and Manifest Destiny.
CE: Landscape representations in Colombia from the first half of the 19th century manifest the foreign traveler's desire to describe and narrate his experience mainly to a European audience. These travelers were interested in registering not only the otherness and exoticism of our territory but also wished to illustrate their scientific findings as well as the adventures faced while touring our land. Local artists were pretty busy working for the church back then and there aren't many examples of their landscape work. The watercolor landscapes made by Colombian artists for the Comisión Corográfica, a government funded survey of the country's geography, demographics and natural resources undertaken at the beginning of the second half of this century, probably constitute the most comprehensive body of landscape works in our brief artistic history. Objectivity plays an important role in these pictures.
Collective ideals regarding issues that influence landscape painting in Colombian history during the last century and a half are not that evident. Most artistic expressions when representing our landscape are fueled by individual motivations. Artists from the end of the 19th century were mainly concerned with formal and technical issues learned from their visits to academies in Paris. Painting schools from the first half of the twentieth century approach landscape mainly from a romantic point of view. Most artists aimed their technical knowledge and aesthetic strategies at representing an idyllic interpretation of the landscape.
TG: I have the sense that your still-video hibrid proyections are incredibly time intensive on the post-production side. Would you be willing to talk us through how you created one of them, perhaps Cauca, from being there in the landscape and making the images to presentation of the finished work?
CE: Cauca was born out of photograph I was making near the town of Valparaíso, not far away from Medellín. The Cauca river is the second longest river in the Colombian andean region and I have traveled along it many times. When invited to the Salón Nacional, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something with this river as the main subject. Strategies from previous videos were the starting point but I wanted to add something else. Axis Mundi and Tunnel View are made from stills that merge into each other but there is no presence of the moving image. In Afluente, I use a natural scene as background and then blend in the moving images, however, the landscape always stays the same all along. Cauca involves the transition of images that have been assembled independently and the inclusion of moving images registered in video or produced through digital animation. It was almost masochistic, looking back at the challenge I decided to undertake. I made several visits to this place each lasting several days and take multiple pictures. That was the best part. Just sitting there and "taking in" the place. Digital post-production was very intensive and I could end up several days doing just mechanical stuff. The relationship to the computer screen was mainly intellectual whereas the experience of being out there tends towards the transcendental.
What are the factors that lead you to choose photography or video for a given work? How do photography and video work together in this project and what do they contribute separately?
So far, except for a few recent situations, I have registered the places I visit through still photography, not video. The four pieces made so far which involve the use of video editing tools are essentially made from photographic capture. These works result from an extended stay in one place or out of several visits to the same place. Only until recently, am I making video from places I visit briefly. I am ever more interested in erasing the line that separates both mediums not only in the process of creating a particular work but also at the moment I present it either in an exhibition or in a book.
Galería de la Oficina
Essay by Carlos Arturo Fernández
Published in exhibition catalog
English translation by Juan Duque
Perhaps the fundamental strategy behind Camilo Echavarría’s Illustrated Landscapes has to do with the links and juxtapositions that can be established between photography and painting. It of course deals with an age-old problem which has received more or less conventional responses which, despite the growing importance of photography, did not represent a profound implication within the development of artistic production. In its beginnings, photography was understood as a technical tool which far surpassed all of the other arts, in the zeal to accurately capture realistic appearance. Thus, the formal aspects of painting, such as composition, spatial management and its approach to the subject, could be taken advantage of, in order to aspire to the metaphysical category of “work of art”. Painting, for its part, had to face the challenge of knowledge and truth that came from photography. It was no easy feat for the academic arts to absorb the impact of the new media, which is apparent in its constant prophesy of imminent death, against the overwhelming advance of photography as contemporary art’s fundamental medium. Nevertheless, in the traditional discourse, the path of least resistance predominated, reflected by the acknowledgement and defense of the specificities of each of the arts; what seemed most convenient was to avoid pictorality in photography, as well as the quest for accuracy in painting, which was based rather on the domains of expression or that of figurative criticism.
Camilo Echavarría’s Illustrated Landscapes return to the issue of photography and painting from historical, conceptual and experiential frameworks, which, precisely because they are not intended as shocking and novel discoveries, they permit a unique developmental process full of meaning and founded on history and culture.
The simple and direct point of departure is Echavarria’s experience which, as he affirms, dates back to his childhood, when he was an astonished witness to unfathomable natural panoramas. From that fascination was born not only the desire to travel constantly in order to get to know new geographies, but also the interest of capturing them through photography. The results that we see today allow us to speculate that, as happens to almost all of us, those first photographic attempts left him with the sensation that very little was captured by the photographic image, and that the rich multiplicity of nature was left out of the photograph. Of course, it is always possible to ask, then: where does that lost richness go, if, as is commonly believed, photography gives us an exact reproduction of reality’s appearance?
Perhaps it can be said that the fundamental condition of the creator, in any human endeavor, is that knowing that one never arrives at a final solution, but only at the formulation of a new question. From that perspective, Echavarría finds that his situation is the same as the old travelers who, after marveling at newly discovered territories, once having come back to their homeland, find out that their notes and sketches taken during their travels are not enough to manifest the intensity of their experience. This situation is particularly interesting in the case of the travelers of the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. The images that illustrate their works are laden with subjective interpretations, despite being undertaken as scientific expeditions in the age of Enlightenment, which stressed objectivity and critical rigor. This subjectivity is not because the illustrator who did the actual painting, from sketches made in situ, didn’t take part in the expedition, but because the traveler required him to reinforce the images, or to integrate different panoramas into a single one, to try to simultaneously transmit the different vistas, the experience of the trip and the significance of the discovered landscapes. In other words, the aim is to guarantee that the richness of the natural can be discovered beyond the limits of a pure objective image and through this means, what is produced by the romantic effort of the illustrated travelers is the discovery of the landscape as a reality which is essentially different from the literal transcription of a panorama.
Actually, when Camilo Echavarría defines his artworks as Illustrated Landscapes, he is affirming that he has established a dialogue with a historical moment that illuminates this reflection. The result of this dialogue is particularly enriching.
On the one hand, in these works, the idea that is presented is that of the landscape not as a natural subject but, above all, a human creation. In the field of the arts, simple nature becomes landscape by the presence and intervention of the human being who transforms it by living it, or who presents it to us as a subjective image, created parting from his or her own experiences. In this sense, landscape as creation deviates from a simple topography and revindicates parameters of reality and truth which are founded on the artist’s conceptual universe. Just the example of Cezanne is enough to prove this.
In this same direction, but from a more theoretical than historical perspective, Echavarría’s dialogue with illustrated thought reinforces the artistic nature of his work. Indeed, these photographs clearly embody the relationship between artifice and nature which Kant places at the very foundation of his analysis of art, and which can be considered as the strange paradox of a nature which is only beautiful inasmuch as we perceive it as a work of art, while art merely exists to the degree that we perceive it as a work of nature despite being conscious that we are observing a work of art. These Illustrated Landscapes, as Kant thought, are intentional products which, nevertheless, do not appear to be so, and which despite being the result of a complex conceptual and technical process, do not reveal this fact, since the artist is particularly conscious that artifice is neither the object nor the final purpose of his art. The result is a nature which seems alive and which is absolutely convincing.
Furthermore, just as in the traveler’s images, these Illustrated Landscapes are the product of a process of construction which is, beyond the naked truth of what has been seen, much more interested in presenting the truth of observation, that is, the truth of what has been experienced. In consequence, the result achieves a special type of conviction; it is as if these photographs were more real than reality itself. When we perceive these photographs in this way, we recognize these landscapes go beyond being more or less interesting, picturesque or sublime representations of exteriors, and as the landscapes that they are, they intensely manifest the idea of a sweeping pass through time, in the deepest sense of the concept. They are not just nature, but history: a history which is experience and culture, where things do not spontaneously occur, but are an effect of the development of meaning.
And, as with all good constructions, these landscapes force us to take a pause. At first, this might be due to a global effect caused by its structural quality, or by the harmony created by its forms and colors, but beyond this, we are literally trapped by the history and life which can be discovered, step by step. Details which we might not have even noticed initially then reveal themselves as sources of new meaning which can unfold in diverse cultural terrains. Thus, for example, subtle references to social and political history appear, with the progressive devastation of the forest, or the presence of almost invisible memories of violence. Or, constant nods to art history, and particularly photographic history, are apparent. How to forget Casper Friedrich, with his miniscule figures confronted with majestic landscapes, or the textures of Fragonard’s trees within the exuberance of this vegetation? Likewise, one can discover subjects such as the revindication of ecological richness, the acknowledgement of the communities which live in these places and give them life, the introduction of the artist’s gaze and activity in the process of portraying them, or in the exaltation of the striking. In other words, it’s not about mere glances, but about landscapes laden with affecting presence intriguing and open to those who wish to penetrate them, while they remain friendly and generous to those who wish to make a pause in their epidermal contact.
And finally, if you like, the strange relationship between photography and painting is again exposed, surpassing the conventional debate. The old conviction regarding the veracity of the photographic document, nowadays almost empty and meaningless, is questioned by these images, in order to revindicate, in opposition, a total freedom belonging traditionally to the domain of painting. Faced with these Illustrated Landscapes, it makes no sense to ask about the exact location or technical process which has been applied. What matters most is, whithout a doubt, to live them as a historical and cultural experience that allows us to understand the validity of the landscape, something which is not an exterior reality but a manifestation of the connections that we establish with the world that surrounds us.