I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
The following interview with the Colombian artist Antonio Caro combines two of our conversations, one from 2002, and a very recent one. During the last several years, Caro and I have been working on a collaborative project consisting of a series of public conversations. The talks focus on the reception of conceptualism in Latin America, Caro’s role as a critic of Latin American art institutions during the Cold War, and the relationship between his work and the construct of nationhood in Latin America. We attempted to create a dialogue merging artistic practices and cultural studies, and the politics engulfing both. These conversations have taken place in the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Cali, and Tunja, and the Ecuadorian cities of Quito and Guayaquil. Their publication is forthcoming.
The artist Luis Camnitzer has written that Caro’s strategies are those of a “visual guerrilla.” His work questions how Colombia’s cultural institutions attempted to expel internal difference from the narratives of Latin American nations during the Cold War. Caro’s first well-known work, Friends: Late Homage to Your Friends from Zipaquirá, Manaure and Galerazamba (Head of Lleras) * consisted of a head made of salt, outfitted with spectacles, bearing a strong resemblance to Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a former president of Colombia. The piece was first shown at the 1970 salon of the National Museum of Colombia, an iconic institution in the cultural construction of Colombia as a modern nation. It was placed inside a glass box where the salt slowly dissolved and salt water ran all over the museum’s floor. Some art critics—and the political left—interpreted the work as an amusing critique of how Colombia’s ruling class had caused our society’s deterioration. Head of Lleras received honors in the salon and, as Caro says, “catapulted” him to a position of prominence in Colombia.
At the time, the museum’s collection was organized and narrated as if Colombia’s indigenous people and African slaves had disappeared during the colonial period, making way for a comfortably modern state. Caro made Head of Lleras using ancient indigenous techniques to remind us that salt has been an important cultural and economic resource in the lives of the indigenous people from Colombia throughout history. The Head of Lleras constitutes a metonymy for all the Colombian presidents who, according to the narrative told by the museum through an entire floor of presidential portraits, gave birth to the nation. The salt constitutes a metonymy of the indigenous population; Caro made the salt disappear and inverted the process of the nation’s formation.
However, Caro has said that perhaps his most important critique of the institution and the narration of the Colombian nation is Homage to Manuel Quintín Lame , a performance in which he retrieves the indigenous leader from oblivion and duplicates his signature. Quintín Lame spent his life defending indigenous peoples against the oppression of the Colombian state. Jailed on nearly 200 occasions, he became his own lawyer, successfully representing himself and the indigenous peoples. Quintín Lame performed a kind of mimicry by which he learned the rhetoric and legal skills of the modern state. He did not know how to write, and thus to sign was a theatrical act that should be understood as a cultural and collective vindication. Mimicking the governor’s style, Quintín Lame added baroque arabesques to his signature, using symbols of indigenous pictograms. Caro began the performance by burning native herbs. He then repeated Quintín Lame’s signature on a board, on paper, and on a wall. What Caro appropriated, however, was not the aesthetic of Quintín Lame’s calligraphy but rather the very strategy of mimicry and repetition with which Quintín Lame called into question the nation’s authority. Throughout his work, Caro appropriates multinational commercial typographies, national icons, and the signature of a non-national leader—as well as indigenous mediums and techniques—bringing to light the fragments, shards, and patches used to create a sense of national community.
*Hereafter referred to as Head of Lleras , as it is commonly known.
Víctor Manuel RodríguezLet’s begin by broaching a topic that might be of as much interest in the US as it is in Bogotá: the Andy Warhol exhibition that recently closed at the Art Museum of the Bank of the Republic in Bogotá, the first big Warhol exhibition in Colombia.
Antonio Caro The Warhol exhibition is a sufficiently universal topic, one that helps us avoid being too localist or parochial, something very common in Colombia. Although I see flaws in the exhibition, the media impact was an indisputable fact. But popularity is one thing and cultural affect is another. I wonder, for example, how I—at age 60—can compare this exhibit, which comes to my city with at least a 40-year delay, with the impressions I had at 20 when I vaguely heard there was a man named Andy Warhol.
VMR We have talked about the difficulty of exhibiting Warhol today, when much of the interest has shifted from a formalist reading of his work to a dialogue with its context. It’s difficult for us to access the debates and cultural struggles Warhol participated in. How would you curate an exhibit so that these aspects came to light? I’d like to hear more on your perception of the responses of both artists and public, then and now.
AC I’m thinking of a possible title for this interview: The Light from the Stars. Astronomers see a light that is supposedly a star and they analyze the phenomena this little light implies, but they also know that the mass that produced this light could have long since disappeared. I’m sure Warhol would have loved the comparison. It seems that we’re like astronomers when we talk about Warhol in Bogotá in 2009. His little light has reached us. But where’s his mass? The Warhol we see today no longer exists in the universe of art; he’s now in the universe of culture, with the added aggravation, for him, that this is the formal universe, the culture “establishment.”
VMR I would like to point out, however, that the culture you speak of is not the context in which his project originated and which goes on redefining it, but rather the culture you call “establishment,” which is also media culture.
AC Yes. You can never see a cultural phenomenon separately from its social environment. Something the exhibition unfortunately didn’t tell us is that the environment in which Warhol lived has passed; it’s as if we were looking at photographs of Egyptian frescos. The Warhol exhibition in Bogotá in 2009 was as decontextualized as color plates of prehistoric caves.
VMR Yes. Contemporary readings of his artistic project in relation to the context of his era have revealed his links, for example, with the queer subcultures of New York. It’s been demonstrated that the omission of the firmament—that is, “other lights, black holes, and celestial bodies” in the reading of his work by “the establishment,” as you call it—is a political matter. The establishment can no longer ignore this context. However when it comes to introducing it within an exhibition, it is mostly used to produce a formalist reading and his queer ethic is converted into pathology. At the entrance of the second floor of the exhibition in Bogotá, where what the organizer understood as his “queer” works were shown, there was this statement: “Andy Warhol created an artistic empire. His pathology allowed him to understand how images give shape to desire, fantasies, identification, money, and power. He used cross-dressing as a way to explore sexuality and identity, as well as to comment and challenge the patterns of high art’s taste. America created an idealized image of its own hegemony. Could it be that the dream Warhol embodied through his life and work is actually the image of an empire in drag?”
AC I don’t know if this can be easily translated to English, but the saying in Spanish is: se ven las caras pero no se ve el corazón (we see people’s faces but not their hearts). I mean that there are very closed conditions for viewing art and we see only the surface. In Warhol’s case, we see faces but we don’t see hearts, which would be the social phenomena inherent to that moment.
VMR Still, in another sense faces were hearts for Warhol. You insist on the metaphor to call attention to the absence of context, but this absence doesn’t help us understand why he affirmed, “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
AC I must insist. In Colombia, they teach us to see the surface. Art becomes an object that commands extremely high prices relative to the everyday economy. As a Buddhist would say, we see the illusion of a form, but never what’s there behind that form. Arthur Danto asked what the difference was between the Brillo box painted by Warhol and the one from the supermarket. I mention this to point out that in Colombia, viewers see the surface—the face, not the heart.
VMR That’s why the exhibition offers us surfaces to be formally analyzed, and not the political statements that Warhol made about the queer world he was attempting to create or about the modernist legacy of art and culture. Tell us about the perception of Warhol’s work 40 years ago.
AC I’m very interested in talking about this. Colombians of my generation know and can say very precise things about Warhol. They talk without knowing anything about the visual arts; they approach him as Pop. Initially, Colombian high culture did not accept him.
VMR Let’s talk a little more about your interest in Warhol’s engagement of mass culture.
AC Let’s put ourselves in that remote past: I was a young man without any of the sophistication of the high culture that came from Europe and was growing in the US. Although it’s maybe a reflection of what Warhol would later become, I felt it at that time. There are people who are paradigms, leaders of cultural changes, and a group or a generation submits to them almost automatically. I don’t think it comes from rational assimilation or a process of reflection. Seen from today, if Warhol was saying, “This is America,” this action unconsciously gave one the desire to say, “This is Colombia.” I believe in similarities and resonances. A few hours ago I was thinking—although he’s English—of a famous phrase of John Lennon’s which I’ll paraphrase: the problem with rock is that you feel it in your stomach. Warhol was an idol, and nobody questions an idol—people simply applaud and imitate. He was a star, hence my reference to light from the stars. Also, to flatter him further, since I always liked this about him, he recognized that an artist was no longer the 19th-century bohemian or a refined aristocrat, the European models.
VMR What about Warhol’s linking of his project to extra-artistic things? You have said that the importance of your work is that it resonates outside the art world.
AC I remember a Warhol Polaroid of Cassius Clay, who had recently won the gold medal at the Olympics. What’s interesting about Warhol is where he was: in the street, in the daily reality of the US. To come back to the 2009 exhibit in Bogotá, that is what we never saw: where Warhol was. I was talking with somebody today who said that my work was very objective. That there’s nothing invented. Warhol opened that door; he didn’t invent anything. All the characters and things were there and he simply painted them. Like Warhol, I also made a work on the topic of Mao. The important thing isn’t Warhol’s work about Mao or my work about Mao, the important thing is Mao! The day-to-day media reality is what’s important, as a reference.
VMR Could you tell us about your Mao work?
AC The piece was called Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger, paraphrasing Mao. It consisted of paper tiger silhouettes hanging from the ceiling of Bogotá’s planetarium, although some were glued to the wood-paneled wall that framed the entrance to the gallery. The silhouettes faced Mao’s famous phrase written on a banner and hanging on the opposite wall. The piece generated a debate amongst leftist artists, who thought I was mocking China’s cultural revolution.
VMR We’ve been speaking about the need to put Warhol’s work in dialogue with his social and political contexts to decode why he remains important. What do you see as the place of art today?
AC I think Warhol’s spirit would die all over again—if spirits die—to see the horrifying staging of his work in Bogotá. But maybe his spirit would have been happy in the store that was selling merchandise of his work. People got their money out, and he would have liked that. Everyone carried off a little piece of Warhol. I think art is in the instant when people say, “I want.”
VMR What about your early work? Where were you then?
AC I can say that I have never used theoretical elements a priori, only a posteriori in my work. I just took them as they were given to me. In 1970 somebody wrote that one of my pieces was povera art, that it was a conceptual and political expression. The next day I knew: I am conceptual, my art does have a povera tendency, and politics interest me. All this I did not know until it was stated. Classified as such, I had to take it on. Partly, being political was fashionable; remember the people who were around during the late ’60s and early ’70s—Carlos Granada, Umberto Giangrandi, the people from the Cuatro Rojo workshop, especially Clemencia Lucena. They all produced leftist art. It was easier for me to make political art than to make erotic art. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true; at the time these were the trends and the political trend was easier to assume.
VMR The political was associated with the left—that was the side for which it was fashionable?
AC Yes, being from the left was like a pleonasm because it was assumed that politics had to come from the left. Any person who knew what was going on had to speak starting from Marxism, Maoism, and of course, with a heart filled by the Cuban revolution. The right was considered to be made up of born aristocrats or oligarchs. It was an absolute Manichaeism. Just mentioning the word shows that I lived in a time of Manichaeism; one was political, obviously from the left, clearly very intelligent, evidently living according to one’s principles, or one was a lackey to imperialism, a pariah, revolting, reactionary, an idiot. In fine arts, there was also Manichaeism of this style: you were abstract or realistic; it can now be said that a cube is a reality, but, at that time, a cube was not a reality.
VMR It was abstract, a figment.
AC Yes. In 1976, I was asked about my piece Head of Lleras and I responded that it questioned Colombian politicking. The vices of our national politicking are difficult to understand outside of Colombia, but here we understand them very well. I reflected on the question and said that I was not able to extend myself to a political level. I have never had a clear, rigorous, or methodical political formation. Head of Lleras came more from soaking up an environment than from mental discipline or political activity. I was never involved in political activities, I never had a political outlook, but I did things that can be considered political only because of inertia. Returning to the joke, because my art doesn’t have erotic components, and perhaps because of my myopia, I was not geometric. I was political through a process of elimination.
VMR Even though you say that your work became political because of inertia, it was the intellectual climate that shaped it.
AC I am exaggerating slightly; I honestly tried to listen to the people who were involved in the issue of political art—their questioning. In my way, not very studious or structured, I followed the debates and controversies that were so frequent in the university. I listened to the news of the Cuban revolution when I was eight years old; I heard that Fidel had prevailed in Havana, that they were revolutionaries. As a child, I had that image of revolution, and, although this sounds funny, of Sputnik as well. At that time, there was an image of revolution—bearded gentlemen living in Cuba—that was pretty to some and ugly to others. Ten years later, I, naïve and all, would go to the debates at the university on art and politics.
Several years separate my pieces Head of Lleras and Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger. When one is young, one lives many things in a year. An important fact is that, because of the fortuitous controversy surrounding Head of Lleras, I was catapulted very quickly to a certain level, but I didn’t have much education. After that came trial and error. I am vain and do not take blind punches. I made errors with my form, or rather with my surfaces, because conceptualism and structuralism were trendy. I was searching structurally with form, with povera, with the ephemeral, with photocopies and the like. Through continually searching, a wonderful premonition of Homage to Manuel Quintín Lame came to me in 1972. I did a version of it very much in the fashion of information art, trying to be objective, with concise information that was luckily well presented and decorated with the signature of Quintín Lame. Between Head of Lleras and Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger, along with some other small pieces, came the actual Manuel Quintín Lame. So that people don’t think that I am so vain, I’ll say this: I’ve always said that Quintín Lame is an excellent piece because of him, not me. Head of Lleras was an intuitive approach toward something political. Quintín Lame was a fortunate approach without theories and, in the strictly methodological sense, without preconceived ideas. They were meeting points. All my works have been. Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger was pressured by preconceived ideas; I say “preconceived” in a healthy sense, simply referring to the methodology. It was not the ideal meeting point that a work of art should be. It was a meeting point in quotes—fortuitous. I did have the preconceived idea to make a political piece, but the result did not convince those in political circles. It was a very crucial moment, to be rejected by the political orthodoxy.
VMR The orthodoxy of the left?
AC Yes, to be rejected from leftist political orthodoxy and also to be assimilated by the right because the left did reject it and the right accepted it. I automatically stopped being associated with the left, possibly because I wasn’t really working at a political level. It made me think about why one would make political art if it didn’t contribute anything politically. What one should do is make art, just make art that could have political implications. Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger was a piece intending a political result, and it was rejected by leftist orthodoxy. In some sense this liberated me from orthodoxy. Beyond my personal case, I believe it was a process that many people were experiencing. More recently, we could take a swipe at Álvaro Medina, who curated Art and Violence at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá in 1999. He could have presented a political program with questions and analysis, but his critique was focused on formalist issues. It’s funny, Umberto Giangrandi also questioned the exhibition’s excessive formalism; Mr. Giangrandi, who I never got along with, ended up speaking on the show in the same vein as me. After 25 years of political differences, I found myself beside Mr. Giangrandi, arguing against a curator who had a formalist outlook for a problem that should have been put forward politically.
VMR How did you become involved with the figure of Manuel Quintín Lame? This shows that your search is not sequential. Although Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger came after Manuel Quintín Lame, the latter reflects an important turn in your approach which would be further developed in Colombia Coca-Cola. Manuel Quintín Lame is an important turning point not so much in a formal sense but in the relationship between art and politics. When you say that you abandoned politics, it seems like what you abandoned was a particular way of understanding the relationship between art and politics. It is clear that Manuel Quintín Lame and Colombia Coca-Cola are pieces with explicit political points of view. Through them you seemed to reject the idea that a political work of art needs to be “leftist.”
AC Yes. Let’s return to the Cuban revolution. I studied in the National University and the revolution was an important factor within the Bogotá campus; for three years I assumed the political stance that existed then, participating in the discourse. Upon seeing my failure as a political artist, I abandoned that route and began to work without the pressure of a political principle. I tried to contribute more to art than to politics.
VMR However, you produced Colombia Coca-Cola after that decision, so perhaps you shifted the terms to relate art to society. Was it a modification of strategy?
AC It’s interesting, almost as if after each question we return to the processes of one’s life. It sounds a little romantic but it is still beautiful. And it returns to a basic principle that would be good to mention: I worked in a publicity agency, a fact that is very important to my work. There, I acquired many work elements that can be seen in Colombia Coca-Cola. I am not responding to the essence of your question, but I want to mention that working in a publicity agency meant that I was familiar with elements of material communication. This kept me informed, it gave me a formal education that filled an academic hole. Chance and intuition introduced me to important topics.
VMR Once you commented to me that strategies such as using iconography from a mass visual culture allowed you to communicate more directly. You said that people could relate to these images in a different way. Since we’re talking about revolution, I would like to ask you about May ’68. You once told me that it destroyed everything and Woodstock reconstructed it all again. What did you mean and how have these imaginaries structured your work?
AC Don’t let me forget your question, because it’s a good one, but I want to return a little to the previous one. My life is like this, so my interview should be as well. I should mention that between Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger and Colombia Coca-Cola there was Marlboro, and someone once asked me an interesting question in pseudo-publicity terms in relation to “capturing a market.” With Marlboro I was referring to smokers. I smoked the Colombian brand Pielroja but produced a piece on Marlboro. This was directly touching smokers, but logically, the piece had other repercussions. Someone said to me that with Colombia Coca-Cola I increased Coca-Cola consumption. Coca-Cola, we can say without hesitation, is practically universal.
Your previous question is interesting. I was in high school, a Christian school of French origin, during May ’68 and they tried to hide it because it was the heresy of their very own Vatican in Paris. Everything changed. It could be compared with the Twin Towers tragedy in that the towers themselves fell, but the ideologies that sustained them continued. May ’68 destroyed everything, but much of what it destroyed still exists. When I made political art I did so with a style from before May ’68 because the preconceived ideas subsisted longer than the physical fact. It’s like amputation: after six months you still talk about how much your leg hurts although it doesn’t exist anymore. The reaction to Woodstock was: we want to be different. I believe that being outside academia, having the left reject my work, and the later effect of Woodstock made me understand things. It could be that Colombia Coca-Cola was my first work in which I was there in the moment. I hadn’t seen it like that in 1976.
VMR Let’s continue with the representations of the revolution and the processes of art and politics. Once I asked you about your relationship with art institutions and with the major voices of Colombian art criticism and history. You spoke of your artwork not as anti-art but as un-art. Let’s expand this.
AC I was a naïve child; Marlboro being rejected in the national salon in 1974 hit me hard. I was forced to change and understand other positions. Maybe this un-art is not just in the art world, it is also in my personal life. Marketing people would say how I “accommodate a sector,” how I take up social positioning. “Un” has covered my whole life and encompasses my art as well. In a very reductionist way it is—this concurs with what Luis Camnitzer says—a visual guerrilla. With very few theoretical elements, very few resources, I attack and act. It is how you can achieve a lot with very little. By now it’s a habit. “Un” is like having my own land where I can be king. It is a small spot where I am not vulnerable. Making this analogy, it’s like artistic judo or aikido.
VMR Once you defined yourself as a tangential artist, and your tactic of un-art creates a critical dialogue with the political art strategies from the ’60s and ’70s and provokes, with May ’68 and Woodstock, a distinct way to relate yourself to the practice of art. I think of the term “un-art” as a precise term as it is very close to the definition that Camnitzer made of you as the most important political-conceptual living artist from Latin America. Your work acts within the hegemonic art circles and institutions insomuch as you make your art in order to demonstrate the limits of these institutions.
AC Although many years have passed, we return to the fact that I undertake elements a posteriori. Everything that you have mentioned—and this should be said without a second thought—helps me. Since our conversation has such a hard-line style, I am going to say this openly: I have a secret weapon. The elements of my discourse are valid, real, and concrete in society, specifically in Colombian society. Head of Lleras has weight not so much because it’s ephemeral art or anti-art; it counts because of Carlos Lleras Restrepo. Colombia Coca-Cola counts because of a good design and the coincidence of eight letters and because everyone drinks Coca-Cola. Artistic discourse has become so rarefied these days. My work counts because the discourse that I use to disguise it as art is still valid without art. I believe that the artistic value of my art comes from outside of art.
VMR But this territory that you talk about is the territory of art: that which allows you to communicate. Because of this, it could be called un-art. With the letters of Colombia and Coca-Cola altering each other, there can’t be “un” without art and vice versa. This is only possible due to the relationship of mutual necessity and negation between “un“ and art. You work with the institution but always redirecting the work in a tangential way.
AC Yes that’s true, but I’m not so heroic.
VMR I say this because this strategy streamlines a way to intervene in our society, but in doing so and serving the art institution, it also speaks of this institution: questioning it, criticizing it, re-proposing it.
AC You mention very real things. In regard to my piece Project 500, I thought: If I placed myself in the academic world, everyone would laugh; they would throw tomatoes at me because my discourse isn’t structured for the academic world. If I say it in a public plaza, I am just another crazy person. However, disguised, or with an artistic posture, people say, “This person says very interesting things.” The “un” doesn’t exist on its own. When I collected change, I was a crazy person who would go from shop to shop accumulating change or who knows what other absurd thing. But I take this absurdity with me to the art world and the “un” saves me. It’s an enjoyable schizophrenia that exists in my life; if I couldn’t put my things in the art world I would be a crazy man, but I manage to put them in the art world and they are applauded. However, maybe they applaud me in the art world because of some exotic quality that I bring to it. “Exotic” isn’t the most appropriate word, but it has some truth in it. Maybe if what I did wasn’t exotic in the art world, I would be lost among all the average people who are out there. If I were an erotic or abstract or orthodox conceptual artist or one of those who work in the media, I would be equally mediocre like all the other mediocrities. It’s this dichotomy: I am worthwhile in the art world because of what I bring to it; furthermore, people expect that I will make or do something strange. If I showed common things in the art world, I would not be accepted.
VMR Your work today is directed towards non-artistic spaces and is fundamentally oriented to working with people from the city, with whom you develop creative workshops. What reflection a posteriori have you made about this?
AC I began the workshops in 1990. In 1998 I publicly presented the results of the workshops, and not long ago, when I was writing up my résumé, I took out my last presentations of these workshops and wrote a separate chapter about them. Up until 1998 these workshops were secondary. Since 1998 they have become my work, and now, more modestly, I say that they are my activity. For all of us who are more than 50, the world is changing a lot. I will explain myself: think of how all those people worked to construct East Germany. Now East Germany doesn’t exist. I was a Manichaeist and all those dogmas ceased to exist. For the people who believed in ideologies, all their utopias ceased to exist. The world is changing a lot and the art world is changing a lot. For example, the creator of works still acts, but doesn’t exist. In the contemporary world, there are still the phenomena of things, but their essences don’t exist. Now there are a lot of people who are professionals; this superstar-artist model cannot be offered up anymore. So it’s just not my process. My 60 years and my decadence! An artist—again, in quotes—has changed. I think the big museums have begun to be obstacles in cities. But they do look pretty.
Translated by Brandon Holmquest
—A professor of art and cultural studies at numerous universities in Bogotá and Quito, Victor Manuel Rodríguez holds a PhD from the University of Rochester and an MA from Goldsmith’s College. He writes for several cultural studies and art publications in Colombia and abroad. Currently, he is an advisor in cultural projects for the city government of Bogotá.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.