The Generative Matrices of the Instituto Tropical del Amazonas
18th Street Arts Center (February 24 – May 19, 2018)
In her latest installation presented at 18th Street Arts Center (February 24 – May 19, 2018), artist Mariángeles Soto-Diaz has fabricated a speculative archive entitled Instituto Experimental Tropical del Amazonas. History, the artist affirms, is “a fertile language”, and the archive demonstrates how history is embodied as an active construction. In this project, artifacts are embedded in a projective space of multiple dimensions, instead of an ordered context that warrants classification or recovery as its operating force. Soto-Diaz elaborates, “I wanted to activate the gaps and material fragments to create an organic, archival taxonomy. This archive defies the bounds of rigid classification, echoing in a small way how the mythical Amazon defies country boundaries.”
The Instituto Experimental Tropical de Amazonas is an experimental art center led by a team of feminist artists between 1935 and 1942. These artists sought to re-imagine collaborative living and artistic practice, informed by the indigenous knowledge of the Yekuana (also commonly referred to as Makiritare) and Yanomami tribal groups of South America, as well as the pedagogical models of the Bauhaus. Their handmade objects are presented behind panels of Plexiglas and punctuated by the occasional coconut, which serves as a gravitational counterpoint to a seemingly airborne, vaporous, and weightless vision.
Lines of taut jute string leap from one wall to the other as vectors, activating the fecund maternal matrix of this installation. In another artefact, we see an organic etymology of “matrix” as “womb, matri, mater, madre, mother” printed on a sheet of handmade paper. These words are realized symbolically by straight lines that are carved into the paper as negative space; they bisect, creating symmetrical radiations around a generative center. The matrix is represented in every form of this installation, most visibly with string, and in the Amazon rainforest itself. The metaphor of this boundless site is realized in one particular textual collage, presented inside a suspended vitrine, supported by string. The collage is comprised of typewritten fragments, which name the various countries that contain the Amazon rainforest: Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, and French Guiana. Adjacent to this collage are colored gradations of warm ochre, terra cotta, and rust, a tiny aerial sepia photograph of a double diamond structure, as well as typographic experiments on handmade tropical paper.
The presentation of these experiments was inspired by the artist’s visit to the Bauhaus archives in Berlin and Dessau, as well as the exhibition, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (2016). In another “historical” document, the artist has recreated the circular curriculum of the Bauhaus, maintaining its existing structure and replacing the original categories with her own. Durations of time are marked as slow or long rather than with years; materials (like the moon, seeds, and blood) are rooted in cycles instead of those associated with traditional crafts like glass, clay, color, stone, wood, metal, and textiles; and studies are guided by emotional awareness and explorations within the natural world, whereas the original model emphasized construction, representation, materials, tools, space, color, and composition.
There are other pieces of ephemera that resemble historical avant-garde photomontages (like those of El Lissitzky or Marianne Brandt), with a playful coterie of typefaces and an emphasis on diagonal compositions. One poster was created for an imaginary visit with the poet, playwright, and author of the Anthropophagic Manifesto, Oswald de Andrade. Andrade was a central figure in the Brazilian avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s, who inspired artists to metaphorically cannibalize European influences based on the literal practice of the Tupí tribe of Brazil, who believed that digesting their enemies would make them stronger. If the Bauhaus was as central to post-war art in the United States as the Brazilian modernists -- including Andrade and Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, Anita Malfatti, and Menotti del Picchia -- were to New Brazilian Objectivity, Soto-Diaz directly calls upon Andrade’s legacy within modern Latin American art in order to reconcile these separate strains, side by side. Because art history places such importance on precedence, Soto-Diaz’s decision to merge these sources by way of the Institutional Tropical del Amazonas is a visionary experiment in overturning a hegemonic notion of difference that fails to recognize simultaneous and uncodified histories.
Geometry plays a prominent role in Soto-Diaz’ visual language, and embodies a complicated network of associations. With a critical awareness of geometric abstractionists like Joaquín Torres García, Gego, and Carlos Cruz-Diez, as well as the failure of development-oriented utopian thinking in Latin America, Soto-Diaz explores how the properties of intersecting lines, projective planes, and the repetition of angular pivots can still serve as manifestations of geometry’s infinite potential (with a caveat). The same mathematical principles that inspired concrete painters were coopted as symbolic markers to justify neoliberal conceptions of internationalism, modernism, and universalism -- art historical tropes that identified peripheries around centers, and reinforced canons while celebrating the charm of “local” expression.
Rather than linking her abstractions to the modernist tradition, Soto-Diaz is careful to locate the specific inspiration of her line drawings in the symbolism of Ye’kuana and Yanomami basket weaving traditions. The structural logic of indigenous weaving traditions are themselves the foundation from which the modernist grid was able to exist as a non-mimetic, flat, and autonomous surface. This history was recently highlighted in the exhibition, Josef Albers in Mexico (Guggenheim Museum, November 2017- March 2018), and previously articulated in Joseph Masheck’s The Carpet Paradigm: Integral Flatness from Decorative to Fine Art (2010). If these art historical narratives illuminate just one thread in Soto-Diaz’s meditations on form, the potential for further reading seems infinite.
The generative properties of geometry run parallel to the potentiality of language and the lushness of tropical plants. In one sketch, the word “Bixa Orellana” is flanked by verbs like “to color,” “to nourish,” “to decorate,” and “to heal.” The signifier for this seed generates auto-referentially, as if the word associations were the material representations for the robust application of this plant. In the right-hand corner of the gallery are two vitrines that showcase pieces of handmade paper dusted with this pure pigment, alongside an archaeological presentation of the seed in its natural form.
The artist’s matriarchal lineage emerges in a hybrid anthropological-formalist exploration of this plant, and it is this layered signification that drives the agency of her materials. Bixa Orellana is commonly used to color lipsticks, body paint, and caning for basket weaving. It can also be used as a spice in cooking. Soto-Diaz discovered the plant in a book about the Amazon forest that was given to her son by her mother, and it was only after searching through a tropical flora database that she realized her grandmother, who was born in the Amazon region, had used Bixa Orellana as the secret ingredient in her cooking. Poignantly, her grandmother founded the first co-ed school in her community during the early 1940s, so in many ways, her spirit appears continuously as an important influence that informs the premise of this archive.
Though this project does not explicitly address the current reality of violence in the Amazon region and in Venezuela as a whole, in many ways it imagines spiritual and creative solutions to approach the structural problems that mark the source of this unrest. The current economic instability, ideological battles, and civil unrest are readily equated (within news media outlets) to the chaotic storm of events that led to the 1989 Caracazo protests. This historical moment was an important turning point in the artist’s life. In the face of this growing violence, Soto-Diaz emigrated to California in order to pursue a Buddhist nun-training program in a monastery founded by Suzuki Roshi.
Violence existed not only as an outburst of political outrage, but also within Soto-Diaz’s maternal family history, which was simultaneously marked by domestic violence and radical feminism. Understanding this aspect of the artist’s life is the key to accessing her very particular approach to conceptual abstraction. With these personal threads in mind, the subtext of this installation becomes a “speculative place of political and personal yearning” – a search for peace. Though the urgency that situates this utopian vision is veiled through aesthetic propositions and art historical references, with just a few jumps in the signifying chain, it is possible to register numerous calls for action embedded throughout this archive.
Take for instance the same coconut we started with: in addition to serving as a compositional accent, it also serves as a figure of speech. Coco (coconut in Spanish) is often used to refer to the mind, as is the case in the expression échale coco,which roughly translates to, “give it some thought.” Thus, the coconut is an invitation to enter a meditative space, a weightless place where the historical and personal coincide as the political, and where material experiments with form, color, and free association can serve as a site for poetic liberation.
Published in the 18th Street Art Centers 2016-2018 catalog.