Hans Ulrich Obrist on the Colombian art scene
While in Colombia, working on this month’s trip story to Medellin, Colombia, our writer Rainbow Nelson, ran into Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director at the Serpentine Gallery and honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Obrist was on his first visit to the country and in four days and four hours in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, had dropped in on 24 artists and five architects spanning three generations, taken in eight galleries and museums and dined with one ex-president. We couldn’t help but quiz him on what he saw.
W*: So, how was your first trip to Colombia?
HUO: Extraordinary! Yes it’s the Bogota and Medellin miracle.
W*: In what way?
HUO: Something very special is happening in Colombia in art and architecture. After the Architecture Biennale in Venice we invited Camilo Restrepo to speak in Switzerland and it was extraordinary to hear about all the projects he is doing in Medellin with Felipe Mesa and the way that a new generation of architects are transforming the city.
W*: The public eye hasn’t been on Colombia for a long time. What is it that you think makes Colombia’s scene different?
HUO: There are all these exciting young artists coming out of Colombia. Mateo Lopez has gained a lot of visibility internationally, as have artists like Ana Maria Millan and Wilson Diaz in Calia, but there are all the previous generations as well. There are layers and layers of undiscovered artists that the world hasn’t noticed before.
W*: What is different in the work being shown?
HUO: In the younger generation it is interesting how art is cross-disciplinary. Take Gabriel Sierra, a very young artist in Bogota. He is an artist that bridges art, design and architecture. Or Carlos Maria Romero, a young choreographer/artist/curator that works in the dance festival in Bogota and also in the art scene. It is all so exciting I could go on and on for hours.
W*: Why is memory so important in a country like Colombia where there is a kind of desire to whitewash out some of its history?
HUO: One of the things that appears in a lot of works is a protest against forgetting. However there are also many, many other dimensions and there is a danger that one reduces all the work to just that.
W*: What else has impressed you?
HUO: The way these artists connect to these urban laboratories, which are at the moment are very fragile but very optimistic.Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that ‘nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm’ and I think there is a very, very great dose of enthusiasm right now in Colombia.
It was also fascinating to meet Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogota who while a politician also experiments in democracy through performances and events. It is very inspiring for the art world all over.
W*: What about the revolution taking place in architecture?
HUO: I was fascinated by this idea that libraries have changed Bogota and Medellin.
Visiting Giancarlo Mazzanti’s library in Medellin was an incredible experience. You take the cable car and then you go up into these favela-type constructions where me met local residents who told us how the situation has improved dramatically with this new library and cable car. I think it is fascinating to see how libraries can change the world. Other countries can learn from that, I think every city district should have a library.
?W*: What role can art and architecture play in repairing these kind of fragile, broken societies?
HUO: I think that art is incredibly powerful in building the future, from the point of view of transformation and for creating hope. Gerhard Richter once said ‘that painting is the highest form of hope’.
W*: Do you see parallels with other places?
HUO: It is an art scene which has not yet reached critical mass but it’s growing and there is a strong momentum. There are clear parallels with Mexico and Glasgow in the 1990s, where these artists were going to explode and became major, you know it is something that one always intuitively feels right away when you come into contact with them. I always say that art is in the air, it’s energy, it is a question of energy and I had that same feeling in Mexico and Glasgow in the 1990s that something major was going to happen.
W*: Is there anyone that you met that you feel in particular is going to make the leap internationally?
HUO: I don’t think that it is an art scene where you have one big star or one artist that will overshadow everyone else. You have many artists from each generation.
I did not just meet three or four interesting artists, I met a whole scene with many, many facets, which I think is why it is particularly important that one visits Colombia to meet different artists and to see how things have developed throughout the decades from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, through to today.