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FLORA. Ars+natura
by David Gutiérrez Castañeda

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FLORA. Ars+natura. Independent institutional space

It is difficult to talk about an institutional proposal that is just being launched. One cannot engage in an exercise of critique in the etymological sense of understanding the parts that make up the whole as it is still taking shape and things can change suddenly during its execution. I am referring to FLORA ars + natura ( It is a proposal for an independent space to discuss the relationship between contemporary art, nature and culture, conceived by José Roca and Adriana Hurtado. An artistic and curatorial project whose public launching is slated for mid-2013 in a house in the San Felipe district of Bogotá together with a space for residencies in Honda, Tolima, Colombia. The proposal’s possibilities, agendas, approaches, its cultural policies if you will, are still being defined, so the only thing that can really be explained at this stage is its presentation, its work coordinates. These have already been clearly stated in a public letter on its website:

For the purposes of this interview, I’d like to further describe the presentation. I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity to trace, map, the foundations, skills and aims that are shaping FLORA’s work coordinates. I want to take advantage of this moment for José Roca to comment, not on what we already know of his wide-ranging experience as a curator through information readily available on the Internet, but on his views on the tools, methodologies, museologies that are giving rise to FLORA. By the same token, I’d like him to discuss the approach of an independent space that is so in vogue in the contemporary professional art world in several Latin American countries. I have therefore asked José Roca questions that revolve around three analytic focal points.

Focal point 1. Art, nature and politics.

David Gutiérrez Castañeda (DGC): One of the areas on which you’ve focused your curatorial practice in recent years is the way contemporary artists in Colombia have addressed the relationship between history, nature and politics. This approach began with the Transhistorias exhibition (2001) of José Alejandro Restrepo’s work at the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango regarding Musa Paradisíaca (1993-1997), then continued as a question to the work of artists such as Antonio Caro, Miguel Ángel Rojas, Alberto Baraya, Milena Bonilla, and Miler Lagos, among others. Could you tell us a little about what that relationship consists of in Colombian art?

José Ignacio Roca (JIR):During the mid-nineties I realized that many Colombian artists were doing artwork dealing with botany, and with images of flowers in particular, to address the country’s complex political and social situation. Since the origin of the Colombian conflict lies in income disparity and access to land and the cocaine business –cocaine is derived from a botanical species— furnished the money needed to continue waging the conflict (and continues to do so), this approach, although apparently unexpected, seemed altogether logical. I wanted to organize an exhibition about the relationship between botany and armed conflict, but the circumstances didn’t jell and these ideas ended up in the form of an article for the Spanish magazine Lápiz called Flora Necrológica: imágenes para una geografía política de las plantas (Necrological Flora: Images for a Political Geography of Plants).(1) The subtitle paraphrases Humboldt and Bonpland, who stated in their book The Geography of Plants (1803) that plants directly influence human behavior. After that I did several collective exhibitions on the subject, among them Botánica Política (Political Botany), held at the Sala Montcada in Barcelona in 2004, and Otras Floras (Other Flora) at the Galería Nara Roesler in Sao Paulo in 2008, along with other individual shows by some of the artists you’ve mentioned.

DGC: How do artists focus their attention on botany, natural history and drug trafficking?

JIR: In different ways: some review historical documents and etchings by travelers and trace in them the origins of racial and social inequalities, like José Alejandro Restrepo, Alberto Baraya or Juan Manuel Echavarría. I should say that Restrepo’s texts, particularly Musa Paradisíaca (Paradisiacal Muse, 1993-1997) have been a great inspiration to me. María Fernanda Cardoso views flowers as a metaphor of death; Juan Fernando Harrán spent ten years doing research on the expansion of opium poppy fields; Miguel Ángel Rojas uses coca as material for his artworks; María Elvira Escallón points a finger at cultural impositions on ancestral lands, thus evidencing the tension between nature and culture… the list goes on and each artist has a different take.

DGC: Is it a paradigmatic means of understanding the relationship between art and violence in Colombia?

JIR: I don’t know if it’s paradigmatic, but it’s certainly been a recurrent theme in Colombian art over the past two decades. Even an artist like Doris Salcedo, who hadn’t explored the subject of botany in her work, has used plants in her last two artworks: in Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer, 2010), a series of tables separated by a layer of earth, in which little plants manage to overcome oppression and sprout and grow in the cracks and grooves of the wood; and the striking piece A flor de piel (2012), consisting of a deep red mantle, like a shroud, made solely of rose petals stitched together.

DGC: Why take the issue of art and nature as a curatorial approach for FLORA?

JIR: A lot of independent spaces, some of them for residencies, have sprung up in Colombia during the past few years. I thought ours should have something in particular to differentiate it, and the art/nature relationship struck me as the most appropriate because it’s a topic that I’ve always been interested in. For someone with experience in using new media, for example, maybe the ideal medium would have been a media lab or a space for art and technology; in my case the subject of nature is the one that I’m most comfortable with because I’ve been dealing with it for a long time. It will also enable me to articulate my personal interests, not just in art but in plants, gardening, exploring, etc. Either way, FLORA is not a “green” space focusing on art and the environment from the perspective of ecology or sustainability; when I think of art and nature I’m reminded more of “dirty” and complicated relations than a situation where there is no confrontation of ideas.

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