Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s first solo exhibition in London looked at the current economic and social conditions of Puerto Rico through the lens of the country’s past. The show was rife with references to the mythological world of the island’s indigenous Taíno people (who, after Columbus arrived in 1493, were decimated due to diseases brought by the Spanish and the cruel working conditions imposed on them by the colonizers). Installed as a wall text at the entrance to the gallery, Cosmogonia Futura (Future Cosmogony), 2013, is a narrative concocted by the Puerto Rico-based artist that recounts the creation of the universe by Yaya, the extreme vital principle in Taíno mythology. Santiago Muñoz transforms the ancient legend of creation into a representation of a dystopian world after the end of capitalism. “Before the beginning,” the text reads, “there was the plastic swimming pool, the heat, the pig vine that climbs up the electrical wire, the empty offices with ceiling tiles.”
Projected on a wall of the gallery next to drawings of exotic flowers, Farmacopea (2013) is a short silent film that concentrates on the disappearance of the incredible biodiversity of the Puerto Rican landscape. A sequence of pristine images of lush tropical trees and rare botanical species is accompanied by an elliptical narrative that touches on 19th-century German seafarers, drug-induced hallucination and the histories of local farmers. According to the artist, in recent times Puerto Rico’s environment has been significantly transformed as several plants have been cut on a mass scale to accommodate the real-estate needs of a growing tourist population. Shot on 16mm film, Farmacopea recalls the amateurish footage recorded by explorers and scientists at the beginning of the 20th century and, employing outdated technology, seems suffused with nostalgia.
With La Cava Negra (The Black Cave), 2013, gallery visitors were plunged into the dark of a soundproof room where a large screen featured a video about the Paso del Indio, an indigenous burial site that was discovered 20 years ago during the construction of a highway. The footage follows the movements of two children as they wander through the overgrown forest. Like Cosmogonia Futura, the work offers an ambiguous temporality. “Before humans, bridges and birds,” the narrator says, “there was a cave.” We wonder whether we are watching a representation of the Taínos’ mythical past, but gradually abandoned cars, tires and other industrial debris appear, and the constant and deafening sound of traffic from a nearby highway alerts us that we are in contemporary Puerto Rico.
There is something dreamlike and almost hallucinatory in Santiago Muñoz’s work, a nod to the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s and its interest in drug-influenced approaches to art. Echoes of Robert Smithson can be found throughout—think Smithson’s Hotel Palenque and his fascination with Mayan culture. And like Smithson’s, Santiago Muñoz’s work can end up reducing capitalistic entropy to a timeless, post-historical condition. Instead of stimulating the energies of activism and artistic engagement, it can lead inadvertently to melancholia and passivity. At the same time, the re-enchantment of nature evoked by her haunting images might foster a politics of ecology. In order to address the threats to our environment, Santiago Muñoz suggests, it is essential to reawaken oour sense of awe and look at the world as a glorious creation.
PHOTO: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: Farmacopea, 2013, 16mm film, 6 minutes; at Gasworks.