Universes in Universe

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The Atlas of the Empire

Curatorial text by Alfons Hug

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science, 1946

Since the 16th century and during the entire later colonial period, Spain and Portugal – as well as England, France and the Netherlands in the Caribbean – undertook a huge attempt to cover the South American continent with the map of Europe, one-to-one, complete with its political and administrative structures.Viceroys, captains general, missionaries, judges and professors – but also artists – were commissioned to turn the new colonies into a replica of Europe.

And even when activities were not about imperial ambitions but natural history, as in the case of Alexander von Humboldt, European models and ways of thinking were still introduced again and again.

As in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, the subsequent generations – i.e. the American republics that emerged from the independence movements of the early 19th century – came to the conclusion that new maps were needed, even though remnants of the old order still remained:ranging from Spanish city layouts and Portuguese fortifications to the two Iberian languages.The latter have, however, been enriched by borrowings from African and indigenous languages, an immensely productive, albeit tension-generating, phenomenon that also has been observed in South American art, literature and music since the Baroque era.

"Where was our place in the world?To whom did we owe loyalty? To our European fathers, or to our Indian mothers?To whom were we to direct our prayers? To the new gods or the old?What language would we speak? That of the conquistadors, or that of the conquered?"
Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado, 1992

This close cultural interaction between Europe and Latin America continued in the 20th century.On the one hand, important modernist movements were absorbed in Latin America; on the other, South American modernists like Joaquín Torres García, Roberto Matta or Wilfredo Lam had a retroactive effect on Europe.

This dynamic exchange intensified further in contemporary art.Some of the best Latin American artists now live in Europe, where they are sometimes even regarded as representatives of their new home.Conversely, several renowned European artists are working in Latin America.

The Latin American Pavilion will explore this new geopolitical aspect of contemporary art.This cross-fertilization will impact on both continents' cultural self-identity.The aim is not just an extension of the artistic repertoire, but ultimately a new, complex world view that will also benefit Europe.

Art and the atlas

In his literary simile, the Argentinian author raises the question of the representation and portrayability of the world – a question so decisive to both science and art.

The map is useless the moment it is as big as the Earth. But how big is art?

And how big is hell? – enquired Galileo Galilei in his lectures on Danté’s Inferno at the Florentine Academy in 1587-88. At the time, people still believed it was possible to measure even the most unlikely of spaces.

Since Robert Smithson created his Spiral Jetty – that masterpiece of land art – at the latest, we have become aware of the difference between size and scale: the former defines an object, the latter a work of art. Something that may be small physically, may seem gigantic as a work of art.

The rule that a map cannot be identical with the world also applies to art. A map, as everyone knows, is not the territory it represents; and art cannot represent the world on a scale of 1 : 1 without running the risk of becoming pure documentation and, therefore, redundant.

Whereas science and technology strive to become as big as the world, and fail regularly in this hubris, art is simultaneously smaller and bigger than the world. Smaller, because it can show only bits of the world and reality, and bigger because it proceeds allegorically and thus rises above both.

Basically, the map and art proceed in similar ways inasmuch as they both abstract from real dimensions.

Art, of course, begins where the map is uneven, full of gaps, and incomplete. In this respect, it resembles those old parchment maps in which entire regions became terra nullius.

Art will also find those places – merely imagined and not yet discovered – that the great Khan and his ambassador Marco Polo had sought in vain in the atlas of Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities", including Yahóo, Babilonia and Enoch.

In his encounters with the Khan, Marco Polo also made use of non-verbal forms of communication. The Venetian initially circumvented communication difficulties by using sign language, and later by taking sacks full of objects with him from all over the world: hourglasses, arrows, drums, plants; in short, things that perhaps told of conditions in the Khan's realm more clearly than words could – in whatever language.

One reason why modern art has been making use of such objects for 100 years is, not least, to correct one-dimensional verbal communication.

The Venice Biennale is such a privileged place of polyglot exchange.

In contrast to the Emperor’s cartographers, who, in their obsession with perfection, have tried in vain to make maps and reality to correspond with one another, artists do not always choose the shortest distance between two points. They will put stumbling blocks in their way and sketch in the wrong routes. They will discover locations that appear only temporarily on the maps, and others that have found their place there once and for all. Venice comes under the latter category. Its arsenals, which formed the biggest industrial undertaking in Europe during the Middle Ages, were immortalised by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy:

With their symbolic cartography, artists are less concerned with topographical precision than with making selective observations of seemingly irrelevant details in interpersonal relationships, or of the baneful conditions in the present.

Artists step on the stage only at that moment in which scientists interrupt their arrogant projects and expose their useless world maps to the inclemencies of the weather. It is quite likely that they – like Borges – will find beggars only.


© Text: Alfons Hug

Latin American Pavilion
of the Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA),
Arsenale - Isolotto

Commissioner: Sylvia Irrazábal

Curator: Alfons Hug

Co-curator: Paz Guevara

19 artists, participants - see the list


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