Gabriella Wind­sor

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One Novem­ber morn­ing in 1974 Trafal­gar Square’s foun­tains turned bright green. The per­pe­tra­tor, Ni­colás Gar­cía Uriburu was out of sight. He had swiftly fled the scene af­ter his lat­est act against wa­ter pol­lu­tion.

‘Ev­ery time I colour wa­ter, it’s a bap­tism for me, a rite of wa­ter pu­rifi­ca­tion,’ he would say, ‘to make ev­ery­one think about de­fend­ing rivers and oceans.’

Other ‘coloura­tions’ or ‘na­ture in­ter­ven­tions’ (over thirty in all) hit the Seine, the Rhine, the Port of An­twerp, New York’s East River and of course Venice’s Grand Canal, where it all started on 19 June 1968 at the Venice Bi­en­nale.

This sum­mer marks a year since Uriburu, hur­ry­ing to a meet­ing in Buenos Aires, col­lapsed and died aged seventy-eight, hold­ing onto a large tree. It is an apt time to look back on his work as a pi­o­neer of land art and to take in other Latin Amer­i­can ‘land artists’ whose ma­jor ma­te­rial is land or na­ture and who may well have fol­lowed his lead.

Uriburu’s Venice act caused quite a stir. ‘Ini­tially they didn’t un­der­stand,’ he re­called. ‘They said, “What have you done? Is it the end of the world? Is Fellini do­ing a film?” But then the ra­dio said an artist had done it for the Bi­en­nale to protest the pol­lu­tion of the canals and sud­denly they said “How beau­ti­ful! It’s like the man­tle of the Vir­gin.”’

Given that Uriburu’s Venice in­ter­ven­tion pre-dated Green­peace (which later teamed up with him in Ar­gentina to dye the Ri­achuelo river) or any other par­tic­u­lar eco­log­i­cal move­ment, it was ahead of the times. Con­cep­tual art had al­ready started by this point in the nine­teen-six­ties, but eco­log­i­cal art or land art was a slightly later branch. It harked back to an­cient mon­u­ments such as South­ern Peru’s pre-Columbian Nazca Lines, some three hun­dred

ge­o­glyphs of an­i­mals and plants etched into the desert sands, and Eng­land’s Stone­henge and nearby crop cir­cles. It was of­ten phe­nom­ena like these which in­spired the likes of Uriburu, yet un­til the Ar­gen­tine’s first aquatic trick which seemed both an­cient and avant-garde, like the land art to fol­low, the mod­ern art world had not seen any­thing like it.

It would be an­other year be­fore the com­ple­tion of Christo and Jean­neClaude’s first land art­work, wrap­ping the coast of Syd­ney’s Lit­tle Bay in Aus­tralia and two years be­fore Robert Smith­son’s Spi­ral Jetty ‘earth­work’, a hor­i­zon­tal coil of mud, rock and salt crys­tals curl­ing out from a far­away shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. And these works were re­alised only af­ter per­mis­sion was granted, un­like Uriburu’s unau­tho­rized guerilla act.

‘I was very scared, but my wife, who was go­ing to help, said, “Do it.” So, in a light­ning strike— about ten min­utes— I dyed the en­tire length of the Grand Canal a life-af­firm­ing green!’

As fel­low artist Daniel San­toro ex­plained at Uriburu’s me­mo­rial, ‘At the time, dye­ing the wa­ters of Venice’s Grand Canal was a huge trans­gres­sion. When he did that, the eco­log­i­cal theme was not yet well un­der­stood and nowa­days his work thus re­for­mu­lates it­self: the earth has acted in the way he warned us about. Gar­cia Uriburu is one of the first mil­i­tant ecol­o­gists through art.’

De­spite the il­le­gal na­ture of his in­ter­ven­tions, al­ways ex­e­cuted with­out autho­riza­tion (of­ten in the dead of night) and the shock caused by the jar­ring and very much ar­ti­fi­cial-look­ing neon hue of the dye (in Venice he was at first ar­rested; in Lon­don he was fined twenty-five pounds for ‘of­fend­ing the Bri­tish Em­pire’), the pig­ment, flu­o­res­cein, which turns a bright green when syn­the­sised by micro­organ­isms in the wa­ter, is a harm­less and even biodegrad­able sodium used by NASA’s as­tro­nauts to mark their land­ing po­si­tion at sea. It dis­ap­pears in just a few days, mak­ing some­thing of a ma­gi­cian of Uriburu in ad­di­tion to his artistry and ac­tivism.

In­deed, the Ar­gen­tine wore many hats. A con­tem­po­rary artist, ar­chi­tect,

sculp­tor, land­scape ar­chi­tect, eco­log­i­cal artist, ecol­o­gist and one of Ar­gentina’s lead­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists (in 1982 the found­ing mem­ber of foresta­tion group Grupo Bosque planted 50,000 trees around Buenos Aires), he was equally a pop artist con­tem­po­rary with Andy Warhol and Sal­vador Dali. Uriburu’s pop art espe­cially was fa­mous in his na­tive Ar­gentina and world­wide. His car­toon-like gi­ant dol­phins cast in bright green as neon as his wa­ter in­ter­ven­tions and his Ama­zo­nian river nar­ra­tives on vast can­vasses or wind­ing through the green con­ti­nent of South Amer­ica placed on its head, in­vert­ing its con­ven­tional po­si­tion­ing on the map so it stands in­stead above North Amer­ica, sur­rounded by bright blood red seas are par­tic­u­larly well known. As Uriburu ex­plained, the red is ‘the blood in the veins of Latin Amer­ica’ while the green al­ways refers to na­ture.

Uriburu has even been de­scribed as a ‘green man’, a sym­bol of re­birth and na­ture. And while ini­tially he was in fact an un­wit­ting pi­o­neer of eco­log­i­cal art (claim­ing he con­ceived and ex­e­cuted his first act spon­ta­neously) he cer­tainly de­vel­oped his theme and grew to be a solid am­bas­sador for the en­vi­ron­ment, per­haps his one con­stant and refuge in an oth­er­wise heady world of art in which the very shy and quiet man moved at the time.

His 1973 Man­i­festo de­clares, ‘Art has no more place out­side na­ture: its place is within na­ture.’

Since Venice, the colour green be­came a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in his work and his eco­log­i­cal art even in­cluded him­self. ‘One has to do as much as pos­si­ble for na­ture,’ he would say. ‘I have ded­i­cated my life to this. I am an artist com­mit­ted to this cause.’ On dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions he dyed his hair and his skin green, acts that nat­u­rally joined his ros­ter of green art­works, even ac­quir­ing their own ti­tles; Coloura­tion of the Face (1971), Coloura­tion of the Hair (1973).

Buenos Aires’s vast MALBA Mu­seum of Latin-Amer­i­can art holds many of his cre­ations, in­clud­ing dra­matic pho­to­graphs of his fa­mous coloura­tions, their wa­ters em­bel­lished by green pas­tels. And the Tate houses two of his ma­jor works: Ac­tions in Na­ture (1968) and Port­fo­lio (Man­i­festo) (1973).

Uriburu was also an im­pres­sive col­lec­tor of and ex­pert in pre-Columbian art. His foun­da­tion, the Ni­colás Gar­cía Uriburu Foun­da­tion in Buenos Aires, holds his highly revered ethno­graphic col­lec­tion ded­i­cated to the art of the con­ti­nent’s indige­nous peo­ples. This in­cludes a wealth of items from rit­ual or­na­ments to Ama­zo­nian feather head­dresses.

He do­nated hun­dreds of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal pieces to es­tab­lish mu­se­ums in Buenos Aires and Uruguay, where he also had a home. The Uruguayan State re­ceived his Col­lec­tion of Na­tional (Uruguayan) Paint­ing and Sculp­ture, which he cu­rated him­self at the Ni­colás Gar­cía Uriburu Mu­seum in Mal­don­ado.

Uriburu’s dar­ing work, while dis­tinct in its aquatic medium and sig­na­ture green, pos­si­bly sparked many other land art­works us­ing na­ture as a means of ac­tivism. Ac­cord­ing to the Malba Mu­seum, ‘By his wa­ter in­ter­ven­tions, Uriburu took up the nat­u­ral space as the back­bone and raw ma­te­rial of his art, an­tic­i­pat­ing what would be­come known as land art, ‘earth art’.’

In Latin Amer­ica, as world­wide, land artists, who link their works of art in­ex­tri­ca­bly with the land­scape, and en­vi­ron­men­tal artists, who ad­dress so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues re­lat­ing to the nat­u­ral and ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, are in­creas­ingly es­tab­lish­ing them­selves. From Ar­gen­tine Ed­uardo San­guinetti’s land-art ‘sculp­tures’ in La Pampa’s desert to high­light the su­per­nat­u­ral ra­di­a­tion of na­ture that cul­ture lacks, Mex­i­can sculp­tor David Guz­man’s three in­ter­linked rings of vol­canic rock and steel to seek the balance be­tween in­dus­try and na­ture; Venezue­lan Mil­ton Be­cerra’s site­spe­cific Me­te­orite with its rag­ing flames in­side five cir­cles on the grass; Bo­li­vian So­nia Fal­cone’s Field of Colour with its eighty-eight dif­fer­ent spices in three-hun­dred dif­fer­ent colours from around the world to unite cul­tural dif­fer­ence and Cuban artist Ana Mendi­eta’s place­ment of her body in her land art through to Brazil­ian and Mex­i­can artists Gabriel Orozco and Vik Mu­niz’s use of waste to alert us to the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial refuse, a num­ber of well-known artists from the re­gion have made their names in these gen­res.

Mean­while, im­ages like two enor­mous fish made from dis­carded plas­tic bot­tles, lit up iri­des­cent at night, on Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo beach to mark 2012’s UN Con­fer­ence on Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment (Rio+20) are hard to for­get for all who saw them.

In the vast glis­ten­ing ex­panse of the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, in West­ern Bo­livia, the hulk­ing, wild-bearded Bo­li­vian artist Gas­ton Ugalde dis­ap­pears for days, some­times re­turn­ing only once the search par­ties have been sent out. He might go alone for a week or for a month with a film crew. He has done this for the past forty years and yet ‘ev­ery sin­gle time is a dif­fer­ent feel­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence and there is al­ways a new sur­prise.’

When Ugalde does come back to his stu­dio in La Paz, it is ei­ther equipped with gi­ant bricks of salt to sculpt or scores of pho­to­graphs, film footage and props from his fa­mous in­stal­la­tions. The stu­dio it­self, its floor laden with salt crys­tals, is like a se­cret scene stolen from Nar­nia. In fact, it is a trove sym­bolic of what is ar­guably Bo­livia’s num­ber one trea­sure: lithium.

The Salar de Uyuni, this artist’s can­vas and his medium, is one of the world’s nat­u­ral won­ders. It is so vast and bright that it is vis­i­ble from space. Neil Arm­strong is said to have seen it from the moon and mis­taken it for a gi­gan­tic glacier.

It is also home to over fifty per cent of the world’s lithium car­bon­ate re­serves, which lie be­neath its sur­face of brine. This makes the salt pan ex­tremely valu­able – an as­set in­creas­ingly cap­i­talised upon in re­cent years by the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment in re­sponse to global de­mand.

As well as longer-stand­ing de­mands for lithium for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, fer­tilis­ers and smart­phone bat­ter­ies, the elec­tric ve­hi­cle boom has fu­eled sub­stan­tial re­cent in­ter­est in Bo­livia’s salt flats. De­mand is pro­jected to out­strip sup­ply by 2023. On one hand sup­ply­ing a raw ma­te­rial to sup­port the elec­tric car in­dus­try could pro­vide Bo­livia with a wel­come eco­nomic boost. Yet equally, partly due to the high lev­els of mag­ne­sium in this ter­rain,

ex­trac­tion could threaten its frag­ile ecosys­tem, not to men­tion bring a rise in traf­fic, pol­lu­tion, the pres­sure on wa­ter sup­ply and dam­age to the site’s stag­ger­ing nat­u­ral beauty, in turn threat­en­ing tourism. Ul­ti­mately it could be of more harm than help to Bo­livia.

In his 2009 re-elec­tion cam­paign, Pres­i­dent Mo­rales pledged to de­velop Bo­livia’s lithium in­dus­try with a strict pol­icy to­ward for­eign in­vest­ment to end the ‘loot­ing’ of his coun­try’s re­sources. How­ever, in­creas­ingly Bo­livia has been said to court in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, even con­sid­er­ing es­tab­lish­ing for­eign lithium bat­tery plants on site.

While Ugalde says ‘at the mo­ment the de­vel­op­ment with other na­tions is just be­gin­ning and you don’t yet feel or see it as the salar is a big planet’, his art on the salt pan in in­stal­la­tions and pho­to­graphs ex­presses his con­cern for the con­tro­ver­sial ac­tiv­i­ties of ex­ca­va­tion. In par­tic­u­lar he de­cries ‘the tra­di­tion of ex­port­ing raw ma­te­ri­als to be used for the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of the West, leav­ing out Bo­livia from the chain of profit.’ In­deed, his art­work draw­ing on Chris­tian iconog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing an in­stal­la­tion with a naked model tied up­side down to a cross in the mid­dle of the oth­er­worldly white is meant to em­pha­sise the po­ten­tial ‘suf­fer­ing of Bo­li­vian peo­ple.’

Ugalde’s work through land art, video-art, sculp­tures, per­for­mances, paint­ings, con­certs, in­stal­la­tions and pho­to­graphs has been snapped up by art shows and col­lec­tors world­wide and he has won many prizes. In 2001 he starred at the Latin-Amer­i­can Pavil­ion of the Bi­en­nale in Venice where, like Uriburu twenty-three years ear­lier, he staked his claim as a ma­jor artist from Latin Amer­ica, and the most glob­ally known from Bo­livia. His de­but in­stal­la­tion in­cluded Bo­li­vian multi-coloured striped wo­ven works and a large pile of pota­toes. In 2009 he would re­turn with a stun­ningly colour­ful Inca and Ay­mara tex­tile in­stal­la­tion show­ing the coun­try’s rich weav­ing tra­di­tions and dyes and the syn­cretism in­her­ent in Bo­livia’s mix of cul­tures and re­li­gions. At Art Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, in 2009, his pho­tog­ra­phy in­cluded a naked woman curled up in a sheer sheet sus­pended above the never-end­ing salt flats, the whole im­age clothed in sleepy blues and vi­o­lets. He re­cently showed more salt-scape pho­tog­ra­phy at Photo Lon­don 2017

where he was a guest speaker.

A ma­jor point of fo­cus is the An­des. In one study he is try­ing to ‘cap­ture the tem­per­a­ture of colour and freeze time with small in­ter­ven­tions in the land­scape’. Mean­while he is work­ing in the An­dean glaciers (‘are they melt­ing?’), to ex­plore the theme of cli­mate change.

If Uriburu was by turns a green man prankster and na­ture in­ter­ven­tion­ist, crit­ics have called Ugalde, also suc­cess­ful in the 1970s, the An­dean Warhol (for his treat­ment of An­dean pol­i­tics and cul­ture) and the ‘en­fant ter­ri­ble of the Bo­li­vian art scene.’

When I met him in La Paz in 2008 his stu­dio was lined with col­lages made from coca leaves – now world fa­mous por­traits of South Amer­ica’s politi­cians from Che Gue­vara and Si­mon Bo­li­var to Eva Peron and Evo Mo­rales (whose start as a coca leaf farmer drove his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign), as well as Maradona, Mick Jag­ger and John Lennon. Ugalde says his coca por­traits (some twenty-five in all) ‘al­ways cause sur­prise and laugh­ter’. The best re­ac­tions came from Evo Mo­rales, Maradona and the Pope and Ugalde has been asked to make more.

He has also used Bo­li­vian coca leaves to fash­ion a num­ber of Amer­i­can flags, a map of Latin Amer­ica, gi­ant dol­lar notes and Coca-Cola ad­ver­tis­ing, with slo­gans such as ‘En­joy Coke’.

The coca plant may be bet­ter known to­day as the source of co­caine, and as such a ma­jor tar­get of the ‘war on drugs’ but for An­dean cul­tures it is a vi­tal part of their re­li­gious cos­mol­ogy, even known as the ‘sa­cred leaf.’ As such it wields a power far greater in this sym­bolic con­text dat­ing back to pre-Columbian times, while co­caine pro­duc­tion only dates from the start of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Bo­livia of­ten de­fends coca pro­duc­tion, say­ing, ‘coca is not co­caine.’

As a sa­cred leaf, coca has been used count­less times in indige­nous An­dean rites for pro­tec­tion from curses and bad en­ergy, to change bad luck, to

pre­dict the fu­ture and to make of­fer­ings to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

It is this dual sig­nif­i­cance of his nat­u­ral cre­ative ma­te­ri­als, that Ugalde of­ten seizes upon. He has made a mas­tery of walk­ing the fine tightrope be­tween cul­tural ad­vo­cacy and provo­ca­tion, al­lud­ing to the nat­u­ral, cov­eted and con­tro­ver­sial riches of his coun­try and con­ti­nent. Whether his ma­te­rial con­sists of Bo­livia’s land­scape or its tra­di­tion his art is known for its so­ciopo­lit­i­cal themes.

While the fur­thest reaches of Bo­livia’s salt flats are Ugalde’s nat­u­ral artis­tic back-drop, Colom­bian artist Rafael Gómezbar­ros favours the prox­im­ity of build­ings. In 2015, hun­dreds of gi­ant ants (with bod­ies and heads the size of foot­balls) stormed the walls of the Saatchi Gallery in his shock­ing work on im­mi­gra­tion.

For him, these un­miss­able crea­tures, each made from the plas­ter casts of two hu­man skulls, de­pict the hun­dreds of thou­sands of his coun­try­men dis­placed by the rag­ing civil war of the past half-cen­tury, only now drawn of­fi­cially to a close by Pres­i­dent San­tos’s re­cent peace ac­cords. For oth­ers, they show the scale and chaos for so many around the world, flee­ing worse fates, driven by an in­stinct to sur­vive.

This work it­self had mi­grated to Lon­don af­ter other sites; the walls not only of gal­leries but vast out­side spa­ces them­selves, like bridges, mon­u­ments and fortresses, as ur­ban as Uriburu’s wa­ter­ways.

Cer­tainly on first sight, an omi­nous qual­ity per­vades these artists’ in­ter­ven­tions. And yet this is so of­ten off­set by the prank-like the­atrics of each. If Uriburu of­ten had to steal into the night for his coloura­tions, Gómezbar­ros stashed his pa­pier mâché skulls in the base­ment of Saatchi for hours un­til the time came to bring out the ants. Such an­tics in both cases made the art­works ap­peal­ing to view­ers of all ages whom they en­gaged and in many cases, in­trigued. The won­der on the faces of chil­dren track­ing the gi­ant ants at Saatchi says it all.

If the star­tling sight of bright green wa­ter could teach chil­dren of all ages to guard na­ture, or a wall of gi­gan­tic roam­ing ants could ward them off war, per­haps land art ought to be en­cour­aged more and more.

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