José Alejandro Restrepo
“Geography is a weapon for war”
For the artist José Alejandro Restrepo, the forces of colonization are visible not only in physical violence and devastation. There are also silent struggles that have focused on the world of perception and ways of representing. Passing through Berlin with two of his works on display in the the exhibition “The Nature of Things,” the artist spoke with Humboldt Magazine.
A pioneer of Colombian vídeo art, José Alejandro Restrepo’s art boasts a vast thematic repertoire, which includes topics like religion, popular beliefs, history, politics, narrative construction and the manipulation of facts. In an essay for the catalog Transhistórias. História e mito na obra de José Alejandro Restrepo (Transhistories. History and Myth in the Work of José Alejandro Restrepo), Brazilian art critic Paulo Herkenhoff wrote, back in 2001, that Restrepo has a “knack for consuming and processing meaning, controlling it and giving it a new direction and substance” in an “anthropophagous way of iconological metabolization”.
Such thematic diversity, translated by the Colombian artist’s shrewd gaze, is present in works like “Humboldt’s crocodile is not Hegel’s” and "Quindío Pass II." Produced in the 1990s, the works are part of the collective exhibition “The Nature of Things: Humboldt, comings and goings,” which was in Bogotá in 2019, and went on to Berlin as part of the German capital’s event Humboldt: 250 years young!
In order to create Humboldt’s crocodile is not Hegel’s (1994), Restrepo’s point of departure was the divergence between two German intellectuals, philosopher Georg Wihelm Friedrich Hegel and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Through this work, the artist aims to question the conceptions and narratives that were created in Europe with respect to the New World, which at the time was considered exotic and uncivilized. “Like this one, there are many examples of how knowledge is a very important political spoil. The size of the crocodile is neither that of Humboldt’s nor of Hegel’s. What is really significant is the representation that imposes itself as documenting truth,” Restrepo said in an interview.
Between 1990 and 2000, Restrepo examined written and pictorial records of European travellers who visited the American continent in the 19th century. The works that resulted include O passo de Quindío I (Quindío Pass I, 1992), a video installation that the artist completed after having read Humboldt’s diaries, in which he retraces the German naturalist’s steps and discusses the boundaries between reality and narrative.
The work was further developed in O passo de Quindío II (Quindío Pass II, 1998), exhibited in The Nature of Things: Humboldt, comings and goings. “My work was focused, at the time, on the forms and forces of colonization that are not only experienced through physical violence or devastation. There are also silent struggles that are focused on appropriating the world of perception and modes of representation”, Restrepo explains. The complete interview follows.
José Alejandro Restrepo El cocodrilo de Humboldt no es el cocodrilo de Hegel. The nature of things. Humboldt Forum Berlin, 2019. | Photo: David von Becker In the exhibition, your work Humboldt’s crocodile... is in the section “Transposições da paisagem europeia sobre a natureza americana” (Transpositions of the European Landscape on American Nature). Could you talk about your work in this context?
One of the fundamental aspects of Humboldtian legacy are maps. Maps are a clear example of this transposition. Map making and establishing topographies is a way of understanding, of spatializing. But maps are not neutral; nor do they respond to philanthropic geographical societies or bold travellers. Strong economic interests have been clear from the beginning. Science, morals and politics are combined in the invention of the country and in the formalization of its forms of representation for the configuration of the State and of the Nation. Geography not only tames nature, but is also a weapon for war, a strategic tool of the first order against whatever is taking advantage of it.
How did the idea to produce the work Humboldt’s Crocodile Is Not Hegel’s come about, and what discussions did you hope to raise with it? And are those discussions still relevent today?
Many of the confrontations and resistances between colonizers and colonized occur on subtle levels, that are not so obvious: discourses and representations, for instance. In this work, a discussion of little importance between Hegel and Humboldt about the crocodiles’ true size (reviewed and commented by the philosopher Carlos B. Gutierrez) goes unnoticed, yet it reveals the frictions and contradictions between different ways of seeing and interepreting. What is interesting is seeing who is still asserting their vision of the world today.
Is there a Humboldtian legacy in contempporary South American art? If so, in what way is it manifest?
I find it interesting to return critically to certain journeys and travellers. It is also interesting to consider atypical and paradoxical travellers: those who never manage to get out, those who travel in situ, those who arrive at the wrong place, those who travel all too unwillingly, those who stop halfway, those who never find their way back, or those who never want to go back. There is no need to penetrate deep into the forest (what still subsists) or to look for the unexpected landscape (that no longer exists). Still, there are outlier routes in the city like these: secret walkways and passages, no turns, dead ends, one-way streets that are heading in the wrong direction, unannounced intersections, endless roundabouts… In the forest, as in the city, getting lost requires art and rigor. Sagas, reflection and experiences that gain momentum after so much exhaustion and so much useless risk, stories with an underlying complexity in the simple anthropological act of traveling.
Another work presented in the exhitition is Quindío Pass II (1998), developed from Quindío Pass I (1992), in which you reenact Humboldt’s trek around the region of Quindío, in Colombia. What did you learn with respect to this work?
In 1992 I personally made some of the treks that Humboldt had made. Seeing and recording what he described, presumably. Experiencing the trek as a way of seeing and recording. My work was focused at the time on the forms and forces of colonization that occur not only through physical violence or devastation. There are also silent struggles that have focused on appropriating the world of perception and modes of representation. Trekking functions as an act of enunciation: the appropriation of topography, the precision of space and relationships between places. In the 19th century, travellers came by the hundreds: humanist scholars, emmissaries from the colonial empires, wayward adventurers… The routes, the intensities and the ways of traveling vary according to the traveller, but however their journey was, the chronicles they left constitute fascinating documents not only of what they saw and represented (much of which no longer exists), but also as an eloquent reflection of the limitations and prejudices that make looking and representing an ideological power issue.
José Alejandro Restrepo is one of the most important contemporary artists from Latin America. His work includes single-channel videos, video installations and performances in which he approaches the “non official” historical moments of Colombian history.