Nature to History
Tiny / Plant leaves, American insects -armed with claws, saws,
angular legs. A red cicada. Beetles. Bumblebees. Moths. These, among
others, are part of the compendium of beings that the work of Rimer
Cardillo has displayed since his first engravings, a sort of blow-up
of leaves and tiny insects. They were pieces that could well pass for
plates in an entomology lesson. In his prints, Cardillo established
a coherent path, towards nature, flora, and American vegetation, towards
the Great Mother Goddess which is the earth and its creatures. And nature,
as expressed by Francastel is "simultaneous repository of every
value imagined by mortals."
/ We find in Cardillo, at all times, a fidelity in representation and,
in consequence, the engravings acquire a distant and objective nature.
But soon a lack of fidelity to scale appears and this art that merely
denotes starts to connote by virtue of enlargement.
The size of the figures plus the quality of the materials, the color,
the precise design, discover in cicadas and dragonflies an almost menacing
bias, that provokes in the spectator a sense of strangeness and stirs
up the same amount of imagination of Durer's re-invented rhinoceros.
This monumentality grants the work an other-reality: objective reality
turns into plastic reality. Cardillo as photo-realist? If we look at
the resulting image, around the 1970s, the answer is yes. In his prints
of those years, Cardillo did not concern himself with elaborating a
semiotics of connotation and this attitude identifies him with the photo-realists:
the photograph serves as model. And the artist, as artist, sketches,
engraves, paints or sculpts, according to conventional techniques in
order to produce works of art that represent in a precise, exact, cold,
faithful way, the model, which is a photograph. Cardillo's starting
point is the photograph but he is not charmed into copying it. He uses
it directly, by reproducing photomechanically the transparencies' reticles.
In Cardillo's case we should, more precisely, speak of photomechanical
So, Cardillo operates the same way as Pop artists (photorealism is known
to be the non plus ultra of Pop art) and embraces the premise that the
reproduced photograph is objective information material. The language
of the blowup, in itself a plastic elaboration, which can be traced
to Homer's Gigantomaquia traversing Michelangelo Antonioni) refers to
a very Latin-American but not that much Uruguayan way of seeing the
world: that of excess. Excessive geography, overwhelming or perfidious
plants, inflamed insects and poisonous animals.
The enormous insects from Cardillo's language express (exorcise), in
addition, the artist's inner demons. It happens that, as Octavio Paz
wrote: "A landscape never refers to itself but to something other,
something beyond. It is a metaphysics, a religion, an idea of man and
/ Then, those leaves and those insects stamped on paper were placed
in little boxes, with the patience and detail of the scientist. As time
went by, the boxes ceased to shelter engravings and became inhabited
by shreds of shrouds, paleolithic arrowheads, ritual boxes from the
Macumba. "It is an environment towards which I have always felt
attraction," Cardillo would say, "those Brazilian Macumba
santerias (shops selling religious images, items, etc), that mix turtle
shells with herbs, roots and wooden carvings."...Relics in reliquaries?
Vessels of histories or fetishes? Maybe despoiled Nature's or subdued
primitive cultures' coffins?
He works as witchdoctors do, dealing with caterpillars, frogs, tattoos,
witchcraft, trying to retrieve what is clean, non-urbanized, uncivilized
in earth. Cardillo anoints demiurgic powers on animals, little branches,
a stone and thus evokes ancient cultures. The artist would say: "those
boxes were very much linked to the reliquary and to the religious diptych
and triptych. I have always felt a very strong attraction to sacred
spaces, Gothic cathedrals, and archaic cities in Peru and Mexico."
And he adds, "Creative work is a ceremony. I always link it to
the work of the priest or of the primitive witchdoctor."
/ At the beginning of the 1980s Cardillo was attracted to colonial architecture
and Latin-American baroque, proposing to himself a synthesis comprised
of texts, insects, Christs on the cross, Latin-American baroque buildings,
reliquaries and religious images. In his three-engravings series Durero
en Sacsahuaman (1981) Durer's stag beetle lives together with stones,
plaster and openings in the Inca wall.
The unique works on paper, made mid-1980s, include, besides the embossing,
rubbings of pigments and pastels powder and acrylics. These works by
Cardillo seem a replica of Max Ernst's frottage. It is the answer of
an engraver who faces the print with itself (Meta-language?) gophering
the materials usually used in engraving: wood, lithographic stone, and
even stone and metal. Here we mark a passage from the organic world
to the inorganic, whilst at the same time Cardillo uses the matrix as
the ideal medium for his exploration. It was already during his early
training, in Dresden, that he used to make copies by inking the reclining
figures that are part of tombstones.
Prints are always the traces of something not-present. In his original
works, Cardillo operates with the anthropologist's techniques, by layers,
which are read like a palimpsest: glued paper, color pigment on top,
and all of it on the contour of a vase, in Anfora con linea roja,
1986. Cardillo is looking for support in Latin-American roots: ceremonial
stones, pre-Columbian gold objects. But also in the stones of Uruguayan
master Joaquin Torres-Garcia.
/ Already in his gophered engravings, Cardillo was manipulating the
third dimension on the plane of the base, turning the reality of materials
into a virtuality. Towards the end of the 1980s, he's gone from the
virtual to the real: he has opted for the three dimensions, that is
to say for volume, for space. His option is sculpture: The former little
reclining boxes (entomologist's) rise and result in vertical wooden
crates that keep and protect, inside, little figures made of other materials,
as in Isadora Altar, 1987-88. (Altars? Altarpieces? Chapels?)
These pieces are inscribed in a Uruguayan tradition that has inquired
into the possibilities of wood (for example, Torres-Garcia and the artists
of the Torres Atelier), and on the other hand, has explored the possibilities
of boxes (in a line from German Cabrera and Washington Barcala to Nelson
Ramos). Just as Cabrera sheltered his metal sculptures inside wooden
crates, Cardillo includes inside his, elements that attack the audience
and that are still linked to the world of the engraver, his own.
/ And now, since the beginning of the 1990s, he prefers to make site
specific installations, that is to say installations that summon a specific
place in nature. Let us remember some of them. Silent Barrack (1989)
bears witness to the artist's pain due to political persecution and
torture during the dictatorship in this part of the world. Quebrada
de los Cuervos. Instalacion. Revelaciones. (1993) was assembled
around a text, a cupí and silkscreened cloth pennants (as though they
were hanging tapestries) depicting augmented prints of the Uruguayan
landscape where he calls attention to the destruction of indigenous
life and culture. Catafalco (1994), the dictionary says that
catafalque is "a magnificently decorated stage, in temples, for
solemn funeral services", the artist uses it to denounce the deaths
for political reasons and its anonymous funeral services. Pachamazon
(1996) includes objects picked up in situ and gigantic xylographies,
300 x 200 cm, blow-ups of the tiniest sketches from nature done during
a journey through the Amazon, through which he issues a warning regarding
the predation of the rainforests and the native culture. A similar concern
to that was expressed by Pierre Restany in his Manifiesto del Rio
Camara Sixtina: Imagen de la memoria (1997), is a row of boxes
with back-lit slides, icons of old Porto Alegre -photographs shot by
the artist himself 22 years before- placed in between the pillars of
the Viaduct: the work hybridizes Durero with the Aleijadinho and today's
Porto Alegre. Araucaria, (1998), the name of the South American
native pine tree, that consecutive devastations have extinguished. Nandu,
(1989) the South American version of the ostrich, that runs free in
the Uruguayan countryside, issues a warning regarding the commercial
exploitation of semi-extinguished species.
In all of them Cardillo, instead of representing, presents the objects
with no go-between (objects collected on site, with the anthropologist's
vocation, or metamorphosed into ceramics, silkscreens and prints).
degli uccelli / Here, in the Venice Biennale installation, Cupí
degli Uccelli (2001) is a new version of a cupí, the Guarani name
for the mound of the anthill and that Cardillo uses to refer to the
cerritos, that numerous native cultures in South America used as sepulchral
or burial mounds. These conic earth formations go back to the world
of the Genesis, towards the end of the Fourth Day of Creation ("This
is the earth/It grows in your blood/and you grow./If it is extinguished
in your blood/you are extinguished" wrote Pablo Neruda), and are
a metaphor of the cyclic notion of nature in which life and death are
interconnected. These cupí are like fragments of the cosmos. In Cardillo's
cosmovision his point of departure is the Genesis, from the techtonic,
the primordial, the earthly, and he is convinced that "renewing
the world means to reconsecrate it, to make it like it was in
principio. "(Mircea Eliade)
Cardillo's cupí is covered by ceramics cast from dead animals that the
artist has collected during his travels in South America (for example,
armadillo, birds, turtles, alligators) and in the River Hudson valley
(for example, raccoons, birds, fish). Cubans Ana Mendieta and Juan Francisco
Elso have also worked with traces: Mendieta's are signals from her own
body, whilst Elso "seized, with the fresh terracotta, really and
ritualistically, the trace -the power- of a cobcorn, that thus returned
to the earth from which it had sprung...Elso inquired into a cosmovision
of universal scope based in Latin-American heritage, from which came
an understanding of the purposes of human beings in the world and an
ethic proposition." This interpretation, that Gerardo Mosquera
provides for Elso, is valid in all its terms for Cardillo and his option
for a circular, mythic time, where renewal lies in retrieving the origins.
This big central Cupí shall be surrounded by an image of Tlazolteotl
(Goddess of creation and purification of the earth in Aztec imagery)
silkscreened on mirrors hung from the walls. The mirrors shall multiply
the cupí ad infinitum in a kaleidoscopic effect that the artist experienced
when canoeing along the endless rivers of the Amazonia. The rainforest
and the sky were reflected on the rivers during the days and weeks of
his journeys, changing and repeating themselves at every new turn.
The mirrors reflect and absorb the images of the spectators. Thus, Cardillo
manages to involve them physically and spiritually in his work, by inserting
them as witnesses and participants in this "ceremony of memory"
through which a trans-generational reading is encouraged, the transmission
of history from one generation to the other; the updating of the past,
so that "each generation disentangles itself from the preceding
one and positions itself as inheritor."
/ Cardillo's work admits multiple readings. I choose only a few of them.
First of all, his work may be approached from the point of view of ecology,
for it gives clear proof of the confrontation and damage that technology
inflicts upon nature. Here we need to point out that the warning of
a Latin-American differs from that of a first-world artist, for the
latter is part of a domesticated, subdued, deteriorated nature, whereas
the landscape of the New World still belongs to the cycle of natural
forces in combat.
Taking into account the successive superimposed layers with which Cardillo
works, Amalia Mesa-Bains has spoken of an "aesthetic of archaeology".
This superposition can be legitimally understood as hybridation, crossbreeding,
between European and American forms and Latin-American contents, and
through it the artist brings about an organic version of Manierism that
is one of the originalities of Latin-American art.
Finally, this slow, morose inquiry regarding the past, regarding the
origins (Uruguayan, Latin-American), this inquiry about an identity,
national and continental, about the construction of culture, is, also,
an inquiry about the origins of the artist himself, who seems to have
taken on Goethe's Faustus verse: "What you have inherited from
your parents, in order to own it, earn it."
Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales