Contact Zones:
Travel and Archeology in the Work of Rimer Cardillo
Lucy R. Lippard



Travel, especially travel to a homeland, or into the past, can be a quasi-ritual experience. As in ritual, the baggage may be determined by the past, but the voyage itself is always subject to living change. Travel can be said to be Rimer Cardillo's medium as much as the physical materials he uses, many of which have been collected during his travels in the forgotten, silenced, and contested areas of his native Uruguay, and are therefore "souvenirs."
At the same time, Cardillo is an artist for whom home ground is significant. Having left his native land during its long-standing military dictatorship, his art concentrates upon that of the indigenous cultures for whom the Latin American continent truly is home. Uruguay haunts him, and for many years his art resembled shrines to the lost homeland. It is not strange that he found parallel in the histories of those indigenous people who have similarly been exiled, sometimes even within their own lands. As an artist, he acts as creative archeologist, unearthing, recuperating, and recreating the aura rather than the material facts of a past that tends to be omitted from current national narratives.
The artist as traveler and collector of flora has a long history. In this context, the expeditionary and survey draftsmen and photographers come to mind. Perhaps Alexander von Humboldt - whose voyages to Latin America at the turn of the nineteenth century have been seen as a point of departure from a pan-American consciousness-has been in the back of Cardillo's mind as he makes his own voyages. "We are sown with memories of Humboldt," writes Pascual Venegas Filardo.1 (In the early 1980s, the Cuban artist Ricardo Rodriguez Brey made ritual and "book" works in an Afro-indigenous homage to Humboldt; and later in the decade, Argentine-born Leandro Katz made a photography series that reverberated from Frederick Catherwood's drawings of Mayan ruins in a triply representational strategy.) Like his fellow Uruguayan expatriate Luis Camnitzer, Cardillo, though less politically focused, is among a number of Latin American artists living in the United States who might be called "traveling theorists," and whose work is the product of "cosmopolitan diasporas," to use Caren Kaplan's terms.2
Cardillo's art is charged with a resurrective spirit that is both respectful and nostalgic, rooted in his own uprooted life, reflected in uprooted cultures. His use of bones and seeds refer to their symbolic histories as talismans for rebirth. Although, he comes, literally, from another place, his work can also be contextualized within the archaizing tendency that has been strong in contemporary North American art since the 1970s and has become, rather curiously, a mainstay of the avant garde-which in this case looks back over its shoulder rather than scouting ahead. Or, perhaps, the view is downwards, towards the earth, since most archeologically-oriented art is as concerned with the land, the earth itself, as it is with the artifacts and ruins discovered in it.3
Modernist art that is inspired by or based in archeology gains some of its tension from inherent paradoxes that have something in common with the transcultural process. Among them, the necessarily exaggerated attention to minutiae and the way the ordinary becomes extraordinary by virtue of its survival are particularly appealing to visual artists. These metaphors, of course, are also significant for Latin America's indigenous peoples, with whom Cardillo has spent time.
Transculturation is one of Cardillo's consistent themes, and although his art is always gentle in affect, beneath its surface lies the brutality of Latin American history. In her fascinating book on colonial travel writing-Imperial Eyes-Mary Louise Pratt calls attention to the "violence and terror of the contact zone,"4 where cultures meet in (unusually) unfair combat. Representation and cultural appropriation have also been defined as forms of violence by Edward Said and others. Within these theoretical contexts, the ever-growing diasporic populations are beginning to produce an art that is critical and at the same time maintains cultural and aesthetic loyalties. The contact zone can also be the point of departure for a pan-American consciousness. Reciprocity is the antidote to the "civilizing mission" syndrome that so often characterizes travel into the so-called margins.
There is a consistently problematic political dimension to traveling and observing "other" cultures and their remains. Even when the interaction is apparently unbalanced in favor of the visitor, those visited also have their own expectations of how "others" should act. Cardillo is aware of the pitfalls. When exhibiting at the Salon Municipal in Montevideo in 1991, he involved a large number of local artists in an ambitious installation titled Charrúas Y Montes Criollos, about victims of the conquest and devastated forests, which deployed his signature vocabulary of mounds, castings, shrines, and wooden artifacts.
As Cardillo travels he collects not only soil, shells, stones, wood, and animal remains, but photographs and oral histories as well. Thus the art is a kind of reconstitution of the places he has visited, omens for his return, and an homage to the peoples of Amazonia. It is also an attempt to reverse the historical colonialist forays, even the relatively enlightened ones, by remembering the dead. Cardillo's "shrine aesthetic," often enlarged in scale, employs accumulation as a metaphor for geological, zoological, and cultural time. By playing the "negative" imprints against the "positive" casts and accretions, he maintains this kind of double image that as a by-product reflects on the pros and cons of cultural colonialism.
In Cardillo's art, as at archeological sites, nature and culture are merged, as are birth and death in cyclical land-based belief systems. Ecological warnings, land use, anthropology, religious and cultural studies are all grist to his mills. His materials are the apparently unearthed memorabilia of land, creatures, and people-evidence that lies beneath the home place. Araucaria-a pine tree that once flourished in the Atlantic coast jungles and is now practically extinct-has served as a symbol of loss. It produces a pineapple-shaped cone that is simultaneously seed, nut, and fruit, and served as a model for Cardillo's ceramic casts. Cardillo's installations are multilayered and multifaceted, often referring to local cultural forms, such as the cupí (Guaraní for anthill), which he metaphorically confounds with cerritos, or burial mounds, and covers with clay figures of seeds, plants, birds, and animals. Another example is the catafalque, in which he fuses the Amazonian drying rack for animal pelts and official funeral platforms to display the attributes of heroes and dignitaries. All of these are framed, or contained, within wooden structures that in themselves might stand for the international art context.
Imprints of various kinds, such as fossils-miraculous messengers from millions of years ago-are a favorite theme. Cardillo sees the clay castings and molds of natural materials that are a major part of his vocabulary as offshoots of the printmaking process. Animal skins, another favorite material, might also be seen as "prints"-two-dimensional surfaces drawn from the skeleton, from the life. Photography is another incarnation. Cardillo uses it to bridge the gaps (sometimes the abysses) between past and present. The awkward juxtapositions into which modern life forces indigenous people determined not to lose their ancestral cultures seem to be the subject of such works as the series Woman with Turtle I -III (1995-96), while Vanishing Tapestries (1992) uses photography to memorialize threatened species, including certain human beings.
Uruguay, says Cardillo, is the only country in Latin America to have thoroughly exterminated its indigenous populations; only mixed-bloods remain. His photographs contain narratives, almost theater in space and time, about the circumstances of their execution and about the loss of culture and consequent loss of responsibility for the ecology. Missionaries have played a large role in changing the culture, converting restless and uprooted young people, replacing the elders as carriers of knowledge. Photographs, like the series Woman with Turtle I -III, then, are studies in power and imbalance. The turtle in question, photographed at a local market, was over a hundred years old, and was rapidly sold for food. Defusing romanticism about the Indians, Cardillo uses this to show how contact with "civilization" causes people to change their behavior. The river is used as a garbage can, he says, and people will sell their daughters for a can of sardines. The frontier towns where he works are the contact zones, the sites of any number of dramas, which become the raw materials for his art.
Nostalgia has often been denigrated in postmodern scholarship, but many artists (especially those concerned with the revival of national identities after political cataclysms) have resisted such generalizations and called attention to the lessons that can be learned for the future from looking back at the past with a critical eye, tinged perhaps with an understandable, if usually unrealistic, longing. Cardillo's art might be said to be nostalgic (in the positive sense) on two levels. He looks back to historical time as he considers the pasts of indigenous cultures in Uruguay, but he also looks back to (and visits) his native land, although he has lived in New York City since 1981.
The mirror, frequently prominent in Cardillo's art, can be seen as a literal "reflection" of cultural reciprocity, and of such wanderings, as well as what Pratt has called "the mirror dance of colonial meaning-making."5 Anthropologists like to play with the mirror image; Claude Levi-Strauss compared "the savage mind" to "a room full of mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other…without being strictly parallel,"6 The mirror represents both order and disorder, location and disorientation, and it has a special symbolic place in Aztec and Mayan cultures. One of Cardillo's photo-silkscreened mirror pieces depicts Tlazolteotl (the Aztec goddess of fertility). In 1968, Robert Smithson executed and wrote about a series of works called "mirror displacements" informed by fictional visits from Texcatlipoca of the "smoking mirror," who told him "you must travel at random, like the first Mayans. You risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art."7 Cardillo, too, is willing to travel in the contact zones.



1. Pascual Venegas Filardo, Viajeros a Venezuela en los siglos XIX y XX (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1973), p.14.

2. Caren Kaplan, Questions of Travel (Durham: Duke University Press), p.101ff.

3. See Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York: Pantheon, 1983; reprint, New York: The New Press, 1993).

4. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p.185.

5. Ibid., p.136.

6. As quoted in Robert Smithson, "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucaton," in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979), p.94.

7. Ibid., p.95.