From Nature to History / Ángel Kalenberg

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."

Gigantic / 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 photorealism.
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 blow-up, 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 the cosmos".

Reliquaries / 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."

Cross-breeding / 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.

Crates / 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.

Warning / 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 cupi 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 Negro.
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).

Cupi degli uccelli / Here, in the Venice Biennale installation, Cupi degli Uccelli (2001) is a new version of a cupi, 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 cupi 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 cupi 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 Cupi 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 cupi 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."

Appropriation / 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, cross-breeding, 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."

Ángel Kalenberg
Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales
Montevideo, Uruguay