Vanishing Histories:
Rimer Cardillo and the Aesthetics of Reclamation and Renewal
Marysol Nieves


Forgive me
if when I want to tell my life
it's the soil I recount.
Such is the earth.
When it grows in your blood,
you grow.
If it dies in your blood,
you die.
-Pablo Neruda, And Yet 1

The work of Rimer Cardillo focuses on the representation of nature as a site for historical and social inscription, a virtual palimpsest for (re)voicing and (re)writing the past as a strategy for contesting dominant narratives and for the reinvention of communal and individual identities. For Cardillo, nature is perceived as both a reservoir for memory-a silent, yet vigilant witness to the collective history of conquest endured by indigenous cultures and the destruction of the land-and as a powerful source of spiritual regeneration and transformation. Thus, his artistic practice posits an aesthetics of reclamation and renewal which functions at the intersection of "the archeological and the propositional, the residual and the emergent, [and] the past and the future."2 Cardillo's work critiques the traditional opposition between nature and culture, whereby nature is viewed as a resource for culture-raw material that must be molded, adapted, and dominated in order to comply with a western notion of culture and progress. It is this secularized view of nature that the artist attributes to the genocide of indigenous peoples and the ongoing decimation of the environment. Consequently, Cardillo's work advocates for a return to a cosmological vision that acknowledges the interconnectedness between culture, history, humankind, and nature. His work represents a symbolic recuperation of the land as a potent source of social, spiritual, and ecological healing.
Rimer Cardillo was born in 1944 in Montevideo, Uruguay, and received his formal training primarily in Uruguay and Germany as a printmaker. In 1979, Cardillo left Uruguay and moved to the United States,3 where he continued to develop a body of work he had initiated in Montevideo, in direct response to that country's military coup of 1973. Like many displaced or exiled artists from Latin America (i.e., Luis Camnitzer, Carlos Capelan, Ismael Frigerio, Catalina Parra, Ana Tiscornia, Eugenia Vargas, and Regina Vater, among others), Cardillo became increasingly concerned with the reconstruction of memory as an important artistic and political strategy for combating the imposed silence and institutionalized amnesia often associated with these repressive regimes. His work during this period was comprised of an allegorical series of small engravings, etchings, and mezzotints depicting insects muffled, pinned, pressed, and trapped in gauze. Although Cardillo asserts that this series evolved initially from his fascination with insects and a quasi-scientific or taxonomic approach to his subject matter,4 he acknowledges its political content vis à vis the environment of fear, intimidation, and violence that prevailed at the time, and states, "At that terrible moment, spurred on by self-repression, I ended up making tiny etchings that measured one-square inch on the drawing table, as in were making works of art in secret. It was an act of tremendous self-censure."5 Ritual Box (1982) and Nebulous Rites (1983-88) -two discrete prints depicting box-like containers-although made after his move to New York, are consistent with this early series of works, while also signaling the artist's growing interest in boxes and reliquaries which would occupy much of Cardillo's production during the mid-1980s. The traumatic effects of torture and imprisonment are evoked in the haunting image of two butterflies bolted and trapped within a translucent box in Ritual Box, while in Nebulous Rites the fossilized imprints of dissected insects displayed in a container evince the emotional and social pathos of loss.
The transition from works on paper to sculptural works is evident in Reliquary (1983-88), comprised of a series of painstakingly rendered etchings of butterflies that have been cut out and mounted in a series of cotton-lined modular framed units arranged within a larger portable case and displayed under a glass vitrine atop a wooden pedestal. Reliquary reveals an almost obsessive preoccupation with the classification, exhibition, and research practices associated with the study and display of natural artifacts and specimens, while serving as a significant point of departure for the artist's increasing interest in and concern about environmental issues. Cardillo's desire to conserve and protect nature is implicit in his appropriation of the reliquary, a sacred container or portable altar for the preservation of bodily organs attributed to a saint or martyr. Moreover, Cardillo's use of the reliquary form and his replacement of its traditional content with actual and/or references to organic materials, which is also evident in two later works, Mink Reliquary (1993) and Mulita's Reliquary (1995), metaphorically underscore the profound connection between the ecological and the sacred-nature as an essential manifestation of spirituality. In this sense, Cardillo's conception of nature is not unlike that of other Latin Americans, for whom the cultural traditions of Native American and African populations have infused European culture with a belief in the spirituality of the land as "the residing place of the gods and the birthplace of all life."6 "In this set of beliefs, nature supplies the foundation for the health and survival of mankind. Man and nature are one. The universe is stable and ruled by natural laws."7 In Mulita's Reliquary and Mink Reliquary, Cardillo constructs two shrine-like structures from recycled wood and other found materials gathered from his travels in South America and from his home in the Hudson River Valley. Each reliquary contains a terra cotta cast molded from the remains of an armadillo or a mink-fragile reminders of our need to conserve the environment and of the increasingly precarious balance of the natural world.
While the reliquary has had a pervasive presence within Cardillo's work since the mid-1980s, it also provided the genesis for his eventual incursion into installation works, particularly the large, wooden altarpieces which characterized his production during the later part of the decade. Works such as Amazonia Altar (1989), Memorial Diptych (1989) (not in exhibition), Memorial Triptych (1989) (not in exhibition), and Silent Barrack (1989) recall the previous reliquary structures that have been expanded and extended beyond the confines of a pedestal. The intimacy of the earlier works now give way to an almost baroque monumentality reminiscent of colonial altarpieces. The heightened drama and the massive scale of these works connotes a level of assurance and defiance indicative of the artist's new found freedom from the external and political constraints imposed on the earlier works. For Cardillo, as with many artists faced with the burden of displacement, exile, or uprootedness, the physical distance from his homeland has resulted in a body of work that seeks to (re)construct a (re)membered past through a critical approach to the cultural context from which he was separated. Installations such as Amazonia Altar and Silent Barrack continue to posit nature as a sacred space for the recreation of history, memory, and ritual. However, Silent Barrack focuses on and exposes a more recent turbulent history, while Amazonia Altar investigates an archeological memory, which interweaves the ancestral alongside the contemporary. In these multi-layered installations, the references to a pre-conquest and colonial past and/or to the cultural practices and beliefs associated with indigenous communities represents a conscious effort to rescue and reclaim a collective history previously silenced or erased from (official) narratives. The references to the ceremonial and the spiritual in these works stem from this process of reclamation and "becomes an ultimate act of resistance against cultural domination."8 The wooden triptych Amazonia Altar rises above the viewer to reveal a large central panel. An amorphous piece of a tree limb is suspended from above, while a long metal rod is balanced against the altar's center panel and the floor below. The two lateral panels are equally impressive as they frame two large-scale paper rubbings that scarcely reveal the hidden traces embedded below their surface. Artist and curator Amalia Mesa-Bains refers to these drawings as "wall maps indicating primordial blueprints of ancient ruins."9 Moreover, their focus on the indexical, or the mark, bare a significant relationship to the artist's training as a printmaker. As a whole, this installation "reverberates like the last standing sentinel facing a force of destruction and acts as a lonely reminder of nature's grandeur."10 Silent Barrack consists of several components: a paper relief work framed within a large wooden structure, a metal rod, and a severed piece of a tree trunk clamped onto the edge of an old, discarded sink. Each element suggests a ceremonial function, while also revealing the artist's latent memories of his childhood and of Uruguay's recent violent past. The artist's recollections of hanging slaughtered animals and of a friend's disappearance and torture during the military dictatorship are poignantly and symbolically expressed in the haunting, lone image incised on the surface of the large wooden frame and in the residue of ashes and debris that line the bottom of the ceramic receptacle.
Cardillo's desire to uncover the fossilized and distant memories of his homeland would eventually lead him to return to Uruguay during the early 1990s to investigate the indigenous cultures which once inhabited this region. This voyage and his subsequent trips to some of the most remote parts of the South American continent are intrinsically linked to a process of recuperation of shared traditions and histories as a critical revision of hegemonic narratives and homogenous national identities. Cardillo's initial fieldwork would culminate in the site-specific installation Charrúas y Montes Criollos (1991) (not in exhibition), evocative of an archeological site intended to memorialize the devastated woodlands of the Uruguayan landscape-the Montes Criollos, and its former inhabitants-the Charrúas and other native peoples. Although rooted in a specific Uruguayan context, this installation also served to underscore the artist's broader concerns about the ecological destruction of this continent. In the accompanying catalogue, Cardillo states: "I am concerned with the fate of certain geographical locations that should be preserved in their original condition, recovered like sanctuaries, venerated as places for meditation and observation."11 Perhaps one of the most enigmatic elements of this installation was Cardillo's use of soil to create several cupí, a term used by the artist to refer to the mounds or tumuli reminiscent of the artificial hills of the Uruguayan aborigines. The term cupí is Guaraní for "anthill," and the artist reclaimed this indigenous word to designate the cerritos or little hills used as dwellings and burial sites by many native South American cultures. These rounded forms molded from earth embody a cyclical notion of nature in which life and death are interconnected. In her ground breaking publication, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, Lucy R. Lippard traces their presence back to prehistoric times and to various cultures:
'Disc barrows' (round, like an overturned bowl), 'long barrows' (trapezoidal), or 'conical barrows' are sometimes called mounts or mounds. . . . Whole necropolises of barrows are found in most European countries, as well as along the Mississippi Valley and in midwestern America, where 'effigy mounds' are also found in the forms of animals. Barrow and mound burials have been used in both hemispheres by consecutive social groups with different funerary styles. A single grave site may include evidence of cremation, individual and group burials, ritual dismemberment, scattered corpses and bones, corpses in fetal or stretched-out positions. Sometimes the bones or ashes are sheltered by remains of a wooden 'house, ' embedded in strata of different kinds of clay earth, circled by stones, bones, or ritual artifacts.12
Cardillo's cupí are typically encrusted with terra cottas cast from dead animals the artist has collected from his research trips to South America. Shaped like vessels, these ceramics are intended to recall the ancient craft of pottery-making in the Americas and symbolically represent receptacles for the preservation of memory. The incised lines embedded on the surface of these clay pieces are evocative of the body tattoos and mutilation rites used by indigenous peoples in this region as marks of tribal distinction or linked to other ceremonial practices.13 The monumental Cupí IV (1997-98) is covered with over 250 terra cottas in varying dimensions molded from the remains of numerous animals (e.g., armadillos, birds, fish, minks, pigeons, turtles, and wild ducks) from both Uruguay and the Hudson River Valley. Consistent with a " logic of indigenous construction, "14 the cupí's basic conical shape reflects an interest in adhering to fundamental methods of construction in an effort to (re)establish ties to this ancestral world and to avoid industrialized technological solutions. The image of the cupí in the context of Cardillo's work represents a significant development in the artist's archeological approach to memory. The cupí signifies the intersection between life and death, past and future, history and nature-a poignant metaphor for an aesthetics of reclamation and renewal. The ongoing themes of cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and spiritual regeneration acquire a heightened intensity that seeks to heal the wounds of a fractured, violent past through a redemptive memory rooted in spirituality and an understanding of the laws of nature.
The evocation of the archeological and the ceremonial is further explored in the powerful installations, Tlazolteotl I and II (1996-98), the former adorning the Museum's glass-enclosed atrium, and the latter displayed in the main gallery. Tlazolteotl I is comprised of two sets of six photo-silkscreened plexiglass panels adhered to several individual window panes located along the intersection of this massive glass structure, while in the gallery the installation consists of eighteen photo-silkscreened mirrored panels. In both instances, these multiple and fragmented images have been arranged in a grid format to emphasize their condition as constructed and contingent realities. Both installations are intended to summon the mythic presence of Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of childbirth, confession, and absolution, and are based on a stone sculpture depicting this female deity in a three-quarter pose, head bent slightly upwards and body squatted as she gives birth. In the lobby, the artist depicts two sets of images of the goddess facing each other along the north and east walls of this three story glass structure. While in the gallery, Cardillo computer-manipulates this image to create a double exposure of this pre-Colombian goddess. The resultant hybrid recalls ancient ceramic vessels and is intended to operate as an allegorical repository for the preservation of memory. The relationship to a vessel or container is also indicative of Tlazolteotl's role as the deity who purifies the souls of humankind by absorbing or consuming the evils they perpetrate. In accordance with Aztec mythology, once in a lifetime it is possible to receive forgiveness for all previous sins and it is the goddess Tlazolteotl who bestows this absolution.15 It is precisely this dual power oflife and redemption which Cardillo wishes to invoke in these works as a potent symbol of rebirth and regeneration. In Tlazolteotl II, references to the ancestral are also evident in the use of mirrors, a much venerated material among certain precolonial cultures. Moreover, the mirror reveals Cardillo's personal recollections of his father-a barber who would frequently speak to him from the refracted view of a mirror. The artist recreates this fractured view here in order to critique the often distorted historical accounts perpetuated by the dominant culture and in an effort to (re)construct and (re)write history from a vantage point of resistance.
Cardillo's preoccupation with unearthing South America's remote history as a strategy against the effacement of memory is also the subject of the dramatic wall installation, Vanishing Tapestries (1992). Comprised of five canvases printed with photo-silkscreened images of fossilized references to animals, plants, and humans (e.g., armadillos, birds, cactus, minks, wild ducks, skulls, and skeletal remains) arranged in a grid format and appropriated from anthropological, archeological, and other documentary sources from recent excavations conducted along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and Uruguay, as well as from the artist's own photographs, Cardillo's tapestries evince the overwhelming impact of colonialism and its aftermath in the Americas and its ultimate toll on human lives and natural resources. The serialized configuration suggests a process of classification and analysis reminiscent of the earlier insect reliquary works, and, along with the use of secondary sources and black-and-white photographs imbues this installation with an almost cool distance. However, far from being a dispassionate observer, Cardillo exposes the horror of cultural genocide and ecological desolation through the sheer monumentality of this work and the staggering number of images. His Vanishing Tapestries are akin to archeological sites in which the fossilized remnants of history have been permanently and defiantly etched upon the rugged terrain of the earth, and thus serve as constant reminders of a shared past that will never vanish from the collective psyche of a people.
The desire to salvage or recycle the fossilized remnants of nature is also evident in the sculptural objects, Turtle (1995-96), Claws (1997), and Ñandú (1997-98) (not in exhibition). The first is based on photographic documentation, while the latter two where either cast or made from actual animal remains. Turtle, a wire mesh skeletal structure, pays homage to this noble creature which according to pre-Colombian myth is linked to the concept of origins and considered the source of all other animals. Claws and Ñandú demonstrate the irrevocable impact of human intrusion in the natural habitat of this region's fauna. Claws is a particularly violent piece comprised of two deer hoofs welded together in opposite directions to form two hooks on either end. This haunting mixed-media work mimics the function assigned to these remains by frontiersmen and other local inhabitants who frequently use them to hang their hats or other garments. Likewise, Ñandú, made from the latex cast of a large bird, suggests the displays of specimens found in natural history museums and eerily echoes a sense of unparalleled devastation and loss.
Perhaps one of the most significant leitmotifs which characterizes Cardillo's artistic practice is the simultaneity of various spatial and temporal realities, of a latent ancestral past and an emergent contemporary reality. This overlay of cultures, traditions, and meaning is intrinsically connected to what cultural critic, James Clifford refers to as a "culture collage" -"moments [. . .] in which distinct cultural realities are cut from their [original] contexts and forced into jarring proximity [. . .] The cuts and sutures [. . .] are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work's raw data into a homogenous representation."16 The latter statement aptly describes the artist's series, Woman with Turtle I -III (1995-96). Based on a diaristic account of an unidentified indigenous woman attempting to sell a giant turtle along a crowded street the series is derived from photographs taken by the artist while conducting field research in the frontier town of Rio Pastaza in Cuenca, Equador. Subjected to a dual process of (de)construction and (re)construction, the images are computer manipulated, enlarged, cut into numerous fragments, photo-silkscreened onto individual sheets of 1950s vintage wallpaper samples, reconfigured, and pinned to the wall. The colorful wallpaper, with its banal patterns featuring flowers and smiling bunnies, creates an incongruous backdrop for the action unfolding in the photographs. This seemingly disparate juxtaposition between field documentation and mass-produced representations of an artificial and tame natural environment examines the nature/culture dichotomy as well as notions of ethnographic "purity" and "authenticity" vis à vis the study of indigenous and non-western cultures. This latter issue is related to what Clifford refers to as a "salvage paradigm"17 -a desire to rescue "authenticity" rooted in the belief that native peoples are condemned to the past in order "to remain genuine and pure: change is perversion and novelty is the betrayal of [their] essence, [the] distortion of true values and [the] corruption of [a] primary authenticity."18 Cardillo challenges this conception of identity and advocates for "an interconnected world, [in which] one is always, to varying degrees 'inauthentic': caught between cultures [and] implicated in others. Because discourse in global power systems is elaborated vis à vis, a sense of difference or distinctness can never be located solely in the continuity of culture or tradition. Identity is conjunctural, not essential."19 Thus, the contemporary image of a native woman amid a busy intersection in a South American frontier town simultaneously caught between the past and the present, tradition and progress, nature and technology raises fundamental questions about the formation of identity and the unprecedented overlay of cultures at the end of the twentieth century.
The creation of works based on field observations and photo-documentation gathered during research trips to this region continue to play an important role in such recent works as Dogs and Pheasants (1997-98), Gold Sticks and Frogs II (1998), and Woman with Manioc (1997-98). Dogs and Pheasants weaves together various narratives or vignettes that encompass the artist's observations of nature and wild life in the context of his travels and experiences in both North and South America. This mixed-media installation is comprised of a large canvas structure which simulates the form of a tent that has been removed from its traditional exterior environment and placed on an interior wall with steel cable used to create its triangular shape. A warm light emanates from within, creating a visual effect like that produced by a kerosene lamp. The surface of Cardillo's tent contains an oversized woodcut print depicting wild and stray dogs derived from sketches made in his journal during a recent trip to the Gran Sabana in Venezuela. A series of large terra cottas, cast from the remains of a pheasant killed by an automobile near the artist's home in upstate New York, are strategically and dramatically placed around and above the tent creating the effect of soaring birds in flight. Gold Sticks and Frogs II, a large photo-silkscreen and woodcut print on fabric, incorporates the artist's photographs along with field sketches of local fauna. The central image of a crippled man resting on the ground while grasping two wooden sticks used as crutches is symptomatic of the rampant disease and devastation which characterizes this region. Revealing an ever increasing involvement with the people and places encountered, Woman with Manioc weaves together numerous personal recollections within a complex, mixed-media wall piece, which bridges printmaking, photography, sculpture, and installation. The main panel depicts an elderly woman pealing manioc or cassava with a machete. A large armature shaped in the form of a human ear is suspended from and above this panel. The remaining two smaller units located on the left -side consists of a silkscreen stencil of fossilized images and a photo-negative of the mythic goddess, Tlazolteotl. To the far right, several small brass pieces contain photo-silkscreened images of a large canine. Woman with Manioc recreates several stories gathered while on the field and beyond: the artist's near fatal encounter with a dog, the image of a physician treating a small boy's ear infection in a remote Amazon village, the tender portrait of an elderly woman, and ancestral references to a precolonial history. In these works Cardillo fuses the disciplines of archeology, anthropology, ethnography, and history to reconstruct and recuperate multiple realities and experiences from a "standpoint of participant observer,... a form of both dwelling and travel in a world where [these] two experiences are less and less distinct."20
Indeed, in an ever-increasing global culture, Cardillo art practice posits a space for the mediation between the individual and the communal, the "regional" and the "universal." For Cardillo nature functions at the intersection of the personal and the collective, the past and the future, the local and the global. Nature is both a source for (re)discovering latent histories and for the investigation of emergent narratives. While rooted in local concerns and in a distinct cultural reality, Cardillo' focus on ecology is cognizant of the profound impact these issues have on seemingly distant and disconnected areas. However, the artist's approach avoids the modernist trap of privileging one reality over the other. Instead, Cardillo adopts a decidedly postmodern stance by assuming a parallel position that mediates between different cultures as well as between the realm of the particular and the communal, the local and the global."21
Within the context of contemporary art discourse, Cardillo's work reflects an ongoing concern for ecological issues that spans the artistic production of artists, such as Alice Aycock, Helen and Newton Harrison, Richard long, Robert Morris, Alan Sonfist, and Robert Smithson, all of whom were active in the earth art movement of the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, an for whom nature was a source for rediscovering social roots and a communal meaning for their art.22 Likewise, Cardillo's art practice may be placed within a more recent context of artists like Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Mark Dion, Juan Downey, Jimmie Durham, Ismael Frigerio, Ana Mendieta, Rafael Montanez-Ortiz, Eugenia Vargas, and Regina Vater, all of whom are concerned with the representation of nature and the future of the environment as a protest against the excesses of post-industrial societies. Ultimately, Cardillo's artistic practice represents a poignant desire to preserve and (re)establish the sacred bonds with nature as the final vestige of individual and collective histories and as a source of life and hope for recoding the future. Thus, his work is tantamount to a symbolic recuperation of nature as an agent of cultural, spiritual, and ecological healing-a potent combination for an aesthetics of reclamation and renewal.



1. In Manuel Duran and Margery Safir, Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p.vii.
2. Chon Noriega, "Installed in America," in Revelaciones/Revelations: Hispanic Art of Evanescence, exhibition catalogue (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1993), unpaginated.
3. Cardillo first came to the United States as an artist-in-residence invited by the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. In 1981, he settled in New York, where he continues to live today.
4. Conversation with author, November 18, 1996.
5. As quoted in Beatriz Savino, "Earth: Latin America's Visions, Ten Latin American Artists in the United States," in Earth: Latin America's Visions, exhibition catalogue (Caracas, Venezuela and New York, New York: Museo de Bellas Artes and Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1989), pp.l0-11.
6. Suzanne Garrigues, Yadira de la Rosa, and Mona Pennypacker, "Field Notes for Recreating Our Home, " in Rejoining the Spiritual: The Land in Contemporary Latin American Art, exhibition catalogue (Baltimore: Maryland Institute College of Art, 1994), p.24.
7. Inverna Lockpez, "The Captured land," in Rejoining the Spiritual, p.6.
8. Amalia Mesa-Bains, "Curatorial Statement," in Ceremony of Spirit: Nature and Memory in Contemporary Latino Art, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco: The Mexican Museum, 1993), p.9.

9. Amalia Mesa-Bains, "The Archeological Aesthetic of Rimer Cardillo: Stratum, Element, and Process" in Rimer Cardillo: Altares, exhibition catalogue (New York: INTAR Gallery, 1989), p. 4.
10. Ibid., p.4.
11. As quoted in Alicia Haber, "The Scenario of Memory" in
Charrúas y Montes Criollos: A los quinientos anos de la conquista europea, exhibition catalogue (Montevideo, Uruguay: Salon Municipal de Exposiciones, 1991), p.23.
12. Lucy R. Lippard, "Stones," in Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York: Pantheon, 1983; reprinted New York: The New Press, 1993), p. 22, 24.
13. Alicia Haber in "The Scenario of Memory, " p. 20.
14. Ibid., p. 27.
15. C.A. Burland and Werner Forman, Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror: The Gods and Cultures of Ancient Mexico (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975),pp.36-37, 106.
16. See James Clifford, "Ethnographic Surrealism, ' in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.146.

17. See James Clifford, "Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm, " discussion with Virginia Dominguez and Trinh T. Minh-ha in Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York and Seattle: Dia Art Foundation and Bay Press, 1987), pp. 121-150.
18. Ticio Escobar, "Issues in Popular Art, " in Beyond the Fantastic: Art Criticism from Latin America, ed. Gerardo Mosquera (London, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute of International Visual Arts and The MIT Press, 1995), p.91.
19. James Clifford, "Introduction: The Pure Products Go Crazy,' in The Predicament of Culture, p.11.
20. Ibid., p.9.

21. Thomas McEvilley, Continental Drift," in Space of Time: Contemporary Art from the Americas, exhibition catalogue (New York: Americas Society), p. 18.
22. Lucy R. Lippard, "Introduction," in Overlay, p.5.