Rimer Cardillo and La Quebrada de los Cuervos / Victor Zamudio-Taylor


AH KEV HO EYEA ZIM / We always come back on purpose
-Edgar Heap of Birds 1

Upon first seeing Uruguay, in 1531, navigator Pedro Lopes de Sousa encountered the colonial limits of his European language: "The beauty of this land," he wrote, "cannot be described."2 Instead, Lopes de Sousa and other cronistas classified and quantified the vast Native flora and fauna (and peoples), without ever "quoting" or making reference to Indigenous cultural systems. Thus, in discourse and practice, the Indigenous peoples were stripped of their language and texts. Difference became "lo barbaro" in the modern project of nation building. In the nineteenth century, Indigenous genocide and European immigration became the underside of Uruguay's "foundational fictions," which instilled pride in not being like the rest of (mestizo) Latin America.

"Uruguay," Rimer Cardillo explains, "historically, has had its gaze on Europe, and turned its back to its Indigenous geographies and cultures."3 But, if Uruguay lives in the paradox of Lopes de Sousa's words (in control of the land, but unable to describe its beauty), Cardillo reaches back to the languages displaced, and gives a voice and presence to those silenced and absent from official narratives. His installation La Quebrada de los Cuervos, under the sign of excavation, unearths and makes vivid a remote Native American past that has been razed and erased in the (Western) construction of Uruguayan history. Through evocation of ways of being and knowing, the past is actualized and becomes part of a social agenda regarding identity. Inspired by a notion of archeology that rewrites and reinscribes experiences that have already been lived,4 the disappeared appear and the remote is made present in an other cultural geography.

"In the west," James Clifford notes, "nature is usually seen as the starting point-the raw material- of history."5 But destructive productivity and obscene accumulation have transformed nature and many worlds to a point of no return, so that "the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant."6 La Quebrada de los Cuervos retrieves the traces of difference hidden in the ruins of progress, hidden in the opposition between nature and culture. What returns, then, is not the past, but the paradox of language, a paradox "captured" in the Nahuatl line "only on earth do our words remain."7 Thus, Roberto Evangelista and Regina Vater can proclaim, "And despite massacres the indigenous memory is still breathing."8

"To a Western gaze," Cardillo explains, "the landscapes of Ithaca and La Quebrada de los Cuervos [a gorge in Uruguay] appear 'untouched.' Yet both landscapes have been known, inhabited, and marked by Indigenous cultures across time in such a manner that 'nature' does not appear assaulted or destroyed."9 Conceptually, the installation La Quebrada de los Cuervos involves quoting a representation of one landscape (Uruguay's Gorge of the Crows) as an immanent cultural sign in the (con)text of another (Ithaca's gorges). Working in the form of a "culture/collage,"10 the site-specific installation at Cornell will be composed of three interacting elements: a banner, a "cupí," and text. A banner consisting of nine six-by-ten-foot panels, silk-screened with black-and-white photographs taken at La Quebrada de los Cuervos during recent fieldwork, will be placed on the side wall of the Johnson Museum of Art. Parallel to the marks human culture has made on nature, the banner shows the marks of the work process in terms of variable tonalities and contrasts. Nature itself will in turn mark the banner as a cultural sign in the process of weathering, or of "subtracting the 'finish' of the environment."11

A cupí - an Indigenous cone-form pile of earth- is to be constructed beneath the banner and in front of the side window of the Johnson Museum of Art. The word "cupí" is guarani for "anthill." Cardillo reclaimed the Indigenous word to rename what is known throughout Uruguay as a "cerrito" (little hill). The cupí was the burial form of many Indigenous cultures of present-day Uruguay. In the cupí, many bodies were buried, in different postures, along with animals and everyday artifacts. The cupí of the installation La Quebrada de los Cuervos will be made of earth and slate from the landscape surrounding the Cornell University campus. The function of the cupí in La Quebrada de los Cuervos is ceremonial: it renders homage to the extreme experiences endured by Indigenous peoples.

The banner and the cupí "map" Uruguayan landscape cum history onto the outside of the Johnson Museum of Art. The third element of the installation "reads" the cupí through text displayed on the inside window of the museum. This display will consist of copies of historical and contemporary materials on the Indigenous experience, drawn from literary, ethnographical, and documentary texts. From inside the museum lobby, this "culture/collage" of writing will "frame" the cupí and provide a conceptual framework for La Quebrada de los Cuervos. Together, both perspectives-outside and inside-deconstruct the boundaries between nature and culture.

Five hundred years after the invasion of Native lands, domineering aesthetic and cultural constructions still seek more to conquer in what Jimmie Durham calls "a never-ending search for true virgin territory."12 This process subsists on blurring different histories. In contrast, Cardillo's site-specific installation seeks to create extended and shifting metaphors of Indigenous cultures in a geography of the Americas understood as multiple and hybrid. Cardillo's project, while having a specificity grounded in the Uruguayan historical process, shares with works of Native American and Brazilian artists a desire to recover memory, and the forging of a contemporary spirituality grounded in the tradition of an other experience of nature.


To understand the cupí is, in part, to
  appreciate these Aztec riddles that reflect Indigenous
  cultures' intimate relationship with nature:
  "What is a little blue-green jar filled with popcorn?"
  Answer: "It is the sky."
  "What is it that bends us all over the world?"
  Answer: "The maize tassel."
  "What is a mountainside that has a spring of water in it?"
  Answer: "Our nose."13


1. Edgar Heap of Birds, "Born from sharp rocks,"The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art, ed. Susan Hiller (London, England, and New York City: Routledge, 1991): 343.
2. Pedro Lopes de Sousa, Diario de Navegacion (1531); emphasis added.
3. Rimer Cardillo, interview by Victor Zamudio-Taylor, March 1993, New York City.
4. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (New York City: Pantheon Books, 1972): 138-40.
5. James Clifford, "Of Other Peoples: Beyond the 'Savage' Paradigm," discussion with Virginia Dominguez and Trinh J. Minh Ha, Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1987): 143.
6. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York City: Herder and Herder, 1972): 3.
7. MSS Cantares Mexicanos, Fol. 5: v, quoted in Miguel Leon-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind (Norman, Oklahoma, and London, England: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990): 71.
8. Roberta Evangelista and Regina Vater, Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists (exhibition catalogue), ed. Guy Brett (New York City and London, England: Verso, in association with Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and Cornerhouse Greater Manchester Arts Centre Ltd, Manchester, England; 1990): 94.
9. Rimer Cardillo, interview by Victor Zamudio-Taylor, June 1993, New York City.
10. See the concept of "Ethnographic Surrealism" proposed by James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1988): 117-52.
11. Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: MIT Press, 1993): 16.
12. Jimmie Durham, "The Search for Virginity,' The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art, ed. Susan Hiller (London, England, and Hew York City: Routledge, 1991): 289.
13. Nahuatl riddles, re-compiled in Book W of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun's Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, ed. Arthur J. 0. Anderson and Charles Dibble (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research and University of Utah, 1950-1969): 237-40.