Ancestral Mutualisms - Mutuum
One hundred and twenty million years ago, when dinosaurs lived on Earth, a mutually beneficial interaction started between small winged creatures and flowering plants. This ancestral relationship, known as mutualism in biology, had a great impact on the evolution of life on Earth.
Mutualisms are associations between species that are not related, in which both parties receive benefits. For example, lets consider how a hummingbird relates to the plants it pollinates or how a coral polyp relates to the algae that live within its cells. These mutualisms have endured for millions of years and are the reason why there are millions of species, especially in the tropics.
Due to its great biological diversity, Colombia has a very important role in studying and protecting biodiversity at a global level. Even if our country has a relatively small territory (20,116 km2), it has one of the largest biodiversity indexes: 1,889 bird species, 22,840 flowering plant species, 3,274 butterfly species, 4,010 orchid species, and so on… However, this magnificent and exuberant richness is endangered. The severity of the worldwide species’ extinction rates can be compared to any of the five massive extinctions that hit the tree of life in the past. And even if approximately 99.9% of the species that have inhabited Earth have become extinct due to natural processes, we have the moral duty to act and protect the natural legacy that we have and that we might lose forever.
A tangible example of our dependence on the natural world can be illustrated with this number: approximately 80% of the vegetable food that we eat on a daily basis would disappear without the bees’ pollination. With each species that disappears, we lose not only millions of evolutionary history, but also a great number of necessary ecological interactions such as mutualisms. The great ecologist and conservationist Daniel H. Janzen said that “what escapes the eye is a much more insidious kind of extinction: the extinction of ecological interactions.”
Even if we have always paid little attention to the amazing natural resources that our country has, we have the great opportunity of knowing and protecting this natural richness, and the reflection from an artistic perspective can help attain this purpose. This is exactly one of the achievements of Ana González’s work. Her Mutuum work is a detailed, thorough and learned research, about the literal and allegorical meaning of the biological concept of mutualism.
Mutuum particularly explores the intriguing relationship between the Gongora orchids and the Euglossa bees that live abundantly in Colombia’s tropical rain forests. Based on the research made by my study group during the last 15 years, we have been able to understand how, when and where the species involved in this relationship evolved. We have also been able to understand the mechanisms that have generated new species and the selection processes that have shaped them. Bees and orchids have captured scientists’ interest since Darwin’s time, because of the unusual behavior that the males have for collecting scents. Throughout their life, the male bees collect aromatic substances (scents) from the flowers of several orchid groups and store them in some specialized cavities in their hind legs to use them later on in courting female bees. In exchange, the plants are pollinated. This association is so intimate that the orchids only produce fragrances as a reward and therefore, the male bees are their only pollinators. If one species of bee disappears, around three species of orchids will disappear.
I have worked with Ana during the last year in order to develop the Mutuum project; she does it from the art aesthetics and I do it from the scientific approach. It has been an enriching experience for both and my participation in this project has given me a unique perspective about the ability that art has to relate to scientific knowledge, natural history and organic evolution. Likewise, this collaboration has demonstrated that my scientific research gains strength when interpreted from the art perspective. By establishing this intimate dialogue between science, natural world and aesthetics, the barrier that has prevented science and detailed knowledge of the natural world from reaching people has been removed. This collaboration demonstrates that art can be used as a way of effectively spreading abstract, difficult and sometimes esoteric scientific concepts. It also shows that collaborative dialogues like this one might one day have an impact on preserving biological diversity.
Ana’s work should be seen as an original and relevant way of exploring the connection between the natural world and the social reality of our country. It should also be seen as an innovative proposition that connects knowledge areas while it tells an original story inspired by our country’s natural history. This natural history grows and replicates everywhere, even when nobody knows it’s there.
July of 2015
Santiago R. Ramírez
Department of Evolution and Ecology
University of California, Davis
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
“Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire
Trees, flowers, bees, grass, rivers, mountains, clouds, stones… Nature is a great metaphor. A landscape is a projection of human feelings, a cultural construction that can be decoded as a textual system in which its objects, such as plants, animals, insects, minerals and water, are interpreted as symbols or allegories.
The romantic French painter Eugene Delacroix said that nature is just an idea. But a landscape is not only a place for contemplating; we live in it, we inhabit it, it surrounds us and affects us, we move through it, walk through it and get lost in it. In addition to valuing it, we try to dominate and conquer it. The landscape also moves, changes, it is a natural scenery mediated by culture; a place where there is an exchange between what the human being and nature, between what we think of as us and something foreign. From this perspective a landscape is not a pristine entity free from human intentions; on the contrary, it is a cultural construction, like a power agent that affects our relationship with nature.
By representing landscapes in art, the human spirit has attempted to understand its environment. However, nature does not know about what we call landscape. And we know very little or nothing about how nature has evolved during 40 million years in decentralized, horizontal and transversal processes between species.
Ana María González’ installations suggest a kind of landscape in which different views of nature merge. In her projects, nature is not only perceived as an endless source of resources with economic and scientific benefits, as an indomitable frontier or a paragon of beauty. It is also an example of reciprocity, of other kinds of knowledge and of different ways of transforming the usual dynamics of possession, depredation and consumption.
In the Nymphaea salvaje installation, which was originally set in the Tropicario of the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden in Bogotá, there is a harmony between natural and artificial elements, such as the paradise garden and the brutal jungle, the traces of colonization and the ancestral knowledge of the Huitoto community. In this composition of 39 handmade flowers in white Limoges porcelain, there are five native plants of the Colombian Amazonian jungle: Victoria Regia, Passiflora, Warczewiczella Martinata, Dionaea Muscipula and the Góngora orchid. This is enriched by an audio that blends nature sounds with whistles and piano music.
It seems as if Nymphaea Salvaje developed from the aesthetics and the relationship that the romantic artists and the botanist travellers from the end of the 19th century had with the landscape. However, even if the work takes into account that ideal European landscape, it is a way of contextualizing knowledge once again; it is a review of the model from the same place that has represented it. The flowers’ scientific names, the porcelain, the piano and the greenhouse are elements that are loaded with a symbolism that contrasts with the tropical jungle landscape and with the indigenous knowledge that acknowledges these five flowers, from which the work is inspired, as sacred entities.
Likewise, Mutuum, her most recent project, made in collaboration with the biologist Santiago Ramírez attempts to account for a social order based on collaboration and reciprocity between different species. The work shows us a non-opposing heterogeneous relationship that merges and complements itself. Using a variety of scientific objects such as pictures, data, taxonomies of floras and insects, location maps as well as artistic objects like porcelain pieces, paintings and embroideries, Mutuum accounts for the sophisticated relationship between the Gongora orchid and the Euglossa bee.
As science tells us, these species have interacted during millions of years in an equal and balanced way for their sexual reproduction1. The orchid needs the pollen that the Euglossa bee transports for its pollination, and the bee, in turn, needs the orchid’s scent to attract the female bee and reproduce. In this balanced exchange, the insect turns into the flower’s sexual organ and the flower provides the scent that is necessary to attract its female for mating. This kind of interaction improves the survival opportunities that individuals from different species have, and is known as Mutualism2 in biology, from which the name of the project stems.
Mutuum is about a cooperative interaction as opposed to an interaction between a species that has more power than another one. At the same time it shows another kind of collaboration between art and science. The project attempts to broaden the understanding of certain biological processes by means of art tools, trying to inspire less devastating ways of relating to nature. Thus,
1 The males from the Euglossa bee species are characterized by collecting aromatic substances from certain kinds of orchids. These orchids have no nectar, which means that they do not offer food to their pollinators. However, the males are attracted by its strong scent and visit them to collect these aromatic compounds and store them in their hind legs. The males use these scents for producing the necessary sexual attraction to find a female and mate. And while they collect the scents, they pollinate the Gongora orchid.
2 From Latin mutuus: reciprocal, mutual and mutare: change
Santiago Ramírez’ scientific investigation is complemented by the symbolic, romantic and affective interpretation that González makes of mutualism, since she works using her observation, contemplation, senses and gallantry as ways of conservation and healing.
This kind of exchange between disciplines is similar to the one that the installation Nymphaea Salvaje seeks to produce, by creating conditions so there is an encounter of knowledge without hierarchy; thus, it brings together a botanical garden3, that symbolizes Western scientific thought, and the knowledge of the indigenous communities that have lived during centuries with these plants in the jungle. The installation gives a place back to a knowledge that has been displaced by the implicit violence that is within the colonization processes, which seeking a landscape ideal usually attained by exploitation, destroyed the different systems and narratives that obstructed the empires’ ambitions over the tropics.
In a kind of blend, like the one that can be sensed in the titles “mutual” and “wild nymph”, these installations suggest identity reciprocity, without fixed territories. They destroy the binary structures by showing the displacement exercises of territorialization, like the one of the orchid when it turns into a bee and the bee when it evolves into a flower. The orchid de-territorializes itself by adapting into the bee, turning into an image of the bee and the same happens to the bee when it transforms into the reproductive system of the orchid and re-territorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Thus, the indigenous knowledge recovers the scientific space and from science we recover segregated knowledge.
Displacement has been one of González’ central topics, and other ways of removal are also present in her work, although not in an explicit way. During more than ten years she has focused her work on the indigenous communities of the entire country (Córdoba, Chocó, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, Caquetá, Amazonas) that have been displaced to Bogotá, running away from violence. In a knowledge
3 From the 18th century on, the European botanical gardens changed their mission of promoting learning and glorifying God, to studying and cultivating the plants brought from the new world’s colonies. Instead of being truly scientific spaces, they were a place to plant, show, collect and exchange plant seeds that had a great commercial potential. There was a time when in the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s botanical garden there was a Victoria Regia, but it died for lack of good care.
4 The Victoria Regia, from the Nymphaea family, is the largest water lily known. An English botanist taxonomized it and named it in honor of Queen Victoria of England. Instead, in the Huitoto etnia, beliefs are based on words: rafúe “something that comes out of the mouth” from ra “thing” and fúe “mouth”. Names refer to an ancestral tradition that takes into account the kindness and intrinsic qualities of each plant, which should be named according to its uses. Thus, the Victoria Regia or Joraimo comuide ratoki in their language is “a water plant that purifies water.”
exchange, the artist teaches them how to produce handcrafted objects that can be easily sold, respecting their ancestral knowledge and traditional elaboration in exchange for information about the flowers that have the power of purifying and transforming the world4.
With other kinds of gestures, González disagrees with the natural resources exploitation that has been made in the name of progress. For example, many of the exportation goods from America to Europe during the seventeenth century were vegetable pigments that came from insects, plants and tree bark from the tropical rain forest. From the Victoria Regia’s roots you can extract an intense black that the indigenous people use to dye their hair. However, the artist prefers not to dye the porcelain, so that it highlights and contrasts even more against the lush shades of green and nature’s colors. Likewise, the great adaptive possibilities of the piano music composed by Miguel Carillo in both installations give evidence of how nature transforms into civilization leaving behind the devastating marks of the consequences of natural resource exploitation.
The Amazonian jungle, humid and tropical is the opposite of a botanical garden. Its density doesn’t even let you imagine it as a landscape, or maybe it is an imposing one that stuns you with its verticality and its countless shades of green. Only the indigenous communities that live in it have the necessary knowledge to integrate to the jungle, to use the information of each resource without conquering or dominating it, only understanding its immensity, its plenitude. The traditional taxonomies belong to an arboreal model, vertical and hierarchical. By contrast, in the mutualist model, there is no center, no root, no stem, no branch, all of them are the same, there is no power structure or authority, because it is an open, heterogeneous and multiple structure that has no measurement units.
Such as Muutum and Nymphaea salvaje suggest, the relationship with nature does not consist of conquering a dominating knowledge. Instead, it should be a way of achieving its multiplicity, connecting it, fastening it, and alternating the knowledge. For each of the prototypes and the porcelain pieces, González takes about four to six months trying out ways of assembling and firing the parts. Then, she cuts the petals, pistils, stamens, and stem and very quickly assembles each flower or bee, between three people, in order to put it in the oven while the shape is still alive.
Mutuum and Nymphaea Salvaje propose correspondences, they combine knowledges, and they harmoniously invoke the collective and careful work of making porcelain pieces. It is a deep understanding of a collaborative system, like the one that operates in nature, with many branches, a connectable structure, without compartments, open and susceptible to participation. It is like a kind of horizontal organism, equitable and adaptive like the rhizome; grass is a rhizome, the same as potatoes and ant colonies.
It is about a balanced organization that does not follow hierarchical subordination rules, but an interaction in which any element can affect or alter others. The Góngora’s and the Euglossa’s mutualism connect in a mutual loan in an exchange of equivalent benefits, because in spite of being different, they are able to grow, multiply and expand in a mutual relationship.
The tree and the root have been symbols of the Western way of thinking, a dualist thinking that the rhizome wants to dismantle. Facing duality, these projects form connection and multiplicity systems. Instead of reducing itself to a single species, it expands in the dialogue between them.
Nymphaea salvaje “floats” like the Victoria Regia, between the understanding of nature based on the classification model of the imperial Europe (botanical expeditions, their collectors’ gardens, and taxonomy) and the bottomless richness of the Amazonian jungle, which can only be grasped by those who have learned to extract the knowledge from the territory.
As Baudelaire said, a landscape is a “forest of symbols”. At the same time, it shows us that in nature, like in language, signs are open to a multitude of interpretations. The way you use each sign gives it its meaning, that way nature is freed and in our horizon there is the possibility of a fertile, inclusive, strange, free and abundant world.
Associate teacher, Art Department
Universidad de los Andes
by Mariangela Méndez, Associate teacher, Art Department, Universidad de los Andes
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
“Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire
Trees, flowers, grass, rivers, mountains, clouds and stones… Nature is a metaphor. A landscape is the reflection of human feelings, a cultural construction that can be decoded as a textual system in which the objects, such as trees, flowers, stones and water, are read as symbols, as allegories of something else. Nature is just an idea, said Eugene Delacroix, a painter from the French romanticism.
Representing a landscape in art has been one of those attempts from the human spirit to create harmony with the environment; however, nature does not have a clue of what we call landscape.
A landscape is not only the contemplation space; we live the landscape, we inhabit it, it surrounds us and alters us, we can move through it, walk through it and get lost in it. We have tried not only to appreciate it, but also to dominate and conquer it. A landscape also moves and changes, just as the way we understand it. A landscape is a natural scenery mediated by culture; it is a space that is presented and represented at the same time, it is a way of exchange between what is human and natural, between what is ours and foreign. A landscape is not a pure entity, free of human intentions. On the contrary, it is a cultural construction; it is a power agent that affects our relationship with nature.
The Nymphaea salvaje installation especially made for the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden is a landscape of contrasts; it is a composition of 39 flowers that have been handmade, one by one, in white Limoges porcelain. It has five different species that are native to Colombia’s Amazonian jungle: Victoria Regia, Passiflora, Warczewiczella Marginata, Dionaea Muscipula and Góngora orchid. A blend of nature sounds and whistles that transform into piano music accompany the spectator in his walk through the space where natural and artificial elements are combined, the paradise garden and the brutal jungle, traces of colonization and ancestral knowledge.
Nymphaea Salvaje seems to have been developed from the aesthetics and the attitudes toward landscapes from the romantic artists and the travelers from the end of the 19th century. The taxonomic classification of the plants, that has its origin when botany and medicine separated, was used by the European botanical gardens in their tropical colonies in order to name the new plants they discovered. This scientific ambition from the 19th century contrasted with the elaborate flower porcelains that decorated the shelves of the European elites and the exotic and remote landscape paintings that seemed to be untouched by civilization. These settings attracted romantic painters who believed that in these landscapes they could still find the order and “natural” harmony before human intervention.
However, even if Nymphaea salvaje takes into account this ideal European landscape from the 19th century, it is more than an affirmation of this model, it seeks to set the knowledge context once again; it is a revision of this “ideal” from the place that has represented it. The scientific names of the flowers, the porcelain, the piano and the greenhouse are elements that are full of symbolism that contrast with the tropical jungle landscape and the indigenous knowledge that recognizes these five flowers, in which this work is inspired, as sacred bodies. In a process of restitution Nymphaea salvaje returns the place of knowledge, within a botanical garden, to the communities who have lived with these plants for many years. It is a knowledge that has been displaced by the violence implicit in the colonization processes, which following the ideal landscape, usually an ideal achieved by means of exploitation, annulled different systems and narratives that were in the way of the appropriation and colonization process of the tropical landscape.
Displacement has always been a central topic in González’ work, even though it is not always explicit. González has been working for more than 10 years with indigenous communities all over the country (Córdoba, Chocó, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, Caquetá, Amazonas), that have been displaced to Bogotá or that have arrived to the capital running away from violence. It is a knowledge exchange, in which the artist teaches them how to produce handcrafted objects that can be easily sold, respecting their ancestral knowledge and elaboration, and they give her information such as which flowers have the power of purifying the world’s negative energy.
In a kind of blend that can be perceived from its title, the work “Ninfa salvaje” (wild nymph) combines knowledge, or knowledge finds its own space. The Victoria Regia, from the Nymphaea family is the largest water lily known. According to western botanical history, the English botanist John Lindley made the first description of this plant in October of 1837, named in honor of Queen Victoria of England. By contrast, for the ethnic group Uitoto, whose beliefs are based on words, (rafúe “something that comes out of the mouth” from ra “thing” and fúe “mouth”), each flower should be named according to its uses. Thus, the Victoria Regia or Joraimo comuide ratoki in their language is the water plant because it purifies water.
Following its discovery and classification, this plant turned out to be a competition between Victorian gardeners who always wanted a new and spectacular plant for designing gardens and impressing with exoticism.
The English gardens, which were popular in the 18th century, were an idealized version of nature that gradually spread throughout Europe replacing the formal and symmetric French gardens of the 17th century. Joseph Paxton, English naturalist and landscapist, was the first one to be able to reproduce the water lily’s habitat in November of 1849. Two years later, this plant would inspire the construction of the Crystal Palace, that was a building with the structure of a greenhouse, designed by Paxton and that held the Great Universal Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.
From the 18th century on, the European botanical gardens changed their mission of promoting learning and glorifying God, to studying and cultivating the plants brought from the new world’s colonies. However, they were not truly scientific spaces, but a place to plant, show, collect and exchange plant seeds that had a great commercial potential. There was a time when in the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s botanical garden there was a Victoria Regia, but it died for lack of good care.
The Amazonian jungle, humid and tropical, is the opposite of this kind of garden. Its density does not even let you imagine it as a simple landscape, but as an imposing one that overwhelms you with its density, stuns you with its verticality and its countless shades of green. Only the indigenous communities who inhabit the jungle have the necessary knowledge to integrate with it, to know how to make the most of the information of each of its resources, without conquering or dominating it, understanding its immensity and fullness.
The work Nymphaea salvaje “floats” like the Victoria Regia’s leaf, between the understanding of nature based on the classification model of Imperial Europe (the botanical expeditions, their collector’s gardens and taxonomy) and the bottomless and indomitable richness of the Amazonian jungle that can only be apprehended by the indigenous communities who have known how to extract knowledge from its territory. This installation uses gestures to combine several kinds of knowledge. Sometimes it favors the Uitoto, for whom the installation’s flowers are purifying entities of the world’s negative energy: the Victoria Regia that floats on the water and purifies it; the Dionaea Muscipula, which is a carnivore plant, and the Góngora orchid that grows on the trees’ bark with an aerial root, are plants that purify the air; the Passiflora and the Warczewiczella Marginata purify the soil.
Using other gestures, the installation disagrees with the exploitation of natural resources that has been made in the name of progress. Many of the exportation goods from America to Europe during the 17th century were the vegetable pigments that came from insects, plants and tree bark form the tropical rain forest. From the Victoria Regia’s roots you can get an intense black that the indigenous people use to dye their hair, however the artist prefers to leave the porcelain white in a gesture that highlights even more the lush shades of green and nature’s colors.
González takes about 4 to 6 months designing and testing the ways of assembling and baking the flowers in order to make each of the prototypes and pieces. Then she cuts the petals, the pistils, the stamens, and the stems and, between three persons, quickly puts each flower together in the oven before it loses its shape. Nymphaea salvaje suggests connections, a knowledge blend; it calls upon harmony, a collective work, the same as working with porcelain.
The composition Plantarum that goes with the installation, like in a story, like a legend that has been orally transmitted, seems to summarize the history of how the jungle landscape was domesticated. The audio, which starts with sounds of nature, insects and birds, slowly involves a human whistle that attempts to imitate the birds’ song and finally, transforms into a piano melody. Even if the composition seems to be harmonic, it expresses the tension between white man and nature, between what is wild and the landscape as a cultural construction; it narrates with the notes of the European civilization, the violence that hides behind the landscape’s beauty.
As if it were a sweet melody, Nymphaea salvaje lulls us to sleep while it reminds us that a landscape is a “forest of symbols”, like Baudelaire stated. At the same time, it shows us that in nature there are only symbols, which like in language are open to infinite interpretations. The meaning is given by the way you use a sign, that way you liberate nature and the possibility of a fertile, inclusive, strange, free and abundant world opens in our horizon.
El Nuevo Herald
The Colombian artist Ana González, who creates works of art about dance, was selected by Pedro Pablo Peña to design the poster of the XVIII International Ballet Festival of Miami (IBFM). It will be revealed in the afternoon of August 29th in the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center (MHCAC).
Sometimes words and Processes meet in pro Circumstances. Not as coincidence or by chance, but as the outcome of dealing and Addressing thoughts and experiences in a serious way and Committed.