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 to be contemplated: 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 human beings and nature, between what we think of as us and what we think of as foreign. From this perspective a landscape is not a pristine entity free from human intentions; on the contrary, it is a cultural construct, like an agent of the power that affects our relationship with nature.
The human spirit has attempted to understand its environment by representing landscapes in art. However, nature has no understanding of what we call landscape. And we know very little to nothing about how nature has evolved over 40 million years of decentralized, horizontal and transversal processes among 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 resource 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 ways to transform our usual dynamics of possession, depredation and consumption.
In the installation Nymphaea salvaje (Wild Nymphaea), 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 between the paradise garden and the brutal jungle, between 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 the sounds of nature with whistles and piano music.
It seems as if Nymphaea Salvaje developed from the aesthetics and the relationship to the landscape of late-19th-century romantic artists and traveling botanists. However, even if the work takes on that European ideal of landscape, it is a way of once again contextualizing knowledge; it is a revision of that model from the very place that it once represented. The flowers’ scientific names, the porcelain, the piano and the greenhouse are elements freighted with symbolism that contrasts with the tropical jungle landscape and with the indigenous knowledge—inspiring this work—that recognizes these five flowers as sacred entities.
Likewise, Mutuum, her most recent project, made in collaboration with the biologist Santiago Ramírez attempts to give an account of a social order based on collaboration and reciprocity between different species. The work shows us a non-adversarial, heterogeneous relationship that merges and complements itself. Using a variety of scientific objects such as pictures, data, taxonomies of flora 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 over millions of years in an equal and balanced way for their sexual reproduction[i]. 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 chances of survival for individuals from two different species, and it is known as Mutualism[ii] in biology, which is where the project name stems from.
Mutuum is about a cooperative interaction as opposed to an interaction where one species has more power than another. 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 through the tools of art in an attempt to inspire less devastating ways of relating to nature. Thus, Santiago Ramírez’ scientific investigation is complemented by the symbolic, romantic and affective interpretation that González makes of mutualism, given she works using her observation, contemplation, senses and gallantry as forms 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 for an encounter of knowledge without hierarchy; thus, it brings together a botanical garden[iii], which symbolizes Western scientific thought, and the knowledge of the indigenous communities that have lived in the jungle with these plants for centuries. The installation provides a space for knowledge that has been displaced by the implicit violence of the colonization processes, which in its search for the ideal landscape, usually attained by exploitation, destroyed different systems and narratives that obstructed the empires’ ambitions in 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 forms of removal are also present in her work, although not in an explicit way. For over ten years she has focused her work on the indigenous communities of the entire country (Córdoba, Chocó, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, Caquetá, Amazonas) that, fleeing violence, have been displaced to Bogotá. In a knowledge 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 to purify and transform the world[iv].
With other kinds of gestures, González disagrees with the way natural resources are exploited in the name of progress. For example, many exports from the Americas 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 provide an example of how nature transforms into civilization, leaving behind the devastating marks that result from natural resource exploitation.
The Amazonian jungle, humid and tropical, is the opposite of a botanical garden. Its density doesn’t even allow you to 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 with the jungle, to use the information of each resource without conquering or dominating it, only understanding its immensity, its plenitude. 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.
As Muutum and Nymphaea salvaje suggest, a relationship to nature does not have to consist of conquering a dominant knowledge. Instead, it should be a way of achieving multiplicity, connecting, fastening, and alternating 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, a rhizome like grass, like potatoes and ant colonies.
It is about a balanced organization that does not follow rules of hierarchical subordination, but rather interacts such that any element can affect or alter another. The Góngora’s and the Euglossa’s mutualism connect through a mutual 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 seeks to dismantle. Facing duality, these projects form systems of connection and multiplicity. Instead of reducing itself to a single species, it expands through the dialogue between them.
Nymphaea salvaje “floats,” like the Victoria Regia, between the understanding of nature based on the classification model of 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 knowledge from the territory.
As Baudelaire said, a landscape is a “forest of symbols.” At the same time, it shows us that in nature, as 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 abundant, fertile, strange, inclusive, and free world.
Associate Professor, Art Department
Universidad de los Andes
[i] The males of the Euglossa bee species are distinguished by the way they collect aromatic substances from certain kinds of orchids. These orchids have no nectar, which means they do not offer food to their pollinators. However, the males are attracted by their strong scent and visit them to collect aromatic compounds that they store on 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.
[ii] From Latin mutuus: reciprocal, mutual and mutare: change.
[iii] From the 18th century on, European botanical gardens changed their mission from promoting learning and glorifying God to one of 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 seeds that had immense commercial potential. In the Bogotá botanical garden’s Tropicarium, there was once a Victoria Regia, but it died for lack of proper care.
[iv] 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. For the Huitoto peoples, 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.”