A report by Mark Lyndersay for Trinidad’s Guardian.
Last week at the Medulla Gallery, Maria Reyes Franco spoke freely about her role as an independent curator and art historian in her native Puerto Rico, and more specifically about her role in enabling artists to find environments and ask questions through their art about the region in which they live.
Franco is no disinterested observer in this matter.
“I grew up in old San Juan,” she said, “but now it is very touristy, with four or five cruise ships in dock at a single time.”
This has led her to consider, through her curation and art history study of that environment, “how documentaries, photography and promotion have affected how Puerto Rico is seen and how the residents see themselves.”
“I see this replicated in other islands, in the citizen-for-investment schemes, in the all-inclusive resorts.”
That work and concern is formally reflected in her description of her curatorial work, “an exploration of the idea of paradise and the effects of tourism on artistic practice and cultural production.”
That work finds expression in her work as co-founder and director of La Ene, an independent project space in Buenos Aires as well as in her response to the proliferation of Biennials dedicated to art.
Franco raised US$7000 for a biennial exhibit of art on a Puerto Rico beach and notes with a smile that she still has money left over.
“There are challenges and conflicts when you have to deal with institutions that have a particular outcome in mind, such as a book or a brochure,” she said of the project, which aggressively mixed contemporary art with political awareness.
“Never consider yourself powerless, use your position and your possibilities to subvert the images that are being used to establish other realities.”
“It’s in the opening up of dialogues and finding synergies that possibilities and projects happen, rather than hoping that some big benefactor will come along and enable things.”
That exhibit resulted in arrangements of concrete coconuts and a hammock made out of construction netting, among other things, as the artists considered the relationship between the beach front, the very present imposition of hotel development and the resulting displacement of the people who lived and subsisted on the land before the bulldozers came.
Franco is also engaged, if not enraged with the massive sculpture of Christopher Columbus, Birth of the New World, that’s found a home on the island.
Touted as a tourist attraction, it was donated to Puerto Rico by the artist, Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli.
The 600 tonne work was created in 1991 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the voyages of Columbus, but was rejected by every American city approached to accept it.
Widely regarded as a spectacularly ugly piece of art, Puerto Rico eventually paid the US$2.4 million to ship it in 2010 and has had a complicated and expensive relationship with it ever since.
As an art historian, Franco also grapples with the visual archive of the island, which is riddled with manufactured images of tourist perfection that have become the default history of the country.
“The perfect beaches that are being sold on the island are the legacy of army occupation,” she notes, adding that at least one major beach was recently closed to detonate old ordnance that had been discovered there.
Her research and interrogation of the manicured tropics and the impact of tourism on the arts and artistic productions finds different expressions.
Franco aggregates a curated feed of information about regional tourism on her Tumblr blog Visitor Economy (http://ow.ly/TW9A30fcGDC), particularly in an era in which Puerto Rico finds itself massively in debt to the tune of $74 billion with another $50 billion in pension obligations it cannot meet as of May 2017.
Employment has soared to 12 per cent and the island faces the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Franco worries that “The advertising and promotional thrust is focused on inviting foreign investment instead of seeding local initiatives and projects. Investors pay four percent tax while locals pay 30 percent.”
“Your work should be genuine and should respond to the world as you experience it,” she said.
“My own work is a response to the Disneyfication of the place where I used to live.”
“The role of the curator is to select in collaboration with the artist, so that the work is respectful of their intention while considering the [exhibit] space.”
“You take on the burden for the artist of the logistics and interpret the work in an insightful manner.”