Wrapped up in Humboldt's legacy

The exhibition “La naturaleza de las cosas: Humboldt, idas y venidas” (The nature of things: Humboldt, coming and going) in Bogotá demonstrates how contemporary art in Columbia is looking to engage with the natural scientist.

Men of international standing sometimes squabble about the most astonishing things. The size of crocodiles, for example. In a letter to Alexander von Humboldt, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel spoke derisively of the allegedly puny dimensions of the American specimens – compared to those in the “Old World”.

Unfortunately, Humboldt rejoined, the American crocodiles never grew larger than 25 feet. That's more than seven and a half meters. A gross exaggeration of course. But the scientist wasn't just out to put his reptile-sceptic colleague in his place.

The 1993 video installation “The crocodile of Humboldt is not the crocodile of Hegel” by the artist José Alejandro Restrepo is one of the most famous works of contemporary Colombian art. On monitors on the wall, with a measuring rod placed underneath, Restrepo explores the anecdotes and legends surrounding the perennial crocodile debate in his country.

This work is now also part of the exhibition “La naturaleza de las cosas: Humboldt, idas y venidas” (The nature of things: Humboldt, coming and going) at the National University of Colombia's art museum, which was initiated by the Goethe Institute for the year on the theme of “Humboldt y las Américas”. Here curator Halim Badawi, who was also responsible for the exhibition “The School of Humboldt in America: works and documents” in 2014, once again traces Humboldt's considerable influence on Latin American art.

The travel notes and sketches made by the scientist and published in books and magazines had a formative influence, Badawi says, on how the continent was viewed, establishing a "representation of America" that persists to this day. Numerous researchers and artists were already travelling in Humboldt's footsteps in the 19th century to places like Salto del Tequendama, a waterfall near Bogotá which the German was probably the first to depict. Painters such as Antoine-Jean Gros from France and the American Frederic Edwin Church also wanted to capture on canvas the now famous motif.

The contemporary Spanish artist José Luis Bongore likewise set out for Salto del Tequendama, in his case with a camera. There he amassed material for a gigantic video installation, which is presented in Badawi's exhibition on three walls of the museum. It's no longer pristine nature Bongore depicts, however, but rather a region characterised by neglect, urbanisation and the excessive pollution of the Rio Bogotá. It is the contrast between what is left of the beauty (green eucalyptus and blue sky reflected in the black water) and the visible destruction that lends potency to this work, which Badawi sees as being situated “between Humboldt's grandeur and the tragedy of the present”.

In staging “La naturaleza de las cosas: Humboldt, idas y venidas”, the curator hopes to show part of Humboldt's legacy in all its ambiguity. “The ideas he developed in his geographical and human atlases opened the door to the modern sciences in America and brought a new visibility to the continent,” Badawi says. "And at the same time, through no fault of Humboldt's, this also ushered in an era of invasions, exploitation and devastation.” This reminds him of Alfred Nobel's discovery of dynamite – originally meant to limit damage, replacing the dangerous nitroglycerine.

The exhibition is divided into seven “dialogues” with headings such as “From scientific surveying to economic exploitation” and “From fantasy to destruction”, which explore the Janus-faced nature of the acquisition of knowledge. The artworks were created between the 18th and the 21st centuries, and the exhibited contemporary artists range from 27 to 60 years old, demonstrating “the vitality of Humboldt's legacy as a subject of critical debate,” as Badawi is keen to point out.

Humboldt's influence on contemporary art, he says, is enormous. “Any Colombian artist working today who is preoccupied with nature is, whether consciously or not, wrapped up in Humboldt's legacy. Today, 200 years on, engaging with his ideas and images is more vital than ever.”

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