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Sex, Drugs and Amputees in "Apertura-Colombia"

The Station's at its best

A young man in the jungle is trying to wash the camouflage paint from his face. It's an unusually laborious process for him — he doesn't have any hands. He dips the stumps of his forearms into a pool of water and rubs them over his cheeks, slowly wiping the pigment away. I somehow expected the screen to flash Game Over; no longer a player, he doesn't need his war paint anymore. Watching the video, I stared at his severed forearms in a way I would never do in life, amazed at how the man functioned without hands. The scene is as voyeuristically riveting as it is disturbing; the work's a literal as well as a symbolic depiction of violence and loss.

The man is a Colombian soldier who lost his hands fighting guerillas. Miguel Angel Rojas's video of him, Caquetá, is a part of "Apertura-Colombia," a survey of Colombian photography and video at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. The show opened in the midst of the FotoFest cavalcade, but it far outshined the official FotoFest exhibitions of contemporary Chinese photography. The Station is at its best when it deals with art and politics, and this show is no exception.

In Caquetá, a soldier wipes away camouflage paint with the stumps of his forearms.
Courtesy of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art
In Caquetá, a soldier wipes away camouflage paint with the stumps of his forearms.

You don't hear a lot about Colombia anymore. The "war on terrorism" has upstaged America's "war on drugs," but that doesn't mean things are a-okay in the country. The drug trade remains at the heart of Colombia's miasma of violence. There's the Colombian government, still fat with U.S. drug-war dollars, the numerous guerilla groups using drug sales to fund their activities, and the drug lords and their private armies. All of these groups commit atrocities against innocent civilians. Violence and destruction provide the leitmotif of "Apertura."

While the soldier in Caquetá is a combat casualty, Rojas's Mirando la Flor (Watching the Flower) (1997-2007) shows the self-inflicted wounds of another man. Two black-and-white photos of him, taken ten years apart, are hung on the wall. The toll his drug addiction has taken on his body is obvious. In between the photographs is a soundless video that shows the man talking about his life. The video has been sped up, heightening the jerky and exaggerated gestures of the man, whose shirt is open over his Keith Richards-esque torso. You can't hear what he's saying, but you can pretty much guess. It is no doubt a tale of woe, of abandonment by friends and family as the lure of drugs overwhelmed the lure of human relationships, all told from the self-absorbed perspective of the addict.

Rojas has shown us the destruction of individuals; Jesús Abad Colorado shows the destruction of communities. His work includes images of refugees, bombed-out towns, indigenous people blocking the Pan American Highway in protest and people carrying a banner that reads "Territorio de Paz" through a ruined village. The images are compelling, and so are the captions. Their straightforward descriptions of the scenes include a laundry list of combatants, among them the National Army, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the rightwing AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). Meanwhile, ordinary people are the casualties.

The photographs of Juan Fernando Herran fit in neatly next to Colorado's work. Herran records fragile monuments to death in the dense tropical forest. His photographs capture green twigs and flower stalks tied into makeshift crosses to create ephemeral, personal memorials no one would notice unless they were really looking. Their symbolism seems especially fitting considering the environment, where ordinary people can be killed without creating a ripple.

With a more in-your-face approach to the consequences of violence, Juan Manuel Echavarría creates sculptures from mangled, broken and charred mannequin parts, then photographs them and digitally inserts them into images of government plazas or luxury high-rise apartment buildings. As Echavarría deposits his country's carnage on the doorsteps of the rich and powerful, his sculptures become massive civic monuments.

Andres Sierra's photographic series Karma Sutra presents shocking but oddly poignant portraits of men maimed by violence. Sierra's photographs of women having sex with male amputees sound like something targeted towards an Internet fetish site. But the artfully composed, beautifully lit black-and-white images are far more melancholy than erotic. The same young woman appears in most of the photographs; in some images she copulates with or fellates men missing arms and legs; in others, she embraces them. She somehow comes across not as a sex worker but as a healing force of compassionate humanity, comforting men deemed less than men by society. It's only when you stop and try to figure out who this woman is and how/why she came to pose with all these different men, that things get a little less poetic.

One of the strongest artists in the show is Libia Posada. Her series RE-TRATOS (Portraits) is part of the project Clinical Evidence. In the gold-framed portraits of RE-TRATOS, somber women stare out at the viewer with hurt and anger in their eyes and cuts and bruises on their faces. The women, all from Medellín, were all affected by domestic violence. The portraits are a collaboration between Posada and her subjects, whose cuts and bruises were forensically reconstructed on their faces. Posada took pictures of them in stark turn-of-the-century garb, creating beautiful, soft and painterly portraits. In the series's original incarnation, Posada hung the works in the portrait gallery of the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, pointedly inserting them among the paintings of rich and powerful men.

The artists of Apertura are taking their country — and ours — to task.

 
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