THE TALLEST STATUE IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

THE TALLEST STATUE IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

an essay for Boca de Lobo
a solo exhibition by Ricardo Zapata

1.

Let’s start at the airport you flew into, I said.

It only takes a couple seconds to leave the airport and reach downtown San Juan. From there we take PR-22 west.

We are heading to Anima/Factor, a neighborhood of Arecibo, a city on Puerto Rico’s north coast, where the artist’s relatives live. When the artist visited in November, two months after the storm, there were still billboards down on this highway. The trees on the mountains to the right had been stripped of their leaves, and through them a colossal Christopher Columbus was visible from the highway. The Birth Of The New World, 362 feet tall, is the work of Georgian artist and billionaire Zurab Tsereteli, and now it’s in Arecibo.

Traveling on Google Maps juxtaposes distance and proximity. Maps doesn’t update much, and when it does it comes with no dated notification. So the images of the roads we are clicking along, looking down from far above like birds or kites or drones, predate the storm, implying a reality out of joint with the current. They promise absolute geographic accuracy even as they depict a place that no longer really exists.

factor_animas_google_streetview

Close to the exit for Anima/Factor, we touch down from satellite into street view.  The highway is unimpeded, the pavement clear. Only my computer is running slow. We get stuck on the highway for a while. When the screen freezes in Streetview, the image stretches and distorts like Holbein’s memento mori. We’re in a virtual gridlock, on the public internet, stalled on the image of a public road, bumper to bumper with other crawling information on the image highway.

We miss the turnoff from the highway and have to turn around. It will let us go against the traffic but not skip the traffic barrier into another lane.

Only when we reach the exit and try to drive through it do we realize the image does not extend that far. The only images of Puerto Rico available at street level are contained to the scenic parts of San Juan and the main highways.

 

2.

Aside or apart from the process of making is the process of looking, aside from that the process of searching. The process of trying to find out. The process of seeing, held in parallel to the process of believing.

The hurricane that hit ground on September 20th damaged Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, causing an island-wide blackout and massive shortages of basic supplies. Schools were closed for weeks.  The crisis of recovery efforts should be understood not as a deviation from a functional status quo but a natural consequence of the relationship between the mainland and its territory. Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s debt crisis was $72 billion. It has the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state or territory, and the unemployment rate is nearly three times the national level. A report by Politico found that the Trump administration responded more slowly and with less aid than after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas:

Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved
$141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims,
versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims…During the first nine
days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million
liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same
period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of
water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico. Nine days after
Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the
Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point
after Maria.

In Arecibo, it took weeks to clear the debris. Downed electric poles on had fallen on the artist’s mother’s house and throughout the neighborhood, leaving wires everywhere. The neighboring mountain went from green to bare trunks. The area didn’t have running water until October or November, so residents had to boil the rain water they collected in cisterns. The artist’s mother’s house had electricity restored in late November, and his grandparents’ house, located right next door, a month later. The rest of their block didn’t have electricity until March or April. One of their neighbors, an electrician, had a generator that he lent them some. Although the artist’s relatives were not injured during the hurricane, his grandfather, who was in hospice care at the time, passed away one month after the storm,  the decline in his health quickened without the medical machines that had sustained him. Trump touted the low official number of storm fatalities resulting from the hurricane, claiming that the 64 deaths prove the speed and effectiveness of US relief efforts. But a recent Harvard study found that Hurricane Maria caused as many as 5,000 deaths in the months after the storm, more than seventy times the official number.

In the days after the storm, with electricity and wifi networks down, the artist, like much of the Puerto Rican diaspora, had no way to contact his family. He used Hurricane MARIA Imagery, satellite images of Puerto Rico from the days after the storm provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find his relative’s houses,verifying that the roofs were intact. He also used Zello, a walkie-talkie app that many Puerto Ricans on the island and elsewhere used to share information about their location. Through Zello he also found a link to a photo album someone had put up on Facebook on September 22nd documenting the damage in that neighborhood.When I looked at the album in May, it had nearly 6,500 shares and 500 comments, many of them posts seeking information on missing family members in that area.

We switch from navigating in Google Maps to the images in the Facebook album, a weird parallel to the forced reliance on grassroots media. These are shots uploaded by an individual Facebook user– not the well-composed photography of disaster one finds in the news, but repetitive and immediate. Going through the Facebook photos is something like a disjointed and amateurish Google Streetview, like a place conveyed through stop motion, experienced in jolts of movement rather than 360 degree flow. In one photo, a woman poses in front of an overturned tree as though in front of a ten-point stag.

el_paso_del_huracan_tree_jonathan_emiliano_bujosa

I am reenacting a portion of the artist’s search for information in the aftermath of the storm, but my gaze is now devoid of any urgency. These images once held an immediate function, to show the viewer what the neighborhood of their childhoods or relatives had become. Was the road washed out at a bend, was the corrugated roofing peeled off like the lid of a can, was the house simply gone. Now these images are relics of an experience that was never mine.

We pass a hand-painted sign for the turnoff to Cueva del Indio, a system of caves along the shore with Taino petroglyphs. The story behind the name is unclear, says the artist. A local told him the Taino tracked a Conquistador and killed him there. The artist’s cousin went clubbing there in the seventies, they put a sound system and strobe lights down in the caves. She had to take off her heels to climb through a hole in the rock surface down a ladder and into the cave.

Two acts of looking: the artist’s act of scouring images and civilian media after the storm, then the viewers’ act of looking at these works in this gallery. Staring at a screen vs. gazing at a canvas. The slow and underfunded labor of recovery and repair vs. the slow and underfunded labor, the artist’s labor, of rendering the recovery’s emotional toll.

IMG_8765_1
Rizo Sitiado , Oil on Canvas, Glass, Wood, Water, 2018

The diptych shows two views of a corner of the artist’s TV, the wall behind it, and a houseplant. The artist is watching the news unfold from his Philadelphia home. The artist is not himself without power but is dependent on it to hear about those who are. The left half of the diptych is distorted, not like the TV image has turned to static but like the scene itself were melting, like the vision of the viewer were fracturing, like the person watching the news glanced up or away and at that point their vision melted in streams.

The storm’s effect on the tactile, on the trees and buildings and roads, also had a twisting effect on the normal structure of a day. The new normal was: driving around, looking for cellphone reception, or waiting in gas lines for hours, waiting in line so long you ran out of gas. Every night the neighbors cooked dinners communally. A local Sam’s Club was open, sort of: with no electricity, each customer was let in one at a time. In the dark store, accompanied by a staff member with a flashlight, they selected their purchases, then paid up front in cash.

We pass a low house on the water flying a Puerto Rican flag in black and white..

In the painting We Here, the text [ NOT WELCOME HERE] is obscured by concentric blue and white lines that form a rough five-pointed star. The text refers to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., as well as the second class citizenship granted to Puerto Ricans. (A poll conducted shortly after Hurricane Maria found that nearly half of all Americans in the mainland United States didn’t know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.) The shades of blue in the painting relate to the symbolism of the Puerto Rican flag: navy blue, the blue of the American flag, is associated with the party that supports statehood, medium blue is used by those who support commonwealth status, and light blue is associated with independence. When the flag is in black and white,  it references an anarchist or socialist perspective on Puerto Rico’s history and current relationship to the U.S. On top of these lines, the fragments of skull refer to mortality and the death of the artist’s grandfather, as well as the larger diaspora: only together do these pieces form a legible whole.

IMG_8762
We Here, Oil on Canvas,  2018

We pass a a car imbedded in a wall of fallen branches, then a road covered in brown water. That’s my aunt’s house, someone writes in one of the comments.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Jones Act, a 1920 mandate that all goods shipped to Puerto Rico must be on U.S. vessels, became a focal point of criticism for how the Trump administration handled recovery, with calls to lift it so that more aid could reach the island. Some pointed to issues in distributing the aid once it had reached Puerto Rico, partially because of damaged infrastructure, as well as a shortage of truckers. (Sculpture name) references the inaccessibility of legal text and Festival de las Mascaras, which is celebrated on Dia de los Inocentes in Hatillo, a neighboring town the artist visited as a child.  Revellers on floats dress up in extravagant costumes and play pranks on the crowd, referencing King Herod’s soldiers murdering the innocents.

IMG_8755_1
Agua, Agua Grande, Agua Oceanico, Glass block, Fabric, Paper, Metal Cart, 2018

Glass blocks are stacked on a rolling base in the shape and scale of a historical plaque or a gravestone, and ruffles of fabric in garish colors crawl up its sides like patches of lichen. Hanging out of the center of the monument is a print-out of the Jones Act translated into Wingdings and other fonts, layered to the point of illegibility.

The photos move on to Santa Barbara. Past the Shell station with the roof that is gone, blown off in one piece. Then on to Poza de Obispo, the local beach where the artist used to visit with his family, and Punto Morillos. They evacuated Islote the night before the hurricane because the ocean was flooding up. It’s a poor area with the tallest statue in the western hemisphere above it.

And above that, even higher than the tip of Columbus’s mast, is me. I am looking down from the height of a camera attached to a satellite.

 

3.

The place I was in had been stitched together from a bunch of pictures: occasionally you could see where their edges met, this was where reality puckered.

I walked alone through the streets of San Juan, I did not know what I was looking for. I passed The Dreamcatcher, a “quaint hotel with a vegetarian brunch,”  I scrolled my way through roads as pixelated as they were cobblestoned, Victoria’s Secret advertised itself to me. In the Bacardi Distillery I got lost for a while, there were barrels stacked to the ceiling in a dark red wood.

I went to some battlements but the door was boarded shut. A man and a boy (the boy carrying a plastic bucket) walked towards each other by the sea and depending on where I stood they were either: twenty feet apart, five feet apart, or altogether gone.

I asked the artist: why did you do this? Why did you make this work?

It is to say: the hurricane has not passed, it is still happening.

I circled back to Arecibo, I clicked at a gallop to The Birth of the New World. You could see the seams between the individual panels, it had weathered the storm just fine.

The sculpture is there because it was turned down by a string of American cities: first by Columbus, Ohio, in 1993, followed by New York, Boston, and Miami.  Local officials didn’t want the thing, not because they were appalled at the idea of honoring a colonial figure, but because they didn’t want Columbus confusing air traffic or screwing up their picturesque skyline. Tsereteli donated the statue, but it still cost 2.4 million dollars of public treasury funds to ship it, then millions more to store its pieces for years while government officials debated where to put it. Indigenous rights activists protested the sculpture’s assembly, but local officials stood by their hope that it will bring in funding to Arecibo through tourism.

He stands in a long robe on the deck of a foreshortened ship, posing like Lady Liberty, right arm held aloft. Columbus, Puerto Rico’s first tourist, is rendered in an aesthetic somewhere between Soviet realism and Warhammer figurine.  But he was something to photograph oneself against so they did. They got as close as they could. The families passing by, the tourists, the contributors to Google Maps. It isn’t open yet, they took the pictures the closest they could get, in front of a chain link fence around Columbus’ sandy lot.

 

About the Author:

Leah Gallant is an artist and writer from Cambridge, MA. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 2015 with a double major in Sociology/Anthropology and Studio Art. Her writing has appeared in the Art Blog, Brooklyn Rail, and Hypocrite Reader.

 

To download a PDF version of this essay please click HERE

• • •

NAPOLEON is a collectively-run project space that strives to provide a platform for new work and new ideas.

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