Elsa Zambrano Turns Souvenirs into Original Artworks

Tourists in Paris buy Mona Lisa postcards; visitors to Florence might leave with figurines of Michelangelo’s David; and fans of New York City might have a Statue of Liberty keychain. The concept of the souvenir—specifically those that reproduce great works of art—is at the center of Elsa Zambrano’s new show “Magnificent Obsession.”

The Colombian artist has long been fascinated with this topic, and the “Magnificent Obsession” is her own. Yet the exhibition title also refers to the obsession of the museum-going, sightseeing public, and the compulsion to purchase miniature emblems of artistic masterpieces and historical monuments. Zambrano is obsessed with the masses who are obsessed with buying collectibles. She too, has become an avid collector of theses consumer-friendly reproductions, and uses them in her art.

Zambrano’s current exhibition at Beatriz Esguerra Art features a selection of mirrored shadow boxes filled with carefully curated scenes made from miniature replicas of masterpieces and small postcards from the artist’s own collection. Take Edgar Degas (2015) for example, where replicas of the French impressionist’s iconic painting La clase de danse (The Dance Class) (1873-1876) appears twice, juxtaposed with the artist’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–81) and a smattering of small ballet slippers. The vignette is arranged just so, distilling the experience of seeing the originals at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris or the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. into a 13-by-20-inch box. Likewise, in Zambrano’s Fernando Botero (2015) the souvenir shop likenesses of Botero’s voluptuous figures appear, but this time the masterpieces are interrupted by a Donald Duck figurine. And then there are works where the collectible isn’t a model of the artwork, but one of its significant elements, like the tongue-in-cheek Albert Dürer (2015), featuring a mock-up of the German printmaker’s Adam and Eve (1507) alongside a pair of synthetic apples and a handful of rubber snakes. 

In these works—and various other pieces showcasing cherished “masterpieces” by Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Mary Cassatt, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, to name a few—Zambrano poses pointed questions about the human experience of museum-going and the transformation of fine art into kitsch. Why, she seems to ask, do we feel the need to own model versions of artistic and architectural masterpieces? Are we trying to capture a moment, or prove that we were somewhere important? Is owning one of these pocket-sized replicas on par with taking a photograph of it? Is it possible to just see something without the compulsion to own it or capture it in some way? And if you can’t own a great work of art, can a postcard possibly suffice?

The chain of events that brought “Magnificent Obsession” to life is strangely ironic but not surprising: artists create work, museums showcase it, manufacturers reproduce said work, Zambrano collects the reproductions to make new original artwork. It’s a thought-provoking process and exhibition, and an entertaining way of thinking about institutional critique. Have a look through the Zambrano’s mirrored boxes, and it’s safe to say you’ll never look at a museum shop quite the same way again.


Bridget Gleeson


Magnificent Obsession, Recent Works by Elsa Zambrano” is on view at Beatriz Esguerra Art, Bogota, Sep. 19th – Oct. 16th, 2015.





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