My Trip to the Puerto Rican Rainforest with Papo Colo

Klaus Biesenbach
Jan 12, 2017 12:23AM

Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.

Exactly one year ago, I visited the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and their remarkable work Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) (2015), for which they placed a Dan Flavin work in a cathedral-like cave inside a nature reserve along Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

On our trip, Jennifer and Guillermo told me about their research for the piece: that Puerto Rico is now experiencing another giant wave of migration away from the island, mirroring what happened in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the artists’ relatives and friends had recently left the island, part of an exodus of nearly 100,000 people in 2015. This mass migration is primarily a response to economic factors—the island has been in recession for 10 years. Since it is not a state, Puerto Rico cannot file for bankruptcy. Its agricultural industry is no longer a strong driver of the economy, and much of the island is now wild forest, a result of the decades in which the island’s tax privileges encouraged other forms of income.

I listened closely to what the artists told me about their island and its dire situation. I learned that Puerto Rico is in crisis, blessed by its unique and beautiful landscape but grappling with economic, social, and political tensions as a result of its being not a state but a “territory.” So when the artist Papo Colo asked that I help him put together a performance this year to coincide with his MoMA PS1 exhibition traveling to the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, I was particularly interested in assisting—so long as it could take place during the first week of January, a time I used to take off to visit family and friends in Germany. (The Museo de Arte de Ponce would also be a collaborator on the project.)

Photo of Klaus Biesenbach by Diana Picasso. Courtesy of MoMA PS1.


Papo chose to base his new performance, Procesión-Migración, on one of the most revered works of Puerto Rican literature, René Marqués’ La Carreta (1953), the story of a rural Puerto Rican family that moves from the countryside to the picturesque slum La Perla in the capital city of San Juan—and then to New York City in search of a better life. Eventually, the family returns to rural Puerto Rico with broken dreams, but they learn to appreciate the island once again.

The narrative of La Carreta mirrors Papo’s own experience as a Puerto Rican artist who migrated to New York City and then returned to the island. (The difference is that Papo found considerable success in New York, as a co-founder of Exit Art, curator, and activist-artist.) His idea to organize a procession gained more shape when I showed him a picture of a highway in Europe that was completely packed with refugees traveling north. This was, on a larger scale, what happens in the airports of Puerto Rico every day, he said. Like La Carreta, Papo’s performance is about migration, one of the biggest challenges faced by the island today.

Even 40 years ago, Papo’s work referenced the issue of Puerto Rican statehood. His celebrated performance Superman 51, in which he drags a collection of 51 white pieces of wood behind him as he runs shirtless down an empty stretch of Manhattan’s West Side Highway until collapsing from exhaustion, was completed in 1977—the year that saw the failure of a U.S. bill that could have granted Puerto Rico statehood.

Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.

All of this comes together in Papo’s piece, which he imagined as a grand procession with performances along the route, ending with the artist’s disappearance into his foundation at the entrance to the national forest, where he would stay for a year without talking, focusing on his studio practice. The performance would celebrate the tropical rain that the island is blessed with, as well as expressing ecological concerns. It would also be dedicated to the island’s animals and include a large contingent of four-legged participants.

Since I can’t drive and Papo has no cell phone reception at his rainforest home, during the planning period for the performance we would travel by foot or car between my little farm, on an acre of land I am re-foresting, and his stunning foundation grounds, which are bordered by the Río Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit). The path between our two homes led down the mountain along the river, with two waterfalls along the route. It was clear that this should become the pathway for our procession.

Preparing for this performance over the last three weeks, I have felt a bit like Fitzcarraldo moving a boat over a mountain to build an opera house. The main road through the national park had to be officially closed. White oxen were found and cast from 100 kilometers away and had to be brought to the rainforest. We found trained pigs, docile goats, and tame sheep that could be put on leashes, and secured permit after permit. Everything fell into place during the holidays. (Puerto Rico might be the only place on the planet that has officials and police who answer their cell phones and issue permits on Christmas Day.)

Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.

On January 7th, 2017, 500 participants gathered in the unique landscape of the tropical forest to join Papo on his triumphant return to Puerto Rico.

At 3 p.m. that day, what was supposed to be the beginning of the performance, Papo told me he had to do something with his musicians and actors and he would be right back. We kept waiting. An hour went by and it was 4 o’clock, then 4:15, 4:25, and the sun was beginning to set. Huh, I thought, Papo was always telling me he was a trickster. Did he trick me by telling me he would disappear after the performance? Did he do it early, at 3 p.m., without telling me?

I lined up all of the animals, carriages, and participants along the road, ready to go once Papo arrived—the most a curator can do. And then, finally, he reappeared with his pickup truck loaded with all of his performance talent. Without a word, he took his position at the front of the procession, with the actors around him, and started to walk. After so many months of planning, the performance had begun.

We made five stops, including one at a waterfall, one in a clearing, and one in the darkest, densest part of the forest. The actors made beautiful tableaux vivant, like in a Fellini movie, and, despite the fact that we were in the most stunning landscape, everybody’s attention was fixed on the performers. And yet, you couldn’t escape the powerful presence of nature over those two-and-a-half hours.

When we finally arrived at Papo’s foundation, we enjoyed the feast of fried chicken and mofongo that we had organized, and a three-piece band performed. The artist walked over to the river for a ritual cleansing, and participants joined him, washing off dirt and clay from the procession. It was the end of Papo’s procession, on what might have been the first rainless day in weeks, that shed light on the beauty of Puerto Rico and the urgency of its current crisis.

Klaus Biesenbach
Klaus Biesenbach is Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at the Museum of Modern Art.

Klaus Biesenbach is Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at the Museum of Modern Art.

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