About the Commission: The Atlas of the Empire

Latin American Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale
May 24, 2013 10:36PM

The Atlas of the Empire 

Alfons Hug, Paz Guevara

"In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the Map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The Following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography." — JORGE LUIS BORGES, On Exactitude in Science, 1946.

Since the 16th century and during the entire later colonial period, Spain and Portugal – as well as England, France and the Netherlands in the Caribbean – undertook a huge attempt to cover the South American continent with the map of Europe, one-to-one, complete with its political and administrative structures. Viceroys, captains general, missionaries, judges and professors – but also artists – were commissioned to turn the new colonies into a replica of Europe. 

And even when activities were not about imperial ambitions but natural history, as in the case of Alexander von Humboldt, European models and ways of thinking were still introduced again and again.

As in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, the “following generations” – i.e. the American republics that emerged from the independence movements of the early 19th century – came to the conclusion that new maps were needed, even though remnants of the old order still remained: ranging from Spanish city layouts and Portuguese fortifications to the two Iberian languages. The latter have, however, been enriched by borrowings from African and indigenous languages, an immensely productive, albeit tension-generating, phenomenon that also has been observed in South American art, literature and music since the Baroque era.

Where was our place in the world? To whom did we owe loyalty? To our European fathers, or to our Indian mothers? To whom were we to direct our prayers? To the new gods or the old? What language would we speak? That of the conquistadors, or that of the conquered? (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado, 1992)

This close cultural interaction between Europe and Latin America continued in the 20th century. On the one hand, important modernist movements were absorbed in Latin America; on the other, South American modernists like Joaquín Torres García, Roberto Matta or Wifredo Lam had a retroactive effect on Europe.

This dynamic exchange intensified further in contemporary art. Some of the best Latin American artists now live in Europe, where they are sometimes even regarded as representatives of their new home. Conversely, several renowned European artists are working in Latin America. 

The IILA Pavilion will explore this new geopolitical aspect of contemporary art. This cross-fertilization will impact on both continents’ cultural self-identity. The aim is not just an extension of the artistic repertoire, but ultimately a new, complex world view that will also benefit Europe.

Latin American Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019