The Unbalanced Land, by Adrián Balseca

I first discovered Adrián Balseca at the 2018 edition of ARCOlisboa art where the gallery Madragoa exhibited his 8:28 minute loop video El Cóndor pasa. Produced in 2015, the digital work sets a dusty and spectral diurnal scenery for the tribulations of a black AYMESA Cóndor, a south American car manufactured in the late 70’s by Vauxhall Motors (a British branch of General Motors) and assembled in Quito, Ecuador. The life and death of the Cóndor takes place in a devastated Ecuadorian landscape where organic life forms seem to have vanished as a result of the massive and unsustainable industrial mining activities operated in the South countries by foreign extractive companies. One of the major themes of Balseca’s artistic work is already announced: the neo-colonialist globalised capitalism with its deleterious and damaging impacts on the lands, cultures, customs, crafts and knowledge, social and economic organisation, politics, communities and ecosystems…

Balseca is back at Madragoa with a new exhibition untitled The Unbalanced Land, curated by Rachel Schefer. The set of visual and audio works blends together historical, cultural, popular and conceptual references bringing to Lisbon, directly from Ecuador, a group of heterogeneous assembled pieces that were first installed in the natural open space of Santay Island, in Guayaquil. Among the several layers of historical references evoking the relationships of Ecuador with imperialist countries, the composition is a sort of contemporary reconstitution of an excerpt from Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator published in 1892 by the British explorer and mountaineer Edward Whymper.

Renowned for his several first ascents of the world highest mounts and his Greenland and Arctic pioneer exploration, Whymper landed in Ecuador in 1879 to climb the Chimborazo – after Alexander von Humboldt who previously climbed the volcano in 1802. In his 1892 book, he describes a scene where Italian organs were sent to Guayaquil from Lima to flee the Peruvian war. While on board of the Quito, four of the “refugee” instruments were simultaneously playing a different western musical piece, attracting the native people along with some wild alligators, which came up from the river to stare at the musical devices with open mouths.

The narrated episode inspired Balseca’s display, which binds together traditional local wooden tools extracted from the farming and productive labor universe of Santay Island and old Japanese Sanyo radio equipment. Each radio plays in sync a musical piece. Performed by the composer, jazz pianist, and computer music designer Daniel Mancero (Quito 1983), the three pieces are pianistic transcriptions of previously recorded soundscapes of Santay Island and Guayas riversides; the oat mills and factories, the Ecuadorian ground dove with birds singing, and the water soundscapes, recreating this “Babel” effect to which Whymper refers to. The assembled objects were then set on the Santay Island, surrounded by the Guayas River where semi-wild alligators live. The animals came out of the river to stare at and to listen to the musical devices, once again. The black and white photographic capture of the scene is part of the show together with a wider series of photographs slides shown on the second floor of the gallery.

It is with delicacy and subtleness that Balseca evokes the discovery of other cultures and customs by the human and the “more-than-human” natives of Ecuador, bringing in what could perhaps be considered the least damaging part of past and present foreign “exploration” of Latin America: the resulting cultural, aesthetic and artistic interbreeding effect. But the transcription of the Ecuadorian local ecosystems’ soundscapes into “pure” Western tradition of musical production certainly implies more than a reflection on hybridisation. It seems indeed to contain a fine critique of the cultural hegemony dynamics and the geopolitical power exercised by wealthy and “developed” countries over others. Whether in Asia, in Africa or in South America, many are still seen and treated today as reservoirs of cheap labor and raw materials. These unscrupulous ideology and practices which are likely to produce undermining, destabilising and disruptive effects, are generating the unbalanced lands, thereby contributing to create an unbalanced Earth.

At Madragoa gallery, until 20 July 2019.

Katherine Sirois is a Canadian art historian and freelance writer born in Montreal. Trained in Arts Studies at the UQÀM (Mtl), where she worked as a research and teaching assistant at the History of Art Department, she did her first doctoral studies at the EHESS (Paris) with Daniel Arasse, then at the Aesthetic Department of the Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne University and at the Art History Institute of the Nova University of Lisbon. She is part of the editorial team of the contemporary e-magazine Wrong Wrong and co-curator of the Portuguese Ymago project for the dissemination of authors in the field of images. She recently joined the Umbigo Magazine team of contributors.

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