I first met Sergio Gómez Zuluaga when we both lived in Rochester, New York. He was working on an MFA in photography and I was finishing my PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies. Sergio’s work then was about both encounter and abstraction, or perhaps, the abstraction of encounter. There is still that sensibility in this group series, of which has emerged from returning to his country of Colombia, which has become almost synonymous with the term “disappeared.” For more than half of a century, Colombia has been embroiled in internal conflict. The result is that labor leaders, journalists, organizers, citizens, soldiers and guerrilla fighters have all gone missing at the hand of the right wing paramilitary, leftist rebels, and government security forces.
In 1938, the first woman was reported, María Camila Sainea Echeverría. Later, in 1975, the first man was reported disappeared, Gilberto Paz Molina. The numbers have skyrocketed: of the around 120,000 people missing, 6,000 have been found dead, 29,000 alive. Almost 85,ooo people remain disappeared without a trace.
The following interview will preface a longer essay about Sergio’s projects for La Casa de la Memoria, a museum that opened in Medellin, Colombia in 2006 to talk openly about the history of the country’s armed conflict. For the Museum, Sergio made an intervention titled Tierra on the facade of the building comprising soil from forty different locations of mass graves or kidnapping sites.
He also created a book called Libro 1820 Geografias, which he describes as being made of:
stacks, overlapping meanings, layers , compressed, animated, printed and shriveled, sheets unfold and interchanged as multiple sides of the same surface. Earth, flesh and violence are made of each other, they are articulated through variable sequences that yield unimagined thoughts.
You can find a PDF of 1820 Geografías, here.
Note: The first half of the interview is in my native tongue, English, and the second in his, Spanish. An essay will follow in the coming month that will delve into the relationship between land, representation, memory, absence and violence to Colombia’s history of Los Desaparecidos.
Alicia Inez Guzmán: How did you first become involved with the Casa de la Memoria?
Sergio Gómez Zulaga: I returned to Colombia after my MFAs Studies (Rochester Institute of Technology). Besides having the desire to develop a process abstraction through medium, specifically photography, I needed to work on social conflict and war in Colombia. I needed to make a political statement. I started to work with the idea of making a book and an exhibition. From the beginning of this process I thought that the best scenario would be to have the exhibition at the Museo Casa de la Memoria, because it would bring another level of sense to the work. I had the opportunity to show them a mockup of the book and the saw a potential to be part of the exhibition “Geografías de la Verdad,” a project they were starting whose main Idea was to make Casa de la Memoria’s statement in support of the Government-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) peace process and the rights of the victims.
AIG: What did final the exhibition include? And how did you conceive of all the different aspects? Do you consider it a “whole” or just another fragment?
SGZ: They decided to publish the book, buy existing works and commission new works for the exhibition: videos, installations, and prints. I was very lucky! It was an eight month process of production. My work is connected, but at the same time independent of the content of the exhibition developed for the Casa de la Memoria team. But the pieces that I conceived are rooted in the same ideas—they belong each other.
AIG: Why did you decide to create a book and can you describe that process of making and also why it took the form it took?
SGZ: I like the book as an artistic medium, because I am interested in the manipulation of its physical qualities as a way to build meanings. Photography and books are incredibly similar, like they are made of the same substance. Being in Rochester taught me that. Many people there are creating amazing books. Once I heard Nathan Lyons, the photographer, saying that the photobook belongs to the realm of moving media. A photobook is a sucession of printed images; the meaning a book conveys depends upon it sequence. A book made as an “Exquisite Corpse” allows me to combine several kinds of images, to play with the linear seriality of a traditional book.
AIG: What is the significance of the title “1820”?
SGZ: It is the number of possible combination from the four smaller books that make up the whole of 1820.
AIG: For the exhibition Tierra, you collected dirt from forty different sites, including mass graves and places where kidnappings took place. How did you know of these places and what was that experience of collecting dirt like?
SGZ: For Tierra I worked with (http://mesavictimasantioquia.org/) Mesa Departamental de Victimas de Antioquia, and Casa de la Memoria. They are a victims organization, and its members are in all from the state of Antioquia; they collected the soil and delivered it in a ceremony. The Museo kept a sample, with the description of the origin, and victim’s history.
AIG: How did you come up with the idea of installing the dirt into the openings along the facade of the building?
SGZ: I wanted to make something with the building, and use it as an artistic medium to alter it presence and its meaning and create a way of mourning.
AIG: Que es la relación entre paisajes y cuerpos en su obra?
SZG: Estamos hechos de carne, que está hecha de tierra. Vivimos en el sueño que del paisaje construimos. En Colombia los poderosos tratan a ambos de la misma manera: a la Fuerza, con violencia, sometiendo. Nuestro paisaje a pesar de las múltiples desmembramientos a los que lo hemos sometido, es fuerte, esperanzador, luminoso, como si no le importara, apenas rasguñado, como si en su inmensidad siguiera intacto, e invicto gracias a su tiempo geológico. Y eso es lo que consuela, por que ese paisaje nos permite soñar en construir otras cosas.
AIG: Estas hablando de “verdad” o de geografías de verdad. Como describribías el valor de verdad en fotografía (es un mito?), la historia recién de Colombia (en medios de comunicación o discurso popular), y tambien para un artista como usted?
SZG: El titulo del libro fue mi decisión y el título de la exposición fue decidido por el equipo de la Casa de La Memoria. La palabra verdad viene de la instauración de las comisiones de la verdad para la reconstrucción de las historias del conflicto.
Verdad de los sentidos, verdad de lo visual, fotografía como verdad…La verdad es una elaboración humana, una narración para ser contada después de los hechos, es imaginada, y por esto se puede crear, construir el mundo verdadero en el territorio imaginado.
AIG: Como es vivir en un pais que tiene una historia de violencia y de los desaparecidos? Como haces arte en un contexto asi?
SGZ: Muchos grupos de Mafiosos aprendieron a obtener, comerciar y perpetuarse en el dominio del narcotráfico, los mercados de la guerra, el oro, y la apropiación de los recursos públicos. Y este poder permeó muchas esferas sociales. Creo que el arte es un medio poderoso para construir un deseo colectivo diferente. Por eso me interesa expandir la noción de lo estético. Me gusta como lo hace Leroi-Gourham, un paleontólogo, quien afirma que la estetica es la red que une individuo y colectivo.
AIG: Qué crees que el arte puede decir sobre estas historias, que a menudo son indescriptibles, que la política no puede?
SZG: Es por esto que el arte es importante, por que te permite entender, crear conocimiento, y en este proceso ayudo a encontrar sentidos políticos, crear “luces” ayudar y a imaginar otras cosas, a desear de otra manera.