One November morning in 1974 Trafalgar Square’s fountains turned bright green. The perpetrator, Nicolás García Uriburu was out of sight. He had swiftly fled the scene after his latest act against water pollution.
‘Every time I colour water, it’s a baptism for me, a rite of water purification,’ he would say, ‘to make everyone think about defending rivers and oceans.’
Other ‘colourations’ or ‘nature interventions’ (over thirty in all) hit the Seine, the Rhine, the Port of Antwerp, New York’s East River and of course Venice’s Grand Canal, where it all started on 19 June 1968 at the Venice Biennale.
This summer marks a year since Uriburu, hurrying to a meeting in Buenos Aires, collapsed and died aged seventy-eight, holding onto a large tree. It is an apt time to look back on his work as a pioneer of land art and to take in other Latin American ‘land artists’ whose major material is land or nature and who may well have followed his lead.
Uriburu’s Venice act caused quite a stir. ‘Initially they didn’t understand,’ he recalled. ‘They said, “What have you done? Is it the end of the world? Is Fellini doing a film?” But then the radio said an artist had done it for the Biennale to protest the pollution of the canals and suddenly they said “How beautiful! It’s like the mantle of the Virgin.”’
Given that Uriburu’s Venice intervention pre-dated Greenpeace (which later teamed up with him in Argentina to dye the Riachuelo river) or any other particular ecological movement, it was ahead of the times. Conceptual art had already started by this point in the nineteen-sixties, but ecological art or land art was a slightly later branch. It harked back to ancient monuments such as Southern Peru’s pre-Columbian Nazca Lines, some three hundred geoglyphs of animals and plants etched into the desert sands, and England’s Stonehenge and nearby crop circles. It was often phenomena like these which inspired the likes of Uriburu, yet until the Argentine’s first aquatic trick which seemed both ancient and avant-garde, like the land art to follow, the modern art world had not seen anything like it.
It would be another year before the completion of Christo and Jeanne- Claude’s first land artwork, wrapping the coast of Sydney’s Little Bay in Australia and two years before Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty ‘earthwork’, a horizontal coil of mud, rock and salt crystals curling out from a faraway shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. And these works were realised only after permission was granted, unlike Uriburu’s unauthorized guerilla act.
‘I was very scared, but my wife, who was going to help, said, “Do it.” So, in a lightning strike— about ten minutes— I dyed the entire length of the Grand Canal a life-affirming green!’
As fellow artist Daniel Santoro explained at Uriburu’s memorial, ‘At the time, dyeing the waters of Venice’s Grand Canal was a huge transgression. When he did that, the ecological theme was not yet well understood and nowadays his work thus reformulates itself: the earth has acted in the way he warned us about. Garcia Uriburu is one of the first militant ecologists through art.’
Despite the illegal nature of his interventions, always executed without authorization (often in the dead of night) and the shock caused by the jarring and very much artificial-looking neon hue of the dye (in Venice he was at first arrested; in London he was fined twenty-five pounds for ‘offending the British Empire’), the pigment, fluorescein, which turns a bright green when synthesised by microorganisms in the water, is a harmless and even biodegradable sodium used by NASA’s astronauts to mark their landing position at sea. It disappears in just a few days, making something of a magician of Uriburu in addition to his artistry and activism.
Indeed, the Argentine wore many hats. A contemporary artist, architect, sculptor, landscape architect, ecological artist, ecologist and one of Argentina’s leading conservationists (in 1982 the founding member of forestation group Grupo Bosque planted 50,000 trees around Buenos Aires), he was equally a pop artist contemporary with Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. Uriburu’s pop art especially was famous in his native Argentina and worldwide. His cartoon-like giant dolphins cast in bright green as neon as his water interventions and his Amazonian river narratives on vast canvasses or winding through the green continent of South America placed on its head, inverting its conventional positioning on the map so it stands instead above North America, surrounded by bright blood red seas are particularly well known. As Uriburu explained, the red is ‘the blood in the veins of Latin America’ while the green always refers to nature.
Uriburu has even been described as a ‘green man’, a symbol of rebirth and nature. And while initially he was in fact an unwitting pioneer of ecological art (claiming he conceived and executed his first act spontaneously) he certainly developed his theme and grew to be a solid ambassador for the environment, perhaps his one constant and refuge in an otherwise heady world of art in which the very shy and quiet man moved at the time.
His 1973 Manifesto declares, ‘Art has no more place outside nature: its place is within nature.’
Since Venice, the colour green became a common denominator in his work and his ecological art even included himself. ‘One has to do as much as possible for nature,’ he would say. ‘I have dedicated my life to this. I am an artist committed to this cause.’ On different occasions he dyed his hair and his skin green, acts that naturally joined his roster of green artworks, even acquiring their own titles; Colouration of the Face (1971), Colouration of the Hair (1973).
Buenos Aires’s vast MALBA Museum of Latin-American art holds many of his creations, including dramatic photographs of his famous colourations, their waters embellished by green pastels. And the Tate houses two of his major works: Actions in Nature (1968) and Portfolio (Manifesto) (1973).
Uriburu was also an impressive collector of and expert in pre-Columbian art. His foundation, the Nicolás García Uriburu Foundation in Buenos Aires, holds his highly revered ethnographic collection dedicated to the art of the continent’s indigenous peoples. This includes a wealth of items from ritual ornaments to Amazonian feather headdresses.
He donated hundreds of archaeological pieces to establish museums in Buenos Aires and Uruguay, where he also had a home. The Uruguayan State received his Collection of National (Uruguayan) Painting and Sculpture, which he curated himself at the Nicolás García Uriburu Museum in Maldonado.
Uriburu’s daring work, while distinct in its aquatic medium and signature green, possibly sparked many other land artworks using nature as a means of activism. According to the Malba Museum, ‘By his water interventions, Uriburu took up the natural space as the backbone and raw material of his art, anticipating what would become known as land art, ‘earth art’.’
In Latin America, as worldwide, land artists, who link their works of art inextricably with the landscape, and environmental artists, who address social and political issues relating to the natural and urban environment, are increasingly establishing themselves. From Argentine Eduardo Sanguinetti’s land-art ‘sculptures’ in La Pampa’s desert to highlight the supernatural radiation of nature that culture lacks, Mexican sculptor David Guzman’s three interlinked rings of volcanic rock and steel to seek the balance between industry and nature; Venezuelan Milton Becerra’s site- specific Meteorite with its raging flames inside five circles on the grass; Bolivian Sonia Falcone’s Field of Colour with its eighty-eight different spices in three-hundred different colours from around the world to unite cultural difference and Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s placement of her body in her land art through to Brazilian and Mexican artists Gabriel Orozco and Vik Muniz’s use of waste to alert us to the damaging effects of commercial and industrial refuse, a number of well-known artists from the region have made their names in these genres.
Meanwhile, images like two enormous fish made from discarded plastic bottles, lit up iridescent at night, on Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo beach to mark 2012’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) are hard to forget for all who saw them.
In the vast glistening expanse of the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, in Western Bolivia, the hulking, wild-bearded Bolivian artist Gaston Ugalde disappears for days, sometimes returning only once the search parties have been sent out. He might go alone for a week or for a month with a film crew. He has done this for the past forty years and yet ‘every single time is a different feeling and experience and there is always a new surprise.’
When Ugalde does come back to his studio in La Paz, it is either equipped with giant bricks of salt to sculpt or scores of photographs, film footage and props from his famous installations. The studio itself, its floor laden with salt crystals, is like a secret scene stolen from Narnia. In fact, it is a trove symbolic of what is arguably Bolivia’s number one treasure: lithium.
The Salar de Uyuni, this artist’s canvas and his medium, is one of the world’s natural wonders. It is so vast and bright that it is visible from space. Neil Armstrong is said to have seen it from the moon and mistaken it for a gigantic glacier.
It is also home to over fifty per cent of the world’s lithium carbonate reserves, which lie beneath its surface of brine. This makes the salt pan extremely valuable – an asset increasingly capitalised upon in recent years by the country’s government in response to global demand.
As well as longer-standing demands for lithium for pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and smartphone batteries, the electric vehicle boom has fueled substantial recent interest in Bolivia’s salt flats. Demand is projected to outstrip supply by 2023. On one hand supplying a raw material to support the electric car industry could provide Bolivia with a welcome economic boost. Yet equally, partly due to the high levels of magnesium in this terrain, extraction could threaten its fragile ecosystem, not to mention bring a rise in traffic, pollution, the pressure on water supply and damage to the site’s staggering natural beauty, in turn threatening tourism. Ultimately it could be of more harm than help to Bolivia.
In his 2009 re-election campaign, President Morales pledged to develop Bolivia’s lithium industry with a strict policy toward foreign investment to end the ‘looting’ of his country’s resources. However, increasingly Bolivia has been said to court international investment opportunities, even considering establishing foreign lithium battery plants on site.
While Ugalde says ‘at the moment the development with other nations is just beginning and you don’t yet feel or see it as the salar is a big planet’, his art on the salt pan in installations and photographs expresses his concern for the controversial activities of excavation. In particular he decries ‘the tradition of exporting raw materials to be used for the industrialisation of the West, leaving out Bolivia from the chain of profit.’ Indeed, his artwork drawing on Christian iconography, including an installation with a naked model tied upside down to a cross in the middle of the otherworldly white is meant to emphasise the potential ‘suffering of Bolivian people.’
Ugalde’s work through land art, video-art, sculptures, performances, paintings, concerts, installations and photographs has been snapped up by art shows and collectors worldwide and he has won many prizes. In 2001 he starred at the Latin-American Pavilion of the Biennale in Venice where, like Uriburu twenty-three years earlier, he staked his claim as a major artist from Latin America, and the most globally known from Bolivia. His debut installation included Bolivian multi-coloured striped woven works and a large pile of potatoes. In 2009 he would return with a stunningly colourful Inca and Aymara textile installation showing the country’s rich weaving traditions and dyes and the syncretism inherent in Bolivia’s mix of cultures and religions. At Art Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2009, his photography included a naked woman curled up in a sheer sheet suspended above the never-ending salt flats, the whole image clothed in sleepy blues and violets. He recently showed more salt-scape photography at Photo London 2017 where he was a guest speaker.
A major point of focus is the Andes. In one study he is trying to ‘capture the temperature of colour and freeze time with small interventions in the landscape’. Meanwhile he is working in the Andean glaciers (‘are they melting?’), to explore the theme of climate change.
If Uriburu was by turns a green man prankster and nature interventionist, critics have called Ugalde, also successful in the 1970s, the Andean Warhol (for his treatment of Andean politics and culture) and the ‘enfant terrible of the Bolivian art scene.’
When I met him in La Paz in 2008 his studio was lined with collages made from coca leaves – now world famous portraits of South America’s politicians from Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar to Eva Peron and Evo Morales (whose start as a coca leaf farmer drove his presidential campaign), as well as Maradona, Mick Jagger and John Lennon. Ugalde says his coca portraits (some twenty-five in all) ‘always cause surprise and laughter’. The best reactions came from Evo Morales, Maradona and the Pope and Ugalde has been asked to make more.
He has also used Bolivian coca leaves to fashion a number of American flags, a map of Latin America, giant dollar notes and Coca-Cola advertising, with slogans such as ‘Enjoy Coke’.
The coca plant may be better known today as the source of cocaine, and as such a major target of the ‘war on drugs’ but for Andean cultures it is a vital part of their religious cosmology, even known as the ‘sacred leaf.’ As such it wields a power far greater in this symbolic context dating back to pre-Columbian times, while cocaine production only dates from the start of the twentieth century. Bolivia often defends coca production, saying, ‘coca is not cocaine.’
As a sacred leaf, coca has been used countless times in indigenous Andean rites for protection from curses and bad energy, to change bad luck, to predict the future and to make offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
It is this dual significance of his natural creative materials, that Ugalde often seizes upon. He has made a mastery of walking the fine tightrope between cultural advocacy and provocation, alluding to the natural, coveted and controversial riches of his country and continent. Whether his material consists of Bolivia’s landscape or its tradition his art is known for its socio- political themes.
While the furthest reaches of Bolivia’s salt flats are Ugalde’s natural artistic back-drop, Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros favours the proximity of buildings. In 2015, hundreds of giant ants (with bodies and heads the size of footballs) stormed the walls of the Saatchi Gallery in his shocking work on immigration.
For him, these unmissable creatures, each made from the plaster casts of two human skulls, depict the hundreds of thousands of his countrymen displaced by the raging civil war of the past half-century, only now drawn officially to a close by President Santos’s recent peace accords. For others, they show the scale and chaos for so many around the world, fleeing worse fates, driven by an instinct to survive.
This work itself had migrated to London after other sites; the walls not only of galleries but vast outside spaces themselves, like bridges, monuments and fortresses, as urban as Uriburu’s waterways.
Certainly on first sight, an ominous quality pervades these artists’ interventions. And yet this is so often offset by the prank-like theatrics of each. If Uriburu often had to steal into the night for his colourations, Gómezbarros stashed his papier mâché skulls in the basement of Saatchi for hours until the time came to bring out the ants. Such antics in both cases made the artworks appealing to viewers of all ages whom they engaged and in many cases, intrigued. The wonder on the faces of children tracking the giant ants at Saatchi says it all.
If the startling sight of bright green water could teach children of all ages to guard nature, or a wall of gigantic roaming ants could ward them off war, perhaps land art ought to be encouraged more and more.
Ella Windsor has contributed to various publications including Monocle Magazine, Vogue, The Ecologist and The Daily Telegraph. She writes about culture, the arts and arts education, particularly in South America where she lived for several years. She is Director of Arts and Travel for Branding Latin America Group, a London-based platform for the region. She is also Board Director of Toucan Ventures, supporting the growth of creative entrepreneurs, and the Playing for Change Foundation, a global music education nonprofit organisation. She graduated from Brown and Oxford universities with degrees in Comparative Literature and Social Anthropology.