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Sundials as a Three-dimensional Concept of Time
by Bélgica Rodriguez

Visual Relations ”The Labyrinth of Solitude”

by K. Mitchell Snow


Sundials as a Three-dimensional Concept of Time
by Bélgica Rodriguez

Art Historian
Caracas, February 2001

Some tendencies of contemporary art tend to treat three-dimensional work as a multidisciplinary creative exercise, removed from sculpture’s traditional volumetric considerations, pursuing abstract concepts that resolve themselves in space. Instead of the figurative or geometric statements of traditional sculpture, the interests of these artists lie in approaching their work as a spatial association of themes and problems that concern contemporary man. Their study and reflections on space as an active, energizing element in every aspect of life and culture of a society have brought them to establish associations, both open and closed, from within and outside the work, linked directly to the necessity of transforming art into a system of effective communication through the way in which it is expressed visually.

Movement, time, the absolute, the environment, solitude: all have been converted into themes that traditional forms of sculpture can not represent; thus the artist is obliged to respond, concentrating fully on elements that draw the attention of the senses and the spirit. Artistic form has taken the path of an infinite ideology. The personal consciousness of the creator is expressed in relation to the spectator and thus becomes concrete in art as a spiritual or aesthetic event. Liberated from concerns outside those of existence, the self, and art, works of this nature are charged with ethical and moral values.

Considerations of this type come to mind when one analyzes the work of Soledad Salamé, (Chile, 1954), who, through several decades, has created a group of works that demonstrate the vision of a woman artist who examines her resources and her era without the least ambiguity. Her work outside traditional sculpture, almost within the orbit of the installation, and her work in the fields of painting, drawing and graphics, have been the result of a critical point of view, that of the artist’s attitude and that of a permanent struggle between subject and object.

From her beginnings in the’70s, her curiosity and capacity of extreme wonder, was expressed as interest in her context—in scientific advances, in the unexpected marvels of nature, and technology. All of those interests foretold the path she would follow. Her intensive creativity and mysteriously wild ideas form a powerful tandem.

When, in 1982, she began to create a series of solar sculptures, the energy of light and the abstract notion of time were her chosen theme. These weren’t banal sundials to refract the hour. It was more of an obsession with the insoluble that caused her to construct the first, and, on her own effort, install it in the town of Guarenas, near Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. “Sun and Time” (“Sol y Tiempo”) was the poetic title she assigned it. The work yields to personal nostalgia, to an existence that, in solitude, nurtures itself on time and solar energy, which permanently convert themselves into circular currents, as the great Latin American poet Jorge Luis Borges has demonstrated. The decade of the ’80s inaugurated a period of experimentation and exploration in three-dimensional works in Latin America. It manifested itself in the urge of attaining a more authentic consciousness of space, of the physical, of the real and that which is created through the interaction of bodies, of objects, and the emptiness they occupy and dislodge; that is to say, of spiritual space. Like many Latin American artists, during this time Soledad worked in her own way with what were once considered “ignoble” materials, such as concrete and found objects like castoff pieces of iron. With these, she built this gigantic structure, planned to function as a sundial, situating it, as we have already written, outdoors.

“Sundial 1, 1984,” in bronze and concrete, elevates itself majestically in the full sun to capture its light and offer viewers an hour that they will keep in their memories. One of the more complicated structures of this epoch was “Three Eras, 1983.” Steel, Plexiglas, and sheets of rubber are the components of this work, also situated out of doors, near El Avila mountain, which crowns Caracas. Here the sundial is not simple. It is a mechanism that liberates energy, which reflects and repeats the surrounding landscape, which breathes like a living being. Its formal elements enable it to participate in a polyvalent visual speech. That is to say, one reads the roles of the different materials. The gears simulate the interior of a normal clock, but visually they appear as colored drawings in space. The sundial itself is a semicircular piece of green rubber that has a direct relationship with the surrounding landscape. There is something attractively fitting about this piece.

Soledad Salamé’s life has developed between Chile, Venezuela and Baltimore, USA. This shuttling among countries is enough to make her feel like an artist of the world. Conveying an intense artistic environment, such as that in Caracas during the ’70s and ’80s, constituted an enriching experience that confirmed her formative and existential phase, not only through her teachings and apprenticeships in art schools, but also for her growing teaching and participation in numerous collective exhibits since 1977. Apart from it being extraordinarily formative, her long period of residence in Venezuela, stimulated development of a work preferentially connected to three-dimensional expressions—without discarding the bidimensional, and always maintaining a theme related to nature, its connections with the life of mankind, and within the significance of space. This feverishly creative activity explains her being invited to fundamental exhibits that evidently manifested the force that three-dimensional work was taking in Venezuela. Thus, for example, her experience of the Symposium of Sculpture in the Minas de Aroa, State of Yaracuy, 1983. Here, in this lovely mountain that belonged to Simon Bolivar and where much of the budget for his campaign of liberation originated, a group of sculptors from Venezuela convened for a week to work with abandoned materials from the 19th century. She built an immense sundial that was a creative experience of great transcendence. According to one of the principal guests, Luis Chacón, winner of the National Award for Plastic Arts, all of the participants “planned to face nature, in the heart of a mountain with wild vegetation, oxidized rocks, a clean river, completely impregnated with the aroma of copper.”

This event was followed by the exhibit organized by the exhibit space of Venezuela’s national telephone company titled “Material and Space: New Propositions and Investigations in Three Dimensions,” which convened investigative plastic artists and set a fundamental precedent in the visual arts environment of Venezuela.

These events based themselves precisely in the themes which satisfied Salamé’s creative requirements and her passionately investigative temperament. In these opportunities and conditions, it was evident that she was inclined to explore new spatial propositions: combining volume with spatial areas, drawing without paper on diverse materials, color and collage, thus achieving a new manner of looking at three-dimensional work. To conclude, her thematic proposition has always had a particular reason which functions in accord with the materials she uses. Science, technology and art were combined in a specific manner to open a breach to other artistic statements. She looked to the future without losing the richness of the present.

The structure that supported the work of the ’80s and ’90s is the same that sustains her now. The artist, in accord with her plastic interests, explores themes which express a planetary sense. Nature is precisely one of her fountains of inspiration. Earth’s forces are positively commingled with the force of the artist and the force of the woman. Living every moment of this life passionately is a requirement for Salamé, just as it is creating a body of work, fully aware of its historical transcendence.

In 1990, while working on the scenery for the opera Carmen in the Baltimore Opera House, Soledad offered a statement that perfectly applies to her universal vision of art. she declared: “My work reflects a kinetic, and sometimes futuristic, vision of landscape and space. Much of this work incorporates images of mechanical movement, just as it does movements of a universal order. The paintings in themselves are punctuated by satellite vistas and domestic elements used by man in his daily life. The textures are something inherent to the work itself, they simulate the feelings of earth and water.”

On analyzing the creative work of Soledad Salamé, one inevitably asks oneself about the relationships among the sundials, space, and time; rainforests, the destruction of the environment, the need of science to draw nearer to the world of nature, to question man and his function within nature.

All of these relationships are expressed as vital symbols and metaphors of man’s presence on this planet and his relationship with the marvelous, and often incomprehensible, physical and metaphysical environment which surrounds him. The kingdom of the objective is mixed with the lyric poetry of someone who does not intend to make her work an environmental pamphlet, nor a realistic anecdote.

As a consequence, all of this is developed in a plastic proposal that departs from the relationship of forms, shadows and light, and builds an architecture as artistically as it is possible. Whether in her installations, in which plants and water mix with paintings that, in some manner, she reconstructs with fine layers of fantasy; or in her sculptures, in which the volumetric support is often converted into a support for drawing, as, for example, in the “Sundial” of 1983, or “Broken Time” or “Globe;” while in bi-dimensional works such as “Theory of Continents,” “Earth View” or “Study of the Solar System” the formal and conceptual proposals have much to say about being an artist, and being conscious of the fact, as she progresses toward an ambitious project for the year 2001.

This project is the “Labyrinth of Solitude” (her name Soledad, her solitude, the solitude of everyone who inhabits the universe, is definitely a symbolic title). More than a synthesis, it is a recompilation of more than 25 years of work, poured into an insistence of maintaining her same creative stride, some days more pressured and others calmer, and sometimes even more distracted. Here, all of the primeval fountains of her life experience converge with her sense of the human being and his environment, in front of nature and art, but more than anything in front of herself. Soledad Salamé has been intrigued by earth, water and air, along with the consciousness of man who makes use of these elements to support a life of insomnia, yet, nevertheless, shipwrecked on the shores of the impossible. It is an installation which traces the labyrinth of the memory, of daily symbolism, of nature and of consciousness. It is a journey from knowing and knowledge of the certain into intuition. It is the memory of an artist who knows everything she loves is in it and struggles to reach it. Despite everything, the intensity of lived experience, and her life which remains to be lived, it is a passport to the maintenance of creation as the only manner to breathe somewhat acceptably.

Her criteria pass over the “legitimization” of affections. The evidence of this intuition, and the work that goes with it, are proven in a conviction that eclipses any frivolous manner of approaching a subject as serious today as the human being and his contemporary presence. In this context, the artist seeks logical evidence; whatever is possible to reinvent nature in a proud and magnificent space of a museum that oncewasabotanical garden. Elements of the real are found to confirm not a hypothesis, but a delicate, subtle and strong plastic reality, without contradictions. As with all of her work, this installation is not presented as a recreation of nature. It is the result of a formal and conceptual identification with a proposal that unites artistic will, humanist preoccupations and a knowledge of the power of visual resources. The participation of other professionals—who, depending on her needs, might be architects, botanists, meteorologists, anthropologists, video artists and even entomologists—in the work of Soledad is nothing new. The interrelationships among the work and the creator always propose an interactive vision that necessarily gets to the spectator. The reading of this visual speech supports an intellectual, sensorial, and, of course, visual action.

The “Labyrinth of Solitude” holds six hundred meters of symbolism where the lightness of being palpitates—in its plastic creative complexity, in its art, in its theme and in the didactic. Interacting with an installation is a sublime experience that provides the receptor-spectator the real possibility of being oneself in one’s environment. The loss of boundaries has converted man into an urban animal. Here, we have an approximation of what appears but cannot be grasped. It is a conclusion to a work that ends, and begins at the same point.

Visual Relations ”The Labyrinth of Solitude”
by K. Mitchell Snow

Washington, D.C. March 2001
Writer, Critic

When defined, as the dictionary does, as the art and science of constructing a building, the word architecture would seem to bear little direct relation to the work of Chilean artist Soledad Salamé. Adopt the alternate definition, that of an express or implied spatial relationship among forms, and the word becomes immediately relevant to a discussion of her creations which range from drawings to large-scale installations. The idea of relationships lies at the intellectual core of what Salamé offers us. While this is true in the physical, or formal sense, of the term, it is even truer in its metaphysical implications.
In a purely formal sense, architecture has always played a role in Salamé’s work. At first, it may have been an unbidden and perhaps unrecognized response to her urge to achieve both beauty and visual communication. The ideas of light and space, expressed as the symmetry and proportion that informed the monuments of classical Greece, as well as their later extensions and inversions, remain relevant to the plastic arts of the western world. Whether her understanding of the integrated nature of the architectural elements of her works and the environmental concerns and concepts they portray was built slowly over time or whether it arrived in a sudden moment of inspiration, the unity existed in and of itself.
Salamé considers her stage designs for the Baltimore Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen as a definitive moment in the role of architecture within her work. Stage design, by definition, presupposes human interaction. As wonderful as they may be, only other set designers go to the theater to study the sets. We attend the theater to experience the actors in their setting. The way performers interact with their settings can provoke moments as viscerally stirring as the lines they speak. Yet, the proscenium arch of the traditional theater maintains a separation between the audience and the art. Theatrical events may seem, at times, rather like a two-dimensional painting with a strangely kinetic surface. With her subsequent installations, Salamé created stage sets of a sort, yet she has placed her audience in the midst of her settings, allowing them their own visceral discoveries. Carmen offered her a specific way of communicating visual ideas; her installations provided her the challenge of communicating her own ideas with the viewing public.

The formal elements that fill Salame’s creations, the Roman arches and sometimes twisted stairways, are all present in the designs she realized for her Carmen. So too, are the richly textured, dynamic surfaces she strives to create in her etchings, paintings and mixed media works. One can appreciate the way she handles these elements to lead the spectator’s eye across her surfaces, her unexpected use of light to create even less expected spaces, her juxtaposition of earth tones and brilliant, gem-like hues, all of which are justifiable subjects for critical comment. These formal elements of her work, however, play the same role that a stage set does in a theatrical production. Their presence supports the expression of the ideas they ultimately support. As she does with every other element of her work, the forms she employs carry their own implications that serve not only to enrich her visual discourse, but also to emphasize her philosophies.

The pair of Roman arches of her set for Carmen, crafted in rich creamy browns and yellows to evoke the sun-dried experience of Spanish geography, are perhaps the most frequently used formal device in her visual repertoire. Just as the engineering achievements that lay behind the construction of the Roman arch continue to dictate the directions of western architecture in ways that are not always visible, arches also carry implicit meanings that are not evident at first encounter.

The almost monumental arches of Carmen serve their functional purposes as entryways and exits for the performers, both animating and accentuating the range of events encompassed within the opera. It is the idea of passage as far more than a functional act that enlivens Salame’s creations. At times, her arches are portals to separate states of reality, in which the unseen world becomes suddenly visible.

One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is her multimedia work “Crossing the Bridge.” The Roman arch provides the work with its central forms. The painting begins with arched doors set within underground arcades sheltering rooms that hold everything from stairways to alchemist’s laboratories to the distinctive gates of New York City’s subway system. Salamé repeats this form in the abutments of a bridge that spans a wooded island across the composition’s middle range. This repetition is not only horizontal, it also recalls the arched spaces beneath the bridge. To further complement the effect, “Crossing the Bridge” is completed by billowing clouds that rise above these structures, restating the architectural forms beneath them.

As this work also illustrates, arches in series are more than simple portals. They serve not only as entries to the multiple unexplored spaces that stretch deep into the interiors of her canvases, these arcades unite these spaces in a coherent whole, just as they span the horizontal space of her works. Two additional elements from Salamé’s designs for Carmen—unconventional staircases and spaces within spaces, creating rooms that seem to defy the laws of perspective and gravity—play major roles in defining these miniature worlds. Her oddly shaped staircases play an even more important role in “Library Corner,” where they define the architectural space, and as in her other works, provide connections to otherwise disparate elements of her constructions. It is worth noting that the impulse in her stairways is almost always upward, in keeping with the dynamism that animates her working practices.

These grouped arches allow the mind to wander among the rooms and invent connections among them. At the same time, they provide a direct bridge between the territories that lie on either side of a painting. Her installations, which place the viewer quite literally amid their elements, allow consideration of the multidimensional implications of such conjunctions in even greater depth.

While the visual connections provided by Salame’s arches offer her a wealth of visual and philosophical possibilities, perhaps the greatest divide that she spans in her works are the seeming divergences between the constructed world and the natural world. In a Salamé painting, the only divergences are the result of human error. The natural world is such a dominant force in her works that it infiltrates, infuses and inspires even our most banal creations.

The constructed elements in her paintings always echo the forms of nature, even when they may at first seem to oppose it. Thus the arcaded spaces beneath the central span of “Crossing the Bridge” are repeated in the clouds that cover the sky. As if to erase any doubts that might exist, she painted “From Prague.” Here the pier that both joins and supports the work’s central arches is not made of stone, or brick and mortar. It is formed, instead by the massive trunk and protecting branches of a millennial tree.
For many thinkers of an environmental bent, architecture is treated like the inverse of nature. In fact, we often behave as if architecture were a distinctly human creation meant specifically to keep nature away, a construction built as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of the natural world so we can feel warm and safe. At the same time, the explosion of human architecture on the landscape poses one of the greatest threats to the natural world. Building by building, road by road, humans are pushing plants and animals out of their native habitats and toward extinction.

As work after work in her artistic history demonstrate, Salamé’s selection of architecture to serve as a visual metaphor for the links that exist between man and nature is anything but ironic. She understands shelter as a human imperative, but invites us to consider what our urge toward protection may mean for the future of shelter itself.

The most immediate sense of connection she creates between architecture and the natural world is that of its constituent elements. The stone in a bridge’s piers, the mud and grass that have been reshaped into the adobe of a crumbling building, even the crumbling poster in works like “Open Gate,” all are entirely the materials of nature. Perhaps the glass and steel of contemporary skyscrapers are far removed from the simple sand and iron ore that form them, yet without these humble materials, these ultimate expressions of architecture’s power, which is to say of humanity’s power, would not be possible.

Her fascination with materials has provided her with effective tools to consider the nature and effects of time, one of the primary driving forces of our planet’s existence. Thus, the crumbling textures of Open Gate serve both representational and conceptual purposes. Salame’s architecture is but another extension of the grand cycles of nature, of birth, growth and decay that surround us, and, indeed, that occur within us. The buildings in her paintings rise, age and decay just as any other element of nature would do. Her understanding of the simultaneous occurrence of all of these processes have spurred her to explore new mediums which lie well beyond the boundaries of traditional plastic expression.

Among the greatest visual challenges she has resolved is the expression of the delicate decay of grass, leaves, and insects in a two-dimensional form that is, itself, as stable and durable as one of her paintings. Suspending drawings amid clear acrylic plates that allow the transmission of light, much as an incredibly fragile leaf skeleton might do, and whose peeling edges suggest decomposition without themselves decomposing, is but one of the notable solutions she has created, which in and of itself also provides her with a powerful formal tool.

Salamé has explored these layering effects on the opposite edge of the time scale as well. At first, she created her own amber in which to encase the forms of some truly remarkable insects. More recently, she has been inserting her drawings within the forms—one might even venture to call them architectural forms—and of massive rock crystals whose formation has required literally billions of years of accretion at the atomic level. The influence of all of these technical explorations plays a particularly important role in the construction of her current installation, the “Labyrinth of Solitude” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile.

Capturing time, and the movement implicit in its existence, is one of the most difficult of challenges facing artists in any medium, and has been one of Salame’s particular preoccupations. The dynamic curves that form the “sky” in her sets for Carmen are the simplest, and most apt, of her resolutions. Perhaps the least expected is her generous use of plant life within her installations, which provide literal, though quite subtle, changes over the duration of an exhibition. In “Growth,” for example, the work evolves gradually from two fields of live grass sprouting from dried hay into scrolls of handmade paper decorated with trees and Salame’s own poetry. Even during a single visit to the work, the dynamic cycle of life ensures the work changes at the same time that our perceptions of the work change. As in her more traditional works, the vital, unstable forces of nature in “Growth” provide the foundation from which all human creation derives. Her “Labyrinth of Solitude” will embrace this solution as well.

This installation achieves much of what Salamé has been seeking in her works throughout her career. Like the space within a space that floats above the actors of Carmen, this “Labyrinth” brings the natural world and the constructed world together in an unexpected, yet coherent and expressive whole. The “Labyrinth of Solitude” is the architecture of nature within the architecture of man expressed in a scale that might aptly be termed operatic. This “Labyrinth” embodies the continuum that makes man’s world inseparable from the world of nature. With Salamé’s visual music providing the background, we, the actors in this particular drama, are reminded that the future of the world is our future as well.