Montañas y ríos sin fin
Andres Villar, 2015
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worked over by time, certain twilights and certain places, try to tell us something, or said something we should not have neglected, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation, that does not take shape, is, perhaps, the aesthetic event.
Jorge Luis Borges
Clouds lay low over the mountains the day we arrived in Zaruma. The hotel window framed a view in which land seemed to blend into sky, making it easy to imagine the surrounding landscape as an endless repetition of the mountains and rivers that partly revealed themselves through the mist.
Endless: the word and its concept are burdened by two blind spots. First, endlessness can suggest a type of self-perpetuating matter that is always available and always at hand. This sense of fullness cannot be disconnected from its opposite: the void or the bottomless pit. Both –being and nothingness– converge in the mine, the actual source of the materials that feed our insatiable appetite for technology. We imagine our contemporary world to be intensely virtual, but it is actually an assemblage of organic, electric, and mechanical components with roots in the hollows created by real bodies burrowing into mud and rock. Second, all this bounty offered by mountains and rivers seems to acquire value only when extracted and processed. Indeed, we live with the widespread illusion that the earth beneath the thin veneer we inhabit is constituted by inert matter that is purposive or has some inherent purposiveness in potentia, a purposiveness that ostensibly corresponds to our own. The landscape thus becomes a false mirror that projects our own reflection, blinding us to what is actually there. Neither advocates nor opponents of resource extraction are immune to such a lack of vision; both camps are frequently driven by hubris, intoxicated with one or another notion of the sublime.
Endlessness, however, can also paradoxically suggest a lack of direction, goal, or purpose: there is no teleology that inheres in mountains and rivers, no fixed path leading us without complications into the future. A historical loss of purpose is something we repress at our peril (flags cover it best), for it is at the heart of the inevitable disenchantment of the world, which was diagnosed long ago but is still without a remedy. In the case of the arts, purposelessness is burdened with a meaning that is refracted, like a ray of light traversing a crystal prism, by the historiographical lens of aesthetics, and in particular by Immanuel Kant’s infelicitous phrase “purposiveness without purpose.” We are in contact with beauty, suggested Kant, only when we have rinsed ourselves clean of all interest. If one needs to prove that beauty cannot exist without interest, perhaps there is no better place to do so than in the mountains surrounding Portovelo and Zaruma.
Sublimity and beauty with Kantian inflections, however, constitute a dyad inextricably tied to modernity, and —however contradictory this might seem at first— to the computability of a Nature “out there.” In Portovelo and Zaruma the double-pronged thrust of beauty and sublimity has informed the agenda of the everyday, however unevenly, since at least the time of the Conquest, only to become more insidious, here as everywhere else, with the advent of globalizations.
The evidence of water and gold in the mountains surrounding Portovelo and Zaruma is contradictory. Water is easily seen everywhere; gold is not, or at least not obviously so. Surely the open and scarred earth observed in the distance from Zaruma shows that gold is to be had somewhere. But for whom and for what? Esteban Ayala asks if somebody has seen it. Has anyone seen the gold? This is not a “merely” phenomenological question, although it is partly that. Rather, the question overflows with an ambiguity, endemic to resource extraction, as fathomless as that of mountains and rivers without end and rooted in a dialectic of visibility-invisibility that in-forms both the mining of the earth and the distribution of its output.
Gold, as a signifier of the riches of the so-called New World, has been the source of some of the deepest wounds inflicted upon a hemisphere and its peoples. The blinding sun-like glow of gold induced a kind of heliotropic madness that incited conquistadores to gallop across the continent in search of El Dorado, across mountains and rivers, and into jungles and swamps. The open veins of gold jump-started a Medusa-faced modernity that created ruins and rubble across vast stretches of land south to north, setting a precedent for the centuries that followed.
Portovelo and Zaruma: a difference in altitude of a few hundred meters that recapitulates hierarchy and history. Today there is much commerce high and low. This is, after all, a region also bursting green with the abundance of its agricultural products. The capital of the province, Machala, shows some of the ample wealth accrued from the alchemy that produces a yellow of another sort: the bananas harvested and sent to all corners of the globe.
The spectre of the “precious” metal, however, hovers around every turn of the road. It is, after all, the province of El Oro, and Portovelo has the ruins to prove that gold does indeed exist. Concrete, bricks, metal structures, graveyards, buildings whose functions have changed since their first appearance in black and white photographs, and even recipes from distant shores that have been handed down from one generation to the next: these are the residues of a relentless fluctuation of networks and relations sparked by the enterprise of gold. Actors and histories must be disentangled, which requires both a material and a conceptual archaeology. Furthermore, histories are “simply” collections of words that are spoken out, written down on paper, or illuminated on screens; this is obvious, and therefore easy to forget. As has been said about rivers, no one ever steps in the same flow of gold twice.
Gold and water: two substances that on the surface signify different, even contradictory, things. Gold is a special material, the symbol of “making it,” as in contemporary bling, or of divine spaces, as in the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna. Water, on the other hand, is a common and usually ubiquitous substance, whether clean or polluted; prized but at the same time taken for granted. We perceive water without actually seeing it, and when we encounter it by chance in the incessant flow of images calling us to purchase this or that, swimming pools and oceans appear intensely blue, mirroring a midday sky that is no longer holy like those in Ravenna.
There are places in the vicinity of Portovelo and Zaruma where the water is not blue, but rather an iridescent mixture of red and golden hues. A “water of gold” and acid-yellow sand do not seem “natural.” Indeed, their toxic beauty is the result of a confluence of the natural and the artificial in the water of El Oro province. In times past, the natural and the artificial converged in the marvelous, even magical, spaces of the Wünderkammer. The dense visual juxtaposition that defined these rooms of wonder created constellations mapping particular visions of the universe: one found minerals and the work of the goldsmith; animal bones and the plumed imperial head-dress. These spaces were not without their contradictions, but then they were never ruled by the ruthless laws of logic. Or rather, they suggested other logics.
A domain where photographs behave as residual testaments seems to be separated by an unbridgeable conceptual distance from one in which photographs are charged with the chemistry of artistic practice. However, art, like the spaces of wonder (which not by chance were also known as “cabinets of curiosities”), is a catalyst that unmasks elective affinities in seemingly disparate domains. In the end, all images —in the widest possible sense of the term— resonate with much more history than can be drawn out with words. This does not return us to the tired debate about poetry and painting, but rather testifies that the contemporary artist’s craft is a unique way of posing questions and uncovering enigmas. Contemporary art tests us; the tasks it imposes are rarely easy. We should heed Borges’s words and embrace such aesthetic events as the imminence of a revelation that never arrives, rather than shy away from artworks out of the suspicion that their openness to the future is not easily endured.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “La muralla y los libros,” en Obras completas, 1923-1972 (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1974), 635.