Translations:Alicia Barney Caldas/5/en
Alicia Barney was trained during the seventies in New York, which allowed her to learn first-hand about the theoretical discussions that led to one of the principles of contemporary art: the dematerialization of the work of art. This knowledge allowed her to understand the emblematic exhibition Ecological Art, which took place in 1969 at Gibson Gallery, where Christo, Hutchinson, and Oldenburg presented their works within this reflexive current. After finishing her studies, Barney decided to return to the capital city of Valle del Cauca in Colombia to develop her professional work. Upon her arrival, she contacted Miguel González, who without hesitation encouraged her to prepare her first exhibition in Colombia at Universidad del Valle, as González himself told Maria Wills in an interview:
“Alicia Barney had her first solo exhibition in Colombia, at Universidad del Valle when I was directing the exhibitions there. It was about the Object-Diary, something totally different from what had been seen before. Benjamín Barney (who had married María de la Paz Jaramillo) called me, and I was already at Universidad del Valle, and he told me "Look, I have a sister who does sculpture, and she came to live in Cali after studying in the United States. So I imagined some porcelains, some dancers, some busts, but I said I'm not going to get into trouble here with Benjamin, and I told her to come and show me her work [...] And then she showed up with her portfolio, with all her junk hanging out, right? All those things that for Colombia were very strange. So I said, "When do you want the exhibition?” (Wills, 2016).
With that first exhibition, Barney saw the public's resistance to new artistic proposals, expressed without respect. According to the artist, they scribbled insults onto the work and around it. These gestures of incomprehension demonstrated the innovative character of the artist, who from her first exhibition became part of the group of young creators who were renewing the national art scene by working with marginal materials and elements from everyday life. This position was consolidated with her inclusion in the fifth version of the Atenas Salon at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art in 1979, where she exhibited one of her daily objects, this time Bocagrande I and Bocagrande II. Although her works had already been criticized in Cali as a result of the public’s total incomprehension, in Bogotá the criticism became even stronger. Marta Traba, the protagonist, and leader of the arts scene in the country since the nineteen fifties, spoke out forcefully against the direction in which new curators were taking Colombian art: “Not unrelated is the dominant tone that Colombian art has been taking in the hands of Eduardo Serrano at the Bogota Museum of Modern Art, Miguel Gonzalez in Cali, Alvaro Barrios in Barranquilla, and Alberto Sierra in Medellin, who have supported what they consider to be the avant-garde—that is, the use of systems other than the traditional media of painting, sculpture, and graphic art—in such an enthusiastic and exclusive way as to discourage anyone who dares to dissent (Quoted by González in an interview with Wills, 2016).”
The formal results consolidated in a painting, sculpture, or graphic work of art were being cast aside to make room for process art, in which the important thing was not the formal solution but the idea. Barney was embedded in artistic productions that were the result of conceptual questions. For this reason, Álvaro Barrios included her in Arte para los años ochenta (Art for the Eighties), an exhibition that opened in 1980. Despite the resistance from the public, and at times form the field of art itself, Barney's work was again recognized in 1980, when she received the First Prize at the III Regional Visual Arts Salon in Cali for the same work with which she had participated in the Atenas Salon. That same year, she dared to do something that no artist had proposed in recent years, when various government voices all promulgated that the economic development of the country was to be found in the exploitation of its natural resources and industrialization. She decided to follow her sense of smell, wanting to know where the nauseating smell that surrounded her family farm and that of many other families in Yumbo came from. People from time to time asked about the reason for the smell, to which people naturally responded: "This is what Yumbo smells like." What was that smell that had become normal in the industrial capital of Valle del Cauca? This question was the starting point for Yumbo (1980), one of Barney’s most emblematic works, first exhibited at La Tertulia Museum of Modern Art in 1980. Members of the Administrative Department of Security arrived, because the work was—while not explicitly—a denunciation of the cement company that had operated in the municipality since the forties:
“You could recognize them by the clothes they wore, the little shirts and the denim pants. There were three guys and they started to surround me and attack me. The only way out was to tell them that the polluted air was not only in Yumbo but that the air was circulating and that all that pollution would travel to the islands of the owners of Cementos del Valle. Suddenly they fell silent and left. Being an environmentalist is a subversive act for many. The more so at that time. That's why there is talk of radical environmentalists (Barney, 2015). ”
The following year, while already a professor at Universidad del Cauca, Barney formed an interdisciplinary team with a biologist and a photographer with whom she traveled to different points along the Cauca River to take samples of its water and speak out against its contamination. This initiative gave rise to the Cauca River project. When Barney exhibited the piece, it was harshly criticized by her students, who were still ignorant of the procedures employed, ones that would later connect artistic practice with ethnography. Although it would be going too far to say that her works were the result of scientific rigor, Barney did take elements of research to make her work a document of denunciation.
Between 1981 and 1982, she produced El ecológico, a newspaper of ten unique editions, each one consisting of forty original pages from various other newspapers in the country that Barney had been collecting for a long time. She asked Jorge Cachiotis, a history student, to classify the material by opposing themes according to his understanding of the state of the twenty themes into which the student had classified the material. Cachiotis wrote the titles Endangered Species and Non-Endangered Species on stamps with green ink. Among the themes were traditional customs, farmers, animals, human diversity, trees, water, sea, architecture, landscape, fresh food, canned food, atomic energy, clean energy, woman as an object, and woman as an individual.