Sergio Vega, Tropicalounge,
2002–2005. Installation view, 51st Venice Biennale, Arsenale,
2005. Photo: Sergio Vega.
ENTERING SERGIO VEGA'S Tropicalounge,
2002–2005, is like walking into a diorama. Designer furniture, potted
exotic plants, a harmonious color code, and the sounds of smooth bossa
nova create a cordial ambience that is augmented by the scent of
potpourri and by the ensemble's many
interactive objects and spaces. The vivid manner in which Vega's
sculptural installation engages a visitor's senses recalls the
Tropicália of Hélio Oiticica and its legacies in the work of artists
such as Cildo Meireles and Artur Barrio. But Tropicalounge is also oddly incongruous.
What is one to make of the cockeyed placement of the ramshackle shanty
next to the comfortable salon, or of the way in which the dilapidated
dwelling evokes a magical sanctuary in an enchanted forest, or of the
interpolation of the observer as colonizer aloofly surveying the social
contradictions that enable the surrounding comforts? Vega's strategy of
display, especially the complex, double-edged function of everyday
objects and the positioning of the spectator as both active protagonist
and detached viewer, summons some of the most ambitious sculptural
projects of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the distance between
the structure of Tropicalounge (which
was first shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale and goes on view this month
in an expanded version at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston)
and Martha Rosler's Gourmet Experience, 1973, Marcel
Broodthaers's Winter Garden, 1974, or even Renée Green's Seen,
1990, is not as great as it may at first seem, although the historical
and geopolitical context that Vega addresses differs markedly from
these earlier projects. Mobilizing the tactile, olfactory, auditory,
and visual senses with a reflection on the social inequities that
continue unabated in many parts of the globe, Vega's Tropicalounge is at once fully participatory
and poignant in its critique of modernity and of the class structure
that modernity has naturalized in so many ways. —ALEXANDER ALBERRO
TROPICALOUNGE is based on a passage
from my travel diary written in the late '90s: I was walking through a
shantytown in Cuiabá,
camera in hand; rocks were being thrown at me and I was followed by
ferocious dogs. Basically, my attempt to document the "other"
wasn't very successful. As I made my way out of the favela toward a
residential area higher on the hill, I crossed class boundaries.
Suddenly, I found myself on a wide avenue of colorful high-rise
buildings. The way they were arranged resembled a carnival parade.
Instead of dancing to the deep beat of African drums, however, these
edifices seemed to swing to the cool sound of bossa nova. Hybridity is
a defining feature of the sites for my work—I'm particularly interested
in the shape the universalist canon of modernism took when cannibalized
by the cultures of the third world. Here I was struck not only by how
the monumental presence of these structures announced the triumph of
modernity in the jungle but also by the manner in which this kind of
architecture employs shamanistic strategies of cross-dressing to
impersonate animals or plants in order to contend with nature.
Sergio Vega, Photographing Alice's Backyard,
2001–2002, mixed media, 10 x 10 x 10'.
is ultimately related to an astonishing book I found in 1995 in a
library at Yale, where I was a student in the MFA program. I was looking
for something else altogether when I came across Paradise in the New
World, written in 1650 by Antonio de León Pinelo,
which theorizes that the Garden of Eden was located in South America. This tome combines theology,
natural science, and myth with maps, drawings, and descriptions of
paradise. It reads like magic realism passed off as scientific
research—which I found particularly hilarious. Fascinated, I committed
myself to a search for the actual location, which led me to the Mato Grosso state of Brazil.
I've traveled there a number of times in the decade since. And when I'm
there I write down, photograph, and videotape my experiences as I look
for signs of paradise. I find these
everywhere, not only in the history and in nature, but also in the culture.
In its current form, Tropicalounge
is an expansion of a section of the project I presented in Venice; it also includes a piece exhibited in my
show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris earlier
this year, an installation of lily-pad-shaped cushions called Monet's
Piranha Soup, 2006. The overall design employs mural photography,
objects, models, furniture, dioramas, and colored patterns on the
walls—an ironic overlapping of nature documentary, tropical
architecture, and shantytowns. Within the ensemble, there are many microsites that I pretty much leave to the viewer
to discover—such as the sinuously shaped bench that allows those who
sit on it to face each other as they interact, or the delightful
objects and images within the vitrines. These
have to do with things that happen very fast, or very slow, and which
are archaic or contemporary. My hope is that viewers won't just look
but will also physically discover new possibilities in the space.