Art

From Ancient Myth to Contemporary Politics, Utopia’s Dangerous Lure

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Manuela Viera-Gallo, “SISIFA” (2015) (detail) (all images courtesy Y Gallery)

The Ancient Ones said that Jauja was a land of abundance and happiness. Many expeditions tried to find the place to verify this. With time, the legend grew disproportionately. People were undoubtedly exaggerating, as they usually do. The only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost along the way.
— epigraph to Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014)

“We don’t belong here at all,” says Gunnar Dinesen to his daughter in the 2014 film, Jauja, written and directed by Lisandro Alonso. Dinesen, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a 19th-century Danish army captain posted in the preternatural Patagonian landscape. Alonso uses the region, often called “the end of the world,” as a metaphorical substitute for the imaginary paradise referred to as Jauja (pronounced “how-ha”) in Spanish myth, based on the tales 16th-century Spanish conquistadors upon discovering the verdant lands of what is now Peru. The film is ostensibly about a father on a quest to find his daughter, but evolves into a story about searching — for home, power, freedom, in short, something else, something better. This essential human belief in and longing for a better life have fueled much of history’s adventures and expeditions, as well as the countless journeys made by immigrants seeking to escape any number of oppressions. In her exhibition titled Jauja at Y Gallery, Manuela Viera-Gallo uses the legend of Jauja as a platform from which to examine both the political and mythological ramifications of an idealized fantasy world.

Viera-Gallo’s site-specific installation “SISIFA” covers the gallery’s back wall. Jagged lines rendered in sawdust trace the contours of a treacherous mountain range. In a small frame at the bottom left, a female figure drags a giant boulder up a hillside, while in the upper right, another frame holds a figure watching as the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Evoking the myth of Sisyphus, Viera-Gallo replaces the story’s protagonist with an immigrant struggling to find a better life. However, the parallel between immigrants and Sisyphus does not stop at the metaphorically futile exertion. In one telling of Sisyphus’s story, the gods sentence Sisyphus to his fate after Pluto grants him permission to temporarily return to earth from the underworld. Then, after seeing all of earth’s splendors again, Sisyphus refuses to go back to the underworld. It is the desire for the joys of life that ultimately leads Sisyphus to his demise, as it does for many immigrants.

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Manuela Viera-Gallo, “SISIFA” (2015) sawdust site specific installation, dimensions variable 

For all intents and purposes, Jauja’s promise of a world better than the one we live in is ultimately a seductive trap: if anyone has found Jauja, the person has not lived (or returned) to tell the tale. Instead, the myth feeds people’s belief that they are the exception to rule. The large sculpture “Catching Dream” (2015) captures the dangerous lure of utopia: pointed dowels extend in a circle out of a large, square, black base. The circular shape references ancient symbolism of power and life, while the dowels act as potentially lethal snares to ensure no dreamers survive.

Viera-Gallo’s series of sawdust drawings on paper, titled Cronograms (2015), highlight the spiraling inversions of reality that Jauja makes possible: a fish catches a human on a hook, a horse rides on the back of a man, a bird lovingly embraces a woman, and the powerless are in power. In “Cronogram II,” however, the imagery becomes directly related to capitalism and the myth of the United States as the promised land. Hands hang down from the top edge of the paper, each reaching toward a US flag that stands next to a giant diamond and multiple versions of a woman’s face that could either be a cubist rendering, or a female Mount Rushmore. The sociopolitical message becomes even more explicit through the sawdust drawing, “La Emigrante” (2014), in which a broadly smiling woman’s face is covered with words such as “JUSTICE,” “EXILE,” “ALIEN,” “CHANGE,” “HOME,” and “CROSS THE BORDER.”

The myth of Jauja challenges conventional notions of borders — political or otherwise — and allows for a world in which hierarchies are reversed and identity is fluid. The narrative Viera-Gallo creates through her allusions to Jauja extends the mythological symbolism into contemporary global society, demonstrating that basic human desires have not changed in thousands of years, while questioning whether or not we’ve learned to avoid the hollow promises of idealized worlds.

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Manuela Viera-Gallo, “Cronograma II” (2015) sawdust on paper, 24.3 x 35.4 in.

The important concept to remember is that these utopias are necessarily abstract, and that while the stories about them teach us to dream, none of them provides a map. “Where are you going? Is it far?” an old woman asks Dinesen toward the end of Alonso’s film. “I don’t know,” he replies, “I’m looking for my daughter.” “Ah,” the woman says, and hands him a compass with no markings. To dream is one of the most valuable capabilities we have as humans; however, to fail to anchor our dreams in reality can be tragic.

Manuela Viera-Gallo: Jauja continues at Y Gallery (319 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 31. 

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