Ximena Garrido-Lecca: Oil of Stone
12 Feb 2020, 1:43 pm
Few substances have had as much impact on the world we live in as oil. The raw material of plastics, asphalt and fuels, it exists in countless everyday products and is our primary source of energy; its strategic importance motivates wars and coups d’état and also contributes to the shaping of the geopolitical world. The oil world, in its ability to combine political and economic power with huge sums of money, large corporations and the international scale of its transactions, was the backdrop for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unfinished novel “Petrolio”, in which the Italian poet and filmmaker built a powerful allegory of post-war Italian politics.
Lobitos, in Peru, is one of the places that have been shaped by the history of this raw material. In the North of the country, close to the border with Ecuador, the city is famous in the surf circuit for being one the best places in Peru to practice the sport. In a market dominated historically by a subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller’s North American Standard Oil Company, Lobitos supplied more than 20% of Peruvian oil in the first decades of the 20th Century. The company responsible for this feat, however, was not Peruvian, but English. With shares in the London Stock Exchange, Lobitos Oilfields Limited created a kind of British enclave in the region, with Victorian houses, roads, hospitals and the country’s first cinema. The place was so sophisticated that it became a stopping-off point for foreign ships on route to Chile and Argentina.
A new chapter in the story of the oil company, the oldest in Latin America, began with Juan Velasco Alvarado’s military coup in October 1968. The government nationalised production in the entire country and Lobitos was turned into an army base. A few years later, however, the military left the region and it slowly assumed its current shape: a series of abandoned and ruined spaces, superimposed with evidence of the English military, and various types of oil extraction equipment. This is the setting where fishermen and pottery workers, the only residents that have remained, host the surfers with some infrastructure, and where transnational oil companies still operate today.
“Aceite de piedra”, the two-channel video Ximena Garrido-Lecca will present in SP-Arte’s Solo section, draws from echoes of the past in present day Lobitos. The work’s title – Oil of Stone – is the literal translation of “petroleum” into Spanish, but its gaze falls first onto the residents, witnesses to decades of transformations in the city, and on the work they do: their hands, moving and working over fish, clay and the weave of fishing nets. Next, on the other channel, appear the ruins of the English military city, both fragile and tragic, standing out against the desert and blue sky. Progress flaunts its rubbles – only the Church, preserved and painted, is still standing –, but life and movement, at least in the video we are watching, persist in manual labour.
As the video continues, almost seeking to suggest the passage of time and relationships between different structures, recordings of the abandoned houses and military installations are replaced by those of industrial oil extraction apparatus, with tubes and rusty pipes set against the desert; there, the machines go on working, while on the video’s other channel, the fishermen’s work gives way to that of the pottery workers. A definite equation is being made, then, between the industrial and artisanal gesture: both cases concern the transformation of material extracted from nature, though on very different scales. The beautiful parallel drawn between the pipes and tubes and the pottery, where the clay is shaped into pots without the use of a lathe, reinforces the difference in technical scale, whilst somehow also humanising mechanical work.
Garrido-Lecca sides with manual labour; it is what “Aceite de piedra” starts and finishes with, asserting both its permanence in time and the permanence of the Lobitos people; in the end, manual labour and its living gestures are what the work is eulogising. As in other exhibitions by the artist, the video is linked to a sculptural work that resonates with the universe in the audio-visual element. “Conversion System”, a set of sculptures made with clay and steel tubes, evokes the systems of substance conversion, such as oil distillation, in a kind of manual reinterpretation of industrial machinery. The scale of the parts – all around 1 metre in height – makes them stand out in the space, reinforcing their clean forms, whilst the combination of materials seems to suggest a synthesis between the city’s vernacular tradition of ceramics and the industrial apparatus.
This juxtaposition also brings into focus the burden of progress, which runs counter to environmental protection, and to traditional ways of life. Here, as in other works by the artist, Ximena Garrido-Lecca demonstrates the sometimes devastating effect of economic advancement, the technical repertoire of which changes its surroundings in ways far more radical than manual forms of production. We are currently living through profound changes in the world of work, sometimes described as a homogenizing process, and once again it is the artistic thinking that, in the subtlety of its poetic explorations, expresses not an impossible resistance, but a doubt on the relevance and uniformity of these changes.