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PUERTO RICAN SUN
by Pedro Velez
 
If Hunter Thompson were alive today, he’d be making the rounds with his alter ego Paul Kemp, celebrating recent events on the island that seem to come straight from The Rum Diaries, his supposedly fictional novel set in 1960s Puerto Rico.

First, we had an outbreak of both dengue fever and hemorrhagic fever (a.k.a. the "bone breaker"). For months the government ignored pleas that it fumigate against mosquitoes, which spread the illness, and once the fever had arrived, we were warned to avoid taking aspirin for pain, since it makes the hemorrhage worse.

Getting tagged by the mosquito is bad, but visiting a doctor could be worse, since the Feds recently arrested 88 of them -- "fake" doctors who gained their credentials through fraud. But don’t panic, more arrests are on the way.

And third but not least, the Fort of San Gerónimo, a beloved historical structure near El Escambrón beach, could well topple over, thanks to developer Arturo Madero, who is building a pair of towers next door that are as generic and tasteless as any Miami condo. Dubbed Paseo Caribe, or "Caribbean Boulevard," the development counts on the view of the historical fort to maximize the value of the condo units. Instead of receiving the renovation that it desperately needs, the fort has been closed while the new structure goes up nearby.

A scandal blossomed over the summer, as investigators discovered links between the developer and a range of government officials, including advisors for the Instituto de Cultura. Any development on the grounds of the fort, which is national patrimony, would be controversial, of course, and reports so far have Madero’s crew accidentally damaging both the fort and related archeological sites. Community activists have mounted several demonstrations protesting Madero’s project, and the scandal continues, the development has become a metaphor for corruption.

Gonzo literature has made many references to the area, which also holds the famous and iconic Caribe Hilton hotel, designed by architects Toro y Ferrer in the golden era of tourism; the distinctive Supreme Court offices, which were built in 1955; the Art Deco Normandie Hotel; and the "petrified dog," a rock in the coast that looks just like man’s best friend. Legend says the canine sits faithfully on the coast waiting for his master, a fisherman lost at sea.

When I was a kid, my parents would stop on our way to the old city at the Los Hermanos Bridge, looking over the coast towards the Hilton, just to look at that dog. And artists like Allora & Calzadilla, Rafael Medina, Beatriz Santiago, Chemi Rosado, and Enoc Pérez have drawn inspiration from this corner of Puerto Rico, so rich in history, architecture and magic.

This intense confluence of culture, history and contemporary politics gives a sharpened edge to Sensible States, a new installation by Ada Bobonis in the project gallery at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Bobonis is a respected sculptor who received a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship in 2005 and who has a solo show scheduled for next year at Espacio 1414, a kind of contemporary museum run by collectors Diana and Moises Berezdivin. Her show at MAPR is the final installment in a series launched in 2005 by curator Marysol Nieves, who now works for Sotheby’s.

When it comes to development on the island, Sensible States presents a subtle institutional critique. In the center of the space is an airy structure of unfinished pine that vaguely resembles a set of bleachers. Oddly, the structure extends upwards, replicating itself in reverse, so a second set of bleachers seems to sit upside down on the ceiling. On the wall is a series of color photographs of island building sites -- raw concrete structures surrounded by scaffoldings of 2 x 4s.

As it happens, the word for "wood" in Spanish is "madera," the feminine form of "Madero," the name of the developer at the center of the Fort of San Gerónimo scandal. At the opening of the show, many viewers made the association between the sculpture and the corruption surrounding Paseo Caribe, giving the artwork a pointed social resonance.

With Sensible States, Bobonis is devising a "rhetorical space," a place that provokes metaphorical thought. Ideas and connections emerge from the maze of benches -- as a site for temporary viewing, bleachers are not designed for comfort. The gallery floor is covered with a bluish-gray carpet, indicating a neutral office space as well as suggesting the canopy of the sky.

In the photographs, the half-finished spaces seem to be in a state of inertia, stuck in time, like rigid ruins of abandoned sites. The island is dotted with such kinds of inexplicable, unfinished projects. Bobonis locates a sense of personal emotion, transition and fragility in these emblems of contemporary culture and society.

Another artist working patiently to get a point across is Karlo Ibarra, whose exhibition "Walking towards the Sun" is on view at La Casa del Arte, a hip island gallery that also doubles as a cutting-edge project space known as The Storehouse Group. Run by Guillermo Rodriguez, the space supports young artists and has given many of them their first solo exhibitions. Like Bobonis, Ibarra is respected and admired by his fellow artists because his talk turns not towards parties and connections but to art and ideas.

For his exhibition, Ibarra has installed the space with a sparse selection of odds and ends -- a mosaic of small drawings and snapshots in one corner, with a few objects leaned against the wall and some larger paintings and other objects distributed through the gallery. In the past Ibarra has appropriated quotes from poets, sometimes literally illustrating them. This group of works, he says, comes from his experiences and conversations with people walking through the city. In style his sensibility resembles that of Francis Alÿs or Gabriel Orozco.

Hopefulness from adversity seems to permeate all of the works in "Walking towards the Sun." For When we had all the answers they changed the questions, the artist has the titular Mario Bennedetti quote (in Spanish) embroidered on a bone-white-colored doormat. Here, the artist brings the notion of the failed utopia right down to a family-friendly scale, though he has also exhibited the text on a room-filling carpet at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C., giving the work a larger political meaning.

A green street sign reading "El Porvenir" rests on a wall. Based on the work of Spanish poet Angel Gonzales, the text literally translates as "The Coming" but in fact it relates to the lyric, "Te llaman porvenir porque nunca vienes." This should read something like "they call you the time to come because you never come."

Ibarra is saying that the future is an ideal that never arrives, but he also blames the future for not coming, as if it were a living creature. The artist avoids responsibility for his actions and with no action there is no change.

The group of collages, drawings, photos and other paraphernalia hint at the artist’s biography. A map points to his desire to cover more territory, to experience the journey. Drawings of worn-out shoes and sketches for future projects share the wall with a couple of small paintings and a text scrawled directly on the wall. "Once in awhile I understand," it says, before trailing off nonsensically.

The show also includes a painting of pillows placed in a column on top of a black chair and a dark purple background (modestly priced at $1,800). The atmosphere is dense, and the pillows seem to exude white smoke. Traces of dreams of a better future? With the steady march of time, can the future catch up?


PEDRO VELEZ is an artist, curator and critic.