María José’s Long Flight

Colombian-born María José Arjona was a guest at the recent Bogotá International Art Fair (ARTBO) where she presented “Sighting,” an exercise in awareness that moved the spectators. The artist agreed to analyze the details of her work for us, showing us the genesis and splendor of an artistic creation.

By Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

A silent man sitting on a bench in New York’s Central Park, his eyes fixed on the trees, was the covert trigger for this story. He was circumspect, nearly motionless, as if wrapped up in the most sober thoughts, and his very attitude seemed a critique of the restlessness and agitation of modern society, or of the robotic New York pedestrians passing nearby in pursuit of goals as coveted as they were obscure.

María José Arjona, a pale-skinned, slender, slow-moving woman, puzzled about him from a distance: a woman staring at a man who is staring, just like a Lewis Carroll story. She always had a good eye for picking out anything singular or unique from a uniform background, and this particular person transmitted a sense of enchantment she could not ignore.

She does not remember how long that contemplative episode lasted. Finally, her insistent curiosity got the better of politeness and prudence and she approached the immobile park visitor. His name was Nick and he was a bird watcher, one bird watcher among millions of like-minded accomplices who spend their lives thinking about birds, dreaming about birds, pursuing birds, and investing fortunes —small or large— solely to reach those sites where the nomads of the air are known to rest during their migrations.

María José always liked birds. She loved the flight of condors and vultures, so far removed from her prosaic tasks, the grace of swallows, the quiet cooing of doves, the energy of curlews, the majesty of owls, the dance of turtledoves, and the sensual aerial serenity of hummingbirds. From childhood on, something drew her to birds, something connected her to them.

Nick explained that he had been pursuing just one species of bird for a long time. With the kind of hopes usually associated with hotly-anticipated romantic encounters, he had come in search of the Buteo swainsoni, a medium-sized migratory falcon whose journeys and habits astonish and fascinate bird watchers. María José learned that this falcon was actually the Swainson’s hawk.

Then they spotted it: an apparition, a surge of blind energy in the midst of a post-modern city, an incessant beat like the ritual thump-thump of a drum. She felt this as something ineffable, a vision, in the sense used by evangelicals. There was the Buteo swainsoni waiting, almost communicating with them.

By that time, María José had already made her mark as an artist and her works had astounded many keen critics, as well as unsuspecting spectators. Bologna, New York, Miami, Bogotá, Guangzhou, Marrakech, Frankfort, Rijeka, and Medellín greeted her works enthusiastically, albeit with some wonderment. Each unrepeatable moment and experiment with the body is a sort of enlightenment, a bottle tossed into the sea of loneliness, a telegram in search of alert readers. Naming María José Arjona’s poetic acts one by one would be tiresome and rather useless, since it would not mean much to a reader. Let us just say that each experience reveals a new aspect of the artist, which is exactly how her admirers see it.

But the hawk marked a change, a beginning. Since that providential day and the conversation with Nick, the performance artist developed an obsession with that bird. She felt the vertigo and emptiness of absence. From then on, she seemed to see the Swainson’s hawk from airplane windows, in her dreamscapes, on the street, in offices… She was starting to wear a slightly lunatic air, and she spent many afternoons closeted in the library. For an artist, it is much more than a coincidence when an image suddenly impinges on the mind; it is a call and an invitation an artist has no choice but to accept.

How are the artist and the beautiful hawk similar? Why did it grab hold of her imagination?

Memories of the Realm

María José has pleasant memories of her childhood. Although there were no artists or intellectuals in her circle to serve as guides or mentors as she set out on the road to art, her parents ―an agricultural engineer and a housewife― were understanding and supportive and never opposed her implacable desire to be an artist.

She discovered dance at a very young age and found it to be a way of exercising freedom and poetic strength. Dance was an encounter with the possibilities of the body. For many years, dance was her home port, although the image of a magnificent beach might better express what it represented. Dancing seemed to answer many of the questions that had troubled her from a young age. However, an accident spoiled the idyll: during a rehearsal, María José launched gracefully into the air toward her partner and fell hard to the floor, shattering her knee and her first dream; she would never dance again.

Life suddenly changed. María José went from the lightness of dance to the inertness of lying in bed, thinking and imagining, broken, in pain, and conscious of the teasing of death. It was curious that during that time someone gave her a lovely and melancholy book on Frida Kahlo. It was a message of happiness. Her mind’s eye turned to art and she realized that art was the only place where life and death, love and oblivion, eternity and brevity, and embraces and distance overlap and are forever reconciled. She will never forget a poetic truth by Octavio Paz that she read during that period: “Birth, growth, and death are biological facts, but they are also ceremonies and rituals.”

She completed an unhurried course of study at the Higher Academy of Art in Bogotá and, like Frida, she took possession of her own body and developed very personal and intimate symbols that gave her performance art a new language as ingenuous and profound, and simultaneously as spontaneous, as a journey to the land of the impossible. She would never tire of saying that her idiom is an attempt, a thirst, a path to a long-lost form of communion.

Divine Performance

Day by day, she mastered the language, finding herself in the mirrors that so beautifully reflected her. She grew familiar with the irritating, iconoclastic, and harsh work of Marina Abramovic. Since then, in Bologna or New York, in Marrakech or Medellín, María José has expanded into a space where previously silence had reigned: performance art, an indescribable experience that remains just out of reach and can only be felt first-hand.

Then she met José Roca, one of the most important art curators in Latin America. She spoke to him of her obsession with the hawk and her idea ―initially vague, but growing clearer and clearer― of turning it into an event.

They headed to Honda, a warm and lovely town in Tolima (Colombia), in search of the bird. They hired boatman Fernando to track the sacred creature. He was an earthy man, leathered by the unforgiving sun, guileless and countrified, who expressed himself in words like “splendor” and “beauty of the sun.” Traveling in his boat under a sizzling noon-day sun, they arrived at a site as macabre as it was beautiful: Ceiba Quemada, where Spanish inquisitors once burned witches. They were listening intently to the boatman’s story when María José looked up toward the treetops and spotted a Swainson’s hawk observing them with a relentless stare.

A performance sprang to life in María José’s mind in a fraction of a second. “Sightings” tells the story of birds: while seemingly observed by humans, the birds are in fact doing the observing, casting an incredulous eye on our activities, our majesty and misery, our wars and times of peace, our luminous creativity, and our decadence, empires, and rubble. The performance piece would also testify to an artist’s eager eye, able to look upward and see the omnipresent birds on rooftops, electric wires, cathedrals, and skyscrapers, mute witnesses to a great and ambiguous epic.


The Scenes of Ritual

“Sightings” comprised nine acts, days, or scenes. The artist defines the steps of the ritual:

1. Nest: fabric construction inside Flora, the gallery that provided the setting.

2. Egg: sculpture in stone by artist Fernando Pinto.

3. Flight Log: a long performance that uses a series of objects to trace a conceptual tour through the work to its final destination.

4. Presentation of videos, audio recordings, and drawings about sightings, showing the direct relationship between the journey and the documentation.

5. A sign reading “Ceiba” on the façade of Flora. This idea emerged from a conversation in Honda, where this word crystallized the central concept of the germinal idea.

6. Second messenger: a performance that introduces the concept of “sacred” and its relationship to other dimensions of the body and the bird.

7. A little bird told me: performance consisting of one-on-one interactions in which the artist tells nine stories that poetically recreate tragic events in Colombia, particularly in Bogotá.

8. Flight: long performance involving eighteen artists that presents the relationship between a feather and the wind through the medium of the body, specifically breath.

9. Migrations: concert that introduces different rhythms and genres as a way of talking about the genetic migration that leads to the creation of human beings.