Exhibition Essay: Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s La Guaria Morada (2018). Truck Gallery, Calgary.
My partner’s mother Carol keeps 20 orchids in her Jimtown, Nova Scotia home. They’re potted with bark to keep the roots aerated, and placed in front of North-facing windows for cold snaps to set the bloom. With her sisters, Carol conspires to protect the orchids from critters, pets, and the moody Atlantic weather. The Los Angeles flower district occupies a few blocks along 7th St. Big orchid wholesalers share the area with a homeless population stretching south from Skid Row. Some 17,000 people live out of tents amidst the flower stocks. I haven’t found estimates of the orchid population there, but I like to think it’s around 17,000 – one per resident.
To these images of beauty and vulnerability, add Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s La Guaria Morada. Orchid plants hang 56” off the ground, at the standard height for museum displays. They are spliced to hunks of bark and suspended by airplane wire against “evening blue” walls. Ortiz-Apuy is fond of factory paint names, and the atmospheres they evoke. But the plants are indoors, hidden away from the sky, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Evocation is slippery. These orchids are not Jimtown orchids, or Skid Row orchids, but they’re close. As the national flower, purple orchids enjoy great visibility in Costa Rica, but here they’re in hiding, or waiting, or triage. This is not their natural habitat, but it’s close. Humidifiers and dehumidifiers simulate a tropical garden in the wrong place and out of season. For Ortiz-Apuy, the plants are “hustling” in Calgary.
They will grow slowly here, or one imagines - perpetually. Development in Costa Rica is a lot like this too - perpetual, precarious, and aimed at a curated beauty. Ortiz-Apuy moved from Costa Rica to Montreal in 2003 and has travelled back only twice since. After ten, nearly uninterrupted years away, he wished with this work to make a touristic homage to his country of origin. The view of La Guaria Morada is a visitor’s view, but collaged together, with conspicuous joints. In much of Ortiz-Apuy’s work, collage is a method. He keeps a meticulously indexed library of National Geographic issues and Ikea catalogues at the studio. La Guaria Morada mingles the visual languages of documentary photography and advertising, in its clinical arrangement of plants, and colour-coordinated humidifiers. Costa Rica is cast here as an idea, laid open to innocent curiosity and to consumer choice.
La Guaria Morada’s elements function as interior signs of a partially-recalled tropical outside. But what of this outside, and of its history? Costa Rica is carefully arranged to show or conceal its cracks as needed. Roads through the Monteverde rainforest are deliberately left unmaintained by the parks service to sustain an air of wilderness for eco-tourists. Elsewhere, private resorts have displaced Indigenous and farming communities. Costa Rica’s recent economic history, or ‘development’ follows on decades of World Bank-mediated, US investment and meddling in the region to combat socialism, and extract fruit, rubber, and oil for international markets. La Guaria Morada’s delicate balance, between hung flowers, and the inputs and outputs of humming climate-control appliances is a striking metaphor for the phenomena of resource preservation and extraction in Latin America, and beyond in the Global South.
Ortiz-Apuy’s sculptural language owes a debt to the readymade. In The Lovers: Hunter and Kenmore (2013), he joined a humidifier and dehumidifier at the lips, as it were, in a pose of absurd co-dependence. With this earlier work, Ortiz-Apuy rewrites the Dadaist’s script for the readymade as a cyborg romance in a department store. Through Ortiz-Apuy’s art we re-read the cool, spare industrial parts aesthetic of the readymade in relation to absented people. His response to Dada offers an abstracted social realism for our times, and for this place. Just as La Guaria Morada points outward to an increasingly uncertain planetary horizon, the work’s association of care, Sisyphean labour, and beauty is also site-specific, and in dialogue with the fragile ecosystem of artist-run culture. In all this, Ortiz-Apuy encourages us to pause on the repeated coupling of beauty and vulnerability, from Monteverde, to Jimtown and LA, to Truck’s temporary home for a few purple orchids.
By Tammer El-Sheikh
Tammer El-Sheikh is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia. He received his PhD from McGill University in 2013 for his work on the reception of Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said within the discipline of Art History. Since then, his teaching and writing have focused on contemporary art and identity politics. His scholarly writing has appeared in the periodicals ARTMargins and Arab Studies Journal, and most recently in the anthology edited by Martha Langford and titled Narratives Unfolding: National Art Histories in an Unfinished World (MQUP, 2017). His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, Parachute, C Magazine and ETC Magazine. He is the Montreal correspondent for Akimbo.