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Now on view through May 5 at The Chimney in Brooklyn is “Sangre y Sol,” Sara Mejia Kriendler’s debut solo exhibition. Fueled by the artist’s recent return to Colombia, the exhibition highlights the power held by myths to either transform or destroy those who believe them, focusing on the tragic histories of pre-Columbian civilizations during the arrival of the Spaniards. Comprised of two separate installations that interact to form a wider narrative, “Sangre y Sol” juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, the earthly and the otherworldly, and the disposable and the everlasting.
To learn more about the exhibition, and what the artist has planned next, Whitewall spoke with Kriendler.
WHITEWALL: “Sangre y Sol” came about after your first return to Colombia in twenty years. Why?
SARA MEJIA KRIENDLER: Colombia is the land of magical realism for a reason! I didn't go back to Colombia for many, many years because of the conflict and the violence caused by the civil war. I grew up abroad, mostly in Belgium, but I moved a lot because my parents were working overseas. I was lucky to live in many different places and to see many different ways of living, but it also left me feeling strangely homeless and cut off from my own personal history. This exhibition came from searching for this history, reconnecting with it, and sharing all of the magical and monstrous things I found along the way.
WW: The exhibition is centered around the complicated history of gold in Colombia, and the greed that destroyed its status as a symbol of transformation. Tell us a bit about what you learned through research on this topic.
SMK: Pre-Columbian gold work is extremely sophisticated, both aesthetically and technically. It is such a rich and colorful part of art history that I knew very little about. Its original power was essentially spiritual, was used in elaborate rituals as a tool for transformation. There are beautiful myths that are part of this history—for example, gold was seen as the sweat of the sun and silver was thought to be the tears of the moon.
The Spaniards had no real interest in or respect for this artistry and mythology, they just wanted the material for its economic value. Tragically, most of what they stole was melted down into gold bars so that it could be shipped back to Europe more efficiently.
WW: What from your findings did you want to be sure and highlight in the exhibition?
SMK: It’s heartbreaking that many people primarily associate Colombia with a violent civil war and drug trafficking, and I very much wanted to explore another side of Colombian history that people in the United States may not know about. While there is a dark side to this exhibition, it was also extremely important to me to highlight the splendor of pre-Columbian art.
This exhibition is about more than Colombia, and about more than the history of gold. That is just the starting point. What pre-Columbian art reminded me is that art is a tool for transformation. It is sacred; it is magical. I have sought to highlight the spiritual power of art.
WW: Tell us a bit about the two different installations—Sangre and Sol, and their meanings.
SMK: Sangre is a 14-foot circular mound of broken terracotta hands—cast from an industrial mold used for making gloves—that is low to the ground. I was interested in using parts of the body as symbols and thought of cave paintings and the handprint as one of the oldest symbols in art history.
I also often deal with the tension between the handmade and the mechanized in my work, and this industrial hand form captured that conflict. It was extremely labor intensive but also absurd to cast thousands of these hands in red clay and then break them. It was a violent process. I wanted to talk about toil, tragedy, and what it means to feel broken.
And if Sangre speaks to the earthen and the temporal, Sol reflects the eternal and the otherworldly. For this piece I covered the entire ceiling of the gallery in gold foil, textured with a breast-like shape that is a recurring motif in my work. I wanted the ceiling to feel like a window into another realm. In pre-Columbian mythology, gold was connected to the sun and was seen as male. I used the breast to give the life-giving power of the sun female form. Ultimately, the works are meant to interact and create a connection between tragic and the transcendent.
WW: What do you hope your overall message is?
SMK: I think of an exhibition like a poem or a dream, so I am interested in mood, movement, rhythm, and feeling more than a message. My work is often driven by conflict and I am more interested in questions than in answers.
This exhibition was driven by the question, “What myth do you live by?” It is something that mythology professor Joseph Campbell asked often in his lectures. The story of gold in Colombia is really the story of what happens when two mythologies collide. Clashing myths seem to be the source of so many conflicts, so I think it is crucial to question the myths, the stories, and the beliefs that you live by.
Finally, art can help build myths and it can tear them down, and the exhibition centers around this conflict. But the great thing about art is that you don't have to choose one role or the other. You can do both at the same time, which I think the best works of art do.
WW: What are you working on now?
SMK: I am working on a dance! It is actually part of “Sangre y Sol,” so technically I am not done with the exhibition just yet. For as long as I have been making sculptures, I've been imagining the dances that would accompany them. Sculptures often feel like the artifacts of a dance—a dance that I do in my studio that nobody sees—but a dance nonetheless. And my work often centers around body parts, but my sculpture has been static up until now, so I am excited to see what happens when I set bodies in motion.