Gone to Ground exhibition review

Gone to Ground

To commemorate 25 years of the University of Essex’s collection of art from Latin American (ESCALA), Art Exchange hosts an exciting new exhibition, Gone to Ground.

ESCALA launched in 1993 with a donation of a painting by Art History student, Charles Cosac. He claimed a need for more personal, object-based learning and envisioned that an on-campus art collection would offer those resources to the University. Sirón Franco’s Memória, currently exhibited on the ground level of the Silberrad building, marked the start of ongoing donations, acquisitions and research projects that have led ESCALA on to what it is today: an accredited museum containing over 800 artworks, 4,500 archival items and 10,000 Latin American art books. The importance of this collection – to both the University and the local and global community – as a learning, teaching and researching resource, cannot be overstated.

It is no wonder, then, that Dr Lisa Blackmore, of the School of Philosophy and Art History (SPAH) accepted the invitation to curate this celebratory show. To suit ESCALA’s philosophy of student inclusivity and accessibility, Dr Blackmore also extended the curatorial process of this exhibition into a second-year art history module. As a result, students have actively participated in its conception and have written texts that are featured in the catalogue.

Gone to Ground displays works from a variety of Latin American artists (most from ESCALA), and explores the current preoccupying scenario of the Anthropocene. In this sense, the exhibition dwells into the circumstances of human impact on the natural environment and landscape, doing so through multi-layered approaches to Latin American histories of colonisation, indigenous mythology and commodity extraction. By providing mostly contemporary views on the issue, Gone to Ground asks the visitor to re-assess one’s own footprint and what it might cause to their surroundings.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is met with artworks in a diversity of mediums. The centre of the room is dominated by three plinths on which extremely delicate ceramic sculptures stand. One of these is Peruvian artist Warmi’s Pachamama – a piece that brings to life one of Peru’s native mythologies. A mother holds her infant child on her back, securely wrapped around a blanket. Embodying the earth’s materiality in her existence, the Pachamama impersonates all of the planet’s nature. She is affirmative and determined, while still loving, generous and giving.  While her eternal goal is to protect her child, the blanket also wraps around herself, suggesting she also needs to be protected.

As visitors continue to move around the space, photography, drawing and performance art also greet their presence. Another work that is emblematic to the exhibition’s concept is Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo’s Raíz. This 6-minute long video shows the artist, nude, as she lays facing down on soil right next to a tree. Her arms are deeply burrowed into the ground, constructing the sense that she is reaching into its roots. This is a very powerful image that physically refers to a search for reconnection with the earth, which is exactly what Gone to Ground asks of its visitors.

The gallery’s often unutilised, transitory space is transformed into an intimate learning environment, in which a couple of flat screens invite visitors to watch interviews with two of the exhibiting artists. This is another opportunity to delve deeper into the meanings of their works and their philosophies regarding current environmental issues.

Gone to Ground also features an extensive public programme. For starters, it was accompanied by a two-day symposium, Arts of Extraction, which gathered artists, curators and scholars on to campus to discuss and debate the legacies of extraction and the consequences it brought to environmental change. The exhibition was also the source for the commissioning of an artist’s residency. Alejandro Jaime, from Peru, has been staying in Essex for the past two months in order to create new works that respond to our local landscape. Some of his previous work is on show at Gone to Ground, and he is also participating in an open interview and Q&A session led by Dr Blackmore. Weekly lunchtime talks were led by academics from multiple departments, suggesting even more distinct approaches and responses to the show. In the University’s library, a satellite exhibition, Gone to Ground: Mapping Terrains, continues to explore narratives of landscape and environment by analysing both colonial and postcolonial maps.

Overall, the works in the exhibition, its interactive space and its accompanying public programme succeeded in the opening up of a debate about the Anthropocene and our relationships to the environment. Gone to Ground encouraged its viewers to think critically about their interaction with the earth – be it by raising awareness of people’s relationships to their local landscape or by stimulating a more encompassing, global mind-set of sustainability. The show heavily encouraged dialogue and conversation on the themes it suggested, from the collaborative nature of the student-written catalogue to the platform for curiosity and opinion sharing created through the interdisciplinary lunchtime talks. Most importantly, it managed to do so in an open-ended, non-restrictive way, broadcasting and accepting different perspectives and responses to the content it offered.

Some might say the narratives in the show came across a little dry, partly because of the seriousness of the theme it approaches and the heavily critical thought-process it provokes on its audience. However, Gone to Ground resists as a really special exhibition, with an intrinsic sense of optimism and lightness. There is a certain beauty and poetry in all the works it exhibits and in the way the artists relate to the landscape and the earth, introducing even more metaphorical narratives on issues like identity and belonging. This exhibition really is a unique chance to experience these works and all of their power first-hand.


Beatriz Neviani Coslovsky

BA Curating student, School of Art History and Philosophy

University of Essex