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That Time I Disappeared Into the Puerto Rican Rainforest in Pursuit of Mythic Art

That Time I Disappeared Into the Puerto Rican Rainforest in Pursuit of Mythic Art
Papo Colo and a friend

We spent the days leading up to “Puertos Ricos: A Festival of Arts and Natures” sitting on the balcony of Klaus Biesenbach ’s house in the El Yunque rainforest, finalizing our plans for the weekend. "We" were the co-organizers of the festival: myself, MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach , the art historian and independent curator Marina Reyes Franco , and the artist Armig Santos . Top of our to-do list was organizing a street closure for Papo Colo ’s Procesion Migracion, a two-and-a-half-hour procession down the Carretera 186 highway—in the middle of the rainforest—with actors, musicians, animals, and sundry participants.

Other urgent items included finding a sheep to walk with us in the procession and finding a large wooden bowl to hold clay and mud from the forest floor. Papo—the 70-year-old artist and founder of New York's storied nonprofit Exit Art —hoped that participants would dip their arms into the bowl before the procession, allow the mud to thin out in the roadside waterfalls as we walked, and then finally wash it off in the Rio Espiritu Santo river, where the walk would conclude as Papo disappeared into the rainforest for 400 days. (Taking a vow of silence, he would work meditatively in his foundation in the jungle, making art.)

View from Klaus' home in El Yunque The view from Biesenbach's house in the rainforest

The entire enterprise was to be a subtle, symbolic recreation of René Marqués ’s 1953 play La Carreta ("The Oxcart"), about a Puerto Rican family that migrates to the United States in pursuit of opportunity. By the Friday prior to the procession, all the small details had finally been cleared away, and we were ready for the weekend to begin. There were many festivities in store.

Eduardo Alegria under arch Eduardo Alegria singing

On Saturday morning, we all gathered by the Gate of the Fort in historic Old San Juan to hear Eduardo Alegria sing his interpretation of Puerto Rico's national anthem beside a huge tree dripping with idyllic hanging branches, in full view of the sea. During the dress rehearsal the previous day, Eduardo had stood still under the tree while singing the national anthem, but on the day itself, the artist—a master improviser—picked up his backpack midway through the performance and led his audience up through the gate, where his voice echoed powerfully inside the antique fort's archway.

Papo with Oxen Papo Colo and an ox

This, however, was just a prelude to the main event: the procession itself, where that afternoon Papo Colo—every inch the the mystefarian, wearing all white and accompanied by two majestic white oxen—led 500 people through the rainforest for his two-and-half-hour Procesión-Migración . Each person was asked to wear black-and-white attire, and to bring along hand luggage. As we walked, the route was interrupted by performances, including one by a family following the artist with their suitcases in hand and children on their shoulders, and one that involved two men embracing in the forest.

couple embracing in Procesion Migracion Performers along the route

As we progressed, the atmosphere noticeably changed. I realized that I had never walked so far with so many people, and it was fascinating to witness how embarking on a journey together united us as a mass. At the end of the procession I felt strongly that people had been palpably changed by the experience, having walked in the shoes, as it were, of Puerto Rican migrants. We ended the walk with a feast at Papo Colo’s foundation, where all the actors jumped into the river by his home and celebrated and danced in the water.

The procession The procession

The next morning, we drove two hours away from El Yunque to see Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) , a work of land art for the contemporary era that the Dia Art Foundation commissioned from local artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla . Laboring under the weight of land art's mythic history, Allora and Calzadilla chose to perform a simple artistic gesture: they placed a Dan Flavin neon sculpture at the end of a giant cave in the middle of nowhere.

on our way to Puerto Rican Light On the way to Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos)

The installation takes its name from the neon's title, Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake) , which Flavin landed on because his friend Jeanie had just been to New York City's Puerto Rican Day Parade and told him the colors reminded her of the festival. To reach the artwork, we had to don helmets and hike through beautiful waterfalls as light danced off the rocks and water around us. The work is solar-powered, so its melange of yellow, red-orange, and pink neon glow is dependent on the actual Puerto Rican light outside the cave. Its colors are reminiscent of a sunset on the island.

Later that evening, after a visit to the stunning Ponce Museum— where we saw a show of Papo Colo's early works that had toured there from MoMA PS1—we went to the Santurce neighborhood where, in honor of the artist, all the local galleries kept their their doors open until midnight (and actually much later). The evening was organized by Alexis Bousquet , the brilliant founder of Santurce Es Ley festival, and that night thousands of people filled the streets, wandering from galleries to parties to performances.

Poncili Creacion at Santurce Salutes Papo Colo Poncili Creacion's performance

Of those performances, a highlight was a piece by the collective Poncili Creacion , who—reacting to Papo Colo’s procession—began to dance around a suitcase with staggered, electronic-esque movements and eventually removed from it a monstrous creature. As the finale, they unfolded an American flag from the suitcase. (Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but the island has been continuously denied statehood.) Our group was enraptured.

watching poncili creacion Watching Poncili Creacion

Next, we began gallery-hopping, seeing a fantastic show of creepy and playful ceramics by Milena Muzquiz at Galeria Agustina Ferreyra , a string of fairy lights hanging across Roberto Paradise gallery, and Enoc Perez 's paintings of empty buildings around Puerto Rico that Carlos Rolón/ Dzine , ecstatically encased in colored frames. It wasn’t until 1 a.m. that we finally arrived at Embajada , where an installation by Jorge González —titled 359 días en 19 meses (359 days in 19 months )—occupied the whole gallery, with the walls, floors, and chairs were covered with sheets of dry cattail leaves and mats crafted in collaboration with local artisans crafted from indigenous materials. We sat in the installation exhausted as NADA's Manuela Paz , somehow still wide awake, enlightened us about the artwork we were sitting in.

papo disappearing Papo Colo disappearing

The following day, a very small group of us went back to Papo Colo’s foundation to finally watch him ceremonially disappear down the river to begin his rainforest sojourn. We looked on in silence as he, a solitary figure, descended into the water and weaved his way into the distance, finally winding around the river bend and vanishing. There was a moment where the river nearly took him in its current, and it was with great force that he pushed out of the water with his wooden staff.

It rains constantly in the El Yunque, yet somehow after a weekend of perfect sunshine it was not until the moment of his disappearance that the sky opened and heavy rain began to fall. It was fitting: a mythic moment to cap Papo Colo's creation of a new mythology for a new age.

me with oxen The author


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