- Juan Fernando Herrán born 1963
- Video, projection or flat screen, colour
- Duration: 5min, 10sec
- Presented in honour of Estrellita B. Brodsky 2015, accessioned 2019
Untitled is a video lasting just over five minutes which the artist made in England in 1993. The work opens with a still image of a landscape, subdivided into three tiers: a field in the foreground, a river running across the centre and an area of natural forest occupying the background. Superimposed above this image is the face of the artist, chewing a lump of grass. Throughout the film, the artist chews all the moisture from the grass until only a solid lump remains, which he extracts from his mouth and presents in his cupped hands.
Landscape, nature, sculpture and mankind coalesce in Untitled, which uses an action normally associated with animals – the chewing of grass – to show man’s presumed control over nature. In the artist’s words:
at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties I was interested in various subjects, amongst them the transformation of matter, biological processes and their psychic implications, a reflection on the position of the human being in relation to nature and the similarities between man and animals, and an interest in the body as the hub of experience.
(Quoted in Garzón 2001, p.88.)
Although ‘the body as the hub of experience’ is the conduit through which the action of Untitled unfolds, it was nature that first inspired Herrán’s project while a student at Chelsea College of Art in London. Fascinated yet puzzled by the beauty of the English landscape, Herrán compared it to the rural landscape of his native Colombia. Tidy, with dedicated areas for children and pets and what he perceived as an excessively zealous degree of control, the former was in stark contrast with the undomesticated nature of Colombia’s rural areas. The purity of the English countryside made it, in Herrán’s eyes, a site for contemplation and spirituality, which set it apart from his idea of nature as an untamed wilderness. Emblematic of this contrast is the still photograph that provides the opening shot for the video. Taken at the Pedro Palo in Cudinamarca, Colombia, the image shows the co-existence of three distinct microcosms: the fertile land in the foreground (which has been domesticated through farming), the strip of water which naturally and inexorably follows its course, and the undomesticated forest in the background. Each of these settings evokes a different response, and the personal ritual Herrán enacts in the video suggests how mankind negotiates its relationship with nature and seeks to take control of it.
The metaphor of eating grass was arrived at during a walk in a London park. Herrán came across a dog eating grass, using it – as many animals do – as a cleansing device. This simple process, which the artist decided to experiment with soon after, provided him with the starting point for Untitled. By borrowing this basic form of exchange between the animal and the natural world, Herrán sought to rethink the genre of landscape art. His visceral approach brings the body into an alternative relationship with nature, removing the contemplative emotions usually associated with landscape. Curator José Roca has said of this work: ‘The camera frames the face and then focuses on the mouth, the locus of many biological processes, from the sexual to the scatological, and also the site of language … In Herrán’s personal ritual, nature passes through the body in order to become sculpture and consequently a sign of culture.’ (José Roca in Garzón 2005, p.186.)
Together with biological processes and a reassessment of the landscape genre, Herrán’s Untitled also addresses the transformation of matter. In this instance matter is chewed until it is transformed into a sculptural form. Excess parts are gradually spat out and only the matter’s core is retained and forced to take a ‘new’ form, one which is dictated by the artist. Sculpture – which was the artist’s main area of study at the time – ultimately overtakes biological processes to take centre stage. The subject matter of the work is characteristic of Herrán’s interest in the relationship between man and nature, as well as place and culture.
Diego Garzón (ed.), On What we Are: 110 Works from Colombian Contemporary Art, Lunwerg 2001.
Diego Garzón (ed.), Other Voices Other Art: Ten Conversations With Colombian Artists, Bogotá 2005.
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