San José is a strange city: Plaster row houses line the same same streets as glass skyscrapers. Concrete cubes share the same neighborhoods as ornate colonial churches. Some residences are so close to the street that pedestrians can peer into living rooms, yet nearly every house and apartment in the country is encaged by steel bars.
An idiosyncratic city like San José is the perfect place to ponder the nature of urban life, and the gallery TEOR/éTica has taken up that challenge. Using three different exhibits, the tiny art space is exploring the metropolitan dream through a mix of media and artistic visions.
The most alluring exhibit is “Entre Concreto” (“Among Concrete”). The exposition’s single room is home to several different installations, and they are each thought-provoking in a different way. One of them, “Hands Around Yangon,” is a documentary video that jumps around the Myanmar city in the title, each scene starring a pair of hands. The hands do all kinds of things – panhandle, count cash, stretch dough, dig through fresh produce – but the faces and bodies of their owners are rarely seen. “Hands” is a smartly original way of looking at cosmopolitan life; it bolsters the belief that we are what we do, and what we do is wildly diverse.
Alfredo Ceibal’s installation is a sprawling mural sketched directly on the white wall with pencil and other materials. The drawing shows a cross-section of land with rolling hills and deep chasms, but the structures look surreally malformed, like the civilization of a distant planet. The Guatemalan artist has produced an entire series of such drawings, called “Corte Transversal del Paraíso (Mundos Inventados),” or “Transverse Cut of Paradise (Invented Worlds).” Simple yet richly imagined, “Transversal” is reminiscent of Renaissance maps, with their romanticized images of faraway places.
The most ostentatious installation is Cao Fei’s “RMB City: A Second Life City Planning.” His magnum opus is a vast mural of different figures, from an Anime-style mother and child to a floating Karl Marx. His vision of a city is colorful and cluttered, much like a video game, and his eponymous references to the “Second Life” online virtual world are clear.
Taken as a whole, “Entre Concreto” looks like a storefront full of oddities, and it is both overwhelming and welcoming at the same. “Entre Concreto” is less interested in a literal city (a “concrete” city, if you will) than in the very concept of a city. The pieces are dreamy and creative, the same way futurists dream up hover-cars and transporter beams. The international artists were given the chance to freely associate, and what they pictured is worth a visit.
More down-to-earth is “Imágenes Urbanas Cognitivas” (“Cognitive Urban Images”) a series of maps that illustrate the landscape of San José and its environs. You could easily find such maps in a government report, but to see them blown up and covering the walls of an enclosed space is a unique experience. You find yourself surrounded by icons (for museums, parks, and factories), colored and textured zones, dark lines indicating municipal boundaries, and more numbered landmarks than you could cross-reference in an afternoon.
If “Imágenes” is less fun than “Entre Concreto,” it is also much more illuminating: You can see the relative sizes of different cities, what they possess and don’t, where the areas are developed and where they are empty. Most provocative is its metrical approach to landscape; entire regions are reduced to property lines and bits of data. The difference between these schematics and a living neighborhood is also the difference between playing “The Sims” and actually walking to the corner store. The narrow space feels cold and claustrophobic, and you may wonder how this aerial perspective affects the minds of architects and urban engineers.
The final installation is by far the least accessible, and many visitors may choose to ignore it altogether: “Pedernales” (roughly translated as “Flints”) shows different samples of traditional Haitian weaving. Engel Leonardo’s exhibit is difficult to describe because it’s hard to even say what it is. In one antechamber, straw hats are cut apart in different ways. Nearby, small wooden frames are mixed with knitted fibers. Without Leonardo’s artist’s statement, the sculptures are utterly abstract and may even seem underdeveloped. Guests may not feel the same significance that the Dominican artist does.
Overall, though, the current exhibits are successful and interesting, a nice addition to an already eventful year for TEOR/éTica. Most of the world’s people gravitate toward cities, and Costa Rica is no exception. But now and again it’s good to stop and think about where it is we are.
All exhibits continue through Sept. 20 at TEOR/éTica Gallery, Barrio Amón. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Free. Info: TEOR/éTica website.