The Black Prince
and his devil
By Pierre Restany
We call him the Black Prince because of the color of his garments, an exclusive preference he shares, among others, with his friend Andy Warhol, and which permits us, within remote memory, to associate him with another legendary figure: Edward It’s son, noble among nobles, brave among England’s bravest who defeated John the Good in Maupertuis near Poitiers.
That event took place in 1356 and we are now in 1986. The great deeds of knighthood have evolved in form, but not in essence. Rolando Peña, The Black Prince, obeys his own code of honor, which he has beaten into form as if it were existential armour permitting him to cross de hazards of an intense life between his native city Caracas, and New York, the scene of his many tournaments. At 44 he is a fulfilled man who has been in contact with everything. Since the start of his career he has wandered through art, theatre, T.V., cinema and even dance, which he practiced in the Venezuelan National Ballet, and also in the prestigious dance companies of Martha Graham, Alvin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham. He has experimented with all de forms of corporal expression from the “psychedelic show”, and the “street happening” to numerous multi-media performances. He took to the theatre, the performance The Illumination of Buda with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary; he participated in several Andy Warhol films of 1967 and some more recent woks. He introduced himself in the fetishism of “Santeria” (a kind of witchcraft) uselessly searching to detach formally from his own impersonation. Where is the code for this turbulent life? He is a man who does not admit any conventional separation between art and life. What really counts for him are the deep fixations, the structural columns of personality, the catalyst of the imaginary, the crest, the collar of the doublet, the chest protector, the armour for thighs and legs, and the articulation of this ancient armour as a whole.
His principal fixation is this country’s daily mythology which finds its fulfillment in oil: tho super symbol, supreme incarnation of a lovehate relationship. The Venezuelan Indians called crude oil “Mene”.
Peña transforms it into an object of devotion, an object for multiple performances, many of which have taken place In New York. Through a beautiful test the artist describes his first vision of the Maracaibo Lake, as that of a landscape where the drilling towers and their apparatus, resemble an enormous graveyard.
Rolando Peña has carried this image of “Mene” through all his experiences, adventures, wagers and risks; this image has never abandoned him, not even in the depths of the obscure corners of his character. The Black Prince is the brave Knight of black gold and in this impersonation he refuses to be a Quixote defying the windmills of multinational companies. He prefers to be a man from the Renaissance. He is fanatically devoted to Leonardo. In 1979 mounted up a performance based on the theme of the seven vanishing points of perspective: the definitions of horizons viewed both in linear perspective and in relation to the distance. In his time, Gregory Battcock, praised this exaltation of humanism. Peña’s humanism found the perfect module for his ontological language: hi painted the oil barrel gold adding it up in columns aligned in space. There is something in this installation much like the temporal monument of
Christo, the monogold of Ives Klein and the quantitative language of Arman. I can see in it a reference to the “new realism”, to the modern industrial: nature, to the humanist technology in its appropriation of that which is real. Farther than this global vision, which is the trace of a sensibility centered in the deep expressive structures of one consuming society, there is the only catalysis of language, the presence of the Black Prince.
In 1983 white I was in Caracas to assist to an AICA Congress I had the opportunity of getting close to Peña’s poetic system. He put me In front of an accumulation of gold barrels, which he called “Devil’s excrement”. Then I understood the use of the barrel as the modular element of his vocabulary. The oil barrel is the most important element of the distribution system of heavy oils and because of that, the most tangible, the one that says more to us. Deposits, a cistern, an oil duct, are abstract entities. One can pile barrels in the same way one piles gold pieces. It is at the same time the substance and the metaphor of richness. We can accuse “Mene” of all our troubles but the reality is that it is always there.
For Peña, as for the Maracaibo Indian, oil is in itself and for itself. It has become a part of Venezuelan beings for better or worse. We knew the price per barrel rose, and the role it plays today when prices have gone down. Abusive and excessive in its role... The Black gold has no fragrance like gold. We have to accept the immense monstrosity of its omnipresence in Venezuela, as we accept ice in the poles or sand in the desserts.
For us Europeans who only see in oil an energy source accessible because of our financial wealth, it is possible to realize its immanence. But for those to which oil is the burning blood of their own country, it is impossible to consider it thus. This is the best message of Rolando Peña: to maintain until paroxysms the sharp conscience of this presence
as a condition sine qua non of being Venezuelan. Hate and love with “Mene”. I will always remember the image of Caracas, the Black Prince against his golden barrels. He called us to attention as if he were bargaining himself. Renaissance artists did the same in the face of the temporal and spiritual power of the cinquecento.
This technological humanism is as near to moral fact as magic to the exorcist. No doubt there is part of all this in the ideal code of Rolando Peña, in the hidden code of his existential compromise. The Italian artist Manzoni canned his own shit; both his shit and his gesture today seem of no harm. The post-dadaist content of those cans will never
have the frightening power, both mysterious and poisonous of “Mene” which fills the golden barrels, because it is something else, it is “the devil’s excrement” and the Black Prince has proposed to himself, not to deal with the devil, with his own devil.
Pierre Restany. Art Critic - Philosopher.
in the art
of Rolando Peña
By Margarita D'Amico
Science is knowledge. Technology is the practical applications of this knowledge. Both disciplines have had a powerful influence in the art of Rolando Peña through at least five phases in his successful career as a pioneer of contemporary art in Venezuela.
Initially the technologies he used were derived from science such as film, slideshows, stroboscopic light and electronic music, which led to the first multimedia events that took place at the Universidad Central de Venezuela: Testimony (Teatro Experimental de la Facultad de Arquitectura) and Homage to Henry Miller (Sala de Conciertos) with Peña, José Ignacio Cabrujas and others.
It was a way to break through the boundaries between art, life and technology. This kind of creative activity characterized the Black Prince’s sojourn in New York, where he made movies with Andy Warhol and shared the stage with many other well-known artists. This also made way for him to establish and direct the Foundation for Totality in 1967, a movement for young avant garde Latin American artists in New York.
A second approach to science took place in 1975 at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas when he presented his work on Santería, with maps, altars, use of gold as a color and a big photographic mural named Diariografía, showing a clear preoccupation with cultural anthropology.
In 1979 he returned with The Seven Vanishing Points in which he integrated drawings of renaissance perspective with intervened photo booths. Undoubtedly, this was a very important step toward understanding the relation between art and science in the work of Rolando Peña; the use of perspective marks the influx of mathematics in his artistic creation, primarily concerning structure.
Structure, regarding mathematics applied to art, does not only concern itself with proportion (the golden ratio) and symmetry (united to algebra and group theory), but also with perspective (the realistic depictions of scenes in a plane), with studies that started in antiquity and returned with Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
Rolando Peña went back to the idea of perspective during the 90s, this time with digital technology, in the graphic work Mene Digital in collaboration with the astrophysicist Claudio Mendoza and Thomas Fromherz (from IBM). Not content with this, he broke the symmetry again in 2001 with digital technology for El barril de Dios (God’s oil barrel).
The fourth phase along Rolando Peña’s journey across the paths of science takes us back to the 80s. It was precisely in those years of post-modernity that his passion for this most basic of all sciences, physics, was born. He became fascinated by the mysteries of energy and the structure of matter. Art is transmission and transformation of energy in a most specific manner.
The energy that has been inspiring him from then on is oil, the energy source that moves Venezuela, it is our country’s most powerful symbol. The mythology of the day to day, the artifact of supreme devotion, catalyst of armed conflicts across the globe and so on.
We remember The Labyrinth of 1990, with three hundred and eighty four oil barrels, painted black and in immaculate condition, alongside mirrors and video-beam screens, at the Sala Rómulo Gallegos in Caracas, showing us that art and science move along in constant interrelation and dialogue. Its way of seeing reality (investigating what is behind appearances), foreseeing the future (and making it at times), will create consciousness about the present.
Throughout the history of culture (science is culture), the labyrinth as a symbol has been associated with fate, mostly as a dark corridor ever-changing without ever letting us see the exit, thus leaving us confused. A perplexity tied to uncertainty, drama, the unexpected, to things going backwards. There are so many sensations in the oil labyrinth of Rolando Peña and, for that matter, in any other of his creations.
His work around the theme of oil includes, among others (in no particular order), Petróleo crudo (Crude oil), El petróleo soy yo (Oil is I), La espiral, Tri-Tótem (at the Seoul Olympics, 1988), Diagonales, Mene, El derrame (The spill), El Mar Negro, El Pozo (The well). At the end of the 90s, Rolando Peña expressed the structure of matter with multimedia installations such as El modelo estándar de la materia: tributo al siglo XX, and later Energía Oscura: tributo a Albert Einstein with digitized findings about the cosmic expansion, antigravity and the like. Alongside this universe of revelations and uncertainty came out Ruptura espontánea de simetría: el barril de Dios (Spontaneous symmetry breaking: God´s barrel).
It was a privilege for the lovers of science, art and technology to experience El barril de Dios again in 2005, the International Year of Physics.
In that barrel that Peña calls “the barrel of God” (reminding us of “God’s particle”, (the Higgs boson), as Nobel laureate Leon Lederman calls it), in that barrel you will not find forty two gallons of crude oil from Cerro Negro or Morichal, nor heavy, light, aromatic or otherwise at a prize of seventy dollars. This barrel, icon and modular element of Rolando Peña’s artistic language, infallible patron of his works, is a universe of sensations, questions, uncertainties, a cosmic imaginary carrier of an up to date aesthetic of science and technology, expressed in an interactive multimedia installation that is energizing the world at large since 2001.
In 2010 the compromise is with nature and ecology. The new project from Rolando Peña also unifies art, science and technology: Make Oil Green, a work that deals with global warming and involves multiple video projections, media rooms, blog, website and, last but not least, complex structures made of ice and mirrors.
Once again, and as Rolando Peña states, “science and art become tools with which the visitor becomes involved, emphasizing the sense of urgency that must be the norm in order to be able to revert the course while we still can.”
Margarita D'Amico. Journalist and investigator of contemporary art.
By Guy Brett
Rolando Pena is an internationally known and widely exhibited artist with a long and varied career. Born in Venezuela, he originally trained in theatre and dance studies. Moving to New York in the mid-sixties he collaborated with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, notably on the theatre-piece The Illumination of the Buddha, and acted in several Andy Warhol films, before devoting himself full-time to his own art.
Like Joseph Beuys with his fat and felt, Yves Klein with his Monochrome, Andre Cadere with his rainbow-coloured stick, or Andy Warhol with his Brillo Boxes, Rolando Pena has made the gold oil barrel both an icon and an allegory of our times. Over more than twenty years he has identified himself both personally and artistically with the single theme of oil. He admits the god-like power we have given this dark substance (called mene by the ancient indians and put to modest use by them as a means of caulking canoe-hulls). He links it with the glories of the scientific discovery of the structure of matter, but warns us of the disastrous aspects of our relationship with it.
Oil appears in his work across many media: monumental sculpture, installation, happenings, video, computer animation. He is the author of a number of powerful and spectacular installations. Both he and his work have a complex presence: part masquerade, part scientific exegesis, part ecological activism, part ironic satire on the role of the artist. His oil barrel is a schematic module capable of endless repetition, a fetish in its isolation or a building block of further structures, other symbols. The links with minimalism are obvious, but instead of taking a comfortable place in the aesthetics of abstract sculpture Rolando Pena's monuments disturb by placing us in an ambivalent position between the holy and the infernal.
Guy Brett. Art Critic - Curator.