Espacio Continuo Gallery

Art looks at San Juan de Dios

María Elvira Escallón

In State of Coma he brings together several works that the artist María Elvira Escallón made on the San Juan de Dios Hospital, a place that for more than 20 years stopped working as such. Art as a testimony of a disused public good that will be the venue for The Million Fair that begins next weekend.

"Visit the San Juan de Dios Hospital, it is the most serious patient in Bogotá." This message that the artist María Elvira Escallón found in the guestbook of her exhibition Desde Adentro, which consisted of a photographic series inside the El Nogal club, after the attack she suffered in 2003, was the starting point of her work artistic environment around this hospital with more than 400 years of history.

That anonymous comment was the beginning of a long investigation and documentation on a place that she had heard a lot about, but knew nothing about. State of Coma, a series of works about this place, was born from curiosity, from that little clue, as if it were a detective novel that followed, of course, in how to manage to enter this space that, around 2005 when it began its visits, it had not worked for 5 years.

His interest was to focus on the central building where he came across the medical teams located in the spaces, 540 hospital beds, 16 surgery rooms, waiting rooms, intensive care rooms, all apparently ready for service, but immobile and out. of use.

He perceived that inertia was a living force that advanced, colonizing spaces and plunging them into shadow. He was faced there with the metaphor of a patient clinging to life, although his appearance suggests otherwise. And so his exploration would begin where the bed would become a fundamental element as it was a private space in one of the most important public hospitals in the country.

Escallón was finding a lot of information, he was choosing it without knowing very well where to start. He initially chose to make a series of postcards - he made ten thousand - that testified to the state of the place. These postcards were distributed to different people in the artistic environment, the health sector, and journalists, as if they were testimonies from a tourist site with information behind the images. In the end it was a large photographic inventory of every corner of San Juan.

It was the first of the series that he conceived there. He continued with his Night Tours, again from another metaphor of patients with one foot in life and the other in death: the hospital was literally disconnected.

Already without electricity, Escallón walked it at night and with barely the light of the moon, the public lighting poles, the reflections of the city, he took another series of photographs in the semi-darkness with those lights that from outside reached the edifice.

Another series that emerged there is Tejido Blando in which it sought to approach that absent presence of those who had inhabited the hospital for so long and who were still present in sheets, pillows, stretchers.

The beds were no longer made, but Escallón found these sheets in the laundry room that he spread on the floor and that he photographed in search of the greatest detail of each one of them. As he approached each piece of these fabrics, he later decided to build collages of 20 to 25 overlapping photos with the intention of re-forming the sheet.

This millimeter exercise can refer to the sum of so many people who could use them during a day, multiplied by the weeks and years that were in disuse. Just from this series, an exhibition will be seen at the MACC Hall, Maestras del Arte Contemporáneo Colombiano, which will be at the Million Fair for the first time, which will take place precisely at the San Juan de Dios Hospital, on 1, 2 and 3 of October, and in which the artists Libia Posada, Ana María Rueda, Leyla Cárdenas, Rosario López and Mariana Varela will also be present.

In the Extractions series, his work moved to sculpture and moved away from the document to turn to fiction. Faced with the impossibility of working directly in the hospital, he recreated in his own study the setting of those spaces and the cots that, somehow, became the extension of the bodies not present. Cots cut into parts, as if something were missing, as if space and time were devouring them and what is left in sight is reluctant to disappear. And in Crops, those same cots grow grass, grass that serves as a mattress for a useless space.

Escallón, in her exploration, also toured the hospital complex that preserves several buildings that today are of the Nation's Cultural Interest, and there he found the chapel. It is worth saying that the chapel and the convent will also be locations of the million dollar fair this year and right there will be Escallón's work.

There, the artist was able to converse with those who were the nursing chiefs of the defunct hospital. They continued daily taking care of the facilities, cleaning, sweeping, trying to follow a routine in the midst of desolation.

After more than five years they were resisting the idea that the closure was final. Their testimonies were on video. One of them thanked Escallón for the documentary record he was making on San Juan and, incidentally, made a surprising confession: she was the one who wrote the anonymous message in the guestbook of his exhibition on El Nogal. The message that started it all.

September 24, 2021

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