Pain And Promise: A Sculpture In Miami Reflects The Struggle In Puerto Rico

Dec 4, 2017

Last Friday, with dignitaries and civic hoopla, the new home of the ICA – the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami  – was inaugurated in the Design District. It was an exuberant kick-off to Miami’s Art Week.

But even then, the air was much quieter behind the new museum building, in its patio sculpture garden. In that more contemplative space, one immense sculpture stood out – not only because it’s striking but because it’s achingly somber. And because it’s very timely.

It’s called “Unspecified Promise” by the Puerto Rico-based conceptual art team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. The ICA commissioned the sculpture last year during the throes of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis  – well before Hurricane Maria demolished the island.

READ MORE: Wreckage Reporting: Getting Tools to Puerto Rican Journalists Post-Maria

As you approach the work, you’re first drawn to a beat-up yellow Caterpillar backhoe.

“It’s destroyed and yet it’s what’s holding up the sculpture,” said Alberto Ibargüen, head of the Knight Foundation, a major ICA backer, as he took his first look at “Unspecified Promise.”

You can see all those traces and marks, and they become metaphoric. They can feel or look like wounds or scratches or something inflicted in the body. –Guillermo Calzadilla

Ibargüen was born in Puerto Rico, and he got what Allora and Calzadilla are trying to convey: “This is something beautiful that was Puerto Rico that is now in danger of toppling.”

That anxiety is heavy in the sculpture. Literally. It uses a 40,000-pound block of granite that could be the raw building material of Puerto Rico, a U.S. island territory. The granite is joined to the backhoe – but the length of that construction equipment is sliced in half.

Which is the whole – or at least half – the point, because Puerto Rico’s calamitous economic crisis ruined the construction company of Calzadilla’s father.

“It went bankrupt,” said Calzadilla, speaking to WLRN from New York. “And that raised our interest in all these construction objects my father had. You could see all these machines looking a little bit sad.”

To Calzadilla, the sculpture’s battered, sawed-in-half digging machine can look not just sad but maimed.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
Credit Marion Vogel

“You can see all those traces and marks, and they become metaphoric,” he said. “They can feel or look like wounds or scratches or something inflicted in the body.”

Which is why “Unspecified Promise” is even more meaningful now as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from the awful wounds of the hurricane. Allora, who is Calzadilla’s partner in life as well as art – they met at art school in Italy and have a 7-year-old daughter –, said their sculpture’s location in Miami is relevant too, as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leave the beleaguered island for Central and South Florida.

“The storm really did just sort of strip the skin off of all of these relations,” Allora said. “So for us, the work speaks to a kind of migration dynamic at play within Miami that also extends directly to Puerto Rico.”

But the sculpture’s most entrancing feature is meant to evoke more hope than sorrow. As you gaze at the polished granite, the reflection makes the half backhoe look complete again. It’s also a reflection of Puerto Rico’s potential. Unfulfilled, or as the title says unspecified promise.

“In this reflection was this idea of the possibility of a world that is to come that keeps you constantly straining to move into the future,” says Allora. “But knowing at the same time how much that’s an illusion.”

In this reflection was this idea of the possibility of a world that is to come. But knowing at the same time how much that's an illusion. –Jennifer Allora

Allora and Calzadilla are celebrated for this kind of provocative work. At the Venice Biennale six years ago, critics hailed them for turning an army tank upside down; its tracks became a treadmill for runners. They’ve also created statements about the U.S.’s neglectful treatment of Puerto Rico.

They are not Puerto Rican. She’s from Philadelphia; he’s from Cuba. But they’re among Puerto Rico’s most famous artists today.

“They’ve been really important making an example for Puerto Rican artists and what they can achieve,” says Puerto Rican art expert Celina Nogueras, who heads the Muuaaa design studio in San Juan.

Allora & Calzadilla's upended tank sculpture from the 2011 Venice Biennale, with a track and field runner using the tank tracks as a treadmill.
Credit Tascha Horowitz / Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Nogueras hopes the fact the ICA sculpture is debuting during Miami’s renowned Art Basel week will inspire Puerto Rican artists to stay on the island despite the hurricane hardships.

“How are the artists going to sell their work here?” she asks. “Who’s going to be buying their work now? Can you survive?”

The ICA says “Unspecified Promise” is a boon to the museum – and Miami’s particular role as a conduit to Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It’s the perfect project for the inauguration of the ICA in Miami,” says Alex Gartenfeld, the ICA’s chief curator. “It poses very sensitive and critical questions about our collective responsibility in creating not just a commemoration of recent events in Puerto Rico, but an active engagement as well.”

Last month, as the sculpture was being moved into the ICA, it fell from a crane. It wasn’t damaged – and the mishap, says Gartenfeld, only added to the work’s mystique as an expression of Puerto Rico’s adversity.