Edificio Metálico, prefabricated building shipped from Belgium to Costa Rica in 1890s
As part of a conversation supported by the Museum as Hub initiative, I was invited to share some images and thoughts about the exhibition “Edificio Metálico,” which offer insight into the exhibition and raise questions that will drive TEOR/éTica’s future program.
I was recently appointed Associate Artistic Director of TEOR/éTica, an art space in San José, Costa Rica, started in 1999 by Virginia Perez-Ratton (1950–2010). I decided to present three exhibitions during my first year of programming, which culminated with “Men Amongst the Ruins.” The exhibition explores the present-day meaning of a 1939 building constructed by Fascist sympathizers of German and Italian descent living in Costa Rica, which still stands today.
Earlier in the year, curator Pablo León de la Barra was invited to organize the exhibition “Novo Museo Tropical,” examining how the rise of the modern nation-state is entangled with narratives of exploitation, exoticism, and fantasy—produced and perpetuated by global capitalist enterprise, and exemplified by banana plantations in Central America.
My first exhibition at TEOR/éTica looked to architectural history as a framework for understanding our temporal and geographic location in the present. “Edificio Metálico” (Metallic Building) is both the exhibition title and the name of a prefabricated building that was designed in Belgium, and then shipped to and assembled in San José, Costa Rica, in 1896. The Neo-Classical style of this building is representative of a modern aesthetic paradigm championed by the nineteenth-century elite, embodying their aspirations to be in tune with a more global experience. I became interested in thinking about the Metallic Building as part of a civic or nationalist project led by Costa Rica’s ruling class, who had acquired wealth and power by growing coffee for export. The eclectic international style of this building suggested a dislocated modernity—the metaphorical façade of a developing nation-state that sought to “belong to the world.”
The exhibition at TEOR/éTica did not directly address nineteenth-century politics or the Metallic Building’s history. In fact, none of the artworks depicted the building itself. Rather, the works and the select events from popular culture dismantled our understanding of the “authentic” and the “patrimonial.” The exhibition revealed that the promise of the tropics’ modernization was not characterized by a continuous narrative of progress but rather constant negotiation of contradictory contexts.
Participating artists included: Francesco Bracci (San José), Neil Beloufa (Paris), Gilda Mantilla and Raimond Cháves (Lima), La Fania All Star, Dominique González-Foerster (Paris/Rio de Janeiro), Ossama Mohammed (Damascus), The White Stripes, and Ramón Zafrani (Panama City).