'A Stela for the Stelas'

Beatriz Cortez Describes Her Inspiration for Work at the Venice Biennale

Six adults stand next to a large steel sculpture of a monolith positioned on grass.
UC Davis College of Letters & Science faculty, staff and supporters joined Beatriz Cortez and part of her studio team for the opening of the Venice Biennale in April. Pictured here with Cortez's sculpture, "Stella XX Absence," are Distinguished Professor of Art Annabeth Rosen, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Lori Lubin, Tatiana Guerrero (from Cortez's studio team), Manetti Shrem California Studio Curator Katie Grube, Associate Professor of Art Beatriz Cortez (artist) and Ken Monnens, UC Davis Art Studio alum and Manetti Shrem California Studio advisory board member.

Lake Ilopango is the location of many of Beatriz Cortez's childhood memories. When she was growing up in San Salvador, Cortez and her family would sometimes swim in the lake, which is about 20 miles away from the city. Before it was a lake, though, that area was the home of a powerful volcano. When it erupted nearly 1,600 years ago, it left a caldera, a cauldron-like bowl in the land, that eventually filled with water. 

Of course, this eruption occurred long before Cortez was born, so she can never really know the land beneath the water — never see the full, empty depression the eruption left behind. Or its destruction. Instead, she imagines what it would be like to see each phase, the fissures and how they were filled in by nature, by time, by people. 

In her art, she often explores what’s left behind literally and spiritually. One of her newest pieces, "Stela XX (Absence)" explores absence and what it evokes. The work debuted in April at the Venice Biennale’s 60th International Art Exhibition, a prestigious arts and culture showcase, where it will remain on display through November. 

“The exhibition in Venice has so many works from so many places around the world where artists are addressing similar concerns to mine, that it was very moving to be part of that conversation,” said Cortez, who joined UC Davis as an associate professor of art in fall 2023. “I’m really grateful to have had that experience.”  

'Foreigners Everywhere' 

The title of this year’s exhibition, “Stranieri Ovunque” or “Foreigners Everywhere,” reflects the Biennale's increased focus on marginalized identities and migration. The title was inspired by a series of neon sculptures by Claire Fontaine, an art collective based in Palermo, that renders the words “Foreigners Everywhere” in various languages. The phrase itself comes from the name of a Turin collective that fought racism and xenophobia in Italy in the early 2000s.  

Much of Cortez’s work deals with the experience of immigration as well as memory and loss in the aftermath of war. Her adolescence was spent living amidst the Salvadoran Civil War — she left the country at 18, landing first in Arizona, then Michigan and, finally, Los Angeles.  

Diagram of "Stela XX," steel sculpture

“I think it says a lot about the need to talk more about the work of artists from places that are not part of the traditional centers of art production,” Cortez said. “That’s what this biennale did.” 

Cortez is the first artist from El Salvador to be included in the international exhibition. She hopes it opens the doors of the biennale for other artists from El Salvador. 

"Stela XX (Absence)" was, in part, inspired by the exhibition's title. 

"Stelas are monoliths that were carved in ancient times by the Maya, the Aztec, the Toltec, the People of Teotihuacan. They were left all over Mesoamerica with inscriptions about their history and culture," Cortez said. 

"Stela XX (Absence)" is a steel sculpture representative of a stela. The traditionally stone or wooden vertical slabs served as memorials, monuments, boundary markers and even public notices. They were used around the world. In Mesoamerica, the southern part of Mexico and the northern half of Central America, stelas were important cultural symbols.  

Many stelas that were once in the ground in ancient cities are now a long way from home on display in places like The British Museum in London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or even in private collections.    

“They are in museums around the world and they were brought from elsewhere,” Cortez said. “So, the stelas, also, are ‘foreigners everywhere.’” 

A fractured past 

When Cortez had first seen stelas, she assumed their cracks were caused by the degradation of time and nature. Later, she realized, that wasn’t necessarily the case. 

“All my life, when I imagined a stela, I imagined it cracked because that’s the way I had seen it in museums,” she said.  

A detail image of "Stela XX" showing some of the cracks represented in the work.

Cortez learned that many monoliths had actually been cracked on purpose in order to extract them. These cracks are portrayed in "Stela XX (Absence)." 

“All these lines that my sculpture has are lines that came from the cracked stelas that were looted and extracted,” Cortez said.  

She was able to find photos of some of them online but others eluded her, disappearing from the record completely. Cortez describes the back side of the work as being inscribed with absences. 

“It is a metaphor about the disappeared stelas that have been extracted,” Cortez said. “The inscriptions on the sculpture are actual portraits of several of the stelas that have been broken and looted from different sites in Central America and Southern Mexico.” 

“To think of the stelas that we are missing — to think of the disappeared — becomes, also, a metaphor for the humans who have disappeared in war and migration,” she added.  

Another layer to the metaphor is how people continue to sustain culture and memory in spite of such absences.  

“In a sense, it’s a stela for the stelas. And it’s a message to them that we miss them, we think of them, and they’re part of our cultural imaginary and heritage – that they’re important to us,” Cortez said. “Even in their absence, they continue to have a relationship with all of us because we think about what they meant, and what they had to say about the past.” 

Seeing the unseen 

On the other side of "Stela XX" is a depiction of the volcanic eruption that led to the creation of Lake Ilopango. The lake now sits in the volcanic caldera that resulted from the inward collapse of the volcano.  

A vertical, upright, steel structure with lines and craters in it, as a symbolic monolith for stolen and extricated stelas from Mesoamerican.

“All my life, that volcano has been a lake, so to imagine what we’re not able to see with our human eyes is also a part of the content of this piece,” Cortez said. The view she imagines is from above, looking down from the sky to the earth. 

“On the front, framing a portion of the landscape from a bird's eye perspective, the work holds the crater left by a volcanic eruption on the landscape,” Cortez explains.

The Tierra Blanca Joven eruption greatly impacted the Maya population in the area, especially those within a 50 km, or 31-mile, radius, and covered the area in volcanic ash. It caused dark skies and a longer winter.

“Its particles were spread all over the planet, and this, like migration, makes each landscape a little warmer for those migrating today, but it also leaves an absence on the land,” Cortez said.  

Researchers have estimated the eruption to be a 6.8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, which measures both magnitude and intensity of volcanic eruptions. The scale’s range is zero to eight. The 1980 eruption of Mt. Saint Helens is rated a 5. 

Absence on display

In Venice, "Stela XX (Absence)" is positioned at the end of the Arsenale, a complex of pre-industrial shipyards and armories. The sculpture has its own garden and is surrounded by a brick wall that separates the garden from the canal as if separating the space from Venice itself. 

“I like that the place has the ability to exist in different temporalities and how that allows the work to bring different meaning to the space, Cortez said. “It’s a really beautiful experience to sit there and think about the work and its conversation with the exhibition and the environment."

The 60th International Art Exhibition, “Foreigners Everywhere,” runs from April 20 through Nov. 24.  Cortez's work will be included in a curated exhibition at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art opening Aug. 8. 

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