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    “Prologo: Los años turbulentos” is an exhibition catalog essay on the origins and cultural context of the avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena. Venezuelan poet, painter and art critic Juan Calzadilla ties El Techo’s formation to Venezuela’s political situation in the late 1950s and early 60s: Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt’s regime used free-market ideology to enact censorship policies on far-left groups. This led to a widespread interest among the intelligentsia in international modernist movements and writers, and in the use of the city as a breeding ground for performances that revealed social problems. The first gesture in the formation of Venezuela’s 1960s avant-garde, according to Calzadilla, was the creation of “Espacios Vivientes” in Maracaibo in 1960, which defined the group’s aesthetic. Calzadilla also pays special attention to the use of the urban environment in El Techo’s work. In this work, human beings and the self are irreparably broken elements but things through which to triumph over problems in the urban landscape, which was being repressed, segmented, and even sold off. For Calzadilla, the problem persisted well into the 70s; toward the end of the essay he describes the role that Caracas’ oil economy has played in the development of repressive governmental policies since World War II. His conclusión frames El Techo de la Ballena as having opened the floodgates for art and poetry to play a key role in 1960s politics.


    In his exhibition catalog essays between 1960 and 1968, Juan Calzadilla became a mouthpiece for the Venezuelan avant-garde at large. He sought connections between concretist, abstract expressionist, and surrealist modes of thought in ways that might bear upon the turbulent 1960s. His goals within El Techo de la Ballena were to stimulate conversations about modernist literature and art. This essay, therefore, mentions several writers essential to Venezuela’s avant-garde: Saint-John Perse, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Andre Breton and the Surrealists, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Peruvian expatriate poet César CésarCésarCésarCésarVallejo, Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. Furthermore, with the quip “[t]he city is a great collage or puzzle,” he juxtaposed the group’s activities with the student protests taking place at the time, using news photographs of such protests to help illustrate examples of El Techo’s performances. Works of art and literatura were thus framed as reactions to political measures like gag laws, university shutdowns, and Caracas’ oil boom (page 19, for example, features an illustration of a gas-powered trash-sorting robot).

    Juan Calzadilla co-founded the Venezuelan avant-garde group El Techo de Ballena (Caracas, 1961-68) and was heavily involved in the emerging ecosystem of avant-garde galleries in Caracas, including the influential gallery Sala Mendoza. For more exhibition catalog essays by Calzadilla on Venezuelan art of the 1960s, see the untitled essay for Salón Experimental, October 1960 [see the ICAA digital archive (doc. no. 1279579)], “Por un arte del mañana…” of October 1960 (doc. no. 1279595)], and “Por un arte de hoy…” of December 1960 (doc. no. 1279643)].


    El Techo de la Ballena were a group of Venezuelan artists and writers who combined different disciplines—visual arts, poetry, photography, film, performance art, among others—to create interrogative and revolutionary artwork during one of the most violent decades in Venezuelan history. Guerilla warfare, far-left ideas, political repression, and problematic city planning helped create a framework for this group’s formation. In painting, sculpture, and writing, they encouraged an informal aesthetic and an ethos of aggression that was meant to combat the dominant paradigms of abstract geometry, landscape, and social realist styles. Their strategies were subversive and often incorporated Dada or Surrealist strategies. Their large editorial production encompassed at least three issues of Rayado sobre el Techo de la Ballena and many exhibitions. (For more books, publications and essays from El Techo de la Ballena, see docs no. 1279466, no. 1279418, no. 1060254, and no. 1142155).