LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, artist Beatriz Cortez and her team worked overtime, putting the finishing touches on a massive steel sculpture of a volcano that took up most of her studio. Cortez had started the piece during an artist residency at Atelier Calder in Saché, France, where she says she had to build a makeshift welding space to avoid setting the historic building on fire. He then traveled to his studio in Los Angeles, but his trip was only partially over. Within days, it was picked up and shipped to New York for an exhibit that opened last Saturday at Storm King Art Centeruntil November 13, after which it will be shipped down the Hudson River to the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy for the group exhibition, Displacement center.

Beatriz Cortez and two members of her team, Tatiana Guerrero and Phillip Byrne, in her studio with “llopango, the volcano that left” (2023) (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

The themes of migration, diaspora and global movement are at the heart of “Ilopango, the volcano that is gone” (2023). Now the site of a placid crater lake located a few miles east of the capital city of San Salvador, where Cortez grew up, Ilopango was responsible for one of the most calamitous volcanic events in human history, known as the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) eruption. It was long thought to have caused the volcanic winter of 536 CE, which corresponded to worldwide disturbances and disasters such as the Justinian plague in the Byzantine Empire, the fall of Teotihuacán, the devastation of Mayan communities localities, migrations in Mongolia, and droughts and famines resulting from severe cooling of the planet as volcanic particles darkened the sun. Recent search disputed this chronology, placing the eruption around 430 CE; however, the disastrous effect on the Maya and worldwide dispersal of volcanic ash is beyond doubt.

“I’m not so invested in finding the truth and setting the exact date,” Cortez said. Hyperallergic. “My effort is to speculate backwards and forwards, to do my best to imagine what might have happened, what might be possible, outside the constraints of science or discipline.”

Beatriz Cortez, “llopango, the volcano that left” (2023) (detail) (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

During a recent visit to her Los Angeles studio, Cortez said she saw the sculpture as “a metaphor for the migration of land and people” – from the displacement of the Maya centuries ago to the forced exoduses from today due to war, poverty and environmental disasters. – as well as a reference to glacial tectonic changes that create new lands and boundaries over an exponentially longer period.

Cortez’ version of Ilopango is an organic patchwork of hand-hammered steel panels welded together around a skeletal frame that allows it to be assembled and disassembled for transport. As no contemporary accounts exist of its appearance, its form is based on conjecture and imagination. As with much of his work, this could be seen as a form of Indigenous Futurism, fusing Mesoamerican histories and traditions with a handcrafted, cutting-edge, anti-colonial vision.

Beatriz Cortez, “Stela Z, after Quiriguá (Contrary Warrior)” (2023), steel, ca. 100 x 30 x 12 inches (photo by Jeffrey Jenkins, courtesy of the artist and Storm King Art Center)

At Storm King, the sculpture is displayed alongside “Stela Z, after Quiriguá (Contrary Warrior)” (2023), a steel monolith inspired by Mayan stelae that records Ilopango’s past, present and future since its eruption to its voyage down the Hudson, and “Cosmic Mirror (The Sky Over New York)” (2022, reconfigured in 2023), a grouping of welded steel “stones” referring to an Olmec mosaic that reflected bodies heavenly on earth. At EMPAC, “Ilopango” will be joined by recordings from the interiors of active volcanoes taken by volcanologists, bringing inaudible sounds that emanate from deep within the earth.

Cortez views the Ilopango fragments deposited pole-to-pole as elements of the Maya underworld, connecting the spiritual and the geological. The migration of a mountain that she undertakes makes this diaspora of land visible, echoing contemporary human migrations, but also illustrating the absurdity of man-made borders in the face of the unfathomable movement of matter around the world.

“Particles went everywhere,” Cortez said. “No matter where people go, they are part of the Mayan underworld.”

Tatiana Guerrero installing ‘llopango, the volcano that is gone’ (2023) at the Storm King Art Center (photo by Phillip Byrne, courtesy of the artist)

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