In the 1960s, French artist Daniel Buren created two sets of murals at the Grapetree Bay Hotel on the island of Saint Croix. Just out of art school, the young artist was invited to make these works due to his family’s business connections with the hotel’s lawyer, Thibaut de Saint Phalle. Buren first came to the island in 1960 and completed a group of figurative works on site for the hotel’s large dinning room. He then returned in 1965 to make a mosaic for the pool house. His interest in the mural format was partly derived from his experiences in Mexico in 1957, where he had seen murals by Diego Rivera and had met David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Buren had difficulties making these artworks and expressed his distaste for them in his writings from this period. But in retrospect, they came to hold an important place in his artistic development. He later acknowledged them as his first in-situ project—site specificity being a central characteristic of his highly influential conceptual art practice, which emerged at the end of that decade. His signature style became bold stripes, taken from commercial shop awnings, which he began to present both inside and outside gallery contexts. In the form of paper posters, they were plastered in streets in Europe and the United States and were understood as an attempt to break down the traditional boundaries between life and art, the street and the museum. Influenced by French deconstructivist philosophy, these works highlighted the surroundings in which they were placed, leading the way to other artists’ integration of socio-political contexts into contemporary art practice.
Construction of the Grapetree Bay Hotel began in early 1960 on the southern coast of Saint Croix. The development of the hotel formed part of the island’s economic transition from agriculture (based on sugar production) to tourism. Though Saint Croix had been purchased by the United States from the Danish government in 1917 for military purposes, private investment in tourism was encouraged by the US during the postwar period in an attempt to boost the island’s faltering economy.
The hotel had financial problems from the outset. It took over four years to open, as millions of dollars, invested by an American named Farleigh Dickenson, Jr. were mishandled by local administrators, leading to complicated legal and financial battles involving lawyer Thibaut de Saint Phalle. Large sums were spent on advertising the hotel, including a blatantly promotional record by popular steel-band musician Pedrito Altieri. The hotel stayed open for over twenty years and attracted many tourists to its attractive beach location. But it continually struggled to remain in operation, until heavy damage sustained from Hurricane Hugo forced it to close in 1989.
In the early 2000s, Mario García Torres became interested in the story of the murals and their troubled yet pivotal position within Buren’s oeuvre. The Mexican artist began to extensively research the murals, their post-colonial island setting and the various legal and financial battles that surrounded them. In 2005 he visited the island and the abandoned hotel. The first set of murals in the dinning room had been removed, but the mosaic works by the pool house were still visible. He documented the hotel’s entropic state photographically. These pictures, projected as slides, along with historical photographs and promotional materials, give form to his installation Je ne sais si c’en est la cause, presented at El Eco. The title of the piece is taken from a phrase in a letter that Buren wrote to his family while working on the murals, where he describes them as failed works. As part of the project, García Torres reproduced this text in the form of a melancholy song, recorded with Mexican musician Mario López Landa, which was played on an old turntable in the installation, following a short text that tells the story of the hotel and the artworks executed there.
During the past ten years, García Torres’s practice has involved extensive research into little-known art historical moments, exhibiting his findings in highly subjective ways that often imbue these narratives with a sense of fiction. The artist is always present in the documentation of his research, sometimes as the main character, at other times more obliquely. In the slide projection of the Grapetree Hotel—its dilapidated rooms and terraces overrun by tropical vegetation and scattered with debris—the viewer can note slight interventions that appear to have been made by Daniel Buren himself. A phone is shown off the hook, two shutters seem to have been purposefully placed on top of one another, and square pieces of boards lean against a painted wall in an aestheticized installation. One image focuses on a square wooden door, set into a wall, made of vertical pieces of painted wood, which recalls Buren’s stripe works.
In Je ne sais si c’en est la cause, García Torres engages and extends the logic inherent in Buren’s later conceptual practice, producing his piece based on an exploration of the socio-political context in which the French artist’s first site-specific works were made.
This installation, originally shown in 2009, had never been presented in Mexico City. For El Eco, García Torres adapted the work to the characteristics of Mathias Goeritz’s unique architecture. He specifically chose not to darken the space completely, but rather to incorporate the changing effects of natural light in the building throughout the day. His slides appeared pale and bleached by the bright glare of the summer sun at midday, while at sunset they became more defined. Chairs that referenced a vacation setting allowed viewers to sit, read, and contemplate these lonely, enigmatic pictures and listen to the audio recording echoing from a distant part of the building.
Tobias Ostrander, curator.