Adriana Arenas Ilian · Sweet Illusion

The point of departure for the video installation Sweet Illusion was a performance by the artist which, in this case, was meant to exorcise her own feelings of homesickness. According to Arenas Ilian, living in New York and being surrounded by the city's large Latin America community-whose daily offerings of colors, flavors and sounds reminded the artist of her country-she couldn't help to ponder on how a displaced individual (in this case, herself) has an unavoidable tendency to idealize what she has left behind.

So Arenas Ilian went back to her hometown, with the idea of creating a piece that would explore the friction between wishful memory and reality. She rented a cotton candy machine and made human-sized sticks of sugared cotton. She then placed them, mid-day, on the top of a hill, where they rapidly melted into the air. This became a metaphor for the idealization of childhood memories confronted with the factuality of the here and now. But no matter how disappointing it was for Arenas Ilian to experience the gap between desire and actuality, Sweet Illusion is imbued with joy and playfulness: bright lollypop pinks, yellows and blues burst from the screens, and, coupled with catchy melodies, provoke a sense of giddy pleasure. But don't be mistaken by this description; in spite of its fluffiness, there is nothing gauzy about Sweet Illusion. On the contrary, the beauty of it is that Arenas Ilian skillfully manages to speak about selfhood, memory and desire (a tricky trifecta indeed!) while avoiding the danger of reproducing tired tautologies (redundantly bringing up the body to speak of identity, reciting a nomenclature of places to speak of a nation, and so on).

In its final version, a three-channel video installation, Sweet Illusion is dispossessed of obvious biographical elements. Arenas Ilian has edited out all traces of human involvement (the hand pouring the sugar, the manipulation of the cotton candy machine and so on), and the video footage has been condensed to a single image. A double projection repeatedly depicts two mirror images of the cotton candy spinning out of the machine as if dancing to the infectious rhythms of vallenato melodies (a folk, accordion-based musical genre indigenous to Colombia). Simultaneously, a monitor displays the lyrics of three songs translated into English, karaoke style. Although the overarching theme of these three songs is love, each one narrates a different story (unconditional love, impossible love and betrayed love), which could be interpreted as a life cycle that endlessly repeats itself.

Arenas Ilian likes to think of her elliptical image-based storytelling as an offspring (the far-out kid, I would think) of the Latin American tradition of cyclical narrative (of which the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a master). And although Arenas Ilian has developed techniques of incorporating codes and iconography from traditional genres and popular culture, she resists the temptation of confining tradition within the safety of ironic quotation marks. The result is a visual and aural space that generously invites the spectator to shed the jaded "been there, seen that" shell and contemplate other modes of consciousness, other individual and collective histories, and to consider the possibility of finding poignancy and poetry in unfamiliar places.

-Gallery guide text by Euridice Arratia, independent curator/writer, NY, 2001

Born in Pereira, Colombia, Adriana Arenas Ilian studied in in Bogotá, London, and New York. Arenas Ilian’s work has been exhibited at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at the Prague and La Habana Art Biennales. She has had solo exhibitions in Houston, New York, Paris and Belgium.