Carmen Reategui

Visual Artist

SECULARIZING THE AURA: The tree of life of Carmen Reátegui

A tree is a tree but it is
all the trees

Ida Vitale

By Victor Vich

South of the City of Lima, in the location called “Los Cedros de Villa” (The Cedars of Villa), there are almost no cedars left and its main avenue is nowadays an unpaved road filled with felled trees and cut shrubs. However, it was not like this in past decades. Many neighbors give testimony of a splendid road, built under the shadows of many trees (cedars and eucalyptus), which display ended just before the sea.

“I’m going to tell it to you as a life anecdote” Carmen Reátegui told me when I interviewed her in her own home, a few blocks from there. “What happened in this avenue was an extermination, a killing of trees”; I remembered what I had heard in another interview. The person responsible for this deed was the then Mayor of Chorrillos, Pablo Gutiérrez, who started his period in 1979 and who was reelected for up to four municipal periods.

This mayor became very popular for many performative acts (at the beginning of the 80s he wanted to tear down the walls of the Regatas Lima Club; then, a decade later, he was the official candidate of the “fujimorista” political faction) but, above all, because in 1984 he blew up with dynamite the lower parts of the Morro Solar, to try to build a highway to connect the district with the La Chira beach. Due to the landslides caused by the various explosions, the sea started breaking against the coast in a new way and thus, the extremely beautiful La Herradura beach ended up with no sand and the surfers, outraged, were left without some of the city’s best breakers. To top it off, the project for such highway was abandoned and it was never built.

Towards the end of the 90s, Carmen and her family decided to move to the Villa area. They bought some land and began to build a house. In the comings and goings to said place, Carmen observed that an indiscriminate felling of trees was being done in an avenue. Under the alleged need to broaden the lanes, the aforementioned mayor had no compassion with that great group of trees that, according to those who knew, had been there for over 150 years. That day, just like someone arrives to a place after a war, Carmen stopped and contemplated, with horror, the cadavers in the ground. “Modernity is another form of barbarism” she told me. “That deed confronted me with something irreparable” she also told me. Contorted and angry at what had happened, she observed the amputated stumps and many trunks on the ground, but one of them caught her complete attention. It was a large trunk, huge, which form impacted her profoundly. Carmen not only felt deeply attracted by those remains but rather she also felt politically responsible; she convinced herself that she had to do something.

Then, an idea appeared and she did not doubt it for a second. She hired a crane and with the help of seven persons collected the old eucalyptus trunk and took it to the plot where she was building her home. It was very difficult to transport it and find it an adequate place. At the end of the afternoon, when everybody had left and Carmen was in strict loneliness, she once again looked at the amputated trunk and again felt its aesthetic or political impact, if you will: “What have I done?” she asked herself. “What am I going to do with you?” she asked the tree.

We know for a fact that art is a discourse that produces representations and that, in general, these allow us to see something that has been made invisible on account of the daily inertias, personal defenses or political interests. Art is not a simulacrum but rather a form that tries to attest some truth, a different sense of the personal or collective history. This was the story of a tree which no one knew who had sown it, but everybody knew who had pulled it out, almost criminally, from its place. It was a story that allowed to make visible the out-of-control anxiety of a modernization very badly understood. Carmen had been formed as an artist in the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts) and knew very well many of the new strategies of contemporary art. She knew, for example, that art could construct both an object as well as a new gaze; she knew that said trunk could produce some type of scopic possibility. Then, with much passion, she began to work on it.

The first public installation of the tree was produced in the main square of the Surco district, no less than in Good Friday of 2001. Carmen thought through the set of resonances that the tree could activate that day. Like Christ, that tree was unfairly dead and if something happened (on Earth or in heaven) it could begin to resurrect and acquire a heroic nature. “The day I picked it up, I washed it as if it were a wounded person”, she also told me.

Carmen recurred to her family tradition to design her proposal. Her grandfather, Pedro Rosselló, was an immigrant from Mallorca who arrived in Lima to set up a marble business. Said company still exists and thanks to it, she was able to get a nice piece of Travertine marble from the Peruvian Andes. She then carved something very classic, a simple base, which form did not compete with the dead trunk, which she decided to place upside-down since, in that way, she highlighted how the roots had been left without earth. So as to involve the population, Carmen opted to work with detentes. As it is known, the detentes are a type of scapular that, centuries ago, were used to protect the heart of the warriors and that nowadays attest to the power of a sacred object.

That day, in the morning, Carmen took the tree to the main square of Santiago de Surco, placed some detentes on it and made available some to the public. Very soon, the people began to come closer and to place these as offerings or as signs of various petitions. Many of the passers-by started to step up with respect, almost with devotion. “What I am seeing is Christ crucified” one of them said. Others chose to make the sign of the cross in the same way they do when they enter a church or when they poise themselves to pray in front of the image of a saint. Little by little, the trunk of the tree was dressed until its presence was confused with that of the processions of the painful Virgin and of the dead Christ that passed by its side.

That same day, Carmen had hired a small audiovisual recording company and by night she calculated that she could have around eight hours recorded. Unfortunately, she could only recover a few minutes since the owner of the company was horrified with such idolatry and erased a good part of the tape. Carmen told me that most of the film disappeared in an almost similar manner as the holocaust produced with the trees on the street. That, nevertheless, did not manage to discourage her. She was convinced that this intervention was so formidable, so beautiful, that she began to think of a new site, in a sort of second station. This time, however, she would be in charge of the recording.

The second public presentation of the tree was made possible thanks to the support from the Cultural Center of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, on the day of Santa Rosa de Lima. This time, the objects chosen were not detentes, but rather pink roses: the most characteristic image of the cult to the Lima saint. That day, right there, at the University Park, the tree was transfigured almost into the image of a saint and it activated a ritual in which death and resurrection ceased to be the opposite and co-existed simultaneously. The public felt that the moments of mourning could also be heroic moments.

The last station was produced at the Villa María del Triunfo cemetery, no less than in the Day of the Dead, on November 30, 2002. Carmen placed the tree at the entrance to the cemetery and very many persons (this is the busiest cemetery in the city) were able to come close to it. The objects chosen to pay homage this time were white roses, with the intent to again dignify its mutilated body and give new life to that old trunk, which politics had turned into waste.

In the morning, while Carmen documented what was happening, a woman asked her, without malice: “Tourist?” “No, I’m an artist; I’ve come to pay homage to an unearthed tree” she answered in a friendly manner. They both began to chat and minutes later said woman approached the tree and left a white rose on its trunk. The truth is that the meanings and the interpretations began to multiply: “it seems like an inverted chalice”, some said. “It´s like the victory of Samotracia” sentenced others. “I see it as an Andean ceremonial vase” opined somebody else.

By the end of the day, Carmen was happy and became aware that the tree integrated itself appropriately at the site and thought that it would be a good idea to leave it there, that is, to turn the cemetery into its last dwelling. Then, Carmen made the respective coordinations and obtained the municipal permits but a week later, she found the tree uncared for, surrounded by a small installation with the colors the then mayor had used in his electoral campaign. She was totally outraged and decided to take it back to her house. That is the place it is currently at and there is where I saw it, amazed, a short while ago: solemn, majestic, disturbingly sublime.

Let us get back to the theory, remembering that Nelson Goodman, the critic, proposed quite a long time ago, to change the question: “What is art?” for “When is there art?”. In fact, after all the aesthetic changes that occurred throughout the 20th Century, i.e., after the intense experimentation occurred with all the materials possible, art can no longer be defined only by its intrinsic characteristics, but also by the way in which an object, any object, can begin functioning in a different manner. Actually, under the aura of art, an object becomes something else and may start to mean something beyond itself.

Vis-à-vis a society that turns into instruments everything it finds on its way and subjects everything to the principle of profitability, a good part of contemporary art has opted for introducing itself in daily life with the purpose of transforming the public space and activating the emergence of new human links. Nowadays, many artists know that the objects can “transfigure” themselves and change the way in which they are looked at. In fact, this intervention suspends our usual gaze and makes us conscious of the relationship we have with Nature. We can say that this trunk, “invested with the somber robes of the sublime” (Escobar: 2015, 86) displays, on the one side, the footprint of its ancient fullness, but, on the other, it reveals the type of violence that culture needs to affirm itself in the world. It could be said that this tree refers both to the intensity of the natural world as well as to the human barbarism.

Gustavo Buntinx (2008) has been underscoring how the traumas of recent history have turned into motives for artistic processing and symbolization. A good part of contemporary art tries to produce symbolic recompositions within the context of a country that always opts for disengaging itself from what has happened and that today lives obsessed with “modernizing” itself, without caring for its sustainability in the future. The truth, nevertheless, is that the present in Peru is full of ghosts, of unfinished duels, of the debris of something that never works.

From there, we can say that this tree does not seem to be just a tree; it is also the sign of an entire extractive machinery that in Peru develops itself without adequate norms’ frameworks. To put it another way: this intervention represents a deed occurred in a Lima district, but its symbolic scope is far greater if we take into account that the illegal felling in the forests is one of the most serious environmental problems due to the number of existing mafias, due to the many dead that we already have and due to the passiveness of the governments in charge. Although there already is a decree that declares of national interest the fight against it, the truth is that, save rare and isolated exceptions, there is still no decided political will to confront the problem with decision and courage.

The importance of trying to restore the aura in contemporary art is being demanded by a notable critic such as Ticio Escobar. The aura is the distance that makes radiant a special object. Carmen states that her line is “repair” art, a project that uses that story on the killing of trees to, through the testimony of one of them, get in touch with a new dimension of the collective life. In fact, the trunk of this tree is an extremely material presence, but there is something in its image placed upon a pedestal that leads us elsewhere, towards a sort of “secularization of the aura”, which would seem to be of vital importance for future life (2015, 70).

Let us stop in the formal strategy of this intervention. The artist recuperates a socially abused object. Basically, her act consists of producing a new framing. She places the tree’s trunk on a pedestal and makes it dialogue with the people in different public spaces. The pedestal is the aura that activates a new way of looking at the trunk, a different form of making it visible. Let us theorize further: the artist splits the object in two. The tree appears as if it were divided between its original identity and its current appearance; that is, between the old violence and the new ritual, between its past conversion into debris and its recovery and escape to another place.

In summary, this project of Carmen Reátegui then becomes slightly clearer: it arises from the necessity to restore the aura as a strategy to reveal a political truth located among the ruins of the present. This intervention functions as a testimony of the barbarism, but also it reveals itself as a healing ritual. It is a criticism of a disenchanted world, but it tries to recover the notion of that which is sacred. The aura is not used here to “elitize” art, but rather, curiously, to promote a new communication among the people. Today, actually, it is the very own art that tries to “enter” and “exit” art itself as “a logic not of liquidation, but of transfusion to the agonic social body” (Buntinx: 2008, 34).

In the Peruvian literature, specifically in the novel entitled “El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo” (The upper fox and the lower fox), there is a passage that captures very well the density of a tree. It is a long passage in which Arguedas tells about different deeds of his stay in Arequipa and of his impression when he gets in touch with an imposing Pine located in the patio of the then house of Reiser & Curioni. Arguedas tells how one day he approached it and heard something he had never heard anywhere. That pine received him with benevolence and tenderness and spilled on his head all of its shadow and its music. The passage ends in the following way;

I talked to that giant. And I can assure that he listened and kept in his stumps and fibers, in the semitransparent glue that sprouts from his cuts and spills, without end, without distancing itself almost nothing from his stumps; there he put away my confidence, the relevant intimate words with which I greeted him and told him how happy and worried I was, how surprised to find him there. But I did not ask him to transmit to me his strengths, the power one feels when looking at his trunk close up. I did not ask him that. Because when I got to him I was full of energy, and now totally dejected; without being able to write the most intricate part of my little novel. Maybe that is why I remember him, now that I am once again writing a diary, with the hope of coming out of the unexpected well into which I have fallen (Arguedas: 1988, 145).

Far from any nineteenth determinism, Arguedas knew quite well that without a contact with the materiality of Nature, culture debilitates and becomes impoverished. In this passage, culture can only sustain itself thanks to the presence of a tree that also transfigures itself into something else. The tree is here the earth’s own blood, which activates the production of culture. Probably, Carmen also felt that same thing that decades before had also been felt by the very own José María Arguedas. She told me that that tree, was also an unknown thing, something that disappeared like so many in the era of violence.

This intervention had then as interest to show an imaginary of loss and of absence. It tried to produce a powerful criticism towards the present. Where do we find ourselves now as a society? What is it that we must protect? The remains of that tree confront us with the anonymous place of the losers. Its folds politicize reality and convoke to a new ethics, which is nothing more than a new gaze.

Regrettably, Peru is a country that never accepts its mistakes and that opts for living cynically with them. Nowadays we live inside an unstoppable justification of progress, understood as the denial of putting limits to capital. Art, however, is a discourse that always convokes a truth. That is why this intervention never shied away from the challenges proposed by history and opted for activating an aesthetic experience to show Nature as looting and as spoils, as that which, as a community, we keep on losing. In its disturbing silence, this tree is not afraid to show the country what is left of its small history: its solitary –but intensely stubborn- political resonance.


Buntinx, Gustavo. “También la ilusión es poder” (Illusion is also power). In: Perú, the art of living. Josefina Barrón, editor. Lima, BIF, 2008.
Escobar, Ticio. Imagen e intemperie. Las tribulaciones del arte en los tiempos del mercado total. Buenos Aires: intellectual capital, 2015. (Image and weather. The tribulations of art at the times of the total market.)
Goodman, Nelson.
Jimenez, Marc. La querella del arte contemporáneo (The complaint of contemporary art) Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 2010.
Ranciere, Jacques. Figuras de la historia (Figures of history). Buenos Aires: Eterna cadencia, 2012.

What times these are, in which to talk about trees is almost a crime, because it means remaining quiet vis-à-vis so many misdeeds!
Bertold Brecht