A 3-kilometer-long painting
This may look like a photo of St. Patrick’s Day in Venice, but it was actually a June morning in 1968 when the Argentine painter Nicolás García Uriburu climbed aboard a gondola on Venice’s Grand Canal to embark on his largest and most ambitious painting to date. He enlisted the help of Memo, a gondolier, to transport him up and down the city’s main canal as he dyed the water a vibrant chartreuse green with 30 kilograms of Fluorescein, an organic non-toxic powdered dye.
Over the next eight hours the water and the city’s hundreds of smaller canals glowed green, as if they had been covered with artificial turf or contaminated by toxic waste. Fearing some kind of attack on the city’s waterways, the police quickly chased Memo and García Uriburu finally arresting the duo in the historic Piazza San Marco. For hours, García Uriburu was held by the police as they verified the artist’s assertion that the Fluorescein was non-toxic, and that the coloration was an artistic gesture and not a malicious act. García Uriburu’s Coloration of the Grand Canal, Venice was a playful and innovative approach to painting, bringing it out of the art gallery and into the scale of the city and into nature itself. He gave painting a fleeting ephemerality appropriate to both the cycles of nature and the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. In so doing, García Uriburu’s radical transformation of painting produced one of the earliest monumental pieces of Land art and was a watershed moment for the artist’s interest in and advocacy for art as a tool for environmental awareness.
García Uriburu was like many other artists around the world who, throughout the 1960s, explored novel ways that paintings could be made and experienced, and what they could contain. By creating a painting with and on a body of water—and which also happened to be the center of Venice’s transportation—the artist relinquished a certain amount of control that painters usually enjoyed in the composition and execution of their works. But it also enabled him to take advantage of the water’s tidal ebb and flow and the circulation of the water by the city’s gondolas and vaporettos to produce a painting spread the length of the city’s 3-kilometer-long Grand Canal.
Art that moves
Just two years before the Argentine Julio Le Parc won the Venice Biennale’s grand prize in painting, becoming the first Latin American to do so, for his presentation of paintings and sculptures that contained motors, lights, mirrors, and moving parts to introduce kinetic movement and audience participation into the artwork. Like Le Parc, García Uriburu wanted to make painting less static and more engaging for audiences but did so with the kinetic material of water and at the dynamic scale of an entire city.
García Uriburu expressed the ideas behind this approach to painting and the visual arts in a manifesto-like text that accompanied a color photograph of his coloration, declaring, “Art has no autonomous dimension any more: it depends on the environment: the city, the waterways. . . . It surprises the public in its own vital space. . . . Art has life of its own: a beginning and an end. Art changes place, form, dimension. It varies according to meteorology, tides, currents.”
Like other contemporary artistic trends—including conceptual, minimal, process, and performance art—the Coloration of the Grand Canal, Venice broke with tradition to be temporary, participatory, and susceptible to change from outside forces (human and natural, boats or tides). By working with natural materials and embracing nature’s scale and variability, García Uriburu’s new approach to painting also aligned him with a richly varied and international group of artists making works in and with the natural environment, producing so called earthworks or Land art.
Executed in 1968, the Coloration of the Grand Canal, Venice was not only one of the earliest examples of Land art, but its massive scale anticipated later monumental earthworks like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or Walter De Maria’s Lighting Field. García Uriburu’s work is also a useful contrast to the earthworks of Smithson or De Maria because it challenges the assumption that Land Art was made primarily by U.S. artists in remote and rural settings, when in fact it was an international tendency that occurred in urban and rural settings alike.
This artwork and García Uriburu’s career were marked by the increasingly globalized nature of art in the mid-twentieth century. Argentine artists like García Uriburu and Le Parc frequently seized upon opportunities to travel outside their home countries and study abroad in Europe and North America, both centers of international art which hosted important artistic events like the Venice Biennale. García Uriburu decided to carry out his Coloration of the Grand Canal, Venice just days before the inauguration of the 1968 biennale, ensuring that even though he had not been invited to represent his native Argentina in the exhibition, his work would be seen by many of the world’s artists, curators, and press.
As he moved from Argentina, to Europe, and briefly to the United States, García Uriburu began to look critically at these societies’ relationships to nature, principally their urban waterways. In 1970, he sketched out a “conceptual quadrilateral” of “international hydrochromy” (a fancy way of saying: coloring water), as seen in a flyer, where he would repeat his green coloration in the East River in New York, the Seine in Paris, a return to the Grand Canal in Venice, and the Riachuelo in his native Buenos Aires. His coloration of the East River occurred just weeks after New Yorkers celebrated the world’s first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
In this context of growing environmental awareness and activism, and his experiences living in mega-cities across the Western Hemisphere, García Uriburu began to reflect on his colorations as gestures for environmental awareness, highlighting in chartreuse green the nature that flows beneath and sustains our vibrant cities. These international colorations were opportunities to “sound the alarm” about civilization’s contamination and mistreatment of water and nature using the arresting power of these fluorescent rivers. He expressed this environmental shift in his art in his so-called “Green Manifesto,” which stated, “I denounce with my art the antagonism between nature and civilization, between myself and civilization. To defend ecology.”
Green before it was “Green”
But why dye the Grand Canal green? In an article about his coloration the artist jokingly explained, “I wanted to wish the Venice Biennale good luck. So I used green, the color of hope.” Serious or not, García Uriburu also chose green because of its associations with nature. In a text titled “Green Venice” García Uriburu explained, “Man can transform and dominate nature. With a fluorescent color can be change [sic] the perceptions in an urban scale . . . all the city was transformed in a fluorescent yellow-green park.”
The idea that people could overcome or alter nature was reinforced at the time by the global spectacle of the space race. It is possible that García Uriburu discovered the green Fluorescein dye from footage of NASA astronauts splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean in their Gemini space capsules, which employed Fluorescein as “sea markers.” For the artist, Fluorescein’s green hue represented the green of nature and our need to defend that resource which so often gets overlooked within our industrialized cities.
From the 1970s through the 2000s, García Uriburu repeated his colorations of rivers, harbors, and fountains in cities around the globe using art as a vehicle to draw awareness towards the symbiotic relationship cities have with their waterways. As an artist from Latin America, García Uriburu was always sensitive to the exploitation of natural resources in underdeveloped countries for the sake of favorable economic relationships with wealthy countries, often stating publicly, “The more advanced countries are destroying water, land, air; reserves of the future in Latin American countries.” With this commitment to employ the green Fluorescein as a symbol of nature the artist was aligned with groups like Greenpeace (the international environmental organization) and the world’s first “Green” political parties to associate the green of nature, the chlorophyll of plant life, with the politics of environmentalism.
Over time García Uriburu was invited to carry out colorations as part of larger public protests. This one was part of a national day of protest against pollution organized by the Green Party. Joseph Beuys—German sculptor, performance artist, and co-founder of the German Green Party—asked to collaborate in this coloration, recognizing his and García Uriburu’s shared commitment in art’s ability to address ecological subjects. In the photo from their collaboration, García Uriburu walks in a green jumpsuit, with Beuys to the left, carrying a bucket of Fluorescein green water taken from the polluted Rhine River in Germany.
García Uriburu began collaborating in the 1990s with Greenpeace, staging protests against industrial pollution, nuclear waste, and endangered species in Argentina. In 2010, the artist, again in his performative green jumpsuit, was photographed pouring a bucket of Fluorescein into the Buenos Aires Riachuelo river. The flag on the boat reads “Riachuelo: 200 years of contamination,” alluding to Argentina’s bicentennial celebrations and declaring the purpose of this protest-coloration. Rather than celebrate this national milestone, García Uriburu and Greenpeace re-directed attention to the 200-year history of the contamination of this urban river—from waste and by-products produced by tanneries and slaughterhouses in 1810 to contemporary industrial waste and untreated sewage in 2010.
A spirit of experimentation
From expanded painting and early earthworks to environmental activism, García Uriburu’s colorations reflect the spirit of experimentation of many artists in the last few decades of the 20th century. They also demonstrate the evolution of an artistic practice that responded to the social and political issues of their time.
For more on Beuys and García Uriburu, see Katarzyna Cytlak “La rivoluzione siamo noi,” Third Text 30, no. 5-6 (2016), pp. 346–367.
Isabel Plante, “La distancia y el lugar: producciones visuales entre el Plata y el Sena durante los años sesenta,” Artelogie 6 (2014).