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Terra Incognita

‘The poppies are in the field, but don’t ask me what that means,’ sang Julian Cope at the height of Liverpool’s psychedelically-tinged new wave of music in 1980. It was the start of a decade that would see hard drugs flood the UK, and Merseyside, like many urban areas, provided a ready market for the opiates on offer. To what, we may ask, do the poppy fields in Juan Fernando HerrÀ¡n’s installation, Terra Incognita, refer? In it, the conditions of Colombia’s rural opium-producing areas are reflected in miniature tableaux, perched atop a series of small boulders scattered across the floor. Sited on terra firma at Tate Liverpool – once an impregnable warehouse used to store goods of Empire – what connections does this work suggest between the illicit trade in narcotics from South America and the port of Liverpool? What significance do HerrÀ¡n’s rocky outcrops now contain, here in their dockside setting? Working with photography, video, drawing, sculpture or installation, HerrÀ¡n’s practice is conceptual and analytical, informed by extensive research. Exploring issues of economic and political control in his native Colombia, he collates visual material and other contextual data –information that invariably reveals complex and at times contradictory relationships between government, the authorities, crime and the economy. Terra Incognita is based on a series of aerial intelligence photographs acquired from Colombian police records. Surveillance images of this kind are used to locate and then eradicate poppy plantations as part of the state’s war on drugs. HerrÀ¡n’s interest in these images is twofold: firstly, in how they offer a partial and fragmentary reality – one that barely represents the life of the rural workers – ‘these isolated locations only exist and become noticeable because of their illegal crops’; and secondly, the way they conceal the global forces that have driven these farmers to dangerous, desperate means in order to survive. At the start of the 1990s, the price of coffee fell dramatically as the US-driven open market policy replaced the fixed shares system that previously existed between coffee producing nations. The subsequent decline in Colombia’s main export income compelled many farmers to replace coffee with the opium poppy. HerrÀ¡n recognises that the ‘remoteness in mental and geographical terms’ of these farmers is a direct consequence of unbridled free trade. He points to the nineteenth-century Opium Wars between China and England and other European nations as a pertinent reference point for any historical examination of how economic imperatives drove first imperial ambitions, and now the process of globalisation. Recalling the scant information in the police photos, the farmers’ habitats in Terra Incognita are camouflaged against the grey lead of the barren boulders that host each drama. Their Lilliputian scale heightens their vulnerability and puts the viewer in the position of the surveying police. From our privileged bird’s-eye view we can contemplate what at first appear to be unremarkable episodes. Then, ‘on closer inspection’, as the artist suggests, ‘the miniature objects displayed create a narrative that introduces the viewer to an unknown reality. These intriguing situations appear to be scenes from a nightmare.’ This description and the installation title imply that we do not recognise this land. Paradoxically, we may discover that we are passing through familiar territory. Bryan Biggs

Project Credits Courtesy the artist Partially commissioned by Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art International Exhibition 2002 Presented in association with Visiting Arts With thanks to: Joanne Bernstein

Date

14 September – 24 November 2002