THE MUTABILITY OF MAGMA: EL TECHO DE LA BALLENA AND THE VENEZUELAN PETROSTATE
SEAN NESSELRODE MONCADA
At a moment of political turmoil in Venezuela, the radical artist collective El Techo de la Ballena [The Roof of the Whale] produced a series of polemical exhibitions, publications, and documentary films that disrupted a modernist narrative of progress. Active between 1961 and 1969, the group was stylistically promiscuous and deliberately multidisciplinary, its activities unified only by a theory of “magma.” A formless, subterranean base material that serves as a thinly veiled metaphor for crude oil, this magma manifested in the group’s consistent preference for material confusion, visual flux, and narrative instability. By advancing a dissident view that Venezuelan modernism was little more than a Faustian bargain, El Techo’s heterogeneous practice challenged the dominance of kinetic abstraction while questioning the logic of the developmentalist petrostate, revealing an underbelly to the modernism that had long been obscured by a national push to “sow the oil.”
Sean Nesselrode Moncada is assistant professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at RISD, where he teaches courses on Latin American and Latinx art. He holds an MA and PhD in Art History and Archaeology from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and a BA in Art History and English Literature from Swarthmore College. His research examines the contested development of modernism in the Americas and its uneven reception and implementation across the hemisphere. His current book project focuses on the artistic, architectural and theoretical development of Venezuelan modernism(s) at the height of the 20th-century oil boom, looking to the relationship between industry and patronage as well as the broader ideological stakes of visuality under an emergent petrostate. His research has been published in journals such as Architecture Theory Review, Caiana: Revista de Historia del Arte y Cultura Visual del Centro Argentino de Investigadores de Arte, and Hemisphere: Visual Cultures of the Americas. He is coordinator of the Providence and Rhode Island–area ACRAH Reading Group.