Arequipa, Peru — This dusty commercial center of southern Peru may be clogged with traffic and plagued with unemployment, but it has its charms. The gracious central square is bordered by a massive cathedral and a cohesive complex of Spanish colonial buildings, all made of native white volcanic stone. A couple of blocks away, a gateway in a forbidding wall leads to a splendid convent that once housed hundreds of well-to-do nuns and their maids. Tourists who venture farther afield can visit a vicuna reserve a few miles north of town, or see giant condors in Colca Canyon, about 60 miles to the northwest.
But those who leave Arequipa by the southwest road enter a region that doesn't turn up in guidebooks. It's a desert where poor people subsist in tiny block houses guarded by mean-looking dogs. Towering poles bring electricity to the area, but water is scarce and the only visible way to make money is to produce bricks. Ragtag crews of men and boys cut blocks of earth, dry them in the sun and fire them in outdoor kilns that are perpetually dismantled and rebuilt as the loads come and go.
Most travelers passing through this terrain probably dismiss the odd brick structures as piles of rubble, if they notice them at all. Not Pierre Mertens, a Belgian artist who lives in Antwerp and got his first look at the kilns on a trip to Arequipa early last year. A conceptualist known for bridging the gap between art and society in works staged outside the gallery scene, he saw the bleak but eerily beautiful landscape as an opportunity.
"I was fascinated with those ovens," Mertens says. "They were like ruins, but they were making stones to build new houses." At the same time, the site symbolized "the desperate situation of Peru," he says, where "nobody believes in the future and everybody works simply to survive."
Soon he was taking pictures and grappling with a big idea. The kiln fields would be the perfect site for an international art exhibition that would "explore questions of cultural identity, social boundaries and global politics," he thought. At the same time, a major art-world event would boost Arequipa's economy and polish its image.
Like Italy's Venice Biennale, Germany's Documenta and dozens of other contemporary art festivals that have cropped up all over the world, his show would present specially commissioned works by celebrated artists. Prominent museum directors, curators, collectors and critics would attend the opening and a program of lectures and panel discussions would unfold as the show proceeded.
In mid-September it appeared that Mertens had realized his dream. E-mail messages to the art press announced "Ruins of the Future," an exhibition that he had organized with Marjan van Mourik, a Dutch art dealer who formerly owned a contemporary art gallery in Rotterdam and now runs a children's health foundation in Arequipa.
Billed as "the first Peruvian international exhibition of contemporary art," the exhibition consists of nine installations by "leading contemporary artists of the 21st century" who "were asked to produce special works of art." The lineup: Jeff Koons, Joseph Kosuth and Claes Oldenburg of the United States; Anish Kapoor of India; Mario Merz and Niele Toroni of Italy; Thomas Hirschhorn of Switzerland; Richard Long of England; and Christo, who was born in Bulgaria and lives in New York.
Images of their works, installed around the kilns, include a huge white porcelain "Puppy" by Koons, a mammoth bow and arrow by Oldenburg and mysterious, concave, oval-shaped structures by Kapoor. With works such as these, it seems that Peru has arrived on the international circuit of contemporary art extravaganzas.
Except for one thing: The artworks only exist on the Internet. "Ruins of the Future" is a virtual art exhibition, conceived as a parody of the very thing it pretends to be.
Hunting through the fine print
Mertens and Van Mourik, who plays the role of the show's promoter, contend that high-profile contemporary art festivals rarely live up to their pretensions. A product of what they call the "incestuous Western-dominated" art establishment, these exhibitions are publicized as global surveys, but even the artists who represent non-Western countries usually live in the U.S. and Europe. The roster of names doesn't change much from show to show. Like his creation, Mertens says, the exhibitions "simply illustrate the curators' ideas."
The press release announcing "Ruins of the Future" doesn't raise these issues. Neither does it explain that the artworks can only be seen in cyberspace, but the truth and the philosophy come out in the artist's statement and other material on the Web site: www.targetfound.nl. Among other clues, descriptions of the pieces ostensibly created for Arequipa and installed in the "ruins" are a little hard to believe.