Visionary, painter, environmentalist, performance artist, treehugger, rebel, and gentleman. Nicolás García Uriburu was all of these, and more.
The eldest of nine children, he began painting at an early age and studied Architecture at the University of Buenos Aires before winning a year’s scholarship to live in Paris in 1965. There, using the same vibrant colors present in his earlier subjects of colectivos and their passengers, he began to paint Maria Antoinette and her contemporaries. While both his love of nature and message about caring for it appeared subtly in his early works featuring the Ombú, his favorite tree, it was his need to move beyond the canvas and toward a physical interaction with nature that allowed his message to be seen and heard by a wider audience beyond the world of art. While watching the first rocket attempts to go to the moon, Uriburu discovered that on returning to the sea, parachuters were identified by a liquid which dyed the ocean on impact. He decided there and then that he would find out more about this substance and use it to paint nature.
In 1968, a vanguard performance of his marked a turning point in his career. On June 19th at 8 AM, the artist tossed the first bucketful of reddish powder from a gondola driven by Memo, one of Venice’s finest gondoliers, into the Grand Canal, followed by another, and another. The police arrived. Parents were told to remain calm and walk with their children to the train station in case of evacuation. Someone was contaminating the canals, with an unknown substance, perhaps flammable. Was this a plot to set Venice on fire?
Uriburu, who carried a certificate stating that the substance was harmless, was detained by police in the early afternoon while scientists tested the waters. Fluorescein is an ecologically friendly organic dye developed and used by NASA as well as in medicine for eye examinations. Upon contact with water, it turns a vibrant green. By the end of the day, three kilometeres of the city’s waterways had been “painted” green and would remain that way for just a few more hours. Thanks to the participation of the artist’s wife, Blanca Isabel Alvarez de Toledo, in the risky venture, the brilliant act was documented in photos.
The motive behind Uriburu’s mischievous performance was twofold: he had a personal need to take his art beyond the canvas and into nature, and he wished to make a statement protesting the contamination not only of the canals, but the world’s waterways. On the eve of Venice’s 34th prestigious Art Biennale, performing this act in secret without the support of institutions, had a dramatic and disruptive effect, questioning the art system and reflecting the spirit of the time. Once it was announced that the suspected Argentine terrorist was actually an artist, his actions were applauded. Uriburu’s friend and collaborator, French art critic Pierre Restany, commented in his book about the artist that Venice would be eternally grateful for this beautiful act, performed in the midst of controversy as students violently clashed with police in an attempt to boycott the Biennale.
His fluorescein treatments continued through the 1970s, on such diverse waterways as Paris’ Lac de Vicennes, the fountains of the Trocadero, London’s Trafalgar Square, and New York’s East River. He also produced works of art that showcased humanistic naturalism and the antagonism between society and nature. In his painting Unión de Latinoamérica por los Ríos (Latin America Union for Rivers), there are no borders and a single yellow line links the Orinoco, Amazon, and Río de la Plata, highlighting the hydrography running from the north to the south of the continent.
After returning to Buenos Aires in 1982, Uriburu planted 50,000 trees and remained active in the city’s tree-planting effort while turning to portrait art. He also directed planting efforts in neighboring Uruguay and returned to his coloration of waterways, organizing in 2010 a protest over the unabated degradation of the industrial Riachuelo waterway, jointly with Greenpeace on International Water Day. Coinciding with the bicentenary of Buenos Aires, he called the work Utopía del Bicentenario (1810-2010) 200 años de Contaminación. He also taught secondary school students and presided over the Foundation bearing his name.
Uriburu was invited back to the Venice Biennale in 2017 but passed away on on June 19, 2016, the 48th anniversary of his intervention of the waters of Venice.
The current exhibit at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, curated by Mariana Marchesi – artistic director of the museum- highlights the period between 1968 and 1974 and includes serigraphs, intervened photographs, documentary pieces, and a select group of paintings. A video pertaining to the 1968 coloring of the Grand Canal and well worth watching and can be easily missed. Access to the small space is at the back of the exhibition room to the left through a discreet partition.
Venice In a Tone of Green. Nicolás García Uriburu and dyeing the Grand Canal is supported by the Fundación Nicolás García-Uriburu and the Asociación Amigos del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It is open to the public until September 30 at the MNBA’s first floor exhibition, rooms 39 and 40.