All Aboard

Sol Calero: El Autobús, Tate Liverpool, until 10th November, free

Quick personal update to start: my dissertation is nearly finished. This means that in just over 3 weeks time I’m off on holiday! It’s so close I can almost taste it, all the sweeter for this British summer being so wretched and grey. Sunday was a good day for getting in the mood; with a decent amount of sun in the sky, I went off to visit the land dreamed of by Sol Calero that’s occupied by El Autobús.

Calero’s certainly found a hugely fun way to take over Tate’s ground floor gallery. It’s as literal as they come: a full-size bus! Equipped with seats straight from your local Arriva service. It’s a pretty comfortable way to bed yourself into an exhibition. Everyone – couples, families, kids – seemed to be happy to hang around here for a good while.

The idea is that you’re on a tourist bus, and there’s lots to look at. On the back of each set of seats is a video taken from a real bus in Venezuela which is surprisingly effective, given the size of the screen, at putting you in the journey. Looking down some of these ravines could bring up a heart-in-mouth moment for some. Outside the (non-glazed) windows we can observe the exotic scenery of palm trees, waterfalls and colourful flowers. Their style is clearly not born of Northern Europe: we’re being taken somewhere else, somewhere far away.

This is where it gets a bit confused. There’s a whole blurb about how El Autobús is a political statement, that it’s looking to emphasise the gap between tourism and reality. Well, maybe. You hear it in the driver’s commentary as he mentions political protests going on which mean our “tour” has to be diverted, suggesting how we are protected from the harsh realities of life in paradise. It’s a deep topic to want to explore, this complex relationship we form with the images of faraway places. How they’re idealised as paradises intended purely for our consumption and what this says about our relationship with our colonial history, and capitalism, and race. I am very up for this.

However, these politics are worn too lightly. I heard the commentary because I was actively listening for them. I think it’s safe to say that on my visit not many other people were – in fact it was pretty hard to hear over the voices of my fellow passengers. People are engaging with it quite strongly, but for different reasons. Some were here for something which the kids might like, others were admiring the murals and scenery. Then there’s the lure of the multitude of photo opps which come as standard with your ride.

Is it that Calero has almost been too successful with evoking “otherness”? Because that’s what people are here for, and it almost feel counter-intuitive to mean to question our attitudes and perceptions of the exotic within an artwork which allows its audience to indulge in it to this extent. I totally get that we should be listening and questioning our own attitudes, but that’s not what’s happening – the surface is triumphing. Being cynical: did Tate know this might happen? The timing of this exhibition over the summer, over school holidays, suggest that having a “fun” experience for all the family might have been a consideration…

So if I sit back and enjoy this, is it giving in to the very thing El Autobús is meant to critique? Because I did enjoy it, very much. It was engaging in a very unique way, like ASMR filling a whole gallery. I was happy to be taken on this ride, indulging in the sense of being somewhere else for a while. Should I feel uncomfortable about this? Or should I just relax; don’t we all like to dream of an escape to somewhere more colourful? Idealised it may be, but the gallery is arguably the safest space to take in such an experience. There’s no particular cultural manipulation, no corrupt governments are profiting on it. And Calero’s definitely making progress on the likes of Gauguin, who exoticised in a WAY more colonial, fetishistic way yet who is still so often exhibited without further enquiry.

I don’t know. I really enjoyed this, know from Instagram that lots of other people have enjoyed this, and that lots more people will enjoy it in the couple of months it has left to run. I wonder whether the gap between the intentions of the gallery and the artist is wider here than is usually the case. In essence though, Calero has brought a fantasy to life. And though it may be here too detached from reality to achieve its goals, it’s a journey I can get on board with.

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