Considerations around and about Daniel Caballero’s Tóxico Trópico

By Vanessa Badagliacca, Lisboa, 2015

Since the great navigations at the Age of Discovery, especially in Europe, the tropics have been associated with the unknown, with the same idea of voyage and exploration towards an uncontaminated nature, other civilizations, that for the only fact of being different would legitimate the fact of being moulded at their own image and likeness of whom “would have discovered” them. In the 21st century, that original exotic aspect for Daniel Caballero who grew up in São Paulo, does not connote the tropic of Capricorn, which crosses the same Brazilian state. The word itself suggests a sort of linguistic path in which the initial “e” falls, in fact the tropic is no more exotic, being neither far nor in an undetermined outside. It’s a land of asphalt and concrete trodden day by day, and the six remaining letters didn’t linger fix along time, but moved by inverting the first part and leaving unaltered just the adjectival suffix to form another adjective: “tóxico”.
The body of works featured in the exhibition Tóxico Trópico presents, though, a scenario of encounters and clashes, construction and destruction, formed by the personal experience of the artist in the territory he crosses. Moreover, looking at Daniel Caballero’s works, sometimes it is possible to find him portraying himself as a botanist drawer while observing the various specimens with the aim of giving them a name and an aspect, or much better seeming to question if a presumed d(en)omination continues having importance. Likewise, expeditions accomplished in the fifteenth century directed to the so-called “new world”, he holds onto a pencil and paper towards investigative missions in that which constitutes his daily urban grid: the city of São Paulo. In one of his works it is possible to read: “while I walk, I catch sight of an ordinary wonderfulness” (orig. “Enquanto ando, descortino um quotidiano de maravilhas”, from the series Expedição Botânica, 2014).
In this way he becomes a sidewalk botanist, one of the main features through which Charles Baudelaire described the flanêur. In this figure, the French poet identified the artist that on his walks through the city, by his detached sight, occupies a pivotal role as the one attempting to understand and be able to represent the dynamic flux by which the city of modern and industrialized life moves.  In the act of walking as aesthetic and critical practice—as Francesco Careri would say—Daniel Caballero observes and sometimes leaves tracks of his passage through ephemeral interventions in the streets, which may be noticed or not. The same way, it happens with the uncontrolled growth of vegetation that, in the middle of the surrounding abandonment and indifference, looks for spaces of existence and resistance in the middle of construction made by humans. 
This kind of landscape was called by Gilles Clément “third landscape” in his Manifeste du Tiers Paysage (Manifesto for a Third Landscape), recalling the Tiers-Etat composed by the peasants, working people and the bourgeoisie during the French Revolution and referring to the clergyman Seyès pamphlet where it was claimed: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it ask? To become something.” Being expression neither of the power nor of the submission to it, offering a shelter to biodiversity, the third landscape appears as the privileged subject in the works of Daniel Caballero, which is aware that more and more in the city there is no place for this uncontrolled growth and—we may add, quoting Saskia Sassen—“public spaces are actually better described as public access than public”.
In these itinerant botanic actions the artist seems to subvert hierarchies, orders, genealogies. He shows us a plant growing inside and out of a vase; trees living in the middle of buildings and cars or construction emerging from vegetation; trees following the intricate succession of cables transporting electricity from one place to another, becoming electric trees challenged, figuratively, to walk in other shoes (see 15 Árvores, from the series Try walking in my shoes, 2015, echoing a verse by Depeche Mode, portraying 15 different trees each of them drawn on cloth generally used to write slogans for public demonstrations. The employment of this specific material reiterates the connection with the exterior, public space).
Ultimately, in the triptych that gives the name to the exhibition, the osmosis between nature and culture is complete (Tóxico Trópico #1 | # 2 | # 3, 2015). The artists’ words that in many pieces are integral part of the whole image here leave spaces to Portuguese translations of pages taken by two French novels, emblematically chosen as masterpieces of the Western literary heritage (Honoré de Balzac’s Eugènie Grandet, 1833, and Alexandre Dumas, Les trois mousquetaires, 1844). Apparently coexisting, nature and culture presented in this kind of rude desert, appear as antagonistic forces, where eventually the pervasive force of nature phagocytises the pillars of humanity, in physical and metaphorical sense. For the violence and, conversely, the sublime inner in this triptych as in other of the works presented, a reminding to Friedrich Schiller’s Letter Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) occurs:
Nevertheless, as long as rude nature, which knows of no other law than running incessantly from change to change, will yet retain too much strength, it will oppose itself by its different caprices to this necessity; by its agitation to this permanence; by its manifold needs to this independence, and by its insatiability to this sublime simplicity. It will be also troublesome to recognise the instinct of play in its first trials, seeing that the sensuous impulsion, with its capricious humour and its violent appetites, constantly crosses. It is on that account that we see the taste, still coarse, seize that which is new and startling, the disordered, the adventurous and the strange, the violent and the savage, and fly from nothing so much as from calm and simplicity. (Excerpt from the letter XXVII)
The calm and simplicity in the violence and savage disorder also characterizes the landscape filmed and crossed by a view in transit in the video Tudo o que vejo é meu (“Everything I see is mine”, 2014). In a sort of apocalyptic and bloody black and white with red shades, it seems that the conquest of what everyone sees (a landscape of vegetation at the bottom) passes through an inevitable appropriation that implies a destruction of it, constructing on it. But the more our construction grows, the more we lose the power of seeing and moving. As the last sentence in this video remarks, “We only can walk when our hands are free”. (“Só podemos andar, quando as mãos forem livres”).

Careri, Francesco, Walkscapes. El Andar Como Pratica Estética. Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, Barcelona, Editorial Gustavo Gili, SA, 2002.
Clément, Gilles, Manifeste du Tiers paysage, Paris, Éditions Sujet/Objet, 2004.
Sassen, Saskia, “Public Interventions: The Shifting Meaning on the Urban Condition”, Open, n.11, 2006, republished in Jorinde Seijdel and Liesbeth Melis (edited by), Open! Art & Culture and the Public Domain 2004-2012, Amsterdam: NAi Publishers i.c.w. SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain, 2012.
Schiller, Friedrich, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), Blackmask Online, 2002.