It is hard to focus on much when you exit the airport in Bogotá for the first time. You fit your luggage into the boot of a most probably tiny taxi. You fumble for your Spanish and try to understand how many thousands of Colombian pesos there are to just one dollar. Your taxi swerves in and out of traffic as if in practice for an International Grand Prix. You have your printout of your hotel reservation and your hotel address in hand. From your taxi window, your gaze, spacey as you are after a long international plane journey, and just possibly see an oversized cartoon figure racing by outside, the Argentine Antonio Seguí’s El Viajero or the Traveler. Or you notice, depending on whether you arrive in daylight or not, two high historic figures involved in a quiet ballet over an empty plaza, Christopher Colombus and Queen Isabella of Spain welcoming you to the new world. You might just well be thinking, Wow, I’ve arrived in a different place, what is this?

Well, this is special.

Bogotá is a city with more than 100 documented public sculptures. What did you know? You have just gotten off an international flight and you are understandably a little out of it. Over the course of your stay in the city of Bogotá, the city’s sculptures will surprise you with their unlikely locations, delight you with their unassuming celebration, and often mystify you with their neglect or obscurity. A gift from the government of Poland, the oversized monument of Copernicus is impressive and imposing in its steep setting at the entrance to El Parque de la Independencia just above the presently being refurbished Planetario de Bogotá, the Planetarium. At Calle 87 and Carrera 15 in Virrey Park, Edgar Negret’s La Gran Cascada is a bright orange rush of curved metal shapes statically falling earthward. Negret is probably Colombia’s best known sculptor and La Gran Cascada is one of his most celebratory works. Tucked into a small alcove next to one of the mundane Ecopetrol buildings along la Septima directly opposite the Parque Naciónal is a wonderful native pre-Colombian sculpture from San Agustin. Casual, surprising, unheralded, overlooked.

Avenida el Dorado, or Calle 26 as it is also known, the great wide avenue that connects the airport that you have just arrived at to downtown Bogotá is so perfect for the placement of public sculpture that it may have been designed with just that in mind. Originally conceived that way or not, and hard to focus on when you are just arriving in Bogotá, Avenida el Dorado is home to 8 major modern sculptures, the result of an initiative by Ana Milena Muñoz, the wife of then President Gaviria Trujillo, in the 1990’s. Most probably your next opportunity to see these sculptures will be as you drive back to the airport when leaving the city of Bogotá, again surrounded by suitcases and this time with a print-out of your boarding pass in hand. At Carrera 62, you might notice Angela Gurria’s circular Eclipse, just recently revealed again (and already refreshed with urban grafitti) after being covered for years during the construction of the new Transmilenio line down the center of Avenida el Dorado. In the blink of an eye at Carrera 92, Carlos Rojas González’s abstract Ventana, or Window, races magically by. Closer to the airport, you might just – at the perfect moment – glance out your taxi window to be impressed by Bernardo Salcedo’s Pedaso del Rio, or Piece of the River, a calm observation of movement as you rush on your way to catch your plane home or onward.

I was on a Transmilenio bus heading toward the Universidad Nacional. Colsubisio was, at that moment in time, in the process of finishing a stylish new building along the NQS corridor going south along the path of my Transmilenio. And passing that new building with its wonderful yellow green cutout grid, I noticed a brand new sculpture, just that day installed. It hadn’t been there previously. And I was very impressed. The sculpture was vague and aspiring, indistinct and moving, all at once. And it was large. The sculpture was special.

Of course, I mentioned the piece that I had seen to friends at dinner the following evening. The general consensus was Cool! Until one of those very same friends called me the next day to say that he had just driven past the Colsubsidio building in question. You are an idiot, he told me in as many words. That sculpture that so impressed you is completely covered in canvas until its official opening. You were totally impressed by a canvas covered sculpture! And well, yes I was. Until better informed, I thought the sculpture that I had seen was one of the best expressions of contemporary sculpture that I had seen in Bogotá so far. So much for quick vistas from a moving Transmilenio bus though I have to say that I still love the enchantment of what I originally saw.

Which brings us to a common convention in Bogotá. For the last three and more years, the city has been consumed by projects of urban renewal and infrastructure. Drills have been drilling, earth has been moving, vistas have been changing and city definitions have been shifting. Vast swathes of Bogotá have been under the baton of an invisible orchestra maestro. Sitting in a taxi with your symbolic tuba on your lap, you may have had your doubts as to your contribution to the symphony, or to the symphony’s contribution to your life. Being rerouted along a whole chain of unknown streets and avenues while trying to focus on your libretto has for sure been daunting. Your flute or oboe has been silent for quite a while. But through all of this, someone has thought to cover all of the sculptures within coughing distance of renovation dust with form fitting canvas covers. This has created a rich contextual network of ghost sculptures among the great chaos of contemporary hammering as the outlines, shapes and forms of all the covered sculptures are still clearly visible. Many sculptures have been reduced to their most fundamental forms allowing the imagination and memory wonderfully creative interplay in what is Bogotá’s daily urban symphony.

In the center of the city, las Aguas, an orange brick conduit of water, runs downhill 10 blocks from the library of the Universidad de las Andes to Carrera 10. Designed by the Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona (and perhaps not theoretically a sculpture), las Aguas exists as a great repository in brick and stone of an essential expression of Bogotá’s history, its geography and its water. And in fact, the case might be made that la Candelaria, the historic neighborhood that abuts las Aguas is itself a living breathing architectural sculpture with immediate and direct access to Bogotá’s essence, its past.

Las Aguas, Bogotá

Many sculptures in Bogotá are situated in urban triangles and leftover corners of plazas and parks and are as often as not seen haphazardly from taxicab or bus windows. But rich the city that has such overlooked corners of history. Rich the city that has neighborhood parks that invite discovery and knowledge. One of my joys in Bogotá, as in New York or Mexico City, is ambling, just walking. To turn a corner in a mundane neighborhood and come upon a sculpture unexpected, a stubborn ticket to history and connection, is to discover at any moment the magic of travel, even the essence of life. Sculpture, after all, is the physical representation of the ephemeral, of thought, of ideas, of the past, of the present, of the consideration of importance. Bogotá allows us, in its daily confluence of myriad energies, that possibility of insight. Be here for a while and you might just come to feel, as I do, that this city’s incredible wealth is daily visible in the three dimensional art of its urban sculptures.

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