SOMERVILLE — El Dorado, a mythic city of gold that 16th-century conquistadors sought in South America, was — like all paradises — nothing more than a dream.
“Bittersweet,” Colombian artist Santiago Montoya’s exhibition at the Somerville Museum, reflects that fraught relationship with wealth. It expands on a previous show mounted in Colombia, “El Dorado Chocolaterie.” Organized by Peruvian curator José Luis Falconi, it’s a sad, smart exhibition revolving around objects of desire: chocolate sculptures dipped in gold. (They are on view in a cool gallery so they don’t melt, but they do degrade over time.) There are several hippos, trucks, pack mules, and a soccer ball. Some of these pieces represent the plundering of natural resources. All signify promises of wealth and fulfillment.
Hippos, for instance, are not native to South America. Four were imported by drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s to display in his private zoo as baubles of his power. They have since become an invasive species.
The sculptures sit on scaffolding built from fallen trees in the Quindío region of Colombia that Montoya crafted into tally sticks, like those used for centuries in England to record debts and collect taxes. They were split in half — one half to the debtor, one to the creditor — and could be traded for the value they represented.
Montoya has created a temporary structure made of these wooden IOUs to hold dazzling enticements. He has works in another gallery in the museum made entirely of currency — a material that’s as tempting as chocolate, and in a way, the equivalent of tally sticks. Dollar bills are, after all, promissory notes — in the US, they started out as IOUs issued by the government to soldiers, who could trade them for goods or services.
“In the end, we are tied by promises on which we keep building this matrix that constitutes the economy,” the artist says in a video playing in the gallery. “I wonder how long it would hold, if it does hold.”
But “Bittersweet” isn’t all bubbles swelling to bursting. In exchange for a cup of hot chocolate, visitors are asked to promise to do something for their local community. Plant a garden. Donate blood. Avarice and pipe dreams may drive people apart, but promises like these knit them together. Community outreach and programming is an essential component of this show.
Inhaling the chocolatey fragrance of “Bittersweet,” I found myself thinking, “if only the sculptures were bigger.” This wasn’t really for any aesthetic reason; the installation works because of the scaffolding, which takes up space and could not support larger works.
Alas, it was just a desire for more.
At Somerville Museum, 1 Westwood Road, Somerville, through March 26. www.somervillemuseum.org