The Hours

Visual Arts of Contemporary Latin America

If pressure to entice audiences to the MCA did not always rely upon snappy and eye-catching advertising (this show employed Vik Muniz’s portrait of Che Guevara drawn with the contents of a tin of black bean soup) then I would have plumped for the artist Rosângela Rennó and her Untitled (America) 1998. Not only does the photographic diptych conjure up the mystery, paradox and disturbing writings of Jorge Luis Borges (from whom the title ‘The Hours’ is derived) but it encapsulates dispossession, poverty, authoritarian perversity and the human urge to mark personal and national identity. It also points to the ravages of time and the retrieval of history that is so important for countries that have been colonised. It is these qualities that come through in practically all of the one hundred and thirty works (by thirty artists) in this major event.

‘The Hours’ is the most comprehensive exhibition of Latin American art shown in Australia and comes courtesy of the Daros-Latinamerica Collection in Zürich. Staged by IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin) during 2005-06, this selection focuses chiefly on the past thirty years although there are key works from the 1950s and 1960s. It is accompanied by an excellent catalogue where curator Sebastian López achieves a succinct yet informative introduction and Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, a passionate essay on the tsunami-like effects of globalisation in Latin America. Figueroa’s Marxist-flavoured commentary includes quotes from Noam Chomsky on processes of capitalist expansion and by Eduardo Galeano from the 1970s when America meant the United States and the area south of the Rio Grande was a sub-America, a Third World entity whose identification was nebulous.

This positioning is born out by the diptych in the exhibition of retrieved photographs of prisoners by Rennó (mentioned above). Grainy and raw, they have been enlarged from glass negatives which she rescued from an archive about to be dismantled in São Paulo. One depicts the upper back of a male inmate with a crude prison tattoo of Christ crucified. Only the Saviour’s head with the arms of the cross are featured; the rest of the tattooed figure is left to dissolve with the body and identity of the ‘criminal’ himself. The companion print features the torso of a prisoner (possibly the same man) which has the word ‘america’ crudely incised in the skin, upside down and beneath it the shape of a land mass.

Although there is little room for spectacle in this Borges-derived exhibition, the choice of this author as the thematic lynchpin is apt because in ‘The Hours’, ‘it is not the contemporaneity of the works themselves that interests us, but the way in which they disclose, converse, rage, laugh and reflect at a particular moment in time with a fragmented continent and the various spaces it occupies’.1 In fact, I found myself not looking for the date of the image on the wall label and only in passing realised that most of the artists were born in the 1960s. Even when the older generation is represented (notably by León Ferrari with instances of his ‘illegible’ script), it is how these drawings demonstrate the dismantling and rebuilding of signification that prompts their inclusion rather than the fact that they would fit into an art genealogy for Latin America. This refusal to adopt conventional formulas for the survey (by chronological ordering and sampling of numerous artists) is what makes the exhibition such a satisfying experience.

Ferrari is in ‘The Hours’ because his 1960s calligraphic pages emphasise the linguistic sign as a potent conveyor of meaning. Similarly, the younger Guillermo Kuitca has included pages from his An Eight Day Diary, produced between 1981 and 1997, which defy evaluation according to logic and aesthetics and are more to do with an urgency to relate psychological disturbance. These watercolour mappings and symbols are awkward and painful; conveyed as though knowing that bravura has no place when trauma is at stake, when destabilisation and loss of life are in fact the salient facts of life. One drawing has a tiny figure strapped on a bed hovering in front of a chrome yellow space, another shows a street map with buildings replaced by crowns of thorns, and several suggest rudimentary rooms with unoccupied chairs and beds.

Borges himself has been described as a writer of circular time; not in terms of a return to history but the endless repetition of similar events. Kuitca’s map of Afghanistan, painted in 1990 yet resembling an old fashioned school atlas, has major centres pushed in like belly-buttons and texts in red giving details of historic sites, many of them sacred. Uncannily, seven years later many of these sites have been destroyed through prolonged, unresolved war. Doris Salcedo is also present (for the content of her imagery as much as the artist’s international status) with her sculptural collisions. Chair forms with surfaces of steel and graphite are presented singly or coupled, monstrously over-riding their mangled equivalents. Commenting on a dramatic event in Colombia’s recent history (6 and 7 November 1985 when the M -19 group of guerrilleros destroyed the Palace of Justice in Bogotá) Salcedo takes the particular to expose unequal power relations and in turn, challenges media and governmental reluctance to expose uncomfortable facts.

When ‘The Hours’ attempts to leaven harsh realities with humour, a socio-political edge is nevertheless, always present. From the force-feeding of plastic dolls with an over-abundance of fast-food in one of Liliana Porter’s film snippets of 1999, to the ungainly Humanoids (2001) of Ernesto Neto, the viewer is amused and disturbed at the same time. One wants to touch Neto’s family of soft white sacks propped on the floor, attracted to their familiar lumpiness, until it is realised that each has a clone-like appendage which is in the process of tearing free. Similarly, the senses are aroused by the showcase of female fashion by Nicola Costantino (1999-2001) until it is realised that a pair of high-heeled shoes, dress, and hand-bag are made of material resembling human skin, complete with nipples and orifices. We may simultaneously be erotically enticed and repelled; reminded of the cost of human pleasure and the surrealistic fetishes of everyday living.

Then there is the play between the mundane and religious (especially the sway of Roman Catholicism in Latin America) through Dario Escobar’s sleeping bag enclosing a painting copied from Francisco Valladares’ The Annunciation (17th century) in the Cathedral of Guatemala. And an ironic twist to hybridisation in the ceramics of Nadín Ospina, where Walt Disney’s fantasy animals (Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse) are appropriated back into Pre-Colombian mythology. The slippage between one order and another, one time and another, includes the paintings of Fabian Marcaccio which recall the impasto expressionism of the neo-vanguardia painters of the 1950s but which are re-conceived according to digital images from the Internet. Brushstrokes break from their grid-like shapes or twist out from the confines of the stretched canvas in these works of the early 1990s.

Elsewhere, Waltercio Caldas gives his artist’s books a spare poetic rigour in the way they conceptually (and kinesthetically) reach out to the viewer/reader. Using an open codex form, Figura Figura (1998) for example, has a fine red wood thread suspended over the title’s words, each of which has been printed on the two sheets, creating a visible yet fragile and intangible shadow. On a different scale altogether, Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) are similarly concerned with the provisional as a concept. The group’s architectural structures, ‘compartment-buildings’, evoke a spatial anxiety as the drawers slide open to reveal emptiness or are closed fast. Titled Downtown (Centro) these wooden structures, through their bland uniform facades and skyscraper stature, evoke urban landscapes worldwide. They, nevertheless, may also stand for the intimacy of an individual, through a piece of furniture, as much as the anonymity of the modern city. The mystery and paradox of time and place of which Borges was such a master narrator, is here inferred.

 While the Biennale of Sydney has included Latin American talent, and curators such as Charles Merewether have ensured that artists from Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico are included on the international agenda, Australia has not seen a broad selection before. I suspect that many viewers will have the same reaction as I did and that is: we want more. Not necessarily more of the ‘art and social commitment’ push, although this is quite understandably necessary given the history of depravation and rupture to lives in these countries, but also instances of ‘magic-realism’ (by the Venezuelan painter Angel Pena, for example) and recent work seen at the Havana Biennial, all of which would help satisfy this increased interest in imagery from the ‘other’ America.

notes: 

1. Sebastian Lopez, ‘The Hours. Dimensions of Time’, The Hours: Visual Arts of Contemporary Latin America, Daros-Latinamerica AG in association with Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005, chapt.2, p.1.