Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present

For the inaugural meeting of this year’s Latin American Forum on September 9th, Professor Edward Sullivan moderated a panel discussion titled Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present, which met in conjunction with the exhibition Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (now closed). The panelists included two IFA alumnae, Dr. Estrellita Brodsky, a chief curator of the exhibition, and Dr. Jason Dubs, the Museum Research Consortium Project Manager at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as Dr. Joaquin Barriendos, Assistant Professor at Columbia University, and Dr. Claudia Calirman, Assistant Professor at John Jay College.

Looking at artwork from Latin America during moments of violence and oppression – both historical and contemporary – the panelists spoke about the ways in which art can engage in various strategies of resistance. In discussing the scope of Bearing Witness, Dr. Brodsky laid out a few questions taken up by the exhibition that also served as touchstones for the following panelists. Probing the roles that historical images of violence play in today’s world (one already saturated with violent imagery), Dr. Brodsky asked if a work of art can help us understand our own complicity in the acts of injustice represented in the show and how it might compel us to respond. This raises important questions about what an artwork can accomplish through implicating the viewer. While not explicitly addressed in the panel, I found myself wondering: is the primary function of artwork that engages with powerful images of violence to spread awareness? Can, or should, the artwork do more? Perhaps most significantly, what is the responsibility of the viewer when encountering this kind of work? Questions about an artwork’s political agency emerged as the underlying framework for each of the panelists’ presentations.

Speaking on issues of witnessing and documentation, Dr. Barriendos discussed the ways in which archival material has been employed in exhibition settings as a way to provide witness accounts of violence. Calling for the creative reactivation of historical context within the space of the museum, Dr. Barriendos outlined several projects, such as Luis Camnitzer’s 1969 work Masacre de Puerto Montt (Massacre of Puerto Montt). Examples like this one offer alternative, often performative, methods of bearing witness in an endeavor to eliminate the perceived distance between the viewer and the artwork.

Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979.

Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979. Image courtesy Espaivisor.

Interested specifically in art that engages a particular site as a politically charged zone of resistance, Dr. Dubbs examined several works by the artists who formed Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA), a Chilean activist group working under the military dictatorship there. He highlighted the practice of Lotty Rosenfeld, who in 1979 began an ongoing series in which she fashioned cruciform shapes by intersecting the dividing lines of a road with white tape. Dr. Dubbs charted the significance of several instantiations of this work, comparing how the first gesture, which took place in Santiago, differs from those Rosenfeld executed in Havana – or in front of the White House in Washington D.C. – to illustrate the weight site can bear on meaning.

Teresa Margolles, De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?), 2009.

Teresa Margolles, De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?), 2009. Image courtesy Labor.

With an eye to more contemporary practices, Dr. Calirman discussed artworks that elicit discomfort. Teresa Margolles’s De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?) from the 2009 Venice Biennale, for example, inundated visitors with physical traces of violence and death: once a day, the floor of the gallery was mopped with rags soiled by blood and debris from crime scenes in Mexico. Dr. Calirman asked what art like this – works that speak about, or perhaps stage, violence – demands of the viewer, and posited that the ensuing sense of disgust can act as a galvanizing force in the viewer, for whom passive observance is no longer an option.

Ultimately, the forum begged a question for which there is no easy answer: what result can we hope for through the activation of the viewer? While the political capabilities of art are very much up for debate, it is certain — as Professor Sullivan noted in his final remarks — that one cannot comfortably sip his or her white wine in the gallery alongside such powerful and disquieting works.

Images of Struggle and Resilience: Ernest Cole at the Grey

All photographs date from the early 1960s through 1966.

In 1990, the South African court justice Albie Sachs famously penned an essay called “Preparing Ourselves For Freedom” in which he argued for a return to beauty in the arts, and an expansion of creativity beyond the decades of revolutionary cultural work aimed at supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. While the lifelong activist knew firsthand that political engagement had long been a matter of survival, he asserted that the repeated imagery of “fists, spears, and guns” might limit the creative imagination of the new South Africa, that “the range of themes is narrowed down so much that all that is funny or curious or genuinely tragic in the world is extruded. Ambiguity and contradiction are completely shut out.”[1]   Be that as it may, there will always be those rare, inspired cases in which the political and the beautiful need not be mutually exclusive, where complexity and ambivalence are found in the most seemingly black-and-white circumstances. The work of South African photojournalist Ernest Cole (1940-1990) offers one such example. His work betrays a deep commitment to both social and aesthetic engagement, which come together in a stunning portfolio of photographs that documents life under apartheid and pays homage to the persistence of humanity through struggle.

Ernest Cole: Photographer, organized by the Hasselblad Foundation and currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through December 6th, is the first museum retrospective of Ernest Cole’s work, and one that is long overdue. The artist risked his life and ultimately sacrificed his citizenship in order to produce his seminal photobook House of Bondage, which remains one of the most visually powerful and politically incisive documents of the apartheid era.

Cole considered it his life’s work to chronicle the black experience from every angle: public and private, at work and at home, and inclusive of the perspectives of men, women, children, and families. He envisioned his target audiences to be foreigners – Europeans and Americans – both in the hopes of revealing the horrors of apartheid to the outside world, and in full knowing that he would never be able to distribute his work domestically (even today, the book is less known in South Africa than it is in the West, having only been published in New York and London in 1967). Across this presentation of over one hundred images, shot throughout the 1960s, we bear witness to not only the gross indignities inflicted on black South Africans by the apartheid system, but also a collection of more intimate, everyday moments that humanize and honor Cole’s subjects.

Ernest Cole, "Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: 'What's your future going to be like without an education?' But it is too late; the boy - called Papa - is out of control." - House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.

Ernest Cole, “Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: ‘What’s your future going to be like without an education?’ But it is too late; the boy – called Papa – is out of control.” Caption from House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.

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Winogrand, Undeveloped

At the Metropolitan’s hosting of the SFMOMA retrospective exhibition Garry Winogrand (on view June 27 to September 21, 2014), the photographer’s quotations sprinkled through the galleries convey his annoyingly literal way of answering questions about his work. For example: Why did he photograph? To see “how the thing looks photographed.” Art historians might want a meatier explanation, but Winogrand stubbornly maintained his answers, with evasions that can sometimes seem facetious. About his complex and undeniably incisive photograph Los Angeles, 1969, he claimed, “It’s the light. Look at the light!”

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1969. © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Photo courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1969. © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Photo courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

But wandering through the rooms of the exhibition eases any frustration with Winogrand. His photographs are masterful. They are slippery, unsettling, hilarious documents of the joys, pretensions, and tragedies of mid-century American life. While Winogrand is never quite cruel to his subjects, he is definitely unsparing. The loneliness of a new New Yorker, the sensuality of an uptown shopper, the strain of a tight swimsuit—even, in a winking move by the museum, the lasciviousness of a Met Centennial Ball attendee—all is documented. Continue reading

In the Shadow of Utopia: Beyond the Supersquare at Bronx Museum of the Arts

It’s an old cliché, but one with staying power: try to visualize “Latin America,” and more often than not images of palm trees, sandy beaches, and dense rainforests come to mind. The tropical stereotypes are so persistent—and still so often invoked in exhibitions that attempt to survey art of the Americas—that it is fairly refreshing to encounter a show that deals with the natural world’s manufactured counterpart, namely the constructed urban landscapes that sought to define a new, modern identity for the region in the twentieth century. Taking the legacy of the modernist city as its theme, the Bronx Museum’s quietly devastating Beyond the Supersquare (on view May 1, 2014 to January 11, 2015) refuses to shy away from the thorny contradictions that lie at the heart of the built utopia in Latin America. Co-curators Holly Block and María Inés Rodriguez have presented the work of over thirty contemporary artists, mounting one of the most provocative and haunting shows of Latin American art in recent memory.

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Beyond the Supersquare at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Photo by Bill Kontzias. Image courtesy of The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

The titular “Supersquare” refers specifically to the supercuadra, a self-contained residential city block that served as the module for that most forward-looking of cities, Brasília. Famously carved out of the Amazon and inaugurated with much fanfare in 1960, Brasília is the apotheosis of the modernist dream and its inevitable failure: planner Lucio Costa’s vision for Brazil’s futuristic capital has been criticized as essentially inhuman, and just four years after its debut the city was overrun with tanks and military troops that ushered in a brutal dictatorship that would last over twenty years. The specter of Brasília looms large over the exhibition, and indeed it is summoned in a number of works included in the show. Mauro Restiffe’s photographic series Empossamento (2003) captures the inaugural festivities of popular president Lula da Silva, juxtaposing the fervor of exultant crowds with a shot of the vast, almost funereal emptiness of the following day. Alberto Baraya indicts Brasília’s superhuman scale in his Estudos comparados modernistas (2011), in which he photographed Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic government buildings along with his own hand holding a flower, possibly a symbol of the natural landscape supplanted by Costa’s vision—except the flowers are plastic, as lifeless as the concrete edifices. Continue reading

Performance Art Takes Center Stage at Art Basel 2014 with “14 Rooms”

Photos by author unless otherwise indicated.

In addition to the staggering 233 modern and contemporary galleries at this year’s Art Basel (June 18-21, 2014 in Basel, Switzerland), notable were the separate spaces devoted to screening films by and about artists, performance art, and works that elude the (physical or conceptual) parameters of standard gallery spaces. The fair also encouraged dialogue by hosting daily lectures, artist talks, and panels.

One such discussion, moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, focused on the topic of the artist-as-choreographer, and took place early one morning, before the crowds descended. The speakers carried dual roles as dancers, choreographers, curators, and/or artists, and as such shared novel perspectives and anecdotes: Alexandra Bachzetsis, artist and choreographer, told that she selects performers based on the specific presence she wishes to convey, opting to focus less on the choreography than the people themselves, while Xavier Le Roy, dancer and choreographer, encouraged artists to accept that their works will take on lives of their own – a pertinent issue for pieces that can be executed posthumously. Yves Laris Cohen, artist and choreographer, spoke of his desire for a captive audience, and Isabel Lewis, dancer and artist, elaborated on the rejection of objecthood in her “occasions” – the name she’s coined for her works – explaining their attempt to exist not on a particular stage or exhibition, but in a specific and unique moment in time. The common thread connecting these ideas was the complex logistical considerations of orchestrating live artworks. It was evident that these art practitioners carefully consider aspects such as presence, unpredictability, unknowable audience movement, and site-specificity. What I did not realize at the time was that such conceptual frameworks would provide a constructive base for my whirlwind tour of Art Basel, which emphasized experiencing art rather than merely looking at it. Continue reading