The issue of re-staging historical works and actions became a sticking point when Gabriela Rangel and I co-curated the exhibition Antonio Manuel: I Want to Act, Not Represent! at the Americas Society (September – December 2011). The premise of the exhibition was to show works done by Manuel in response to artistic censorship during the most repressive phase of the military government that ruled Brazil from 1968 to 1975. But most of Manuel’s actions had been unexpected, fleeting, and irreverent. In 1970, for example, he submitted his body as a work of art to a National Salon and then publicly disrobed at the opening reception. In other signature works, he manipulated the way meaning is constructed by the media, surreptitiously appropriating a major newspaper to “exhibit” his censored works of art and puzzling the public with a series of false and surreal headlines.
The title of the exhibition—suggested by the artist himself—reflected Manuel’s ambivalence about the idea of presenting historical political work from the 1960s and ’70s unaccompanied by new artistic production. He did not want his first solo exhibition in the U.S. to fix his practice in time, framing all subsequent work—which over the years has tended toward a more formal style, with waning political content—within the specificity of one historical moment. Our task was to present the artist’s early work in a vivid manner that wouldn’t seem dated or outmoded today. We primarily addressed this challenge by opting to show outstanding, visually arresting works whose innovative artistic strategies transcended their initial historical context.
The exhibition opened with a striking interactive work, “Repressão outra vez—eis a consequência (Repression Once Again—This Is the Consequence),” (1968), in which five images of police violence against students, silkscreened on red panels, are covered by drapes of black cloth. The viewer must pull a white rope to lift the cloth and see what lies beneath. The graphics and headlines had all been culled by Manuel from local newspapers. These brutal images tantalize viewers while simultaneously implicating them: it is, after all, the viewer’s act of manipulating the ropes that exposes the violence at the heart of the work.
Instead of dwelling on archival materials and showing documentation from the 1960s and ’70s, we opted to exhibit artworks that had survived from the period. We took the liberty of creating English-language translations of selected works from Clandestinas (Clandestines), a daring series of media interventions from 1973. Through his friendship with the son of the owner of “O DIA,” Rio de Janeiro’s most sensationalist and popular newspaper, Manuel briefly worked at the journal and gained access to the printing room. The artist modified the pages of the daily with his own images and headlines, yet kept intact much of the original content—including many authentic headlines whose sensationalism rivaled that of the counterfeits. With the line between artifice and reality blurred, Manuel distributed the “Clandestinas” to newsstands in various Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods, where they were sold as regular newspapers. In the exhibition at the Americas Society, we showed several of the modified front pages of the “Clandestinas” in the original Portuguese and translated two of them into English. The English versions were placed on the gallery floor, and the audience could take them home. In this case remaining absolutely faithful to the series’s presentation seemed impossible, as the “original” setting was meant to be a newsstand and not an art institution.
The exhibition at the Americas Society coincided with the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, and many astute visitors drew parallels between Manuel’s past actions and the contemporary street demonstrations. This gave the exhibition an unanticipated urgency, underlining how the artist’s work, though conceived in a local and historical context, could function as a framework for processing current political upheaval.
We also made an effort to re-enact one of the artist’s most confrontational performances, “Urna Quente (Hot Ballot Box),” (1975), in Washington Square Park. In the original event, bystanders took turns using a hammer to strike at sealed boxes containing images and texts cut from contemporary newspapers. Because of its inherent violence, the piece functioned as a metaphor for the harsh actions of the military regime. The artist wanted to re-enact this performance in Washington Square Park, but with the general post-9/11 climate of anxiety and the unrest in Zuccotti Park, our efforts were in vain. After contacting the administration at New York University, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and various other city authorities, we received permission to re-enact the performance at noon for no longer than an hour under the heavy surveillance of police officers. It would have been a pale impersonation of the original event. Not surprisingly, the artist opted out.
This exhibition presented many curatorial challenges: how to re-enact historical works by a still-active artist, how to present 40-year-old art in a contemporary light, how to show political art outside its original context without sacrificing its essential impact. Would I do it again? By all means. But I might be a little more skeptical the next time around, with the knowledge that we can never truly re-enact the past, but must be alert to the opportunity to re-engage it.