Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
June 13 – October 1, 2014
Traditional notions of cultural identity—once determined by territorial borders and isolated means of communication—have been replaced by a global commonality, affecting the development of creative strategies and disparate cultural languages. This phenomenon has reached a distinct crescendo in Latin America, unfolding parallel to intellectual and artistic discourse. Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, now on view at the Guggenheim, is a significant exhibition composed of many ideological hues, presented through a perceptive and highly curated lens. The impact of the socio-economic configuration on the creative development of the region is revealed through the artworks, and should be taken into consideration when experiencing the exhibition. Placing these myriad works in dialogue serves to intensify the distinctive social and political power dynamics that are at play, which are also compromised by the massive political import an institution such as the Guggenheim imposes on the works displayed.
Mexican curator Pablo León de la Barra travelled for over a year around Latin America, visiting artists in their studios and collectives. Selecting artworks for the show could not have been an easy task, especially given the curator’s objective of presenting unique conceptual content and creative strategies within a region composed of over 15 countries. The exhibition presents works spanning many generations, from the 1960s to the present. Established artists such as Juan Downey, Alfredo Jaar, and Gabriel Orozco share the space with emerging artists like Amalia Pica and Adriano Acosta.
Of course, it is risky to mount a curatorial project whose focus is the cultural identity of a geographic region. Given today’s transnational dynamics, it is important to underline the occasional hidden difference between artistic interest regarding content and cultural identity. A great example of this blurry discrepancy is the work of Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, who has lived in Mexico City for many years, centering his work on social practice and spatial critique. His work could have been part of this exhibition, but the simple fact of nationality excludes him from this selection. Alÿs’s innovative analysis of Mexican culture challenges this idea, evidencing how detached identity is from the confines of geography or tradition.
If new contemporary art practices were to emerge, they would generate within their autonomous structure, within art’s own dialogue and community. Yet many ideological layers exist inherently in this selection of Latin American works, due to their sociological condition. In them, three essential elements overlap: firstly, the evidence of the creative process in the object—the production of the work; secondly, the way information is displayed, how the works are revealed to the viewer; and finally, the artist’s intention or purpose that caused the work to exist in the first place.
Minerva Cuevas’s “Del Montte—Bananeras” (2003 – 10) is a multifaceted work that uses the language of pop art to state a political stance. The corporate logo of the Del Monte company is appropriated and subtly modified by the artist, adding a “T” in Belmonte’s branding, alluding to José Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan military president who committed genocide in the 1980s, murdering people from the Ixil indigenous community. Furthermore, the piece indicts Del Monte’s exploitation of natural resources in other countries for corporate profit. The piece also adds two hidden skulls inside the logo to expand the impact of her message. A seeming demarcation exists between the work’s intentionality and the way it is presented. There is a codependency between what the work wants to say and how it says it—an essential tension between poiesis and techne; poiesis being the creative, initial idea, and techne the craft or technique by which the idea expresses itself. The appropriation of the western canonical art language—pop art—affects and compromises the work’s potentiality.
Iván Navarro’s performance piece “Homeless Lamp, The Juice Sucker”(2004 – 05) similarly uses art historical references to make a strong political statement. Navarro pushes a shopping cart made of fluorescent light tubes, reminiscent of light artists such as Dan Flavin, across the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan looking for public electricity. Through irony and humor, the piece critiques the elitist dynamics in galleries and museums, using the shopping cart as a metaphor for the interaction between artists and galleries, suggesting that the primary goal of art is its commercial faculty. Navarro’s statement works well as a performance piece, existing in the public sphere. However, because his performance aims to expose the profitability of institutionalized “accepted” artworks, how can the piece be politically active if it is already part of the same power structure? The art-experience becomes apolitical and it remains, perhaps, only didactic.
Due to the continent’s long history of oppression from colonialism to imperialism, political and social critique has been an ongoing focal point of Latin American art. Having a lot to say about enduring social inequalities, these artists use art as a vehicle for intellectual protest. For instance, an interesting piece in the exhibition is Alfredo Jaar’s “A Logo for America” (1987). Initially a public art piece in Times Square, the electronic billboard confronted American citizens by stating that territory is an abstract demarcation and that America is not only the United States. Unfortunately, watching an excerpt of the piece inside a museum wrecks the initial intent, deflating its political power.
Carlos Motta’s “Brief History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America since 1946”(2005) addresses past imperialist invasions in Latin America. Appropriating the language of relational art, Motta’s piece is a handout for the viewer to read and take home, listing two separate narratives of events. One lists the history of guerrillas in Latin America, and the other lists military U.S. interventions in the region, ultimately suggesting the interconnectedness of these events and their outcomes. Works such as this one not only ask the public to reconsider political stances, but also to consider questions of ethics and morality: the construction of judgment and human totality.
Nonetheless, there is something missing from Motta’s and Jaar’s politically charged works. The palpable tension between opposed ideologies intensifies the contradiction: we can’t forget where the works are located, in one of the most influential art institutions in the world. Such incoherent juxtapositions oppose the works’ fundamental purpose. Nonetheless, this conflict opens up a new dialogue that must be analyzed from individual perspectives.
“Political art in the U.S. is seen as an educational tool but not as a way of actually engaging in politics,” said Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose “Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version)”(2009) is also featured in the show. The work is a poignant example of innovative strategies involving politics as much as art, where the space and participants determine the experience of the piece. “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” is a performance staged in Cuba, in which the artist set up a podium for Cuban people to speak freely for a few minutes, engaging in freedom of speech, (subversively or not) a practice punished on the island. Bruguera works with the notion of elusiveness, creatively altering established structures of social roles and institutional functions to raise moral awareness and question its limitations.
Bruguera is also currently working on another piece, a petition in which signatures are collected around the world to ask the Vatican to represent migrants and refugees and grant them rights. This project is not only a great example of ingenious political discourse, but also proves that borders are no longer barriers in a global world, where ideally art should be understood and perceived as an individual manifestation. The great challenge of political art—Latin American or not—is to creatively embrace the fact that it cannot live outside the Institution. In this current age, for the work to generate intellectual dissonance it must reflect the structure’s absurdity, using its rules and restraints as its medium. Art’s political statement must be hidden to be active, to deconstruct the confines of what created it.
LUCIA HINOJOSA (Mexico City, 1987) is a writer and visual artist. In 2013 she co-founded diSONARE, a bilingual arts publication.