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The Hours. Dimensions of Time

Thu Oct 6th, 2005

The Hours is a reading of the Daros-Latinamerica Collection seen from the perspective of time. It enables us to traverse different levels, spaces and times of varying intensity, with the mornings, siestas, afternoons and evenings that we find in the production of contemporary Latin American artists.

Like every kind of thematic organisation, this way of grouping works may give the impression of being the only one possible. However, works of art cannot easily be reduced to only one or two readings; they allow us to enter them from other perspectives and to raise other questions. We have here chosen the temporal perspective because it reveals some of their most significant traits and permits us to isolate them within a historical moment in the production of Latin American art. Many of the works reflect the social and political circumstances of particular countries or regions. Others deal with the past and the way in which it still plays a role in the present. The shift of emphasis from “contemporary art” to “contemporary Latin America” in the subtitle of the exhibition is intended to emphasise this fact. 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. Still, today’s artists, as we know, do not just engage in dialogue with their circumstances. Many of the works contain an analytical approach to the meaning and history of the images themselves, a reflection on the specificity of the language they use, including sound, and a critical perspective in which a series of theoretical propositions is at issue. And in these, time is a characteristic on the basis of which the reflection takes place.

We have chosen the oeuvre of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges as a sound-box to distinguish different ideas of time. Borges himself has created an oeuvre of fiction, poetry and essays in which time plays a decisive role. He has established concepts and models of analysis which for more than forty years have been fundamental for an understanding of how artistic production constructs itself, defines and demarcates the agents of the artistic fact, and pinpoints the most salient aspects of the way in which a work is constructed.

Time, in Borges, is alteration and disintegration, and it percolates the interstices of whatever object and circumstance it encounters. Borges speaks of uprooting and exile as a dimension of time, an important notion which has not received much attention to date. In his work he has brought in the materialisation of time in the night, inhabited by blindness and opacity. Borges has gone in and out of history and has used its extension as an exercise permitting him to inhabit different real and possible worlds at the same time. This has enabled him to incorporate them in order to reflect on his context, his circumstances, and the very raison d’être of his artistic activity. His idea of intertextuality is linked to his conception of time. The way in which the text is recreated on the basis of other texts, and the presence of these in new ones, re-establishes repetition as a creative practice and opens up the possibility of what can be understood as a line and vector of artistic production. Finally, Borges has been characterised as the writer of circular time, but this repetition is not the permanent return of history, but the appearance of similar but not identical events.

Borges developed his work in that particular corner of the world that is Buenos Aires, weaving a web of references and arguments in which his locality, with its history, personalities and cultural traditions, enabled him to go into the text and its circumstances with a unique depth and sagacity. His reflections on time contain thoughts, histories and experiences that we can describe as an authentically Latin American experience of time and history. The particular way in which Borges links the idea of death with the internal wars of a country reveals this impulse as it is understood in that southern corner that is Buenos Aires. It may be rash to anchor his thought like this, given the attempt that is always made to place original ways of thinking like his in a floating and universal magma, without the couleur locale of gauchos, cuchilleros1 and milongueros,2 without the “southern corner” and the “wall of honeysuckle”, because it would call for a string of footnotes (which would have delighted Borges) to set the tone and to explain to audiences and readers the background to what is happening.

Among the artists of The Hours there is a world of affinities with the universe of Borges. Let us take the example of Vik Muniz, whose I Am What I Read #2 establishes that regime of the book by which the image is rethought. But he also chooses as the theme of his works a series of images that have populated books of modern art and the history of photography, only to transform them astutely in order to make them say something new, not about their history, but about their relevance for the present. His Che, based on the famous photograph by the late Alberto Korda, tells us more about Cuba today than many chronicles do and fixes the status of the image of Che Guevara in contemporary society.

The text and the book have played a fertile role in the arts of Latin America. Writing has marked the oeuvre of León Ferrari along with his persistent questioning of the need to insert the work in the production of meaning. As a “photographic negative” of his ideas, he produced a series of calligraphic drawings in which he slowly reconstructs the activity of the scribe who organises indecipherable messages to show the meaning and non-meaning of how messages are organised in writing. Waltercio Caldas, on the other hand, takes the book to make it say the unsayable.
And if a word can produce a meaning, it is noteworthy that time and again he places it in contrast with objects, so that the figuration of writing and the textuality of the object can emerge from this fortuitous meeting.

Textuality is present in a different way in the work of Gonzalo Díaz, who translates it into an installation to reveal it in its purest essence. Díaz emerges from the exercise having shown us the most profound secrets of the text. And Díaz allows the motions of the body and the forms of the letters in which the text is materialised as a physical object to mark a time, as in Al calor del pensamiento (In the Heat of Thought), in which the rhythms of the appearance and disappearance of the letters of a text by Novalis emphasise the importance of things and the meaning of artistic creation.

Some artists have converted the object into a rich and meaningful source to reveal found times. Liliana Porter has taken it as a source of narratives in the film For You/ Para Usted, articulating memory and object in a way that underlines with Borgesian tones the world of everyday objects. Darío Escobar focuses on consumer objects to emphasise their secret connections with religion, power and corporate propaganda. Surprising, ironical, incisive, his objects embody a critical vision of religious tradition in Guatemala. Nadín Ospina concentrates on the pre-Columbian object to elaborate a discourse on how history distinguishes between genuine and fake. His works question the external and internal perception of what is specifically Latin American and propose the idea of the inevitable hybridisation of every culture. Nicola Costatino’s dresses, handbags and shoes display a voluntary gender-bending in which the body is absence and presence, caught between the private and the public.

Los Carpinteros have created a new world of objects, crossing them with one another, but their references, the worlds that they inhabit conceptually, go beyond them. An example of this is Downtown, in which the modernist illusions of tropical architecture are translated as an impressive series of building-furniture. María Fernanda Cardoso’s work is of a different kind: after having worked with the world of nature and its real species, Cardoso incorporates in her work the historical memory of the continent, reorganising it into abject and precious objects.

The works in which the body is disclosed as presence have already led to revealing works in Latin America such as those of Alberto Greco, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, multiplying the view of the body in which the viewer participates and ends up becoming a part of the work. Ernesto Neto has created a family, his Humanóides (Humanoids). Consisting of the figures of men, women and children, the humanoid family is designed to be used on one’s own body. If the work is presented as a game, the sensuality that it reveals through its use transforms the experience into an act of opening and discovery. Lázaro Saavedra sets up this relation right from the title itself: El espectador y la obra (The Spectator and the Work). If the work of art is perceived in a horizontal relation, as in painting, Saavedra hangs a series of menacing knives from the ceiling, directly above the heads of the visitors, and puts pointed nails on the floor. The relation of possible danger introduces an experience in which the vulnerability of the spectators is contrasted with how they have learnt to behave in exhibitions of art. In the case of Santiago Sierra, the body is the commoditised body, involved in a relation of buying and selling. He throws this brutal reality that we know in the face of the art world, without metaphors, without ostentation, with the same direct matter-of-factness that capitalism has used.

Tania Bruguera is one of the artists who not only deploys her own body in her performances, but also creates surroundings in which the viewers are mobilised to take part. On other occasions the participation is spontaneous, as in Destierro (Displacement), originally performed in La Havana. Two parts of this performance survive: the trappings with which Bruguera “impersonated” Nkisi-Nkonde (a Bantú deity), and a video documentation of her static figure in the Centro Wifredo Lam, her later wandering through the city in search of those who had not kept their promises, and the crowd who spontaneously followed in her footsteps.

Various women artists in Central America are carrying out work in which the conditions of women and women’s bodies are brought into relief in a critical way, while at the same time making use of the body to mark the changing conditions of the society and culture of the region. Priscilla Monge is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding. Using objects and videos, but without adopting a traditionally feminist stance, she dismantles the latent positions which allow the situation of women in her country to continue to oscillate between the beauty of cosmetics and the ugliness of domestic violence, as in Lección no. 1: Lección de maquillaje (Lesson no. 1: Make-up Lesson).

The re-reading of his own work, and the arranging of the motifs that gave rise to it, is an exercise that Guillermo Kuitca practises in the series of works that form An Eight Day Diary, an exercise of memory and retelling of the motifs and themes which run through his most important works. The whole enterprise is a retracing of time in which the works of the past are transformed into screens through which Kuitca re-reads his works. While architecture is one of Kuitca’s iconographical references, for Fabian Marcaccio it is the necessary condition of his pictorial spaces. Working with those signs that have characterised the painting of the last half century, Marcaccio constructs an oeuvre based on the temporal experience of perception and reveals an interest not only in New York painting of the 1950s, but also in the scrolls of the Chinese tradition, which are characterised by the same need for a deliberate and extended perusal.

Doris Salcedo tries to recuperate a historical moment from the silence which has surrounded it and which marks one of the most important moments in the recent history of Colombia. Anchoring her work in a date, Noviembre 6 (November 6), she uses it not only to mark the work, but also to indicate the wound that one of the most important military and political events of the last few decades has left in her country.

Video has received valuable contributions from Latin America. Juan Manuel Echavarría, José Alejandro Restrepo and Martín Sastre give three lively versions of the use of the medium. Echavarría has carried out a long research, copying songs written by witnesses to acts of violence in Colombia in which they have recounted their experiences. To the accompaniment of popular rhythms, these spontaneous jugglers with pain narrate one by one the atrocious killings, sufferings and torments they have been through. Echavarría reveals with moving sincerity the histories which, more than any others, demonstrate the recent history of Colombia. Restrepo’s works show an intelligent combining of the society, politics and culture of Colombia. The Colombian jungle has been both form and content in many of his works, and the fragmented nature of his works, the conviction of creating a history through the superimposition of different times and spaces, has made them a way of uniting history with contemporaneity. Martín Sastre, from the new generations of artists, has entered video taking into account the massive consumption of the video clip, and has transformed the language of TV and the history of the mass media into a way of rethinking the history of Latin American video with distance and irony. At the same time, he makes us think about how the production of Latin American art is told. Focusing on these histories, the video Videoart: The Iberoamerican Legend enables him to ask himself about the destiny of Latin American artistic production in the context of globalisation.

The Hours includes artists who, working with photography, have shown the importance of thinking about the photographic image from a different perspective and setting it up as a source of new knowledge. The work of Vik Muniz has already been mentioned. Rosângela Rennó tackles it in a different way. She analyses the photographic statements setting out from the archive. She does so not only using domestic archives, but also using prison and administrative archives.

Marta María Pérez Bravo has been one of the most powerful voices in the recovery of Afro-Cuban traditions. Her work, however, always in black and white as if trying to escape from the world of colours that governs the cults of Santería, has described and portrayed without mimesis the beliefs that underlie the forms and actions of her native Cuba. Manuel Piña uses photographic images, in Las aguas baldías (Water Wastelands), to record the physical limits of the experience of space in which time is inscribed, focusing as no one else has done on the Malecón of La Habana, that border between stone and water that marks the boundary of the city and of the island.

Outside of the conceptual rhetoric that subordinates images to the administrative regime, when the photographic image is contrasted with a text, Maruch Sántiz Gómez augments its meaning in developing the series of works entitled Creencias (Beliefs). They present the traces that time has left in a series of expressions that form the basis of this photographic work. And the images in themselves are a different vision of a thought which, emerging from the limits of the conceptual, grow to become necessary and relevant.

The power and ephemerality of memory are the focus of Oscar Muñoz’s works. They express the fact that memory (memoria) – and time, which is tied up with it – is relative, and can never be grasped entirely. Aliento (Breath) clarifies in exemplary fashion that interplay of becoming and vanishing, the eternal circulation of life and death.

Certain works have been included in The Hours which were conceived to operate in the aleatory geography of public space, where work and meaning are obliged to compete with the plethora of images, sensations and experiences provided by the context. With Vesper, Oswaldo Macià presents a sound piece based on the structural principles of Gregorian chant and consisting of countless voices of Caribbean women speaking in joyful excitement. The women’s voices are Macià’s source material that he reworks symphonically.

Alfredo Jaar presented A Logo for America in Times Square, New York. Surrounded by the neon signs that characterise this space, Jaar’s work used the language of advertising to give a further twist to questioning how the continent has seen not only its geography but also its name negotiated in history. On the other hand, in a different but equally significant context, Betsabeé Romero placed her Ayate Car in an outlying district of Tijuana. Desolate in this context, a transit and border control zone, Romero’s work became a reference and achieved its maximal significance when the community for which it had been created adopted it. Wilfredo Prieto’s Apolítico (Apolitical) makes use of the contemporary display of national flags in public spaces to challenge not only the symbolism of their presence, but also the way in which corporations and the world of entertainment have made use of this public strategy for their own ends.

Sebastián López , Curator of The Hours

1_[Translator’s note] Knife grinders.

2_[Translator’s note] The milonga is a popular Argentinean song accompanied by the guitar, similar to the Spanish saeta.