“Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field.”
Immediately after showing Adam the root of his eventual destruction, God cut him some slack and gave him the authority to name all of the birds and beasts in his world. Aside from whatever metaphorical, moral and ethical lesson this detail of Genesis illustrates, it clearly shows that categorizing the world we live in may be one of the most primal of human appetites.
This urge to name creates both a challenge and an opportunity for Pablo León de la Barra, the curator of Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today at the Guggenheim Museum of Art, 13 June through 1 October 2014. De la Barra stated that he intends the exhibition “to deconstruct notions of Latin America.” In attempting to undermine the audience’s expectations, de la Barra risks simply replacing the viewer’s narrow expectations and assumption about Latin American art with equally limiting expectation and assumptions that he defines for them. The curator avoids this trap by including many works in the exhibition that examine the nature and politics of categorizing.
The most direct examination of the politics of categorization in Under the Same Sun comes from Argentinian artist Amalia Pica. The artist’s installation A ∩ B ∩ C (2013) consists of a room filled with stacks of multi-hued acrylic sheets cut into simple geometric shapes. The shapes are based on shapes used in Venn Diagrams, mathematical diagrams used to illustrate relationships between groupings.
Pica’s acrylic shapes are designed to be picked up and placed over each other. All of the colored sheets are both translucent and highly reflective so both the person holding the sheet and the viewer define the image. The presenter can be seen through the pieces; therefore their body becomes part of what is viewed. The points from which the pieces are viewed also affect the image. The angle at which the piece is view determines what is reflected on its surface. Through these two qualities Pica illustrates the subjectivity of observation. The act of viewing defines what is viewed.
While all of this may seem very esoteric and theoretical, A ∩ B ∩ C has a concrete political narrative, as well. In the ’70s the Argentinian government eliminated Venn Diagrams from elementary school texts, as they were deemed subversive.
Pica’s strength comes from her ability to generate tremendous depth using highly minimal forms. This accentuated quality contrasts several other works in the exhibition. Yes / No (2002), wrought by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto, consists of two oscillating fans. One is set to turn from right to left while the other is set to go up and down. The fans are designed to mimic the movement of the head to show either acceptance, nodding up and down, or rejection, turning side to side. While it’s possible to read content into these works—every acceptance, is also a rejection — ultimately, it’s simply two fans turning in two different directions.
Pica and Prieto’s work are abstract enough to be universally applied. There are many pieces in the exhibition that deal with the specific political ramifications of doing art in Latin America. Two of Under the Same Sun’s most provocative political pieces deal with the absence of identity. Ironically, this theme of absence resonates even in the manner of how the audience is led down a tangential path in order to view the overtly political works.
The exhibition is on two split levels off of the main spiral gallery in the Guggenheim. The darkened area features two works that deal with the absence of Latin American art in the cannon of western art. In Art History Lesson No. 6 (2000), Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer fills a room with ten slide projectors that project white rectangles on the gallery walls. The clear metaphor of the work is the absence of representations of artists south of the US border in art history curriculums in the Western world.
On a wall next to this installation, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s video, A Logo for America (1987), is displayed. The artist was able to secure space on a large advertising light board above New York City. The video opens with a silhouette of the continental United States, which fades into an outline and then the text, “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” appears. The image flashes through an American flag and then to the word “AMERCA” where the R is replaced by a map of North, Central and South America.
The most provocative element of both works is the antiquated technology used to make them. The use of mounted slides has given way to video projects. The light board Jaar used to create his work looks as sophisticated next to the current menagerie of displays in Time Square today as the game Pong compares to Call of Duty. While both media were acceptable methods to reach people in their time, today they seem highly outdated. This detail has a double-edged implication. It can be viewed as defining the work as antiquated and easily read as the prejudices that the works rail against are out of date.
Perhaps the exhibition’s most provocative piece examines political ramifications of categorizing people as audience, artist and subject. In this context, the museum can be viewed as an institution whose primary function is to categorize the world. Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade looks at how cultural institutions can warp and create false identity in Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast (2013). The work is based on the Museum of the Northeastern Man in Recife. The intent is to document the anthropological history of the indigenous European and African races that make up the population in Northern Brazil. De Andrade took photos of people in the region to create (faux) posters for the museum. In doing so the artist illustrates how the museum as an institution manufactures stereotypes.
Finally, If you imagine a Venn Diagram to show the interaction of the audience to the art, it would be two separate shapes. Under the Same Sun includes a polarity of works in which there is an interaction between audience and art work. Mexican artist Carlos Amorales invites the audience to interact with his work, We’ll See How Everything Reverberates(2012). He includes a set of soft mallets next to his installation/mobile of arcs and symbols. As people pass by, they can grab a mallet and hit whichever symbol they want.
Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo challenges the very notion of audience and artist in a performance Blind Spot (2010). Documented by a 17-minute video, the artist stood nude on a pedestal like a sculpture as a blind audience walked through the gallery space. Galindo obliterates the separation of art from audience by creating parameters where the only way to experience the work is through touch.
A myriad of cultures, governments and social systems lie between the Rio Grande River and the city of Rio Grande that defines the border between Mexico and the United States and the most southern city in Argentina. While there’s an obvious and important need to promote these works and artists, there’s an equal need to avoid turning a geographic quilt into a monolith. De La Barra achieves this, but in doing so the 50-artist exhibition about identity manifested weaves an eclectic mix.
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Above image: Amalia Pica’s A ∩ B ∩ C (2013). Acrylic shapes and occasional performance, overall dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund. © Amalia Pica Installation view: Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 13–October 1, 2014. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.