Alice in Nightmareland: Surrealism and Psychoanalysis From the MALBA in Buenos Aires

Curator and writer Rafael Toriz interviews Gabriela Rangel regarding “Terapia” at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), an exhibition that surveys the influence of psychoanalysis in Argentinian art and its establishment as a modernity vector in the country.

Born under the grim shadow of the pandemic, MALBA’s main exhibition, Terapia (it’s on display until August 16th) has been one of the expository events of the year in Buenos Aires, which given the world’s condition in general and Argentina particularly, it has not been able to be gauged in its fair measure or at least in correspondence with the immense effort it has implied. Main project from the management by the former Artistic Museum Director Gabriela Rangel, the exhibition was curated by her together with Veronica Rossi and Santiago Villanueva, and it relines symbolic importance because it’s centered on the influence of Argentinian art; a worthy theme of a biennial that is organized in a transversally satisfactory manner, dealing with a problematic and meaningful area which demands the most unprejudiced approach possible by nature; or at least without so many acquired debts and inherited visions. In addition to the fact that almost any topic is the subject of heated debate in Argentina, few of them are as exciting as the intricate universe of psychoanalysis.

Central as it has been in the construction of the Argentinian imaginary during the 20th century -Buenos Aires must be the city with the highest number of psychoanalysts per capita in the world-, less attention it has been paid, by scholars, historians, psychiatrists, psychologists, critics, and philosophers, to the multiple contagions between the discipline erected by Sigmund Freud and the local artistic field. Therefore, the exhibition, which opens a fertile panoply of interpretations -necessarily connected to surrealism- is a watershed that explores a familiar totem with the eyes of another look.
It was from this perspective that I talked with Gabriela Rangel, in a non-stop dialogue between New York and Buenos Aires.

Rafael Toriz (RT): Like everything in life, it’s impossible to think about Terapia exhibition outside the political and sanitary ups and downs and the reduction of traffic caused by the pandemic, however, the first thing I would like to ask you, given your trajectory and your stay in Buenos Aires, is about the place of Latin America as both text and scenario. Does this concept still make sense in the present? Is it relevant to talk about a link between the different cultural arenas of the subcontinent?

Gabriela Rangel (GR): I think Latin America only exists in the biennials, in the academy, and in the big cities. Latin America is not located in Latin America, which means, there is very little connection between countries and I just experienced it in Argentina, where it’s a scarce relationship with the rest of the region as if the country were in another continent. In fact, they talk about Argentina’s art and Latin American art in there, as if they were two separate things. I think the language somehow reveals the contradictions in the discourse. I also believe that the rest of the continent is disconnected too from each other, especially as a result of the pandemic when the sense of isolation has become more acute. First because of the quarantine, then for the waiting to get vaccinated and finally in terms of how to get out of the crisis since the pandemic also exposed the asymmetries between countries. In any case, even before the pandemic, I didn’t see much of a relationship except in biennials: it’s clear that Mercosur is weakened and the Pacific Alliance was in a kind of suspense. In that sense, I feel closer to Latin America in New York than in Latin America. As for terminology, geographic and geopolitical construction that originated in France in the 19th century, it doesn’t surprise me; however, if we know the term’s story, it undoubtedly continues to have a historical meaning with a certain regional impact. Anyway, tell me your perspective, what do you think? I ask you as a Mexican who lives in Buenos Aires, do you think that the city is integrated into the Latin American discourse?

(RT): No, I don’t think so, but as an eccentric exception, that is, from a deep alienation that is thought cosmopolitan or vaguely European due to the neighborhoods that in the local imaginary remind us of Paris, Barcelona, London or Madrid, the sensation of cosmopolitanism is more evident in popular areas like Once, where you can hear the Guaraní of the Paraguayans, where different Africans (especially Senegalese and Nigerians), Haitians, Vietnamese, Koreans and the permanent Latin American migration: Bolivians, Peruvians, Colombians and the not so recent wave of Venezuelans. It’s in certain popular areas where linguistic diversity is truly experienced. Of course, there is the typical cultural mix of Latin American societies, but these are conditions that don’t fully impact the local imaginary, which results in a paradigmatic enlightened provincialism. However, what you say about Latin America is bouncing off me everywhere, except in Latin America.
I think of art throughout fairs, before the pandemic there was a very important exchange in some places, MACO as an example with Mexico in the north and Sao Paulo in the south, undoubtedly the most important in the region; then there’s ARTBO, which is small but well done, as well as other fairs that have fought hard to survive. Without the fairs, there seems to be no regional dimension of Latin America in the field of arts. What is your opinion about ArteBA?

(GR): ArteBA is a fair that grew over the years but made the mistake of being Art Basel’s franchise and spent a lot of money on it. Now we don’t really know what’s going to happen with it, it entered into a very strong institutional crisis. I think it was the first institution in Argentina to be shaken by the pandemic besides its own identity crisis.

(RT): I asked you about Latin America because of your condition as an exiled Venezuelan, and when someone thinks about Latin American art in terms of the relationship between Argentina and Venezuela, it’s impossible not to refer to Marta Traba, the importance of Caracas, and the years of the petrodollars. Approaching the MALBA exhibition, Lacan’s visit to Venezuela in July 1980, a year before his death, appears. How do you deal with that condition, being an emigrant from a country that practically no longer exists?

(GR): Look, I went into self-exile and then I became a migrant in the United States; however, I have a partner who is an exile for political reasons and Venezuela is home for her; but not for me. Unfortunately, I lost the country which I come from, a country taken by forces and dynamics totally unknown to me, so it would be impossible for me to return, although anyone ever knows what can happen, everything could change as in Mallarmé’s poem A Throw of the Dice. But going back to the Latin American topic, there was a very strong discourse expressed from the Ayacucho Library, led by the critic Angel Rama together with other Venezuelan intellectuals, as well as Monte Avila Editores, which was born together with very important cultural institutions: it’s impossible not to think about the museums that existed in Caracas, it was a system similar to the Mexican one, which had a very big impact in the region until the advent of Chavism; the military has never been interested in culture and when they are interested it’s only in an instrumental way.

Moreover, Marta Traba has been fundamental for me, she was the only person who, upon arriving in a cosmopolitan, very rich and profligate Venezuela, mounted a structural critique of the model that was going to fall (she saw it clearly), and I believe that her writings have an impressive dimension nowadays. She was sort of an unmentionable character because she criticized the canon that was being built, name it constructivist, abstract art, kinetic art or whatever you like, but it was the national canon that accompanied the rapid urbanization project, which was not an organic modernization but rather a Petro-modernity dependent on the philanthropic oil state.

(GT): What was the main obstacle and the main stimulus you faced with the project Terapia?
(GR): The first thing to say is that it isn’t something I improvised, but something I wanted to do as part of a tripartite approach that somehow thought of Argentina in current terms. The first of them is the idea of Latin America, what the name of the museum means in relation to the collection they have in the present; we are not talking about 2001 when the institution was created, but what it means today. On the other hand, I wanted to think of something that would allow me to go out of art history to reach the history of ideas, to fix a matrix, and understand Argentina’s art. The third thing has to do with certain repression I see in the way that art is approached in Argentina, especially when you want to talk about a historical document: surrealism is erased, and only the literary field appears, but in the field of visual arts it’s denied. I was interested in those three issues.

(RT): Do you have any hypothesis regarding this oblivion, this denial, considering the preponderance of the permanent power of the text in a culture like this one?

(GR): I believe that in the literary field surrealism did advance and continued to exist, but not in the field of visual arts because at a given moment, in the forties, artists who at that time were putting together an avant-garde discourse, among them Tomás Maldonado, decided to break away from surrealism and embrace a sort of materialism linked to a certain post-war, European rationality. Surrealism didn’t fit into that scheme and I think that was the predominant approach to the national artistic canon, until the sixties, in the Di Tella, the canon was broken up, but it was broken up internationally, not only in the Di Tella, that had already happened in the main cities of the planet: England, France, New York, and Mexico as well. In other words, a series of dissident and countercultural movements were taking place and somehow eroded that canon, therefore it had to be expanded in direction of other places that were not comfortable at all. Today, I think we still live from the echoes of that revolutionary moment in art, from the sixties and seventies, but until then a kind of rationality had prevailed that made surrealism in Argentina not part of the debate, and certain artists were marginalized, but they continued to have a network, which remained alive, it existed and keeps existing, we get a lot of works from it.

(RT): It’s something perceptible in Terapia. More than an exhibition, it looks like a biennial, especially because of the quantity, quality, and density of the works, as well as the axes that it proposes, between unpublished and transversal, at least in most of the exhibition.

(GR): This exhibition wouldn’t have been possible without the collection of psychiatrist, collector, and art critic Mauricio Neuman (1924-2020), who sadly passed away due to coronavirus. Neuman had an art collection with more than 3,000 works, larger than the MALBA’s one, which accounts for unique, essential moments in 20th century Argentina’s art. It’s hard for a single person to have such a clear view as the doctor, who published books, was a member of the Argentinian Association of Art Critics, and exhibited part of his collection several years ago. We had access to his database; I was absolutely impressed by the universe he had built. I am not saying that it’s more or less interesting than any of the variations of international surrealism, which as we know had stellar moments in Mexico and the Caribbean, but I think that the type of Angertinian surrealism is closely linked to the cenacles of a couple of artists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts that somehow explain the importance of psychoanalysis in the country. Both psychoanalysis and surrealism, are linked because they are inquiries about the unconscious and subjectivity. It’s for a good reason that important figures such as Alejandra Pizarnik or Olga Orozco were surrealists, and Cortázar himself. If we do a survey of the sources from which they drew—César Aira himself, for instance—they bear witness to the network I was talking about. This is a hypothesis we elaborate through the exhibition, not before it.

(RT): There is something deeply surreal about Buenos Aires being the present and past capital of psychoanalysis; from my perspective, looking at this exhibition is to dive headfirst down the rabbit hole of Alice in Nightmareland.
(GR): The intention was to take the Museum to a dislocation of the linear narrative at a time when any kind of linear narrative was dislocated because of the pandemic, generating a great crisis from which we have not yet emerged, especially because there is no clear vision of the future. That’s why I felt it was necessary to conceive the Museum as a place where the crisis materializes. This is why the exhibition is the way it is: it demands that the white cube be broken down so that there is an immersion in the expository multidimensionality, that is, you enter but you cannot leave in the same way, we are not in the same historical moment as when this crisis began. We have all changed and the Museum has changed too; it has scars and breakages… or cracks, as they say over there.
(RT): Did you suffer or love this exhibition?

(GR): The first challenge was putting together a discourse when all the collections and research centers were closed. Fortunately, we had Dr. Neuman’s archive, which allowed us to make requests to Espigas Foundation, Larivierere Foundation, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and some other individuals with the network I already mentioned, where one artist led to another, and that one to another. Thus, little by little, like a tuber, we went from a painting by Enrique Molina to a portrait by Aída Carballo. What is most surprising is the number of variables, the number of works. Neuman was fascinated because no one had ever asked him to borrow certain materials.

(RT): On a personal level, after your rather brief but substantive stay in Argentina, I would like to know with what taste in your mouth you are left with regard to the cultural field of Buenos Aires. Do you think there are favorable conditions for other exhibitions similar to Terapia, that is, in terms of certain rescues or transversal readings that allow an exploration of the complexity of the self-representations of their mythologies?

(GR): Both Veronica Rossi and Santiago Villanueva, from MALBA, are two curators who can make those transversal readings, because of their ability but above all because of the impulse to go beyond what you call “local myths”. However, I think Argentina’s problem is that it’s a very literary country, and everything literary permeates reality, as it happens with psychoanalysis, something that is noticeable in the use of language. When someone speaks is questioned by an interlocutor who uses all the psychoanalytical jargon and methodology that is proper to him, so dialoguing in that framework is an exhausting experience. On the other hand, it’s a literary country and has a literary cult, so everybody reads novels, fiction, and poetry. This means that any museum device has these filters, so everything is very similar, at least in the way in which people treat the exhibitions. As an example, the Museum of Modern Art has developed its own model; a language that is looking for a certain harmony with the international one; the Sívori in turn also has interesting approaches, but they are almost always of a single artist, another detail to consider: in Buenos Aires, they like exhibitions of a single artist. Otherwise, and in general, other spaces operate in a very similar way.

(RT): It’s curious you mention it, I have had the perception that the literary essay is so closely related to curatorship here, more than anywhere else, in a scheme that we could reduce, in a merely illustrative way, like themes, artists, and treatments: curatorship as an exercise in prose.
(GR): Yes, I believe in that sense it’s necessary to conceive the exhibition space as a dynamic place, that is, as a space that interpellates with the theme, something that must be modeled according to the specific needs of each exhibition exercise.

(RT): I’d like to ask you about the place of criticism, given that, as we know, these are mendacious times for art and literary criticism and for criticism in general. You said this is a deeply psychoanalytic and literary place, and yet it tends to import quite uncritically fashions, gestures, and perspectives emanating from a colonial ethos, with decades out of phase but in a very passionate way. So, I ask you, do you attribute to a place like Buenos Aires, where text and language have an evident preponderance and an undeniable centrality, there is rather an uncritical importation of certain schemes and models?

(GR): I think it’s more about a change of paradigm, criticism ceased to exist a long time ago; there are still scratches from certain journalism and Argentina is a country where journalism is still important, with a strong influence on public life, which has caught my attention. It’s there where some interesting sparks can be glimpsed.
(RT): Are you optimistic about the future of curatorship in Latin America?
(GR): I can’t generalize because there is a great disparity with respect to what’s discussed here, Uruguay, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, and Argentina each have their own particular reality. I think the countries that have more advanced museum models are those that have a stronger market, accompanying philanthropy, or also the decisive presence of the state.

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