Issue 12: Independences

Jesús Torrivilla

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25.06.2018

Bailar entre las sombras: la imaginación política de las prácticas conceptuales en Venezuela

Curator Jesús Torrivilla makes a genealogy of those conceptualist works that during the sixties and seventies in Venezuela were belittled by the modern canons, works that allow us to understand the current contemporary practices of the Venezuelan diaspora.

To Dance among the Shadows: The Political Imagination of Conceptual Practices in Venezuela

In 1969, Gertrud Goldschmidt installed Reticulárea in the Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas. The piece consisted of a series of interwoven mesh, nets, and metal wires, rigidly extended like a drawing that has freed itself from the page and taken over the room. Gego, as Goldschmidt is commonly referred to, was German by birth and educated as an architect. By 1969, she had already completed public commissions for the thriving democratic Venezuelan state: sculptures in banks, murals in office buildings, pieces that passers-by came across. But with Reticulárea, Gego attempted to challenge this monumentality: the piece unfolds as a discontinuous and fragile area. [1] Against the historical narrative of progress, she counterposed the movement of bodies between nets, where the metaphor dissolves between lines that at one moment appear to be waterfalls, at another, a living organism, or a structure on the verge of collapse.

At the time, Venezuela was the exception in a region ravaged by dictatorships. The modernizing project driven by petroleum was at its peak, and the spectacular, optimistic rhetoric of the State was embodied in a large project supported by constructivist artists. They gave shape to the institutional monumentality that allowed the government to change the face of the country, developing a practice of universal aspirations that denied the story of synthesis in favor of the spiritual experience of formal composition the perfect image of a promising future. Today, reality has denied those aspirational visions and has returned us to the question of how we can connect the unstable stories of catastrophe through images of subtraction. Based on a reading of classical antiquity, Pascal Quignard asserts that art is responsible for invoking the images we lack: it does not illustrate a moment of action, the narrative knot, but rather the moment when one looks down into the abyss before the jump. [2] At these temporal crossroads, it would be worth considering the fragments of history that conceptual practices connect in Venezuela, and how that earlier era’s optimism is connected to the fatality of the present. To this end, I will discuss the first moment when these new sensibilities emerged before moving on to two later twentieth-century works that illustrate the political imagination that emerged from these conceptual practices.

This is a politics of negation of those who consciously resort to obstacle and distance. In August 1969, in the Plaza de los Museos de Caracas, in front of the Museo de Bellas Artes where Gego had installed Reticulárea just two months before, Antonieta Sosa held her performance Destrucción de la plataforma II in repudiation of Venezuela’s participation in the São Paulo Biennial, which she saw as a sign of support for Brazil’s military dictatorship. There she destroyed a work from her solo show Siete objetos blancos, in which she presented participatory structures like a sled or a ladder corralled closely against the wall. This action got the attention of the media and the public, and, after intense controversy, the Venezuelan artists withdrew from the Biennial, although not without discord. [3]

In a gesture of parodic continuity, in 1971 a 21-year-old artist decided to set up a constructivist barrier: Eugenio Espinoza presented Impenetrable at the Ateneo de Caracas, throwing a canvas with a grid drawn on it on the ground, positioned to impede visitors’ access to the gallery. If Antonieta Sosa chose demolition, Espinoza preferred distance amid the novelty of participation installations, developing an oblique strategy as a critical tribute. Espinoza was influenced by Julio Le Parc, Jesús Soto, and, more importantly, Gego, who helped to train his generation of artists at the Instituto de Diseño Neumann. In Impenetrable, the participatory pact with the public is annulled as a means of calling attention to the supposed universality of geometry, and to the body as its nullification: the work, in the artist’s words, could only be “penetrated with thought.” [5]

The disputed history of conceptual practices in Latin American has a long chapter in Venezuela. In the effort to move away from North American and European genealogies, and between the influence of Arte Povera in Italy, Euro-American minimalism, and leftist groups in the Southern Cone (well explained by Luis Camnitzer [6]), the sixties in Venezuela were a time when the tradition of formal constructivism changed in response to—returning to Quignard—a new awareness of scarcity; in this situation, the geometric tradition was born from a wound and strengthened by local contradictions, just as it was in Brazil by artists like Lygia Clark or Helio Oiticica.

A good deal of Venezuelan art history has focused on inscribing constructivist artists into the modern canon, a goal, which, according to the curator Luis Pérez-Oramas, has lead conceptual practices to suffer “…until today [from] the hidden weight of the powerful thinking of constructivist masters on their critical fortune.” [7] But this moment of contention is advantageous for traversing the margins, not with delusions of reconciliation, but from a place of tension, of vanishing points that make new practices possible beyond the influence of a form of thinking that needs to call itself “powerful.” Antonieta Sosa and Gego [8] are two examples of artists who are often underestimated by the canon, although it is slowly opening up to more complex constellations, which, in their cases, are enriched by a pedagogical practice that marked generations. This is the same situation as that of figure Claudio Perna, who brought together a group of conceptual artists to experiment, party, and discuss art in his Caracas home, Palma Sola 17, throughout the seventies. It is in these exchanges that one observes the symptoms of a fracture between knowledge and chaos, between rationality and pleasure. The idea of a traditional community practice, in the way of ideological groups with their militant flags and teleological understanding of history, dissolves into the party. It becomes a teaching that does not demand affiliation, but that rather develops shared influences that hold onto the potentiality of the image. It is, following Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, a politics of the image that proposes a “cohabitation around the shadow,” [9] rather than an unveiling: a politics of subtraction in which the artist can be freed from the cliché in favor of a problematic relationship with the truth.

A series of works made in the nineties brings together the influence of Gego’s Reticulárea, Eugenio Espinoza’s gridded fabrics, the intellectual exchange in Claudio Perna’s home, and the violence of concrete monumentality, and unfolds with the eloquence of shadows.

After more than ten years spent studying roses, Roberto Obregón, makes his first piece entitled Niágaras, whose title comes from the 1954 movie starring Marilyn Monroe. The Niágaras are a series of wallbased installations, each about two meters high and composed of two levels: the top levels have rose petals made of rubber, while the lower levels feature personal autobiography, featuring the silhouettes of important men and women in Obregón’s life, such as his mother, Marcel Duchamp, Alejandro Otero, Jorge Luis Borges, or the artist himself.

In addition to these elements there are alchemical symbols and other symbols derived from the Tarot and the I Ching. As a student of Gego, Obregón was accustomed to carrying out rose dissections in Apollian compositions, and his Niágaras are similarly partially distributed structures, with petals and characters enclosed in grids of yarn.

Writing about personal references encrypted with symbolic mechanisms, the historian Ariel Jiménez asks himself how a piece like the Niágaras series stages not just “conflicts between North and South,” but the ideas of history, progress, and violence. [10] The Niágaras series proposes a classificatory delirium in which the rational grid is the instrument of its own hallucination, where dissimilar, pagan, and silhouetted references are mixed with the shadows of flower petals and figures whose identities dissolve in their tracks. The use of the silhouette evokes the earliest paintings in history, which Quignard describes in Sur l’image qui manque à nos jours. The figures, in profile, appear to be portrayed in a light that returns their opposites. Niágaras are works that can be disassembled and in which serialization offers a critique of narrative modes and thinking in conceptual practices in a country where both have been “obscured” by other shadows.

These portable murals take a risk in summoning missing as well as surviving images, mixing references, opaque archives, and gestures that Didi-Huberman would describe as “imagination and installation.” [11] In the conceptual practices that emerged in Venezuela in the late sixties and early seventies lies the potentiality of a visual trace which connects that epoch to other eras and which is echoed in Venezuela’s current situation, that of a country experiencing one of the greatest migratory waves in the continent—a country in flight. [12] I am not proposing a rupture or a fracture, rather the tangential idea that, after modern aspirations, conceptual practices touch on the real; they are seduced by delirium and develop their own critical legibility.

In this same direction, Javier Téllez’s 1996 installation La extracción de la piedra de la locura was prophetic. For this installation, he converted the Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas into a psychiatric hospital. At the opening for the show, Téllez asked the public to break open several piñatas in the shape of pharmaceutical medicines that had been made by people with mental illnesses. The ideas of categorization, protection, and classification that are central to museums are here made delirious amidst beds set up to emulate a psychiatric ward. The artist shares authorship of the work, the execution of which does not emerge from the shadows of reason and in which the public’s participation is limited to the destruction of the work. In the exhibition catalogue, Téllez claims that “the rest is the end of a party.” [13] This Dionysian ending is again a subtractive effort in which, beyond truth, the symptom is revealed and the museum becomes the place of shamelessness, a political relation in which flags are raised not to announce a defeat or victory, but because we have made the decision to dance on the ruins.

From the politics of the shadows, conceptual practices in Venezuela slowly began to develop a tradition increasingly recognized by critics. The awareness of scarcity staged by artists since the late sixties offered a glimpse into a prophetic abyss, the abyss in which the country now finds itself. Contemporaneity in Venezuela could develop only, perhaps, from these lessons. A scene at odds with institutionality [14], which during the last two decades has been developed through independent networks and the great effort of artists to increase their visibility, comes together and survives—like its images—from a place of scarcity. This genealogy of work reveals the pattern of a contemporaneity that turns to installation and imagination to create an interpretation of its practices, bypassing institutions, diasporas, canons, and allowing itself to be unstable, writing a story rooted in absence to fit into the history of a country that tried to be modern and at the same time decided to face its failures.

 

[1] Mónica Amor, “Another Geometry: Gego’s Reticulárea, 1969-1982”. October 113, 2005, 101-125.

[2] Pascual Quignard, La imagen que nos falta (Mexico: Ediciones VE, 2014).

[3] To hear the story from the author’s perspective (in Spanish), see the interview “Antonieta Sosa por Franklin Hernández,” 2014. http://www. coleccioncisneros.org/es/editorial/in-their-words/antonieta-sosa-porfranklin-fern%C3%A1ndez

[4] There is a historiographical agreement among writers like Mónica Amor, Luis Pérez-Oramas, and Jesús Fuenmayor that a critical peak of the modern/constructivist scene in Venezuela was reached in the late 60s: Jesús Soto’s Penetrable, Cruz-Diez’s Cromosaturaciones, and the monumental work of Alejandro Otero are a few examples of work from this era. From then on in Venezuela, conceptual practices emerged in critical dialogue with constructivist art, with one of the first landmarks being Espinoza’s Impenetrable, which was made in direct response to Soto’s piece.

[5] From a personal interview between the author and Eugenio Espinoza

[6] Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (University of Texas Press, 2007).

[7] Luis Pérez-Oramas, “Caracas: escena constructiva” in The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection (Austin: The University of Texas at Austin, 2007), 268.

[8] Gego is receiving increasing recognition for her role as a bridge between the constructivist masters and conceptual practices.

[9] Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, “Las sombras errantes. La substracción infrapolítica y ‘la imagen total’” in Tecnologías de la imaginación 2: Imagen vigilante/Imagen vigilada (Mexico City: Laboratorio de Arte Alameda, August 12-13, 2016).

[10] Reference from Ariel Jiménez’s unpublished analysis of Niágaras

[11] George Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes tocan lo real (Madrid: Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2013), 29.

[12] According to statistics compiled by the International Organization for Migrations, more than a million people have legally emigrated from Venezuela, a country with just under 30 million residents, in just the past two years.

[13] Javier Téllez, “Un hospital dentro del museo” in La extracción de la piedra de la locura: una instalación de Javier Téllez (Caracas: Museo de Bellas Artes, 1996), 40-44.

[14] With the creation of the Fundación de Museos Nacionales in 2005 under the government of Hugo Chávez, museums were stripped of their research profiles and merged into one large collectivity with further acquisitions put on hold. These measures, even today, have led to a deep historiographic vacuum for Venezuela’s contemporary art scene. To better understand the institutional politics of art during the early years of chavismo, see María Elena Ramos, La cultura bajo acoso (Caracas: Artesano Editores, 2012).

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