BY James Scarborough in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

If 'Amnesia', a two-venue show curated by Christopher Grimes for his gallery and for Track 16, has its way, the 20th century, which began with a collective loss of memory called Modernism, will end with a collective effort to retrieve it.

Overall, the atmosphere in this survey of specially commissioned contemporary art from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela is sombre, indeed stoic. This is not the stuff of Frida Kahlo or Rufino Tamayo. It seems the work vaguely acknowledges the sentient world, perhaps draws influence from it to some extent; and yet, wants nothing to do with it. The ephemeral quality of human existence pervades both exhibition spaces. This characteristic is best expressed in three pieces from Jose Gabriel Fernandez's project, A Brief Illustrated Guide to (1997). Each small work conceptually alludes to a formal aspect of the various stages of the struggle between bull and toreador. But in place of the high drama of the fight, the red cape, the flowing blood, the charging vector of bull-flesh-and-bone, the artist has substituted a formal pattern. This constitutes neither a commentary on animal cruelty nor on the matador's prowess. No, these three modest pieces are imbued with, and consequently illuminated by, what Garcia Lorca has described as the black-and-white geometry of the bullfight, timeless as Platonic forms.

In terms of its overriding curatorial premise, however, the exhibition remains a little suspect. Firstly, Grimes conceived it as a survey - a non-exhaustive, subjective experience as conveyed by the gallerist's travels to Latin America. Nothing unusual there. As a simple survey, the show would have been lauded. Unfortunately, things get a bit confused when the idea of amnesia comes into play. Immediately, the exhibition morphs from a simple show of solid, challenging and unfamiliar work into a body of work articulated by the idea of lost memory, which in turn leads to the broaching of dominance, hegemony, the other, the marginal. It cannot be otherwise.

This sort of thematic show would have been better served by a selection that was less subjective and more, if not encyclopaedic, then at least broad-based. The moment Grimes penned the three words 'perspectives historically denied', in his catalogue essay, he entered dangerous territory by making reference to an almost nostalgic sense of victimisation - the recovering of what had been scourged by the colonial rule of the French and later the Anglo-Americans. This position is difficult to justify with a show that was not more consciously objective nor more conspicuously scholarly. I agree with Grimes that the work is not overtly political. Instead, it refers to a sense of 'politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanely measured care for our fellow humans', to use the words of Vaclav Havel. But this allusion, formulated in the texts and, to a lesser extent, in the fact that the artists seem to have bought into it wholesale, unfortunately labels the exhibition as respondent of a culture of complaint. Thus, these discussions reframe a wondrous body of work that would have better stood alone, each a separate continent, without obfuscating commentary. As it stands, the work does not so much fire like the synapses of a collective memory - which, presumably a series of works striving to deal with amnesia and remembrance would do. Nor does it come to terms with memory in any manner, a curatorial/artistic strategy that would have put a nice spin on the show as an organic whole. Rather, the work troops about randomly without reference to a central nervous system, able only to bray, for it is too busy redressing and addressing instead of simply being.