BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Art from Argentina 1920-1994

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

This exhibition is a journey through time but apparently not through space; the works on display all have a highly European feel to them. Indeed, the general absence of what we Europeans imagine to be 'Latin' qualities is the subtext to the show. There is no trace of the kind of South American Folk Art or Provincialism that we have been primed to expect by exhibitions such as the Museum of Mankind's garish 'Day of the Dead' in 1992. Nor is there much to be found that bears any similarity to the well known Mexican muralists, although one of the artists in the exhibition - Antonio Berni - worked closely with Alfaro Siqueiros. Instead, we have what Europeans call International art and everyone else calls European art. The simple reason for this is that Buenos Aires was a prime destination for European immigrants at the end of last century. As a result - the exhibition catalogue tells us - the works are tinged with rootlessness, the products of a homeless culture. However, this is only clearly visible in the work of three artists: Xul Solar, Antonio Berni and Guillermo Kuitca.

Through the use of an invented language, Solar battles with the idea of a transplanted culture grafted onto South America. The late pictograms, or grafias, are written in 'Neocriollo': his attempt to create a specifically Argentine language buttressed against the distortions of European tongues. As a child of immigrant parents - South American by birth; European by blood - he felt what it meant to be Argentinean had changed for his generation. This sense of disconnection from history is seen also in the paintings of Berni, most explicitly in Eiffel Tower of the Pampas (1930). His style, close to that of de Chirico, breeds a sense of disjointedness and suggests a fracture in the flow of history; the rough paint application stressing the uselessness of European culture out on the great plains. Another overt display of the intercontinental twining of history is found in Kuitca's paintings of European maps on old mattresses. With his genealogy spread across Europe, it is as if he could retrace his ancestors' steps like a sleepwalker.

Luis Benedit's The Voyage of the Beagle (1994), in the Oxford University Museum, maps Darwin's journey to South America. Benedit offers us a display of items in an attempt to draw a conclusion on the way Europeans viewed native South Americans. But the work is neither as rigidly defined as a pedagogic museum display, nor have its complexities been distilled into a coherent expression of intent. He succumbs to what Primo Levi calls, 'a typical vice of our uncertain century' in believing that the frightening complexity of the world is best acknowledged by impenetrably complex work. Which is a shame, because the tip of an iceberg is only the tip and, unless you are in possession of specialist diving gear, the bulk of the artist's intentions go unnoticed. However, there is a direct poeticism in his juxtaposition of a yellow carapaced beetle against the beached hull of the Beagle.

The least engaging exhibits are the works of 'New Figuration' produced during the political turmoil of the 70s. Although spawned by a specifically Argentinean situation, it is not the unfamiliar context which causes these works to fail. The artists have reacted with anger to their political situation but, in doing so, they have exerted their bodies rather than their brains. The mindless splashing of paint is hopelessly inadequate as a statement of dissent. Such untempered physical passion would better be given vent through direct action on the streets. It is the video of the four artists in 'action' which truly debases their work, making it clear that style and image are far more important than political conviction. We see the artists in a communal studio, preparing themselves with a round of revolutionary cigars. When the work begins, paint is hurled at the canvas with mannered aggression as if, through such rhetorical heroics, the spurts of paint have poured from the depths of the artist's soul. In fact, they give the impression of having come from the artist's crotch. This macho bravura fails to enliven the paintings, and while the inability to produce during times of oppression may be a valid statement, the nature of the images deployed confirms that the reverse was intended - the painters employ the theatrics of fullness, but there is no content.

In contrast, the next stop on our whirlwind tour shows how politically potent an intelligent sense of humour and lightness of touch can be. Monica Giron's Trousseau for a Conqueror (1993) consists of life-size bird outfits made to fit the indigenous birds of Patagonia. Knitted from Merino wool - the settlers' main product - the costumes both immobilise and define the wearers, who now represent the country's wildlife and landscape in the coloniser's terms: as a catalogue of new products for Europeans. The First World sees Patagonia as amusing but pathetic: as innocent and dependent as a child, it is no longer a country but an exotic painted cog in the expanding European machine. The wedding implied by the title is not a marriage to the culture, but a union with a land that is in the clutches of a massive sheep breeding programme. Hanging lifelessly, the costumes mimic exhibits at the Museum of Patagonia, which charts the invasion and subsuming of the country through colonialist eyes. Giron tells how official history is 'exhibited in hierarchical order: Argentine military apparel and depictions of battles; embalmed local animals and birds; fragments of rocks and trees and earth samples; and remains of the dismantled and exterminated native cultures...'

The problem with an attempted survey of 74 years worth of art, including 94 works by 27 artists, in only five rooms is that most of it is fairly unintelligible when taken out of context. Only a few works represent each artist and this is especially troublesome for those such as Grippo and Benedit who are defined by curiously bad examples from otherwise interesting oeuvres. There are many ways in which this exhibition could have been put together, all of which - unless shown in a much larger space - would have been a compromise. With the work exhibited, MoMA is able to give us merely a brisk overview and it is only in the catalogue that the potential of this ambitious project is fully realised.