As I sit down to write, I’m still not clear whether I should be talking about Fernando Bryce or Walter Benjamin. Nor am I sure whether I should analyse the aesthetic experience of Bryce’s work or contextualize this first one-man show by a Peruvian artist based in Berlin within the current political debate in Spain. Perhaps this is because Bryce’s exhibition seems to echo Benjamin’s insightful assertion that ‘copies are memories’. Since the mid-1990s the artist has been using a systematic method that he terms ‘mimetic analysis’, which consists of keeping an archive of copies of texts and images taken from newspapers, magazines, leaflets and national propaganda or official documents exhumed from the depths of history. He then reproduces these sources by hand as ink drawings and presents them in series.
As his motto for this exhibition Bryce adopted Benjamin’s remark that ‘an object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the object’s rescue. History decomposes into images, not into narratives.’ Bryce’s series ‘Walter Benjamin’ (2002) and ‘Trotsky’ (2003) are personal tributes to two intellectuals dogged by tragedy and, in passing, serve as statements of the artist’s principles; namely, to update historical materialism and revolutionary consciousness.
Nevertheless, there is a self-awareness in the discursive use of these ideological references as a theoretical armature. Many of Bryce’s drawings include texts and quotations, which introduce the allegorical aspect of the work of art, in which the image is read as a text and the text as an image. This leads to an initial fertile contradiction between the chosen theme (history) and the mimetic technique employed, and his approach could be misread as a Postmodern gesture of art as illustrated theory. But far from pointing pessimistically to the end of history, Bryce urges us to look at the past with a political eye. Whereas one of the trends in critical theory in the 1980s was the rewriting of texts chosen from the past in terms of their own aesthetic, and in particular a Postmodern concept of language, nowadays artistic practices seem more concerned with a critical revision of the Modern era. It seems we are situated in the middle of an archaeology of the past, in which the archive format has become a new device to fetishize the document. In Bryce’s case the dialectic between the copy and the original functions as the temporary liberation of these fetishized documents.
Nevertheless, it is not entirely true to say, as the introductory text of the catalogue remarks, that the artist employs this method of transcription to rescue forgotten documents and images or to expose official discourses. This is an old cliché employed by those who aspire to writing an alternative history – one silenced by the powers that be, and which clashes with the dominant history. But what is true history? Might not writing counter-history be just an equally problematic way of historicizing? What is evident is that historicizing the past entails a set of methodological paradoxes: any document from the past, however trivial or uninteresting it may seem, is presented to us, the inhabitants of the present, as possessing hidden meaning. Any vestige of the past can, therefore, be reframed and ideologized. This is the advantage of talking about the past from the perspective of the present.
Nowadays we in Spain, and those elsewhere in Europe, are witnessing the revival of historical memory as ammunition used by both the left and the right in the political debate. The reproducibility of archives (for example, in the case of documents of victims of war) is still a source of conflict between political parties. Bryce’s ‘Spanish War’ series (2003), or ‘Revolución’ (2004), referring to the Cuban Revolution, are just two examples of an ‘anti-aphrodisiacal’ and unromanticized use of the past. With his art he seems to want to re-introduce history into the present as a revolutionary tool.