Presenting ‘Committed Explanations in Geography’ in an educational facility suits Pablo Helguera well, since his work is as informed by the methodologies of literature, music, science and ethnography as it is by art; at times he even incorporates aspects of his day job. Having served in the education departments of major museums over many years, Helguera has maintained an ongoing fascination with these disciplines and has presented them in equally diverse ways, from orchestral pieces and scripted symposia, to fictionalized artists and museums, and invented educational and research institutions.
Curator Sara Reisman did well to focus on pieces made between 2002 and 2009. Streamlining Helguera’s prolific output – which includes performance, collage, sound, print, audio, video, publications and text-based works – allowed for the intimacy necessary to garner the full impact of the artist’s pedagogical impulse. For example, in Conservatory of Dead Languages (2004–present) Helguera uses the oldest recording technology available (Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph) to build an archive of near-extinct languages. Placed inside four vitrines, the cylinders mimic minimalist forms through their simplicity and repetitive display. Using an antiquated technology to disguise their unique content allows Helguera to undermine the archival status of the capsules, thus emphasizing the contradictions of how history and its documentation will always be subject to endless interpretation.
Helguera interweaves location, geography, and history through an intentionally disjointed approach that effectually articulates the politics of place and resonates in works like Past and Future (2007) and Land Tender The (2009), which bookend the show. The former, a black and white vinyl wall text, appears like an open book that declares, when read phonetically: ‘The past is a foreign country’ and ‘The future is not what it used to be.’ The latter, an audio work, combines writer James Agee’s study of three rural American sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) with composer Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land (1954) – both read and played backwards.
Fortunately, Helguera also knows when to let his subjects speak for themselves. His videos, for example, which fluctuate between 12 and 25 minute loops, include Marie Smith Jones (2008), the last remaining (and now deceased) Alaskan Native speaker of Eyak; the descendants of 19th-century Italian migrants living near Puebla, Mexico who still speak their native Venetian dialect in Chipilo (2008); and various accounts of the first American Shaker community based just outside of Albany, New York, in Watervliet (2007). Operating less as documentaries than time-based portraits, these videos effectively register Helguera’s interest in the threatened (and actual) disappearance of an identifiable subject, primarily through the loss of language but also in the demise of social, religious and communal places and practices.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the caption in one of Helguera’s collages in the series ‘Suite Panamericana’ (2007) asks, ‘When would have been a good time to have arrived?’. The answer? ‘1928 – now that was a good year!’. Experiencing Helguera’s work in the here and now, ‘Committed Explanations in Geography’ gets high marks for reiterating how art today is only one amongst many ‘second languages’ bearing witness to the effects of the past and present on an uncertain future.