BY Magalí Arriola in Interviews | 14 AUG 17
Featured in
Issue 189

Pacific Standard Time: South-South

Magalí Arriola discusses Latin American identity and art history with curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, Julieta González and José Luis Blondet 

BY Magalí Arriola in Interviews | 14 AUG 17

Magalí Arriola: I am interested in discussing the relevance of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA at a moment in which identity politics have returned. Not from the multi-cultural perspective constructed in the North during the 1980s, but from a Southern, self-reliant, cross-border viewpoint. Many of the exhibitions in this iteration of PST revisit subjects such as territory and landscape, how the body in performance carries political messages, and how modernity perpetuates the colonial condition. Most importantly, they also reflect on how Latin American art history has been written in the last century. What will be the impact of an initiative like PST on the way Latinx and Latin American art is perceived, not only in the US but also in its own context? Is it possible to overcome the North-South geographical divide? 

Julieta González: Despite the ties that unite Southern California to Mexico and many countries in Central America, and the important Latinx communities in this part of the US, the art produced in Latin America has not had a significant presence on the West Coast compared to New York. There are, of course, exceptions: David Lamelas lived and worked in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and the Nicaraguan artist Rolando Castellón worked at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA] during the same decade, where he co-organized the landmark exhibition ‘Space/Time/Sound’ in 1979. Over the past decade, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles [MOCA] and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] have been working with and collecting artists from Latin America. In fact, MOCA’s ‘The Experimental Exercise of Freedom’, the first comprehensive exhibition in the US that mapped relations between artists such as Lygia Clark, Gego, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel, took place in Los Angeles in 1999–2000 [curated by Alma Ruiz and Rina Carvajal]. It anticipated exhibitions in New York such as ‘Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-Cinemas’ [curated by Carlos Basualdo, New Museum, New York, 2001], ‘Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture’ [Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 2006, also curated by Basualdo] and ‘Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel’ [curated by Luis Pérez-Oramas, MoMA, New York, 2009], among others. That said, PST will certainly produce exhibitions on Latin American art of an unprecedented scale in the West Coast or elsewhere in the US.

To answer your second question, and considering the current US government’s foreign policy towards its American neighbours, the cultural discussion in Latin America is shifting to a South-South relationship instead of trying to overcome a North-South divide. For instance, in Brazil, artists, curators and institutions are looking towards Africa, or even the Middle East. Mexico, for many years, has strengthened relations with the South, with institutions in Mexico City such as MUAC-UNAM giving an important place to artists and movements from Argentina. The Peruvian critic Juan Acha has been at the centre of two recent exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Moderno and MUAC, again both in Mexico City. The regional salones of Medellín and Cali in Colombia have been actively creating networks of Latin American artists for the past decade. In a way, ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ addresses the early moments of this shift; in the context of Third World movements, tricontinental cinema and centre-periphery discussions in the field of political economy.

Liliana Porter, Untitled (Self-Portrait with Square), 1973, gelatin silver print from original negative, 41 × 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles 

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill: There are two issues here. On the one hand, in response to the 1992 celebrations of 500 years since the so-called ‘discovery of America’, new perspectives on Latin American art were established, which were no longer restricted by stereotypes of multiculturalism. Important exhibitions by Latin American curators, such as Ivo Mesquita’s ‘Cartographies’ [Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada, 1993] and ‘Cambio de foco’ [Change of Focus, Biblioteca Luis-Ángel Arango, 1992], curated by Gerardo Mosquera, Carolina Ponce de León and Rachel Weiss, brought to the US public perspectives that were both critical and unselfconscious. Since then, the Latin American art field has grown enormously and is mostly free of stereotypical identity politics. On the other hand, beyond the art system there is a widespread tendency to see Latin America and the Latinx population through racist lenses. PST, through its sheer size, will make it impossible for the general public to ignore its breadth, depth and historical relevance. I believe it will reach out beyond the art world, dispelling the tendency in the US to think of Latin American and Latinx culture and people as marginal.

I don’t think it is possible to accept the North- South divide as the status quo. In the US, 17.6 percent of the population is Hispanic. Yet, if you are a Latinx artist, even when you are an ‘American’ citizen, you exist in an exclusionary void. The art system pretty much replicates the exclusionary and racist power structures of the government, and there is a lack of dialogue in the academic and curatorial arenas between Latinx and Latin American art. For instance, ‘Radical Women’, which I’ve co-curated with Andrea Giunta, brings together Chicana, Latina and Latin American women artists who have made visible the negative circumstances of oppression and exclusion through their conceptual and experimental investigations.

José Luis Blondet: In the long term, PST has the potential to serve as an opportunity for local institutions to step up and fortify their lines of research in the field, and also to invest in enhancing their collections in a more systematic and structured way. To the exhibition history of Latin American art in the US sketched by Julieta and Cecilia, I’d like to add ‘ASCO: Elite of the Obscure’, the first retrospective of the Chicano collective, held at LACMA in 2011 during the first iteration of PST: ‘Art in L A 1945–1980’.

MA: ‘A Universal History of Infamy’ takes its title from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1935 collection of short fictions. Borges’s stories depart from historical facts and characters but deliberately subvert any idea of a universal condition or narrative. Is this a way to resist cultural stereotypes?

Isabel Castro, from the series ‘Women under Fire’, 1980, mixed media, scratched and dyed slides printed on Xerox, 25 × 17 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

JLB: It seemed urgent to put into question ideas about the vernacular, the authentic and the universal when proposing an exhibition of contemporary Latinx and Latin American art. The word ‘infamy’ can’t be ignored when addressing the relations between Latin America and the US. ‘Infamy’ is etymologically linked to the term ‘fame’: central threads in the very fabric of any museum. How does the encyclopaedic profile of a museum such as LACMA amplify and complicate this conversation? I wonder about the meaning of the slash in PST: LA/LA. Does it imply that both LAs are interchangeable? Are they reflecting, contradicting, mirroring each other? In the past two years, most of the artists in our exhibition participated in a two-month residency in Los Angeles that functioned as a loose invitation to think about whether that slash connects or dismembers LA. As a result, many of their projects focused on local histories – for instance, Ángela Bonadies’s photographs of the almost invisible remains of a David Alfaro Siqueiros mural in downtown LA.

The route taken by most of the artists in our exhibition decidedly favours re-examining strategies of display instead of plumbing the depths of their own identity: the works in our exhibition suggest a meta-display, as if subtly contesting Latin America as a subject.

MA: The challenges of considering Latinx communities and Latin America as homogenous subjects also seem to be present in the all-encompassing concept of ‘developmentalism’: the advance towards modernity and its intrinsic perpetuation of colonial structures. It’s a concept that is crucial in ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’, which takes its title from a film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

JG: The title seemed appropriate since the exhibition casts a retrospective gaze on a period during which it was important to address the question of dependency and underdevelopment: a way to devise strategies of cultural resistance against the rhetoric of developmentalism. The exhibition attempts to identify some important paradigm shifts in visual arts, film and architecture that specifically reacted against this kind of rhetoric in the region. Namely, ideological positions that called for a decolonization from Western forms of knowledge and from the modernist canon; ones that saw modernity and development as perpetuating colonialist structures. The exhibition first presents the mirage of modernity through images and documents that speak of the effervescent optimism that characterized the 1940s and ’50s. You can see this in the intense modernization of major cities in Latin America, or the building of entirely new ones such as Brasilia. It then analyzes the cultural strategies that ensued. Artists who worked with cartography and history, for example, but also for whom the idea of landscape offered a fertile terrain for a reflection on colonialism, territory and resources. The formal break with the canon of modernity is also an important part of the exhibition as it showcases how the body and collective experience allowed artists to depart from geometric abstraction. This was the concern of Oiticica and Lygia Pape, who were first affiliated with the Brazilian concretist and neoconcretist movements of the 1950s. The problem of dependency and underdevelopment similarly guided artists working with information in the 1960s, most notably those affiliated with the CAyC group in Argentina. The show also maps the influence of theory produced in the region between the 1960s and the mid-’80s, such as Paulo Freire’s idea of conscientização (conscientization) or Ivan Illich’s de-schooling, to show their dialogic nature, their recuperation of the marginal and their embrace of the popular. The multitude functions as a sort of open end to the exhibition, since it is in the collectivization of experience that these decolonial forms emerged during this period.

Teresinha Soares, A Box to Make Love in, 1967, painted wooden box, meat mincer, stuffed fabric heart, bottle of dragon Vaseline and rubber tubes. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Miguel Aun 

MA: Revolutionary struggle and collective resistance are also deeply engrained in ‘Radical Women’. How are concepts as complex as feminism framed and addressed in the exhibition?

CFH: The idea of ‘the political body’ is at the centre of ‘Radical Women’. This is a resistant and disobedient body, for it defies systems of power as they relate to violence, oppression, sexism, patriarchy and racism. The struggles of these artists were not only political but poetic. The exhibition is divided into nine themes: resistance and fear (of political oppression); language as a conceptual and poetic tool; social issues; feminisms; the erotic; self-portraiture; performing the body; the relationship of the body to the natural and urban environment; and the reconceptualization of the body. You will find the theme of torture in work by Sonia Gutiérrez, while Isabel Castro addresses the topic of the unauthorized sterilization of Chicana women. There are poetic exercises of the body in relation to landscape in the photos of performances by Mara Álvares; the exploration of a playful erotic by Teresinha Soares; conceptual exercises of self-representation by Teresa Burga; the questioning of ideals of beauty by Sylvia Salazar Simpson; and the disruptive feminist humour of Mónica Mayer and Tecla Tofano. These are just a few examples of the 120 artists in the show. There is no single way of defining their work, especially not under the overarching umbrella of feminism, which is how women artists are usually brought together. Latin America – aside from Mexico – lacked an organized artistic feminist movement. The invisibility of these artists, and many more that are not in the exhibition, is fundamentally due to the fact that women are held to different standards from men. Experimentalism, transgression, an anti-canonical approach to art, criticality, dissidence, conceptualism and so on are all applauded in men, yet perceived differently in women. Defiance of ‘good taste’ is seen as kitsch and bad art, self-reflection as narcissistic, gender-specific questioning as irrelevant, and so forth. Latina and Latin American radical women artists have endured extreme marginalization – though less so in countries like Brazil. They have been made invisible because the system, at all levels, is excessively patriarchal. This exhibition proposes to create a new chapter in art history that will recognize how women have been politically engaged with the world in truly powerful, creative and experimental ways.

MA: In projects of great magnitude, such as PST: LA/LA, context and contextualization are two major issues. Who is speaking? Who is being addressed? And who is actually listening? How are major institutions hoping to engage with a broader audience?

JLB: Of course, PST is supported by strong marketing and educational campaigns devised by the Getty. On top of that, every participating institution develops its own programmes or builds on long-standing networks established with specific communities. But I’d like to offer a response to your question through some works in the exhibition that explicitly engage with the museum as a site, a barrier or a contradiction, as well as a forum for building audiences. These range from Michael Linares’s Museo del Palo (Museum of the Stick, 2013–16) – an itinerant exhibition of sticks that incorporates artistic and non-artistic objects in each iteration – to NuMu – a tiny, egg-shaped, artist-run space in Guatemala, whose replica is travelling to LACMA to present two exhibitions. This initiative seems to be working on the ‘vernacularization’ of the museum without escaping the logic of the global institution.

Elda Cerrato, La Hora de los Pueblos (The Time of the People), 1975, acrylic on linen, 150 × 95 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Henrique Faria Fine Art, New York and Buenos Aires

Magalí Arriola is an art critic and independent curator based in Mexico City, Mexico. She is a contributing editor of frieze.