BY John Quin in Critic's Guides | 06 JUN 18

‘Political Art Sharper Than a Razor Blade’: Postcard From Montevideo

From shows exploring transgender issues to work featuring politicians prancing with toilet bowls, much has changed in the Uruguayan capital 

BY John Quin in Critic's Guides | 06 JUN 18

On the palm tree-lined road from sleepy Colonia, I thought I might be nearing Montevideo when I passed a prison fortress with intimidating watchtowers and armed guards. Checking in to my hotel, the porter reassured me that the dodgy city centre I remembered from my last visit, five years ago, is much safer now. I asked why; ‘Liberal enlightened leadership’ came the reply. That would mean José Mujica – jail-breaker, ex-President and the original Tupamaro with a platinum card, who famously legalized marijuana back in 2012. Say hello then to stoner Montevideo, where it may not be so surprising to find political art sharper than a razor blade. 

Margarita Aizpuru, Curadora feminisarte, 2018. Courtesy: Centro Cultural de España, Montevideo

The Centro Cultural de España (CCE) has mounted a group of pertinent and timely shows. ‘Feminisarte IV’ features work by 18 artists that hail predominantly from the Spanish-speaking world. A group of bruised women dressed in white crochet wipe away each others’ tears in video documentation of Removing Pain – Dublin (2010), a performance piece by the Brazilian artist Beth Moysés. This bears an uncanny resemblance to images that played on the news the very morning I arrived: a group of American women crying and hugging each other in the immediate aftermath of the Bill Cosby verdict. The scene seemed anticipated by Moysés’s work, a reminder of the distressingly Sisyphean progression of the #MeToo movement. 

Ricardo Lanzarini, ‘Artefactos’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Xippas Gallery, Paris/Montevideo and somosMOV, Montevideo

All too often, though, pain cannot be expunged, as with Ambra Polidori’s powerful Se Busca (2011). A mock-up of a ‘Wanted’ poster, it depicts a beautiful photograph of a young girl. The image asks plaintively – what could she have done wrong? What could she be wanted for? The title is darkly ironic: Cinthia Rocio Acosta was only ten years old when she was murdered in the Ciudad Juárez drug wars. She should still be here. Meanwhile, María José Argenzio’s video 7.1 kilos (2009) captures self-inflicted pain in the search for artistic perfection; in it, a ballet dancer’s tortured feet bear an ankle chains of lead weights that clack like castanets as she practices her brisé and battements. Watching the video, it’s hard not to be reminded of John Lennon and Yoko Ono yelling in anger about the fate of women: ‘we make her paint her face and dance!’ Performance, or performativity, takes centre stage in Carmela García’s ludic series of photographs, ‘Casting’ (2008), which depict well-known actresses posing as famous lesbians: Glenn Close as Sylvia Beach, Penélope Cruz as Mercedes de Acosta, Uma Thurman as Tamara de Lempicka. Is the work a wish fulfillment, a critique of Hollywood representation or both? 

‘Feminisarte IV’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Centro Cultural de España, Montevideo

If this gutsy show isn’t sufficient evidence of the perspicacity of Montevideo’s art scene, CCE has also organized ‘Jaque’, a group exhibition of Uruguayan artists exploring transgender issues, curated by Lucía Ehrich. María Mascaró’s Ovacionadas (Ovations) (2018) mocks the media’s received ideas of the body beautiful. A sequence of pages taken from a local newspaper shows a regular feature called ‘ultima ovación’ (final applause), which pairs pictures of semi-nude babes above those of buffed jocks – the twin poles exposing the fourth estate’s idea of gender normativity. With such repetition, Mascaró underlines the media’s incessant obsession with what they think we should look like and what they want us to look like. Irene Guiponi and Juan Gallo’s Gravidx (2018) is an amusing parody of the famous Beyoncé shot taken when she was pregnant – the image transformed into a similarly veiled, but now apparently male ‘pregnant’ figure (complete with moustache) caressing his belly. 

Marco Maggi, Enveloping, 2012, Courtesy: Xippas Gallery, Paris/Montevideo

More light relief arrives at Xippas gallery, around the corner in the now obviously gentrifying Ciudad Vieja. A scabrous collection of line drawings by the Montevidean artist Ricardo Lanzarini reveals a group of ectomorphic politicians prancing around with toilet bowls, recalling the facility and wit of Max Beerbohm. Instalación (2018), from Lanzarini’s series ‘Artefactos’ – a Jean Tinguely-like construction composed of a bike wheel and chain that together power a light – helps illuminate Enveloping (2012), a pleasing paper work of delicate cuts by Marco Maggi. Maggi’s exhibition at the Uruguayan Pavilion was one of my highlights of the 2015 Venice Biennale. The considerate gallerist recommended that I visit another prison – the Miguelete – now the site of the Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo. Art in Montevideo is clearly thriving and this transformation of its jails is great to hear about but I’m apologetic, time is against me. Maybe I should take advantage of the new laws, roll a spliff and remain at large. 

Main image: Jaque, ‘Feminisarte IV’, 2018. Courtesy: Centro Cultural de España, Montevideo

John Quin is a writer based in Brighton, UK, and Berlin, Germany.