Essays

At the Guggenheim, Three Critical Takes on Latin America

Installation view, 'Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today,' Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 13–October 1, 2014 (photo by David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
Installation view, ‘Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today,’ Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 13–October 1, 2014 (photo by David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

Let’s start by saying, just in case it’s not obvious, that there’s something nearly impossible about conceptualizing and mounting a show as wide in its thematic and geographic scope as Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, curated by Pablo León de la Barra. The exhibition, which is currently on view at New York’s Guggenheim Museum before moving on to São Paulo and Mexico City in 2015, would attract critics no matter where it was installed.

But for now it is at the Guggenheim, a museum whose form challenges the very function — and functionality — of any show, especially one like Under the Same Sun, which is comprised of work in various media by more than 40 artists from 15 countries. Those works, in turn, are categorized under a few broad themes: “Conceptualism and Its Legacies,” “Tropicologies,” “Political Activism,” “Modernism and Its Failures,” and “Participation/Emancipation.” Together, the exhibition text explains, the art on view represents “creative responses … to complex, shared realities that have been influenced by colonial and modern histories, repressive governments, economic crises, and social inequality, as well as by concurrent periods of regional economic wealth, development, and progress.”

It’s a lot to wrap your head around, especially with the show on view in a space that’s long been criticized for precluding the visitor’s ability to step back and contemplate all there is to see. In Under the Same Sun, the work of three artists in particular feels marginalized, its value nearly obliterated by the physical constraints that push it, quite literally, out of the way. Interestingly, all of that work is in video form. The pieces by Tania Bruguera of Cuba, Regina José Galindo of Guatemala, and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz of Puerto Rico all engage urgent, compelling issues, and in doing so are perhaps the most critical of what “Latin America” is today. But for many viewers the possibility of understanding those urgencies may be lost because of the positioning of the works.

Tania Bruguera, "Tatlin's Whisper #6 (Havana Version)" (2009), color video, with sound, 60 min, from a mixed media installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund (© Tania Bruguera)
Tania Bruguera, “Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version)” (2009), color video, with sound, 60 min, from a mixed media installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund (© Tania Bruguera)

Bruguera’s video, “Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version),” is the audiovisual record of a performance she staged for the 2009 Havana Biennial, in which visitors were invited to step up to a podium and address the audience on any topic, uncensored, for one minute. After their allotted time, each “speaker” was escorted off the stage by two actors in military uniform. For anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of the past half-century of Cuban politics, the performance engaged the issue of free speech head on.

Yet at the Guggenheim, it’s nearly impossible to experience the video, which plays on a small screen in the same room where a large mobile made of drum cymbals is installed; a museum staffer encourages visitors to play the mobile, pointing out two mallets hanging on a nearby wall. Even without the interference of the cymbals, it would be hard to hear the audio in “Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version),” since it’s not connected to a set of headphones. It’s not entirely clear whether the irony of not being able to hear people who are taking a stand for free speech is intentional — Bruguera did not respond to questions about the placement of the video in the show — but it is ironic all the same.

At least, though, her video is visible. You have to know that the exhibition includes a separate area for showing films in order to see the work of Regina José Galindo, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and several other artists on the roster. Your timing also has to be just right: the videos are shown only twice daily, once at 11am and again at 3pm, in the museum’s New Media Theater.

Regina José Galindo , "Blind Spot (Punto ciego)" (2010), digital color video, with sound, 17 min, 2 sec, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund  (courtesy the artist and prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan/Lucca, Italy)
Regina José Galindo , “Blind Spot (Punto ciego)” (2010), digital color video, with sound, 17 min, 2 sec, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund (courtesy the artist and prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan/Lucca, Italy)

It would be a shame to miss Galindo’s and Santiago’s pieces, both of which raise questions about how the ability to see informs the narratives we construct about our surroundings. Galindo’s video documents “Punto Ciego” (Blind Spot), her 2010 performance piece at the XVII Bienal de Arte Paiz, in which the artist stood nude on a pedestal in the middle of a gallery while blind visitors circulated around her. Tentative at first, one or two of the spectators approach Galindo, circling her from a slight distance. Within minutes, several of the visitors become increasingly bold, patting her body with their hands; one man even squeezes a nipple repeatedly. Soon, a crowd tightens around Galindo, their soft touches becoming increasingly urgent, and some of the spectators laugh as the artist stands silently, her gaze vacant, her expression impassive. The documentation of the performance continues for nearly 17 excruciating minutes. A core group of six men disperse for a bit and then return, one slapping her ass playfully but insistently. A woman approaches Galindo and pinches her right arm; another grabs the same arm and hoists it up and down, back and forth.

Unlike Bruguera’s and Galindo’s pieces, Santiago’s “La Cueva Negra” is not a documentation of a performance but rather the work itself. “La Cueva Negra” takes the viewer on an exploration of Paso del Indio, an indigenous burial ground in Puerto Rico that was found during the building of a highway and subsequently paved over. The episode is representative of a significant amount of the island’s physical space and its cultural and historical patrimony, so the video becomes representative of larger concerns. In “La Cueva Negra” Santiago blurs the lines between documentary-style reportage and fiction; she interviews locals and archaeologists but also inserts two young boys as characters who, the exhibition material says, “symbolize the romantic but ultimately misguided desire to find and preserve paradise.”

Santiago says she is fine with the positioning of “La Cueva Negra” in the Guggenheim show, adding that she believes the best way to see it is sitting down in a screening room. Yet the “apartness” of both her and Galindo’s work serves to underscore, even if unintentionally, certain lingering marginalizations of form and subject.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, "The Black Cave (La Cueva Negra)" (2013), digital color video, with sound, 20 min, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund (© Beatriz Santiago Muñoz)
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, “The Black Cave (La Cueva Negra)” (2013), digital color video, with sound, 20 min, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund (© Beatriz Santiago Muñoz)

There’s another irony here, too. The medium of video — even if it is just a document of the artistic act rather than the act itself, as in Galindo’s and Bruguera’s cases — is one of the most democratic and subversive forms in which artists in “developing” countries can work. Typically more accessible than “traditional,” institution-bound art, video has a unique ability to make direct verbal and visual statements, and it’s easier to share. As Santiago points out, “A digital file is a very versatile thing. It can be projected, streamed, stolen, shared, copied and reproduced.” You can, for instance, see parts of “Tatlin’s Whisper” and “La Cueva Negra” on YouTube, as well as “Punto Ciego” on Vimeo. And, in the setting of Latin America, video is powerfully symbolic: the artists are appropriating a medium that, in many parts of the region, is largely owned by the state, or at the very least whose messaging is dramatically influenced by the party line. For video to be largely out of view in this show decontextualizes it and undercuts its impact.

What about that impact? What do these artists want viewers to take away from their videos? For Bruguera and Galindo, the videos are documents, AV archives that capture and transmit performances that are fragments of the artists’ overall preoccupations: in Bruguera’s case, political representation and agency; in Galindo’s case, systemic inequalities, especially those affecting women and children, which she exposes by placing herself in situations that often involve the violation of her own body.

For Santiago, the issues and stakes are quite different, as is her approach. In her videos, Santiago treads the interstitial space between reality and imagination, a distinction that matters little to her. “I am happy with many different subjectivities and viewers,” she says. “The most important work that is set out for us is to prepare for the future by experimenting and establishing new autonomous forms of collective decision making, informal networks of solidarity, and generally creating the possibility of new forms of life.”

New forms of life. Ultimately, that seems to be the goal of Under the Same Sun, too: to promote new forms of art, to create a space where new themes — or new takes on old themes — can challenge and redefine what “Latin American art” means … if, in fact, it means anything other than a reference to geographical origin. Unfortunately, the Guggenheim isn’t the space that allows that goal to be realized, especially when three of the most powerful works included can’t be easily seen or heard.

Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 1.

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