A Bilingual Globalism Between North and South America

Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
‘Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

BOSTON — Traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) from the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) collection in Miami, Permission To be Global (Prácticas Globales) — the MFA’s first exhibition of contemporary art from Latin America — calls attention to globalization as it appears between the two Americas. The collaboration was organized by CIFO’s Ella Fontals-Cisneros and Jesus Fuenmayor alongside MFA curators Jen Mergel and Liz Munsell. Laid out in four distinct categories, the exhibition features work from all media, becoming a comprehensive view of the region’s artistic identity post-1960.

In a definitive gesture, the exhibition’s smallest piece packed the most symbolism: a dried chickpea meticulously painted by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto containing all seven continents as a miniature representation of the world. Hung centered and alone on a large while wall, the sphere faced forward, mimicking a flattened, map-like perspective of a mass that’s become swallowed by a slick, empty universe.

By presenting this work in such a traditional way, it forces one to view the object as not a scientific rendition of a globe, but as a precious, fine-art commodity made safe for consumption by a foreign audience. While the chickpea is considered a staple for the Cuban diet, its transformation by Preito cuts its Latin ties by creating a more universal point of reference, simultaneously reducing complex theories of nationalism to an intimate smallness.

Ernesto Neto, “O Tempo Oco (The Empty Time)” (2004), Polypropylene balls, lycra tulle, polyamide fabric, and sand, 137.75 x 149.625 x 149.625 in. (350 x 380 x 380 cm) (courtesy Galeria Fortes Vilaça/SP and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York)

Regardless of its curated display in an American institution, the exhibition’s bilingual title is the delicate play on words necessary to establish a starting point for a broader conversation around art and its cross-cultural associations.  The duality of the title can be made intelligible: Permission to be Global isn’t a curatorial team receiving permission to display atypical work within traditional art centers, or, alternately, an artist’s permission be considered.  Instead, it identifies global societal practices as they exist in the contemporary landscape by criticizing utopian ideals of universal accessibility and equal exchange.

As a present-day vanguard of these practices, technology is not overlooked here; Raphael Lozano Hemmer’s “Shadow Box: Third Person” is an interactive work similar to a tracking device you could imagine in some Orwellian dystopia. Walk toward the piece, and your silhouette is copied, becoming outlined by constantly blinking anonymous verbs expressed in the third person. Its understated black frame is seducing, yet there is a ghostly disconnect that happens when the viewer realizes they’re being monitored. Is technology supporting a globalized community by granting us ease of communication, or is it yet another way for our governments to limit freedom by enforcing control, disguised carefully as unavoidable safety surveillance?

Nelson Leirner, “Assim É, se Lhe Parece” (2003) (from the series ‘Right you are if you think you are’), Digital Prints, Overall: 70.75 x 94.5in

These questions continue to be explored as more symbols are exposed. Video documentation of Regina Jose Galindo’s performance (“Who Can Erase the Footprints”) tells an equally haunting story of Guatemala’s civil war. The artist walks from the constitutional court to the national palace in Guatemala city, stopping periodically to drench her bare feet in a basin of human blood. Her footprints stain the streets as a commemoration of the nearly 200,000 victims fallen during the nation’s 36–year conflict (1960–1996). (As this video footage had previously been published and distributed, it was successful in raising international awareness.) Galindo surrenders her own body and personal empathy to become a representation of her nation’s collective distrust of government.  By doing so, she also becomes an avatar of resilience, stating with her actions that violence, fear, and oppression will not be overlooked globally.

Depicting a different metaphor entirely, Brazilian artist Nelson Leirner juxtaposes playful images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse with dancing skeletons, creating two large paneled diptychs of North and South America in “Assim É, se Lhe Parece” [“Right you are if you think you are”]. Placed in the exhibition’s “Power Parodied” section — in which the works were curated around an artist’s use of deconstructed icons to communicate social realities — it becomes clear that this specific piece is a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of American culture through the guise of a singular enterprise.

The dancing skeletons, distributed throughout Latin America as a celebratory symbol for the Day of the Dead, can be initially understood as a bitter contrast to the innocence associated with cartoon characters. The real bitterness here, though, is in the work’s unintended harmony; the skeletons, and certainly Mickey Mouse, are evasive symbols used to loosely portray the similarities between North and South American commercialism. Regardless of the genuine yet frightening intentions behind the Day of the Dead (and, similarly, children’s entertainment), the work’s imagery is reflective of a society in which the conglomerate encompasses all.

'Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection' March 17, 2014. (photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
‘Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection’ March 17, 2014. (photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Despite the nationalist undertones interpreted throughout, the exhibition’s most successful pieces resonate through shared experiences. A 2004 installation, “O Tempo Oco (Empty Time)” by Ernesto Neto, frames the space well by providing a level of interaction that needs no knowledge of history to inform. Pale, translucent nets hang unbalanced from the ceiling, resembling human skin in texture and form that beg to be caressed. There is a certain tranquility that follows the experience of being held within the installation, one that Neto describes accurately in its title. The notion of universally shared time becomes the cosmic force that binds us together as human, just as the familiarity of touch becomes our way back into a shared physical world.

Permission to Be Global/Prácticas Globales does what its title suggests: by providing a platform for discussion on rarely exhibited work, the show breaks down societal barriers and moves toward a globalized consciousness. Regardless of a viewer’s social background, there is something here that pulls from a universal sensitivity, creating an accessible space that transcends and redefines cultural margins.

Permission to Be Global/Prácticas Globales continues at the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave, Boston) through July 13. Cuban artist Lázaro Saavedra will present a durational performance at 5pm on Wednesday, April 30 entitled Egocentrismo Funerario (Funerary Egocentrism).” 

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