CHICAGO — A long, white wall horizontally bisects the gallery space of Song, Uruguay-born artist Alejandro Cesarco’s solo exhibition at The Renaissance Society in Chicago. Upon entering the museum we see, on one side of this wall, a single, light-pink rectangle, twenty-four by thirty-six inches, so faint it could be the residual trace of something now gone. Titled “The Dreams I’ve Left Behind” and dating from 2015, when the work was first conceived and exhibited, the stain — in a hue that Cesarco has described as “the wall blushing” — is a silkscreened photograph of the wall behind the artist’s bed. It is a display of restrained intimacy, its presence more a timid suggestion than an open invitation into the artist’s private space.
The process of interpretation, and its underlying emotions, are at the core of Song, a sparse exhibition that packs in dense layers of meaning. On the side of the freestanding wall opposite “The Dreams I’ve Left Behind,” four archival prints are displayed alongside three videos playing on a sequential loop: Everness (Excerpt), an excerpt of a 2008 film by Cesarco; Revision (2017); and Interlude (2017). The rhythm of alternating time-based and static works brings attention to the narrative unfolding of an exhibition, and mirrors the viewer’s experience interpreting the work.
“What he is saying is that it’s literature that produces readers,” begins Everness (Excerpt). A middle-aged male actor and friend of Cesarco’s sits in an armchair in a library, centered on the screen — a conventional documentary set-up — as he performs a monologue in Spanish on the definition of literary tragedy. The monologue, written by Cesarco, posits tragedy as an expression of thwarted communication: the tragic hero receives a message she cannot decipher, typically from a supernatural or otherworldly source. (Notably, the video’s English subtitles use the pronoun “she,” despite the gender neutrality of the word héroe in the Spanish script, which never alludes to a woman.) It closes with a reflection on the correspondence between language and the hero’s ultimately fatal delay in decision-making, “between deciphering and being in danger.”
Nearly ten years later, Cesarco has recreated this scene for Revision (2017), a video work in which the same actor performs a variation of the 2008 monologue. “What I said was that it’s literature that produces readers,” he begins. In addition to the shift from present to past tense, the subject of the phrase has been re-assigned (“what I said,” as opposed to “what he is saying”), making the speaker the author of an idea he once attributed to someone else. These microscopic alterations are emblematic of Cesarco’s linguistic labyrinths, which invite multiple lines of inquiry. Is the actor in Revision interpreting a different character, perhaps the original source of the citation? Or is he indeed the same protagonist, his misattribution caused by a memory lapse?
The infinitude of narrative possibility in a given story of word is a persistent theme in Cesarco’s work. The artist’s ongoing Index series, for instance, presents the viewer with imagined indices for unwritten books. “Index (a reading)” (2008) lists among its headings Judith Butler, “erasure,” Marcel Broodthaers, and “forgiveness.” Availing herself of these indices, the spectator/reader must work backwards to recreate a text that does not exist, one that could assume endless forms, much like Julio Cortázar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963), in which many readings, all equally valid, are made possible by the different orders in which one reads its chapters.
In the final video, Interlude (2017), a white, flickering screen is interleaved with shots of a pensive woman, reclining and drenched in sunlight, as Sun Ra’s “Piano Interlude” plays lazily. The vacant frames provide visual breaks from the woman, while the musical component continues uninterrupted, creating two distinct but synchronous aesthetic registers.
“Vanitas (From Remorse to Regret)” (2017) is a series of four prints commissioned for Song and installed on the back wall of the gallery. The work takes its title from the 16th- and 17th-century genre of Flemish still life painting, rife with symbols of life’s transience and the banality of earthly possessions. Cesarco has gathered some of these objects — flowers, fruit, and soap bubbles — filmed them, and produced photographic prints from the film, which he juxtaposed with textual excerpts. Perhaps the most telling text is an anonymous table of contents listing the chapter titles “Why choice makes us anxious” and “Shame and the lack of social change.” In this work, emotions of remorse and regret run parallel to the acts of reading and interpreting information.
Interpretation can be a tentative and uncertain activity, fraught with moments of doubt. In a talk between the artist and Solveig Øvstebø, The Renaissance Society’s Director and curator of Song, on the eve of the exhibition’s opening, Cesarco shared a fascination that permeates his work: “I am interested in how meaning is felt.” Cesarco’s work does not resist or refuse attempts at interpretation — in fact, possible meanings unfurl from each work in the exhibition like ripples in a pond. It reverses interpretative hierarchies, giving primacy to the hermeneutical process over its consummation. In Song, it is not our final interpretation that is most important, but rather the private and vulnerable moment that precedes it.
Alejandro Cesarco: Song continues at The Renaissance Society (5811 South Ellis Avenue, 4th floor, Chicago, Illinois) through January 28.