After nearly a year of renovations, El Museo del Barrio has opened with a show that couldn’t be better suited to this moment: Liliana Porter: Other Situations. A traveling exhibition from the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, curated by their own Humberto Moro, the show features only 32 works, but they span Porter’s decades-long career and highlight the wry wit and incisive perspective of this artist who deserves more prominence in the US.
From drawing, to prints and photographs, to sculptures, installations, and films, Porter’s work, no matter its form, demands a kind of noticing, a paying attention that, in many ways, can only be done in the context of a museum or a gallery. Like the white void that she places her objects and ideas within, the act of isolation is crucial to the humor and the dark questions that permeate her work.
In a bustling grocery store, stacked high with wares, packed with customers, and filled with the white noise of commerce, you might otherwise never notice a diminutive slice of soft cheese named after a nineteen year old woman who was burned at the stake. Plucked by the ever-vigilant Porter and placed on an open plain in a photograph, one is forced to confront the object on its own terms. What is the flavor of martyrdom? Of betrayal? Of a woman being burned at the stake? Does it pair best with a dark cracker or a crusty loaf?
But it’s not just the cheese. Here, this work is laid out with two others in a triptych. Beside Joan of Arc sits Che Guevara, in this instance rendered by the manufacturer as a “Martyr Mousepad.” On the other side of Joan is a sugar Jesus wrapped in cellophane, paired with another Jesus flipped over to reveal the price and ingredients in this most unholy body of Christ.
Seeing the works and their depicted objects together, a more complex set of meanings unfold, a strange alliance. And also a much thornier inquiry into martyrdom itself. As anti-Muslim sentiment continues to simmer and regularly boil over in the US, it’s virtually impossible in this context not to think of the particular way that news stories describe Muslim individuals being killed or committing suicidal acts of violence in the name of their religious and/or political views, whether in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, or here in the US. The West bends over backwards to paint those acts by Muslims as deeply other, foreign, and backward; as untenable in white, Judeo-Christian nations. Reminders of those moments certainly aren’t on offer in the box stores and supermarkets that line our streets, rendered in sugar, or cream, or foam.
Rather than a cruel sneer or an act of distancing, the darker political and philosophical questions contained in some of Porter’s work draw the viewer in, inviting you to sift through your own trinkets and fallibility. An invitation offered by a child’s toy, or a cheap miniature that feels both familiar and enticing is quite a different thing than a pundit decrying the other side, whichever side it is. Would I have bought that slice of cheese and laughed about it over wine? I might have. How many people walk the streets in t-shirts or paper their walls with images of Che Guevara — a silhouette rendered so meaningless through mass consumerism that many who don his face have no idea who he is or what exactly he did after his youthful motorcycle journey.
An Argentine who has lived in the US since 1964, Porter maintains her relationship with Argentina, and also maintains a steady popularity in Latin America. There, her work has been exhibited regularly since her first show at the age of seventeen, during a time when she was living in Mexico with her family. The rise and fall of so many socialist and revolutionary governments in Central and South America since her birth in 1941, including in Argentina, and the bloody involvement of the US in countless coups, assassinations, and armed conflicts there, is something that is almost entirely absent in US history courses, nor is it present in the consciousness of many in this country. Yet, hypocrisy and complicity are something that someone with feet in both the north and the south can’t help but take in.
Perhaps the funniest work in this show to touch on the ideas above, is a large-scale photograph titled simply “Memorabilia” (2016). Again, against a blank, edgeless backdrop, Porter has arranged a group of figurines, ceramic objects, and other cheaply manufactured items, each featuring the image of political figures ranging from China’s Mao Zedong to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte to the US’s George Washington and John F. Kennedy to Argentina’s Eva Perón. For some in the US, they might jar at seeing Washington or Kennedy next to Mao or Napoleon. But again, it’s a matter of framing, of the narrative you spin. And though largely silent, Porter’s work is very much about the stories you spin while looking at it.
Another theme that appears frequently in the works on display is that of labor, of tiny workers bent steadily into tasks, the enormity of which simultaneously dwarfs and enlarges each laborer. If you were to stitch together all the clothing sewn by a garment worker, or to lay out all the walls that a house painter has ever painted, as these works seem to invite us to do, you might be struck by the endlessness of those tasks. The janitor who returns each night to make clean what will only be made dirty tomorrow; the homemaker who cooks one meal, only to do it again in a few hours. I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant writing in her book The Human Condition while looking at these works: “It is indeed the mark of all laboring that it leaves nothing behind, that the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent. And yet this effort, despite its futility, is born of a great urgency and motivated by a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends upon it.”
Feminist thinkers and labor observers have long noted the invisibility and complete lack or paltry nature of the payments that many laborers are given in our society. In the context of El Museo, it’s not a far leap to consider the ways in which Latin American labor, particularly Central American labor, has been exploited, manipulated, and discarded in this country.
And this is just a taste of what this relatively concise but incredibly rich show can elicit. The two digital videos that are part of the exhibit, “Actualidades / Breaking News” (2016) and “Matinee” (2009), introduce new ideas, but also revisit figures and suggestions that appear elsewhere in Porter’s work. Moving imagery is a form that works incredibly well for her. A deft sense of selection and grouping, paired with timing and soundscapes, offers a novel approach that builds new meanings. There’s tremendous fodder for thoughtful consideration, ready laughter, and recognition in these works. By calling and holding our attention on things that can easily be taken for granted, Porter quietly and with a mischievous smile, nudges us to reconsider everything we see.
Liliana Porter: Other Situations continues at El Museo del Barrio (1230 5th Ave, Manhattan) through January 27, 2019. This exhibition was curated by Humberto Moro.