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Alicia Haber: Mercosur Biennial      (Print/Download-Version)

Alicia Haber: Curator of exhibits at the Montevideo Municipal Administration. Uruguayan Critic and Art Historian.

Art history and contemporary forms of expression comingled in the first Mercosur Biennial, an event that took place in a variety of spaces in Porto Alegre. Because it was organized with monographic criteria, choosing in its first year to emphasize on political art, the schools of constructivism, cartography, and an homage to a master, the first Mercosur Biennial was a fine opportunity to review fairly in depth and with numerous examples, several important movements and themes and a number of outstanding figures in Twentieth-Century Latin American art.

Thus, the visitor had the occasion to learn about and recognize diverse expressions of constructivism and different possibilities within geometric abstractionism, to engage in dialogue with the works of the great artist being honored, the Argentine Xul Solar, to partake in another small homage to the Venezuelan Jesús Soto (to whom a private space was also dedicated), to observe tendencies of political content expressed in very dissimilar media and languages over the last four decades (above all from the conflictive years of the seventies onward) to pay attention to the cartographic theme from that landmark, the inverted map and the motto »Nuestro Norte es Nuestro Sur« (»Our Compass Points South«) by the Uruguayan master Joaquín Torres García all the way up to our own day, and to discover various movements in contemporary art being made in a number of countries on the continent.

The emphasis was more historical than is typical for a biennial, revealing the need to underscore the relevance of certain contributions by art from this continent and to mark its presence in the context of Western creativity of the Twentieth Century. The last five years, exhibited in the DC Navegantes locale, the Object-based Imagination in abandoned warehouses in the port, in the Marinha do Brasil Park, in the Public Market, and in the DEPRC, and the Interventions in the city of Porto Alegre did not manage to counterbalance the marked historical emphasis of the show.

Taking into account the poverty of the collections of museums of the Southern Cone of Latin America and their limitations, this was a good way of coming to know once again, in no uncertain terms, the fine art of Latin America. In the majority of our countries, museums don't have large enough collections to represent art histories, above all, those of the last forty years; a large part of contemporary artistic patrimonies remains in the artists' workshops. For these reasons, these historical reviews are more than welcomed. For many visitors from Europe and the United States it was also an occasion for discovery. And that fact alone justifies the historical character of several of the exhibits.

The selection was fairly well-tuned and on a few occasions spaces were created of surprising quality, as much because of the works themselves as the quality and sophistication of the display, such as occurred in the very museum-like ULBRA in which the constructivist tendencies were exhibited and in the Biennial Foundation Space in which the political art tendencies were shown. In general, the Biennial presented a very encouraging panoramic view of Latin American creativity and possessed the virtue of being directed with a continent-wide perspective by curators from the invited countries and not through the hegemonic gaze of the North.

The first Mercosur Biennial is an unprecedented feat for a marginal city in the periphery that, until this historic moment, had never been an artistic center. It is a huge step for the »gaucho« city of Porto Alegre, one deserving of applause and which speaks to the powerful Brazilian reality in socioeconomic context in that country that has serious problems, a very unequal distribution of wealth, major sectors of poverty.

Above all, what stood out was the paradox of Porto Alegre having been turned into a sort of artistic capital of Mercosur in the face of more privileged locations such as Buenos Aires and Montevideo, much prettier from an urban point of view, with enormous cultural and artistic traditions, fewer socioeconomic conflicts, the greater weight of an educated middle class and with better exhibition spaces (above all in the Argentine capital). Porto Alegre more than overcame its disadvantages and dethroned Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Superbly.

An Homage to the Great Xul Solar

The homage to Xul Solar (1887-1963) was well deserved. The various works exhibited in the APLUB served to confirm his creative faculties. An intense, lyrical, transparent, and warm chromatics, a play of dynamic forms moving through space, and a constant geometricization are characteristics of a production that has an undeniable incantatory power.

An imaginative figuration imposes itself on everything, designing an iconography with an oneiric, surrealist, and metaphysical spirit. In that cryptic world emerge enigmatic labyrinths, mysterious castles, exotic mountains, strange human figures, fabulous homunculi, eye-catching larval forms, fantastic architecture, and marionettes onto all of which he adds abstract drawings, letters, numbers, words, horoscopes, the Star of David, the cross, mandalas, suns, moons, and snakes that form a complex symbolic world. Face-beings with multiple visages and eyes become »plurentes«, utopian architectures open up like folding screens surrounding gardens and statues, small characters climb the stairs toward the cavities of ruins, phantasmagorical, anthropomorphic poles acquire the characteristics of organic beings, a strange plane-boat-house flies over a port town, saints and guardians meditate on top of unstable totem poles that break but don't fall and signs and masks emerge as sculptures in landscapes. A sustained belief in reincarnation, a cosmic sensibility, mysticism, and constant philosophical speculation define the enigmatic region of these paintings.

The Guggenheim of the Pampas

This was the ingenious nickname with which the »gauchos« from the state of Rio Grande dubbed the astounding space of the Mesbla stores, now reclaimed through an excellent act of recycling as temporary exhibit space for the Mercosur Biennial and presented as the ULBRA Space. The characterization arose not only from the similarity of the curvilinear forms of the great balconies and the rooms that were opened starting with this section but from the museum-like quality of the exhibited pieces and the modern emphasis of the whole complex, one of the most notable aspects of the Mercosur Biennial. Grouped together were outstanding examples of constructive universalism and of the Southern School of Torres García, of Madi art from the River Plate Basin, Venezuelan kinetism, Brazilian concretism, and various constructive schools from the history of Latin American art expressed in painting, design, objects, and sculptures.

Although he was represented by only one sculpture, the Uruguayan Gonzalo Fonseca stood out in the area of constructive universalism due to the enigmatic qualities and the great symbolic potential radiated by the dwellings of his piece. In a singular fashion Fonseca captures allusions to eternity, the impossibility of absolute knowledge, the difficult access to knowledge, nostalgia, remembrance, and communion with the cosmic that materialize in his forms. The artist demonstrates his love for archeological richness and his fascination for the cultural, the esoteric, and the mysterious. He has a unique way of handling volumes with cavities, esplanades, or spaces within which he situates geometric structures and the idea emerges of a container, box, reliquary, sacrarium, or place dedicated to a primitive cult.

Madi art was a high point of the show as well and produced a nucleus of numerous top-quality pieces from this movement born in August of 1946 at the French Institute of Superior Studies in a now-famous exhibition. There were a number of examples of paintings, sculptures, and objects with their points and lines on one surface, the irregular frame, and the rupture with the orthogonal frame (pioneered by the Uruguayan Rhod Rothfuss in 1944), an emphasis on planism in the painting, and a development of articulated, rotational,and changing movement in the sculpture.

The show provided the opportunity for a journey of re-encounters toward a moment of glory in abstract art from the River Plate Basin with examples of other schools linked to the Madi movement, such as perceptivism and spatialism. Prominent among these were the works of the Uruguayan Carmelo Arden Quin and of the Argentines, Gyula Kósice and Raúl Lozza, and standing out above them all were the sculptures of the Argentine Ennio Iommi and the works of the Italian-Argentine Lucio Fontana.

Rooms spotlighting Carlos Cruz-Diez from Venezuela, the Brazilians Lygia Clark and Hélio Oticia, the Venezuelans Alejandro Otero and Jesús Soto (who also received a well-deserved, small yet successful special homage in the San Pedro Theater), the Brazilian Sérgio Camargo, the impressive presentation of the enormous sculptures by the Brazilians Ascanio and Franz Weissman, and works by the Brazilian Amilcar de Castro were a few of the many possible outstanding options in this broad tour of constructive, geometric, and kinetic abstraction in which Venezuela and Brazil certainly claimed a noteworthy place. In nearly all cases there were major works provided an authentic overview of these creators. There was even a very interesting spatial installation by Cruz-Diez.

The Political Tendencies

In the spaces devoted to the theme of politics, the New Figuration from Argentina stood out, particularly the canvasses of Luis Felipe Noé and Jorge De la Vega who continue to exert an enormous influence. The series of paintings by the Brazilian João Câmara Filho were very interesting as were the now quite well-known installation by the Brazilian Cildo Meireles about the Jesuit Missions, a particularly hermetic and well-done piece by Luis Camnitzer, the subtlety of the Brazilian Rosana Palazyan, the customary intelligence and precise formulation of the Chilean Gonzalo Díaz and the excellence of two of the best political approaches of the Biennial: that of the young Uruguayan Jorge Soto and that of the veteran Argentine León Ferrari.

León Ferrari is truly repulsive and contentious. He presents a series of photos with interventions of Braille in which he uses biblical texts, newspaper images, prints of Japanese erotic art and Persian engravings to attack the Church, the cruelty of certain messages from the Old and New Testaments, the violence contained in religion, and he allows himself to make analogies with a brutal demystification.

João Câmara Filho manages to relate in a singular fashion the polemical history of Getulio Vargas with a style in which elements successfully comingle which could be traced to German New Objectivism (»Neue Sachlichkeit«), Pop, hyperrealism, realism, and surrealism, without identifying himself with any of those aesthetics in particular. He navigates the hazards of narration and achieves some outstanding moments. His is a bet in which syncretic and idiosyncratic representation are joined. He is an artist of great character. Despite the rise of installations and environments, painting is not dead and no matter how insistently the ever-present predictors of doom hand painting its death certificate, the works of Câmara Filho bear witness to its vigor.

Rosana Palazyan dares to work with Eucharist wafers - a unique surface without a doubt - upon which she imprints the faces of murdered children and produces a terrible criticism of violence made metaphor in that symbol of the body of Christ. The photo performance by Gonzalo Díaz criticizes orthodox Marxism, applying his fierce irony to the hammer and sickle in Cybachrome, neon, objects, and enormous panels bringing together diverse techniques of expression of great current relevance and with a fine thematic aim.

The Uruguayan Jorge Soto showed his talent and professionalism once again in the form of an installation. Fifty-two engravings (bas-relief impressions) surrounded an enormous structure of galvanized pipes in which were located water basins and spigots. In spotless white were the names of some of the protagonists of a period of the political confrontation during the Uruguayan military dictatorship (1973 - 1984) including prisoners, victims of torture, and the dead from both sides: the military, members of death squads and the disappeared.

On the metal base one could see the dates of the three coup d'etats in the history of Uruguay. The water-filled basins served as baptismal fonts and sinks, playing with the idea that we all have a bit of Pontus Pilate in us, while a very significant sign, »Made in Uruguay«, allowed for a variety of sarcastic readings. A tube made of red rubber alluded to the blood poured into the River Plate. All of it suggestive, intelligent, well-made, and lacking demagogic stances or univocal readings; it contained a multiplicity of metaphors without falling into the explicit or the hermetic; it was conceptual but without losing the force of the object's presence.

The Last Five Years

Here as well were testimonies to the vigor of painting, above all in the work of the Uruguayans Javier Bassi and Martín Verges Rilla. The former displays an undeniable kinship with Francesco Clemente while the latter, an emerging young man still unknown in his own country, converses intertextually with the Renaissance. In both artists, however, their influences mingle in a juicy syncretism in light of their undeniable pictorial gifts.

In the realm of installations, two very subtle Chilean women stood out: Nury González and Rosa Velasco, as well as the original work of the Brazilian Rosana Palazyan, always imaginative at the moment of selecting her supports. This time she opted for the underpants of very small children in order to reveal the terrible scourge of violation and violence. Another contribution to that space were the neodadaist sculptures of the gaucho Félix Bressan.

But above all, it was the project of the Venezuelan Javier Téllez that stood out. With an emotionally moving installation, almost unbearable in its severity yet very well realized and with a dead-on social marksmanship beyond all demagoguery and simplicity, Javier Téllez recreates a terrible room in a Third World psychiatric hospital where problems of psychic imbalance, psychiatric medication, and emotional conflicts are piled on top of poverty. »La extracción de la piedra de la locura« (»Extracting the Stone of Madness«) is made up of hospital beds, wheelchairs, furniture in deplorable condition, rotten oranges and other fruits, and screens with videos repeating the same scene of a monotonous delirium of sick people rendered imbeciles through medication. It all is rooted in actual experience in the San Pedro Hospital in Porto Alegre where Téllez did his field research. There are multiple critical readings regarding abandonment, poverty, and the psychiatric medication of society proposed through the names of Moises Roitman, Esquivel, Ana Freud, Philip Pinel, Mario Marins, and Sigmund Freud. And the art is paradoxically in the hands of the sick people for their subtle embroideries laying on the beds are what brings beauty to the claustrophobic space, barely ventilated by a small, barred window.

Unevenness and Ups and Downs

These are only a few of the dozens of valuable projects in a successful biennial that demanded of the visitor a marathon effort and which required a minimum five-day stay, a visit that certainly was worthwhile apart from the unevenness and the ups and downs of the show. However the famous names were not always represented by top-quality work. The School of the South of Torres García was in quite good form but not so its master, Joaquín Torres García, of whose work a better submission should have been sent. There were historically interesting paintings by the Argentine Alfredo Hlito but they didn't reflect the substance of his later production. More demanding eyes might have excluded the Paraguayan Enrique Careaga and the Argentine Nicolás García Uriburu. There was only one sculpture by the Uruguayan Gonzalo Fonseca, an artist whose three-dimensional art has not been exhibited in the Southern Cone and needs to be made better known. The Argentine Julio Le Parc was undervalued by a minor work while his countryman Boneverdi had too many pieces. There were other cases of minor works by major artists: the Brazilian Adriana Varejao has more interesting and better-presented pieces, the Uruguayan Carlos Capelán has achieved fuller postulates in other installations and the same is true for the Argentine Guillermo Kuitca, who has produced far more substantial installations.

A much better selection could have been made of work by the Chilean Alfredo Jaar and the Argentine Graciela Sacco was far below her usual level. And perhaps in this first Biennial, the high tech tendencies could have been left out as it was poorly represented, quite weak, and projected a provincial image in the Mario Quintana Cultural Center. It was of a dreadfully low quality given what one sees in this field in any international biennial, museum of any developed country, or the Kassel Documenta. But successes surpassed failures, among the former, an extraordinary and efficient organization visible above all in the weeks following the inauguration of this mega event.

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