Se­bas­tian Smee is moved by a chal­leng­ing and eclec­tic ex­hi­bi­tion of works from Latin Amer­ica

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - The Hours: Vis­ual Arts of Con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­ica Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney. Un­til Septem­ber 2.

AUS­TRALIAN art lovers are be­ing treated to the ben­e­fits of out­landish sur­plus as never be­fore. The Art Gallery of NSW in Syd­ney is host­ing The Arts of Is­lam, a stun­ning ex­hi­bi­tion drawn from the col­lec­tion of one of Bri­tain’s wealth­i­est men, Nasser David Khalili. It is also show­ing a se­lec­tion of works from the col­lec­tion of UBS, a cashed- up fi­nan­cial ser­vices firm in­tent on in­creas­ing its clout in the in­ter­na­tional mu­seum world.

In Melbourne, the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria is ex­hibit­ing works from the Guggen­heim col­lec­tion, at the core of which are the private col­lec­tions of wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ist Solomon R. Guggen­heim and his niece Peggy Guggen­heim.

And fi­nally, Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art is show­ing The Hours, a fas­ci­nat­ing se­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­i­can art from Daros- Lat­inamer­ica, a foun­da­tion set up in 2000 by Swiss bil­lion­aire Stephan Sch­mid­heiny.

Sch­mid­heiny, an in­vestor, in­dus­tri­al­ist and the in­her­i­tor of a large fam­ily for­tune, ranks 221 on Forbes mag­a­zine’s 2006 global rich list. That makes him stu­pen­dously wealthy. Khalili, a prop­erty mogul as well as an art col­lec­tor, ranks a mere 746.

What­ever feel­ings you har­bour about peo­ple with gar­gan­tuan for­tunes, it re­mains the case that both of th­ese men have dis­tin­guished them­selves by their un­usual and dar­ing com­mit- ment to the arts. Khalili, an Ira­nian Jew, has com­bined se­ri­ous schol­ar­ship in his pre­ferred field of Is­lamic art with a long- term com­mit­ment to rais­ing aware­ness about Is­lamic cul­ture ( he also fos­ters un­der­stand­ing be­tween Jews and Mus­lims through his Mai­monides Foun­da­tion).

Sch­mid­heiny’s com­mit­ment to art is not quite on Khalili’s level, but his com­mit­ment to more tan­gi­bly use­ful propo­si­tions, such as sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, is im­pres­sive: in 2003 he do­nated $ US1 bil­lion to such causes.

The Daros- Lat­inamer­ica col­lec­tion was only five years old when this ex­hi­bi­tion was put to­gether. It has a more il­lus­tri­ous sib­ling col­lec­tion, the Daros Col­lec­tion, rich in post- war Amer­i­can and Euro­pean works by artists such as Willem de Koon­ing, Jack­son Pol­lock and Andy Warhol.

But where the Daros Col­lec­tion has a rather pre­dictable as­pect to it ( much of the col­lec­tion was passed on to Sch­mid­heiny by his brother Alexan­der), Daros- Lat­inamer­ica is much more the baby of Stephan and his wife, Ruth.

Their de­ci­sion, as Swiss bil­lion­aires, to fo­cus on con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­i­can art might seem quixotic. But Sch­mid­heiny’s busi­ness deal­ings are con­cen­trated in Latin Amer­ica, and he and his wife have tried hard to en­gage with the con­tem­po­rary cul­ture of that re­gion.

So much for the back­story. What about the art?

It’s very good. Five years is not a lot of time to put to­gether a mu­seum- qual­ity col­lec­tion but, on this ev­i­dence, Daros- Lat­inamer­ica’s di­rec­tor, Hans- Michael Her­zog, is on the right track. The Hours is a chal­leng­ing and in many places beau­ti­ful show, nec­es­sar­ily par­tial and un­even, but in­volv­ing through­out.

It was se­lected by Ar­gen­tinian cu­ra­tor Se­bas­tian Lopez and opened at the Ir­ish Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Dublin, in Oc­to­ber 2005. ( It is the third ma­jor show in a row that the MCA has im­ported from else­where.)

Much of the work is con­cerned with pol­i­tics, as you would ex­pect of art from such a trou­bled and his­tor­i­cally com­plex part of the world. But in most cases you feel the artists’ first loy­alty is to the cre­ation of forms that res­onate ar­tis­ti­cally and are charged with am­bi­gu­ity.

Con­sider the work of Colom­bia’s Doris Sal­cedo, which we en­counter early in the show. Noviem­bre 6 con­sists of no more than three chairs made from steel and lead, oddly buck­led and mis­shapen, in an oth­er­wise empty room.

The ti­tle is im­por­tant: the date refers to the trau­matic events, now largely forgotten even in Colom­bia, that took place on Novem­ber 6 and 7, 1985. A guerilla group stormed the Palace of Jus­tice in Bo­gota, tak­ing hostages and killing 11 Supreme Court judges and 65 court of­fi­cials and vis­i­tors. The build­ing was gut­ted by fire.

Sal­cedo’s artis­tic re­sponse to this event, 15 years on, is ini­tially con­found­ing. The chairs stand there, heavy, thwarted, mute: at once use­less and som­bre. They evoke wait­ing, but also ab­sence, dev­as­ta­tion.

The ex­pe­ri­ence is made haunt­ing by Sal­cedo’s re­straint. Her in­stal­la­tion con­tains no pho­to­graphs of dead peo­ple, no news­pa­per head­lines, no blood on the walls. In­stead, we wan­der around the small room, try­ing to make sense of the chairs’ ir­ra­tional place­ment and altered form. With a slight twinge of in­ad­e­quacy, even shame, we re­alise we can’t.

Sim­i­larly, the peo­ple of Colom­bia, Sal­cedo seems to im­ply, have been un­able to make sense of what hap­pened that day. In­stead, the gov­ern­ment and the me­dia have col­luded with the pub­lic in a cam­paign of de­lib­er­ate for­get­ful­ness. There is a no­bil­ity about Sal­cedo’s work, but also a sense of crush­ing des­o­la­tion.

Nearby, strik­ing a sim­i­larly som­bre note, is a se­ries of near- in­vis­i­ble images by an­other Colom­bian, Os­car Munoz. Munoz’s work re­minds us that the events of Novem­ber 6 and 7 were hardly iso­lated. In truth, Colom­bia has

ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lence and civil than 50 years.

In his bril­liant work Aliento ( Breath), Munoz con­jures up the mem­o­ries of those who have died in this strife, and he does it in the most be­guil­ing and po­etic way. On steel discs pol­ished to mir­rors, he has used a pho­to­graphic process called photo- serig­ra­phy to im­print por­traits culled from obit­u­ary no­tices. When we get up close, we see only a greasy smear and our own re­flec­tion. But when we breathe on to them, the con­den­sa­tion of breath con­jures the images of th­ese dead peo­ple, briefly sup­plant­ing our own mir­ror- im­age be­fore fad­ing away again.

The work ex­presses not just the im­per­ma­nence of me­mory but the tran­si­tori­ness of life, and it does so with great power.

Time is a leit­mo­tif through­out the show. Hence the ti­tle, The Hours. Hence, too, the light sprin­kling of quotes from Ar­gen­tinian writer Jorge Luis Borges on the walls and in the cat­a­logue ( some in in­vis­i­ble ink, slowly re­veal­ing it­self over time). Borges was in­ter­ested in fork­ing re­al­i­ties, mir­rors, maps and labyrinths hinged on ideas about time, and Lopez con­tends that many of the works in the show have sim­i­lar con­cerns.

In the case of the works I have just men­tioned, he’s right, and the con­nec­tion feels fer­tile. Other works, too, have a vaguely Bor­ge­sian feel: the map in­scribed on a mat­tress by Ar­gentina’s Guillermo Kuitca ( who is prom­i­nent in this year’s Venice Bi­en­nale); Vik Mu­niz’s mar­vel­lous pho­to­graphs of re­con­struc­tions, from gath­ered dust, of pre- ex­ist­ing art works; and Rosan­gela Renno’s en­larged re­prints of found, slightly

strife for more dam­aged pho­to­graphic neg­a­tives show­ing tat­toos on the tor­sos of male pris­on­ers. All th­ese works ex­plore the con­ceit of lay­ered re­al­i­ties and elas­tic time with wit and po­etry.

But if you haven’t stud­ied Borges, don’t worry: it’s es­sen­tially just a cu­ra­to­rial con­ceit. The Daros- Lat­inamer­ica col­lec­tion, as Her­zog is at pains to point out in the fore­word to the cat­a­logue, has not been built with any over­rid­ing theme in mind. And in the end the good works in the show hold their own, while the weaker works are not re­deemed by Borges.

Lopez’s con­tri­bu­tions to the cat­a­logue — es­pe­cially his notes on spe­cific artists — are gen­er­ally lu­cid and il­lu­mi­nat­ing. The con­tri­bu­tions of his col­league Eu­ge­nio Valdes Figueroa, on the other hand, are dread­ful. It would be easy to blame the trans­la­tor, but that’s not fair; here it’s clear that the trans­la­tor’s task was hope­less from the be­gin­ning.

Some of the works, such as Betsabee Romero’s car tyres en­graved with mu­si­cal no­ta­tion, are con­cep­tu­ally over­loaded. They trot out al­lu­sions and ref­er­ences, then whinny: ‘‘ In­ter­pret me! In­ter­pret me!’’ ( Cu­ra­tors are the only ones who like this kind of art: it makes them feel nec­es­sary.)

But the ma­jor­ity of what is on show com­bines imag­i­na­tion with for­mal prow­ess. I was par­tic­u­larly taken with the printed books made by Brazil’s Wal­ter­cio Cal­das ( an­other artist prom­i­nent at the Venice Bi­en­nale). Th­ese com­bine a rig­or­ous sen­si­tiv­ity to shape, line and colour on the page with acutely judged sculp­tural in­ter­ven­tions. The ef­fects are dream­like but pre­cise.

The won­der­ful cal­li­graphic writ­ing by Ar­gentina’s Leon Fer­rari is an­other high­light. Fer­rari, who was born in 1920, is yet an­other artist fea­tur­ing in Robert Storr’s show at the Venice Bi­en­nale. He once wrote po­ems by Borges over pho­to­graphs of nudes by Man Ray, as well as verses of the Bi­ble over re­li­gious images.

He be­came fas­ci­nated by the me­chan­ics and the ide­o­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of signs and lan­guage in the ’ 60s, when many peo­ple in the arts and in lit­er­a­ture were ab­sorbed by the new aca­demic field of semi­otics. He made draw­ings which con­sist of hor­i­zon­tal rows of marks that re­sem­ble script but are in fact il­leg­i­ble.

Those dis­played here are el­e­gant, yet strangely elu­sive. In the way that hand­writ­ing in­evitably does, the works seem to re­veal as well as to con­ceal the self.

De­spite their for­mal el­e­gance, they seem charged with la­tent con­tent, and they chime, in this sense, with some­thing fel­low artist Mu­niz said about Brazil in the 1970s: it was ‘‘ like a semi­otic black mar­ket’’. Mean­ings, in other words, could not be trusted and were ef­fec­tively up for sale.

Keep an eye out for the ‘‘ mu­tant’’ paint­ings by New York- based Ar­gen­tinian Fabian Mar­cac­cio: they are as am­bi­tious, as for­mally in­ven­tive and as gor­geously coloured as any re­cent ab­stract paint­ing I can think of.

And keep some­thing in re­serve, too, for Maria Fer­nanda Car­doso’s sur­pris­ingly el­e­gant sculp­tures made from dead frogs and lizards. Car­doso lives in Syd­ney, but was born and grew up in Bo­gota. Her works draw on an­cient Colom­bian sym­bols but re­fer sub­tly to present- day po­lit­i­cal strife. They are re­strained, macabre and strangely joy­ous all at once, not un­like the show as a whole.

Un­even but in­volv­ing: Clock­wise from fac­ing page, de­tail from Maria Fer­nanda Car­doso’s Danc­ing Frogs on Wall , Doris Sal­cedo’s Noviem­bre 6 , Fabian Mar­cac­cio’s Transcod­i­fi­ca­tion Model # 2 and Os­car Munoz’s Aliento ( Breath)

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