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