Monuments of Latin America, reconsidered, at the Museo del Chopo

Pablo Helguera, O gran Tlatoani, aqui esta el plan de arte publico, 2009

The exhibition Monuments, anti-monuments, and new public sculpture opens with a joke: Pablo Herlguera’s Artoon about a fictitous pre-Columbian ruler’s plans for a new monument ends with the punch line: “public art is not for the public but for the government.” A healthy skepticism runs throughout the exhibition at the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City, whether looking back at the optimistic modern sculptures erected along the 1968 Ruta de la Amistad for the Olympics games in Mexico to a critical reappraisal of the monument among a later generation of artists across Latin America.

Helen Escobedo & Paolo Gori, exhibition copies from Monumentos mexicanos. De las estatuas de sal y de piedra, 1980

A selection of photographs from a photo book published in 1980 introduces the turn toward critical reappraisal of monuments in public space. The black-and-white images of public sculptures across Mexico suggests their plethora and diverse contexts. In the range of historical figures represented, it also begs the viewer to question the history that it represents: why these men (and they are mostly men), and why these moments from Mexican history? Looking at their dynamic, impressive poses in a serial fashion, one after the other, each becomes less individually powerful. It creates the impetus in the viewer to question the root of society’s desire to memorialize personages who are tied to conquest, now-defunct political parties, and war as well as the manner and style in which the statues are made.

Exhibition view of models for the Ruta de la Amistad

The ambitious project of building monumental sculptures along the Ruta de la Amistad in Mexico City is represented here through models, photographs, and a 1970 dance video with Raquel Welch dancing in a space-age bikini in front of the sculptures. The ebullient tone of the colorful models and the gyrating dance both speak to a hopeful future. The different ways of learning about the Ruta de la Amistad show not just the sculptures, but their reception and later their fall into neglect. Care of public sculpture can easily become a monumental task as well.

Installation view with sculpture by Juan Fernando Herrán and photographs by Iván Argote

As the show broadens out, into the present and beyond Mexico, curator Pablo León de la Barra asks us to rethink the real and symbolic occupation of public space in Latin America. Occupation is a key word for these countries with their colonial histories. Juan Fernando Herrán’s series A Thousand Heroes is represented here with a rough wood base for an absent sculpture. Its function, to subvert the basic mechanism of power on which such monuments rely, speaks to the particular context of the artist’s native Colombia. Many of Colombia’s 100-year-old statues were imported from Europe, so that its nation-building project was made through the techniques and hands of its colonial masters. At the same time, Herrán’s empty pedestal speaks across that particular history to any society where heroes and leaders are absent from memory. Two photographs by Iván Argote, from a series called Turistas, likewise questions the stone leaders of Bogota. Argote photographed sculptures of European leaders, carved in western attire, wearing traditional ponchos. Below, Christopher Colombus points south, but the gesture is hollowed out by the poncho he is wearing. The colors of the poncho echo the colors of the graffiti that has accumulated at the statue’s base.

Iván Argote, Christopher pointing out the South, at Bogata, 2013

Across the course of the show, the optimism of the massive modernist sculptures created for the Olympics in Mexico city in the late ’60s gives way to criticality and suspicion in several works that consider the destruction and movement of monuments. The shows ends on a political jab, bringing the monument, or a satirical reversal of it, into the present moment with a grotesque plaster form of a florid Donald Trump laying on the floor. Created by a collective of Puerto Rican artists in the past year for an exhibition at Proyectos Ultravioletas in Guatamala City, Radamés “Juni” Figueroa, Melvin Laz, and Rafael López use the opposite of the glory and power of the monument by putting a form of the current U.S. president on the floor, shirt unbuttoned over a protruding gut, tongue sticking out. It is titled Bad hombre.

Installation view featuring Radames Juni Figueroa, Melvin Laz, and Rafael Lopez’s Bad hombre (2017)


Outside of Time: Hiroshi Sugimoto at Japan Society

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In 1582, four recent converts to Christianity were sent from their home in Japan to Europe and the papal court by the Jesuit mission in Japan, as evidence of its success. Called the Tenshō embassy, the four boys met the Pope and saw the great sites of Renaissance Europe before returning home eight years later. Contemporary Tokyo-born, New York-based artist Hiroshi Sugimoto came across the story of the Tenshō embassy while he himself was photographing in Italy. Struck by the parallel paths that he and the boys had taken, despite being divided by some 450 years, Sugimoto began the work that is on view at Japan Society through January 7, 2018. “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” reimagines this early modern moment of cultural exchange between Japan and Europe in an exhibition of large-format silver gelatin prints, augmented by historical works made in Japan in the 16th century.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

One enters the first darkened room of the exhibition with the prospect of a disorienting journey: on facing walls is an image of the ocean, with the horizon a graduated smudge rather than a clear line, and blurred photograph of the leaning tower of Pisa, that familiar tourist icon perpetually off-kilter. The conceit is that the envoys of 1582 could have shared just such a view as Sugimoto, and now the viewer of the exhibition, has.

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That conceit continues in the next room, a large gallery of some-dozen meticulously photographed images of the splendors of Europe that the boys likely saw in exactly such a state, rendered here in large-format silver gelatin. Although some of the images were originally taken to be part of Sugimoto’s ongoing project of photographing theaters, the artist also retraced the steps of the envoys and found ways to create views seemingly out of time. Seemingly any of us might encounter such sights by moonlight, whether 500 years ago or tomorrow, so great is their realism. Although not necessarily solemn, they feel heavy, as if the weight of history and the span of time were somehow compressed in them. Sugimoto describes hearing the voice of the four boys come to him from across time, but to me the ghosts seem to be the buildings themselves. Conspicuously unpeopled and seemingly melting into the night, these buildings and rooms are not quite of this world and make pretense to the eternal.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In addition to Sugimoto’s work, the exhibition also includes Japanese folding screens of the period, a common trope of which was the depiction of the arrival of European ships. The popular Japanese luxury commodity shed light on cultural context of Japan at time of Tenshō embassy. Jesuit missionaries in Japan commissioned liturgical objects from craftsman, who inevitably adapted the Christian forms to the local materials. Later a European artist arrived to train the local craftsman. The presence of the artist in this dawn of early Modern age and global trade is continued in the work of Sugimoto, who today participates in global circles of trade and intercultural exchange.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight, 2014, installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

Continuing from the historical screens, the work that follows is Sugimoto’s pièce de résistance: Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight is a photographic print of a famed Japanese screen of the same name from the Edo period done in paint and gold leaf. Muted silver gelatin is pasted on a support to mimic the original screen is form and size. This utterly gorgeous reproduction transforms the original screen into another, replicant art object. Rather than a photograph that tries to capture documentary reality, it evinces a being of its own. If the former is of a specific place and time with a role in the world, Sugimoto’s screen is seemingly unmoored from that, a ghost with a referent to reality but no clear place of its own in this world.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

The final room of the exhibition contains photographs of Ghiberti’s bronze panels in the doors of the baptisty in Florence, a treasure of Renaissance art that portrays scenes from the Old Testament. Rendered in the greyscale of silver gelatin, Sugimoto’s prints darken the gleaming panels. The art object in itself makes pretense to the eternal; it presents itself as a truth that will be self-evident in perpetuity. Ghiberti made his original bronze panels to be beautiful and enduring works of art. Sugimoti’s photographs seem to study that condition even while they inhabit it. On one hand, yes, they are beautifuly made prints so large and convincing that they also seem to be etchings or masterful drawings in graphite. In such a way the clear reproduciblility and documentary nature of the photograph is smudged a bit. On the other hand, this moody artistic portrayal that still manipulates the original bronze into something to be seen afresh is like an attempt to distill the imagery, to translate it into a new genre.

Interestingly, rather than presenting it as documentary photograph, with a display structure of cases with clear bright lighting, the galleries of the Japan Society are darkened, with careful spotlights on each of the works. The room is silent and dark, isolating his photographs in a way that the bronze panels on the doors of the Baptistry in crowded Florence would never have been. Sugimoto’s photographs ensconce themselves in the aura of the art object, and in doing so raise questions about the value and transcendence of art as much as much as the prevailing theme of time that runs through so much of his work.

Fire, Humor, and Water: Videos by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group at Asia Society

Installation view with FX Harsono’s 1998 Burned Victims in foreground

Several provocative video works in After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History, on view at Asia Society through January 31, caught my eye, notably ones by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group. The curators chose the works in the exhibition not as a survey of art from Southeast Asia–there are only 7 artists and 1 collective from 3 countries–but because they speak to the role contemporary art can have in countries struggling with reform, free speech, and democracy. FX Harsono uses blowtorches and chainsaws in aggressive performances that express rage at political events in his native Indonesia. Of a later generation, the Propeller Group, a collective of three artist connected to Vietnam, use humor in their polished video works to point to lingering dissonances in contemporary Vietnamese society.

FX Harsono. Detail, Burned Victims, 1998. Burned wood, metal, shoes.

Destruction and Burned Victims are literal titles for these late ’90s video performances. FX Harsono performed Destruction in 1997 as a response to concerns about voter fraud under president Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government. In it, he destroys theater masks resting on three chairs, which represent the three political parties then vying for power. Couched as a piece of public theater–with Harsono in traditional make up and the masks referring to puppet theater–it was also an act of civil disobedience. At that moment, assembly of more than five people was illegal in public space. Harsono attacks and destroys the wooden masks, first by chainsaw and then by blowtorch, in front of onlookers.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

Burned Victims memorializes a protest in 1998 against Suharto that turned violent–rioters locked civilians inside a shopping mall in Jakarta and set the building on fire. The sculptural installation is equally grisly–a row of charred, torso shaped pieces of wood suspended on metal frames, each of which has a pair of burned shoes at the end. The different pairs of burned shoes turn what might be a more abstract sculpture into something much more stark and horrible, reminding of the individuality of the victims of the fire. In the video performance, Harsono douses the torsos with gasoline and lights them on fire. Signs with slogans of Riot burn, and Harsono places another sign in front of the audience: “Who is responsible?”

The Propeller Group. (Still) The Dream, 2012. Single-channel HD video; 4 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Propeller Group, who had an exhibition last year at James Cohen gallery, strike a different tone. Their two video works use humor to critique society in a more distant and subtle approach than Harsono’s outraged cry. One, called The Dream, shows a Honda Dream motorbike that, strategically placed overnight on a city street by the artists, is dismantled of its parts by various thieves as the night wears on. The skeleton of the bike is on view in the gallery in front of a time-lapse video of the night. It is quite humorous to watch this ubiquitous Vietnamese status symbol disappear over the course of the night. Behind the joke, the Propeller Group also comment on the corrosive elements of capitalist change that has swept the nominally Communist state.

Installation view of The Dream at Asia Society, featuring stripped down body of Honda Dream motorbike in foreground

The second work that they show, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, consists of two facing monitors–one plays Viet Cong promotional footage from 19631 and the other shows present-day foreign tourists shooting old AK47s leftover from the Vietnam war. The tourists mug for the camera as they gleefully enacting war scenes. Both videos are about the Cu Chi Tunnels, underground passages used by the Viet Cong to combat the U.S. during the Vietnam war that are outside Ho Chi Minh City. The same soundtrack and captions overlays both, highlighting eerie parallels despite the disjunct in time and purpose. Both the old propaganda and the new tourist site are distant from the carnage and suffering that characterized the lived experience of the war, and indeed, instead seem designed to perpetuate such history as war games.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

From the far end of the exhibition galleries comes the sound of rushing water. Already, in contrast to blowtorches and AK47s, the use of water rather than fire or guns strikes a less violent note. In this video performance, Harsono writes his name in Chinese characters over and over again. The artist is ethnically Chinese, a minority in Indonesia, and in the face of discrimination against the language and culture, he only learned the Chinese characters of his name as an adult. We watch from the other side of the glass panel as the strokes of black paint begin to overlap and take up more and more of the surface, growing into a black mass. Suddenly water pours down from above, washing away the ink even as the artist keeps making the motions with his hand. Rather than water as a cleansing agent, here water is a deluge sweeping away the artist’s Sisyphean efforts in a show of force and might.

FX Harsono. Writing in the Rain. 2011. Video performance