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)

 

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

Repetitive Affect: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Reykjavik Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, God I feel so bad, 2008

In addition to the many treats of my recent trip to Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum had the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad on view, the first museum exhibition of the performance artist in his home country. The extensive exhibition ranges over time and medium, from early drawings to elaborate recent performances. Its title, selected by the artist, comes from a 2008 drawing that is on display and suggests the mood of playful pathos that finds more performative expression in other works on display. Kjartansson says: “I like that title a lot. It’s both true and ironic, precisely the way I feel everything is. Duplicity is everywhere. The works all revolve around how bad I feel and how everybody feels bad, and how you try to giggle when you face the abyss.”

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Cue the music. The tenor of the show is struck–literally–in the live performance Woman in E. I could hear the E-minor chord, resonating through the space, when I first entered the museum. As I made my way toward it, in one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I was confronted by fluttering gold steamers. They obscured my view of the plaintive noise source. Parting the gold curtain and entering, I discovered a woman in a gold-sequined gown standing on a rotating plinth of more gold streamers. At regular but not rhythmic intervals, she struck the E-minor chord of her gold Fender electric guitar. The jolt from each note is strong and individual rather than forming a melody. E-minor has thoughtful, melancholic connotations. The statuesque presence of a women on a pedestal and the title suggest a synesthesia between music and visual art, between the works of classical composers and classical sculpture. A rotating cast of local performers enact this spectacle until September 3, when it will be replaced by another performance.

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Kjartansson is an increasingly well-known artist internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Palais de Tokyo in Paris, New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Guggenheim Museum Balboa. In 2009, he became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and his S.S. Hangover project sailed across the Harlem Meer as part of Creative Time’s 2015 “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” exhibition. Kjartansson’s work has been said to combine theater with experiments in repetition and endurance, as a piece like Woman in E suggests. Affect can mean an instinctual reaction to stimulation rather than the result of a complex intellectual process, and it suggests the sensory and emotional realms. The works on view in the exhibition are often repetitive but always affective. The combination productively undermines, intensifies, and calls into question the relation of the one quality to the other. Does the repetition nullify the affective qualities? Or does it mount to an ever more intense catharsis? Is the work of art a saving grace or a hollow gesture?

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Kjartansson himself has said: “All the longing to make something great — but it’s never great; it’s always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn’t happen. I think it’s the ultimate human moment.” That ethos is on view upstairs, in the most complex work in the show, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist. Filmed in Vienna in 2015 with a crew of friends and family, the four-channel video installation documents some twenty hours of an attempt to perform Halldór Laxness’s novel World Light. Against handmade backdrops, we see actors waiting, idle chatter, the rap of the clapperboard starting a scene, the performance of the scene until finished–or until a line is flubbed, a laugh erupts, and the scene begins again. Kjartansson is there too, seen in shots directing or interrupting the scene, in a trademark white tux, with hair slicked back, like a 1950s crooner. Happening concurrently on four large facing screens in a darkened room, its impossible to watch them all, much less discover the plot. The action is that of the group filming rather than the novel itself, but even that lacks a narrative arc. Rather, it shows the seemingly endless process of filming. It’s point is perhaps that flawed striving for an elusive transcendent, in this case the transformative art experience. The human realm reaches up for the exalted work of art, but it lies just beyond the grasp, like the plot of the novel for the viewer.

In the final room of the show, whose noise echoes out into the hallway where it competes with the softly throbbing E from the other part of the building, is an ongoing screening of A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14). It is a recorded performance of the band The National playing their 3-minutes song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at MoMA PS1, and it solidifies the idea that endurance is required. The experience of watching it is like having an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head). You kind of like it, then you tire of it, but it keeps popping back up. It begins to sound different and you start to hear all the possible nuance and inflection. Sorrow is a conceit that Kjartansson has tackled before. Is it cathartic to repeat the exploration of such full-fledged emotion? The emotive lyrics of the song become emptier, as with repetition one is reminded that they are sung by rote rather than by real feeling. It reminds how lyrics are indexical, a pointing back at some original feeling, even if they feel real when performed. And yet, to keep going, to keep singing, suggests a kind of faith in absolution, a belief in the act of singing and the artifice of catharsis as truly valuable.

On view at the Reykjavik Art Museum through September 24, 2017.