By Roberta Smith
In December 1983 the Argentine Conceptual artist Marta Minujin and a group of helpers spent 17 days building a full-scale model of the Parthenon in a public park in Buenos Aires. Except for a metal scaffolding, it was made almost entirely of books wrapped in plastic. All the books had been banned by one of the most oppressive juntas in the country’s history, which was just being dismantled after Argentina’s first democratic election in a decade. “The Parthenon of Books/Homage to Democracy,” as Ms. Minujin’s work was titled, stood for about three weeks. Then the public was allowed to disassemble the piece and keep the books.
Even in grainy black-and-white photographs, the temple of books looks awesome, if slightly disheveled. (No matter the distance, books can’t be confused with marble.) It juts above the heads of the crowd gathered around it, as if sitting on its own printed-matter Acropolis. You had to be there for the full effect, I’m sure, but just seeing the photograph, reading the caption and thinking of the previously banned books funneling into circulation are both enlightening and moving.
That may be your reaction to quite a bit, if hardly all, of “Arte No Es Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000,” at El Museo del Barrio: Maybe you had to be there, but what you see here is pretty interesting on its own.
This ethereal exhibition has been organized by Deborah Cullen, the museum’s director of curatorial programs. It covers four decades of ephemeral performance work and actions by more than 100 artists and collectives from Central and South America, as well as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, who were working in their home countries, the United States or Europe. It represents a quantum leap in knowledge about Conceptual or nonobjective art in Latin America, considering that international surveys of Conceptual Art tend to include 10 or at most 20 artists from that region.
Some of the names are familiar, among them Ana Mendieta, Hélio Oiticica, Tania Bruguera, Alfredo Jaar, Coco Fusco and Eugenio Dittborn. But most aren’t.
The exhibition contains far more documentation than actual artworks, but this is not such a limitation. Dominated in its early sections by black-and-white photographs and videos, it is foremost an archive, with an archive’s aura of dense, ordered information; mysterious images; and new information and understandings. It delivers on all counts.
Its main message is that while Latin American Conceptual or nonobject artists were heterogeneous, they tended to differ from those in Europe and North America by emphasizing accessibility, audience participation and sociopolitical relevance.
Conceptual Art in North America has trickled down to the popular level in the ways it has influenced entertainment and advertising. In South America it was aimed directly at that level from the get-go, perhaps because of regional character but mainly from immediate need.
The show has its share of generic anti-art but also numerous examples, like Ms. Minujin’s piece, in which the artistic imagination and the pressure of historic events click with effective results. The pressures were great. At different times in different countries in this region, avant-garde impulses were transformed by the liberation movements of the 1960s. Often they went head to head with growing anti-liberation tendencies: military dictatorships, human rights violations, economic instability and material lack, which all caused great suffering but also inspired unity and courageous acts.
Ms. Cullen has organized the exhibition in chronological sequence, dotted with national clusters and divided into thematic sections like “Precursors” (which shows Ms. Minujin and other artists working in Paris in the early 1960s), “Burning Issues,” “Happenings,” “Border-Crossers” and “Dreamscapes.”
There are exceptions to the information flow. Near the beginning, in the “Destruction” section, hangs “Archeological Find #21,” a glowering wall relief that is actually a violently flattened sofa from 1961 by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, the founder and first director of El Museo del Barrio. Midway there is an enlarged Magrittean golden comb filled to the teeth with golden hair, dated 1984-97, by the Brazilian artist Tunga.
Art objects proliferate in the show’s final section, which is devoted to the years after 1990, when artists everywhere have tended to give Conceptual strategies some kind of lasting physical manifestation. This is true even if the objects are Daniel Joseph Martinez’s little metal museum tags, originally made for the 1993 Whitney Biennial, that state “I Can’t Ever Imagine Wanting to Be White,” or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pile of red, white and blue wrapped candies, free for the taking.
Don’t miss the largish color photographs with which Freddie Mercado Velázquez documents himself swanning around San Juan, P.R., in 19th-century drag (here an Ingres, there a Sargent). And the show’s great fade-out is an enchanting color video that may make you blink in disbelief: a genuine flea circus cast, outfitted and trained by the Colombian artist María Fernanda Cardoso.
The tensions between liberating and oppressive impulses that energize the show are clearest in the beginning. Whether they are major or minor, profound or hilarious, you feel artists constantly pushing the aesthetic, social or legal envelope. An exception might be Todos Estrellas (the All Stars), a group of Cuban artists and critics whose frustration with interference from the Castro regime led them to form a baseball team; photographs show a 1989 game. (“Fidel likes baseball” is how Noel Valentín, a Cuban and El Museo’s registrar, explained it.)
Near Mr. Ortiz’s flattened couch, violence becomes more real, or at least more referential, in photographs of Artur Barrio’s “Bloody Bundles” sculptures, parts of butchered animals tied in sheets. They caused considerable consternation when Mr. Barrio distributed them around public gathering places in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the late 1960s, mimicking the way paramilitary forces, acting under the dictatorship, often dumped the mutilated bodies of torture victims in more remote areas.
More benign, but in some ways equally basic, was the traditional rural oven that Victor Grippo built in a square in Buenos Aires in 1972, baking and distributing bread until the police intervened. And far more elaborate is “Image of Caracas,” a happening that ran for 20 days before being shut down by the Caracas city government. Housed in an enormous tent and projecting images on towering screens, it involved the efforts of scores of artists, actors, musicians and filmmakers, overseen by the film and theater director (and now painter) Jacobo Borges. The photographs and videos documenting it here provide the show’s most euphoric, glamorous moment.
Beyond that comes a lone newspaper clipping, an article about “Happening for a Deceased Boar.” Its title echoes Joseph Beuys’s famous performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” but it never actually took place; it was a hoax contrived by the Argentine artists Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa and Raúl Escari. (Fittingly this is in the section titled “The Medium Is the Message.”)
In the “Border-Crossers” section you’ll find documentation of the urban interventions of Asco, a group of Los Angeles artists (Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herron, Patssi Valdez and Humberto Sandoval), which included spraying their names on the outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And the section titled “¡Junta! No!” provides a haunting example of art in action from the Collective of Art Actions, known as CADA, formed in 1979 at the height of the Pinochet regime by the Chilean artists Lotty Rosenfeld, Juan Castillo, Fernando Balcells, Diamela Eltit and Raúl Zurita.
The several CADA actions documented here include “Oh, South America,” from 1981, in which six small-engine planes flying in military formation dropped 400,000 leaflets on Santiago. The leaflets — a torn example is on view — offered creative encouragement: “Each individual who works for the expansion of the space of his or her life (even if mental) is an artist.” In 1983 CADA and other collaborators began to write “No +” on the walls of Santiago at night. As Robert Neustadt, a professor of Latin American studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, recounts in his essay in the exhibition’s catalog (in preparation), this fill-in-the-blank protest slogan — “No more dictatorship,” “No more torture,” “No more disappeared” — was soon taken up by the public. It became emblematic of the growing pro-democracy movement and even appeared on the scoreboard of the National Stadium during the inauguration of the democratically elected government of Patricio Aylwin in 1990.
As in other parts of this exhibition, it could be argued that some of CADA’s activities don’t need to be called art, that they constitute very effective agitprop meldings of idealism and activism. Yet the show’s title, “Art Is Not Life,” seems to prohibit such blending. Art is not life, especially when life is dire. But artists can illuminate, relieve and occasionally help change life, and art can proudly take some of the credit.
“Arte No Es Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000” is on view through May 18 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street, East Harlem; (212) 831-7272, elmuseo.org.