Politics of Gestures and of Life

Text publlished on occasion of the exhibition Politics of Gestures and of Life, with the works by Fernando Bryce, CADA, Lotty Rosenfeld, espaivisor Gallery.

Art helps us to more precisely understand our surrounding environs and its context even in cases when it has no social or political pretensions. On the other hand, when its understructure and goals are clearly political, this understanding of our surroundings becomes a kind of unveiling of what powers-that-be try to conceal. The function of artists who act politically is not to represent an artistic activity but to construct a reality that competes with the officialdom of its adversary, generally defended by governments that limit freedom, or are unfettered by the constraints of memory or self-critique. When they suffer from a lack of memory, there is usually an authoritarian government near at hand, or at least the lingering effects of one, the product of a still enduring legacy; when what they are lacking is self-critique, one can gather that their democratic processes are still unseasoned.

The exhibition bringing this year’s season at espaivisor to a close juxtaposes different ways of makingart that always attempt to unmask ruling officialdom, whether this be during Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile, as in the case of C.A.D.A. (Colectivo Arte de Acción) or Lotty Rosenfeld; or whether it is in the present period, as in the case of Fernando Bryce’s socio-political exploration of momentous events and characters from twentieth century history. The differing proposals endorse the same idea that art and its makers are, first and foremost, eye-witnesses of a concealed or disguised reality which needs to be exposed.

Fernando Bryce (Lima, 1960) arrived at art from a political analysis of society and of history. He takes his referents more from newspapers and newspaper archives than from the history of art, tied to all kinds of stylistic movements and formalisms which are taken as a logical given rather than an influence. On one hand, we have the visual, textual and graphic research of the story that turns mechanical documents (printed press, photos, tabloid rotogravure, film posters or advertising material) into sensitive elements through a process of manual copying. Here, technology is reverted to pre-technology and takes on the stature of a work of art. Essentially, it is a noble step: deciding what deserves to be turned into a story in its own right, culled from social reality and transformed into part of his personal gaze which, at once, is always inserted in a collective process. On the other hand, the experimentation is geared towards recontextualising historical facts and bringing them into a present that tends to accept history as a succession of inevitable events, to use them as material to speak about and question the current moment.

The series of works on view here combines events from the two world wars that connect and confront France and Germany, and in which communism is shown as a once viable utopia that, with the passing of time, was revealed as a dystopian landscape, without ignoring the characters who, at least initially, conceived it as a real commitment with society. Les fussilés de Châteaubriant(2011) is a polyptych of 30 drawings depicting the 27 members of the French Resistance executed by firing squad on 22 October 1941, during the German occupation in the Second World War, with the collusion of Vichy government collaborationists. This collective execution was one of many carried out around the same time as a cautionary lesson following a terrorist act by members of the Resistance which killed Lieutenant-colonel Karl Hotz who was responsible for the Nazi troops occupying Loire-Atlantique. In general, the works depict characters who capitalised historical revolutionary moments, like the communist activist Willi Münzenberg, first president of the Young Communist International, Lenin, and the multifaceted Franz Jung who, together with Heartfield and Grosz, founded the illegal journal Neue Jugend, the seed for the future Dada movement.

Another section of Bryce’s work on display here features reworked 1930s war film posters. One diptych sets Stosstrupp(Hans Zöberlein, 1934) side by side with Tannenberg(Heinz Paul, 1932), two examples of German propaganda films focused, respectively, on the trench warfare in the Great War and on the Battle of Tannenberg, a German nationalist symbol used as motivation for the construction of the Third Reich. In sharp contrast, the anti-war film Westfront 1918. Vier von der InfanterieWestfront 1918(Georg W. Pabst, 1930) and its French version Quatre de l’infanterie (also on view)show the trenches from the viewpoint of four ordinary soldiers removed from, yet directly affected by, the hunger for power of politicians and nations. As well as another pair of film posters (includingJ’accuse, by Abel Gance), Bryce’s contribution to the exhibition is rounded off brilliantly with a large sculpture called Hoz y martillo(Hammer and Sickle, 2014). The classic symbols of Communism, entwined to form a trademark, are made with metal rods, outlining the silhouette and leaving the interior hollow, perhaps a metaphor in consonance with the grandiloquence of forms and the emptiness of their implementation.

The show continues with the work of C.A.D.A. (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), a group active between 1979 and 1985 comprising Diamela Eltit, Raúl Zurita, Juan Castillo, Fernando Balcells and Lotty Rosenfeld. At the same time, Lotty Rosenfeld (Santiago de Chile, 1943) is also exhibiting her solo works, the registers of her art actions. On one hand, there are seven interventions by C.A.D.A. in the public space in Santiago during Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973-1990) which are shown in videos, photographs (of members of the group and of the actions themselves) and some symbolic or instrumental objects used during the actions. All the group’s actions were conceived to confront the ruling dictatorial power by means of art, the word, text, physical presence and the image.

Inversión en escena (Scene Inversion, 1979) and Para no morir de hambre en el arte (Not to Die of Hunger in Art, 1979) astutely identify the scarcity of food with the cultural and artistic shortcomings of the time. Both works employ milk as a symbolic element of nutrition. In the former, a convoy of eight milk trucks paraded through the city and parked in front of the National Museum of Fine Art, while the collective hung a white canvas on the door to the cultural centre. In the latter, they distributed ½ litre bags of milk to the poor people in a marginal community and sealed 30 litres of milk inside a transparent cube in an art gallery. The action was rounded off with the publication of a text in the only journal run by the opposition and with a speech given to an international organisation.

Two actions carried out in 1981 leveraged signature activist gestures. For¡Ay, Sudamérica!(O, South America!) the group launched 400,000 pamphlets from six airplanes flying in formation over Santiago, the capital city of Chile. El fulgor de la huelga(The Splendour of the Strike) shows the space, the members of the collective and the blankets with which they slept during the time they were on hunger strike against the military dictatorship. A la hora señalada(High Noon, 1982) features a neon light on the floor, with two men, one on either side, ready for a duel; “El neón es el arma” (the weapon is neon) reads the text printed on the image. Viuda (Widow), the final action, from 1985, comprised the insertion in various journals and newspapers of the portrait of a woman with some textual inscriptions underscoring the role of women in dramatic processes of assassinations and disappearances associated with dictatorships.

A special mention is deserved for the series of actions encompassed under the title No+(1983), which adumbrated the birth of social consciousness in Chile ten years after the military uprising and served as the beginning of a critical attitude which expanded as a slogan. The catchphrase “No +” (which reads in Spanish as “no more…”) could be completed with any word, image or action referring to something that needed to be changed, that needed to be extirpated from society and thus enable the country to return to the path of democracy, from which it had been detoured following the coup d’état. Together with videos of some of the actions, especially those capturing the moment when the banners with the slogan were unrolled and deployed, there are also photographs of paintings in urban places and even on a rocky outcrop by the sea.

Some of Lotty Rosenfeld’s early art actions coincide in time with those she was also involved in as a member of C.A.D.A. but, unlike them, all her individual actions contained a physical bodily gesture coupled with a question and an answer. Crosses are a way of having a bearing on the public space from the personal vision of the artist: from her point of view, from the need to know (about) and be in the world. The isolated gesture was capable of becoming a succession of crosses that occupy a mile or it could be just an individual sign, but over and above the question of quantity, the crosses pose questions on what we take for granted and then open a path that, insofar as a subtle gesture, can continue endlessly. The crosses take over the public space and, as such, become a political action. It is the act of subverting a straight line and turning it into a cross, “+”, which alters the everyday ordinariness of traffic lines, or creates lines and crosses where there were once no marks on the ground, materialising a thought through an action and, in this brief and intense process, staking out a place in the world.

On the other hand, the titles of the art actions contain the place where they were carried out. The political act of using the public space is compounded by the symbolic content of the chosen places, first in Chile, but later around the world. The stock exchange in Santiago, the Andes mountains that separate Chile from Argentina, the Astronomic Observatory, the Museum of Fine Art, the La Moneda presidential palace, the White House in Washington D.C., the University and Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, the City in London and the Acropolis in Greece … are all places loaded with political and symbolic power, where the crosses alter their institutionalisation as spaces representing those powers. The crosses are also introduced generically in locations which are less coded, less marked, for instance in anonymous highways or in industrial parks, launching a direct message that does not discriminate or create hierarchies between different kinds of publics.

Subtended by broad-ranging information and interrelating various works and historical situations removed from one another, this complex, profound exhibition nonetheless manages to pose many questions and bring positions closer together. In doing so, it engenders a political attitude in simple gestures and in the way in which apparently simple lives, now made more decisive, are lived intensely and politically.

Translated from Spanish by Lambe&Nieto.