You believe you are different because they call you a poet and you have a separate world beyond the stars.
From watching the moon so much, you have stopped knowing how to look, you are like a blind person who doesn't know where he goes.
—From a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui
Anything that keeps something upright helps the work of the police.
—Internationale Lettriste 2
In my imagination, art started with some cave person doing something so unexpected, unknown, and awesome that it escaped any word available at the time. Somebody then must have decided that it should be named art (since I am writing in English). Since that event, people have been trying to fit into the word and not into the experience. They followed the techniques used for that first experience and neglected to deal with what caused its use.
As a result, we live in a world rigidly defined by crafts and disciplines. During the mid-1960s, I and many of my colleagues slowly, and for different reasons, retreated from a craft-defined art and shifted into the realm of ideas. In cultural centers like New York, the shift was done through reduction and dematerialization of the work of art. The focus was primarily on the material support and on what was called its dematerialization. But this quest was confined to a disciplinary view of art. There were things that belonged to art, and there were things, like politics, that did not.
On the periphery, Latin America included, the accent was on communication of ideas, and given turmoil, economic exploitation, and cold war, a great percentage of ideas dealt with politics; thus politics were in. This created a big divide between center and periphery. The center—in this case identified primarily as New York, which had taken over the previous role of Paris—created the term "conceptual art" to group manifestations that gave primacy to ideas and language, making it an art style, historically speaking. The periphery, however, couldn't have cared less about style and produced conceptualist strategies instead. These strategies were formally open ended and much more likely to be interdisciplinary.
However, since art history is written in the cultural centers, this difference got obscured, and only those artists who are seen as fully fitting the style are recognized. What I am trying to do here is to trace the roots and genealogies of Latin American conceptualism from its own tradition rather than treating it like a derivative product of what was current in New York and Paris, often many years later.
As an art student in Uruguay during the 1950s, absorbed in a student body that was probably as militant as the rest of the Latin American students of the time, if not more so, and immersed in an atmosphere of dreams about social change, I discovered that one of the recurring topics of discussion was whether art could have real impact on the world. Was art, as we would pose schematically, a "weapon" or only an elitist pastime? Never mind that during the 1950s Uruguay was still affluent, democratic, and proudly fitting the stereotype of "the Switzerland of Latin America." The country had profited richly from the wars of others by selling beef, and it afforded a stable government, a rabid separation of church and state, free education through final degrees, equality for women, early retirement, and pretty much whatever one would hope from a progressive state. But we still posed those questions that would be debated with more cogency in the following decade. Maybe the fact that we were dealing with a nonreciprocated image—Switzerland was never called "the Uruguay of Europe"—was a giveaway of what international perception was about.
Nevertheless, we art students went on with our questions, such as, Was it right that art was an activity performed in isolation from the daily experience? Even then it was clear that the controversy over socialist realism versus abstractionism held no meaningful answer to this question, despite what many of our teachers claimed. Nor did it help to put up the works of artists like Uruguayan painter Pedro Figari (1861-1938)—with what could superficially be seen as charming postimpressionist landscapes—and Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)—with apolitical and pleasing murals—as examples of a true autochthonous art in opposition to militant Mexican muralism. This trick served to define Latin American bourgeois identity within the narrow field of art and taste, but it wasn't of much help for anything else. There was an atmosphere of complacency in what we were learning and doing.
It was the emergence of the Tupamaro guerrilla movement in Uruguay during the mid-1960s that made me see things a little differently. Not long ago I found a scrap of paper from 1970 on which, for reasons I don't remember, I had written down a kind of genealogy: Dada—situationism—Tupamaros—conceptualism. Over the years, the sequence in this list lost significance for me, partly because I stopped believing in one seamless global history of art, and partly because the list itself came to seem too narrow and rigid in its exclusive concern with "art" history. But the idea that the Tupamaros' operations were a valid form of art making stayed with me. It made me think more about the artificiality of some of the distinctions we make between people's activities, and it led me to seek local histories in which both art and other actions are revealed as responses to immediate surroundings. A global history of art or a unified master narrative of art history becomes less absolute and fixed in this way. An outside view that does not take this history for granted makes one healthily paranoid about hidden agendas, and then assumptions as to cause and effect in the history of art (e.g., realism-impressionism-cubism, etc.) suddenly become suspect.
All these concerns became very important for me, beginning in 1966, and they led me to pursue conceptualist strategies in my own work since then. Around 1968, coincidentally and not as a consequence of international turmoil (student revolts, anti-Vietnam rallies), pressure from art theoreticians and galleries started to build up in the New York scene to fit all conceptualist endeavors into what is known as conceptual art. Some issues, like institutional critique and dematerialization, seemed to overlap with our work. Thus, it became important at the time to try to figure out the ideological and formal differences, if there were any, between what my generation of Latin American artists was doing and what was being produced in the cultural centers shaping hegemonic culture: New York and Paris.
One of the perceptions shared by that Latin American generation was a Latin Americanism that went further than the feeling that one belonged to one nation-state, and, without opposing it, fell somewhat short of the other feeling that one belongs to one world. Not that there was a clear definition of what "Latin American" actually meant, beyond sharing a more or less common language and to some extent an irritation or worse toward imperialism. Maybe that is one reason why, when we talk about Latin American conceptualism, there is the danger of equating precise geography with general and vague characteristics attributed to the whole continent. To tell the truth, the work we associate with conceptualism was not that evenly distributed geographically and did not happen simultaneously. For unexplained reasons, the clear first centers were seated in Brazil and Argentina and within the community of Latin American artists living and working together in New York. Uruguay followed, and then a slow expansion took place into Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Chile. Much later, the ideas were picked up in the other countries of Latin America. But even if the movement developed in such a pointed fashion, it doesn't make sense to describe conceptualism as an accumulation of narrow national art movements. The continental awareness, the ideas about a political and economic Third World, and particularly the existence of the Cuban Revolution, which exemplified a political and economic alternative to the taken-for-granted or forcefully imposed U.S.-capitalist model—all helped to transcend nationalism, even when particular local items were addressed. Each time the movement appeared in a particular country, the artists seemed to have a Latin American perspective and not a nationalist one, because local political opposition was always seen within a continental framework, with awareness that Latin American independence could only be achieved continentally and not country by country.
However, the vague commonality of the art also occurred on nonideological levels. As art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez has pointed out, Latin American conceptualism includes sensorial qualities usually forbidden in the conceptualist canon of the North American and European art centers. The work, beyond the anguish produced by social needs, is allowed to be pleasurable. This makes Latin American conceptualism, compared to the work of those centers, outright pagan and dirty. Seen from the mainstream (unless we view willfully derivative examples), the art tends to be impure and hybridized, fails to follow the rules, and is thus heterodox. Seen from within Latin American conceptualism, the art just is what it is, without pursuing comparisons to the mainstream. It has its own roots, and to be understood, it requires both a proper set of definitions and an appropriate historical framework, which is what I am in search of here.
The importance of the local context in the story of conceptualism in Latin America therefore cannot be stressed enough. "Dematerialization," one of the buzzwords used to define mainstream conceptualism and made standard there by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, is relevant but not all-encompassing. While dematerialization was certainly a factor in Latin American conceptualism (with an earlier use in Argentina), it is less useful than "contextualization" to explain the distinguishing features discussed in this book. Contextualization is more dependent on ideological references to how one confronts social problems than is dematerialization, and in Latin America, the choice of dematerialization follows a prior set of ideological concerns.
All this and more to come in this text identifies me as a revisionist, an observation previously made about an exhibit I co-organized with Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s. Robert Morgan, the author of that particular critique, differentiates "historical revisionism" from "historical reevaluation," explaining very well that
reevaluation is the aspired direction of any self-critical historical discourse. It is a method—a historical inquiry—based on the discovery of new material that was unknown (for whatever reason, whether political, economic or social) or previously ignored. On the other hand, revisionism carries with it a certain degree of skepticism or, in some cases, a disingenuous motivation. At its best, revisionism suggests that what was given precedence in the past should be weighed in relation to other histories; that there may, in fact, be a conflict between new facts based on evidence recently excavated and certain assumptions that, until now, have been sacrosanct. At worst, revisionism disclaims the extant historical record as false, based less on impartial research than on ideological concerns, and that the former history should be erased and logically replaced by another version of that history [sic].
Following Morgan's useful distinction, this text should neatly fit the category "revisionism at its worst." I have no new historical information, and nothing has been excavated. The argument is that, insofar as Latin American conceptualism is concerned, the former (canonic) history should be erased and "logically replaced by another version of that history." I treat the "extant record" not exactly as false, but as so blatantly oblivious of the achievements of other people and so ideologically loaded that, in fact, we can only confront it appropriately armed with a clear ideology. Given the options Morgan offers, "revisionism at its worst" is the only sensible route I can take. Morgan also seems to believe that any politicized revisionism is Marxist (which he accepts as interesting, but questions in terms of its accuracy). In any case, my model is not that of some iconic political theoretician, but rather a modest and secondary mainstream artist: Amédée Ozenfant, to whom I am drawn by my education and background. As Ozenfant wrote about purism in 1931, I would say about conceptualism, that it
is not an aesthetic, but a sort of a super-aesthetic in the same way the League of Nations is a super-state. By which I mean that, superior to individual fashions of feeling, thinking and acting remain always the "constants." . . . [It] is therefore not a form of art, but an attitude of mind and procedure. . . . Art is not a matter of the particular technique used; that is merely the interpretative agent.
I always liked Ozenfant's clarity on this—the fact that he was not trapped by the narrow-mindedness of history preceding him. Ozenfant's book on modern art is highly personal, really a manifesto. I don't know if he wanted to clarify the history of art, but I think he wanted to challenge many of the ideas held about art in his time, and thereby force an understanding of his generation of artists. I am hoping that this same honorable description may apply to my own text. Ozenfant definitely was a revisionist at his worst. I may not agree with his formalist ideology, but I appreciate his explicitness about his project. One doesn't have to dig to find out what he stands for, nor is one misled by affectations of objectivity. In my experience, histories invariably serve a purpose that goes beyond the organization of information. The form in which data is selected and compiled bears messages. From this perspective, multiple histories are essential, enriching rather than impoverishing interpretation.
The two quotations I put at the beginning of this introduction attracted me because they seem to set the tone for much of the Latin American art I am concerned with. They also tell about the direction my revisionism will take. Atahualpa Yupanqui, an Argentine Amerindian poet and singer who was particularly fashionable while I was growing up in Uruguay, warns about elitism in art. The Lettriste statement, an antecedent to later declarations by French situationists, prefigures the antiauthoritarian rebellions of Paris in May of 1968. It points to the potentially subversive nature of dematerialization, hinting at a sort of political dematerialization. The quotes should be read together, since what interests me is not subversion for subversion's sake, but rather the way Latin American conceptualism synthesizes a commitment to art with a commitment to a better life. Today, when, unfortunately, being ethical seems to be the only tool left with which to exercise resistance, proactivity may appear to be a romantic and dated pursuit, but to me it remains an issue worthy of understanding and, I hope, useful for survival—which, of course, puts this text into a perspective dangerously close to a review of political activism in art rather than an analysis of an aspect of regional making of art. But, not being an art history scholar, I can allow myself to do this.
In any case, there is more than political activism in this exercise and in what is described here. While we had a good education that included all the expected great thinkers, we also read authors less acknowledged in the cultural centers. For example, one of the intellectual influences my generation had while I was a student was the body of writings of Italian writer Giovanni Papini (1881-1956), particularly his book Gog. Papini was widely read in Latin America during the 1950s, and I consider him to be one of the most relevant authors in preparing the ground for modern-day Latin American conceptualism. His own connection with art was not considerable except for a short membership in the futurist movement and for his book Gog, originally published in Italy in 1931. But Gog proved to be a piece of seminal importance. Gog is a millionaire who keeps receiving proposals from artists hoping for his financial support. Each submitted application is described in a corresponding story. In "Musicisti" (Musicians), a Bolivian composer asks for funds to compose music pieces based on silence. According to the composer:
All music tends to silence, and its power lies in the pauses between one sound and the next. The old composers still needed these harmonic crutches to unravel the secrets of silence. I have found a way to dispense with the superfluous structure of notes and offer silence in its genuine state of purity.
After hearing this, Gog enthusiastically ripped a check from his checkbook, filled it with the requested amount, and handed it over, unsigned, to the composer.
In "L'industria della poesia" (The Industry of Poetry), Papini describes several experiences with poets. A German poet known for his precision managed, after twenty years of work, to condense 50,600 verses into one single word: Entbindung, which means "to unbind," "to untie," but also "to deliver or release," and, more literally, it refers to the separation of mother and child by the cutting of the umbilical cord. Another poet, this one from Uruguay, composed a poem based on the sound of the chosen words, totally disregarding any meaning. The last poet, a Russian count, firmly believes that poetry only exists in the conjunction of poet and reader—the first suggests; the second fills in. His creation consists of a book with one title per page on otherwise empty pages.
When these ideas entered Latin America via Papini, nobody was aware of either Marcel Duchamp's transposition of his notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and the use of lyrics based on dictionary meanings of "imprimer" (Faire une empreinte; marquer des traits; une figure sur une surface; imprimer un scau sur cire) into musical scores ("Erratum Musical," 1913), or John Cage's silence piece "4'33"" (1952). Cage's composition, so amazingly close to the Bolivian composer's work, was particularly influential in the development of U.S. conceptual art. It is not clear if Cage was aware of Papini's story (the English version of Gog was published in the United States in 1931), but Cage credits Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951)—which he saw during his residence at Black Mountain College—as his inspiration, and not Papini.
In these stories, Papini was able to carry the absence of subject matter to an extreme. The dematerialization within an already dematerialized medium intended to ridicule the reductive tendencies of the avant-garde movements of his time. Papini's intentions were sarcastic, and one should not make the mistake of placing him in a protoconceptualist tradition. However, his writings, when read in the late fifties, had a completely different impact compared to when they were initially published. Gog was probably indebted to the French Incoherents and to the artists belonging to Hydropathe and Hirsute (often the same people), who during the 1880s had created works critical of the French academy and the Salons.
These nineteenth-century pieces were pranks, not theoretical statements, even if their liberating effect paralleled that of subsequent movements, and one can assume that they might have informed them. The same can be said about the pedagogical aspects of the Russian poet in Papini's story. He poked fun at progressive teaching as exemplified at the time by the methods developed by Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. These systems stressed the participation of children in their own education, and the Russian can be interpreted as an advocate for the complete emptying of "teaching" of any substantive content. Papini approaches the process itself and makes believe that he is completely empowering the reader.
Papini's perspective adapted well to the Latin American context. While he offered an "anthropological" critique, so to speak, and shared conservative positions on social and artistic issues, it was very easy to read him equally well from a progressive point of view on art forms and politics. Thus, a syllabus for a sculpture class developed in the School of Fine Arts in Montevideo in 1960 lifted a Papini description from Gog. It was a story about a sculptor who created his sculptures out of the smoke coming from a fire built in a garden. He quickly shaped the smoke by hitting it with a piece of cardboard.