Introduction by Jane Farver
Politics and Ethnicity in the Work of Luis Camnitzer by Gerardo Mosquera
What attracts me most in the work of Luis Camnitzer is his perspective
toward a political art oblivious to propaganda and graphic illustration.
He does not pursue it to its limits, which artists involved in militant
social action would do, but this relates to the ambiguity which informs
his work and his personal life. A conceptualist who focuses on analyzing
the language and concept of art, he breaks tautology in the direction
of reality. Rational to the point of asepsis, interested in ideas, he
searches, however, for magic and mystery. The poetry of objectivity does
not exclude intense subjectivity. But ambiguity does not only reside in
the double orientation of his work, it also becomes the content.
Camnitzer's social and political work is made to elicit thought. At once
it possesses a complex metaphorical dimension while also stressing the
more individual aspects. It is an art of ideas and experimentation with
language, which eschews messages directed at involving the viewer's participation.
Without grandiloquence, achieving distance through humor, his work can
be intellectual or carried on picket-signs. The intellectual side of his
production created through force of circumstance runs the risk of appealing
to a limited audience and the danger of being reified as merchandise.
Nevertheless, his work is paradigmatic in as much as it counteracts the
nihilism, banality, and narrowness of much contemporary art.
The permanent integration of social critique with subjectivity, of objectivity
with poetic symbolism, clearly separates his work from that of Alfredo
Jaar, Hans Haacke, or Group Material, where conceptual discourse is used
to achieve more direct effect, with a greater sense of denunciation and
deconstruction. Some Cuban artists, like Ponju'an, Rene Francisco, and
Somoza, move with a double-barreled approach close to Camnitzer's. However,
no matter how tropologically they work, their work addresses concrete
problems. Eugenio Dittborn, by way of contrast, can be placed on the other
extreme, with social criticism merged with anthropology.
The series about torture stands out in this Camnitzerian style of making
art political and presents a singular case within the topic: it is not
a work of denunciation, but of internalization of torture. I could even
dare to call it a lyric paean to torture. Poor Latin America, which has
achieved poetry through the electric prod!
Of course the series conveys an accusation, possibly the most effective that can be uttered, since it evidences the degree of growth of practice throughout the region to the extent that it has become entrenched in our subconscious. The imaging of terror, so delicately and subjectively, denotes profound recognition.
One of Max Aub's literary characters comments that, in spite of the advance of technology, torture has not made great strides. "Can anything hurt more than having fingernails torn off?, and that is as old as the world." He was wrong. Western progress soon prevailed also in this field. Starting with the war in Algeria, scientific torture design came into being and then became systematized most rationally in the Southern Cone during the 1970s. It was introduced by the United States, mainly through the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone. Perfected by its technicians in practical settings and mass-distributed to unprecedented extremes, it proved crucial to the repression of revolutionary movements, and the dominance exerted by military regimes. Camnitzer's style adjusts to express cold, bloodless, and unhurried torture in contrast to the emotional brutality imposed by former Latin American dictatorships.
The series avoids sadomasochism and the testimony of horrors to concentrate on the humanity of the tortured, in his or her spiritual survival in an extreme situation. It is torture viewed from within, but without sentimentality, in conjunction with the objective phrase, metaphor, and subjectivity. It may also be a balancing of personal accounts by the author, enduring a guilt complex for not having suffered under the dictatorship. Taking refuge outside of Uruguay, he found a symbolic way of enduring torture, which adds a sense of intimacy to the pieces in the series.
The work of Camnitzer breaks the expected cliche's in Latin America art.
A Latin American idea art seems a contradiction in terms for those
who think of the continent's culture only as a mixture of romanticism,
atmosphere, the fantastic, and a sweetish memory of fire. Many ignore
the fact that Latin America was a foyer of concretism and kinetic
art. But not even all the geometric artists put together would achieve
the prices of Remedios Varo. What is bought is "otherness," to satisfy
the more sophisticated needs for exoticism under the guise of cultural
relativism. The hegemonic is always Me, while we are the Other.
But ethnocultural concerns are not excluded. In the work of Camnitzer
or that of Alejandro Otero, these parameters infuse a personal poetics
in areas normally untouched by them. Otero designed huge, industrially
produced, kinetic towers inspired by a mysticism about the grandeur of
landscape rather than by an interest in machinery. Camnitzer's work derives
from the the metaphysical humor typical of the River Plate area and its
approach to the mystery of life and with the "plot reversals" that knit
existence. He belongs to the tradition of gorges, Marechal, and Cortazar.
He responds to a background of late European immigration, with its tension
between uprootedness and the recognition of a new ethnic self-awareness.
Because of a lag in the development of an anthropology about nontribal
societies, we tend to relate ethnicity with the "primitive." WASPs are
not "ethnic"; "ethnic art" is only that produced by dependent "minorities."
Therefore it is expected that they be at least somewhat "primitive" in
order to be themselves. This bias would cost Borges the Nobel Prize, since
he seemed too European. But gorges, as Camnitzer, is very Latin American,
even if neither has "Indian" roots.
These complexities enhance the interest of Camnitzer's trajectory beyond its intrinsic coherence and the value of his work. His retrospective exhibit shows an artist alive, contending with problems of his time.
From the Uruguayan Torture, 1983
Topographical Change of a Word Sequence, 1969
Moebius Strip, 1973