We are 5,000, here in this little corner of the city.
How many are we in all the cities of the world?
All of us, our eyes fixed on death.
How terrifying is the face of Fascism
For them, blood is a medal,
carnage is a heroic gesture.
Song, I cannot sing you well
When I must sing out of fear.
When I am dying of fright.
When I find myself in these endless moments.
Where silence and cries are the echoes of my song.
— Lines written by Chilean artist and political activist Victor Jara before being tortured, his hands chopped with an axe, and murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s military henchmen in September 1973 at a stadium holding thousands of people rounded up by the Junta, his body thrown out into the streets of Santiago.
I spent several weeks in Chile some 18 months after that fateful date, traveling from Bolivia through the breathtaking, stark beauty of the Atacama desert of the north with its abandoned nitrate — and open-pit copper mines monopolized by British and later American capital. I stayed in Santiago for a while, where bullet holes remained in plain, demonstrative view, riddling the presidential palace, La Moneda, where the democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende had been killed during Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
I knew of the violence of the new regime, which was fully supported by American industrial giant I.T.T. and the CIA (U.S. banks also extended more than $150 million in short‐term credits to Chile, and the Pentagon sold it 52 jet fighter and combat support planes in those 18 months) but had no clue to its extent. Today’s officially recognized number of victims of the Junta — people killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons — is 40,018. That might not even account for the many “disappeared,” thrown out of helicopters into the sea.
Military officers responsible for Jara’s murder were finally sentenced to 15 years in prison, in 2018, almost half a century later. Slow moving wheels of justice and all that. Barely anyone talked to me in 1975, much less about politics: The country seemed frozen in shock or fear, and a nightly curfew was still in place.
Although the days of the Junta are over, Chile is under duress in other ways, equally threatening to its population, particularly the working class and the indigenous folks exposed to the consequences of mining. A United Nations report from two months ago states that Chile faces a daunting series of interconnected environmental crises that violate human rights, including the fundamental right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The country is particularly exposed to the effects of the climate crisis: It is among the 20 nations with the highest level of water stress in the world. Droughts and water pollution around lithium mining are intense: Lithium is a major export and subject to fierce struggles over ownership, bringing an unprecedented 1.5 million people out into the streets to protest for environmental justice four years ago.
All this as an introduction to Chilean artist Jorge Tacla and his work (his list of many achievements is found in the link), on view in Beaverton at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, in partnership with Converge 45.
The local arts organization, comprised of art professionals and business leaders, starts its Biennial officially on August 24, 2023. Planned are 15 exhibitions by international and American artists across multiple venues, tackling, as the organizers put it, “how art interacts with global power shifts in contemporary society, including how art is at the vanguard of societal redefinition and shifts towards more participatory culture.” Watch for more reviews by various writers on ArtsWatch in weeks to come, covering a wide spectrum of the shows.
The list of artist names — I have obviously not yet seen much of the work itself for the upcoming Biennial — suggests a surprising and challenging curation by art critic and author Christian Viveros-Fauné.
I. Jorge Tacla: Stagings/Escenarios
At a time when the wagons are circled, and exclusionary nationalism (and worse ideological forces) once again raise their ugly heads in so many of the countries we thought were steadfast democracies, a transnational approach to art is certainly important. Knowledge of an artist’s background, temporally, geographically and culturally, might help us to gain a greater understanding if not appreciation of his work, which is surely affected by specific experiential pressures.
Tacla came of age in Chile during the time of the military coup and left the country for the United States in 1981, these days sharing his time between New York City and Santiago, Chile. Add to that his Syrian and Palestinian ancestry — peoples exposed to inordinate amounts of suffering and oppression across their histories — and a heightened sensibility for abuses of power and the consequences of displacement is to be expected. That sensibility indeed influenced the contents of his work that I encountered at The Reser, in an exhibition titled Stagings/Escenarios.
Three exhibits of his work are on view: a video, Injury Report/ Informe de lesions, that relates to the book-burnings by the Chilean Junta, a timely reminder for us in our own country that the step from banning to burning is but a short one, once autocratic power is fully unleashed; and two paintings. One painting is extraordinarily large, displayed on wooden structures that make it look like a billboard. The other is traditionally hung. Staging, rather than scenarios, feels like an aptly chosen title for the show, given the way the paintings dramatize catastrophe.
Sign of Abandonment/Señal de abandono 60 (offered with an instruction: interpretation left to the viewer) depicts an interior view of a room that could be a tiled kitchen transformed into a provisional field hospital, or a torture chamber, constructed with hastily thrown-together cinderblocks.
Central is a kind of operating table, with a side shelf of medical-looking instruments and tinctures, surrounded by amorphous forms that could be shackles or handcuffs, under a hovering cloud of markings that resemble musical notes, the echoes of resounding screams, or, alternatively, buzzing insects attracted by the remnants of bodily fluids.
The one unambiguous representation in this monochromatic web of hints and suggestions is the visual anchor of a patch of blood, with a few tiny splashes detectable here or there. It steers our attention to the subjective suffering of a human being, whether harmed in situ or patched back together on a make-shift bed, creating empathy, but also narrowing our focus to victimhood. It forces a gruesome vision of physical harm, drawing us into the literal as well as metaphorical darkness of that chamber. Not much room for interpretation, frankly, if a puddle of blood gets visual place of honor.
The larger painting, Sign of Abandonment/Señal de abandono 34, displays a panoramic view of collective suffering rather than honing in on a singular imagined body under duress. A frontal view of city blocks bombed to shreds evokes the real-life catastrophe of the siege of the Syrian city of Homs, where a three-year-long battle between the military and oppositional forces a decade ago led to indescribable acts of barbarism by Assad’s henchmen, until the rebels withdrew and the government took hold.
It is a truly interesting painting, despite flirting at times with clichéd ambiguity: Are the pinks and coral hints at the horizon a hopeful sign of dawn, or are they the glow of still smoldering fires? Are the wispy clouds testimony to an indifferent nature, or plumes of smoke?
What made it fascinating to me is the subversive use of columnar arrangements, spatial divisions by means of subtle changes in coloration, vertical lines and actual, distinct columns that overlap on some of the four panels that comprise the entirety of the painting. The columns are enclosed in an unending repetition of violently destroyed human habitat.
Columns and repetition were a device of what art historian Meyer Schapiro called “despotic art,” or arts of power, starting with baroque displays of endless columns in churches and cloisters, or colonial architecture in Egypt and India, government buildings with porticos, down to the mass-media presentation of his time, then the 1930s, in the new medium of photography, capturing hangars filled with rows of airplanes, or military divisions marching en bloc.
Tacla is turning the table, using those elements from the perspective of the displaced, rather than that of the abusive forces: The repetition of block after block of unmitigated destruction induces horror rather than awe. In its cityscape expansiveness it calls to mind a 19th century painting of another hell, by John Martin — note the columnar repetition of the government buildings or an imaginary reconstruction of cities of antiquity.
The billboard-like staging reminded me of the billboards seen on many commuter roads, displaying advertisement for (sub)urban neighborhoods: You’d be home now, if you lived here! Well, you’d be dead now, if you lived here, in Homs.
The association includes something of a dialectic, of course. Being reminded of the price of violent political conflict might make you aware of the gathering darkness around us, or create empathy for refugees facing a watery Mediterranean grave during their flight. But the reassurance of not living “there,” after all, allows us a distancing from those far-away places where genocide happens, enacted by “foreign barbarians,” promoting a false sense of security on our own shores.
The use of cold wax mixed with the oil paints adds to the unnerving feeling caused by the staging. It allows a manipulation of transparency, and so some of what I saw resembled the haze when you look through tears, if not through the dust that gets whipped up when buildings crumble. It also adds body and allows layering; on close inspection, the painting shows scars or buckled skin, as if skin is ripped off or has burnt to the point of melting. The association to skin really was the only direct — and shattering — link to the representation of human beings, rather than architectural ruins.
I cannot help but wonder how thick-skinned the artist himself must be to make it as a wanderer between worlds, like any displaced person never quite belonging to either the old or the new. An early New York Times review doubted his ability to reach high ground as a painter. That didn’t age well. Psychoanalytically absorbed reviewers attest him a profound death anxiety — I guess I’m with Maslow here: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” including the aesthetics of destruction as a symbol for one’s psyche to acolytes of psychoanalysis.
Critics attacked his monumental work at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, a series of plates that memorialized the place of Jara’s murder and is inscribed with his name — Al mismo tiempo, en el mismo lugar (At The Same Time, in The Same Place), 2010 — as too focused on the individual, particularly when the individual in question devoted his life to collective power.
The paintings on view at The Reser suggest to me something quite different, independent of my admiration of the technical prowess to create these monumental constructions and the artist’s resilience when reenacting suffering in the process of painting. In some ways they bear witness, questioning the relationship between the aesthetic and the social, particularly the violence so ubiquitous in our world. Like all good political art, they want us to consider how we bear or enable or resist social imperatives that are associated with power and its requisite tools.
Does art manage to shape our historical thinking, and does its form help us reconfigure our assumptions about the present? Can works of political art ultimately achieve change of a kind, beyond providing a contemporary label that soothes buyers’ conscience by making them feel “progressive,” sort of an art-washing for the soul of the (neo)liberal collector? I will turn to that question in a bit. Before we get there, let me introduce the other two artists on display at The Reser.
“A successful work of art is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and un-compromised, in its innermost structure.”
― Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music
The quote by Adorno, though focused on modern music, could equally well be applied to curation. Curation is hard and often does not get the attention and appreciation it deserves, particularly when uncompromising. If you are a renowned curator charged with constructing large assemblies of artists, you have to balance your ideas and concepts with the interests of the organizing institutions, which have partially mercantilistic aspirations. Biennials, art fairs and the like do infuse a place with economic activity, after all.
You might also face an embarrassment of riches — die Qual der Wahl is the German phrase, the torture of choice — with regard to the number of artists at your disposal, amongst whom you have to pick and choose, avoiding the dreaded commodification, pushing an important concept and protecting the state of your reputation simultaneously.
If you are a local curator, no matter how talented, your choices are often somewhat restricted. If you have to combine the available work with that of heavy hitters (and I consider Tacla in that category) how do you protect the other artists from being overshadowed (no matter how good they might be, they are still less known) unless you believe in clichés like “A rising tide lifts all ships?”
I don’t know the answer, but there are two comforting thoughts: for one, these lesser-known artists will get exposure; that potentially opens up a larger circle of viewers eventually if the quality of the art holds its own. More importantly, in my view, is that a public confronted with art that is not yet labeled as awe-inspiring or famous will find it much more approachable, opening interest in art in general. It might be an inspiration to listen to one’s own creative impulses, or an encouragement that early or mid-career work deserves representation.
That said, the work of both artists that The Reser curator Karen de Benedetti picked, again showing her sensitivity for pairings as in previous shows that I reviewed, will reward viewers’ scrutiny. (Malia Jensen‘s sculpture was not yet present when I visited.)
II. Karl LeClair Perceptive Omissions // Miroslav Lovric Subconscious Conversations
What unites the work on display by two very different artists, Karl LeClair and Miroslav Lovric, is how it’s grounded in personal memory. For LeClair, intensely attuned to natural environments, drawing is a way to process the changes brought about by frequent relocations, from the East Coast to Idaho and now to the Pacific Northwest. His mixed-media printmaking techniques include intaglio, relief, and monotype (all of which were generously explained to me in my ignorance, including the preparation of the various papers, if using color, with background washes of layers of thinned acrylic, like watercolor).
Perceptive Omissions is presented almost like an installation, allowing direct, unmitigated access to the paper, reinforcing a tactile quality of the prints, the geometric rigidity softened by the occasional colorwash.
His drawings and monoprints capture the shifting characteristics of various geographical environments with a surprising tenderness. I sensed a cautious approach to new objects of his affections, trying to learn about a place, as well as a a hint of nostalgia about what had to be left behind.
The pairing of representational scenes and geometric drawings somehow reminded me of Western Esotericism, like the medieval engravings of Paul Yvan. Not sure why I picked up a hint of mysticism, but there you have it. Interpretation left to the viewer. …
Lovric’s work, Subconscious Conversations, was the most accessible to me, growing up in post-war Europe surrounded by prints of Klee, Kandinsky, Matisse, Calder or Joan Miró. The latter’s simple shapes, strong lines and colors came to mind when I looked at the present paintings and their faint Surrealist connotations.
Lovric — a refugee from Bosnia, another country with a recent bloody history and unresolved political conflict — works through his displacement with remembering that seems at times indistinguishable from longing. I get it. The acknowledgement that you will never be able to recover what is gone for good, once you have made a life in a different country, does not preclude a yearning for that you left behind, even if it no longer exists.
Lovric has stated that his work is about hope and resilience, and I can certainly pick up a desire for optimism in the saturated, bright colors on display. It will speak to viewers, since we can all use a dose of positivity, even if woes are not grounded in political strife or experiences similar to those of the artists.
Left: Miroslav Lovric, “Autumn Tree” (2020), oil on canvas. Right: Miroslav Lovric, “Questioning Bird” (2015), mixed media on paper.
Yet I thought the strongest of the images on display was one that captured the immediacy of contemporary (pandemic) isolation, not related to the past at all. The monochromatic construction, Solitude, attends to traditional elements of windows and chairs, and adds a body, albeit to my eyes one that’s missing head and heart. There is corporality to the legs, but in the absence of social embrace, of human interaction, the core of a person vanishes. Or is not clearly delineated enough to be easily detected. Tell me about it.
III. Some considerations about political art
Citizenship is the right to have rights. – Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Ch.9.)
What does it mean to consider “art as global citizenship,” part of the Biennial’s title? Certainly not to have rights, or the corresponding obligations, as expressed in Arendt’s view of what it meant to be a citizen during an era with many people deprived of any rights as refugees from fascistic regimes. I come back to her, for one, because I’m fussy about terms: Citizenship is connected to people, not “art,” with a defined set of political criteria; and secondly, because Arendt’s philosophy is increasingly relevant today in the face of immigration politics, soon to be intensified by climate refugees. Well worth re-reading.
More likely, the intended meaning of “art as global citizenship” runs along the lines of what Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the renowned Swiss curator, uttered here (or everywhere; he utters a lot):
“Art can widen horizons, dissolve borders, is obliged to bring people, ideas, concepts together. A successful piece of art has the power to change expectations and perspectives. … (art) is asked to facilitate supranational dialogue.” (My translation.)
Siegfried Kracauer’s phrase from his Weimar Essays, “They were everywhere, and belonged nowhere,” a referral to the masses as a cultural phenomenon during the 1920s, could, in my opinion, also be applied to these ubiquitous tropes we hear today when discussing art. One of them, “Entgrenzung,” the act of removing borders and promoting class permeability and global interconnectedness, is among the most frequently used. Can art transcend borders and change perspectives? How would we empirically assess the actual impact of political art, and has anyone done so, beyond simply qualitatively reporting that people are moved, or claim to have gained new insights, or flocked to see a particular work of art?
Art as Social Practice: Tania Bruguera and her art movement ‘Arte Útil’ engages in long-term, participatory projects that include a community center, political party for immigrants, and an institution working towards civic literacy and policy change in Cuba.
We have long held that political art, through forms of social commentary, can raise awareness and inspire dialogue. Art, we believe, can provide representation for those who otherwise remain invisible or marginalized, helping to de-stigmatize on occasion. Art can be a form of memorialization of significant events, either transmitting knowledge about them to present generations who are exposed to selective versions of history guarded by those in power, or future generations who can stitch together a picture of past times and events. (I have written about the politics of memory recently here and here.)
Art as instigator: William Blake was one of the first political artists trying to dissolve borders — in this case the church-imposed rigid division between good and evil.
Certainly an early socialist perspective on art suggested artists should serve society by assuming an ethical stance to reveal the workings of ideology by describing the truth. Do we have evidence that it works? Do people still think about new perspectives an hour after they have left the museum? How do we find out if people who report being moved or challenged by a piece of art translate that into behavioral changes, voting patterns, a measurable decrease in racist, xenophobic or misogynistic attitudes or some such?
If there are data, enlighten me! Me, the social scientist wants to know. Me, the art lover couldn’t care less. (I am excluding visual propaganda here, which has been empirically shown to manipulate people’s values successfully. It differs from single pieces of art by the frequency with which it showers the viewer, being mass produced and co-temporally broadcast across media.)
Art as memorialization: depicting historic events as they unfolded.
This is another piece of art to commemorate book-burnings, in this case in Germany during the prelude to the Holocaust. The monument at Berlin’s Bebelplatz is an underground library with enough room to fit 20,000 books, and it is totally empty. Unobtrusive, easily missed, it consists of a 5 by 5 by 5 underground space that can be viewed through a glass cover — theoretically. The weather and temperature differential often fogs the glass over, so you get only a glimpse, a vanishing view, just like memory of the era that is slowly disappeared or disappearing.
Maybe the question for evidence of effectiveness is the wrong question. Maybe we should forget about the claimed or actual function of political art, when it is so obvious that artists across history could not help but serve as mirrors for the political and/or philosophical environments and conflicts of their day. Maybe artists are driven to description in face of the uncertainty of their existence within a political system, and really good art goes beyond that by pinpointing what the political functions are of the structures and events their describe: the function of violence, for example, during an authoritarian period, or the function of propaganda to prepare for catastrophe, or the function of assigning value to keep traditional hierarchies intact.
It is about expression of the artist’s views on the injustices of the world, or their delineation of possible utopias, not their intended impact on public opinion or belief systems. They have a particular talent or even genius for describing the world as they see it, contemplating possibilities as they weigh them. Whether we, the viewers, actually pick up on that or transform it into action would not affect their production, even if it is desirable that we would.
Art as premonition: depicted is a post-apocalyptic, new world order with Europe and Asia melting together.
Then again, maybe we can use the fact that art has threatened existing power structures to the point where it was forbidden, persecuted, criminalized or otherwise impeded, as indirect evidence of its effectiveness. The Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (KfDK, or Fighting League for German Culture), for example, was founded in 1929 by Alfred Rosenberg, with the aim of promoting “German culture” while fighting the cultural threat of liberalism, leading to prohibition of “non-Aryan,” degenerate or progressive political art and the persecution of many artists. Similarly draconian measures can be seen in contemporary Russia or Iran.
Art as warning: Bauhaus artist Mariann Brandt weary of renewed militarization. “They are marching again.”
Art as activism: Photomontage by Hannah Höch Mutter, (1930) shown in the 1931 Berlin exhibition, Women in Distress, which she organized to fight for decriminalization of abortion; the show opened by Käthe Kollwitz.
One thing is empirically established: In times of social rupture, structural change of political systems, and power struggles, societies become quite flooded with the depiction of catastrophes. If you look at the Weimar Republic, for example, there was a preoccupation with the visualization and dissection of catastrophes that seemingly emerged from the atrocities experienced during World War I, but seamlessly prepared, in insidious ways, the public for the horrors of its immediate future.
The visual politics of people enamored with war and violence as an engine for society, like philosopher Ernst Jünger, filled the zone with imagery that celebrated the moment of danger, the unfolding of catastrophe. The new medium of photography lent itself to such manipulation — its mass distribution was in many cases intended to “produce docile subjects for the dawning spectacle of oppression and war.” (Isabel Gil, The Visuality of Catastrophe in Ernst Jünger’s Der gefährliche Augenblick, KulturPoetik, 2010, Bd. 10, p.87.)
If we look at the ubiquity of depictions of catastrophes in all their gory details in our own time, with many other parallels to the 1930s looming, one wonders if we are in the process of being desensitized as well. Paintings of destructive consequences of war or torture like Tacla’s might rightfully warn us or make us think about the historical conflicts in parts of the world not our own (though surely underwritten by U.S. hegemonial interests), or even be premonitions of things to come to our own backyard: I believe his art applies to any one of those categories. But if they are integrated into a deluge of visual imagery of horror, from art, media and propaganda outlets alike, there might be unintended consequences, including the normalization of catastrophe.
Art as (scientific) witness: Forensic Architecture uses architectural evidence in cases of war crimes or other human rights abuses, often focused on how the narrative justification differs between state and victims. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018.
Georg Simmel, another German sociologist and Neo-Kantian philosopher, who died in 1918, anticipated something he called the the Tragedy of Culture. He believed that there was a dialectical relationship between “objective culture” — the art out there, or religion, rituals, etc. — and “subjective culture,” our own development as individuals with creative or intellectual abilities. He was convinced that the onslaught of objective cultural products, the massive saturation with cultural information, would stunt our psychological growth — that we would shut down in the face of overwhelming stimulation. The idea reverberates with me, and I often find myself in a balancing act when deciding what should be processed and what should be ignored. In the case of the current exhibition at The Reser, I come fully down on the “Give it a shot” side. The work deserves our contemplation.
And here is another Latin American political artist, Facundo Cabral, assassinated some years back, with a song that describes some of the ways of being an artist in the world. “I did not come to explain to the world, I just came to play.”
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on August 7, 2023.
- Where: The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, 12625 S.W. Crescent St., Beaverton
- Continuing through: Oct. 21, 2023
- What: A Biennial exhibition of work by 50 artists in 15 venues across greater Portland
- When: Opening Aug. 24-27 (the Reser show got a head start) and continuing with various closing dates through the end of 2023