T.J. McNamara: Shows share political insight

By T.J. McNamara

South American artists illustrate a history of conflict, turmoil and disparity.
Terrace. São Paulo, Brazil by Marcos Lopez.
Terrace. São Paulo, Brazil by Marcos Lopez.

Space to Dream: Recent Art from South America includes art from the late 1960s to the present created by artists from eight different countries.

A wide-screen video of waves washing gently, then rolling and crashing on seashore, is one of the largest works. The gentler part of this activity gradually washes away some letters, cast in ice and set in the surf by a woman in traditional dress. The letters spell out "no se nadar" or "I don't know how to swim". The artist is Joaquin Sanchez, who is a mestizo (of mixed parentage) born in Paraguay and living there and in Bolivia.

An immediate reference is to Bolivian immigrants living in Chile and strained relations between Chile and Bolivia.

But, like all effective imagery, it has a wider significance and could be a metaphor for this varied exhibition. The artists are all trying to swim in a sea of influences - political, social and national - with a multitude of artistic pressures stemming from tradition, history, society, Europe and the US.

In their struggles, they seize on any medium that will keep them afloat, notably still photography, video and installation art. There is no orthodox painting and little conventional sculpture. The only figurative sculpture in the show is a series of tiny toy-size figures by Liliana Porter mounted on wall brackets and dotted about the show. The most intriguing is Man Drawing, a little man making big marks.

Another figure is a large, masked folk-art clown by Bernado Oyarzun. Here, the old god of fertility has become a comic god of consumption. The work is hung with a mass of the small trappings of modern technology but appears to have no serious use for any of it.

Juan Fernando Herran's Bifurcacion (Junction).
Juan Fernando Herran's Bifurcacion (Junction).


In place of sculpture, there are two very large contrasting installations. One, DNA Project by Maximo Corvalan, is a large pool into which water constantly flows through narrow tubes, like veins. Some 33 assemblages of parcels of bones curved like fish and wrapped in nerves of wire hang over the pool. These are thrust through by bright fluorescent tubes shedding harsh light. The whole is a memorial to the "disappeared", those executed for their politics and only identified - and often misidentified - by DNA from their bones. The whole combines water and power and radiates danger, death and misery.

The other installations are more benign. Big Mouth takes colour from three spirals on the wall and sends it down through tubes to an improvised, mouth-like shelter where it is nourished and sent out in a large flood of orange spheres across the floor. Maria Nepomuceno, its creator, is obviously fascinated by movement and transformation.

Ernesto Neto has created the most attractive work in the whole exhibition. Titled Just like drops in time, nothing, it is at once simple yet very complex. It suggests both the jungle and the city. A dense forest of gauze tubes hangs from a canopy of white fabric. The bottom of each tube is loaded with fragrant spices so the whole work scents the room. Where the tubes reach the floor and spread out, the spices spill out through the fabric. It is an attractive work and contrasts with the intensely political tone of almost all of the rest of the exhibition especially the photography.

Driving nails through the word SILENCIO in large letters on the wall may be an expressive protest and it does set the tone for much of the show, but works only as a gesture not really as art.

The Silent Series of photographs by Juan Manuel Echavarria is far more potent. These are full of the pain and grief of conflict in Colombia. He records the abandoned villages of people driven into exile by paramilitary forces. Particularly touching are the images of schoolrooms with their damaged black boards, especially one with a list of vowels lettered on the wall above it.

Not all the photography is so explicit. Two works by Juan Fernando Herran show old worn steps of stone. These steps are real but suggest a parting of the ways, transits and choices and catch a situation in a convincing symbolic way.

The show is also shot through with irony. A video by Alejandro Thornton shows Julie Andrews famously singing happily in the Swiss Alps accurately lip-synced with Don't Cry For Me Argentina. On a large scale and in vivid colour, Marcos Lopez shows a man in a basketball uniform and two women sunning themselves on a green balcony with a rubber ducky suggesting a swimming pool. The balcony overlooks a slum and beyond that the tall buildings of the business district of Sao Paulo. The whole is far from the famed architecture of the founding of the city.

A Logo For America by Alfredo Jaar.
A Logo For America by Alfredo Jaar.


At the entrance to the show is the famous Logo for America by the most prominent artist of them all, Alfredo Jaar. In 1987 it blazed over Times Square insisting that the USA is not America (it was resurrected in 2014). Other parts of this animated piece can be seen at the Trish Clark Gallery along with the extraordinary video he made of the toiling labourers in a vast open cast mine in Brazil. It provides a coda to the big show.

Auckland Art Gallery

What: Space to Dream: Recent Art from South America

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki, cnr Kitchener and Wellesley Sts, to September 18

TJ says: Art in a variety of forms, from tragic to comic involving political comment unparalleled in New Zealand, offers emotionally charged insight into the culture of eight Latin-American countries.

Trish Clark Gallery

What: Alfredo Jaar: The Politics of Images

Where and when: Trish Clark Gallery, 1 Bowen Ave, to June 10

TJ says: Widely acclaimed artist, with work in the big exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, shows slogans, videos and photographs including a remarkable piece on Life magazine.

- NZ Herald

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