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The Other Art History: The Badass Latin American Artists Who Made '70s Conceptualism Politically Hardcore

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The Other Art History: The Badass Latin American Artists Who Made '70s Conceptualism Politically Hardcore
Ana Mendieta, "On Giving Life" 1975. Image via Hyperallergic.

From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, Conceptual artists rejected the previously held notion that art had to be material. Instead, they prioritized ideas over forms, statements over beauty, poetic gesture over aesthetics. The resulting art was wide-ranging in format—from happenings and interventions to performance and video. But regardless of what the artwork looked like (if it looked like anything at all), what made conceptual artists so avant garde was their claim that the mere articulation of an artistic idea is in itself a work of art. At the time, this was revolutionary. Joseph Kosuth made his famous 1965 work One and Three Chairs consisting of a mounted photograph of a chair, mounted photographic enlargements of the dictionary definition of “chair,” and an actual wooden folding chair. Which representation of a chair is most “accurate”? Kosuth hoped his piece would inspire open-ended questions like this; “Art is making meaning,” he famously said.

But while artists like Kosuth, Hans Haacke, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, and Dan Graham were defining the Conceptual Art movement in the United States, artists all over the globe were also reconsidering the definition of art, expanding it to include theoretical concepts and immaterial ideas. And many of these artists were based in Latin American countries rife with political and economic turmoil. And like many Latin artists, they were largely ignored by the cannon in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The conceptual works of Latin American artists weren’t significantly written about until 1993 when art historian Mari Carmen Ramirez published “Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America,” a catalogue for the exhibition “Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century” organized by the MoMA. Ramirez’s goal was to debunk the conception that Latin American conceptualism was a weak copy of North American and British Conceptual Art, and instead show how it was it’s own, different movement contextualized by the politics and turmoil that surround it, and less concerned with making art about art. He writes, “In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to the tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself." Latin American Conceptualism, however, was able to subvert North American’s tautological and analytic model by bringing art into politics, actively intervening in social space. Latin American conceptualism wasn’t just about making art for the sake of art—it was making art as a form of activism, resistance, communication, and social engagement.

This reading, which distinguished North American and British Conceptual Art from Latin American “Conceptualism” was useful in it that it brought certain, previously unrecognized artists into the frame, but it has since been understood as controversial in the way decisively and definitively dichotomized the two movements. In an essay called “How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?” Miguel A. Lopez criticizes this understanding: “The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.” By labeling Latin American Conceptualism as that which “developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries,” as written by Alexander Alberro, widely diverse artistic gestures are reduced into a single over-arching and generalized definition. 

Curators and historians have been disagreeing over how to contextualize the conceptual art coming out of Latin American in the ‘60s and ‘70s for decades—and while we certainly don’t have a solution, we’re here to highlight some of the most influential artworks and artists to come out of the period. Here, we briefly describe seven conceptual artworks that were not only marginalized by the US-centered art world of the time, but that effectively destabilized North American notions of Conceptual Art, and it’s role in the institution.

 

EDUARDO COSTA
“Art in the Mind” exhibition, 1970

Buenos Aires-born Eduardo Costa submitted a text to a 1970 exhibition called “Art in the Mind.” The text not only functioned as an illuminating conceptual artwork, it also served to undermine the very foundations on which conceptual art—and art in general—are founded. The text suggested, rather than enacted, an ideological exercise; it said: “A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else.” In his conclusion of “How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?,” Lopez highlights this artwork to suggest that this is perhaps the best way to think about how Latin American conceptualism might fit within the framework of art history… and that perhaps the only way to understand art history is to doubt it. He writes:

“Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging “reasonable” consolidations by historical narrative—a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error. His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken—that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand.... Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it.” 

Later in his career, Costa went on to contribute a new “kind” of conceptual painting, which was dubbed “Volumetric Painting” by American art critic Carter Radcliff. His new genre began in 1994, while working in New York, when he opened a jar of yellow acrylic paint that had been left open, rendering the paint inside a dry, solid object. The experience prompted him to question whether this object was an abstract three-dimensional painting or a sculpture made of paint. What followed was a series of objects made entirely of paint, that functioned both as abstract paintings, and as sculptures. In a way, some of these pieces can be seen as the first authentic monochromatic works, since instead of being a solid color sitting on top of a surface, these works were entirely just color.

 

OSCAR BONY
La Familia Obrera (1968)

 

Like many of the Latin American artists on this list, Oscar Bony was a political refugee, moving to Milan from his native country of Argentina after the military coup of 1976. But by that time, Bony had already established himself as a controversial figure—both as a local conceptual artist, and political provocateur. Born in the northern province of Misiones in Argentina, Bony attended the prestigious Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, where exhibited his most famous and controversial work, La Familia Obrera, in a 1968 group exhibition entitled “Experiences 68.” The artist used the exhibition budget to hire a working-class family to sit on a plinth in the gallery during open hours (8 hours per day). Meanwhile, recorded sounds of the family’s home life played in the gallery.

The breadwinner of the family, Luis Ricardo Rodríguez, typically made half the wage he earned to sit still in the gallery—highlighting just how low wages were for much of the country’s population. For context, the country had been under military dictatorship since a military coup overthrew the government two years earlier. (The dictatorship wouldn’t end until 1973.) The new regime had decreed a wage freeze and a 40 per cent devaluation, and new laws were passed that weakened tenants’ rights as well as labor organizing efforts. Ultimately, Bony and the other artists featured in the “Experiences 68” exhibition withdrew their work after police censored some of the works in the show. While so much of North American conceptual art was rooted in the institution, many of the conceptual projects on this list were inherently anti-institutional and anti-establishment, simply due to censorship and the need, in come cases, for anonymity in authorship.

 

ANA MENDIETA
"Silueta Series," 1973-77

 Detail: Ana Mendieta, "Untitled (from Silueta Series in Mexico)," 1973-77/1991 © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris and the Collection of Diane and Bruce Halle.

Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) is probably one of the best-known artists on this list, though the reasons for her fame are suspect. (Mendieta tragically fell from her 33rd-story Greenwich Village apartment to her death at the age of 37 shortly after her neighbors heard her violently arguing with her then-husband artist Carl Andre and then allegedly yelling “No, no, no” seconds before she landed. A recording of Andre’s 911 call quotes him cooly saying: “My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel abut the fact that I was more, uh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window.” Andre was tried but acquitted of her murder on the grounds of reasonable doubt—yet controversy surrounding Mendieta’s death, and Andre’s role in it, remain controversial. In the years following her death, the art world was divided—many protested Andre’s exhibitions, carrying signs that read “Where is Ana Mendieta?” Writes Nina Renata Aron: “Many argued that the response to the artist’s death reflects the historical neglect of the work of women artists and artists of color, and, more disturbingly, the erasure of a violence against women in the culture at large.”)

While Mendieta’s mythic status in the art world may largely be attributed to the mysterious circumstances of her death, her short-lived career was so forward-thinking, influential, and avant garde within the conceptual art movement that she deserves far more credit than she’s often given. Born to politically active parents in Havana, Cuba, Mendieta fled Fidel Castro’s regime at the age of 12 with her 14-year-old sister, immigrating to Iowa where she spent several weeks in refugee camps before moving between numerous foster homes and institutions throughout Iowa for the next two years. Later in life, when she studied painting and “intermedia” at the University of Iowa, Mendieta began making performative and immaterial works (eerily) focusing on violence toward women, as seen in her 1973 performance piece Untitled (Rape Scene) in which the artist smeared herself with blood and had herself tied, bent-over, to a table in response to the rape and murder of a student at the University of Iowa. Blood was a crucial material for Mendieta in her early years; “Blood is a very powerful symbol, especially for people who feel like art making is a life and death situation,” said the late scholar Jose Esteban Munoz.

Mendieta ultimately became best known for what she called “earth-body works,” which combined emerging practices of land art, body art, and performance art—and she was likely the first to do so. Between 1973 and 1978 Mendieta made her “Silhueta” series—site-specific pieces wherein the artist made imprints in the earth with her body before photographing them. Though Mendieta’s work has been recognized and exhibited widley in the last decade or two, the artist was poor and struggling to find recognition during her life. She was a marginalized figure despite making huge contributions to the movement that neglected her before her death.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Secret of Ana Mendieta’s Mystical Cave Women

 

COLECTIVO ACCIONES DE ARTE (CADA)
No + Campaign, 1973

Image via Arte Útil

In 1973, a military coup replaced Chilean President Salvador Allende with Agusto Pinochet—a ruthless dictator who ruled as Chile’s president until 1990. For 17 years, thousands of Chileans disappeared, were tortured, or killed. Overtly making art that spoke out against the government was risky, even life-threatening—making conceptual art, anonymously enacted in public space, an untraceable and effective tactic. The Colective Acciones de Arte, more commonly known by their acronym CADA, were among the most publicly visible artist groups during this time. For their clandestine No + Campaign, they hung banners around Santiago with the words “No More” followed by various symbols representing military repression. Like many conceptual artworks, the banners required the viewer to “complete” the artwork. The artist’s hoped that those that saw the banners would adopt this language of resistance, using “no more” as a replicable slogan for a wide range of demands. Their hopes were realized, and the slogan spread; soon collectives all over the country utilized the symbols, unifying previously unaffiliated political resistance efforts.

For their performance “Para no morir del hambre en el arte (So as not to die of hunger in art)”, the group delivered milk to residents of a poor Santiago neighborhood before driving a group of milk trucks through the city to the National Museum of Fine Arts. The activist performance was in response to Pinochet’s decision to end Allende’s program that ensured every Chilean child received a daily ration of milk. (CADA wasn’t the only artistic gesture involving milk. Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, living in Colombia, spilled milk on the street for her performance Vaso de Lecha, Bogotá (Glass of Milk, Bogotá). In the 1971, over a thousand children died from drinking contaminated milk in Colombia alone.)

For CADA, strategies of theatricality and performance reduced the traditional distance between artwork and spectator, while challenging dominant hierarchies and intervening in the normalized routines of everyday life.

 

LUIS CAMNITZER
Leftovers, 1970

 Image via Tate

Gerban-born artist Luis Camnitzer grew up in Uruguay, where his family moved to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. His most known work, Leftovers, references the use of torture by the Uruguayan junta. The work consists of 80 cardboard boxes, each tightly wrapped in surgical gauze and stained with a blood-like resin, stacked in a rectangular grid over two meters high and three meters wide. From 1968 to 1972, Uraguay suffered a period of unrest; political dissidents were often tortured or dismembered. Leftovers, most literally, has been interpreted “as containers of dismembered bodies” or, more abstractly, as “an utterly unambiguous monument to the cruel factuality of body count logistics.”

Also in reponse to the Uraguayan dictatorship, Camnitzer’s Uruguayan Torture Series (1983-4) consisted of 35 prints of what appear to be banal, every-day objects. Their meaning, however, comes from the series’ title, which imbues them with a sense of violence.

 

CILDO MEIRELES
Insertions Into Ideological Circuits (1970-76)

 Insertion Into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project. Image via Tate.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, Cildo Meireles spent his childhood traveling Brazil. His father worked for the Indian Protection Service, exposing the young Meireles to rural Brazil and the beliefs of the native Tupi people, who he would later make art about to illustrate their marginalization in, or even disappearance from, Brazilian politics and society. Though Meireles began his artistic practice drawing and painting, several eye-opening influences changed his course. One was hearing Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which showed him how it was possible to "seamlessly dissolve the border between art and life, fiction and reality." And the second was seeing the work of Brazilian Neo-Concretist artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, whose work addressed political issues and blurred the boundaries between art and life.

With these influences in mind, Meireles created what would become his most-known artwork in 1970, called Insertions into Ideological Circuits. During this time, artists working in Brazil often found themselves stifled by the Brazilian government, who censored politically sensitive works. Meireles, in attempt to avoid censorship while still reaching audiences (and participants) all over the country, made two Insertions into Ideological Circuits projects. For the first, he removed glass Coca-Cola bottles from circulation, applied messages to bottles that either had subversive political messages on them, or instructions for how to use the bottle to make a molotov cocktail, and then added them back into circulation (the bottles were used and refilled over and over.) The Coca-Cola bottle, an every-day, mass-produced object, was also, at the time, a symbol of US imperialism and capitalist consumerism. For the second iteration of the project, Meireles stamped information or political messages on banknotes—like “Quem Matou Herzog?” (‘Who Killed Herzog?”), which refers to a journalist who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances—again feeding them into an exchange system that required the participation of others to become circulated. Because it was in no one’s best interest to destroy money, the bills continued to circulate and spread awareness of the project, and his subversive ideas. About the project Meireles has said:

“The Insertions into Ideological Circuits arose out of the need to create a system for the circulation and exchange of information that did not depend on any kind of centralized control. This would be a form of language, a system essentially opposed to the media of press, radio and television—typical examples of media that actually reach an enormous audience, but in the circulation systems of which there is always a degree of control and channelling of the information inserted ... The way I conceived it, the Insertions would only exist to the extent that they ceased to be the work of just one person. The work only exists to the extent that other people participate in it. What also arises is the need for anonymity. By extension, the question of anonymity involves the question of ownership. When the object of art becomes a practice, it becomes something over which you can have no control or ownership.”

Meireles ultimately became associated with his influences—artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark—and the Neo-Concretism movement in general. The movement combined the ideological frameworks of conceptual art with the more concrete ambitions of extending beyond the art world to reach (knowing or unknowing) participants in society at large, and of appealing to the viewer’s body and senses, rather than only their minds.

 

MARIA EVELIA MARMOLEJO

 Image via Art Nexus

Move over Marina Abramovic, Maria Evelia Marmolejo’s self-harming, jolting, and feminist performance make Abramovic’s feel light and apolitical in comparison. Though Colombian artist Maria Evelia Marmolejo was of a slightly younger generation that the rest of the artists on this list (her first performances began in 1981), her contributions to feminist performance art were so unprecedented, and her visibility in the art world is so negligible, it seems wrong not to include her. Credited with staging the first feminist performance piece in Colombia in 1981, Marmolejo’s works addressed issues ranging from environmentalism and political oppression in Colombia and Latin America, to the role of women and the representation and symbolic meaning of the woman’s body.

The artist often used blood—both menstrual and drawn—as a material, drawing connections between political violence and the subjugation of women. As an art student at Escuela de Bellas Artes de Cali, Marmolejo submitted for her final exam an installation titled Tendidos, comprised of a clothes line made of sanitary pads (some soiled and others clean). At the end of the line was a cloth diaper hung from a metal butcher’s hook. The installation was in protest of the Colombian Army’s frequent use of torture and rape, often with metal objects, among university women. It also referenced the artist’s own domestic experience; the artist was forced to be subservient to her four brothers. The project was dismissed by the school, and Marmolejo was forced to quit art school.

Once Marmolejo left school, she began to focus on performance, of which there was very little in Colombia at that time. For her first performance, an homage to the tortured and disappeared during the regime of Colombian president Julio César Turbay Ayala from 1978-82, the artist, dressed in all white, made cuts under her toes before walking across white cloth in a public square. Onlookers, most of whom were men, were shocked and touched to see her blood and vulnerability, though the artist is quoted saying that sadly, they were more shocked by her performance than by the commonplace violence in society. After leaving a trail of blood behind her, the artist tended to her wounds. The bandaged wounds and their subsequent healing were intended to raise awareness about the political violence so common during this time.

The work of Marmolejo has been left largely unstudied and un-exhibited (though she was included in the Hammer’s recent "Radical WomenLatin American Art, 1960–1985"  exhibition.) This could in part be due to the fact that her career was barely five years long. In 1985 she became pregnant and self-exiled herself to Madrid, Spain. After this, she would only go on to make two more performances, once in 1992 and again in 2004.

RELATED ARTICLES:

The Other Art History: The Overlooked Women of Surrealism

The Other Art History: The Gay, Lesbian, and Female Abstract Expressionists (Part I)

The Other Art History: The Forgotten Women of Bauhaus

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