Luis Camnitzer:
Retrospective Exhibition
1966-1990

Introduction by Jane Farver
Essay—Moral imperatives: Politics as Art in Luis Camnitzer by Mari Carmen Ramírez
Statement—Manifesto, 1982 by Luis Camnitzer
Essay—Access to the Mainstream by Luis Camnitzer

Essay—Wonderbread and Spanglish Art by Luis Camnitzer
Essay—The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Contemporary Art by Luis Camnitzer
Chronology by Luis Camnitzer
Notes and Bibilography

 

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.

Fortunately, the culture of the Southern Cone has escaped this international division of labor, and has given its own responses to contemporary problems, breaking down "traditions" and "authenticities." Works like those by Camnitzer or Jaar do not respond to the "reality of the marvelous" of Latin America, but to the "reality of the dreadful," as Saul Yurkievich has said. Their Latin-Americanism is more social than cultural: its authenticity resides in an internalization of problems that are acute, daily reminders for the societies of the continent. It would be suicidal for cultures on the periphery—always subordinated to a center—to wrap themselves in traditions that cannot challenge domination. These traditions should become a substratum from which to set off a course of action in defense of our own interests and values. We should not exhibit old roots anymore; we should use them to create new leaves.

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.

 

Cuban writer and curator Gerardo Mosquera has orga-
nized many international exhibitions. Including three
Havana Biennials. He is a member of the National
Council of Fine Arts of Cuba, and has written many
exhibition catalogues; he is a regular contributor to
many publications, including Arte en Columbia, Bo-
gota, and Brecha, Montevideo, Uruguay.

 

From the Uruguayan Torture, 1983

Topographical Change of a Word Sequence, 1969

Moebius Strip, 1973