Luis Camnitzer:
Retrospective Exhibition
1966-1990

Introduction by Jane Farver
Essay—Politics and Ethnicity in the Work of Luis Camnitzer by Gerardo Mosquera
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

 

Moral Imperatives: Politics as Art in Luis Camnitzer by Mari Carmen Ramírez

 

I


We live the alienating myth of primarily being artists. We
are not. We are primarily ethical beings sifting right from
wrong and just from unjust, not only in the realm of the in-
dividual, but in communal and regional contexts. In order
to survive ethically we need a political awareness that
helps us to understand our environment and develop
strategies for our actions. Art becomes the instrument of
our choice to implement these strategies.
                              Luis Camnitzer, "Access to the Mainstream."
1




One of the present conditions of artistic practice in First World societies seems to be the difficulty of developing forms of political art to counteract the phenomenon of commodification that has come to determine the social and cultural structures of Post-Modernism.2 The period characterized by "the logic of the image or the spectacle or the simulacrum,"3 has not only rendered obsolete the historical avant-garde's contestatary role and its impulse towards the transformation of capitalist society, but has also called into question the traditional operative elements of cultural politics, i.e. the "referent" and the "real."4 Faced with the impossibility of transcending the space of the spectacle, a number of contemporary artists, rather than engaging the present, have turned to "endgame" strategies based on the replication and simulation of the art of the past.5 In this context, even leading cultural theorists of the Left such as Frederic Jameson concede that, ". . . it is no longer possible to oppose or contest the logic of the imageworld of late capitalism by reinventing the older logic of the referent (or realism)." According to Jameson, the only viable strategy can be described as "homeopathic: . . . to choose and affirm the logic of the simulacrum to the point at which the very nature of that logic is dialectically transformed."6

While Jameson's antidote can be considered an accurate description of the current state of political art in the context of post-industrial capitalism, it fails to acknowledge the existence of other forms of political artistic practice outside of the parameters of this system. In doing so it obviates the fact that referential strategies not necessarily predicated on modes of realism are still present in most forms of art emerging from Third World countries or being produced within the peripheral communities of 'others' inside the First World. In these spaces, both the "non-cultural real" and the "referent" continue to have validity as instruments of intervention or resistance against the mechanisms of repression, assimilation and neo-colonial domination. Whether or not this situation can be attributed to the phenomenon of an "incomplete modernity,"7 that characterizes many of these social groups, may not be so important at this point as to acknowledge their existence and significance as constitutive elements of a Third World cultural politics.

This distinction becomes particularly relevant when analyzing the case of Third World artists functioning within the First World and the specific mechanisms they have developed to resist total assimilation into mainstream culture. The work of these artists for the most part will reflect the tensions of this First/Third World relation in the persistence and superimposition of modernist referential elements within postmodern artistic languages and strategies. In the case of Latin American artists, these elements assume the form of their concern with issues of cultural identity, contestatary politics and the elaboration of artforms of resistance and communication with a broad audience. While these artists also work within the structure of the simulacrum, their art asserts the possibility of a space outside of its parameters and works to expand this space into a critical stance of resistance.8

The art of Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer is a concrete example of the way in which this tension can provide the basis for a coherent and successful body of work that addresses the First/Third World problematic while providing an alternative to the question of a viable political art within the parameters of the present system. Born in Germany, raised in the Jewish community of Uruguay since age one, his art is grounded in and responds to a specific worldview and political awareness impressed on one who was formed in the colonial periphery.9 Yet the fact that he has spent the last 28 years in New York situates his production in a space between his Third World formation and his life and work experience in the First World. While distance from the first has turned him into a "citizen of memory,"'—the second one has led him to produce his own hybrid form of art—a form of "Spanglish" art"—to address the particular issues posed by his transcultural experience.

In its internal logic as well as in his approach to the formal language of his art, Camnitzer's work replicates the tensions between his center/peripheral perspective and environments. His art is about the intellectual process of making art, the irrelevance of learned techniques, the arbitrariness of language and visual icons, the critique of art as commodity and the demystification of the role of the artist in late capitalist society. Yet paradoxically, it is also an art that recuperates the modernist concern with the evocative power of the image and the signifying function of language, speaks of the discreet seduction of the materials upon the artist, and ultimately manipulates these elements in order to submerge the viewer into a highly-charged field where he himself becomes an active participant. Similarly, while working within the Parameters of conceptual art, Camnitzer's conceptualism differs substantially from the formal idiom and logic that characterized both the mainstream conceptual art movements of the 60s, exemplified by the art of Joseph Kosuth and the Art and Language group, as well as their contemporary revivals. In contrast to the stark analytical and scientific bent of that art, in its emphasis on syntactic, formal, tautological linguistic enunciations, Camnitzer's conceptualism is factual, empirical, endowed with a strong semantic charge and loaded with cultural symbols.12

The elements that separate Camnitzer's work from mainstream forms of conceptual art are the assertion of the referent and the belief in the possibilities of effecting through art a distinct transformation on thought-processes and modes of perception of the individual in late capitalism. Both of these traits originate m his conception of artistic practice as the exercise of a highly ethical/political worldview. For Camnitzer, "Every aesthetic act is an ethical act, . . . As soon as I do something m the universe, even if if nothing else than a mark, I am exercising power. That may give my work a political aura . . . political in the sense of wanting to change society."13 Such a view is grounded on a form of "ethical anarchism" based on the right of every individual to participate of a community that negates power and is predicated on equality.14 Since these conditions are not found in reality, the goal is to empower the individual with the means to transform his social environment in order to achieve this transformation.

Canmitzer's conception of political and artistic practice, more than endowing his art with a political rationale or 'content,' makes explicit the concept of politics itself as art. Camnitzer's politics are founded on a critique of power, and the laws of art serve as a metaphor for this critique. For Camnitzer, power is a game, the conditions or 'rules' of which are recreated by the artist in the very structure of the work. The viewer is then encouraged to figure out the rules laid out by the artist, counter pose to them his own set of rules and then rearrange the work according to the latter, thereby developing his own strategies of deconstruction, construction and ultimately, liberation. This conception also leads to ". . . an integration of aesthetic creativity with all the systems of reference used in everyday life."15 From this point of view Camnitzer's art will be predicated on what I will refer to as 'the strategy of the banal', i.e. the recourse to objects and materials of ordinary everyday life which constitute 'packages' to communicate his ideas.

The main problem posed by his art is how to produce an interventionist (i.e. political) form of art, that while being non-representational will serve to transform the viewer's consciousness politically, ethically, aesthetically. Conceptual art for him became a strategy to carry out this aim. Conceptualism's fierce attack on art as a commodity, its dematerialization of the artistic object and its equation of art with knowledge offered him a starting point from which to elaborate his own propositions in this direction. Yet, whereas in conceptual art, these combative strategies tended to focus on general assumptions about the definition and status of art itself, ultimately reasserting the autonomy of the artistic sphere, in Camnitzer, these mechanisms are expanded to include the critique of thought-processes directly related to social and political realities. In this sense, Camnitzer's approach, proceeds from the point at which the self-referential aspect of the "art as idea as idea" proposal left off: it combines images, phrases, objects in arbitrary relationships and arrangements which extend the linguistic bases of that idiom into a perceptual, cognitive realm.16 It thus offers the work as a space in which the censorial and linguistic operations effected by the viewer intersect and interact with each other, leading him to become an agent in the production of the work and its meaning. The result is a new approach towards political art, where the latter is defined not in the explicit content of the image but in the multivalency of linguistic and visual codes, the subversion of accepted or anticipated meanings, the manipulation of images and language to question the logic of ideological constructs and the mechanisms of social processes in late capitalism.

The synthetic aspect of Camnitzer's art, in its rejection of the autonomy of art and the assertion of a referential dimension replicates the logic of Latin American Modernism. It finds antecedents in the work of Joaquin Torres-Garcia, the Mexican Muralists and many other artists from this region for whom the discourse of the European or North American avant garde, rather than a model to follow blindly, became a strategy upon which to construct the difference that separated them from the leading artistic movements of their time. In his own period, Camnitzer can be considered both a forerunner and one of the theoretical leaders of Latin American conceptual art. His art occupies a position of leadership in this movement together with that of other 'unclassifiable' Latin American conceptual artists of his generation—Cildo Meireles (Brazil) and Eugenio Dittborn (Chile)—17 who have approached conceptualism as a practice oriented at deconstructing techniques of colonial domination. Like their art, Camnitzer's art embodies a form of ideological resistance at the same time that it provides the viewer with the instruments to construct his own strategies of liberation.

To analyze Camnitzer's 'Latin Americanness' also implies looking at the way in which this experience has constituted him as a peripheral 'other.' In this sense his art cannot be disassociated from the multiple layers of cultural identity that constitute his life- experience—German, Jewish, Uruguayan, self-appointed Latin American exile in New York —as well as the margins, both real and self-imposed, that separate him from mainstream art and culture. This experience provides the critical edge to his work in that it forces him to constantly rethink and consider the function and parameters of his artistic production.

Camnitzer's redefinition of conceptual art and his politics as art proposition began with the tautological language works produced in the late 60s and early 70s, was further expanded in the evocative series of 1977-79, and has culminated in the complex installations of the last decade that merge his obsession with the juxtaposition of words and images with three-dimensional objects. To delve into the stages of this process is tantamount to apprehending the workings of a highly analytical mind constantly confronted with the demands of his ethical worldview and the inherent magic of the work of art.

 

II



I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not
get mixed up and lost in the course of the night.
                                                            Jorge Luis Borges


Between 1967 and 1973 Camnitzer produced a series of etchings and installations based on language that signaled his appropriation of the conceptual idiom as the basis of his art. This initial stage, which announced many of the themes and concerns that would constitute the main focus of his work, involved reducing the formal elements of the work to a single word or phrase in order to apprehend the logic of language as art in much the same way as analytic conceptualism. Yet, this stage already saw his transformation of the tautological idiom to suit his own purposes, mainly the communication of political ideas. It was founded on the assumption that language could provide a more direct means of communicating ideas about a particular situation than images.

This early language series emerged out of the initial propositions of the New York Graphic Workshop, the experimental artists' group established by Camnitzer in 1965 with Lilliana Porter and Jose Guillermo Castillo.18 At that time Camnitzer was a printmaker concerned with the communicative potential of graphics and the need to make them accessible to a mass audience. His work consisted of large format expressionist prints which revealed his previous formation in a fine arts academic setting as well as the experience acquired after having spent one year of study in Germany.19 The NYGW was founded on a form of political activism that rejected the status of art as a privileged commodity and sought to make it accessible to a mass audience. It launched the idea of multiples_serial graphics by which a single element could be assembled in many ways in order to build new objects and images by its own repetition -- and the concept of the F.A.N.D.S.O (Free Assemblage, Nonfunctional, Disposable, Serial Object). FANDSOS represented "an attempt . . . to remove the property value concern of the consumer by including the disposability and destruction of the art object in the original idea." Its ultimate objective was to ". . . eliminate the high cost and pompous ritual that separate art from the public."20

The objective of producing prints for the masses not only proved untenable in the highly commodified environment of New York but, having constituted the project of the social realist movements of the 30s, was already imbued with a negative weight that limited its formal and ideological outreach in the 60s. Therefore, already by 1966, Camnitzer began looking for ways to develop a more participatory form of art based on the process of art itself.21 A series of works with mail art carried out during this period, not only provided a more direct way of circumventing the gallery and market network, but opened up the possibility of working with forms of language and idea art. Works such as Adhesive Labels (1966), which he affixed to elevators and bathrooms, made him look closely at words and the relation to their meanings while at the same time they provided him with a more direct way of creating his own audience. Envelope (1967), on the other hand, was based on a constant image that altered its dimensions with respect to the relative position of the viewer, reasserting the latter's right to see things as he pleased.22

These works almost immediately led Camnitzer to move away from printmaking towards idea art. The decisive shift, which took place in 1966-67, was the result of having discovered that working with ideas would allow him to free himself of technical considerations and focus more concretely on the intellectual process involved in the production of art.23 It also led to the realization that ". . . with a modest investment of energy, [he] could change and reorganize the universe according to [his] own wishes and design."24 This statement would prove revealing in terms of the subsequent development of his production and his position with respect to conceptual art. It already implied the notion of the artist as manipulator of referents encoded in language or linguistic propositions, a fact that was absent from analytic conceptualism but well accorded with his concern for communicating an ethical/political point of view.

The language series was articulated upon an extension or transformation of the tautological principle that constituted the basis of analytic conceptualism exemplified in Joseph Kosuth's "an idea is an idea is an idea". More than a new mode of expression, tautology provided him with a formal vehicle that would allow him to present ideas in a very direct, concrete way that almost functioned like a newspaper headline. In works such as Fragment of a Cloud (1967), Self-Portrait (1969), for instance, the primary emphasis was on the self- descriptive, self-referential aspect of language. In order to facilitate their univocal apprehension the etchings were reduced to a standard format where everything was resolved for the viewer and there were no aesthetic considerations or judgments of taste to distract from the idea. Also important was the fact that in their reductive format, the works carried connotations allusive to en 'aesthetics of poverty' associated with the Third World, a concern which Camnitzer had addressed in his activities with the NYGW.

Tautology, however, would prove to have short value for developing a political form of art as it was essentially antithetical to it. In spite of its concreteness, its value was essentially formal, negating any value or entity outside itself. In order to effectively use it, Camnitzer had to subvert it. His way of carrying out this subversion was to introduce perceptual elements in the structure and forms of the letters and texts. Thus, the outstanding feature of many of the works in this language series was the presence of perceptual referents which signaled Camnitzer's use of tautological words and phrases as signifying vehiclesrather than mediums of reproduction, as well as his reluctance to let go completely of the censorial realm of images. The inclusion within some of these works of such elements as cotton tosimulate the idea of the cloud, already established a difference with other conceptual art works based on language. In Horizon (1968), for instance, the splitting of the phrase by means of a horizontal line introduced an external element that simultaneously recalled the horizon while graphically illustrating it. Here Camnitzer was functioning on the premise that words themselves, in the spacing and relation of the letters and their placement, have a certain degree of image value in it. Changing or altering the context can transform this image value. In both cases, they require a viewer to take note of the changes.25

These language works revealed that by endowing the words with semantic or perceptual charge while utiIizing the linguistic form of tautology, he could produce a direct effect that provided possibilities for a direct form of political art they played on the way upon which information is relayed in our our media-oriented society; that is, they embodied information in the concrete form of a printed word that in turn could elicit associations on the viewer that would ultimately lead to a heightened awareness of the social issue. This was even more forcefully underscored in Che, Mariaghela, and Sosa, the first series of etchings with overt political connotations executed in the new language. In breaking a blank page with the impression in stenciled letters of the word "Che," for instance, Camnitzer was calling in powerful associations related to revolutionary Third World politics, war, repression, liberation, etc. The result was that the work not only assumed the function of a concrete language portrait of a slain guerrilla leader, but was capable of subsuming the viewer into the implicit narratives associated with those leaders.

Camnitzer's key discovery during this period was the fact that "logic carried to the extreme of its possibilities could leadto something akin to magic."26 This principle was put to test in the work Living Room (1969), an installation piece executed in 1969 at the Museo de Bellas Artes of Caracas. For Living Room, Camnitzer covered the entire exhibition room with xeroxed words which reconstructed a model of a living/dining room using words to physically locate the furni- ture and other dining room objects. As in works by the North American conceptual artist Mel Bochner, words instead of objects were used to "form" the dining space, they created the idea of the space through self-referential strategies. The significance of this proposition lay not so much in its basic principle but in the reaction which it elicited from the viewer: without instructions, people walked over the words describing the rug, and walked around those designating the fully set dining table. The most important fact revealed by the reception of the piece was that an abstract floor plan, that is the idea of a floor plan, with its myriad and multiple associations, could provide a deeper experience than to have been actually situated in that particular space at a specific time.27 It involved a heightened state of consciousness that would become important in developing a form of political art.


The application of this principle would become the determinant factor of two political installations on the theme of repression in Latin America, Massacre of Puer to Montt (1969), executed at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Santiago, Chile, and Common Grave (1970), installed at the Instituto di Tella in Buenos Aires. These pieces were conceived at the beginning of a period of dictatorships in Latin America that carried with it great waves of violence and military repression. While the subject of repression carries with it associations of bodily torture, killings, death, 'desaparecidos,' the starting point chosen by Camnitzer for these pieces is the way in which acts of repression always reach us second-hand through the media and thus require our efforts to recreate them. Therefore, in these installation works he set out to create the conditions for that reenactment.


Massacre recreated the killing of peasants who occupied unworked land in the village of Puerto Montt, Chile, during the government of Frei in 1969. Here the theme was reduced to words and strips pasted on the floor. Words were used to indicate port-holes, the soldiers manning them, and the arms used in the operation. By following a series of dotted lines painted on the floor the viewer was enticed to recreate and experience the trajectory of the bullets. Common Grave alluded to the anonymous graves where the military dumped the bodies of killed'desaparecidos.'.' It consisted of the two words xeroxed over a long piece of paper on the gallery floor. The concrete, reductive quality and ultimate banality of the piece brought attention to the way in which the military destroy all traces of the individual, even denying them adequate burial. Both works could be associated with the Beuysian call for an art that "releases energy in people, leading them to a general discussion of actual problems."28


The theme of repression in Latin America was also the subject of another important work of this period, Leftovers, (1970) a work that achieves a synthesis of the political propositions of the language series with the concept of the FANDSO.29 Leftovers exemplifies the FANDSO through use of a multiple composed by 200 similar cardboard (disposable) boxes over which stenciled letters with the word "leftovers" have been printed. On the wall next to the boxes, stenciled letters stood for inventories of weapons. The boxes, which were wrapped in gauze and stained to look like blood, were meant as containers of dismembered bodies, illustrating again the principle explored in the previous installation pieces that form itself was not important, it was there to serve the purposes of content. Here repression is objectified for the viewer in the actual packaging of the dismembered and mutilated bodies; it confronts him directly, in a crude, matter-of-fact way, punctuated by the associations of the title: Leftovers, i.e. remnants of First World . terror mechanisms shipped to the Third World. The monumental scale of the boxes stacked against the gallery wall, in many ways recalls and even plays with the concept of a public monument. Their sole presence desacralized the gallery space, forcing the viewer to "come to terms with the problem."30


In spite of the achievements of the language series, however, Camnitzer remained unsatisfied with the tautological form of his political work. The latter was in many ways too literal, ultimately leading him into a dead end. Given the strong expressionist bent of his early art, I am tempted to specu- late that the dematerialization of the works in this series proved ultimately too reductive and that it would take a recuperation of visual elements to make feasible a return to forms of political art. After Leftovers, therefore, Camnitzer would produce very few significant works of non-artworld related political art until the late 70s.31 The rest of his production during this decade, exemplified in the Signature series was focused almost exclusively on the critique of art as commodity, a general concern of the pop art and conceptual movements of the period, and one of the leading themes of the collective work of the NYGW. His next breakthrough would come about through the exploration of word/image/object relationships.

 

III

 

People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the
inherent poetry and mystery of the image. But if one
does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different re-
sponse One asks other things.
                                                            Magritte—
32

 

The next phase in Camnitzer's development signaled the production of three transitional series, Arbitrary Objects and The Titles (1979), Archaeology of a Spell (1979) and Fragments of, Novel (1980) where the formal elements and structure that would constitute his approach to political art were initially elaborated and tested. In these works Camnitzer added images and objects to his use of language. Images, objects or language by themselves did not function anymore for him; they had to come together in order for the reality or idea to exist.33 The aim, therefore, was to "re-imagize thought processes,"34 a project which implied a further transformation of the logic of language through the possibilities opened up by the image or object. The purpose was not illustration but the creation of a semantic, connotative field where the role of the artist was reduced to providing "the conditions for the viewer to turn into a creator of images"35 The two operative elements that Camnitzer developed in this stage were on one hand the conceptual matrix or grid and the elaboration of 'arguments' or underlying narratives to organize the image-object-word sequences. In these series, he would also develop more systematically the concept of magic, which until then he had only pursued rather intuitively.

The first step before engaging in new associations of meaning, was a systematic questioning of the arbitrary meanings encoded in words and images. René Magritte's paintings with words that Camnitzer had discovered early on in his career now provided an important starting point for his explorations in this area. The incorporation of aspects of Magritte's art into his own work, helped Camnitzer to break away from the literal, rigid structure of the tautological series and explore unknown possibilities in an almost playful, ironic manner. For Camnitzer Magritte was not a surrealist but a proto-conceptualist.36 Two of his series, The Key of Dreams (1930) and The Use of Words 1 (1928-29) were deliberately intended to demonstrate the arbitrary relation between image-objects and the words used to name or title them.37 Magritte was also important in terms of suggesting multiple and unusual associations that could be conveyed by a particular image.

The key formal structure that facilitated these pieces, already present in Magritte, was that of the matrix or grid which served to articulate the relations between text and images within a self-contained format. Dictionary (1969), a work executed as part of the language series of the late 60s provided the clue for this stage. Dictionary comprised a series of language-image dictionary pages where the referential element was not only established but made explicit through free association. In these pages, for instance, Camnitzer would draw a square, next to which he arranged the words 'table', 'plaza', 'well', 'prism', etc. all of which could be related to the shape of the square. In the next sequential image, he introduced a bent line inside a similar square, and proceeded to expound further on its associative meanings. As a result of this interplay between image/object and idea facilitated by the matrix, the content of image and text in themselves became unimportant. The role of the viewer now was to solve the relation between the reproduced images, the information provided, the connotations of the words, their communication value and their relation and interaction at any particular moment within the overall format. The function of connotation became extremely important as it implied transcending the prescribed social function of words into a cultural context charged with referential and symbolic meaning.38

With the matrix in place, Camnitzer proceeded to explore the relationship between images/objects/texts. Images had first reappeared in Camnitzer's work in a series of boxes, exemplified by Victim's View found on the Altar of Teotihuacan (1978), that carried self-explanatory texts in the form of phrases or sentences that substitute the single-word format of the tautology series. The boxes also represent one of the first instances of the introduction of objects into his idiom. Although constructed by the artist, they find their antecedent in Marcel Duchamp's ready-maces and represent an attempt to apprehend reality concretely and directly. In this sense they fulfill the same function as the format of language series, i.e. they constitute a form of 'packaging' for the idea tic content of the work.

The most important function of images and objects in Camnitzer's work of this period was their power of evocation which resulted from their random juxtaposition. This evocative function was in some ways similar to Magritte's 'bewilderment'39 or Foucault's 'similitudes.'40 It relied on the underlying affinities and similarities that would result from the bringing together of banal, ordinary objects, images, and texts. Together these elements would not only reveal a broad range of unexpected associations but would also produce a Lyrical, poetic effect that ultimately lends Camnitzer's work its particular seductive appeal.

The principles of word/image free association and evocation were first explored systematically in Arbitrarily Objects and Their Titles (1979), a work that presented twenty objects with twenty titles organized at random that the artist wrote and pinned to the wall at the moment of installing the piece. The work is a takeoff on Magritte. Yet whereas Magritte's work with words was oriented at demonstrating the sheer arbitrariness of meaning, in Arbitrary Objects Camnitzer went a step further and induced the viewer to organize the chaos and look for coherence in midst of arbitrariness. For the first time it required his active participation in the production of the meaning of the piece.

The Archaeology of a Spell (1979) and Fragments of a Novel (1980) continued the exploration of image/word relationships while simultaneously expanding the viewer's participatory role. These works combine images or objects and sentences in complex relationships. The texts are handwritten texts, a fact that signals the active presence of the artist within the work. Texts represent factual, logical statements that in many cases describe or reiterate the image although including outside referents. While the inclusion of the caption would seem to reduce the content of the image to one meaning, it actually opens it up offering multiple readings.

These two series signaled the apparition of arguments that provided a structural format for the work. The Archaeology carried an argument that was only known to the artist, it was inaccessible to the viewer. Fragments of a Novel also carried an argument in the form of an ambiguous narrative which was revealed to the viewer throughout the 13 pieces, in the form of three-dimensional objects and etchings that compose the series. Fragments of a Novel is like a Hichcock film. It leaves clues that incite the viewer to piece together the hidden narrative; yet the narrative is never completely revealed, leaving open the possibilities for many narrative constructs inspired by the combination of texts and images.

The construction and conditions for the presentation of the argument that articulated these works, became the most important factor developed by Camnitzer during this period that in turn opened a number of possibilities for political art. As stated by the artist, "Once it became clear that it was possible to convey the conditions for an argument without defining the argument itself, I was ready to reintroduce politics into my work. I could bypass both pamphlet and description."41 The argument can be defined as the underlying narrative that provided the reasons for the work, ultimately related it to a larger narrative or cultural context outside of its parameters in order to explain its meaning. Translated into a political proposition, the argument could take the place of "the message" of earlier forms of political art. Yet the important point in Camnitzer's utilization of the argument was that, while present, it was never completely revealed, leading the viewer to compose his own argument within the matrix or conditions laid out by the artist. These three series already involved stages of questioning the encoded meaning of images, objects and texts, rearranging them within conditions provided by the artist and thereby generating a new construct. Through the questioning and rearranging of meaning, the viewer was ultimately assuming a form of political behavior necessary for the emergence of a new consciousness.


IV




The possibility of art lies in this double movement, to converge upon the real if only to pry open and reveal in the act of perception the very procedures by which that real is made obscure in the violent act of transaction and translation.


                         Charles Merewether "Writing on the Wall "
42

 

In the 1980s, building upon the experience of the previous years, Camnitzer produced three series on the theme of torture and environmental mutilation that constitute his most important body of political art work. Two of these, From the Uruguayan Torture Series (1982), and The Agent Orange Series (1985), were produced through a technique of photoetching developed by Camnitzer in the early 80s as part of his teaching experiments.43 They consist of 35 and 50 photoetchings respectively that combine images and handwritten texts.44 The third series was the installation on the theme of torture produced for the XLIII Venice Biennale in 1988 that combined objects, printed images, and texts. In many ways each of these series builds upon the other, increasing the level of complexity between their constitutive elements and ultimately producing a powerful statement on the inner mechanisms of torture.

The three series sum up and expose the nature of Camnitzer's politics as art proposition. Here the Uruguayan artist emerges as the master game-player who seduces and provokes the viewer to engage in his fatal explorations through a mine field. While these works continue to exploit the relationship between image and text, they carry it to a more sophisticated and complex level. The ambiguity of the arguments of The Archaeology of a Spell and Fragments of a Novel gives way in these works to a concrete narrative structure and a concrete set of referents: the tortured and the torturer. The articulating principle of this body of work is that of "designing the rules of the game; once these are in place, everything else is easy and errors can be minimized."45 In a manner similar to that employed by Julio Cortazar in his novel Hop-scotch Camnitzer has devised a framework for the argument and many different possibilities for the interpretation of the plot, but only one conclusion: the terror generated by the torturer, the terror of torture itself.46

The subject of torture is perhaps the one theme that unifies and summarizes the experience of the entire Latin American continent in the last thirty years. It has been the instrument of an institutionalized "technology of terror"47 in ntries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. torture can be operative at many different levels of social life, the mutilation of civilian bodies to the small incidents and confrontations that transform the routine of daily life into a reign of fear. It can manifest itself in many different forms: the silencing of public spaces, the anonymous burial sites of the dis appeared, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Therefore, in order to produce from the Ur uguayan Tol ture Series, Cam nitzer carried out extensive research. Each image in the series conveys or alludes to a real incident reported by the media or conveyed through the testimonies of witnesses as told directly to the artist or through reports of human rights groups.48

There is, however, no trace of the documen tary or testimonial genre in these etchings. Recurring to the banal and the ordinary, Camnitzer has chosen to focus on the quotidian aspect of the relation between the tortured man and the torturer. In this sense the series functions like a "diary of thoughts, words and images,"49 a journal of silences and inter slices, that articulates the relationship between torturer and victim. The images confront the viewer with ordinary objects and things that constitute the confined world of the tortured man: a light bulb, a milk bottle, a glass of water, an intruding cock roach, or the implements of the torturer, a set of pliers, an electric cord, a piece of wrung and twisted cloth, a thimble, nails. Camnitzer approaches torture not as a fact or an action but as a "structure of feeling"50 which appeals to the viewer's perception and memory working in a subtle way to effect a 'crisis in consciousness'. Here the artist has called upon all the perceptual mechanisms which he tried out in his earlier work. The montage of images, texts, gestures that constitute the tortured man's diary embody slight perceptual changes, allusions, sensations and shifts in points of view which recreate the experience be tween torturer and victim. In some prints, such as Cup, the same image is produced twice, so as to erase the divisions be tween tortured and torturer and suggest the points of view of both. In other prints, such as The Letter, the viewer bears witness to the tortured man's hallucinations in the form of a letter piercing a wall.

The process through which the viewer reconstructs 'the real' in the series is extremely revealing. The 'reals or torture emerges as the result of a complex economy of signifying elements embodied in the text/image relationship which calls upon the viewer to produce its meaning, There is first a conscious seduction effected through the material aspect of the piece that functions to draw the viewer's attention. The finished quality of the photoetching itself embodies a certain preciousness and fine arts quality that sharply contrasts with the brutality of the theme. Yet the viewer feels attracted by the colors and overall refinement of the etching, and is thereby drawn into the work only to discover the nightmarish reality of the content.

Once engaged by the work, he is confronted with the image/text relationship. Images present him with simple objects or parts of the human body whose signifying function is altered by the inclusion of the text. In some instances the text carries the referent ["The tool pleased him"]; in others the image carries it, such as in the hand pierced with nails ["He practiced every day"]. What is important, however, is that the 'reals emerges in the difference or fissures between the image and text. These fissures open up a referential space and call upon the viewer to construct the meaning. Thus images of a half-filled glass of water ["He feared thirst"]; a finger with an electric wire wrapped around it ["Her fragrance lingers on"]; an eerie image of cockroaches creeping on the man's hand ["The touch reclaimed spent tenderness".] In the first instance the normal thirst-quenching function associated with water is inverted, it becomes another instrument of daily fear for the tortured man. In the second instance the female gender of the torturer is revealed in a way that subverts the image of the finger into that of a mutilated male organ. The eeriness of the third image is transformed into a portrait of tenderness, the only form of bodily contact the prisoner has in the solitary experience of the cell.

Torture therefore assaults the participant viewer in the least expected ways as he is forced to come to terms with its most subtle mechanisms. The last etching plays the fatal trick upon the viewer putting to test his worst reflexes: it offers him an electric prod in the form of an image cut out from a mail catalogue announcement. In this way Camnitzer is making the viewer aware that the mechanisms of our present system make the implements of torture available to anyone, that we all fulfill the role of torturer by way of our complicity within the present system. We can add that ultimately, the viewer has already assumed the role of torturer, as the work really comes together in his mind.

The Agent Orange Series, produced two years later, is based on the same set of principles, an underlying argument, multiple possibilities of reading and only one conclusion: the effect of chemical warfare on the human species. Specifically, The Agent 0range refers to the actual use of dioxine, one of the most powerful poisons ever produced by man, to deforest jungle areas during the Vietnam War, and its mutilating effects of this operation on both soldiers and the population at large. As in the previous From the Uruguayan Torture Series, however, there is no trace of the documentary or testimonial in this work. Here the context and images have become even more ordinary and banal. The photographs upon which Camnitzer based this series of etchings are from the backyard of his house: they portray leaves, dead insects, a bolt, eggs, debris, the artist's hand, a cardboard box, a rusty metal container. In this series Camnitzer has turned the backyard into a place for potential genocide, portraying its creeping effects into the most ordinary spaces of living.

The Venice Biennale Installation, on the other hand, is one of Camnitzer's most synthetic pieces, in spite of the fact that in this work he combines prints, texts and objects for the first time. Yet there is great austerity and economy in the relation of the parts of the work as well as in the encoded meanings of the texts. The piece consisted of a central area articulated by art)ficial grass and covered with old newspapers and printed images. Around this area, a number of objects placed against the wall, accompanied by texts, functioned as stations: a shoe, a flower vase, a desk, a candle, a child's drawing, a pipe, a; broken mirror, a broken frame, a tin can, a chair. Camnitzer is again leading the viewer to become aware of the experience of the confined man. Yet here the use of three-dimensional objects and the physical space of the installation allow him to carry this strategy to a more concrete objective level: the entire space evoked a prisoner's cell or patio. Thus, the viewer is no longer observing and rearranging images but, as in the earlier language installation pieces, he actually participates of the space of the action.

Athough Camnitzer elaborated an argument for this installation based on the same theme of torture, the argument remains ambiguous, fluctuating between two levels of reading: the daily experience of the tortured prisoner on one hand and the imprisoned artist on the other. The first level of reading reverts back to the subject of the tortured prisoner who hallucinates his freedom and fails. The emphasis here, however. is not so much on bodily mutilation and pain but on the experience of confinement itself as a form of psychological torture. As in From the Uruguayan Torture Series, the experience of the tortured man is conveyed through perceptual shifts and changes embodied in the object/text relationship: a half-glass placed against an apparently existing mirror ["Reflections occurred selectively"]; a ceramic pitcher with bricks inside ["He leamed how to believe"]; the omnipresent eye ["He lived imprisoned by the echo of his stare"]; the futile attempt "to count the stars." The experience of confinement is conveyed by the board with a piece of sky printed over it ["He had to create his own window"].

A number of the texts and images, however; allude to a second level reading that involves a metaphor of the: modernist artist and the creative process. From this perspective the piece can be read as a summation of the critique of the artists' free, autonomous role ["He enjoyed what he perceived to be his freedom"] that Camnitzer has been elaborating through

out his production. This second reading of the piece is confirmed by the simultaneous quotation of elements from the art of Magritte, Duchamp and Marcel Broodthaers: Magritte's pipe, Duchamp's ready-maces and broken mirrors, Broodthaers playful objects.51 Although references to the work of these artists had appeared before in Camnitzer's work, their explicit presence in this piece both confirms and legitimizes the works' function as critique of the modern artist: through them Camnitzer is assailing the presumed liberty of the artist to create something new given the elusive nature of 'tine real' embodied in images and texts and its intrusion into the work regardless of the author's intentions. The artist ultimately cannot evade ethical/political commitment in the rearrangement of reality.

Several of the texts can also be read as confirmation of Camnitzer's position described throughout this essay: "He organized things as he perceived them"; "Reference proved a form of assertion" "Some of the meanings remained inaccessible"; "They found that reality had intruded upon the image." These texts function as the artists' voice in the work suggesting a further reading of the Venice Biennale Installation as a self-reflective metaphor. The associations of the creative act with torture, and the imprisoned situation of the tortured as a metaphor for the artist carry implications beyond the critique of the autonomous artist. Through this construct Camnitzer also seems to be reflecting on the role of the artist as master gameplayer or ultimate manipulator that he has carved for himself. He seems to recognize that to engage in politics as art is a risky game that implies the role of artist as constant arbiter of moral and ethical positions. It is impossible to assume that role and not expose oneself or not err in judgment. Similarly, there is the risk of internalizing authority and reducing all the possibilities of the game to those of the author, the latter emerging in the combined role of dictator and torturer. Camnitzer's piece is a testimony of the vulnerability of this position and the inherent dangers it poses to the artist. Hopefully, however, the artist will have given his audience enough insight into the process of the game for the viewer to effect his own deconstruction of the author's assumed power.




V



At the end of the tunnel. there is a mirror
Look, see.
See yoursef.
And seeing yourself, see what the system does not want you
to see . . .

                                                            Eduardo Galeano 52




Camnitzer's work is the result of a slow but consistent build-up process where every element is thought and fleshed out for its capacity to evoke and construct meaning in a way that will effect an intervention in some level of practice or 'the real'. It therefore should not surprise us that in Los San Patricios, his most recent installations (still in progress) on the torture and massacre of a brigade of Irish deserters during the Mexican American War,53 Camnitzer has approached the subject of history itself. Making use of his master-game strategy he has called upon both himself and the viewer to engage in techniques of construction and deconstruction reserved for historians, to participate in the historicizing process itself. Yet as in most of his works, we can anticipate that there will be not one single historical narrative to the piece, but many. History will be dealt with as a collective construct or memory of the past, the result of many shifting perspectives and points of view created or deciphered by the viewer.

The idea of tackling history or memory itself can be seen as a summation of the strategies and positions elaborated by Camnitzer thus far. It extends the master-game strategy into the construction and deconstruction of histories or memories of past events, making the participant viewer aware of his own frame of historical reference as well as of his ability to change it. Such a position entails a political and ethical choice on the part of the viewer, as the act of rewriting or reconfiguring history ultimately entails the desire for transformation of the present. From this point of view Los San Patricios represents Camnitzer's most daring politics as art statement. For if one of the conditions of the present moment is the lack of a sense of history, of the sense of the past, in favor of the present embodied in the image or simulacrum,54 Camnitzer's work functions to confront this state and remind us not only that there can be a space outside of the simulacrum, an alternate logic to that of the image, but that that space is ultimately constructed and created by those who learn how to look, perceive, and act beyond the staticity of the image. Los San Patricios, thus summarizes the fundamental proposition of Camnitzer's work: that there can be no 'endgame' but a pro-active game where the 'real' and the 'referent' are transacted and negotiated, where the logic of history, politics, and art come together.

 

Dr. Mari Carmen Ramírez is Curator of Contemporary
Latin American Art at the Archer M. Huntington
Gallery at The University of Texas at Austin. For-
merly, she was Director of The Museum of Anthropol-
ogy, History and Art at the University of Puerto Rico,
Rio Piedras campus.

 

 

 

Fragment of a Cloud, 1967

 

Leftovers, 1970

Arbitrary Objects and Their Titles, 1979

 

Fragments of a Novel (Detail), 1980

From the Uruguayan Torture, 1983

Victim's View, 1978

Common Grave, 1970

Untitled, 1987
(detail of installation at 1988 Venice Biennale)