This Friday, internationally recognized sculptor and installation artist Doris Salcedo will present a public lecture at the Blanton on her work and its connection to political history. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Salcedo makes art using specific historical events—both from Latin America and abroad—as entry points for issues of global resonance, like political violence and discrimination. A small installation of Salcedo’s work will go on view in conjunction with the talk. Though international in scope, Salcedo’s body of work is in dialogue with a vital history of political and conceptual art from South America—an area well represented in the Blanton’s collection. Many artists began using conceptual or subversive strategies in earnest during the 1970s and ’80s, when oppressive military dictatorships emerged across the region.
In Brazil, artists endeavored to make works that could circumvent official state censorship. One such artist was Cildo Meireles, who Blanton visitors may know best through his permanent installation Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals). Rather than make paintings or prints to hang on a gallery wall, Meireles utilized everyday objects and existing circuits of exchange—like the circulation of currency and the recycling system—to disseminate his art. Zero cruzeiro (1974-1978) and Zero Dollar (1984) are two such works in the Blanton’s collection. The two “counterfeit” banknotes question the value ascribed to currency and underscore its symbolic link to the nation. They also carry more historically specific meanings: in the case of the cruzeiro, the repeated devaluation of Brazil’s currency beginning in the late 1960s; and, in the case of the dollar, U.S. domination of the global economy. With the intent of stimulating conversation and debate, Meireles distributed versions of his Zero cruzeiro (and corresponding Zero centavo coin) within Brazil.
Another South American artist working to evade government censorship during this period was Eugenio Dittborn of Chile. In 1983, a decade into the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Dittborn developed a form of circulating art that would become his trademark. The artist applied found images and texts, using various artistic processes, to large sheets of brown wrapping paper. He then folded the compositions down to a fraction of their size and mailed them to international destinations. For one such “Airmail Painting,” No Tracks (Airmail Painting No. 13), Dittborn transferred mug shots of women found in old detective magazines on to the paper. The portraits evoke images of desaparecidos, those mysteriously abducted or killed under military regimes in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere. By distributing his work on inconspicuous materials via the postal service, Dittborn bypassed the normal barriers to entry of the art market (such as the high cost of shipping a work on canvas). He also succeeded in communicating coded messages about Chile’s political climate to the outside world, thereby, in his words, “[salvaging] memory within a political climate that attempted to erase virtually every trace of it.”
Artists living abroad were able to respond more freely to the political instability in their native countries. Luis Camnitzer, a Uruguayan artists and activist, was living in New York when Uruguay fell under a repressive military dictatorship. He was deeply affected by the regime’s human rights abuses, which he learned about from friends and colleagues who had remained there. Camnitzer’s commitment to socially responsible art led him to create the Uruguayan Torture Series, in which he subtly employed visual and textual devices to evoke the psychological trauma of torture. Closely cropped and printed in a soft, ethereal palette, the images seem inviting on first glance. It is only upon another look that text and image interact to reveal more ominous implications. Camnitzer hoped that these images would awaken a world audience to the crimes being committed in his home country. Delve deeper into the intersections of art making and political conflict this Friday at the Blanton. Doris Salcedo’s lecture will take place at the museum’s Edgar A. Smith (EAS) building on Friday, Nov. 7 at 6 pm. An installation of Salcedo’s work will be on view in the Blanton’s Klein Gallery from Nov. 7 to Feb. 22, 2015.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.