There are two elements to the Unsaid/Spoken exhibition at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, or CIFO. Some of the artworks remain mute in a sense, with what they have to say hidden. In others, words and concepts are audible or readable, yet subject to manipulation.
It’s actually not too important to follow this loose categorization, however. What’s important is how creatively and profoundly these installations, sculptures and videos express our constant struggle with communication, the key to a functioning society. It’s a particularly appropriate exhibit to celebrate CIFO’s 10th anniversary — heavy as it is on Latin American artists and new media, both CIFO specialties.
The introductory installation from Brazilian Tatiana Blass could not have been better chosen, in that it says so much in its silenced state. At least a dozen snare drums and cymbals have been drenched in white wax, muting the sounds they may have once made, in some cases splitting the drums in half. Their sounds might even be entombed in the wax that has dripped to the floor. Drums are not only used to make music, but also in many societies to impart information over long distances. Blass named her 2010 piece Half of the Speech is on the Ground — Drums.
A much smaller work in this first room is a video from Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides. His head bobbing up and down in closeup, the artist is murmuring “on the ball,” but what really is he saying? In his oppressive homeland, rumors and phrases carry their own meanings.
While taking in the rows of C-prints from Mexico’s Damien Ortega, who has photographed piles of cement blocks waiting to become proper buildings (they have been left in an unexpressed state), you’ll be disturbed by the sounds of a cackling laugh or a yelp. It comes from the most surprising piece in an exhibit that pulls few punches. Alone on a dividing wall between two rooms, a small video features a moving mouth, surrounded by blackness. It is talking rapidly, although what it is saying is hard to decipher. The mouth then laughs, yells and makes increasingly loud noises as the video progresses. It is a 1973 piece from the 20th century avant-garde Irish wordsmith, Samuel Beckett.
The inclusion of Beckett points to why Unsaid/Spoken is a successful and challenging endeavor for CIFO. For a decade it has focused on a mission to highlight hyper-contemporary art from Latin America through exhibitions, grants, awards and commissions, and Unsaid is no exception. But there are also some firsts involved in this show.
The two inaugural CIFO curatorial award winners of 2012 put the exhibit together, culling work from not just the Foundation, but also from Ella Fontanals-Cisneros’ private collection, which includes art from the world over. Curators José Roca of Colombia and Moacir dos Anjos of Brazil had never worked together, nor were they familiar with the Cisneros collection, which means the whole process was an act of discovery. They came up with the loose theme, but the works were not specifically made for such a show. Each one stands on its own, avoiding the pitfalls some group shows face when the thread seems strained. And the two were not tied to dates or regions, so they could pick the works they thought best. It has made for a stronger compilation.
That means there is room, for instance, for the seminal post-Berlin Wall film documenting nonverbal life from East Germany to Moscow in 1993, From the East, by great Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman. Covering one whole wall are multicolored notes, written on post-its, napkins, scraps of paper, from American-born Joseph Grigely. The artist has been deaf since age 10, so written language has been his major means of communication, examples of which form 223 Conversations.
But for the most part, a Latin sensibility infuses much of the exhibit, maybe because the fight for free expression is still so raw to so many from points south.
A black-and-white print is hung very low on one wall, an image of debris on a street, made up of torn newspapers and forlorn shoes. Shot in 1960 from Colombian Leo Matiz during the height of the period that would become known as La Violencia, it is what remains of a protest violently suppressed.
Taking up one back room is an installation as visceral as Blass’ drum set in the front. In a dark room, a large megaphone faces a transistor radio, both on pedestals, with a spotlight shining from the loudspeaker. Your own voice, when grabbing hold of the megaphone, activates the piece, which includes a video on the side wall. Mexican Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has recreated a public art piece he made in Mexico City in 2008, when he asked people to remember the protests and hundreds of deaths that occurred in 1968 ahead of the Mexico City Olympics — their recorded messages and remembrances emanate from the transistor. With Voz Alta (or Out Loud), the artist wants to make sure such testimonies continue to be heard.
Other pieces are far less verbal or audible. There is a small, unobtrusive monotone work from the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a gray jigsaw puzzle in a plastic bag, maybe pieces of the artist’s past. It might be hard to connect Mexico’s Gabriel Orozco’s photo of a globe in a garden to the unsaid/spoken theme, except that it is commentary on globalization and colonization — but who cares, it’s a beautiful piece. The same could be said for American Mark Dion’s installation of a wildlife outpost, covered in pictures documenting fauna in natural habitats — more commentary than exploration of communication, but maybe that is a fine line.
In a graphic installation from Antonio Vega Macotela, a version of which was shown last year at CIFO, the Mexican artist has hung newspaper coverage of the epidemic of murders overrunning his country. Kneel on pads he has placed on the floor and look up to the printed materials — coded messages might be revealed.
The best-looking sculpture in the exhibit is a wooden bookshelf made of plywood with maple veneer from the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros. Its lovely contours collapse in the middle under some powerful, unseen weight, making it incapable of fulfilling its duties to house books.
One piece remains unspoken, but that will change when a video of an event from the well-known Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera is installed. In December, she held a “news conference” in Key West, announcing the re-establishment of a revolutionary party first formed in 1892, in the same place.
Throughout the entire exhibition space, which includes 38 works, the eerie sound of Beckett’s video follows you. It’s only fitting that the minimalist playwright who understood the ultimate paradoxical nature of language would get the last word.