The Pacific Standard Time Initiative Seeks to Rescue Fugitive Art


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Left, Lorena Wolffer in her 1990s performance piece “If She Is Mexico, Who Beat Her Up?” Right, Juan Downey’s 1972 performance piece “Energy Fields.”

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From left:, via Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena; Juan Downey Archives

LOS ANGELES — Of all the trips that Ruth Estévez made in preparation for her coming museum exhibition on the Argentine artist León Ferrari, the one that took her most out of the way — requiring a plane, a car and a rowboat — was visiting an artist in a small coastal town in the Dominican Republic. She was researching the performance history of an experimental 1967 text by Ferrari, who died in 2013, called “Palabras Ajenas” (“The Words of Others”).

A patchwork quilt of short quotations from around 120 different publications and public figures, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Pope Paul VI, this literary collage skewers what the artist viewed as a Western thirst for violence during the Vietnam War. It has been performed only twice before, in 1968 in the basement of a London home, and in 1972 in a small theater in Buenos Aires.

“One problem we are having with this project, which is understandable, considering it happened almost 50 years ago and was very underground, is that we don’t have any recordings,” said Ms. Estévez, who runs the gallery at the nonprofit Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, known as Redcat, in Los Angeles.

Yet Ms. Estévez and her co-curator, Miguel López, were able to track down Leopoldo Maler, the artist who had directed the London reading, in the Dominican Republic. And they were rewarded with some important materials, including his edited script and a stack of the original transparencies, with Letraset type that he used in London to flash onto the wall the name of each character speaking.

“The transparencies are super-beautiful,” said Ms. Estévez, who is planning to recreate the performance at Redcat next year. “We don’t know exactly how yet, but we know we will use them.”

The Ferrari show is one of several dozen currently in development as part of the J. Paul Getty Trust’s second Pacific Standard Time initiative, which is financing work by museums in Southern California within the broad theme of Latin American and Latino art for exhibitions in 2017 and 2018.

Ms. Estévez and Mr. López are not the only curators facing the conundrum in reviving an experimental play or performance nearly lost to history. To what extent do you try for a faithful reproduction, which can verge on seeming nostalgic or academic? Conversely, can you adapt or reimagine a performance for a new audience and time without losing sight of the original?

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the original text is the Guatemalan writer Hugo Carrillo’s 1962 “El Corazón del Espantapájaros” (“The Heart of the Scarecrow”), a play that had students in clown makeup playing the roles of politicians and police officers. Participants received death threats when it was performed in Guatemala City in 1978, a particularly violent year under a military government.

Now, the Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa is working to reimagine that performance for a group show that José Luis Blondet and Rita Gonzalez are organizing for the museum. He is creating sculptures that could be used as props in the play and is in the process of commissioning a young Guatemalan writer to compose a script responding to the props. In essence, “Naufus is rewriting the play instead of recreating it,” Mr. Blondet said.

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In other Pacific Standard Time shows, curators are working on re-creations or reinterpretations more explicitly guided by the historical goal of preserving and representing artworks that are little known.

For her survey of alternative or “below underground” Mexican art of the 1990s, for example, Irene Tsatsos, gallery director of the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Calif., is talking with the performance artist Lorena Wolffer about resurrecting her 1997 performance “If She Is Mexico, Who Beat Her Up?” In the piece, bruises and cuts on her body served as a commentary on aggressive United States government tactics in its war against drugs.

Ms. Wolffer has not yet finalized details, but “definitely” plans to do “a reinterpretation and not a re-creation,” she said in an email. “I believe that trying to literally reproduce the piece would not make much sense in the face of all that has happened in Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations since then,” she wrote.

Luckily for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, known as LACE, and the Pitzer College Art Galleries in Claremont, Calif., the Chilean-born artist Juan Downey, who died in 1993, often created basic instructions for how his performances should unfold. Though best known for his early electronic sculptures, he will be the subject of a show at both sites that focuses more on his New York performance-happenings of the 1970s.

The curators expect to include a few of the artist’s interactive, technology-based sculptures, which will help put his performances in context, and vice versa. What is more, they have access to one of Mr. Downey’s collaborators, the Chilean dancer and choreographer Carmen Beuchat.

“We are hoping to bring her in as a kind of consulting choreographer as well as a performer, but we don’t want to be too greedy,” said Robert Crouch, an artist-curator who is organizing the show with Ciara Ennis of Pitzer’s gallery.

They said their show, which will feature around 10 Downey performances, would probably blend the notions of re-creation and reinterpretation. For a 1972 piece titled “Imperialistic Octopus,” for instance, Mr. Downey branded the eight arms of a massive sculpture with names of big corporations that also had long tentacles. Ms. Ennis is considering having students at Pitzer use contemporary references.

But for other pieces, she said that she felt a “responsibility for retaining the original integrity of the work” — and the technology embedded in it — because Mr. Downey’s oeuvre is unfamiliar to many. For the 1974 piece “Video Trans Americas Debriefing Pyramid,” a large installation that originally framed a slow dance by Ms. Beuchat, Ms. Ennis has scoured Craigslist in search of old-style video monitors to be suspended from the ceiling. “Flat-screen TVs would just not give the same aesthetic,” she said. Mr. Crouch said, “Since Juan isn’t here to push back, I think we will have to take our cue from each piece.”

As for Ms. Estévez, she has already made several creative decisions about reviving Mr. Ferrari’s “The Words of Others.” She has rejected the idea of using a stage set, abiding by his own conception of the piece as a text or “literary collage” to be read (he had radio announcers in mind) rather than a play to be performed. Her plan is to situate the reading within the gallery, alongside other Ferrari artworks and documents.

And she has no intention of bringing 120 actors into the space to recite the quotations. While Ms. Estévez originally considered trying to create a “full concert of voices,” she learned that Mr. Maler’s 1968 version in London had only four performers, each of whom recited many quotations. She said her main goal was for the work to have a “continuous presence” in the gallery, with at least one reader always present during open hours.

Ms. Estévez has also assembled a small team to translate the Spanish text and locate the source publications for all quotations that originated in English. Their annotated edition of “The Words of Others” will be the first published in the United States, providing scholarship for those in the future who might one day seek to realize Mr. Ferrari’s antiwar project in yet another way.

Correction: March 15, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of an artist-curator who is jointly preparing an exhibition about the artist Juan Downey. He is Robert Crouch, not Couch.



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