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Spiraling Time: Intermedial Conversations in Latin American Arts

March 15-16, 2013

Conceptions of Time in Latin American Art
By Jessica Stair

Do time-based media carry different inflections according to the socio-political regions in which they operate? Does artistic mediation of time and its ephemerality particularly resonate in Latin America? In mid-March artists, scholars, and curators from various regions of Latin America gathered at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to examine these questions during the one-and-a-half day symposium, “Spiraling Time: Intermedial Conversations in Latin American Arts.”

Participants discussed the potential of time- and performance-based media to address social and political issues unique to Latin America with particular emphasis on memory, history, and temporality. Two events held earlier in the week anticipated the symposium, including a screening of two films by Argentine/American artist, writer, and filmmaker, Leandro Katz, and an informal conversation about literature with Brazilian writer and artist, Nuno Ramos. Katz’s experimental documentary “Paradox” centers on the legacies of Latin America through visual meditations on a Mayan archeological site and the banana plantation on its borders, while “The Day You’ll Love Me” contemplates the photos taken of Che Guevara after his execution by the Bolivian army in 1967. Ramos discussed his 2008 award-winning book, Ó, which defies traditional literary genres through its use of essay, chronicle, short story, and aphorisms. Both events highlighted the overarching theme of time in Latin American art practice.

The symposium officially kicked off on Friday, March 15th with the keynote address “Feeling the Past”by Andrea Giunta, a curator and art historian from the University of Texas at Austin. Afterwards an informal conversation was held by panelists including Chilean artist, poet, editor, and political activist, Cecilia Vicuña; postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley, Cindy Rose Bello; curator and critic, Paola Santoscoy; and Leandro Katz. These conversations focused on history, violence, and memory and carried over to the next day, which began with a roundtable discussion with Giunta, Katz, Santoscoy, and Bello and was moderated by Shannon Jackson, professor of Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley. Of greatest importance in this conversation was the way in which time-based art practice could evoke notions of history and violence through its connection to disappearance. Los desaparecidos, the victims of kidnapping and murder by the repressive dictatorial regimes of Argentina and Chile during the 1970s, were a subject that particularly resonated with Katz and Giunta, as the notion of disappearance and absence could link to conceptions of time and its ability to frame memory. Giunta cautioned against homogenizing Latin America as a region and emphasized the importance of isolating historical specificity, which was reiterated by Santoscoy and Bello in their discussions of works created by artists from Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia.

Another point that was raised by Bello dealt with aesthetic forms’ connection to the creation of a legal subject. Fernando Botero’s paintings of Abu Ghraib, which were exhibited at UC Berkeley in 2007, were called to mind. The paintings’ representation of explicit torture, as opposed to more conventional representations of political atrocity through the depiction of absence, for example, was questioned in terms of how it contributes to understandings of law. According to Bello, the explicitness of Botero’s work highlights how some forms of violence are considered legal while other forms of violence are not. Bello posed the question of how to judge the appropriateness of depictions of violence, whether explicit or subtle. Other questions that emerged from this productive conversation were related to the role of temporality in the museum and its production of a controlled experience as well as the failures of religion as an institution in its handling of political atrocities.

The notion of time and the theme of the spiral were prevalent in Leda Martins’ keynote address, “Spiral Time: An Approach to African-Brazilian RitualCosmovision.” The poet and professor of Literature, Drama, and Performance at theUniversidade Federal de Minas Geraislectured on the spiral as a constitutive part ofAfrican-Brazilian cosmography. She explained how the first movement in dances with African heritage begins with a half-clock motion in order to capture the ancestors and bring them to the present. In these dances, memory is expressed through the body, and the dance moves beyond a mere representation, becoming the ancestor itself. Martins stressed that the notion of “spiral time” was built on three principles: the meaning and power of ancestrality; the configuration of death as necessary to the continuity of the cosmovision; and the transition and revision of movement. Within the Black African vision of life, death and the supernatural are connected, the divine is linked with the human, and the dead are joined with those who are not yet born. These human and cosmic temporalities operate in cycles where the past, present, and future are connected, and reverence for ancestors is reverence for life itself. These principles are present in African-Brazilian dances and were beautifully performed during Martins’ lecture by Rosangela Silvestre, a choreographer, instructor, and dancer and the creator of the Silvestre Dance Technique; Amara Tabor-Smith, Dance lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) at UC Berkeley; and Jonathan Campbell, a student in TDPS.

The notion of spiraling time carried over to the afternoon session, which began with a conversation with Nuno Ramos and Sergio Delgado, an assistant professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. Ramos began by showing his work and discussing art as a way of losing time. For Ramos, life in São Paolo creates the sense of a contradictory experience by giving one a feeling of urgency and change but then resulting in the impression that nothing ever changes. According to Ramos, ambivalence is a dominant theme in the life of Brazil, which he attempts to capture in his work. The artist’s use of raw and fragile materials like dust and sand gives a sense that they might fail at any moment and disaster may ensue. For Ramos, this intense relationship between the materials and the viewers of his work relates to Brazilian life in the sense that intensity is present to the point that it almost disappears. Delgado extended this emphasis on materiality in an analysis of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s work, which involves the notion of “capturing consciousness” with something. This concept requires the subject to not just be aware of the object but to participate with it; through this participation, a “consciousness in things” emerges. While both Ramos and Clark work with the materiality of everyday things, Ramos emphasized a difference between the two artists: while Clark puts the viewer in the same place as the artist, for Ramos, art is necessarily a third element.

Emphasis on political issues as they relate to notions of time emerged in a conversation between Mariana Wardwell, an assistant professor of Modern/Contemporary Latino American Art at UC San Diego, and Tania Bruguera, a political and performance artist. Wardwell discussed her research on Ixcateopan as a crossroads of anti-historic discourse, in which a polemical situation emerged when the bones of Cuauhtémoc, the last independent Aztec emperor, were excavated in 1949, and later the history of the messianic tradition surrounding him was refuted. The official commission pronounced the bones a forgery and declared the history of Ixcateopan as untrue, which for Wardwell demonstrates the convergence of politics, knowledge, and power in the creation of an anti-history. Bruguera discussed politics as temporary and conditional and introduced the term “political timing specific,” which she believes encapsulates a truly political approach to art as opposed to one of mere illustration. The artist believes that in order to generate true awareness, as opposed to a mere political situation, one must operate from inside the political system itself. She emphasized that art must have consequences and create a chain of reactions and, above all, operate in the immediate moment. For Bruguera art is not eternal; how it functions in the political moment is paramount.

The event concluded with a meditation on the theme of the spiral and how it emerged with infinite possibilities throughout the symposium. A spiral can take on negative connotations associated with a vortex or centrifuge involving erasure, failure, and loss, but it can also be charged with positive inflections, such as the future emerging from the past, where ancestors remember those in the present. The spiral also carries the notion of accrual, as an idea encounters other ideas and becomes larger over time. As an answer to the original questions that initiated the symposium, time-based art practice indeed addresses socio-political issues unique to Latin America in a variety of ways: time emerges in ritual, capitalistic, and somatic modalities — among others — and introduces new ways of thinking about the gestures of space and movement in Latin America.

The symposium “Spiraling Time” brought together artists, scholars, and curators to investigate how various time-based art practices operate in a Latin American context in order to consider questions of history, memory, and temporality. The event took place the week of March 12, 2013, at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive
Jessica Stair is a graduate student in the Department of History of Art at UC Berkeley.

















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