Thursday, 13 February 2014

Interview with Pablo León de la Barra


Pablo León de la Barra recently began a two-year residency as the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Latin America. Currently he is organizing the second exhibition in the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in June 2014.

What was the origin of your interest in what you term “Latin American art in dialogue”?

It comes from my having lived in London for the past fifteen years; it was there that I got in contact with the Latin American “Other.” This gave me the opportunity to be in dialogue with other artists and curators—many from my own generation—who had similar backgrounds, or who had grown up in similar contexts of economic or social crisis, but who were not otherwise connected.
As an artist or curator, one always used to look to “the center”—which in this case means New York, London, or now Berlin—and sometimes forgot to create relationships with closer neighbors. What I have realized is that there is a lot of common ground, and I want to find ways to connect people with each other, and put them in touch with other contexts in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and elsewhere. New York is no longer the only center; there are other centers that are as potent, and as interesting, and have as much to contribute to global culture.

One of the great interests of the initiative is in recognizing that maybe now the peripheries are the centers, or are bigger than the centers, and that we can create networks of knowledge that recognize existing differences and particularities.

How might this initiative facilitate cross-pollination between Latin American countries?

During the past ten years or so, numerous art initiatives have arisen in Latin America. I think what’s interesting with many of them is that they are “bottom-up”—they come from artists and curators getting organized together in response to various factors. One of these factors is economic crisis and the lack of funding; another is a lack of response from institutions. Many institutions, because they lack money or have other interests, have not been responding to their immediate realities, or to what a new generation of artists has been doing. Many of these newer initiatives have focused on creating exhibition spaces, but others have gone further, creating models for art education or experimenting with new ways of thinking. We want to engage with these projects and learn from them. Many have already provided models of how to create networks through which they might collaborate—networks of residencies and exchange—which work with smaller budgets but still create effective ways of transmitting information, of starting a “pollination” of culture, knowledge, and learning. These small-scale initiatives are creating “molecular” revolutions and are changing the way one relates to the Other—which is maybe not so other anymore.

In terms of the exhibition beginning in New York, there’s a double responsibility involved, which is about making an American public aware of what’s happening elsewhere. I think this is a great way for the Guggenheim to do it—by bringing what’s happening in other geographies to theirs, while also recognizing that there’s a huge Latino population in United States, and in New York. That’s another of the questions we’ll be dealing with—how to connect with our American public and our Latino public.

How do you plan to connect with Latin American artists and the Latino public in the U.S., given that the exhibition will open in New York before traveling to a venue in Latin America, and then to one other major international city?

In the same way that we’re trying to create connections within Latin America, a great part of our responsibility as an institution is also to create connections with the world beyond Latin America. And we need to connect not only with national and international publics, but also with our immediate, New York-based public—which, in many cases, is made up of many populations originally from Latin America—and try to involve them in the exhibition. A major stage in the project will come when all three regions have been presented and we can try to connect the Middle East and North Africa with Southeast Asia and Latin America, thereby establishing a new and more transversal link. When we put everything on the table together, I think we’ll see many similarities. If we can forge these connections by using the Guggenheim as a center, that’ll be fantastic.

What themes and issues do you see as important to Latin American artists?

In Latin America, there are, in the generation following my own, artists that grew up in the economic crisis of the 1990s and 2000s, the “Lost Decade.” These artists came of age in a period when Latin America either veered toward neoliberal capitalism, or toward socialism following the Cuban and Venezuelan models. This generation, caught between two points of reference, also grew up amidst the trauma of their parents, many of whom grew up under dictatorial regimes. Now many of those people are seeing a new Latin America with a booming economy.
Again, artists stand in the middle of these tensions, flourishings, and contradictions, trying to make what is happening visible in its proper context. If there’s anything that differentiates Latin American artists from, let’s say, North American or Western European artists, it might be that many of them are very aware of their social and political realities. Art cannot escape these conditions; aesthetic research is totally influenced and contaminated by them. For a long period, there was no substantial market, so artists were not commercially motivated. The Latin American market is a very new phenomenon, occurring within maybe the past ten years. So, “aesthetic investigation” in many of these countries exists within these conditions, and I think this will be evident in the work of artists that we choose to show, which becomes part of the collection (and which of course will be in dialogue with the rest of that collection in very interesting ways).

How are hybrid identities distinguished within Latin American art?

I think that term was coined in the 1980s or ’90s, to frame a multicultural, postcolonial understanding of art on the so-called peripheries, but also as a way to incorporate the politics of identity, queerness, and race. In Latin America, hybridity refers not only to the mix of African cultures in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but also to the regional mix of European and indigenous cultures. This constitutes part of Latin America’s essence, an important topic that is nevertheless sometimes forgotten. The miscegenation between European, American indigenous, and Afro-American cultures has often led to their exclusion from these discourses, a situation that has changed only very slowly since the postcolonialist debates of the 1980s and ’90s. They remain current topics.

Could you say more about the representation of Latin American art and the research that you’ve done on the Guggenheim collection?

We cannot talk about one Latin America; there are many Latin Americas. Citizens of the United States call themselves Americans, but we’re all Americans. America is a continent, and I think there’s a cultural misunderstanding between the two Americas. There’s a history of Latin American art exhibitions that created a precedent for the work we are starting. MoMA has done some exhibitions; in 1993, Dawn Adès did the exhibition and essay collection Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980, and Gerardo Mosquera has been active in trying to define the region; he recently did an exhibition called Crisisss that traveled in Mexico and Bogotá, and which focused on the idea of crisis and its relationship to art throughout 200 years of Latin American independence.

What role do your blog Centre for the Aesthetic Revolution and your Instagram gallery play in your curatorial practice, and in your efforts to reveal artists’ working environments?

Blogging has been a very important instrument to me in creating the kind of relationships that I’ve been talking about. It has helped me to connect artists whose work shares certain similarities, or who should be in dialogue, to connect art scenes and cities that have similarities and particularities that might benefit each other, and to show the United States and Europe what’s happening in Latin America. Many strategies found in blogging will be useful too in the work that we’ll be doing while traveling to research the region, and in presenting a wider vision of these different exciting things.

Again, I don’t think we can talk about there being only one center of art production in Latin America. Each region has its own center, and each region is its own center. If we can manage to expand the influence that these centers have over each other, and over us in New York, the United States, and elsewhere, we will have succeeded. We hope to learn from what’s happening in Bogota, Lima, and Santiago—and also in Valparaíso, Rosario, Rio, São Paulo, Recife and Belém. There are exciting scenes too in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as in San Juan, and Santo Domingo. I could go on and on. Again, there are many different hubs where exciting initiatives are happening, and where artists are dealing with their own particular contexts.

How would you characterize your research and exhibition-making processes?

In a way, I see making an exhibition as similar to writing an essay—it’s a way of collaborating with artists and doing research. Many of my exhibitions have explored the idea of Latin America, including one I did in 2003 at Apexart here in New York. I guess that’s another reason I’m excited to be back in New York, ten years later, with the opportunity to rethink Latin America again after so many things have changed. The Apexart exhibition explored responses to the failures of the economic policies of the time, and the capacity of artists to survive through art. I think it will be interesting to see how things have changed, and how artists are responding to current conditions.
The exhibition will happen not only in New York but also another venue in South America, in Latin America, and another venue in Europe. This will create a much-expanded network, a bigger configuration, joining these different points together. That’s really exciting, as is the fact that the whole museum team will be part of this exchange. I think the education team will be surprised about how much they learn from other institutions and contexts; this may also help to change the way museums think about themselves. It’s a rethinking too of the traveling exhibition as merely the transportation of artworks from one place to another.
What’s interesting too is that the Guggenheim already has a Latin American collection—though not one that is identified as such, which I think is good; it’s not ghettoized into a sub-department. There are many important works from different periods and different countries in this collection, works that have already been in dialogue within the collection as a whole. Through this initiative, we will contribute to the museum’s permanent collection, and I think that’s one of the great contributions of this project, understanding that these works have an ongoing life, and that a hundred years from now, they will still exist.

What do you find most exciting about the MAP initiative?

The initiative gives us the opportunity to redraw cultural and artistic maps, to demolish boundaries, and to create new relationships between different art centers. The term peripheries no longer applies; we’ve learned to recognize that what’s happening elsewhere is as important as what’s happening in what used to be the global centers. We can decide to ignore what’s happening elsewhere, but that won’t stop all these other discourses from taking place. The more aware we are, and the more in dialogue we are with what’s happening, the more we will learn as artists, as people, and as communities, and the more we will be able to create new ways of thinking. It’s not about relationships with the Other anymore, but how we relate as equals. The MAP initiative is, I think, aimed in part at doing this, using art as a tool to understand other contexts—and ourselves.

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