Justo Pastor Mellado: Rethinking the Museum in Latin America

Cover of the publication »Contemporary Art and the Museum«

20. Oktober 2007

I ask your forgiveness for the pretension evident in the title »Rethinking the museum in Latin America«. My purpose is not to present a general theory of the museum in Latin America, but rather to offer two stories of two different experiences of museum production in institutionally hostile environments. The proposition of “rethinking” is merely a way of designating an action of resistance. In the context that I am going to describe to you, rethinking means creating a fiction that allows the carrying out of activities that have minimal institutional involvement. These activities must be converted into platforms capable of sustaining, over a fairly long period of time, procedures aimed at endowing certain types of practices with a general consistency of approach. Such practices would have a marked effect with respect to both the knowledge of the history of local art and the creation of archives.

The fiction follows a program of work activities designed to fill in the gaps of our experiences with regard to museology. This fiction operates as a factor working toward the restoration of a museum world that lies in ruins. Let’s put the matter as follows: there are areas of our globe where the idea and practice of museology is incomplete. I am not referring to the creation and operation of contemporary art museums alone, but rather to all art museums in general. In South America, we probably run museums of pre-Columbian art, colonial art, and nineteenth century art in a highly competent manner. However, it is less likely that we will find museums of contemporary art in the strict sense of the term. Most of the time, what is called contemporary art would fall under the rubric of modern art in other areas of the world. In other cases, what we see are museums of fine arts that in practice behave like national galleries of art. In other cases, especially in cities within the interior, we have museums of contemporary art that dedicate their efforts to establishing at least a critical mass of local works of art. All of this is to say that nothing is as it should be. There is no hint of a US-based model of a museum that would pose any threat to the status quo. Instead, what we have are hybrid institutions that, going under various names, carry out the work of recovery, cataloguing, and creating collections and archives, many times in spite of the efforts of state apparatuses, all of which means that the majority of the time, they go against state policies, which have been characterized in recent decades by the reduced state intervention in the work of museums.

In order to rethink the concept of the museum, it is not necessary to go back to square one. Instead, what is needed is the institutionalization of the available pool of archiving experience, and of the inclusion of artistic practices that are not in line with the rhetoric of the painted picture. To illustrate what I am trying to propose here, I will take two experiences from the 1970s as a point of departure. The first of these involves the activities of Gordon Matta-Clark and Jeffrey Lew at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago de Chile in April, 1971. The second consists of the creation of the Solidarity Museum, in this same city, and in that same year. I must point out that these two events occurred completely independently of one another. Only the perspective afforded by a critical study that was recently written has allowed the articulation of these experiences as two aspects of a single problem.
Let’s take a brief look at the history. Roberto Matta traveled to Santiago in November 1970 to attend the ceremony in which Salvador Allende assumed the presidency of the republic, remaining in the country until the end of March 1971. At the beginning of his stay, in November, he did some paintings that, within the body of his work as a whole, have certain distinctive characteristics. They work with certain kinds of materials. Matta worked with clay, plaster and straw, receiving assistance from the bricklayers who were working on the renovation of the museum. Strictly speaking, these works reproduced in paint the texture of the whitewashed adobe walls of the home of a Chilean campesino. On this texture, he drew anthropomorphic signs that would afterward become associated with this period. In interviews with the press, he would say that those paintings/walls express the needs of the people, whose voices have historically been silenced.

Gordon Matta-Clark visited Chile in May, 1971 as part of a tour of South America, along with his friend Jeffrey Lew. He had already created the montage Foods prior to setting off on his trip. He had also written a letter/manifesto calling on American artists to boycott the biennial meeting in São Paulo. He had the idea of putting on a kind of “anti-biennial” in Santiago. It was an idea that did not catch on. He did, however, carry out work in the basement of the museum, while Jeffrey Lew did excavation in the central hall of the facility, in the same site where Roberto Matta had prepared his canvases in November, 1970.
It was at that moment that a parting of the ways occurred. While Matta represented the discourse of those who lacked their own voice, Matta-Clark adopted a situationalist stance of institutional criticism, triggering a crisis with respect to the foundations of the notion of cultural transmission itself, since he was working underneath an edifice that was a copy of a prototypical museum: the Petit Palais in Paris.

Okay then. These events occurred in 1971—this is to say, at a particular juncture in the history of Latin American art. Note that, if we are thinking in terms of divergences in space and time, the works created by Matta-Clark were not among those collected by the artists who met in Santiago at the Meeting of Southern Cone Artists in May 1973. These artists never knew that Matta-Clark had created those works. Their meeting was a kind of congress in which a document to be presented at the Second Cultural Congress of Havana—scheduled for September of the same year—was to be prepared. Imagine if you will a group of artists who need to set up a meeting to draft a document that, in turn, is to be presented at an iconic site. This gives us enough material to study what was literally a political subordination of artistic practices. What was created, then, was a kind of Zeitgeist.

It was, however, surprising that the reconstruction of the details of what took place has never been recorded in any history of Latin American art. There are some young researchers in Argentina that are trying to get to the bottom of what occurred. Matta-Clark’s visit to Santiago would remain invisible, not only in terms of local history but also for later critical historiography. It was only recently that Phaidon published a volume dedicated to Matta-Clark, and that was put together by Corinne Diserens, which included photographs of Matta-Clark’s work during his visit to Chile. In addition to this, we have the exhibition Transmission: The art of Roberto Matta and Gordon Matta-Clark, which Betti-Sue Hertz presented in August, 2006 at the San Diego Art Museum. By virtue of its very title, this last exhibition poses the problem that concerns us today: the transmission of knowledge and of artistic points of reference. What occurred in this filial episode between Matta and Matta-Clark, was emblematic: father and son appeared in the same place, only months apart, during the same year, and did not cross paths.

This failure to meet—this missing dialogue—is something that not only happened between father and son, but is a phenomenon that occurred on an institutional level as well. Both of these men worked in a museum that was constructed to celebrate the centenary of the republic. It is a museum that the oligarchy to which Matta belonged built for itself in order to celebrate its political achievements. Matta did something that violated the historical memory of his tribe, painting in the temple of aristocratic vanity a work making reference to a rural universe—a universe in which his class of origin had been the masters, and where their dominion constituted the foundation of their power within the larger Chilean society. In contrast, the fact that Matta Clark was working on the very foundations—creating work in the subterranean innards of the museum—seemed to threaten to undermine the act of protest that his father was undertaking.

During the same year of 1971, the State Department and multinational corporations, having failed to prevent Allende’s accession to the presidency of the republic, joined forces to organize a comprehensive media boycott on what was going on in Chile. This is what in the lexicon of intelligence operations is called “information intoxication.” At that moment, the Allende government invited intellectuals and artists to Chile so that it could report to them directly what was going on in the country, and they could then, in turn, transmit this information to their respective governments and the citizens of their countries. It was within this context that the critics and artists decided to go beyond merely reporting. In order to collaborate with the government of President Allende in his struggle against the control of information on the part of the US and the transnational corporations, they decide to make a gesture of solidarity, donating works of art that would serve as the basis for the creation of a museum.

What I want to do right now is to place in relief a situation in which some artists carry out an act of protest against the management of information, donating works for the founding of a museum. In the strictest of terms, I would like to think that it is a “curious” instance of artists coming into direct conflict with the media. The donation of works of art constitutes proof of a “truth” that the media are covering up and distorting. The paradox here is that the creation of a museum, as an institutional act, has its origin in an action carried out in the service of freedom of information. This is something rare in the history of museums of contemporary art. And it is thus that the works were quickly assembled for exhibition as part of the facility’s first collection, which includes the works of Miró, Calder, Stella, Monory, Rancillac, Adami, Velickovic, Vostell,Vasarely, Tapies, Canogar, and Genovés, to mention only a few.
There is a historical collection that comprises the first phase of the donation. But the military coup in 1973 put the museum, and Chilean society as a whole, under military rule. The collection would remain in storage and hidden from public view throughout the dictatorship, in the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Chile, which was taken over by the military. However, in 1974, the museum was rebaptized by Chilean exiles with the name of The Museum of Resistance, and a second phase of collections of art works was undertaken, and which lasted until the beginning of the 1980s. Both collections were reunited under the same roof in 1991, at the beginning of the Democratic Transition, in a facility now named The Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity.

Currently, the museum boasts a collection of 2000 works and is located on Calle República, in a neighborhood that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was occupied by the oligarchy but whose external appearance has changed, to the point where it is now a university district. The mansions that remain are now university buildings, while the space created by tearing down other mansions was used to expand these same facilities. However, this is something that has only taken place during the past ten years. The mansion that houses the museum was built in the 1920s. Later, in the 1940s, it served as the Spanish Embassy, before being turned over to the university in 1969. A Department of Humanist Studies, part of the Universidad de Chile, was then headquartered in the building, remaining there until 1976, at which time the facility was requisitioned by the military for the purposes of setting up a command post of the Directorate of National Intelligence within its walls. There, in the basement, a vast apparatus of telephone wiretapping was set up.

At the beginning of the Democratic Transition, this house was abandoned. Agents of the regime followed a “scorched earth” policy. However, they did not completely cover their tracks: remains and ruins speak for themselves. The restoration of the house has made possible the reconstruction of the story of the history of the place. A decision was made to leave intact an area that was of particular symbolic significance—the room where electronic surveillance equipment had been installed. I want to make clear to you the need to think about the institutional articulation that makes this a unique space: in the very same facility, there exist the coordinated components of a memorial, a museum recalling the repressive use to which the facility had previously been put, and a Contemporary Art Museum. This constitutes a conceptual, political, and institutional challenge for this museum. And therefore this is not like any other art museum. The inclusion of the other two spaces—the memorial and the site of repression—make this an exceptional place. It is here that we have on display an idea about the representation of memory in art, and of the collective action of historical subjects that had to pay a very high price, in both material and symbolic terms.

The memory of the Allende museum is constructed on the basis of the differing uses to which it is put. In response to the need to connect itself with the larger developments of Latin American art, the museum needs to move its collection. And it needs to do more than this: it needs also to imagine how current donations of works of art connect with the memory of the political process that was spearheaded by President Allende. We have to put the question of donations at the very heart of our criticism. The only basis for its viability is political solidarity. However, it needs to be understood that the notion of political solidarity has been radically transformed between the 1960s and 2007. In addition, it is imperative to conceive of a management model that would contribute to the creation of a national museum policy, and that would achieve its “democratic-bourgeois objectives,”, to use an old formulation. Museums are the ideological foundation of the construction of nations.

In this sense, our museums reflect the current conditions of modernities that are disjunctive—when they are not incomplete or reconstituted—and that somehow use the very fact of their incompleteness in order to cover up the inherent flaws of their constitution. This is to say that existence of our museums necessarily involves the existence of a “narrative situation” in which multiple “textual regimens” exist side by side. It is necessary to complete the classic history at the same time that museums are faced in with new challenges, in a theatre of operation in which the rupture of the notion of exhibition and the idea of creating and maintaining archives each claims a pride of place.

The second case of an anomalous museum that I’d like to take up is that of the Museo del Barro , which is located in Asunción, Paraguay. I have to point out here that if the Allende Museum resulted from a show of solidarity, within the larger context of a struggle between art and the media, the Museo del Barro, is the effect of a self-produced artistic project that emerged from the intention to fill a void in institutional production.

The Museo del Barro opened its doors in 1972, shortly after the opening of the Allende Museum. However, the Stroessner dictatorship was still in power in Paraguay. What is essential to understand how a self-produced project was undertaken in the heart of a brutal dictatorship is the role played by two Paraguayan artists, Olga Blinder and Carlos Colombino, in the initiative. Once again, we see artists undertaking institutional actions in the absence of adequate institutions. Columbino had in the 1960s already sent a group of popular ceramic pieces to the Museo de América in Madrid. This was right in the middle of Franco’s dictatorship. At that same time, people like Olga Blinder, Bartolomeo Melia, Gato Chase, and Josefina Pla, also began to assemble various works—in particular drawings—that they would call “indigenous art.” Afterward, they continued their work of rescuing works of popular art, especially ceramic pieces and woven materials.

The activity of this group of citizens set the stage for the collection and display in 1972 of the Circulating Collection, which consisted of a sample of drawings and paintings that were alternately displayed in public plazas, universities, and small cultural centers throughout the entire country. In 1978, this collection grew to the point where it required a storage space of its own. It was at that time, when the collection began to be conserved and catalogued in a fairly systematic manner, that the boundaries among indigenous art, popular art and contemporary art deliberately remained unestablished. In that same year, 1978, the Junior Chamber of Asunción provided a space that would allow the collection to acquire a permanent status. The year 1979 saw the opening of the Center of Visual Arts in the same location where the Museo del Barro stands today, on land ceded by Carlos Colombino. It was situated on a flood plain that was not easily accessible, near the road leading to the Asunción airport. Efforts to secure a more accessible location were unsuccessful. In 1980, Ysanne Gayet and Osvaldo Salerno, an artist, arranged for a house located in the village of San Lorenzo to be used as the home of the Museo del Barro. This house would remain the museum’s home for three years, and was located near two centers of popular ceramic production—Ita and Tobati.

Independently of these events, Ticio Escobar, an anthropologist and art critic, had since the 1960s been collecting art and producing theory regarding the indigenous art of Paraguay. He indicated that the notion of “indigenous art” is inherently ambiguous, and that, as a concept, it travels a rambling road through the domains of anthropology, ethnography, aesthetics, and art history. To make the concept operational, it has to be employed in a hybrid manner. It was beginning in the 1980s that the work of Escobar became connected with the Museo del Barro, which within a single small structure, would come to house both the Museum of Indigenous Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It should be pointed out that in 1993, Escobar published, through the Museo del Baro, La belleza de los otros [The Beauty of Others] The museum thus came to function as a publishing concern, promoting the expression of various fields of knowledge that cut across different genres of discourse.

We have the case here of an active group of artistic agents who mounted an initiative that took a decade to reach fruition, and that has now been in place for three decades, always in a state of financial instability, looking for national and international resources to sustain it, but continuing to put on exhibitions and maintaining interconnections with contemporary art—activities that have made it a place of undeniable importance, not only in the world of Latin American art but with respect to the continental history of rescue of endangered handicrafts, and in relation to social projects connected with the Commission of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.
At the 2007 Biennial in Valencia, Spain, Escobar and I formulated a curatorial proposal called “The Museo del Barro Complex: An Institutional Work.” We sought to demonstrate the existence of a platform of ethical, formal, and political resistance within a minority space of curatorial practice. In order to respond to the question on behalf of our contemporaries, it seemed advisable to take the Valencia Biennial and to juxtapose it with the effect of the São Paulo Biennial that had led to the aforementioned episodes. And not merely any of its versions but, in particular, the 27th Biennial which, in the manner in which it was conceived, gave voice to the discontinuities in artistic conceptualizations.

What the appearance of a paper like “The Museo del Barro Complex” wrought was nothing less than an expanded adaptability—a non-traumatic process of negotiation. From this point of view, artistic resistance in countries in which peripheralism and centrality are brutally combined came to study the model of social production of a cultural industry that operated across vast areas of popular culture. In this way, the conceptualization strategy of this paper was the ambiguous function of popular art and its productive conflictual character, which runs the risk of losing coherence and of obscuring its comprehension, leading to the configuration of a residual world lacking all boundaries whatsoever, and where subjective productions of the people are imitated and protect themselves, assuming hybrid forms that grow beyond the control of any cultural watchdog institutions. Seen in this perspective, the question is not one of conserving or protecting, or even of integrating popular art or indigenous art, but rather of converting these branches of art into a platform upon which their existence is repositioned as factors indicating their formal production, and that casts doubt on the very conditions of production of the collective imagination of the locales where artistic works are produced.

Contemporary art on the Paraguayan stage is a pocket paradigm that allows the expression of structural mistrust that we are able to project, in the rest of the subcontinent, regarding institutional productions of societies that experience the fictions of their own completeness.
In the face of the threatening specter of museum completeness—a European and North American notion—experiences on the ground within Paraguay allow the creation and maintenance of the experience of survival like very few others. It is there that the experience of anthropologists—who must depend on the power of narration of their informants—takes root. These informants, who generally have an uneven command of various languages, tell the researchers what they want to hear, because they know nothing new beyond what the investigators need to confirm.

I will now tell the story of an indigenous ceremony called debylyby, described by Ticio Escobar in his book The Curse of Nemur. What I mean is that I will set forth my theory of institutional flexibility on the basis of this indigenous story. The debylyby is an impressive ceremony in which conditions of social agreements are renewed. But it also has to do with mourning. It is as if a myth of the Paraguayan jungle had anticipated the theory that would validate the museum as a key institution in the construction of the republic. This is to say that, in the debylyby, social agreements and mourning are linked together in a highly complex ceremony of conjuration, in which males wear female clothing in order to deceive them, occupying the place of the gods that these men have themselves murdered. However, when these articles of clothing and domestic utensils enter into the space of the harra, the ceremonial scene, they are no longer handbags and mats, but rather striking instances of ritual dress. This means that parts of this dress are filled with woso, that strange and potent energy that may be either adverse or beneficent, and that lift people from their banal immersion in the world of mundane facts.

The work that I’ve mentioned relates the scene of Ashnuwerta, the goddess of red splendor, wife of anábsoro, pronunciation of whose name should be avoided if at all possible, and who is the incarnation of mediation, division and identification. It is the case that desire arises as a result of restriction, and with desire, art and culture make their appearance. It is here that we see the emergence of the role of Nemur, which signifies the complementary aspect and counterpart of Ashnuwerta. If the latter represents the role of the benefactor who has given the gift of language and proclaimed the Law, with an emphasis on mediation, Nemur symbolizes the moment in which one is punished for having violated the rules. Nemur is the great administrator of punishment, the transmitter of sadness, the one who watches over the tobich, which is the ceremonial space, the center of initiation which constitutes the sacred site of this myth—the house of the Word.
In the hypothesis that I’ve presented here, one must think of the museum as the house of the contemporary myth—as a place in which word and image are articulated in order to rethink the conditions of the writing of history. The museum, for us, should be like that ceremonial space established by tobich.

Imagine that, in the Southern Cone region of South America, these two instances of anomalous museums continue to survive thanks to the will of self-production initiatives. However, it is this very fact that constitutes their great institutional fragility. It is the state that contributes in a precarious way to these conditions of existence. Or, it may be said that, as often happens, it is obliged to participate in initiatives that supersede it. And the institutions that sustain these two museums must resort to foreign assistance to carry out the minimal tasks that their administrative teams have imposed on them. This reproduces conditions of international assistance that should be providing models of development that do not mean the mechanical transfer of experiences of museum management that were created for institutions in the developed world. In the entire process of transfer and cooperation, there is an attrition that takes place that affects the receptive entities and spaces, and which gives rise to new forms of management and promotion of projects that involve significant sectors of citizens. In this context, these kinds of museum can become true catalysts of a micro political life that takes as its central concern the erasing of boundaries between contemporary art and the social production of subjectivity anchored in these popular and indigenous forms of manufacture, and whose circulation traverses directly and without distinction a large number of symbolic spaces.

I do not want to end this presentation without making reference to the 1971 appearance of Matta-Clark in the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. This event occurred at more or less the same time as the formation of the social dynamic that led to the creation of the Museo del Barro and the Allende Museum. This even consisted in making excavation a mode of recovery of the remains of history. In this respect, I would like to mention that, upon entering the building of the Allende Museum, I noticed that a space was set aside for his Memorial. Upon entering the building, one must walk across this area to visit the museum collection. In this area, a wall of transparent glass has been installed, with small holes in which radio speakers have been placed, and from which the voices of the past can be heard. It is the voice of Allende, in declarations and speeches, along with the voices of various other people, recorded in the carrying out of various activities, and rescued from records that were originally created between the years of 1970 and 1973. The recorded voice is amplified, like a murmur that replaces the “absent” bodies. This means appealing to what Benjamin called the underground history of those who for now are defeated, an appeal that, as Eduardo Gruner maintains in The Place of the Gaze, is not an appeal to abstract memory, “but to the active construction of the anticipated memory of future redemption.”

Last update: 26-10-2007 15:26