It was Alexander von Humboldt who emphatically asserted as early as 200 years ago that the climate was changing as a result of human intervention in nature. He was definitely a key figure in the scientific development of the 19th century and one of the most well-known and globally influential personalities of his time. The U.S.-American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) called him «the most famous man in the world after Napoleon» and described Humboldt’s eyes as natural telescopes and microscopes.
«Modern man has a personality problem. Because our modern everyday life is such a big role play, people can never bring their whole individuality into society, always only parts of it. In nearly all areas of society, the modern individual is forced to play certain parts, be it as a hot dog vendor or as a superstar. Only this disguise gives them access to society. ‹Whole› people, by contrast, are usually asked to ‹wait outside›. In a way, split personalities are the norm nowadays. Except in love, where the whole person gets a chance. This promise of wholeness makes love a modern agency of meaning-making.» (Christian Schuldt, Der Code des Herzens. Liebe und Sex in den Zeiten maximaler Möglichkeiten («The Code of the Heart. Love and Sex in Times of Maximum Opportunities»), Eichborn Verlag, Frankfurt 2004, Chapter IV, Ich liebe, also bin ich («I love, therefore I am»)
«Millers, blacksmiths, armorers: None of them would survive the roaring noise in their ears if it cut them through marrow and bone as it does us others. My perfumed collar may serve my nose well, but after having worn it for three days in a row, only those around me will notice it. I myself live in a tower with a mighty bell that tolls the Hail Mary several times a day. The clangor shakes even my tower. I found it unbearable at first, but soon I became used to it, and it no longer bothers me today; it doesn’t even wake me up any more.» (Montaigne, Chapter XXIII «On Habit»)
«Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.»
«Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. I suspected this when I was still a youth … There is one thought I have had, Govinda …: that is, in every truth the opposite is equally true.» This is what Siddhartha says to his old companion Govinda in the book’s last chapter. (Chapter «Govinda», New Directions Publishing Corporation, Translated by Hilda Rosner, New York, 1957, p. 115)
A stone is an animal, is God, is all
He continues: «For example, a truth can only be expressed and enveloped in words if it is one-sided. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity … But the world itself, being in and around us, is never one-sided. Never is a man or a deed wholly Samsara or wholly Nirvana; never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner. This only seems so because we suffer the illusion that time is something real. Time is not real, Govinda. I have realized this repeatedly. And if time is not real, then the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.»
At the end and at the goal of both of their lives, Siddhartha (which translates literally to: «he who has reached his goal») says to Govinda: «This … is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.» (p. 117)
Toward more meaning in life
Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) is the author of this coming-of-age novel about the life of the Brahmin’s son Siddhartha. One of the most influential books of the 20th century, it has been read by millions worldwide and has been translated into dozens of languages since it was published in 1922. Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for his literary achievements immediately after the Second World War in 1946. But it was not until the 1960s and 70s that «Siddhartha» acquired world fame when it became a hippie bible. At least in the German-speaking countries, however, Hesse never really shook off the slightly underrated image of an enraptured youth cult book writer.
Entirely undeservedly so, as I must state after reading «Siddhartha» several times in my adult years. I know of no other publication, let alone novel, that embraces the teachings of Buddhism and the Tao Te Ching with so much elegance and grace and without ever becoming superficial. In simple, well-chosen words, Hesse leads us through this young man’s life, who is so eager for knowledge and thirsty for the world, and he lets us share in all the ups and downs and in the fulfilling enlightenment. The author paints simple and unpretentious pictures and sincere scenes of our potential development toward a more «meaningful» being. This was probably one of the keys to the novel’s lasting success and fame.
Knowledge through experience, not learning
Rarely, if ever, has a writer expressed the potential meaning of our lives in such beautiful, convincing, confident, and valid words and with so much inspiration. Hesse’s succinct narration of the legend surrounding young Siddhartha’s self-liberation from social and family conventions toward an independent and self-determined life is based on the realization that our human consciousness is not so much advanced by teachings, but foremost by our own personal experience.
The story of the Brahmin’s son’s life, who sets out to find meaning and enlightenment, is told in 12 short chapters. Siddhartha first turns to the ascetic wandering beggars of the Samana. «Siddhartha had one single goal—to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow …» (p. 11) Soon, however, young Siddhartha sees all of this as a flight from the self, a temporary escape; he debunks meditation as a mere skill to master. «… and I am beginning to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning.» (p. 15) Even the teachings of Gotama Buddha, whom Siddhartha personally seeks out, fail to help him. Siddhartha recognizes: «I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings.» (p. 27) Buddha replies: «You know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.» (p. 28)
The worldly world
Siddhartha next explores the «worldly» world («Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.», p. 32)—and rushes headlong into the all-too human hustle and bustle. He meets the beautiful courtesan Kamala, who introduces him to the mysteries of making love. «Both thought and the senses were fine things, behind both of them lay hidden the last meaning; it was worthwhile listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices.» (p. 39) At the same time, he is apprenticed to a businessman and soon achieves wealth and prosperity.
The Om of perfection
Immersed in everyday life, Siddhartha becomes more and more entangled in Samsara, the painful, eternal cycle of rebirth with all its fears and hardships—until he has enough of the banality of it all, breaks out for a second time, and leaves his previous life along with its alleged securities behind. He takes another big step on his way; he recognizes his zeal and arrogance, his foolish striving for lust and power, and devotes himself completely to the now. The essence of life reveals itself to him in the great river, to which he listens attentively:
«Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew.» (p. 110)
«And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha … heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection.» (p. 110–111)
I traveled to India in December for the fourth time within a few years because the country still holds so much for me to learn and discover. Of course, I am interested in the contemporary art production, so I visited the Kochi Biennale in Fort Kochi on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Like all other Indian and international colleagues, artists, and art lovers, I had arrived on schedule for the opening. Only, nothing was ready on time, and literally in the last minute, the opening was postponed from the beginning of December to just before Christmas…
«This attitude—that nothing is easier than to love—has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love. If this were the case with any other activity, people would be eager to know the reasons for the failure, and to learn how one could do better—or they would give up the activity. Since the latter is impossible in the case of love, there seems to be only one adequate way to overcome the failure of love—to examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love.» (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Ruth Nanda Anshen, ed., Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1956, Chapter I, pp. 4–5)
Last November I visited Vietnam for the first time. The occasion of my trip was the book launch of Don’t call it art! Contemporary Art in Vietnam, 1993–1999, edited by my German artist friend Veronika Radulovic and the current director of Museum Rietberg in Zürich, Annette Bhagwati (published by Kerber Verlag, 2021) who introduce us to a number of ground-breaking contemporary artists in Vietnam, such as Truong Tan, Nguyen Quang Huy, and others. To the best of my knowledge, I had organized the first exhibition of Vietnamese art in Germany back in 1996, featuring the then young artist Truong Tan at Kunsthalle Bielefeld
«Our Savior loved all people alike, no matter the color of their skin. Descend from your throne, King of Spain, make way, you counselors! You have sent out robbers and murderers and arsonists, you disgraced the name of the white people, and instead of introducing Christianity, you wiped it out. I have seen your people in the New India, and they were guided not by Jesus Christ, but by greed, belligerence, and misanthropy. They breathed wickedness and cruelty. Therefore, King of Spain, if you are truly a Christian, do not hesitate to leave your throne. Take a look at the New India and see the millions of people lying dismembered, flayed, starved. This was the work of your people.» These are the words Alfred Döblin has one of the protagonists of his «Amazonas» trilogy say, the Spanish Dominican monk Fra Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), a fervent defender of Indigenous rights.
The humanist Michel de Montaigne must have closely studied the conquest of America and turned to many contemporary sources in order to arrive at his decidedly anti-imperialist judgment, excerpts of which you will read here. Given his profound and radical criticism of the conquistadores, I suppose he was rather isolated with his views in the political landscape of his time. Even some one hundred years after publication, the Vatican found good reason to put his writings on the index at the end of the 17th century. At any rate, the lucidness of Montaigne’s analysis is amazing.
For Germans, there is ultimately no way around quoting Goethe, who had something to say about everything and everyone. And in this case, good old Goethe is positively inevitable, having provided us with what became immediately upon publication in 1774 one of the greatest hits of world literature on love: «The Sorrows of Young Werther». Among many other things, Goethe says in this work:
«What is the world to our hearts without love? What is a magic lantern without light? You have but to kindle the flame within, and the brightest figures shine on the white wall. And if love only shows us fleeting shadows, still it always makes us happy when we stand there like children enraptured by the wondrous phantoms.»
«It ultimately comes down to this: anything not like us is useless. Thus, God himself has to be human-like in order to be deemed useful. It is quite evidently not by rational consideration, but out of unreasonable, brain-numbing pride that we consider ourselves to rank higher than other living beings and that we separate ourselves from their way of existence and withdraw from their society.» (Michel de Montaigne)
You always walk a lot in Venice… The vaporetti are jam-packed and taxis hard to get, apart from being forbiddingly expensive. So as usual you will cross 1001 bridges—which is nice and, into the bargain, shapes your legs and makes for the special appeal of this unique city.
Turning to the issue of «love», I came across the US-American author Michael S. Kimmel and his relatively recent book The Gender of Desire. Essays on Male Sexuality (State University of New York Press, 2005), which is one of the few creditable publications on this topic. Why is there so little of interest being published in this respect?
What absolutely amazed me and abruptly opened and expanded my understanding of the American male psyche like nothing else ever before is the chapter «Masculinity as Homophobia. Fear, Shame and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.»
The French nobleman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on the family estate Château de Montaigne, some 60 kilometers northeast of Bordeaux in the Périgord region. He spent most of his life there and also wrote his so-called Essais in the tower of his castle, which he had converted into a studiolo to work in undisturbed.
Until now, dear readers, I have been taking the liberty of entertaining you with art from Latin America and playing out thoughts of all sorts on this topic for a full four years. I thoroughly hope you enjoyed it and were able to take some inspiration. As they say, you should always stop when it`s most beautiful. So, I suggest we set out for new shores now. I fervently hope to preserve your goodwill and keep engaging your curiosity—from now on in Hans’s Parlor! All you need is to lean back and open the e-mails that I will keep sending every other Sunday.Hans’s Parlor: What will it be about?
In his novella DerTod in Venedig, Thomas Mann gives his own personal interpretation of the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates speaks to Phaedrus about beauty: «For beauty alone, my dear Phaedrus, is lovable and visible at the same time. Bear this in mind: beauty is the only form of the sublime that we can both perceive and endure with our senses.»
Love and beauty are two rarely uttered expressions these days, presumably for fear of saying something wrong or even appearing a fool. And yet, they are significant drivers for all of us; without them, our life would seem worth less to us.
Both are absolute – and ultimately undefinable – terms that have all but lost their meaning in our thoroughly functionalized, efficiency-oriented everyday lives. And yet, they are the touchstones that we perpetually strive for, both in our private and professional lives.
I have pondered the question of beauty in art for my whole life. Fully acknowledging the outdatedness of the very term, I did not resist temptation to ask the artists I was in touch with about their opinion on beauty in art. Here are some of the answers that seem relevant to me:
«To make art, for me, is to organize my thoughts in an aesthetic way, to transmit ideas, to re-signify. It’s the perfect substitute for crime, because it allows me to aestheticize the transgression that is part of my very nature.» (Jhafis Quintero)
«My aim is to understand human beings more and more, their basic instincts, their way of surviving and prospering, their relations with others, of loving and declaring, lying, hiding or exposing and being truthful with one’s self. The principal opponent is one’s self, you are who you should constantly overcome and get out of your comfort zone.» (Javier Castro)
«How can social, political, economic, and ecological processes be convincingly transferred to autonomous and valid pictorial forms?» Adán Vallecillo’s artistic pursuitcould be aptly worded in this or a similar manner, since the artist has been highly successful in conveying our contemporary civilizational environment into the most diverse aesthetic forms.
«Ambivalence entered my work because humor, and irony especially, are so important to me. I am interested in the ambivalence of daily life. The unambiguous doesn’t attract me because there is no room for interpretation.»
Doris Salcedo is one of the very few artists capable of expressing in art the horrors that political violence inflicts on humanity. And she has done so consistently over the past decades, unremittingly and entirely free of sentimental kitsch. Her indictment is full of deep mourning but without ever lapsing into pathos, and she impressively infuses the silence caused by human absence with an unexpected eloquence. In comparison to reality, she once referred to her work as a «Song of Impotence»: That, to be sure, is a stark understatement.
Betsabeé Romero is one of the rare artists to truly deserve the designation «culture creator». For many years now, she has been producing art of distinctly Mexican origin that at the same time entirely effortlessly conquers the international stage. Her art draws from the roots of the flourishing tradition of her country’s arte popular, which is so much more imaginative and alive than the bloodless academic repetition that has completely worn itself out over many generations in Mexico.
Fernando Arias (born in 1963 in Armenia, Colombia, lives and works in Colombia)
The many different themes that Fernando Arias turned to over his artistic lifetime read like a roster of today’s most topical hashtags: gender, race, class, religion, LGBTQ+, nature, environment, minorities, equality, society, politics—with the only difference being that Fernando Arias dealt with all these issues long before they were en vogue.
Is art play? Is life itself play? Like few other artists, Miguel Angel Ríos has «played» with himself, his life, and his art—and he took many risks in doing so, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. But he always managed to retain his personal integrity and his artistic independence. What could be more valuable than that?
«I relate very much to visual expression. A movie, a projection, a photograph or a painting has to have some strength of visual impact. Art has become very descriptive. It’s not anymore about ideas, it’s about thematics; it may be about sociology, it may be about anthropology, it may be about politics, but it’s not about visual arts anymore.» (Conversation between Miguel Rio Branco and Hans-Michael Herzog, March 2002, Rio de Janeiro, in: La Mirada, Daros Exhibitions, Zurich 2002, p. 96)
«I think that beauty is that moment of contradiction that an image can have, of absolute seduction and absolute repulsion. … Beauty as something that has a lot of meaning, but which loses it and opens up a space to you. That is exactly what I try to do in my work: not to say something or to create a specific allegory or discourse, but to create the possibility for a viewer to be able to associate his or her own idea within a composition of images.» (Carlos Amorales in conversation with Hans-Michael Herzog, Zurich, March 29, 2007, in the exhibition catalogue «Carlos Amorales: Dark Mirror»)
«I don’t think it is terribly difficult to read my work—at least, that is how I would like it to be. … Of great importance to me is not trying to express a thought, but generating it instead: to create a gap between my proposal and the reader’s perception or reenactment.» (In: «For You», Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich, 2005, p. 30)
My trips to the Dominican Republic are peculiarly unforgettable to me. Both gaily anarchist and extremely professional at the same time was the impression I had of the exponents of the autochthonous art scene whom I met over the years. The Dominicanos struck me as oscillating between the extremes of conservative bourgeoisie and eccentric non-conformity. I have always asked myself, which of the Greater Antilles islanders are actually the craziest: the Cubans, the Dominicans, or the Puertoriqueños? I still owe myself the answer…
I recommend a wonderful interpretation of Bizet`s “Carmen”, by the Argentinian artists Lolo and Lauti:
“This film by Lolo and Lauti (and Rodri) is a metaphor in constant transfiguration. It unveils and it conceals. It is protean, provocative, eccentric, and uproarious. Restlessly moving, it fractures, darkens, flickers, expands, compresses, and multiplies. The shots, sequences, and special effects, like the artists on stage, subvert every univocal identity. It celebrates an art that delights in creating and bursting illusions; in putting on the mask and taking it off.” (Adrienne Samos)
As the founder and director of ArtNexus magazine, I imagine that you almost function like a thermometer: for a long time, you have observed and examined Latin American art-related issues, and its ups and downs. You are in the midst of everything, instantly and consciously taking its pulse. What is your opinion of the last twenty years? Where do you see the changes and, specifically, what has changed?
I believe that Mexico has the richest production of popular art in all of Latin America. In my opinion, it surpasses its contemporary art. In your work, there is a deep Mexican element. When you assess your production, how do you think it differs from popular art?
«The poetic value of a work can potentially transform the viewer to a certain extent.» (Oscar Muñoz, 2004)
The power and ephemerality of memory are the focus of Oscar Muñoz’s work. He artistically expresses the fact that memory – and time, which is tied up with it – is relative, can never be grasped entirely, remains constantly in flux, and ultimately escapes us, no matter what efforts we might make.
Both artists live and work in Rio de Janeiro, and both have made very important contributions to the art world. Ernesto Neto’s «Leviathan Thot» at the Panthéon in Paris (2006) and Vik Muniz’s «WWW (World Map)» (2008) are two outstanding contemporary masterpieces which I want to discuss.
«Paintant Stories» from 2000 is Fabian Marcaccio’s magnum opus—a matchless multimedia gesamtkunstwerk, a «mural» in the best sense of the word, with a steady height of a good four meters and a length of over 100 meters sprawling through the exhibition spaces and also trailing beyond, if need be outdoors, too. «Paintant Stories» is a contemporary history painting, a universal panorama of the world, a pictorial hybrid description of our time, with all its utterly mind-boggling complexity, all its ultimate incomprehensibility.
HH: I drew up a list of institutions and collections that all started around the year 2000. Besides the Daros Latinamerica Collection, there is the Mexican Jumex Collection, Mari Carmen Ramirez with her great Latin American projects in Houston, the Halle collection in Phoenix, the Inhotim art project in Minas Gerais, Brazil, as well as MALBA in Buenos Aires plus the increasing activities of MoMA, Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou in the Latin American field. What do you think of this landscape? Is it still developing positively or is it already on the decline?
HH: The period spanning the first two decades of this century has been crucial for Latin American art, don’t you think?
TS: Latin America has grown, yes. Before, there was nothing. Or rather, no one knew about it. Art was totally divided by countries. Very enclosed behind borders. What was made in Mexico stayed in Mexico, what was made in Colombia stayed in Colombia…
Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, despite being very nationalistic, created a conceptual basis for art. The others have encountered more stumbling blocks in this process. Venezuela was very important and was destroyed. Cuba was completely destroyed: many artists left the island and a political art was enforced, just like in the Soviet Union. Criticism was crushed because it had to submit to the political agenda.
I think we have grown. We are not perfect yet. We could do better. But more interest has been building.
And what about Mexico and its strong relationship with the United States?
A 3000-kilometer-long border separates us from the United States. It is impossible to deny this relationship. There is always a lot of conflict. They look at us like they look at the rest of Latin America. We are starting to become interesting to them, but only because of the tragic aspects. They are not interested in the rest. We are just Latinos to them. As for the art, it has excelled in Houston thanks to Mari Carmen Ramírez, whose work has contributed decisively to veer the attention towards practices in Latin America.
What Mari Carmen has done is admirable: a huge challenge for a Latin American woman, especially in Texas. How do you see Miami, New York, and Los Angeles from a Mexican perspective?
In California alone there are eight million Mexicans. Eight million! We should be more important, but we are not. These are poorly educated peasants who have learned a very basic English in order to survive. The intellectuals who are supposed to make our art stand out have not yet emerged.
With its Basel Art Fair, Miami is looking more towards Europe. Florida is almost a country; a Latin American extension. But it stays local. Miami’s art is local. In Basel Miami, the buyers and exhibition spaces are European. It doesn’t have much of an impact on Latin America despite the new Pérez Museum. What a horrible thing to have given millions in exchange for the name!
It’s very difficult to work in the United States. I lived in New York for thirty years and I never saw anyone paying much attention to us, with a few exceptions. For example, Benjamin Buchloh met and befriended [Gabriel] Orozco at the Whitney Program, and gave him a lot of advice. Orozco learned very well how to navigate the North American market. His early works were extraordinary. I really liked them. They were talking about Mexico. Now his art is very international. It has no more to do with his identity. I am not a nationalist; I think rather universally, but I cannot deny that I am Mexican and that I care about my country. When I speak, I speak from my country, even though the problems I’m talking about are understandable anywhere in the world. Orozco is a very intelligent artist. Brilliant, I’d say. But I no longer see his Mexicanism.
He started with a gallery in New York that—along with some European centers—helped him conquer the market. What I mean is that his success didn’t come from Latin America at all.
You know about the academic situation in the United States, right? Nowadays, courses and programs focused on Latin American studies have multiplied. Entire university departments revolve around Latin American art. However, all of this often stays there, and the same old ideas are always being recycled.
At least there is more presence now. What do you think?
There are small groups of artists and academics that are being established because some curators decided to do something new.
They are very politically correct and their intentions are good. But in the end, they don’t work well.
Because no true knowledge is being produced and no collections of Latin American art are being created, except for small showcases.
And they don’t travel enough.
I studied in Canada and my roommate thought that in Mexico we went to school with feathers and riding a donkey. She told me that she knew Mexico because she had been to the border. “Which border?”, I asked her, and she answered: Vancouver. She had no idea where Mexico is. Some don’t even have a passport, you know? No matter how much you read, you cannot get to know another culture if you don’t travel.
That problem is getting worse and worse. Because of my work with the Daros Latinamerica Collection, I was fortunate to be able to travel as long as I wanted and wherever I wanted. That was and is impossible for my European colleagues. They don’t have the money or the time, and so they always repeat the same misperceptions, they always fall into the same trap. Brazil is the best example. Brazilians treat you wonderfully, like royalty, until you realize that it doesn’t mean much.
Due to the digitization of everything and the lack of time, many people no longer seek to learn in situ. They take everything that is secondary as truths. The same happens with secondary literature: you read a book about the book that you will never read. Even the synopsis on Wikipedia is good enough.The same goes for works of art. Many young scholars, curators, and even artists no longer want to see the works in person or to take the time to really observe them. Instead, they just want to check whether what they read more or less conforms to the pseudo-theories they have in their heads. They make their academic checklist: if several criteria match with what they see, they draw their conclusions, thinking that the more a work matches their list, the better it must be. Exactly the same happened to me in New York gay clubs in the eighties: “What are you into?” they always asked, checking my answers with their sexual-preferences checklist. With ten things on their list, three or four matches weren’t enough. This globalized utilitarian primitivism that abounds today bothers me a lot.
You are very cosmopolitan, Teresa. Do you feel more Mexican, gringa or European?
I am very Mexican. Once a gallery owner in New York asked me to show her my work. She liked it very much and suggested that I exhibit with her. She then asked me where I was from and when I told her she said: “Ah, that’s a problem. We don’t work with Latin Americans.” No one had ever discriminated against me like this! I felt brutally humiliated. At the same time, I also feel quite international. But Mexican culture is in my blood. That doesn’t mean that I am asking for mescal in other countries or that I eat mole every day. I don’t think that way.
Remember what Bolívar said shortly before he died: “America is ungovernable… This land will infallibly fall into the hands of unbridled masses and later controlled by petty tyrants almost too puny to notice.”
I think in the end he was telling the truth. He was deeply disappointed. Perhaps his early illusions were too great. Latin American art and culture suffers from the syndrome of caudillismo [strongman politics]. I see it in Mexico, in Cuba, in Chile… Men and women. And it carries on and on. When we begin to free ourselves, we return again to the same thing. What is happening in Latin America is a sad regression. The Spaniards were bastards, but they also left us wonderful things, like our language. Spanish America could be much more important than it is. We don’t have that many religious problems. We have a common language. Why can’t we achieve something together? We have mines, gold, silver, food, oceans, everything. Yet we cannot understand each other. This individualism is atrocious and our nationalism is a horrendous misunderstanding.
My idea with Daros Latinamerica was to unite in one way or another the different sides of that great continent. It still doesn’t seem like a wrong concept to me. Nor does it seem naive to believe that it makes or made sense. What do you think?
The idea was wonderful. You assembled a collection with works from each country, at the same time creating a continent through that collection, and that is a very good thing. I don’t think anyone else has had that vision and that ability. If you had kept the collection in Switzerland, it would have been better. Brazil is too nationalistic. And it displays the overprotection of a very closed culture. The collection would have been more powerful in Switzerland. The concept of uniting Latin America in Latin America is impossible because we cannot understand each other.
Staying in Switzerland would have been very imperialistic.
No. To have been able to see what you assembled in Switzerland would enable us to realize what our continent really is because the artists talk about the same problems. We could experience Latin America’s unification through the artists’ thoughts. If you had chosen Colombia or any other Latin American country, it would have been the same as what happened in Brazil, you see what I mean? The nationalism that prevails in each of our countries is too strong. So stupid. We are still children.
Your idea of getting a Mexican or a Colombian and a Brazilian together so they can establish a conversation is beautiful! That is true communication. It’s the same idea that Bolívar had: everyone gets together and talks to one another. To me, this way of doing things is remarkable.
True imperialism is the kind of art that Europeans always tend to favor and impose. In Mexico, those who count the most are artists like Orozco, and in Brazil, artists like Cildo Meireles. I believe that the most celebrated Brazilian art has been of a European nature. I’m going to say an aberration, but for me, Tunga is one of the few real Brazilians: the only great artist who talks about coal mines, about Brazilian Indians, the only one who tosses his head out to the sea… His work speaks of Brazil.
Tunga said a great thing to me once. It has stuck with me forever: “Here in Brazil, before educating the poor we must educate the rich.”
Same as in Mexico. Ignorance rules. People are very ignorant even if they have a lot of money.
Is there still an inferiority complex in Latin America? I thought, and hoped, that this would end.
It will take many centuries for that to happen.
And always blaming others. It’s a huge projection.
Sure is. We hold an enormous grudge. A rage. We are a different race: neither Spanish nor indigenous. A mixed race. Why do we still hold that resentment? Enough!
Almost all the lousy things produced in this continent are homegrown; they don’t come from outside. These words are being said by a German who works for a Swiss company. They are going to kill me!
Prickly situation! You can’t address these matters. I don’t know why people get so offended.
Moralistic sermons annoy me.
With good reason.
When do you think a work of art is good?
When it’s authentic. When it has quality and is well done. When it speaks with a heart. Banality abounds.
Several years ago, I asked a friendly waitress in Havana whether the fruit salad on the menu was natural, in the sense of fresh as opposed to canned. She answered: «No es natural, es tropical.» She was not aware that she had made a deeply philosophical statement.
What in the world of art could be better and more refreshing than an artist who says of himself that he wants to provoke and present new aspects, and who has set himself the goal «to break through and expand horizons»?
Today I will introduce two outstanding women from the Mexican contemporary art scene: Teresa Margolles and Teresa Serrano. Both their art is highly expressive; both of them are exuberant bundles of energy in the «real world». And they certainly need this energy, as they are continuously engaged in countering the most blatant wrongs, much like two artists-cum-advocates. In very different ways, and each in her own right, they have become narrators of the violence which unfortunately not only prevails the gang and drug scenes in Mexico, but which does not spare civilians, in particular women, either.
When I took up my work with Daros Latinamerica Collection and started to travel all of Latin America on a thorough and permanent basis, I soon noticed that the assumption frequently formulated in Latin America of being disadvantaged as «periphery» in relation to the «centers» of the world did not hold in these absolute terms. I had already realized earlier that the so-called centers had become tired and sluggish and tended toward self-reflection at all levels. By contrast, I perceived the so-called peripheries to be on principle more active, more creative, and more innovative. After all, the alleged peripheries are often far better informed about ongoings in the so-called centers in order to compensate for their alleged shortcomings, while the «centers» themselves are prone to smugness and arrogance in their belief of being the hub of the world, no matter what.
“If one word doesn’t work, you try another. The image is something else. Especially when it comes to portraits. There’s no room for meandering, nor can you place adjectives on them. The secret is to be alert when an encounter occurs. You must pay attention to the intensity of the gaze, the gestures, the position of the hands. At this stage of the game, I believe that there’s no need to take two hundred pictures to say what needs to be said. A few well-made portraits that speak about two or three basic, central feelings are enough.” (Pact of Silence, 2006)
Julio Le Parc is a unique magician with irresistible powers. Cheerfully and with a light hand, he transports us to a kaleidoscopic universe of flickering, shimmering, dancing, leaping, and swaying light, a realm of overwhelming elegance and beauty that exerts on us a hypnotic fascination. In Le Parc’s enchanted garden of light we become children again, absorbed in our games and oblivious to the rest of the world.
Throughout those years of intense work on the project of the Daros Latinamerica Collection, many people outside of the Latin American culture asked me what makes «art from Latin America» stand out and what constitutes its specific characteristics. Of course, answering suchlike generalizing questions will get you in hot water. But it will not do to dodge them forever, so I will owe up to it.
«It is really important to deal with what you do not know.» (José Damasceno)
I pondered for a while over how to best present an artist whom I do not understand; an artist whose art I simply cannot «explain» because it eludes me on a rational level. At the same time, his art is very much present to me on a different level, which engages me and which leads me to present him here.
«I want to be able to move you, challenge you, touch you, irritate and provoke you. That’s a political task—but a difficult one. How do I work? With information and emotion, information and culture, information and spectacle…» (Alfredo Jaar)
“I am always trying to create a balance between cultural, institutional, mental and emotional positions, searching for an impact that is both visual and physical, and which sharpens and empowers the perception of those who come across it.” (Iole de Freitas, 2013)
René Francisco belongs to the generation that grew up under the impact of the US embargo policy, on which the Cuban regime has based its domestic political legitimation. The artistic creation of this generation centers on its own living conditions, the islands culture and its history, and also on the multitude of unchecked, unheeded, and unbounded fantasies belonging to the perpetual repetitiveness of everyday life on this tropical archipelago. All sorts of untenable utopias and fictions and escapist illusions are common practice; they are part both of official and private life.
«I believe that our civilization is reaching the most refined degree of barbarism ever recorded in history.» (León Ferrari)
León Ferrari was by far the most blasphemous and polemical artist I ever met. His work, however, comprises much more than just social criticism. León Ferrari was «eterno joven», forever young, a tremendous provocateur, entirely irreverent, never conformist, someone who as a matter of principle challenged all conceivable forms and mechanisms of prevalent powers, analyzed them with his sharp wit, and subsequently took them apart with his artistic means.
Casa Daros was intended as an open house for everyone interested, as a platform for the arts and culture, which of course was also open to social and political issues. We saw it as a hub between Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Latin America, and the rest of the world, bringing together very different groups of people through art, opening new horizons by virtue of our networks and information, and challenging habitual patterns of thought and outlook.
After «Face to Face» (see post no. 50), we hosted the video installations «FOR YOU – PARA USTED» (2009) at our exhibition space on Zürich’s Limmatstrasse as well as two monographic exhibitions on Antonio Dias (2009) and Luis Camnitzer (2010). The latter was exceedingly successful and toured through all of North and South America for several years. Each of our exhibitions in Zürich was a European premiere presenting previously unknown artists, subjects, and aspects.
«Curating» an art exhibition is like staging a theater play. First, you have to recognize the core of the «piece» in order to know what you are talking about. Next, you have to strive for the best possible presentation of your assembled material, for the «mise en scène»…
A number of solo exhibitions followed the major Colombia exhibition. Among the artists presented in our exhibition spaces in Zürich were Julio Le Parc, Fabian Marcaccio, Valeska Soares, Cildo Meireles, Ernesto Neto, Guillermo Kuitca, and Carlos Amorales. Eventually, we tackled a further premiere when we started working on our exhibition «Face to Face».
Since we had committed ourselves to showing only works in possession of the Daros Latinamerica Collection, our Zurich exhibition program was necessarily based on the stage of the collection’s development. All art from Latin America was in general absolutely new to our audience; nevertheless, I wanted to provide as much variety as possible within this huge field and to surprise our visitors again and again with fresh new presentations.
What is the purpose of organizing exhibitions? To show something, of course! And why do we want to show something? Because we assume that we know or have something that others do not know or have, and because we think that the others may or should be interested in what we want to show…
Photo series concerned with minority communities have been the focus of Paz Errázuriz’s work for many decades. She commits large and comprehensive ensembles to circus performers, jugglers, the last remaining indigenous peoples in the country’s south, mental and psychiatric patients, transvestites under the military dictatorship…
Is it possible in a state like Colombia to create art that has nothing to do with the social situation in the country? Is it to a certain extent an intellectual and/or ethical obligation for an artist to become politically engaged? Is not the human species per se, in the words of Aristotle, a «zoon politikon»?
Never will I forget the first time I met Wifredo Díaz Valdéz in his house in Montevideo, where he was standing at his long workbench in his blue smock like janitors used to wear and started to explain his carpentry. He initially appeared to me as an obsessed DIY nerd, a philosophical tinkerer—but I soon realized that before me stood a veritable, subtle, and exceedingly shrewd aesthete, who provoked my curiosity beyond measure.
All his life, Antonio Dias remained utterly unpredictable in terms of artistic expression; he was always good for a surprise and ready to thoroughly challenge habitual expectations. Full of subversive and abysmal humor, he released his creations into the world of art, where they often enough met with incomprehension and produced scandals. His multilayered and plurivalent works consistently defied a conclusive interpretation; he would never be pinned down in his artistic creation, which, in its playful character, invariably also deals with the absurdity and futility of our human condition. His attitude remains elegantly poised; each potential statement at the same time implies its opposite. In this respect, his art has only little in common with the rather one-dimensional messages from his US American colleagues.
When we met for lunch in Paris in 2018, we talked about the ingredients that Carlos regarded as essential for his well-being, his cheerfulness, and the drive he still felt at his age. To him, these were a peaceful surrounding in the circle of his beloved family; love, esteem, and respect in his contacts with the rest of the world, and, last but not least, always an exciting project awaiting completion. Carlos, with the characteristic twinkle in his eye, was ever ready for new shores!
There is so much that deserves to be highlighted about Mario Cravo Neto that it’s difficult to even start. I am deeply grateful for having had the privilege of knowing this eminent Brazilian photographer, an idiosyncratic artist and highly independent person, a free spirit, and above all a dear friend…
Shortly after I met this team glowing with vital, artistic ambition in Cristina Vives’s house in Havana in 2000, the three young artists set off to conquer the world—or rather vice versa: the world discovered them in exhibitions in New York, Brazil, and Europe. In retrospect, they followed through with a storybook career that only few artists are able to achieve. Today, they are super cool and slick professionals. They somehow managed to suavely surf the art market without being washed away.
Nicola Costantino is an exceptional artist and one of the most vibrant personalities of the Latin American art community. With the meticulousness of a surgeon and the loving care of a pathologist for his subject, she slaughters and dissects calves, pigs, and other animals; she moves around in the fauna of farm animals, merrily embalming, transplanting, hybridizing, and fusioning. Hermann Nitsch would go green with envy if he knewher oeuvre…
Iván Capote (born 1973 in Pinar del Río, Cuba, lives and works in Havana, Cuba) + Yoan Capote (born 1977 in Pinar del Río, Cuba, lives and works in Havana, Cuba)
I admit I have never managed well to keep the Capote brothers Iván and Yoan apart, even though they are not identical twins, but rather two different characters and artists, each with a meanwhile substantial oeuvre of his own. Nevertheless, I am doomed to failure in trying to do them justice individually here, so I hope that they will forgive me for taking the liberty of dealing with them jointly.
When I first visited Alejandro Campins in his studio some ten years ago, we had difficulty just viewing his latest, recently completed paintings, all of them giant formats: he had to struggle to roll them out on his far too small studio floor so that I could try to imagine what they might look like from a distance of 15 meters in a white exhibition space. Not to mention his conditions for production, which had certainly required enormous imagination from him …
What is the context of an artwork?The dogma of context—to be by all means upheld or made transparent —has always been a determinant for the international art discourses of the recent past. So para-, meta-, sub-, and hyper-, or, simply, de-contextualizing, has been and still is the order of the day, come hell or high water…
At schools and universities we once learned that centuries ago art was still entirely dependent and tied up in ecclesiastic or courtly contexts and constraints. And then came the grand Age of Enlightenment, and, in its wake, the Great Revolution that put a sudden end to all that…
Waltercio Caldas is decidedly an aesthete. Incidentally, he is also one of the best-selling artists of Brazil, which goes to show that quality in art and economic success are not necessarily a contradiction in terms…
Eduardo Berliner has a great deal to tell, both to himself and to us. For many years, he has been incessantly incorporating his inexhaustible repertoire of unprecedented visualizations into his artistic production…
By no means is it unusual for 20thcentury Latin American visual artists to have been trained as architects—be this due to the lack of art schools in some regions or to their actual intention of creating real architectures for a living. The idea of realizing the own dreamt up architectural worlds to 100% as pure fictions may have lured so many young architects into the cosmos of visual art, where they could give free rein to their poetic, social, political, and symbolic creations without any external restrictions.
Soon after I took my post at Daros Latinamerica Collection, my dear friend and colleague Eugenio Valdes pointed out the works of the then just recently deceased Cuban artist Belkis Ayón to me. Her art historical significance and the superior quality of her works were immediately recognizable, which is why I contacted her sister and executor of estate, Katia Ayón, straightaway…
My intention at this point is to start introducing a few of the artists represented in the Daros Latinamerica Collection to you. But what is the best way to go about it? If I were to apply politically democratic principles such as the equal-time rule for candidates in campaigns, we would still be sitting here in a couple of years, bored to death!
“(1) America is ungovernable for us. (2) Those who serve revolution plough the sea. (3) The only thing one can do in America is emigrate. (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unrestrained multitudes, and then into the hands of insignificant tyrants, of all colors and races.”
The label “Latin American” in the sense of a supposedly uniform entity is as misleading as describing someone or something as “European”, “African”, or “Asian”. And yet, the term continues to be used all the time …
Whoever spends some time in Uruguay, more precisely in Montevideo, and regularly follows the local press, is bound to come across reports, every two or three days, relating in one way or the other to the legendary World Cup Final of 1950 (!), when Uruguay won against Brazil in the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.
Only a few years ago, on the occasion of a lecture event at the auditorium of the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano – sic! – de Buenos Aires) and coram publico , the renowned Argentine artist Marta Minujín explained to me that she herself, and indeed all of Argentina, had nothing whatsoever to do with Latin America. She asked me pointedly where on earth we at the Daros Latinamerica had the idea from to collect “Latin American” art; there was no such entity in Argentina…
Next came Tegucigalpa, where I was initially slightly frustrated because of the iris recognition and fingerprinting I had to undergo. Bayardo Blandino picked me up. He is a very professional, very friendly colleague in his mid-thirties and heads the Centro de Artes Visuales Contemporáneo de Mujeres en las Artes in Tegucigalpa.
All in all, with the benefit of hindsight, this was an interesting, illuminating trip. Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panamá were the only countries still missing on my list, apart from Bolivia, so the trip was also necessary. Even if these countries are “small” in terms of their size on the map and often neglected, they are nevertheless highly relevant for Latin America as a whole. I noticed both their similarities and their differences, their individuality and their common traits.
I have frequently asked myself what actually makes up Mexico, what its specific spirit is, and which qualities are characteristic of the country’s art. So far, I haven’t even come close to a tangible answer…
It was still the year 2000; I had already familiarized myself with my new work and had travelled quite a bit, when I noticed that Colombia was missing on my agenda. No wonder, really, for no one was traveling there, and everyone advised against it, out of deepest conviction, for safety reasons. What could I do? I turned it over in my mind for a while, weighed the pros and cons, and then told myself: “I simply have to go to Colombia; everything will be alright!” So I set off…
My first trip as curator of the Daros Latinamerica collection-to-be took me to Brazil in the very beginning of the new millennium. I landed in Rio de Janeiro in the morning of January 3, and I vividly remember the moment when I saw the Copacabana for the first time in my life. I was virtually blinded by the overwhelming blaze of the sun as I looked out of the window from the former Meridien Hotel and tried to grasp where I was. On the street, I was swept away by an ever-present eroticism; again, I was blinded, this time by the sultry, fecund, tropical, literally HOT atmosphere, and by countless permissive glances that met my eye wherever I looked…
I know no other country that holds so many contradictions as Cuba does. Virtually nothing on this Caribbean archipelago seems to exist that is not intrinsically contradictory. Dealing with Cuba can therefore be quite a feat…
It is the dream of every true researcher to discover something radically new, something that dwarfs everything known up to date. The researcher seeks immortality through the definition of a new chemical formula or the discovery of a species to name after oneself. In much the same way, the art collector—who is also a hunter—passionately searches for the unrecognized genius to help bring out her or his light from under the bushel…
It was always a pleasure to meet the grand old Latin American artists. Some of those that I was very interested in had already died. You might think everything was easier if the artist was no longer alive? Well, that’s far from true. Because then you have to deal with the executors, who — out of greed or ignorance — are fully capable of blocking or botching entire oeuvres! And this applies not only to Latin America…
On seeking out the “old” artists of the 20th century at the turn of the millennium, I remember how my question: “Do you happen to know where the well-known artist such-and-such lives nowadays?” would pretty much worldwide produce the standard reply: “Oh, is he/she still alive?”
The rediscovery boom of the “old ones” had not yet set in, so my research on these largely forgotten artists seemed a rather lonely affair around 2000…
Dear loyal readers, the days of couch potatoing are over. This blog has been around since Easter, and now is the time for stocktaking. I thank you all for bearing with me and—those who did—for sharing your comments.
I invariably aimed at buying only first-rate art for the collection. I would rather refrain from a purchase than have second best works of an artist. Lame compromises were not my style, and I never bought on impulse, either. I always knew in advance what I wanted to have. Whenever I happened to stumble upon something that deeply interested and fascinated me, I slept on it for at least a night before making up my mind and arriving at an unbiased judgment. Once, however, I made an exception…
The better you get to know an artist—a human being like all others, after all—, the more obvious become the weaknesses and strengths of his or her oeuvre. I always had to take care not to become presumptuous and raise beyond measure the quality standards I applied. It’s similar in sports, perhaps, to being spurred on from one world record to the next, continuously topping your own self!
Exactly how is it possible to recognize art and to realize whether it is outstanding or only mediocre? Assuming you have no access to Wikipedia—how do you distinguish excellent art from average art? What makes the difference between “normal” art expertise and an infallible instinct for art?
Overwhelming and deeply impressing were the generosity, the communication skills and the education of the artists and other exponents of Latin America’s art world. My itinerary was far from being a tedious chore—it was pure enjoyment! I rediscovered art’s capability of providing pleasure. In Europe and North America, discussions with artists had in the previous years far too often drifted into sheer triviality, focusing merely on the supposedly most interesting marketing strategy.
During my extensive travels in Latin America over the years—in North America and Europe as well—I have established a functioning network that includes nearly everyone involved in the Latin American art community: artists, curators, critics, art historians, collectors, gallerists and art dealers.
I certainly would have welcomed a clever book, something along the lines of “A Guide to Latin American Art”, sorted according to countries and of course recently updated, in order to prepare myself adequately for the tasks that lay ahead of me. But that was plain wishful thinking and ultimately nonsense.
This German tongue twister meaning roughly “In Ulm, around Ulm, and all around Ulm” not only inspired Wolf Vostell to one of his happenings; it also features the city of my birth. But why on earth was someone from Ulm employed for the job as curator, rather than someone from Latin America who already spoke both languages?
None of my trips to Latin America went by without people asking me: “Do you speak Spanish?” or “Do you speak Portuguese?” Do I take my job seriously? What a silly question, I thought secretly, and felt insulted.
So let’s take our course for a daring—and hopefully eventful—trip. Please bear with me when my narrative appears slightly chaotic or somewhat roundabout: those qualities precisely keep it true to life.
What made us choose Rio of all places? We deliberately wanted to establish Casa Daros in a city with a thriving art scene that yet left ample space for new venues. And we were also looking for a location that would in itself be attractive to our future visitors.
A unique selling proposition (USP): “During the introduction and growth stage of a product’s life cycle, the marketing concept based on unique benefits works exceedingly well if it is the first product of its kind to enter an unsaturated market.” (Wikipedia, translated from the German version). The Casa Daros was such a unique art offering made in unsaturated Rio de Janeiro.
“Nobody is a prophet in his own land.” According to the Evangelists, these are the words pronounced by Jesus of Nazareth to condemn the lack of hospitality he received from the people of his hometown Nazareth. Often enough, the same holds true in the art world, too …
Time to get down to business, dear honored readers, and go into the details. This will require some down-to-earth attention from you, and I am appealing to your sobriety now. We’re not here just for fun—or are we? So let’s start at the beginning and look into the Daros Latinamerica Collection …
My intention is to save the world, or, more precisely, the world of arts. No less will do as justification for writing these lines, with a plethora of ideas, experiences, and memories for more already up my sleeve. To save the world of arts—from what? From downfall by decadence, from ruin by rot, and above all, from the errors of economics. Even good old Duchamp would be turning over in his grave in view of some of the things happening ostensibly in his name …
→ “What does Madame de Staël have to do with Latin America?”