Interview with Betsabeé Romero, Zurich, 19 June 2016, Part One

The period that spans the first two decades of this century has been crucial for the art of Latin America, don’t you think?

I think there we have witnessed more initiatives with a longer-term consistency. Everything works better now at the level of documentation, research, practices, relations between different countries, curatorship, spaces, and diverse publics. Daros Latinamerica is an exemplary model: you had the vision, the idea of ​​trying to unite us as artists. Thanks to this endeavor the entire Latin American circuit now has greater visibility in America and Europe. Another great example is Mari Carmen Ramírez, who has been working with archives, documents, research, and bibliographies, giving visibility to artists and movements of the South.

As a woman, a Latin American and a Mexican, I do not believe that one can speak of a true integration. Unfortunately, individualistic capitalism and its market continue to dominate. Artists such as Gabriel Orozco have managed to get into the Tate or MoMA or the Met. Latin Americans as a rule cannot get in, but rather this or that person at the request of some curator. In other words, the power to insert these people does not automatically mean that more spaces will open for other Latin American artists.

Abramovic’s case is also the same phenomenon: she enters MoMA and immediately becomes a superstar. It’s the last step in her career: to enter Olympus. How interesting that MoMA can still play this role. Too bad. This museum is so conservative. It always arrives too late.

Take the auctions. You have the international auctions and you have the Latin American ones. Artists like Vik Muniz appear in the international section and the rest in the Latin American section. It is a cynical phenomenon of the market.

But something has improved in the last 20 years, right?

Yes, a situation has been generated, which allows a greater number of figures to divulge problems and cultures that were not known before. From misunderstood exhibitions such as “Les magiciens de la Terre” in 1989, since 2000 it is already clear that there are people working seriously. What saddens me is that most initiatives depend on individuals and do not become part of institutional or state policies. For example, in Monterrey there was a kind of boom for the support of Mexican art, but in the long run it remained as a series of private initiatives –by families– that arose and then fell apart.

Museums and biennials disappear. In Mexico, inSITE, the great binational border biennial, disappeared. There are important initiatives, but not solid enough to change the cultural policy of a country and even less that of a continent like Latin America, whose historical creative wealth is so great.

Your initiative with Daros Latinamerica has had a very positive influence on artists like me. There were many exchanges and dialogues with other artists, with critics and gallery owners; with all the members of the continent’s art circuit and outside of it. A network has been created.

Until recently, criticism, academia, artistic training, museum spaces, documentation, and dissemination by the Mexican State, along with scholarships and support for artistic promotion, generated or sparked somewhat autonomous paradigms at the local and global level. However, all that has deteriorated enormously. There is no longer a clear strategy in art education and Mexico’s cultural growth.

I had several key experiences with the «academy» in Latin America. I remember a congress on art in Santiago de Chile in the early years of this century. All that mattered was to quote the French. It was really boring. They talked on and on, as in an endless loop. I had another experience in the United States with some art history professors who are trying to incorporate Latin America in the syllabuses, but I realized that they don’t have the faintest idea of ​​what is happening in true Latin America. They hardly ever travel. And when they travel, they travel as tourists. They never delve into anything and therefore never understand anything. What is that kind of academicism good for?

I received all my doctoral credits in art history at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Therefore, I know that there is no real search for methodologies or field work in order to understand, document, or criticize the artists’ quotidian practices and realities. They are bibliographic scholars and documentarians. They do not build knowledge from experience, they don’t go out, they don’t visit artist studios. In Latin America, precisely for this reason, among others, a local historiography of the art of the last decades is not being done in full. Everyone is always watching what is happening in Europe and translating it; classifying things according to what they learned from the Europeans. And it’s getting worse because in Mexico those who study art history do so in England or the United States. They don’t look for a local vocabulary to explain local phenomena, but rather prefer to use a language that only allows them to name what they already know. They address what happens in Latin America with the terms they studied abroad.

It seems to me that many curators function with an assessment list. They look for the items that match with those on their list. And that is their only, very limited, instrument. They want everything to fit.

Exactly. And when artists who are less than 40 years old in Mexico see that they don’t fit in, they take seminars at the MUAC (Museum of Contemporary Art at UNAM) and read Cuauhtémoc Medina to understand what they should be saying in their artworks. Everything that does not fit in with this «seminaritis» is absolutely left out.

It’s a very nineteenth-century attitude.

Aside from being very conservative, it’s very complacent.

And opportunistic. That has always existed. The purely subversive is not allowed. What is deemed dirty doesn’t fit. No one wants to create something that is not inscribed in the prescribed route.

In the last decades many people completely unrelated to art have entered the art market. Being an artist has become a job. Before it used to be a vocation. China is a good example of that.

It’s amazing to read the resumés of young artists filled with all those seminars, courses, and residencies. After all one cannot even understand what they have done. And after browsing through the 20 images that they included, there is no equivalence because there is no work! What surprises me are the scant tools they have to work with, in order to create an image or an object, to tackle a topic. It is very primal and poor. But the texts and the explanations are great! The theory is very complex, but the product is simply banal.

Let’s talk about the love for archives, which has been around for a long time. The love of tracking down all the papers and documents of the 60s and 70s. Down to the last page. It’s almost romantic to want to recover the past, instead of concentrating on the contemporary life of art. Another symptom of current academicism.

I think it has to do with an egoistical research and appropriation. They want to be able to say: «This exists because I discovered it and therefore it’s mine. Archives are also easier to control than a living person.

There are many different levels of development on this planet. Much provincialism exists in each country and entire countries are left somewhat estranged and remote. Lots of movement, but not much analysis. Today even in Germany there are many places where nothing happens culturally speaking; as if it were the Malayan countryside. The more I travel, the more I understand how the whole world has become provincial. It’s not like when in the centers, let’s say in New York, you used to be able to get the information. Now, it is not certain places but certain people who have the information. The rest know little about what is happening. Very few are able to see the whole picture or understand, analyze, and process facts and data. 

Artistic production becomes less and less visible and more and more theorized. I think it is important to touch the public directly. If you want to deal with an issue, you have to go to the scene of the crime and work with the people there. Acquire direct knowledge.

“Carro Molotov”, Artists workshop, Morro do Banco, Rio de Janeiro, 2007

How do you see the role of criticism?

In Mexico it doesn’t exist.

Did it ever exist?

There were critics who generated ideas and communicated with the muralists, for example. But now there’s no serious art column in the Mexican mass media. Art magazines are forced to incorporate design, fashion, architecture… They are short-lived publications; none last for very long.

In the Latin American press, art existed almost exclusively in the social pages. And now in Europe art has also conquered that section. Before, artists were not society people. No one talked about the lives of artists, except for scandalous figures like Joseph Beuys.

In Mexico one could only be known through the social pages.

Hardly any artist in Europe who is now between 60 and 90 years old comes from the upper classes. They mostly come from the lower middle class. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the educational system gave everyone a chance. On the other hand, in Latin America it seems that if you are from the lower or lower middle class you will never enter the art circuit. Or has it gotten a little better?

There are exceptions. Thanks to the scholarship system in Mexico there are artists who can make a living with the local markets. The best art schools, in spite of everything, are still public and free. But there is an entire community that cannot reach an international market. The class that today controls the market, as well as the mainstream Mexican curators and gallery owners, were educated in London or in the United States, without any knowledge of Mexico’s history, and in general they come from a high economic stratum.

Is institutional support for the arts in Mexico an exception in Latin America?

I think so. But now it’s about to disappear, unfortunately. The state, ever since the muralist days, has had all the hegemony and control of the artists through commissions, education, scholarships… In the 1950s a small group of galleries arose, and by then there were already many of them in Argentina and Brazil. Important private collecting began much later. Even now I think there is no clear concept in Mexico of what the role and vocation of a collection should be. Collections like Copel or Jumex don’t seem to know where they want to go. A clear example of this is that one of the richest men in the world, Carlos Slim, has a collection whose top priority is Rodin.

Part II of the interview will follow in two weeks.

www.betsabeeromero.com

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