Interview with Gabriel Perez-Barreiro

Buenos Aires, 21 May 2016, Part Two

Hans-Michael Herzog: You have traveled a lot in Latin America, and witnessed how entire scenes have emerged and collapsed. How do you evaluate the whole lot today?

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro: My deepest attention has been devoted to the countries of the Southern Cone: Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Chile to a lesser extent. Argentina and Brazil are the countries that I have studied most of my life. Lately, also Venezuela, which is a separate case: we know how catastrophic it has been for its art in recent years. I have studied certain practices in other places, but with a specific purpose in mind and not with the same depth. These countries have begun to develop a great sophistication of their system. For example, the emergence of a more professional academic body has been essential in Brazil. And a solid art research in Argentina has also made a large impact. The MALBA’s foundation was crucial. After this, other museums have also improved. Politically speaking—sorry: this is a very simplistic reading—the entry of the private sector has been important in countries that were largely dominated by the state: it has brought about a greater circulation and access to things.

The MAM in Buenos Aires also works very well.

Yes, and the National Museum has also been performing well for a long time.

You never know how long this situation will last. Right now, it seems that Buenos Aires is a good example of how things can work. I think that the colleagues here have demonstrated sound judgment. They have studied hard and are very engaged.

There is a very good bibliography too.

Yes. Brazil still needs some more, don’t you think?

Brazilian economy is very different from Argentina’s. Collecting also differs widely. You can see this at art fairs. Here in Argentina there are good works that cost ten or twenty thousand dollars, but nobody buys them. In Brazil, the downside has been the hyperinflation of the local market, while at the same time they encounter a thousand difficulties to circulate their works in the international market. Institutions have suffered for that.

In the Latin American press, art has its place in the social pages. In Europe, it used to belong in critics’ columns, but now it’s also increasingly appearing in the social pages.

Or in the business section.

Where do you think art criticism is heading? I sometimes delight in those reviews published in the New York Times, which are written by these mastodons that belong to another century. Their work is descriptive and that seems healthy to me because they inform people about what is going on. They give their opinion and that’s it.

There is a very good text by Boris Groys on this matter. He says that criticism has been replaced by visibility. Today, the question is not whether something is good or bad, but whether it has visibility or not. ArtNews used to cover all the exhibitions in New York. There were, oh, let’s say 40 exhibitions a month, and the magazine reviewed every single one of them. That was its job. Now, there are countless shows per week and they simply can’t do that anymore. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad anymore; what matters is to be seen. Few people must think that Jeff Koons is a good artist, but he is visible, and that matters more. To make something visible no longer dependends on the critic. Opinion is no longer the determining factor it used to be. Market value has a lot to do with this change. If something is expensive, it’s supposed to be worth it.

Two or three years ago, at Art Basel Miami, I visited the Rosa de la Cruz Collection. There were brief captions under each work, which were signed not by a person, but by “Gagosian Gallery”. And I said to myself: “We have already reached this point.”

Critical thinking must be reestablished. It is being lost everywhere. But what can we do to aid in its rescue? It should not be relegated to the ultraspecialized magazines that no one outside the field will read. I have no solution, of course, but it worries me a lot to see those in Rosa de la Cruz believe that if Pope Gagosian has sanctioned the work, then all is good!

Yes. If this becomes our measuring stick, it will be a pity. I think the collector has a responsibility to be informed and to be more critical. There are many types of collectors. Some go a long way and others go halfway. I see it as a curve. Those at the bottom are the first ones; they are those who see something, they are interested and collect with passion. And then, others pile up. At the top, they all come together around a set value because it’s safer. The great values protect them from their own insecurities about the works. It’s a shame, but I think there are other models. In Argentina, for example, there are people who collect with very good judgement. Then there are others who do research in order to find the work that will best suit them. That’s also great, whether I like those collections or not. In short, there are very different levels and kinds of collecting. Fortunately, not all of them are equivalent.

What countries do you know the least in Latin America?

The Andean region: Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador. I have second-hand knowledge of these. The contemporary collection [of the CPPC] is not managed by me at this time. Curator Sofía Hernández Chong is now in charge and she goes on research trips spanning two or three weeks. She goes from workshop to workshop, and then comes back and reports on everything she has seen, what she thinks, and what artistic communities she has discovered. So, I know about these art scenes, but not personally. It is a partial knowledge. I really want to go and meet the people. What I know best are the eastern coastal cities. And I know Central America and the Caribbean quite well.

What do you think of Central America?

At one time I visited the region quite a lot, when Virginia Pérez-Ratton was alive. She was a good friend and she organized these wonderful encounters. Everyone met there. The first time I went was in 2000 and it was a revelation. I thought: “Wait, here is another very interesting world with other value systems.” At the time, I was working at the Blanton and I put together a small collection of Central American art. It included—for instance—Guatemalan video pieces by artists who were more or less invisible then. It was easy for me because the prices were affordable and the artists were interested in being in the university environment, since there was no other system to embrace them. This was great because it made me deepen my knowledge of Guatemala. I went there several times to work on different projects. I even got involved for a while with the Central American Biennial, I was part of the Costa Rican Biennial’s selection committee, and afterwards I got to know the central area.

Central America always preoccupied me and my colleague Eugenio Valdés. Once –in 2008 or 2009– we invited people from the countries of that region to Rio, and we talked for two days. Virginia was also there, although she was already ill. It all started with great enthusiasm and goodwill. I told myself: «I have to do something to help them work together. I don’t know how, but something has to come out of this». That did not happen. At the end, we understood that they did not want to join forces. Each one seemed to be owner or tiny lord of their own space. That frustrated me a lot.

Vicky lived in that contradiction. Actually, this is a very Costa Rican phenomenon: to want to speak for all the countries in the region. Costa Rica is a very privileged nation. It’s as if Liechtenstein would want to speak for all of Europe.

But she did it well, don’t you think? With grace and professionalism. She put Central America on the map.

No doubt. Virginia’s was a very heroic attempt. Admirable. She was one of the most important fighters and intellectually very honest. That is commendable.

What do you think of Cuba?

Look, it’s complicated. I grew up in the generation for whom Cuban art was ultra-advanced. I am talking about the generation of Volume 1, the first editions of the Havana Biennial, the exhibitions at the Wifredo Lam Center and by Gerardo Mosquera, about Luis Camnitzer’s impressive book on Cuban art. But the current scene frightens me. A Faustian pact seems to have been sealed between some artists, the state, and naive collectors who travel to have a good time without realizing the role they play in supporting a government that openly represses freedom of expression beyond that closed and official nucleus. Art has long been the most efficient way for dollars to enter the country and this has transformed some artists into key contributors to the regime. What bothers me the most is that the art I see at the official venues seems to be a kind of mannerism of dissent: it talks about the issues (rafts, jokes about Che’s image, etc.) but without shaking anything. It’s such a well-built and cynical system that it scares me. And by the way, where are the female artists? A masculinization of Cuban art has recently taken place, which I feel to be deplorable. Anyway, I hope that better times will come and that this will be nothing more than a parenthesis.

Let’s talk about Mexico.

The brutal change in Mexico came when Gabriel Orozco and Francis Alÿs broke with the idea of ​​mexicanidad, or rather complicated it. They came after an entire generation that was obsessed with this and began to circulate in an international market without wanting to represent Mexico. In my opinion, this example was very important for all contemporary art. Orozco—and Félix González-Torres from another perspective—were artists who fulfilled the idea that one can be a Latin American artist in a global market. And without being some Botero. That one can speak an international language without prejudices. That one can be anywhere without having to waive your identity like a flag. Mexico is a country with a very strong idea of its ​​national culture, and yet, these artists were able to intelligently wield that change.

Mexican intellectuals are awesome. Olivier Debroise was crucial at that time. Cuauhtémoc Medina as well, although he is younger. But all those years were decisive:  the years of Curare, of intense aesthetic research, of those conferences in Zacatecas… In other words, a decisive factor in the development of contemporary Mexican art has been the encounter of a very strong academy with the market and with a state that pretty much supported the right causes. And on the subject of criticism—which you brought up—Mexican curators exercise a certain degree of intellectual and public criticism that is seldom seen in other countries. They write columns in newspapers, and they punch hard! I believe this phenomenon is related to a strong state, just like it was in Europe in the past: one could even criticize the State because one felt safe. The discourse produced in those years—by Osvaldo Sánchez, Cuauhtémoc, Olivier, and others—is exemplary because it speaks to the international scene about why cultural policies are a significant issue. In Mexico, this is a much more relevant issue than in Argentina or Brazil. The Mexican state has always considered that culture is a way of representing the country as something different.

Between 1990 and 2000, all of this could be articulated. And these critics also worked in the art institutions, curating the programs that interested them: at the Tamayo Museum, at the Museum of Modern Art… That experience was truly paradigmatic. Mexico has also has been able to absorb the foreigner. Olivier was French, Francis is Belgian, Osvaldo Sánchez is Cuban. This helped to generate a very interesting chemical impact on the market. The free trade agreement was also signed and Mexico began to participate very actively in the international market, offering a new product. Naturally, the huge magnet is the United States. That is unavoidable. In any case, today they have a very diversified art scene, with very good artists, and an interesting understanding of their own art history. The neo-Mexicanism of the 1980s is being revised. The exhibitions in places like UNAM are good and important: they are critical reviews of the history of Mexican art and have no commercial intentions. Although they end up being commercialized by a market that devours everything.

Latin America’s inferiority complex and the resulting obsession with the search for its identity—which became very evident to me when I started coming here 15 years ago— seems to still be very alive. Or do you think it has been resolved?

It will always go on. There is a very strong colonial history that keeps weighing down on us. Our core challenge is to find strategies to avoid it. That is why I’m opposed to the vindication discourse. The system accepts us and says: “Poor things, don’t you worry, we’ll give you five percent of the programming.” We should not go there, but rather the other way around. We must find ways to expand the historical model, the repertoire. All this identity narrative is, I think, counterproductive to a great extent.

Certainly.

According to the main discourse of my formative years, the idea is to set the center against the peripheries. I don’t believe this. Where is the center? In Germany? Sure, perfect. But not really, because there’s a whole array of artists in Germany who haven’t even been payed attention to. There is not only one hegemonic power that sets the tone and the rest take it all in as its victims. This is such a simplistic model. The United States is supposedly very rich, and yet we know that so many of its people are also poor. And many have no visibility whatsoever. So, these arguments are all political abstractions of little use to culture. Culture talks about many things and you have to be aware of all that: race, gender, sexuality, social class … All this is very important, but the work should never be replaced by the label: “This is a homosexual or a black piece,” for instance. No. It is a work of art and some of its elements happen to refer to this or that.

One must deeply study the work and the artist.

And the context. If there is no complexity, there is no culture. To say that all Latin Americans think this way or that is vicious demagoguery. Some think this and others think that, depending on who they are, what they have read, what their life or experience has been. Those simplifications have done us a lot of harm.

And yet we encounter them daily.

And we use them sometimes to our benefit.

Labeling everything seems so nineteenth-century! To categorize and leave it at that.

We all do that. If not, we wouldn’t be able to live. But I think we have to try to dismantle this practice and search for other types of relationships. It is difficult to find other ways of thinking that don’t stem from the 18th century or that challenge the need to organize, catalogue, and apply taxonomies.

Exactly.

The thing is, we don’t know how to live any other way. To think that one day we’ll reach an emancipated condition that will rid us of every prejudice is also a fantasy.

Recently, I spoke to Gonzalo Díaz. He told me more or less this: “The topic is the enemy of the artwork.”

I totally agree. I always say that there is an art genre called About Art. When people begin by saying that a certain work is about this and that, they already get off to a bad start. The work is something; not about something.

Unfortunately by now, in Europe almost all exhibitions are about.

If they’re about, I’d rather read the catalogues.

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro and Waltercio Caldas, Cecilia Brunson Projects, London 2017

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro has a PhD in History and Theory of Art from the University of Essex (Great Britain), and an MA in Art History and Latin American Studies from the University of Aberdeen. He has authorednumerous books and articles, and lectured extensively on modern and contemporary art from Latin America. Today, he is senior advisor to the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and lives in New York. Among others, he was the director and chief curator of the CPPC (2008-2018); curator of the 33rd São Paulo Biennial (2018); curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art (2002-2008); general curator of the 6th Mercosul Biennial at Porto Alegre, Brazil (2007); and director of Visual Arts at The Americas Society in New York (2000-2002).

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