- Latin America at Fin-de-Siècle Exhibitions: Modern Cultures of Visuality by Alejandra Uslenghi
The Latin American fin de siglo is a rich site for analysis given its prevalent position in the expansion of global capital and advances in media communication. Dramatic increases in textual production, particularly periodicals and magazines, together with technological innovation, resulted in major shifts in the representation of culture. These advances are evident in the way texts were produced and disseminated along with the rise in visual reproduction in print, photography, and cinematography. Global exhibitions have been a fruitful site of analysis for scholars to explore the transformations of the turn of the twentieth century given that the large gatherings garnered extensive media and literary attention. Alejandra Uslenghi's Latin America at Fin-de-Siècle Exhibitions is the first book-length study to examine wide Latin American participation in the universal exhibitions of the fin de siglo and how nations from the region constructed new identities through the incorporation of emerging technologies and visual representation. The spectacle of the exhibition, as an experience in world-making through temporary exhibits meant to be seen in person, created an ample space for photographers and writers to craft diverse and original productions for their growing readerships at home. Uslenghi's book sets out to establish the exhibition as a text, as a "field of instruction," as a school, as a marketable point of textuality that surpasses the political control of information flows becoming instead a Benjaminian "fairy land" waiting to be consumed and incorporated into stories of progress and modernity.
The book is tightly organized around an introduction and three chapters. Each of the three chapters center in on a representative modality and a different global exhibition: photography and the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition, architecture and the Parisian exhibition of 1889, then finally, film and the 1900 exhibition in Paris. Chapter one explains how photography formed an integral part of Latin American participation in the Philadelphia exhibition and formulated new meanings of national subjects, objects of consumption, and created a new visual medium in understanding the dynamics of capitalism. Uslenghi elucidates how photography made popular the organization of everyday products and served as a metaphor for exchange and trade. At the same time, photographic images translated national subjects such as Buenos Aires' urban plazas, Brazilian landscapes and geological surveys, and finally the photographic construction of Mexican peasants, in order to reconceptualize the nation state. Photographic displays made culture visible and the tracing of photographic history and the tensions between universal commodification and national culture are explored throughout the chapter. [End Page 281]
Chapter two elevates architecture constructed from iron as a visual frame used to construct the 1889 exposition. The Eiffel Tower serves as construction from which to view the distinct Latin American pavilions, each specifically designed according to the national style desired to be on display. The Latin American pavilions situated at the base of the Eiffel Tower opened up new ways of seeing the Americas and Uslenghi aptly incorporates iron as the materiality of progress in advancing new readings of chronicles on the Exhibition. The spatial reading of the exhibition places the American pavilions as adjoining the imposing Parisian structure and away from the colonialist exhibits suggests a metaphor towards mechanical progress and technology and a rejection of the colonial past. This rejection also, consequently, erased indigenous pasts and instead situated indigenous Americans within modern urban spheres. In this way, the Latin American pavilions were able to negotiate and complicate racial constructions and position America as a mirror of Europe, nevertheless always positioned in the shadow of the optics of Paris and its overwhelming ironwork.
Chapter three announces the sharp arrival of modernismo as a force of renewal as the literary movement conceptualized and narrated the 1900 Parisian exhibition. Uslengi's chapter reworks modernista expression as technology was a "condition of possibility" in the creation of a literature that captured the new mechanized sensations of the period. Literary production was refashioned with modern-ismo and this final chapter outlines how the 1900 exhibition...