- Self-Reflexivity as Infra-StructureA review of Karen Benezra, Dematerialization: Art and Design in Latin America
Over the course of little more than a decade, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Latin American art experienced a wholesale transformation. As evidenced by the diverse group invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1970 survey exhibition Information (Marta Minujin, Carlos D’Alessio, Cildo Meirelles, Hélio Oiticia, and Artur Barrio, among others), Latin American artists increasingly challenged earlier neo-avant-gardist references such as Concrete, Informal, or Minimalist art, embarking instead on a process of homegrown conceptual and political radicalization. Argentine artist Roberto Jacoby—then a leading proponent of arte de los medios (media art) with Raúl Escari—succinctly describes the sentiment at the time, reflecting on how he and his fellow artists around Buenos Aires’s trend-setting Instituto Di Tella art school
entered a crazy race which, in just a few years, brought plastic artists to move from the bidimensional space of the painting to the object, in its multiple variants, and from there to concept-based works, to messages that reflect on themselves, and on to the dissolution of the very idea of work and its extension to the transformations operated by the mass communication media as well as to the framings of their context and to signposting social life, etc. All these approaches removed painters from their relationships with traditional materials, and brought them to reflect on their positions vis-à-vis the cultural institutions of the bourgeoisie, on the possibilities of carrying out a transformative practice, and on the best ways of taking it forward: the avant-garde became politicized.(qtd. in Longoni and Mestman 58; my translation)
Writing in 1966 on Hélio Oiticica’s early “ambientations,” Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa notes that this new cycle is “no longer purely artistic but cultural”; instead of the isolated, self-referential work, “what is dominant is the perceptive-sensory ensemble.” He speculates that this shift might also herald a broader turn towards an altogether new social and political role for the aesthetic, one he tentatively proposes to call “postmodern art” (Pedrosa 205).
Recent art-historical scholarship and curatorial proposals reflect a re-ignited interest in Latin American late modernism, exemplified by recent shows such as the Hammer Museum’s 2019 Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 and the Migros Museum’s 2016–2017 Resistance Performed: Aesthetic Strategies Under Repressive Regimes in Latin America. In her in-depth study of the period, Karen Benezra argues that scholars and curators have too rapidly glossed over the years separating the conceptualist moment from a fully-fledged “political art” that began with the landmark 1968 Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning) in Argentina or the ground-breaking 1970 Brazilian show Do Corpo à Terra (From Body to Ground, curated by Frederico Morais, who coined the concept of guerrilla art in the same year). On today’s global museum circuit, Benezra suggests, “Latin American modernism” is coded as always already incipient political intervention, something other than purely art in a way that “implies its fusion with life within the closed historical horizon of the short twentieth century” (166). By contrast, Benezra refuses to take the dissolution of the work-as-object—and its gradual replacement by self-reflexive stagings of artistic practice (in its double relationship with the art system and everyday social life)—as an interstitial moment en route to an avowedly political art practice. Instead, her book zeroes in on the moment of dematerialization itself. Rather than using the term in a descriptive and historicizing sense, Benezra endows dematerialization with conceptual and analytical valences, allowing us “to reconsider the relationship between antiformalist art and sociopolitical transformation” (2). She argues that, insofar as “the ‘material’ at stake in art and design’s dematerialization is not only that of the physical, tangible object, but also the objective, historical specificity of the intertwined logic and ideology that produce and reproduce social relations” (4), dematerialization can serve as “a certain kind of operational self-reflexivity” (167) present both in...