Mario García Torres, Tiro di grazia con taglio di capelli alla Alighiero Boetti (Como) (Shot of Grace with Alighiero Boetti Hairstyle [Como]), 2004, one of thirty-seven black-and-white slides.

MARIO GARCÍA TORRES’S 2004 slide show Shot of Grace with Alighiero Boetti Hairstyle might not seem indicative of an especially profound interest in the titular Italian Conceptualist. The thirty-seven black-and-white photographs capture García Torres in the act of running down a street, away from the camera, as if fleeing the visual field. Beyond the title, clear references to Boetti are nowhere to be found—the haircut, itself a tenuous connection at best, is little in evidence, since we only see the artist from the back, and even that at some distance.

In fact, Shot of Grace might more easily be read as a replay of the final scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, with the artist in the role of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s petty criminal, vainly trying to outrun the police and the director alike. (García Torres would return to Godard two years later, in the video A Brief History of Jimmie Johnson’s Legacy, 2006, which restages the dash through the Louvre from Band of Outsiders in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Arte.) But in the past eight years he has made a number of works that engage Boetti’s art and life, several of which will be on view this summer in Kassel at Documenta 13, including a new film, Tea, completed earlier this year (in accordance with the Iranian calendar currently in use in Afghanistan, the artist has dated it 1391). There’s no doubt that García Torres is deeply fascinated with Boetti, which strongly suggests that if we look closely enough at Shot of Grace, we will find the Italian artist somewhere. The question is, where?

He must reside in García Torres’s flight itself, in his impossible attempt to escape capture by a camera that stands in for the very institution of art. Boetti’s art, too, was a kind of disappearance—through travel, through the delegation of fabrication, through strategies of doubling and reversal. His impulse toward fugitive gestures has left us an archive marked by lacunae. But García Torres is repeatedly drawn toward just these sorts of lost moments in the history of recent art. He researches them and sometimes reenacts them, and these activities generate quasi-narrative meditations, often in the form of films, slide shows, or multimedia installations. The subjects of his investigations have ranged from the immaterial work Robert Barry created in 1969 for David Askevold’s project class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax [in 36 Slides], 2004–2006), to Martin Kippenberger’s legendary “museum of modern art” on the Aegean island of Syros (What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger, 2007), to early mosaics made by Daniel Buren at a Caribbean resort hotel (Je ne sais si c’en est la cause [I Don’t Know If That Is the Cause], 2009). His attraction to these histories aligns him with other artists of his generation, born in the mid-1970s, who have articulated their work around the legacies of Conceptual art. García Torres is unique, however, in his interest in the material afterlives of these “dematerialized” artworks. We revisit them as ruins—literally, in the case of the reinforced concrete skeleton that sheltered Kippenberger’s museum, or the disintegrating shell of the hotel where Buren realized his first in situ works—and this has led more than one observer to qualify García Torres’s project as fundamentally nostalgic. That isn’t entirely wrong: He frequently accompanies his slide shows and films with sound tracks of rather achingly melancholic music, often composed and performed by his collaborator Mario López Landa, and the results are nothing less than poetic.

But García Torres’s return to Conceptual forebears deals in something far more interesting than nostalgia. What he seeks to reactivate is the original impulse to relinquish artistic authority—the thread within Conceptual art that, at least implicitly, created open structures allowing or even requiring the artist-author to disappear, to cede agency to an audience, whether that be an intimate group or a mass of unspecified viewers. Think of Barry’s instructions obliging his students to decide on a common idea that would remain an artwork only so long as it remained a secret, unknown to the teacher himself. For his Halifax piece, García Torres staged a class reunion to explore precisely this fragile state of existence/nonexistence, asking these former art students to recall their hazy memories of some three decades earlier and thereby recognizing, as he has remarked, that “the most interesting thing about the research is how the instructions become just the beginning of a story way more complex than one can imagine at first sight.” A similar idea is pursued in his A-never-to-be-seen-by-the-artist-sculpture, 2004, essentially an instruction piece that requires the curator to farm out production of the work to a third party, and that is exhibited under the artist’s name but never reproduced—if García Torres were to see it, its status as a “work” would be revoked. Authorship is placed under erasure in a gesture that not only restages some of the most critical strategies of 1960s Conceptual art but also radicalizes Francis Alÿs’s more recent concern with “rumor” as an artistic strategy, with the ways that even the most “dematerialized” artwork, once released into the world, may be taken up and disseminated through informal networks of discussion and exchange.

In 2006, García Torres began revisiting Boetti’s most famous rumor—the guesthouse he ran in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the 1970s. Known only through a handful of published photographs and scattered reminiscences, the One Hotel operated as Boetti’s base of operations during his frequent stays in the country, but after the Soviet invasion of 1979 its fate became uncertain, and stories of its destruction during the following turbulent decades circulated widely. In Share-e-Nau Wanderings (A Film Treatment), 2006, named for the district of the city in which the One Hotel was located, García Torres stages a one-sided fax correspondence with Boetti regarding the hotel and a film about it he would like to make; significantly, the faxes are backdated to November 2001, placing them in the earliest stages of the American invasion of Afghanistan. In this and related works, Boetti’s legacy becomes inseparably bound up with Afghanistan’s recent history. If in Wanderings he attempts to imaginatively overcome the distance separating him from Kabul, García Torres’s selection to participate in Documenta 13 allowed him to actually visit the Afghan capital, searching for the elusive guesthouse. As recounted in Tea, what he discovered there is less a ruin than a testament to the multifarious ways in which the open artwork might be taken up and reshaped by its users, continuing to live a life of its own long after its original purpose has disappeared.

Tom McDonough

Mario García Torres, ¿Alguna vez has visto la nieve caer? (Have You Ever Seen the Snow?) (detail), 2010, one of eighty-nine black-and-white and color slides with sound.


LET'S SAY the story begins in 1971, when Harald Szeemann invited Alighiero Boetti to participate in Documenta 5. They discussed a number of options, including the possibility of showing the embroidered world map that Boetti had just completed in Afghanistan, but in the end they decided on a postal work. The Mappa was consistent in some ways with Boetti’s practice up to that point, but it was still a departure—it was a very colorful and bright object, and I think that made him slightly uncomfortable. That might have been one of the reasons it didn’t make it to Kassel. In any case, Documenta and Kabul had encountered each other for the first time.

When we started to think about continuing my research around Boetti’s One Hotel for Documenta 13, the idea of showing the Mappa came up. My participation consists of bringing this very first of Boetti’s embroidered maps to Kassel, as well as exhibiting works I have made in relation to Boetti’s affair with Afghanistan. One will be Share-e-Nau Wanderings (A Film Treatment), a fictional narrative told through a number of faxes addressed to Boetti. Another is the audiovisual essay ¿Alguna vez has visto la nieve caer? [(Have You Ever Seen the Snow?), 2010]. In that work, I narrate my attempts to locate the site of the One Hotel (which was thought to have been destroyed) by looking from afar at photographs of Kabul from the 1970s to today, while recounting my coincidental encounters with distant people who share similar interests. I’m also making and showing a bronze plaque Boetti had proposed for Documenta 5 but never made [The Unfolding of A, or an Uncompleted of B, 1972–2012], and presenting a new video featuring Sher Agha, the current caretaker of the One Hotel site. Another new work, the film Tea, completes my project for Kassel. It is a chronicle of what happened when I finally made it to Afghanistan and occupied the building that once housed the hotel.

You could trace these works back to Shot of Grace with Alighiero Boetti Hairstyle. In the summer of 2004 I was a doing a residency at the Fondazione Antonio Ratti in Como, Italy, and I visited the Boetti retrospective at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, which impressed me. I was attending CalArts at the time, and I imagined I’d go to Italy for this residency and do some work without being so intensely conscious of everything—all the problematics, all the French philosophy my classmates and I had been steeped in. Contrary to anything I had done previously, here I was trying to figure out or negotiate what role my own persona played in my work. While in Bergamo, I realized that there was this somewhat foolish connection to Boetti: a similar haircut, which made me think of identifying myself with the Italian artist in an arbitrary way in the piece. In the long series of slides where I am repeatedly seen running away from the camera but being caught by it in every shot, it’s almost as if I am refusing to accept something I realized later, which is that an artist’s persona is going to be present in his or her work no matter what.

In Tea, eight years later, I’m more present than I’ve been in any other piece. Maybe it’s some sort of self-documentary that replaces the idea of a straight documentation of an art gesture. I am the character activating things through the film. In that sense, Tea is a departure, too—there’s an acceptance of the inevitability of one’s participation in the work, as well as of the negotiation between personal desires and the problems that arise in following them. In a way, going to Kabul and taking care of the building that once housed the One Hotel at first seemed to come from an impulsive desire, which, through the film, finds its rationale. That’s part of a process that’s been ongoing ever since Shot of Grace. Call it the Boetti lesson.

Mario García Torres, Tea, 1391 (Iranian calendar)/2012 (Gregorian calendar), still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD video, 64 minutes.

I’ve also been thinking about what you might call the politics of hosting. It’s very interesting to me—the notion of works as spaces for hosting and the notion of the artist as a host, which the One Hotel expresses in an almost literal way. Every artwork plays on the guest-host relationship. By that I mean that whenever you show a work you’re inviting somebody to come over and inhabit it. You’re trying to be appealing enough for people to come—to catch people’s attention—and at the same time you’re trying to negotiate the relationship you have with those people, which, in the end, winds up being a personal, one-to-one relationship, even if you are not there. You have to think about whether you want to be appealing to an audience and about how much of the space you want to allow to be taken, occupied, and used, and for what. All these considerations have been coming together in my mind recently. They have to do with constantly rethinking my position as an artist. What am I doing here? Why? What is expected of me, and can I meet those expectations? Should I? That’s actually similar to what goes through your mind when you’re someone’s guest, not just in someone’s house but as an artist in an exhibition, for example. One could also say this is the kind of negotiation that took place between Szeemann and Boetti. You can see this when reviewing their correspondence, which will also be on display at the Fridericianum in Kassel this summer.

There are certainly other kinds of politics in the Documenta 13 project. The fictional Share-e-Nau Wanderings, which more consciously inaugurated my work in relation to the One Hotel, is “set” in 2001, even though the work was made five years later. Situating it in the early days of the US occupation was a way to say something about what had been happening in those years. That work came out of a certain frustration about being in the United States and yet not feeling fully entitled to have a say about what was taking place politically between that country and Afghanistan.

At that time, I allowed myself to make a fictional work because I thought going to Afghanistan would be a totally crazy and out-of-touch thing to do. Even contemplating the trip, though, forced me to ask myself whether art has to have any immediate consequences—whether it could have an impact in a place at war, like Afghanistan, and if so, what the artist’s role could be in such a situation. When the invitation to go to Kabul for Documenta 13 was put on the table, I had to rethink these questions, and at some point I just said, “Well, I’ll go,” since I hadn’t arrived at any concrete answers and probably never would have if I hadn’t gone there.

One encounters many striking and shocking things in Afghanistan, but while in Kabul I realized that the West has dehumanized the image of that country (things are probably easier that way, since it minimizes the sense of responsibility for the long-term consequences). We tend to think of it only as a place where casualties are counted, but the truth is that life goes on, full of interesting events and people who have very little to do with the image that the Western media has created. All this comes up in Tea.

At the same time, the film is also about what it means to think about Afghanistan from Mexico today and to try to put everything in perspective. Life goes on there too, as in Juárez and many other places, with or without political conflicts. In Kabul, people think fundamentally the very same way that you think. They have the same hopes and interests, and they want to identify themselves with others. During my visits I was doing my work, as in any other place. I found that the story of the One Hotel that I was sharing with people while drinking tea at its former location had suddenly become a space where many other stories and people could coincide. The One Hotel had become a space of conviviality again.

When Boetti first left for Kabul he didn’t tell anyone he was going, and days later he sent a telegram back home saying where he was. Tea might send a totally different kind of message back home, or back to Kassel—one where I try to explain what I am doing in Kabul, and why.

Tea and other works by Mario García Torres will be on view at Documenta 13, Kassel, June 6–Sep.16.