Cornerhouse, Ikon Gallery

Publications on Latin American history, politics and culture as well as exhibitions of Latin American art have contributed to a false image of cultural coherence corresponding to this geographical designation. Latin American literature and art have come to signify “Latinness”—the fantastic, erotic, and epic. The result is that even cultural mélange and hybridity seem to testify to a homogeneous cultural and social experience overriding linguistic, historical, national, ethnic and other differences. The problem of defining a “Latin American identity” centers on questions of who does the defining, and in whose interest. The differences between this notion and what may at first look like comparable designations such as European, have also generated debate.

Curated by the British art critic and writer Guy Brett, the exhibition “Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists,” included work by six Brazilian, one Argentinean and two Chilean artists. Shown simultaneously in two venues, the selection emphasizes the diversity of approaches to questions of cultural identity that depend on a shared history of colonialism but cannot be reduced to that history. The fallacy of cultural coherence is thematized in the work of Juan Davila, who was born in Chile and now lives in Australia. His paintings are based on a complex strategy of appropriation that not only allows him to invert ironically the plethora of artistic styles that have come to signify post-Modern pluralism, but also to relate apparently unconnected narratives in order to draw attention to their underlying congruence with respect to economic dependencies or constructions of sexuality and race. Works by other artists in the show are less obviously political. Waltercio Caldas’ abstract objects function as a catalyst for considering perceptual relationships in the institutional context of the gallery. This is most successfully achieved in Mirror with Light, 1974, (reconstructed 1990) where a little red lamp protrudes from a large framed mirror violating the image of the spectator’s reflection on this otherwise seamless surface. The illusory nature of clearly defined and separate spaces also informs the installation Cinza, 1984–86, (which in Portuguese means both ash and gray) by Cildo Meireles. Unlike his better known piece Massäo/Missöes (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987, also in the exhibition, Cinza is not immediately metaphorical. Two interiors constructed from aluminum frames and canvas appear as symmetrical inversions of each other, one black, its floor covered with coal, the other with chalk on walls and floor. The piece demands an audience who, walking inside and around the cubicles, leaves a trail of mingling coal and chalk dust that transforms the neat symmetry into a dispersed “grey area” of participation and interaction.

Jac Leirner, one of two women artists in the show, uses bank notes in a number of pieces assembled under the title Os Cem (The one hundreds, 1986). Making reference to the rampant inflation in Brazil, these works also draw attention to the unofficial inscriptions—names, graffiti, pornography, slogans—which enter the official system of exchange. Relationships between the global and the local are also at issue in Eugenio Dittborn’s “Airmail Paintings,” 1988–89, and again, in a different way, in the collaborative work of Roberto Evangelista and Regina Vater which deals with the Amazon forest.

What emerges most powerfully from this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue is a range of visually sophisticated work that addresses social and political realities as integral to art practice. “Latin American” here comes to signify a poignant yet undogmatic criticality that is rarely encountered.

Desa Phillipi