Etnografía: Modo de Empleo

Museo de Bellas Artes

According to the brochure for the exhibition, the intention of “Etnografía: Modo de Empleo—Arqueología, Bellas Artes, Etnografía y Variedades” (Ethnography: a user’s guide—archaeology, fine arts, ethnography and varieties) was to “examine the distinct ways in which art addresses its context, specifically through ethnography”—understood not so much as “representation” but rather as an “operation.” Julieta González, a young curator at the Museo de Bellas Artes, constructed a multi-layered exhibition from two conceptual references: Georges Bataille’s magazine Documents (1929–30), reprint volumes of which were on display and whose subtitle was appropriated for the exhibition’s own; and an epigraph from Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995): “Order is no longer secured.” In her text, González traces back the artistic appropriation of ethnographic strategies (field work, collection of “evidence,” documentation, and their subse- quent exhibition) to the Surrealists, with their interest in the tribal cultures of Africa and Oceania, but it is only with institutional critique and Conceptual art that these relationships were fully developed—in the diverse practices of Robert Smithson, Hans Haacke, Dan Graham, Martha Rosler, Marcel Broodthaers, and so on.

A key issue underlying this process was a new perception of the “other” in contemporary ethnography, anthropology, and visual arts, now emancipated from its colonized condition. In this context, “Ethnography” juxtaposed the work of Haacke, Lothar Baumgarten, Mark Dion, Marcel Duchamp, and Joseph Kosuth, et al. with that of Latin Americans Juan Araujo, Colectivo Cambalache, Juan Downey, Daniel Guzmán and Luis Felipe Ortega, Jac Leirner, Roberto Obregón, and Alfred Wenemoser, among others. At the center of the exhibition was the late Claudio Perna. Although still largely underrecognized elsewhere, he was one of the most important Venezuelan Conceptual artists. A geographer by training, Perna dealt with notions of the archive, the library, and the map. Here his work was presented mostly in the form of small notebooks, photographs, and collages from the ’70s; together they suggest the atlas as an organizing principle.

“Ethnography” emerged as a complex undertaking, the result of a profound, exploratory approach to a set of difficult and timely issues. It might all have seemed impossibly convoluted, but González devised an informative, no-frills presentation for the exhibition, including didactic materials presented on plain sheets of paper clipped to the wall, one for each of the artists in the show. There, one found not only captions but an extensive text on each artist, often accompanied by an epigraph from the likes of Foucault, Bataille, Debord, or Craig Owens. This was obviously a low-budget project (I was told it was put together for a few thousand dollars; a CD-ROM catalogue is planned but as yet unfunded); it is also an open, experimental one, meant to be followed up and further developed. These are tough times for Venezuela, and art institutions have experienced severe budget cuts across the board. Ironically, this is perhaps what made such an ambitiously original project possible.

But what does art have to do with ethnography (or anthropology or the documentary, for that matter)? So the formalist critic might wonder. In bringing such cross-disciplinary strategies to the field of contemporary art production and exhibition, at least one sticky notion is either questioned or strategically put aside: the notion of truth. The true question remains: Is the document fated to become an art object?

Adriano Pedrosa