“Carne Viva”

Museo de Arte del Centro Cultural de San Marcos

There are instances when life manages to imitate art without recycling clichés, and this exhibition was a fine example. Last August, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report on the tragic results of two decades of political violence in Peru, which, it is now known, claimed twice as many lives than the original highest estimate. “Carne viva: Partes de guerra 1980–2003” (Raw Flesh: Fragments of War 1980–2003), which opened before the report was published, provided artistic evidence for this violence by showing work with overt and covert political content by fourteen contemporary Peruvian artists. The curator, Gustavo Buntinx, started with the premise that indirect forms of resistance and underground activity, such as art, could counter political persecution. The best political art is never simply an illustration of a given event but aims instead at demystifying history and reflecting broader feelings, such as fear.

To suggest that the roots of political violence in Peru lie deep in the past, the exhibition included a large multipanel painting, Perú, país del mañana (Proyecto para hacer un mural, cuando tenga el dinero, mañana) (Peru, the Country of Tomorrow [Project for the Making of a Mural When I Have the Money, Tomorrow]), 1981, by Juan Javier Salazar, which consists of forty-two portraits of Peruvian presidents from 1821 to 1980. Executed in a crude style and based on popular schoolbook illustrations, each image is inscribed with the word MAÑANA (tomorrow), thus alluding to the political rhetoric that so often invokes the future as synonymous with freedom and prosperity. Needless to say, mañana never comes.

The exhibition argued that the challenge to repressive governments takes on various forms. Cuco Morales’s Ejército rosa (Pink Army), ca. 1993—a miniature altarpiece with a photograph of Sarita Colonia, who is revered among the Andean peoples as a saint though unrecognized by the Catholic hierarchy, surrounded by figurines of toy soldiers painted pink—suggested that sexual differences could be perceived as vehement, politically charged protest, because totalitarianism suppresses any departure from uniformity. Morales’s message seemed straightforward: In the absence of full democracy, the gay identity is often considered as subversive as political dissent; when presented in art it can be a form of radicalism.

Oppressive regimes always look for aesthetics appropriate to their needs, and “Carne viva” indirectly commented on that aspect of ideology in an intriguing way by including works that referenced art aimed at disruption of the artistic continuum. Fernando Guerra García echoed Duchamp’s Etant donnés, 1946–66, in which the French artist returned unexpectedly to illusionistic art, turning it into a voyeuristic experience. In García’s El último partido, por celebración del gol por muerte súbita (The Last Game, Due to the Celebration of a Score in Sudden Death), 1997, the viewer was asked to peek through peepholes into a reconstruction of the room in which the fourteen rebel guerrillas who occupied the Japanese embassy in Lima between December 1996 and April 1997 were all killed. The gray stone walls allude to the sacrificial pre-Hispanic god Chavín de Huántar, known for his cruelty. The dead bodies have been removed; the only sign of human presence is a soccer ball, with which the rebels were playing when they were killed. Looking through the peephole, we witness—as Buntinx hoped we would—a moment in the revolution of the imagination, expressed in a work of one of the fourteen artists who refused to be silenced.

Marek Bartelik