Alexander Apóstol

La Capella

The concept of modernism has so many uses and meanings that, as historian Perry Anderson points out in Modernity and Revolution (1984), it encompasses even incompatible aesthetic practices. Yet the concept is still useful. It is hardly news that some modern architectural adventures have been associated with undemocratic or even totalitarian historical moments—think of an architect like Giuseppe Terragni, who served Italy’s Fascist regime. With such acts of complicity in mind, Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol looks at Latin American modernism, demonstrating the collaboration between some modern architects and the local oligarchies and tracing the dissolution of modernism as a synonym for progress and better living conditions.

For some time, Apóstol has been interrogating the particularities of Caracas as an urban system. His recent show “Soy la Ciudad” (I Am the City)—a quote from Le Corbusier—used video to engage public spaces and their symbolism. Housing Prototype in an Oil Country, 2004, for instance, shows homeless people who have built a settlement at the foot of a monument to the nation’s oil industry. But Apóstol’s inquiry does not end at the wall separating public from private space; homes and interiors are also part of his subject. In Modern Savage, 2006, attention is focused on the living room of a house designed in 1957 by Giò Ponti. The video shows a minimalist surface with two squares that suddenly rotate to reveal hunting trophies with antelope heads. Two sides of the same coin. The conclusion seems obvious: Behind the appearance of rationality and culture lurks a deadly and predatory desire.

One dream of modernity, at least, was embodied by Le Corbusier’s theories. And the Venezuelan oligarchy of the ’50s made his thinking their own because they could afford it. Wealthy thanks to oil, they longed to participate in European and Western modernity. With his camera, Apóstol has dissected the relationship between architecture and power in Latin America. The result is discouraging; for instance, in the video Documentary, 2005, a family from a poor Caracas neighborhood watches, on a portable TV, a documentary on the development of the modern city. What they see on the screen—a myth-filled piece of propaganda—has no relation to the poverty in which they live.

The video projection that viewers will most likely remember is the one that gave this show its title, I Am the City, 2005. It is also the most dubious. In it, a transvestite from Caracas is used to silently articulate Le Corbusier’s reductivist ideas about the ideal house. As the architect’s words appear in subtitles, the transvestite’s makeup slowly comes off. In making this a metaphor for the decay of the mansions in Caracas, Apóstol sets up an unfortunate parallel between the fading of the dream of the modern city and the removal of the drag queen’s facade of feminine elegance. But the two realities—architectural on the one hand and personal/sexual on the other—do not echo each other. Being a transvestite does not mean falling into degradation. It’s a shame that Apóstol seems to promote such a moralistic preconception.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.