New York

Luis Camnitzer, El mirador (The Observatory), 1996, mixed media. Installation view.

Luis Camnitzer, El mirador (The Observatory), 1996, mixed media. Installation view.

Luis Camnitzer

An unsettling presence pervades Luis Camnitzer’s El mirador (The Observatory), 1996, a room-within-a-room whose components—including a stained pillow, an enamel plate, a few magazines, and a (mostly) empty bottle of wine—suggest an inhabitant. Have they died or, in some mysterious way, just disappeared? The sliding metal gate above a shelf built into the installation’s inaccessible door—through which that dish might be slid back and forth, full or empty of food—likens these quarters to a prison cell. Surveillance could be facilitated by the fist-size horizontal gap running at eye level along each wall, which permitted visitors circling the perimeter to see into the space. But it must have been some time since anyone occupied it: Sheets of matted hair and dust were gently scattered across the floor.

The title of this installation conjures the overgrown capital of the ancient Maya civilization, which was home to more than one million people in the tropical rain forest of the Mirador Basin, along what is now the border that separates Mexico and Guatemala. The invocation of that advanced society, with its pyramids and extensive highways, makes this grim dormitory feel even more cruel. The bed is not much more than a sheet of glass atop a frame of metal pipes. The window, more barrier than aperture, is filled with patches of artificial turf.

The work’s association with surveillance suggests an elevated position: the station atop a guard’s tower, or the clearer understanding of history in hindsight. Although Camnitzer moved to New York in 1964, this work has been contextualized as a response to the military dictatorship in his home country of Uruguay, which lasted from 1973 until 1985, during which the regime held more political prisoners per capita than any other country. Partially propped up against one wall, near El mirador’s entrance, was a large photographic print of a foggy ocean horizon tinted pink, as if it had been captured at dusk. A sailboat within had been cut out from the horizon line and placed vertically upon the picture’s still, flat waters. This is a vista of yearning, an image of escape. Lying on that unforgiving bed underneath the glaring fluorescent lights, a prisoner could stare at that little ship and begin to dream.

Some of Camnitzer’s other works on view were less expansive and at times one-note. Take Twin Towers, 2002, a sculpture made of two playing cards—a jack and a nine, both diamonds—standing precariously upright on a pedestal and facing each other on a diagonal. Camnitzer’s choice of these particular cards seems straightforward: Historically, this suit might have signified money and the merchant class (during the medieval era) or the upper class (in French culture), both of which clearly relate to the original World Trade Center, which once stood at the heart of New York’s Financial District. (The cards’ ranks also correspond to the date 9/11.) Perhaps intended as a memorial, the piece felt more playful than reflective; its symbols close off rather than open up meaning. Nearby was Territorio libre, 2018, the most recent work on view, and the most heavy-handed: Within a circle of coiled barbed wire was a projected circle of light containing the titular words, which in English mean “free territory.”

At his best, Camnitzer uses language to explore the nuances of visibility, signification, and freedom. One 1992 sculpture on view here, a stack of epoxied paper, once again displayed its own title, which is engraved into the work’s top sheet: LEER ES RESUCITAR IDEAS SEPULTADAS EN EL PAPEL. CADA PALABRA ES UN EPITAFIO (To read is to revive ideas buried in paper. Each word is an epitaph). Language can resuscitate and remember in ways that pictures, with their comparatively slippery contexts, may not. Viewing Territorio libre and El mirador, I thought of another work by Camnitzer—not in this show, alas—that powerfully captures the tension between word and vision, entrapment and escape: Vista de la víctima encontrada en el Altar de Sacrificios en Teotihuacan (Victim’s View Found on the Altar of Sacrifices at Teotihuacan), 1978, which juxtaposes its title with a view of the sky, presumably as seen from the top of an ancient pyramid by some doomed soul.