Puebla

Cildo Meireles, Tiradentes: Totem-Monumento ao preso politico (Tiradentes: Totem-Monument to the Political Prisoner), 1970, wooden pole, white cloth, thermometer, live chickens, gasoline, fire. Performance view, Parque Municipal de Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1970. Photo: Luiz Alphonsus. From “The Missing Circle.”

Cildo Meireles, Tiradentes: Totem-Monumento ao preso politico (Tiradentes: Totem-Monument to the Political Prisoner), 1970, wooden pole, white cloth, thermometer, live chickens, gasoline, fire. Performance view, Parque Municipal de Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1970. Photo: Luiz Alphonsus. From “The Missing Circle.”

“The Missing Circle”

Museo Amparo

An art exhibition dealing with the history of violence in the whole of Latin America could never have been other than sprawling. Curated by Magalí Arriola and organized by Museo Amparo in collaboration with nonprofit organization Kadist and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Colombia, where the show originated, “The Missing Circle” was the culmination of a peripatetic three-year process. The project involved the commissioning of artworks from Brazilian-Argentinean artist Carla Zaccagnini, Belarusian-French duo Rometti Costales, and Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, which were presented in Mexico City; Santiago, Chile; and Guatemala City, respectively. Two seminars were held in a hacienda in Yucatán, Mexico, and in the Atacama desert in Chile. The exhibition’s focus was on how artists have responded to the intentional smoothing-over, via nationalistic fiction and pride, of the brutalizing origins of the region’s violent history. The “missing circle” of the title alluded to a speech made by Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar in Paris in 1981, in which he said: “If every human death entails an irrevocable absence, what can we say of this other absence that continues as a sort of abstract presence, like the obstinate denial of the absence we know to be final? That was the missing circle in Dante’s Inferno, and the supposed rulers of my country, among others, have taken upon themselves the task of creating and populating it.” 

Walking through the show was at times disorienting, even overwhelming. The walls were painted a puke green a tad more pastel than that worn by the military men who patrol Latin American cities, rifles in hand. Arriola has stated that she purposefully stayed away from crude or explicit images of violence, and they would indeed have felt superfluous, their potentiality already firmly lodged in the region’s memory. Pierre Huyghe’s Cerro indio muerto (Dead Indian Hill), 2016—a photograph of a human skeleton facedown on the lunar landscape of the Atacama desert—was more than enough to evoke the mortal cost of Chilean president Augusto Pinochet’s sanguinary imposition of a Chicago School–inspired market economy. The picture is thought to be of a dead miner, however, and was taken not too long ago. The idea that humans are disposable in the pursuit of profit is still decidedly with us: an infernal debt acquired in our name by those in charge of running our current corporate and narco states. Reminding us that this is a much older phenomenon was Zaccagnini’s El presente, mañana (The Present, Tomorrow), 2018, a research project that here took the form of a Zoom talk as well as a display of books, magazines, old Brazilian cruzeiro bills, and postcards illustrating the story of two noteworthy figures in Brazil’s history: Tiradentes and Zumbi dos Palmares. The first was the only person to be executed—by hanging, after which he was dismembered and his body parts spread across the country—for a failed conspiracy to wage a war for independence from the Kingdom of Portugal in the eighteenth century. The second was a freeborn Black man who became the leader of Quilombo dos Palmares, the most important Brazilian Maroon settlement; he was shot fifteen times, speared, and beheaded as a warning to others who might have hoped to fight for their freedom.

Unbridled exploitation in Latin America has always been bound to the oppression of many peoples across the globe. In the modern era, it has taken place with the support of the US, the sometimes secretive but always enthusiastic partner of many of the region’s slave masters and depraved dictators. In making this situation clear, the exhibition succeeded in weaving together—through stories of unfathomable violence, rather than by picturing it directly—the realities of a vast and extremely diverse portion of the world. But how hard it was to take it all in.