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What a thrilling time for Latin American art to go global. While millions of viewers tune in daily to the football performance artists who have gathered in Brazil, New York museums are overflowing with the continent’s collectables. The International Center of Photography boasts concurrent shows of South American street photography and Caio Reisewitz’s outsized, foliage-filled panoramas; Lygia Clark, the Brazilian doyenne of woolly interactive experimentalism, reigns at the Museum of Modern Art; and the Chilean expatriate Iván Navarro recently planted a stand of glowing towers in Madison Square Park. Latin Americans discovered Latin America a long time ago, of course, but perhaps you can forgive New York’s aesthetic savants – and the world’s moneyed collectors – for becoming suddenly giddy with appreciation.
Why, then, has the Guggenheim shown up to this party with an exhibition as jaded and deflating as Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today? A showcase of new acquisitions by 40 artists from 16 countries should feel celebratory, even delirious. Instead, it has the air of a picked-over jumble sale. Second-hand revolutions, worn-out conceptualism, frayed lessons, used in-jokes: you can find all this squeezed into two of the museum’s more awkward spaces.
This sense of desiccation doesn’t come from a lack of resources or commitment. The show is part two in a world-spanning trilogy (Asia came first; next is the Middle East and north Africa), organised by the Guggenheim and UBS: the MAP Global Art Initiative. It’s part international diplomacy, part shopping spree. As the art market keeps scavenging for new fodder, the museum and the financial juggernaut have teamed up to acquire objects from corners of the planet once considered marginal.
If you ducked into the show and emerged 20 minutes later, having seen only Amalia Pica’s “A B C”, you might consider the Guggenheim/UBS project a luminous success. Pica’s piece is a gorgeous, living arrangement of translucent shapes, which performers manipulate into glowing tableaux. Abstraction has a political subtext: Pica is referring to the years in Argentina when the military regime banned modern mathematics from the schools, considering set theory especially subversive. Presumably any knowledge the generals lacked had the potential to destabilise the nation. Pica responded to that memory of grey repression with a transcendentally mathematical rainbow.
But of course the show’s not all Pica, and not all so intellectually clear. Faced with the task of classifying a motley collection of new works, curator Pablo León de la Barra divided the upper gallery into five apparently distinct categories: “Conceptualism and its Legacies”, “Tropicologies”, “Political Activism”, “Modernism and its Failures” and “Participation/Emancipation”. Unfortunately, the first rubric is the only one that counts. Most of the works here are dry examples of conceptual art, which is simultaneously overabundant and poorly represented. The upshot is a show that is both ugly and thin.
Some examples: Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra modifies the playful (“Hang-It-All”) coatrack designed by Charles and Ray Eames, substituting pieces of fruit for the pair’s colourful spheres. Sierra’s piece is clever but hollow, winking smugly as if the joke is obvious. And it is: he’s replaced modernist order with postmodern messiness, rendering an efficient object useless. But you can’t make fun of someone in on the gag without seeming humourless yourself. The original Eames coatrack was hardly cold or austerely northern; rather, it turned a mundane furnishing into a playful exercise in complexity and contradiction. Did Sierra miss that?
This sort of lazy swipe at supposed modernist simplicity crops up again and again. Damián Ortega erects a structure out of stiff, slotted tortillas, a mocking homage to mid-century toys for future engineers. Brazilian artist Erika Verzutti follows the same logic with her cast-iron guavas, bananas and pomegranates, heaped upon one another to resemble a fruity totem pole or a feminine twist on Brancusi’s “Endless Column”.
When the exhibition’s contributors aren’t harmlessly attacking superannuated modernism, they’re critiquing hoary critiques. Consider “Walk”, a performance piece in which Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto propelled a wheelbarrow, stocked with soil and a plant, around the Caribbean island of Curaçao. The Guggenheim has the wheelbarrow, and an inkjet photo documenting the adventure – but why? Because that way Prieto can claim a lineage of artists/walkers – the surrealists, Robert Smithson and Francis Alÿs – and translate their treks from northern city to tropical isle while adding little of his own.
In a similarly parasitic vein, a 1972 conceptual piece by Puerto Rican-born Rafael Ferrer consists of a single line of text: “Artforhum”, printed on the Guggenheim’s ramp. It’s a pun on the name of the chichi, ad-plastered magazine Artforum and the phrase “art for whom?”. An indictment of the high-gloss market that until recently had no use for the southern hemisphere, it rings especially hollow now that gallerists and collectors are salivating over all things Latin American.
The most dismaying thing about this anthology is that it makes good artists seem poor. Luis Camnitzer, a native of Uruguay, who has long protested against totalitarian oppression in haunting, powerful indictments, is represented by the phlegmatic “Art History Lesson No. 6”, with 10 slide projectors flashing white rectangles. Alfredo Jaar contributes his polemical “This is Not America: A Logo for America”, which in 1987 appeared in lights over the Times Square US Army recruiting station and will return in digital glory to the square’s megascreens in August. A map of the US appears, soon emblazoned with the warning: “This is not America.” Then come the Stars and Stripes and a new admonition: “This is not America’s flag.”
It’s a reminder that there’s a whole other land mass to the south that Americans tend to forget. Jaar designed this work for a large scale, a public place and short attention spans, but it loses nearly all its power on a small screen at the Guggenheim, where – like the rest of this continent-shrinking exhibition – it seems tragically slight.
‘Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today’, Guggenheim, New York, until October 1, guggenheim.org