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Hasta la victoria, siempre: Latin America at Fondation Cartier

(Paris.) The recent Cartier exhibition with the marque celebrating itself at Grand Palais was an exception amongst the jeweller’s cultural activities. Usually Cartier’s art sponsoring is managed by Cartier Foundation at their supersized exhibition space in Montparnasse. After Yue Minjun and Ron Mueck, it now dedicates a show to six decades of Latin American Photograpy.

Art sponsoring is a delicate subject for every company. You surely don’t want to be too obvious, but on the other hand, there needs to be a significant ROI. Whilst in all other life situations, you might cling to “A gentleman never tells”, for sponsoring activities you need to change for “Do good and talk about it.”

Beginners in this field of PR still think it’d be enough to have your name spelled right, like buying the naming rights of a sports stadium. But the industry evolves, and you should have higher ambitions in line with your general PR strategy. Regarding this exhibition, the background thoughts might have been as follows (we don’t know any of this, this is purely speculative):

Latin America’s emerging markets are almost as important as China. For the past twenty years, everybody has been talking about the continent, first and foremost about Brazil where the world’s second biggest TV event, the FIFA World Cup (yes: soccer) will take place in only a few months’ time. More and more decent people from South America can afford to buy Cartier and other Richemont labels (not longer only those paying in suitcases of cash or cocaine).

The result of these or similar thoughts is an immense exhibition of more than seventy artists. Its title, “America Latina; Photographies 1960-2013”, is a bit misleading, though: About 90% of the works date from the 1970s and 1980s. There is not much to learn about what’s happening today. The artworks’ political focus that might be surprising at first look, thus turns out to be a function not of place but of time. The compadres basically did the same thing as their US and Europe counterparts in those days. This said, their statements are certainly aggravated and authenticated by the actual experience of murderous dictatorships, revolutions and counter revolutions succeeding each other for decades.

One might notice some regularities in the selection shown by Cartier. Whilst most of these artists understand art as a means of politics, as doing something meaningful not for art history but for society, they only denounce the easy targets: war and violence itself, occasionally dictators and their police. There are no works aiming at the backgrounds, at world politics and Western meddling.

If one does only the slightest research about South America’s 20th Century (come on, if not interested in history studies, try at least Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul from 1973, a great, light, read), one will soon realise how much of the fighting has at least been knowingly accepted by Western powers. If you have a crush on polemics, you might even go so far as to state, no dictatorial party’s acts have ever been as devastating for the continent as the CIA’s continuous influence.

We, who we are no experts of Latin American art can only wonder, whether there were no artists digging deeper into the mechanics of global politics, or whether this is more likely a biased curating policy.

Some nostalgic leftism is kind of cool, it makes you seem a responsible, avant-gardist marque, but you sure don’t want to be linked to any “extremists”. It’s the same historical abstraction that lets fashion labels use punk as a fashion style (“yeah, wear this crazy hairstyle and that “punky” T-Shirt, but won’t you vomit on the catwalk”).

What is actually shown by Cartier Foundation?

One example for the many works dealing with state violence is Violencia from Juan Carlos Romero. Explicitly bloody like a movie from his namesake George Romero, it’s a collection of press photos and articles from Argentina during the years of the Ongania regime (1966-1970), presented under the writing “VIOLENCIA” (“Violence”) on yellow tape. Bodiless heads, mutilated bodies and street fights; a cynic could say, those victims’ families can at least be sure about what happened, which is already a privilege in Argentina. Romero's compatriot Marcelo Brodsky focuses on those who vanished without leaving a trace. The remains of an estimated 30,000 Argentinian “desaparecidos” have never been found, amongst them two friends of the artists whose childhood photos are everything that’s left.

Another recurring topic is the marginalisation of native peoples, made apparent e.g. in the works of Anna Bella Geiger (Historia do Brazil – Little Boys and Girls, 1975) and Regina Silveira (Brazil Today, 1977). Both artists used readymade postcards of cute half-naked Indios and transformed them into a condemnation of the sad reality.

Silveira also did a mural jigsaw with objects and people who for the rest of the world form the image of South America. Llamas and Tequila, Easter Island heads, Fidel, Pele, Frida, Evita, etc. The title, Artificio (1976), suggests the artificiality of any stereotypical identification.

The question of identity also imports to Miguel Rio Branco in his portraits of black Brazilians named Strangler in a Strangled Land. Much interest is added by the enigmatic title hinting to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (and the Bible quotation behind that). It’s not exactly obvious, who is strangled here, and by whom.

One of the few works dealing subversively with contemporary phenomena is Jonathan Hernandez‘ Holbox. In 2012, the artist photographed “Land for Sale” signs on holiday resort island of the same name. Everything’s up for sale to the gringos (well, somewhere the money has to come from if you want to buy a Cartier watch)?

Equally up-to-date and one of the most horrible artworks ever seen – speaking about the abominable reality it documents – is Rosario Lopez’ series Esquinas Gordas from Bogota. Apparently, Columbian house owners install what you might call “bum blockers” in street corners, effectively hindering homeless people to lie down here. It looks like what more civilised home owners do against pigeons.

Most of Cartier’s customers will hold “Panamericana” for a misspelling of the Porsche Panamera (to avoid protests from smart-alec car enthusiasts: yes, there also was a Mexican rally and a concept car called Panamericana), but it's in fact the world’s longest (network of) road(s). Luz Maria Bedoya travelled a portion of this “Latin Route 66” in his native Chile, and took photos of rocks. The aesthetic black and white images tell about moving and standstill, about time and place; but more importantly the title Pirca hints to pre-Columbian milestones, that may have willingly been reproduced in these rocks.

This list could continue for many pages, but don’t worry, we’ll leave it at that. If you can’t make it to Paris till the show’s closing: The catalogue is really worth buying (and for once not overpriced – another effect of art sponsoring?).

Cartier makes jewellery that they want to sell on all continents (well, except Antarctica maybe), and the Cartier Foundation curates great exhibitions. Just keep in mind that there are not only curators, there’s also business politics involved, and whilst this is an amazingly broad collection of artworks, there might be some artists who have been excluded for a reason. It’s like reading a newspaper and knowing about the editorial line.

The basic idea of Cartier Foundation’s America Latina; Photographies 1960-2013 probably reads: “Look where they came from, those terrible things they went through! Thanks god, they are one of us now, and may freely buy jewellery.”

America Latina, Fondation Cartier, Paris, 19 November 2013–6 April 2014



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