Asking for "Permission"

Revisar/Censurar (Revise/Censor) by Horacio Zabala *Courtesy of the artist and the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection

“This is not meant to be a general overview or survey,” says Jen Mergel, the MFA’s Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. “This is meant to be an exhibit with teeth.” She’s talking about Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection—one of our picks of spring’s must-see exhibits—which opens this week. But first, Mergel gave us the lowdown on the show’s title, its reception at Art Basel Miami Beach and a few of its 46 featured artists (including one who’ll be in attendance… in a coffin). 

Many of these artists have never been shown in Boston before. What most excites you about bringing this exhibit to this audience?

The obvious answer is that the art is phenomenal! But in terms of some context for the MFA in particular, of course we opened the Art of the Americas wing in 2010, which is the year I started at the museum. And then I came on to open the contemporary wing in 2011, so the conversation had been ongoing for some time about how to think through the first major thematic show in the Foster Gallery, the Linde Family Wing’s special exhibition space. It made perfect sense to us to think through extending what we’re trying to do with the Art of the Americas wing and what we’re trying to do with the contemporary wing by organizing a show that’s looking at this phenomenon. Contemporary art from across Latin America has been receiving so much critical attention, and it has been well deserved, but it really has been underrepresented in Boston. So it absolutely seemed like the right time for the MFA and the right time to show some great work.

This is the first time the museum has incorporated live performance art in an exhibit—can you tell us about its role and the choice to include it?

There is this rich history across Latin America of art that really prompts interaction, so live performance is a key part of that. And in the show of course there are all sorts of ways you feel the presence of performance, be it photographs of Marta Minujín burning a huge effigy in a public square, or drawings of performances that were never realized and allowed in Cuba that we’ll finally be able to do in Boston, or video actions of people doing performances in Venezuelan sand dunes or the streets of Guatemala City, like Regina José Galindo. So it’s there, and to have new live projects as part of the checklist, as part of the exhibition, made perfect sense.

One example will be right at the start at the opening of the show. The public opening is this March 19, and on that evening one of the artists, Lázaro Saavedra from Cuba, will be realizing for the first time a project he had never really been able to execute in Havana. It’s from a series called “History for Historians,” and all of these are projects he would have hoped to have done or attempted to do but could not. One of them is called Funerary Egocentrism, quite a mouthful for a title. But basically he stages himself in a coffin, so it’s literally the death of the artist or the death of the author, which is a quite jarring experience—to walk into a room in an art gallery in a museum and have a person put their own body inside an open casket. But when he was thinking about this in Cuba 20 years ago in the early ’90s, he was thinking about what that gesture could have meant in terms of, say, artists’ free expression. Do they even have a life? And what is the life of their voice?

[Note: Due to “administrative delays” regarding his visa, Saavedra’s performance is being rescheduled, likely for April.]

I was especially excited to see that Regina José Galindo will be performing as well. Can you tell us about those plans?

She has been thinking through a number of proposals for us. I can’t speak to the exact content yet, but we are looking at a June date for when she would be doing this. What I can tell you is that Regina never repeats a performance, so once she does it, that’s it; it’s not something she will deliver in a different context, assuming it will have the same resonance or color. So she’s really thinking of ideas that are so specific to Boston. Coming from Central America, coming from Guatemala City, she’s also thinking about her own presence in Boston as an outsider, what that means, and how she might emphasize those notions of connection and disconnect between local audiences and her own experience coming in from outside.

A video of one of her best-known performances will be on view as well, right?

The piece that will be in the exhibition throughout is the documentation of her 2003 walk through Guatemala City, ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas? (Who Can Erase the Traces?), which is so compelling, even if you don’t know the history of the genocide in Guatemala and what she was protesting in her walk from the constitutional court to the national palace, in terms of the individual who was responsible for many of those deaths [former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt] being able to run for president. Without all of that specific knowledge of that political context, you still get chills, thinking of the simplicity and the intensity of that gesture, walking with that basin of human blood through the city. I think that’s also one of the reasons why we were inviting Regina José. Again, the title of the show, “Permission to be Global,” we wanted that title to provoke questions. What do you mean by the global? What do you mean by permission? Who needs permission? Permission for what? And the whole idea that her work can speak to a very specific context but also speak beyond that, and that it can resonate with audiences in the US, audiences in Europe—when that video footage went out around the world, it was telling people what was happening, specifically, historically and politically in that moment, but it was also an important artistic statement. It’s work like that that actually reaches the idea of the global, crossing borders, that notion of exchange, of witness to history. The point of the show is that by connecting with these artists’ works, they really do bring us closer to an ideal of what global can mean. Theirs is the art that gives us permission.

I know the exhibition opened at Art Basel Miami Beach before coming to Boston. Can you tell us about how it was received?

It was amazing to see the reception of the show and the catalogue we produced with [Ella Fontanals-Cisneros and the CIFO Foundation], because it is a very high-profile forum for contemporary art. Art Basel Miami Beach is such a densely packed schedule, and in many cases it might not always be so focused on the art. [Laughs.] But the CIFO Foundation is so well recognized for being a very serious forum for high-quality, curated exhibitions, so Ella was proud of our work and that the exhibition received comments from colleagues Europe, Brazil and other parts of the world saying, “Wow, we would really love to see this show travel.” That was a huge compliment in and of itself. But I think the most exciting thing about the reception of the show in Miami is again that it did what we would hoped; it was really sparking discussion about these timely issues. People were talking about it terms of how it relates to the art world, but also how it relates to our contemporary moment. We are all connected by the cloud, and yet there are still imbalances between the haves and the have-nots, those who have more or less resources or access or freedom. And these artists across Latin America have decades of experience addressing this.

Untitled (Globe of the World) by Wilfredo Prieto *Courtesy of the Artist/Gallery Martin van Zomeren

Untitled (Globe of the World) by Wilfredo Prieto *Courtesy of the Artist/Gallery Martin van Zomeren

Were there any works that especially seemed to spark conversation in Miami?

There were projects that are using digital surveillance technology, like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Shadowbox: Third Person, which is tracking you as you are walking into the space. And then there were projects that are beyond humble, like Wilfredo Prieto’s tiny chickpea, Globe of the World. It’s absolutely the smallest piece in the show, and when reproduced it’s often 20 times its actual size, but it still held an entire wall of the space. And I think some people would discover it and then remark on the power of that gesture. There’s certainly a younger artist who was attracting attention because the material he chose to use was miles and miles and miles of gold chain. His name is Eduardo Abaroa. He was putting in the space the lengths of the perimeter of an island in false gold chains, piled on the floor like a little island on the gallery floor. But the project also traced the fact of the idea of this island existing in the Gulf of Mexico and the reality that it didn’t exist in the Gulf of Mexico, after centuries of people thinking it did and it appearing on all sorts of maps and all of the repercussions of that—it meant Mexico did not have access to oil drilling and sovereignty in those waters, etc. That this single glistening gold pile could then be used to explore all of those ideas, I think that was unexpected.

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