Something repeated is not necessarily a mere copy, an inadequate illusion strewn on the postmodern battlefield of vain formal quotations. It can also be rendered productive – if it provides the setting for a new, altered mode of action and understanding. In this spirit, Venezuelan-born, Berlin-based Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck’s first solo show at Galerie Martin Janda was based on recurrence: versions of this artistic and curatorial project have already been shown at US galleries in 2009 and 2010 and at the 12th Istanbul Biennial. Even the exhibition title, Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect was a quotation, borrowed from a piece published in The New York Times by art critic Aline Louchheim in 1954. In it, she bemoans her government’s failure to fund an official US presentation at the second São Paulo Biennial in 1953. Instead, it was New York’s Museum of Modern Art, under its then president Nelson Rockefeller, that put on a prominent retrospective of work by Alexander Calder – the artistic poster boy for American ‘cultural diplomacy’ and a not always entirely voluntary messenger for the American myth of liberty.
This quotation goes straight to the core of Balteo Yazbeck’s works, made jointly with art historian Media Farzin: the magical hegemonic triangle of political, economic and cultural power enjoyed by the US on the international stage from the time of World War II, through the emerging Cold War to the McCarthy era. Opposite the entrance to the gallery hung the most striking piece in the show, Didactic Panel and Model of Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943. From the series: ‘Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect’ (2007–09). The work consists of a panel with a picture of Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb (1943) with relevant quotations from Calder concerning the structure of his Constellations and a replica of the work. All of these elements have been modified from their originals: Calder’s delicate stabile made of wood and wire is translated into hi-tech materials like ABS, Plexiglas and carbon fibre. In a text written by the artist, the Calder quotations are supplemented by historical details from the year the work was made: Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad, Roosevelt’s push to develop the atom bomb and the passage of the controversial Hydrocarbons Act through the Venezuelan parliament that led to a 50:50 sharing of oil revenues between the government and the international oil industry. Most strikingly, however, Balteo Yazbeck has manipulated the catalogue reproduction of Vertical Constellation by giving names to the various biomorphic parts of Calder’s work (Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Rrose Sélavy), turning it into a kind of politico-cultural historiogram of World War II. Together with an explanatory wall text, these elements constitute a three-part display recalling the classic semiotic trinity in Conceptual art: object, illustration, encyclopaedia entry as wall label (as, for example, in Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965).
This illustrative structure ran through the whole exhibition. In Mobile for the Hotel Ávila, 1939–1942 & The Larger Picture, 1939–1942 (2006–09) for example, the explanatory wall text was accompanied by a reproduction of a postcard of the titular Caracas hotel built by Rockefeller, for which Calder was commissioned to make several works. This was completed by a chronology revealing the shady links between Rockefeller’s roles as property developer, MoMA trustee and president, confidante of Roosevelt, and ‘founder of cultural diplomacy’, as well as a pseudo-sketch for a mobile designed by Calder for the hotel’s ballroom.
It quickly became clear that this rehistoricization of Calder, whose position and reception oscillated between political affirmation and dissidence throughout his artistic career, was not Balteo Yazbeck’s only focus. Instead, using this form of explanatory display, he also attempted to articulate the (linguistic) conditions of the exhibition as an educational medium – rather too forcefully and didactically, perhaps, but also very much in the tradition of Conceptual art of the time.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 13