Nao Bustamanta, Rosa Does Joan (1992), video still
In his essay ‘Commitment’ (1962) the German philosopher Theodor Adorno affirmed the importance of politically committed works of art, using the example of Bertolt Brecht’s plays to argue that commitment itself becomes a force of aesthetic production. Brecht may be a European antecedent, and therefore technically an incorrect predecessor of ‘Art/=Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960–2000’, but he is also its stealthy pioneer, whose vicious combination of melodrama and social outrage haunts so many of the works that inhabit this recent exhibition of postwar Latin American cultural production. Organized by Deborah Cullen, ‘Art/=Vida’ was the first survey of performance art of Latin America, including over 100 artists and collectives working in the US, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and other countries in Central and South America. Ambitious in scale, the exhibition was a revisionist survey on a par with Paul Schimmel’s pioneering performance art exhibition ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1994. Or it would have been, if it had the same sort of institutional heft, donor base and budget. As it was, the size and budget of ‘Art/=Vida’ were closer to ‘Body and the East’, a survey of Eastern European performance art organized by the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana that should have found an institutional partner in New York but didn’t, and was instead lovingly sponsored by the alternative space Exit Art in 2001, and which consisted almost entirely of photo-based documentation. The ephemeral nature of performance is the raison d’être for viewing often copious quantities of documentation – the magazine and news clippings, artists’ statements and manifestos, photographic records and occasional snippets of grainy film and video footage or sound recordings. And there was some fantastic footage in ‘Arte/=Vida’: video documentation by the Santiago-based CADA (Art Actions Collective); Victor Grippo’s large panoramic photos of Traditional Rural Oven for Baking Bread (1972), a performance in which the artist, questioning traditional notions of artistic labour and visibility, baked and gave away fresh bread in a Buenos Aires plaza until the police dismantled the operation; and Nao Bustamante’s performance Indigurrito (1992) at a now defunct alternative theatre in San Francisco, a hilarious, sexualized faux Catholic ritual of salvation for 500 years of white male sin. But it was the lack of objects in this survey that proved most troubling: there were some – Lygia Clark’s do-it-yourself Möbius strip and Tunga’s comb, filled with an obscene cascade of blond hair – but what about the heavy wooden apparatus of Papo Colo’s extraordinary Superman 51 (1977) performance? The work is an endurance piece, in which the artist ran at full speed for ten straight minutes along the empty West Side Highway in Manhattan, dragging behind him a netted armature of 51 wooden beams. It is an ironic, poignant work, referencing the futility of Puerto Rico’s bid for official recognition as the 51st state in the United States. In an exhibition with hundreds of black and white photographs Colo’s epic performance got lost. In the absence of video documentation the object itself would have enriched the viewing experience, showing at first hand how cumbersome such a ‘superman cape’ would actually be. The same goes for Cildo Meireles’ The Sermon on the Mount: Let There Be Light (1979), a cube built of 126,000 Fiat Lux matchboxes, installed on a sandpaper-covered floor, that was once heavily guarded owing to the high potential for fire hazard. While re-creating the piece might have violated stringent fire codes, even a small table-top model would have been a welcome addition: anything to spice up its reductive representation via three tiny black and white photos. In a tumultuous era of military dictatorships and state-sanctioned kidnapping, disappearance and murder, much of the work here was explicitly political, part of what the playwright and literary critic Ariel Dorfman has called ‘the testimonial genre’: that is, visceral social critique that bears witness to the many brutalities and repressions. Some of these works are fairly well known, such as Marta Minujin’s large-scale, ephemeral public sculptures, for example Panettone Obelisk (1979) or The Parthenon of Books/Homage to Democracy (1983). Others, such as those by the Chilean Diamela Eltit, who is well known as an experimental novelist but initially made Gina Pane-like self-mutilation works, are included but not explored in depth. Overall, the categories of organization – always semi-ambiguous in large group shows – follow a rough chronology leading from the late 1960s into the explosion of now classic works made by Americans in the 1990s: a candy piece by Félix González-Torres, Daniel Martinez’ I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White museum tags for the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s extended performance Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992–4). This creates a rather false chronology in the show’s own historical path, as though people stopped doing interesting things in other countries and only recently started doing them in the US, rather than the multiplicity of everything happening all at once.