It is Saturday mid-afternoon. The sun is bright, the wind is up, the plane trees rustle and, but for a few unhurried pedestrians, the streets are empty. We are in the small Argentine city of La Plata, an hour from Buenos Aires. ‘We’ being me, Victoria Noorthorn, a former Museum of Modern Art colleague and busy freelance curator, and a friend of hers also active on the Latin American scene. Our goal is to visit the archive of Edgardo Antonio Vigo, about whom I learned from Vanessa Davidson, a student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, whose dissertation I have been reading. Why this detail about my companions and sources? Because, in a period when emerging scholars feel obliged to abjectly praise their Doktorvaters and Doktormutters, it is time we, the old guard, acknowledge younger colleagues to whom we owe equivalent debts. Corny as it is, the lyrics from The King and I are nevertheless true: ‘If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.’
The only indication that we had arrived at our destination – the former studio of a historically important but little-known artist – was a large kerbside postbox. Red, but otherwise formally anachronistic, the columnar receptacle stood sentinel in front of a nondescript two-storey house in an ordinary middle-class neighbourhood. Stereotypes be damned; from Jorge-Luis Borges to Constantin P. Cavafy to Fernando Pessoa, ‘bourgeois provincials’ have contributed to Modernism as enduringly as their more bohemian counterparts in the capitals of culture, and have proven themselves at least as cosmopolitan in the process. Vigo belongs in that select, self-effacing, paper-pushing company. A modest family man – Cavafy and Pessoa were confirmed bachelors as was Borges for most of his life – and an official of the local judiciary, he was nevertheless an ingenious, tirelessly networking member of the international avant-garde.
Vigo’s medium consisted of any and all forms of type, stamps, inks, papers and filing or packaging systems while his messenger was the postal authority. Inspired by Dada, Bauhaus, Constructivism and concrete poetry, he designed and edited small circulation magazines – the most important being WC (1958) and Diagonal Cero (1961) – published broadsides and carried on correspondence with a wide array of fellow small press publishers and mail artists. He filled his compact house/studio with shelf upon shelf of printed matter of brain-teasing, clockwork complexity and epicurean visual pleasure. Much of it was also subversive in ways that might have triggered the moral censors, or worse, the political goon squads of Argentina under Juan Perón and the brutal military men who followed him (Vigo’s under-the-radar industriousness stretched from 1953 until his death in 1997) were it not for the virtuosically coded whimsy of his texts and the fancifully adroit cropping and montaging of his imagery. As elsewhere in Latin American and in Eastern Europe during the same period, repression or its threat was the mother of formal invention, and instinctive restlessness, even among daytime bureaucrats, was the spark of freedom. Didn’t Pessoa use a banker as his ventriloquist’s dummy for anarchist ideas?
In that spirit, the extreme, eccentric and wondrously intuitive orderliness of Vigo’s art resembles the hallucinations of an architect who dreams in the language of mazes (although of another generation, sensibility and city Vigo was, of course, the compatriot of Borges and of Borges’ symbolist painter friend, Xul Solar). Or else a proof-reader enthralled by a kaleidoscopic Sublime of perpetually recombinant verbal and pictorial fragments that he or she will never be able to ‘set right’. Moreover, Vigo’s work has the poignant allure of extravagant effort lavished on the most fragile of physical objects. With its cut-and-paste layouts, letter-press and typewritten text blocks, hand-punched pages, rubber-stamp and wood-block embellishments, tags and string and fasteners, custom-made envelopes, sleeves and folders for slip-in/slip-out iconographic scraps, it is artisanal production in the age of photo-mechanical reproduction, with an inverted economy of scale for the era of mass media distribution.
Such disproportionate attention to ephemeral things shapes the material poetry and supplies the discreet polemical thrust to similar strains of mid-20th-century art, notably Fluxus. Developing independently of that movement but in synch with many of its techniques and tenets, Vigo’s work was, likewise, a mode of creative exchange replacing the primary aesthetic channels of where the ‘mainstream’ petered out. It extended back out again from his remote centre of activity to a worldwide archipelago of sympathetic pen pals.
In La Plata, three rooms packed with boxes and books are the reservoir where that flow of words and images pooled. Now that email has rendered snail mail all but obsolete, it is hard to imagine anyone devoting their lives sending out exquisite dispatches from the outposts of modernity. Yet if speed, delegated fabrication, aggressive branding and global market hegemony presently seem to be everybody’s focus, the far-reaching scope but labour intensive, nearly anonymous nature of Vigo’s art has acquired a new aura.
First published in Issue 132