Curated by Florencia Chernajovsky, ‘Shifters: Signalling in Latin America and Eastern Europe’, focused on artistic strategies that explore forms of semantic openness within rigidly defined structures. Mainly highlighting work from the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibition traced the relationship between the emergence of conceptualist practices in systemically oppressed territories and the socio-political restrictions that catalyzed them.
Faced with periods of dictatorship and censorship, the 22 artists in the exhibition employed methods of spatial delimitation and graphic representation as ways of navigating their position within society. The works here account for periods of instability that allowed for the development of complex experiments in form – events, happenings, ephemeral installations with found materials. What was striking, however, was that many of the works originally unfolded as subtle gestures, and are barely distinguishable from the to-and-fro of daily life. Others, installed or occurring outside city limits, might have passed totally unnoticed, were it not for the photographs and documentation taken by the artists themselves.
These vestiges constituted a large portion of the exhibition, with all works but one – Paolo Bruscky’s film Arte/Parc (1973) – hung at eye-level, as though inviting an emotional proximity. This suggested that the focus was not on the presentation of an archive, despite the implications of the materials, but rather on accentuating an ever-present tension between political and personal space.
Chilean artist Juan Downey’s 30-minute video Shifters (1984), mixes music videos and tourist shots of the Egyptian pyramids, excerpts from catwalk shows and commentaries on art history, notably subtitled by rolling captions like: ‘It designates the subject, but does not signify it.’ The documentary style of the video – consciously deadpan – is negated by kitschy video effects such as shadows, bevels and 3D rotations, yet this levels the distinctions between iconography and indexical systems. Titled after a linguistic concept designating the directional self, watching Shifters is like being trapped in a dream.
This attempt to control subjective direction recurred throughout the show: the Argentinean artist Alberto Greco, for example, coined the term vivo-dito (‘living finger’), which refers to his act of pointing as a way of establishing contact with things and people around him. Throughout his short career (he committed suicide at the age of 34) he indiscriminately pointed at men, women and cats alike. ‘Shifters’ included a photograph documenting an event in 1962, in which Greco encircled a fellow artist on the street with white chalk, thus seizing him as an artwork and declaring the borders of his practice. Czech artist Július Koller’s Wavy Cultural Situation (U.F.O.)(Chopok) (1990) – a photograph of the ‘conceptual installation’ in which the artist mounted a curling wire structure on top of a mountain – is more of an engagement with common space, yet functions similarly to re-conceptualize the reach, or effects, of his intervention. Creativity, in both cases, becomes an act of resistance designed to re-orient the public towards their capacity to disrupt and alter a political landscape – even through seemingly insignificant or private means. This intimacy of action is particularly accentuated in some of the photographic works in the show, such as Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s B38 Can Bolide 1 (1966), depicting small containers of fire used to mark off accident sites or road work in Argentina and Polish artist Edward Krasin´ski’s Intervention (1969), which documents a young girl standing against a wall, with a dark painted line bisecting both structure and child. Within these images, agency becomes redefined as an emotionally laden concept, attesting to the evocative power and capacity of re-defining political borders by simply adjusting personal ones.
Argentinean duo Eduardo Costa & Roberto Jacoby’s intervention Rescate del Azar o Recorte de Contexto (The Rescue of Chance or Cut of Context) (1966/2015) conflates the historical content underlying the exhibition and our experience of the works at hand. Re-creating their original intervention from 1966, the artists painted an MDF board in ‘green no. 223’, placed it in the entrance of the gallery, and then convinced the staff to paint existing objects on the surrounding block in the same colour. The gesture is slight, but arresting: on leaving the space, you noticed the acid-green hastily painted on lampposts, buildings and in corners. (The word on the street is that they were all caught by the police, yet following some quick-witted explanations were left to their business.) The gesture speaks volumes for the exhibition, suggesting the intent was never simply to isolate a historical moment, but to evoke a parallel to the present. In particular, perhaps, it serves as a reminder that creativity, even in its most minute forms, can be an inexhaustible and powerful means of protest.
First published in Issue 171