El Instrumento y Su Obra: On Luis Camnitzer’s Conceptualism
Renato Rodrigues da Silva
Between September 30 and December 4, 2011,1 the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, staged a retrospective of works by Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer. Considering the local context in which this exhibition took place, Camnitzer’s retrospective was an important step towards improving the visibility of artistic contributions from Latin America. Whereas various galleries in the city regularly produce exhibitions of work by contemporary Chinese and Indian artists (among other ethnicities), art by those who come from Latin America does not receive nearly the same attention.
Along with the Belkin Gallery, the Daros Latinamerica Collection in Zurich (which holds the largest collection of Camnitzer’s works) organized this exhibition under the curatorship of Hans-Michel Herzog and Katrin Steffen. Together, they reviewed the artist’s contribution to contemporary art and presented a selection of the proposals he developed since the mid 1960s, including designs for billboard works. Thus, Landscape as an Attitude (1979/2011) and The Museum Is a School (2010–11) were both recreated for the exhibition and mounted outside of the gallery, as was the installation Arbitrary Objects and Their Titles (1979/2011), which Herzog and Steffen sited in the Walter C. Koerner Library, the main library of the University of British Columbia. This retrospective presented an opportunity to make an assessment of the artist’s overall practice. Based on the works shown, therefore, this article will analyze Camnitzer’s notions of conceptualism, interdisciplinarity, and history, revealing some persistent issues in a career still in the making.2
Upon first impression, the exhibition appeared to be a compilation of conceptual artworks, featuring the systematic presence of text, an emphasis on concept as the works’ raison d’être, a mixed media experimentation (including drawing, printmaking, and other media), and a focus on institutional matters linked to the expanded field of art. Such characteristics are not uncommon in conceptual art: Joseph Kosuth’s Painting as Idea (1966), for example, privileged the literary definition of the medium in place of its visual form, which became outmoded for many American and European artists at the time. Initially, these artists asserted the dematerialization of art objects as a strategy to undermine their commercialization, privileging text above their works’ material features in a dialectical move intended to supersede the history of art as image. Although many of Camnitzer’s works involve text also, under closer scrutiny, his practice does not fit neatly into the history or genre of conceptual art.
In Camnitzer’s exhibition, text fulfilled wholly different purposes, exemplified in Living Room (1969/2011). In this installation, the artist laid out a living room in words, inscribing the names of architectural elements and furniture in their correlative places, ironically suggesting the presence of functional objects where there are only labels. Because the labels describe the specific forms of objects, viewers could thus read names and imagine their forms concomitantly. In contrast to Kosuth’s gesture towards dematerialization, which still belonged to the field of aesthetics, this work breaks down the limits between understanding and imagination, words and things, art and reality—it suggests an alternative to the notion of art as image, not just its reenactment under new principles, as it happened with conceptual art. Thus, instead of turning the image into text for passive reception by the viewer, Camnitzer’s words encourage his or her imaginative participation in producing meaning.3
Camnitzer has named his approach to contemporary art “conceptualism,” which he defined in opposition to conceptual art. Although the differences between the two movements might sometimes seem subtle, the artist distinguished them clearly, as follows: During the heyday of conceptualism, while going through all the steps to pin down a message, both a mainstream conceptualist and a periphery conceptualist may have ended up with a scribble on a scrap of paper. Both scraps looked the same. But the information left on the scrap of the mainstream artist was, in most cases, about the information and the scrap itself; the information left on the scrap of the periphery artist was more often likely about the artist’s surroundings.4 According to Camnitzer, the differences between conceptual art and conceptualism indicate the tautological foundation of the former and the contextual of the latter.5 He recognized that “mainstream artists” took advantage of a major historical shift in art-making during the 1960s—to introduce text in their proposals—as a way to overcome Minimalism but by still remaining within the modernist canon.6 By contrast, the use of text by peripheral conceptualists responded to specific social conditions and emphasized the reality that these artists often worked under adverse discursive, political, and economic circumstances. Against the systemic or endogenous logic of North Americans and Europeans, therefore, peripheral artists stressed the context over the concept of their work.7
Camnitzer’s retrospective was so compelling because it highlighted the difference between conceptual art and conceptualism while it made evident the semantic displacements through which the artist used pure forms to address the context of the works, rejecting their self-referential characteristics. That the artist could have bridged the enormous ideological gap between these two productions from within New York—a city where he has lived since the mid 1960s—is an outstanding feat, which, therefore, requires detailed analysis, as his strategy offers one example of the Latin American struggle for artistic emancipation from the international market and the tendency to overvalue apolitical practices and discourses in that milieu.
In Camnitzer’s exhibition at the Belkin, The Journey (1991) exemplified the differences between conceptual art and conceptualism. The work consists of three knives protruding from the gallery wall into the viewer’s space, each knife with a pair of Christmas ornaments hanging from its base. The artist also etched the names “Santa Maria,” “Pinta,” and “Niña” on the lower part of both sides of the blades, which hang at eye level. A formalist analysis might posit the work within a post-Minimalist tradition for it presents a series of industrial elements: articulated geometric shapes (in this case, the open curves of the blades resonate with the spheres of the ornaments), sleek metal surfaces, interference in actual space, and, finally, text. In this reading, therefore, The Journey does not bear any significant reference to a social context.
Despite this interpretation, it is impossible not to consider the symbolic content of Camnitzer’s piece. In fact, the structures resemble three threatening phalli, the ornaments make reference to Christmas, and the text names Christopher Columbus’s famous ships, which he first sailed to America in 1492. When read beyond its form, the work puts into conversation the History of Discoveries (i.e., the age of maritime exploration), Columbus’s ships (i.e., the expansionist project of Europe), the Americas (i.e., the riches of the continent), and Christianity (i.e., the “sacred” reason behind Spanish exploration), and violence, which the knives threaten. Based on a contextual reading, therefore, The Journey critically denounces the male chauvinistic and bloody dominance of the New World, specifying the political powers that founded it—a dominance that shaped the cultural forms that continue to influence our daily routines in the Americas.
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About the Author
Renato Rodrigues da Silva holds a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. He has written largely on contemporary Brazilian art, publishing articles in Third Text, Leonardo Journal, Word & Image, and Border Crossings, among others. He is currently writing a book on neoconcretism for the University of Texas Press. He is also a curator and recently organized the 10th Northwest Biennial for the Tacoma Art Museum.