Back to No-Objetualismo: Returns of Peruvian Artistic Experimentalism (1960s / 1970s)

Miguel Lopez

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima, 2007, Photo Eduardo Hirose

The aesthetic flustering of the 1960s returned to Lima in 2007. For a month and a half, between March and April, some thirty instances of dematerialized art were brought back to the public discussion after forty years of silence. Through photographs, documents, objects and installations, the exhibition La Persistencia de lo Efímero. Orígenes del no-objetualismo peruano: ambientaciones / happenings / arte conceptual (1965–1975) [The Persistence of the Ephemeral. Origins of Peruvian “No-Objetualismo”1: Environments / Happenings / Conceptual Art (1965–1975)] presented a baffling panorama of local artistic practices that were completely peripheral to the historical discourses which had hitherto described the period.2 Such was the shock that some suggested the possibility that we, the curators, were retrospectively inventing a fictitious and artificial scene. Had there really been such a radical and critical Peruvian experimentalism during the 1960s and 1970s as the one seen in these galleries? Why hadn’t that conceptualism transcended its time, its generation, or even its borders? And why no photographs, works or documents had been published or exhibited afterward? Where were these belligerent artists today?

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima, with photographic documentions of works by Felipe Buendía, Gloria Gómez Sánchez, Teresa Burga and Rafael Hastings, 2007, Photo Eduardo Hirose

Decentred

For some reason not entirely explicable for the metropolitan perspectives, some of the most daring attacks on the art object in the region had emerged in Peru. However, these had never been recorded properly in the continental discussions, and much less preserved in the memory of their own local context. Unlike the international impact had by cosmopolitan countries such as Argentina and Brazil during those years, the experiences of another group of Latin American countries, strongly marked by their colonial heritage, had remained in the shade. This, perhaps, under the hypothesis that in certain “closed countries” (or “undeveloped countries”, as imperial discourse decreed shortly after the Second World War), the avant-garde and all forms of artistic experimentalism were nothing but blatant signs of U.S. domination and of cultural submission.3 A bias easy to endorse in the midst of the fierce ideological struggles spanning Latin America, during which art became a major weapon of the Cold War.

That assumption is clearly wrong, however. On the contrary, it was the unexpected collision of parochial concerns and spectres of globalism that channelled some of the most unusual (and least addressed) aesthetic processes of alternative modernity, which exceed the models of social identification and artistic recognition that would have been expected at the time. If there was a primary drive to La Persistencia de lo Efímero, it was in making clear that the forms of cultural radiation and influence—and their effects—are anything but unidirectional or predictable. The exhibition itself was the result of detective work: the decision to exhibit the traces of a scene that had been completely suppressed necessarily meant drawing from the imagination, while combining rigorous historical research strategies and the always risky tasks of artwork reconstruction, in close collaboration with the artists. Our initial question was whether or not it would be possible to conceive this fading as a central historico-political issue of the present. And admitting it were, to what extent would it be possible to resize the effects of something that does not seem to have taken place, in order to alter the origins and the scope of so-called critical art?

By 2007, an additional situation made such kind of curatorial recovery particularly important. Since the turn of the millennium, the emergence of an accelerated phenomenon of transnationalisation of young Peruvian art was felt in Lima, alongside the concomitant consolidation of a previously nonexistent art scene: new galleries, new collectors and even unseen museum projects. Widespread enthusiasm seemed to signal the definitive arrival of the “forms” of the “contemporary” and the acquisition of the coveted passport for aesthetic exchange — granted by globalism — embracing the fantasy of living synchronous times. However, once more, this sudden “currency” was divorced from internal historical reflection, ignoring those other aesthetic forms of “micro-globality” that had emerged in the country for over four decades. Could the delayed arrival of these works from the 1960s and 1970s alter the parameters of the “contemporary” in the country? Contemporary to whom? Contemporary in which way?

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima with work by Luis Arias Vera, Ah! Y el Chino de la esquinai, 1965 / 2007, Photo Eduardo Hirose

Persistence

The exhibition surveyed ten years of experimental practices (1965–1975) recurring to non-historicist modes of articulation, generating temporal intersections and overlaps. Our objective was clear: installing an exhibition set to recuperate the hostility of the early instances of a hitherto despised dematerialised art, in order to intercept and re-politicise the course of certain genealogies. It was necessary to attest that, in the face of the familiar flow of dominant pictorial trends raised and preserved during those years by the market, there was also an insubordinate and non-collectable artistic wager that vindicated attitude over the mere objectness heralded by the prevailing taste; an offence that had meant its loss.

La Persistencia de lo Efímero was basically divided into one large room, presenting a copious photographic record of happenings, actions and early environments, and six other rooms where objects, conceptual pieces and partially or completely rebuilt installations were displayed. This task of spatial reactivation seemed decisive: we could only imagine conveying certain episodes through the experience of the body. The effect was great. One of the most striking works was Ah! Y el Chino de la esquina? [Ah! And the Chinese from the corner shop?],4 by Luis Arias Vera, one of several ephemeral environments originally presented by the artist in a solo show in 1965. The work, reconstructed following the artist’s blueprints and instructions, consisted of a sign emblazoned with the title phrase hanging at 65 centimeters from the ground, from which yellow arrows guided the viewer from the gallery to a grocery store in a street corner, run by a Chinese immigrant and his family. The piece made of the viewer’s path the work itself, and it was a scathing reference to those migration processes that had turned the Chinese community into a group of prosperous merchants.5 Another important piece was Autorretrato. Estructura. Informe. 9.6.72 [Self Portrait. Structure. Report. 9.6.72] by Teresa Burga, an installation often cited but never seen after its 1972 exhibition, until 2007. The work uses the notion of “self portrait” to present sound and light pieces, as well as medical documents and charts of the artist’s face, body and blood taken on a single day (6 June 1972). During 2005 we only found fragments of the work at the artist’s home, for which it was decided to reconstruct the missing elements on the same date, albeit thirty-four years later (6 June 2006), to be exhibited the following year.6

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima, with work by Teresa Burga, Autorretrato. Estructura. Informe. 9.6.72, 1972 / 2007, Photo Eduardo Hirose

Works done in diaspora were also shown. It was amazing to see in Lima Rafael Hastings’s installation L'Espace, originally exhibited at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris in 1970: six diagrams that summarise the ruptures in the modes of representation in Western art — criticized back then for voicing a comment about European art from the mouth of a South American. Different internal migrations were also included, such as the subversions of metropolitan categories such as “conceptual art” or “idea art” (and its proclamation of the “dematerialization” of the art object) to propose festivals of interdisciplinary and plural art that combined indigenous and urban aesthetics with other cultural expressions, in the context of a nationalist military dictatorship.

Another issue opened up by the project was how art history was beginning to be written, increasingly so, from curatorial practice rather than from academia. In that sense, La Persistencia de lo Efímero worked effectively as a critical provocation of the meta-narratives of Peruvian art, but also against interpretive axes that were operating since the 1990s in the transnational construction of so-called “Latin American art” (from which Peru and other “Andean countries” were obviously excluded).

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima, with work by Teresa Burga, Work that Disappears When the Spectator Tries to Approach It, 1970, Courtesy the artist

Non-Objectual

A controversial aspect was how to name what was being recovered. Could one inscribe it in the hegemonic rhetoric of “global conceptualism”, even though these experiences forged autonomous concepts and spaces of discussion? The opportunity appeared as the perfect occasion to bring back a “minor concept” to the debate, one almost vanished in the process of standardisation of transnational vocabulary: no-objetualismo, a Marxist theoretical concept formulated by the Peruvian critic Juan Acha in Mexico, circa 1973, as part of his approach to the counter-cultural protest and performative artistic production of the so-called Mexican “groups” of the 1970s, but also in reference to indigenous aesthetics such as popular arts, crafts, and design, which put in crisis the modern/colonial perspectives of Western art history.7

The recovery of this concept to think about the emergence of unorthodox art forms, as Acha did in the 1970s and the 1980s, was thus a curatorial gesture of political vindication for a category that had played an important role in Latin America. Even though the concept had sometimes been misunderstood as merely a Latin version of the “dematerialisation of art”, its scope is largely more complex, and impossible to exhaust in one exhibition. For us, it was necessary to register the fact that in that subaltern theoretical presence underlies a latent struggle for other ways of living and constructing the contemporary.8

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of La Persistencia de lo Efímero at Spanish Cultural Centre, Lima, with work by Rafael Hastings, L’Espace, 1970 / 2007, Photo Eduardo Hirose

Coda

To think the persistence of that which was meant to be ephemeral did not imply being anchored to the “immateriality” of the works, but recovering the blaze and the intensity of their effects — of that which is to come. It was not about altering the “content” of the discourses, but modifying the margins from which these very discourses could be perceived. Beyond questioning history, we were interested in spreading the desire for another history: reinstating the inconsistencies and conflicts, fostering a transfusion of intensities and emotions, and enabling those arrested explosions to inscribe new openings in the present. Certainly there was a degree of curatorial fiction: to put together all of these experiences could give the impression of cohesion when the scene was actually scattered, anachronistic and disjointed. Yet fiction also produces reality. Our intention was never to mirror the period, but to provide evidence of a passionate movement to restore to these radical practices the furious public impact that was partially taken away from them during their time.

  • 1. Translator’s note: The author states the need to retain the Spanish term no-objetualismo (literally, “non-objectualism”), to avoid its being misconstrued as an “artistic style” or “form”, for it is essentially a political concept. The term encompasses happenings, performances, installations and conceptual art as well as popular arts and crafts. López fleshes out the term later in the essay.
  • 2. Curated by Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, the exhibition was presented at the Spanish Cultural Centre in Lima from 15 March to 30 April 2007. Some of the ideas in this text were presented by the curators at the symposium “Recargando lo Contemporáneo: Estrategias de Recuperación del Arte Reciente”, organized by Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina in the framework of the exhibition The Age of Discrepancy: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968–1997, in Mexico D.F., September 2007.
  • 3. See: Marta Traba, Dos décadas vulnerables en las artes plásticas latinoamericanas, 1950-1970, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1973, pp. 9-32. A counter argument is provided by the Peruvian critic Juan Acha, see: Juan Acha, “Vanguardismo y subdesarrollo”, Mundo Nuevo, Paris, September–October 1970, pp. 73-79.
  • 4. Translator’s note: Traditionally, in Lima, it was common for Chinese immigrants to work as shopkeepers of corner shops.
  • 5. On the emergence of the first happenings and environments in Peru in 1965, see: Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, “Erosion and Dissolution of the object in the Peruvian art of the 1960s. A first, barely- perceptible tracking coordinate”, Papers d’Art 93, 2007, pp. 189-192.
  • 6. In recent years we found this work almost in its entirety in the house of the artist. It was exhibited in her recent retrospective in Lima and in Stuttgart, as well as in the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011). See: Teresa Burga. Informes. Esquemas. Intervalos. 17.9.10, Lima: ICPNA, 2011.
  • 7. See: Juan Acha, “Teoría y Práctica No-Objetualista en América Latina” in: Juan Acha, Ensayos y Ponencias Latinoamericanistas, Caracas: GAN, 1984, pp. 221-242.
  • 8. There are several other concepts coined by artists or theorists in Latin America to name their practices during the 1960s through to the 1980s. See: Miguel A. López, “How De We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?”, Afterall 23, Spring 2010, pp. 5-21.