Quick Pick | Aug 2009

Horror: The Eyes of Gutete Emerita by ­Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar.
Horror: The Eyes of Gutete Emerita by ­Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“North Looks South: Building the Latin American Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was pulled together in less than two months. And it’s a great show, far better than a lot of exhibitions that took years to assemble. It was pulled together on the fly to fill a scheduling slot that opened when the North American tour for the Cildo Meireles show from the Tate Modern was canceled. There is no catalog, no overarching theme and scant didactic wall text. Organized by Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, and Gilbert Vicario, MFAH Assistant Curator of Latin American Art, it’s just about the work. The curators have put forth a well-installed exhibition of Latin American art acquisitions (and long-term loans) made since 2001, when the Latin American Art Department was established.

The acquisitions date from the 1920s to now. It’s a really great assortment of strong work from a variety of time periods and points of view. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but four spectacular installations especially stand out.

Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar knows how to reach inside you, find where anguish lives and yank it to the surface. A single line of illuminated text leads you into his 1996 installation The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. In spare language, it tells the story of one massacre during the five-month-long 1994 genocide of the mainly Tutsi minority by Hutu militias in Rwanda. Thirty-year-old Gutete Emerita was at church with her husband and their three children when a Hutu death squad attacked.

Emerita saw her 40-year-old husband Tito Kahinamura, her 10-year old son Muhoza and her 7-year-old son Matirigari hacked to death with machetes. Emerita and her 12-year-old daughter, Unumaragrunga, managed to escape by hiding in a swamp for weeks.

It’s an appalling story, but Jaar doesn’t want you to simply shake your head and say, “How horrible!” He wants you to feel this tragedy in the core of your being, not just remark upon it.

The line of text ends, and you turn a corner and enter a large room almost completely filled by an illuminated light table. Thousands of slides, 100,000 to be exact, are piled up in the center of it. Slide viewers are placed around the table’s edges. At first I thought the images might be from the massacre’s aftermath, or maybe latter-day portraits of maimed survivors. But the slides are even more terrible than that.

Each and every slide contains the same image. It’s a tightly cropped, rectangular shot of a woman’s dark brown eyes — the eyes of Gutete Emerita. Leaning down to peer into the slide viewer is like putting yourself face to face with a loved one. You look into this woman’s eyes and you are painfully aware of what they have witnessed, the horror that has been seared into her retinas.

More than a million people were killed in the Rwandan genocide. Numbers like that can be numbing — far too many to fathom. The seemingly massive slide pile is only one tenth of the total death toll. But Jaar masterfully reduces the epic tragedy down to what the eyes of one woman saw. Looking from that single heartbreaking image to the enormous jumbled pile, the slides suddenly become individuals, the pile symbolic of an unimaginably large mound of corpses. This one woman’s tragedy is multiplied by a million, and you feel it.

Argentine artist Miguel Angel Rios’s 2008 video installation White Suit is another emotionally powerful installation. The setup for the two-channel video is also relatively straightforward. Against a dark background, a male dancer in a pristine white suit swings boleadoras. “Boleadoras” are ropes with circular weights used by South American gauchos to capture running cattle or game, which are thrown to entangle the animal’s legs. The dancer performs a kind of gaucho tap number, a variation on the traditional malambo, as he makes staccato stomping sounds with his shiny black boots.

But the boleadoras he is swinging has hunks of raw meat instead of weights. A pack of dogs enters the picture — the stray, angry, junkyard kind. They begin to snap at the meat and clamp their jaws on the dancer’s suit, dangling from a sleeve. They become more and more aggressive, and the dancer throws hunks of meat at them. Sweating with exertion and no doubt fear, the dancer bravely continues the staccato stamping of his feet until he is taken down by the dogs, only to appear again, dancing in his impeccable suit, the dogs seemingly calmed.

According to Ramírez, the dogs were trained and handled by the same guy who worked with the animals in the oh-so-unsettling film Amores perros. If you saw the dog-fight scenes in that movie, you’ll be amazed that the dancer’s suit remained white through his performance.

It’s a very macho display — the dancer draws on the rugged male culture of the Argentine cowboy. You can pull a lot of different readings out of the work, most of them political. The dancer’s strength, fortitude and immaculately tailored suit contrast with the raw, animal blood lust of the dogs. But is he trying to appease the forces of violence, or is he symbolically throwing something/someone to the hounds to save himself?

Rios and Jaar are well-known international artists, but in a short period of time the MFAH’s Latin American department has introduced Houston and much of the art world to great, little-known or overlooked artists as well. The 2004 show “Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America” [“Exploding the Canon,” July 8, 2004] was eye-opening and groundbreaking in the truest senses of those overused expressions. If you missed that introduction to the whole fantastic parallel history of the avant-garde, one whose ideas and innovations often predated the accepted and far more widely touted Eurocentric history, you have to see this show.

Carlos Cruz-Diez’s phenomenal light installation at the MFAH divides an entirely white room into three sections. The floor is white too, so you have to wear those goofy hospital booties to walk in — but it’s worth it. Fluorescent bulbs are placed in the ceiling of each section, one with blue filters, another with red and another with green. White pedestals are placed in the rooms, and you see how colors blend and interact on their surfaces as the light spills from room to room to room. (You also see that green light really makes everybody look awful. Red light is better. My hand looked 800 years old in the green room, but only 700 years old in the red room.) The red color makes for an agitating environment, while blue is a little cold but calming.

One of this exhibition’s biggest revelations is an installation of the work of another Argentinean with a futuristic bent, Gyula Kosice. His epic La Ciudad Hidroespacial (The Hydrospatial City) (1946-1972) is an incredible display of his offbeat ongoing vision. Seen individually, Kosice’s aging, transparent Plexiglas works seem idiosyncratic and a little nutty; they pretty much look like they were made from old salad bowls, cut up and glued together.

But shown collectively, suspended from the ceiling and enveloped by a deep blue room, they become a wholly realized and glorious futuristic vision. They present the artist’s elaborate conception of architecture for space, unhindered by gravitational considerations. Patterned light boxes hung on the wall look like galaxies of stars. A New Age-y soundtrack spills over from a video of the city, realized with what looks like early 3D computer-generated animation. The Hydrospatial City is a futuristic vision from 50-plus years ago. That kind of thing can easily seem dated and quaint (see Disney, Tomorrowland circa 1955), but here, somehow, it comes across as magical and inspired.

“North Looks South” is full of surprises like this. Its strength speaks to the collecting vision of the Latin American department and to the incredible skill, flexibility and judgment of its curatorial team. It’s kind of a shame that the tight time frame didn’t allow for an accompanying catalog — there are a lot of artists and works people will want to know more about. But in a way, it’s kind of refreshing to move through the show and just enjoy the objects for themselves, rather than focusing on their place in movements and historical timelines.

Source: Quick Pick | Houston Press