Helio Oiticica, 'Núcleo', 1966

Luiz Camillo Osorio and Hans-Michael Herzog discuss Latin American art in the current world

In 2018 Hans-Michael Herzog, the former director of Casa Daros, returned to Brazil for the São Paulo Biennial and came to Rio de Janeiro. He took the opportunity to catch up with friends in the city and asked me if I would be up for having a conversation. Later we would decide what we would do with it. I agreed and he came to PUC-Rio one afternoon, where we talked about Latin American art. The National Museum had just burnt down. We were going to have elections shortly afterwards. In the midst of all this turbulence we talked about Brazilian art, its international status and its challenges. A few weeks ago, he sent me a transcribed copy of this conversation. We thought it would be a good idea to publish it on the PIPA website.

Hans-Michael Herzog (1956) studied the History of Art, Philosophy and Archaeology at the University of Bonn, where he obtained his doctorate in 1984 with a dissertation on the Venetian Sculpture of the Proto-Renaissance. Between 1989 and 1999 he was Curator of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld. Between 2000 and 2015 he was Artistic Director and Chief Curator of the Daros Latin America Collection in Zurich. Between 2005 and 2009 he was Artistic Director of the Daros Collection, also based in Zurich. He was the founding Director and Head of the Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

September 2018.

Hans-Michael Herzog – What has changed, Luiz Camillo, over the last two decades in the world of Latin American arts and culture?

Luiz Camillo Osorio – I think there were two phases. In the early 2000s, the international art market was paying more attention to Latin American art. But this process started in the late 1980s with globalization, with the arrival of the Internet and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The exhibition “Les Magiciens de la Terre” of 1989 is a milestone in this regard. The institutional gaze was focused on other modernities – which has to do with the crisis of European modernity and the possibility of thinking about other temporalities, with other dominant hubs beyond the European and North American. In this regard, a new gaze began to emerge focused on “peripheral” production. For example, the interest in neoconcrete artists, both as a result of better organized and touring exhibitions, in addition to the fact that their work was being acquired for the permanent collections of major museums.

Both the Reina Sofia and Daros (where you were the director and curator) at that time, were thinking about this Latin American network and its contribution to the history of modern art. Which is now present at MoMA, and the TATE, everywhere.

 HH – How do you view the situation of the market – has it changed a lot in recent years?

LCO – Markets always need to open up new territories, to find niches that are not saturated. And collectors want to find artists that are still “cheap” – hence the interest in Eastern Europe, Latin America, China… The Brazilian galleries began to attend the fairs and the international galleries began to represent Latin American artists. Marcantonio Vilaça began to form partnerships with international galleries.

One day in the late 1990s, Ernesto Neto called me and asked me to meet up with an American gallerist who was coming to Rio, Christopher Grimes. And Christopher had a partnership with Marcantonio, he represented Neto, Damasceno and Valeska Soares at the time. Straight away, I took him to see the work of Hélio Oiticica. The Hélio Oiticica Art Center had just opened and there was a magnificent exhibition of his work. Then I introduced him to Tunga, Waltercio, Barrio. We visited the workshops together. It was then that he became aware of a genealogy of contemporary Brazilian art and the singular meaning of our modernity. It was at that time, in the mid-1990s, that this process of the greater international insertion of Brazilian art began. Today Oiticica is at the same level as an Andy Warhol… Waltércio, Tunga and others are consolidated in the international market.

HH – In Europe, anyway, I have my doubts as to whether Latin American art really did penetrate the heads of my colleagues. Who knows if Latin-American art here in Europe wasn’t just a bubble, a trend, like African fashion was previously, and then Chinese fashion…

LCO – Look, I think the market always lives on trends. However, it is institutions like Daros, which can crystallize, in the Swiss and European circuits, more culturally durable trends. I remember, in 2007, when I saw the Daros exhibition in Bochum, we were able to see important works by Richard Serra next to Antônio Dias, Iole de Freitas, Waltercio Caldas: this creates a cultural environment that goes beyond a trend. It starts off as a trend, but it has to mature on entering cultural institutions. The Reina Sofia in Madrid has contributed a lot to this rereading of the 20th century, with a gaze focused on Latin America. We see in the exhibition of their collection in Madrid a bold staging re-discussing various concomitant processes of modernity. You see Oteiza together with Weisman and Pape, you see Oiticica alongside post-minimalists. In addition to this, they have staged major temporary exhibitions such as those of Cildo, Barrio, and Jaar; a whole series, a repertoire of major artists who transcend the Latin American context.

HH – At Pompidou it was more a political idea they were obliged to follow. And this dialogue at the Tate isn’t very profound either, more focused as it is on events. The Reina Sofia is in fact the most solid, and profoundly academic, exploring these subjects with the necessary time. You know, it’s a lot harder that way, than just producing a brilliant one-off event, from time to time.

LCO – The effort that Daros Latin America made here in Rio (while it lasted) was essential to Brazilian art – to reconnecting our artistic production with Latin American art. For historical reasons Brazil is a separate continent. Brazil was discovered in 1500 (and not in 1492!) and speaks Portuguese – two very decisive cultural factors. To share and discuss the parallel paths of Latin American modernism, the common processes of emancipation, and to see how art reflects this history and can project a future, is very interesting. Daros was the place to develop this horizontal south-south dialog. The Biennial, too, in part, does this. Today the museums have more scope to think about these cultural exchanges and displacements. It is essential to try to produce these alternative cartographies. Daros Latin America had an important role in consolidating this exchange and this dialog. It’s a shame it lasted such a short time.

HH – In the 2000s, there was still a lot of discussion about Latin American identity. Even today, I have the impression that, despite globalization, many Latin Americans feel inferior due to their peripheral condition: I always wanted to combat this idea, for me it is an erroneous projection… 

LCO – The defense of identities prevents the possibility of transformative exchanges and the notion of identities, if it becomes too restrictive, ends up leading to the exclusion of the other. Furthermore, for a long time these minority identities suffered from a kind of subalternity. It’s essential to abandon this dichotomy of the universal and the particular, to start thinking in terms of a trans-universality or a pluriversality, where you are not trapped in this dichotomy of many particularities and an absolute universal. How can we conceive of this pluriversality in this process of de-identification? This question remains open.

HH – Changing the subject. Has there been a consolidation in the field of the arts today in Brazil compared to thirty years ago?

LCO – Brazil has become institutionally stronger. The circuit is stronger, it has better galleries, better museums, greater international visibility, and more art courses than thirty years ago. But there’s a lot of fluctuation in cultural policy. In the early hours of this morning, one of the greatest museums of archeology and anthropology in the country, one of the most important in the world if we consider the indigenous collection, burnt down – with 20 million objects destroyed… And in Brasília they recently built a football stadium that cost more than one billion reais! And the Nacional Museum in Rio is in ruins… They created the Museum of Tomorrow, the Olympic Village, we carried out three consecutive renovations of the Maracanã stadium, fortunes were spent… and hundreds of years of history disappeared as a result of everyone’s negligence… It is very sad to realize the extent to which we neglect important cultural training and always invest in events, in the ephemeral. The precarious state of MAM Rio itself, of the Hélio Oiticica Art Center, the loss of Daros… all this is lamentable and we are all part of it. We still have the international Biennial, the art fairs in São Paulo and Rio, major galleries (especially in São Paulo), as well as good museums and institutes. We still lack a public policy, a state policy, committed to Brazilian cultural diversity, its asymmetries, its potentialities.  The projects are subject to the changes and oscillations of governments, of power. Brazil is extremely complex. Education in Brazil has improved over the last 25 years. But in the rest of the world it has improved more. You have to think about art and education together.

HH – How do you see the situation of art criticism at this moment? In Europe there is much less art criticism than before, there is not much room for it. And the critics are poorly paid. What has happened to criticism?

LCO – This is a long discussion! We have academic criticism which, by its nature, is more hermetic, with a restricted reach. In the 1990s, I produced criticism for O Globo. It was weekly criticism. But the debate was already highly restricted. The public space was already completely fragmented. Now the texts circulate differently, on the Internet, restricted to niches. Moreover, we can think about the dislocations between criticism and curatorship, which has acquired greater scope and requires a reflexive re-dimensioning of criticism so that it is not institutionally appropriated, or conditioned by the affectation of spectacle. The proposition of a historical narrative produced by a permanent exhibition such as that which we discussed in relation to the Reina Sofia seems to me to have an essential critical role to play in the contemporary context – coming from within a museological institution. It is no small matter to make an institution of this scale receptive to critical debate. MoMA itself, which dominated the narrative of modernism is rethinking itself in terms of its own constructions. Curatorships, in this sense, are a consequence of criticism: a spatialized, unwritten criticism.

HH – This implies a huge historical and social responsibility.

LCO – There are still many debates and discussions to be had.

HH – But where does the criterion come from today? Above all, good training is required in order to be able to develop criteria. I sometimes get a little frustrated by this lack of training; students have increasingly less time for preparation…

LCO – It’s a serious problem for universities because they take very little part in this public debate about art, they want to keep their theoretical and intellectual purity, abstract and sterile, which limits their ability to debate. They often lack substance, materiality, and experience… One has to think about the status of curatorship! 

HH – A good exhibition involves the spectator in the way it presents the works and in the relationships produced between the works. Many curators underestimate the visitor’s intellectual capacity.

LCO – Let’s have a seminar in Switzerland and Brazil about criticism and curatorship!

HH – Yes, let’s. We need to!


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