After Clara Porset and Xavier Guerreiro, by Fernanda Fragateiro, 2013
Claire Barliant salutes a brave and overdue attempt to unravel the legacy of modernist architecture in Latin America, but the theme is too tangled for just one show
Reinforced concrete, invented at the end of the 19th century in France, Great Britain, Germany and the United States, caught on quickly around the world, becoming a defining characteristic of buildings everywhere and ushering in the modern style. Le Corbusier's 1929 trip to Brazil — a mutual love affair between the architect and South America ensued — sealed the deal.
Beyond the Supersquare (the title presumably alludes to boxy modernist structures) showcases the work of over 30 artists from the Caribbean and Latin America who wrestle with the legacy of glass curtain walls, rigorous urban planning and, most of all, dictatorial architects with ruthless visions of control and domination, who found these countries' political leaders to be more than willing partners.
Oscar Niemeyer presides silently and magisterially over the show, particularly in a series of photographs by Colombian artist Alberto Baraya of Brasília – shots into which the photographer thrusts artificial plants, as though to illustrate modernism's dismissal of natural landscapes. An alternating impulse between celebrating the irresistible luxuries and innovations of tropical modernism and denigrating modernity's effects is the show's underlying theme.
Two of the best works here vividly illustrate this dichotomy (by no means limited to Latin America). On entering the first main gallery, an ethereal 2012 sculpture by Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, titled Assembled, Moved, Re-arranged and Scrapped, pays homage to Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi's Glass House in São Paulo. A walnut frame supports airy nets of string and gold metal mesh, evoking Bo Bardi's effortless sculpting of relaxed, open space.
In the second gallery, a poignant 2005 video, Documental, by Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol, features an older man and two boys sitting in a grim, windowless room in a shanty that appears to be built from cinderblocks, watching television. As the TV announcer crows about the exciting future of Caracas, the camera circles the room, capturing the discouraging reality of provisional architecture turned into permanent housing.
Redressed Architecture for the City of Santiago no 9, by Patrick Hamilton, 2008
Failed utopian dreams crop up again and again, most effectively in Manuel Piña's photograph-and-video work about his native Cuba, which documents unfinished buildings constructed by "micro-brigades," amateur building crews funded by the Castro regime in the 1970s to help Cubans build their own homes and help resolve the housing shortage. Funding dried up, Castro's interest flagged, and the buildings halted mid-construction. Piña's analytical photographic grid and accompanying video with personal reminiscences by the artist clearly and simply registers the disappointment of so many.
Other works address history in overly convoluted ways. The installation Interrogating Architecture, by Felipe Dulzaides, features two microphones pointing at a desk on which sits the floor plan of Ricardo Porro's School of Dance in Havana. The school was part of the Instituto Superior de Arte – an architectural gem that remains incomplete.
Though the wall label claims that the work reflects on the unfinished school as "a metaphor of the revolution's broken promises", the minimal staging and absence of context has little emotional impact. Similarly anticlimactic is a text-and-documentation piece by Venezuelan artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and scholar Media Farzin that seeks to explain the oil-driven nature of US foreign policy via a commission by Alexander Calder for a mobile in the ballroom in the Hotel Avila in Caracas.
A smaller and tighter show, with a thesis that dealt specifically with modernism's shortcomings, and focused on the work of fewer artists, might have allowed the curators to build a stronger contextual framework — with architectural photographs, perhaps, or timelines of particular countries. Efforts to encapsulate a continent inevitably feel slight and uneven, trading the "aha" moment of specific revelations for bland generalities.
But no exhibition could ever do the subject justice, and, given the dearth of exhibitions in New York devoted to this part of the world, even the attempt to do so must be applauded.
Images: Courtesy the artist and Galeria Elba Benitez; courtesy of the artist
Beyond the Supersquare