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Between Forever and Never

Curatorial text by Alfons Hug

Pavilion of the Instituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA) at the 54th Venice Biennale
On the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Independence of Latin America

Entre Siempre y Jamás [Between Forever and Never] cites a poem by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti pointing to the distance between the tradition of momentous historical dates and contemporaneity. In this way, we recover a complex meaning of Independence, articulating its temporal and local echoes through contemporary art.

This exhibition features artists from twenty Latin American countries and constitutes the contribution of the pavilion of the Instituto Italo-Latinoamericano at 54th Venice Biennale.

Entre Siempre y Jamás has provided the inspiration for a project that investigates the 200 years of the Independence of Latin America. On the one hand, the exhibition is a map in that it follows a geographic dramaturgy and has all the countries of the continent file past us; but on the other hand, it is also a timeline that scans history year by year. What emerges is thus a chronotopos, the fusion of space and time.

Simón Bolívar wrote his legendary Letter from Jamaica from exile in Kingston to an English friend in September 1815 at the age of thirty two. In this, his most important text, the independence hero drafts a magnificent panorama of America from the USA to Argentina and Chile.

The brilliant analysis begins with an appraisal of the freedom movements between 1810 and 1815 and the reasons that had motivated the "American Spanish" to seek independence. This is followed by an appeal to Europe to support the Hispanic American cause. In the third part, Bolívar, who is regarded by many as the greatest South American politician of all time, talks about the future prospects of the individual republics. He concludes his elegantly written treatise with an appeal for the unity of the American peoples.

But Bolívar also regrets that the future of this, the last continent to be settled by humans, which is called Abya Yala (Tierra Firme) in the Kuna language, is so uncertain:
"In my opinion it is impossible to answer the questions that you have so kindly posed. Baron von Humboldt himself, with his encyclopedic theoretical and practical knowledge, could hardly do so properly, because, although some of the facts about America and her development are known, I dare say the better part are shrouded in mystery. Accordingly, only conjectures that are more or less approximate can be made, especially with regard to her future and the true plans of the Americans, inasmuch as our continent has within it the potentialities for every facet of development revealed in the history of nations, by reason of its physical characteristics and because of the hazards of war and the uncertainties of politics." [1]

For a number of reasons the Letter from Jamaica is a perfect starting point for an exhibit marking the Bicentenario of South America's independence. For one thing, it targets the entire continent; for another, Bolívar's visions make it possible to project the Carta into the present and the future.

The ingenious blueprints of Bolívar and Humboldt are the standards that today's realpolitik – permanently wearing itself out in crisis management – needs to measure up to. The words of the forefathers, seemingly carved in stone, in turn help art to clarify esthetic positions. How close may art get to everyday life, and how far can it distance itself from the pressing problems of the present? Where does history stand in the way, and where can it be a guideline?

Wherever there is a major gap between a historic promise and present-day reality, politics and art also go separate ways. Whereas the former has lost a large proportion of its ideals on its long journey through time and space and must now painstakingly evoke them all over again, art can dream on undaunted. Moreover, it would befit politicians well if they filtered their messages through the purifying catalyst of contemporary art.

A contemporary reading of Bolívar's work will have to take account of artistic positions that are sensitive to the drastic societal and cultural upheavals to which the states of America are subjected today.

Of course the artists are not expected to come up with a "political design" or solutions for day-to-day politics; rather, they will re-interpret Bolívar's utopian project completely subjectively using esthetic means. In this they allow themselves to be guided by that inner restlessness that drove the Venezuelan dreamer and idealist, who throughout his life discharged his great mission like a priesthood and experienced all the highs and lows of life as a revolutionary between his triumphal entry into Caracas and his ignominious end in Colombia.

"Your eyes that watch over the oceans,
over the oppressed and injured nations,
over the dark cities in flames." [2]

What was pure curiosity about a terra incognita among the 19th century explorers, becomes a cartography of the political and cultural currents running through the continent in the works of contemporary artists.

"How beautiful it would be if the Isthmus of Panamá could be for us what the Isthmus of Corinth was for the Greeks! Would to God that some day we may have the good fortune to convene there an august assembly of representatives of republics, kingdoms, and empires to deliberate upon the high interests of peace and war with the nations of the other three-quarters of the globe." [3]

The following Octavio Paz quote always applied in the western hemisphere: "We Latin Americans are condemned to look for the foreign in our own country – and for what is our own abroad."

The artists have roamed South America in all directions. They visited small, tranquil towns in the hinterland and exuberant mega-cities that were bursting at the seams: some places that cling to the past, and modern cities that have eradicated even the last vestiges of history. They languished in harsh concrete jungles and enjoyed the elegance and peace of shady courtyards full of harmoniously curved arches – the kind that could only be created by Spanish colonial architecture. In La Paz they wondered whether indigenous self-determination might put history on a new track, and in Buenos Aires whether the social movements might be the answer to globalization.

In some cities, time passes too slowly, in others too quickly. In some, contemporary art finds it difficult to gain a foothold, in others it is welcomed with open arms.

All the great works of the past, and especially those of a sacred origin, bear their virtual translation into the present within themselves. The contemporary artists have learned to glean a spark of poetry from the most inconspicuous residuum and to decipher the secret index of the past, so that we are touched by a breath of the air that once surrounded the earlier artists. It is almost as though there were a secret arrangement between the masters of Baroque and today’s artists, a weak Messianic power echoing down the centuries.

Therefore, for artists one aspect of a visit to a Baroque city is that we are taught a new way of looking: we regain subtle shades of color and esthetic "temperatures" that we had thought were lost forever. In addition, Baroque has answers to such central questions of contemporary art as coming to terms with space and context, the ephemeral, and the problem of visibility and invisibility.

By contrast, other cities seek refuge in merciless modernization, sacrificing their historical structures to monstrous highways and shopping centers. A few galleries – fighting a losing battle against the ubiquitous din – cower anxiously in a haze of dust and exhaust that is only penetrated by the infernal noise of the construction sites.

Taking inspiration from baroque might well be helpful in many cases. After all, in baroque architecture, art, religion and performance all combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art) which was able to redefine entire cities and develop grandiose urban scenarios.

Now that the global economic and financial crisis has exposed the weaknesses of the modern, metropolitan project, a departure from conventional urban patterns can be observed among several artists of our exhibition, be it by processing history, returning to indigenous traditions, or demonstratively departing for remote landscapes.

In their bewildering interactions, the works of the exhibition recall the criol or neocriollo, that never-spoken lingua franca invented by Xul Solar to replace the two colonial languages of Spanish and Portuguese and to be a source of true utopian thinking.

Some places only last for a moment – these are those rare moments that only art can record – and, says Mario Benedetti, for some times there is no place. This paradox may apply to the present, which compresses time in an extreme way, but offers it no location as an ideal home. Again, only art can locate the present time and offer it shelter.


  1. Simón Bolívar, The Letter from Jamaica, 1815
  2. Pablo Neruda, Un canto para Bolívar, 1941
  3. Simón Bolívar, The Letter from Jamaica, 1815
© Text: Alfons Hug

Latin American Pavilion
Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA)
Arsenale - Isolotto

Commissioner: Patricia Rivadeneira
Deputy Commissioner: Alessandra Bonanni

Curator: Alfons Hug
Co-curators: Paz Guevara, Patricia Rivadeneira

25 participants

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