Alfons Hug: The Great South

Text by the Chief curator

The four points of the compass are not only points of reference in a circle of 360 degrees divided into four quadrants. They also are guides on the wind rose of cultures and metaphorical constructs that are subject to ever new interpretations during the course of history.

Orientation, which literally means looking East, is an attempt to calculate the course of the sun and to determine one’s position somewhere between the four ends of the earth.

Oneought, therefore, to believe that in a world marked by imbalance and disorder, the four points of the compass would at leastcarry the same weight. In fact, however, there have been but two main points of orientation during the pastfew decades: West and East.

The West: from the early days of the twentieth century on, and regarded from a hegemonic perspective, the West was the smaller half of Europe plus North America, although according to an apt remark made by Mario Vargas Llosa, South America clearly also belongs to the western hemisphere: "somos occidente".

The West: according to this logic, it also represents a superior economic, political and cultural model - and the East its underdeveloped counter pole: with Eastern Europe now extending far into Asia, just as it did on the sable hunt of the Russian Cossacks in the 17th century.

During the Cold War, the East began just the other side of Berlin and reached as far as the Pacific - and included both Siberia and China.

The North, which basically comprises parts of both the West and the East, appeared only marginally in this equation: and then only in the form of military models, such as NATO’s North Atlantic Treaty. Only in the past few years has the North been upgraded: from the moment it became evident that the Polar regions were going to play a vital role in the climate debate.

This exhibition now explores the South and its relationship with the rest of the world. The works on show will offer different interpretations of the South depending on the respective artist's place of origin - the southern or northern hemisphere, the West or the East.

Some artists will take their orientation from geographical categories - e.g. the South's magnificent landscapes. Others will focus on political and social aspects. Some will examine the South as a real place, others as an allegory and a metaphorical projection.

In the Antique view of the world, the Earth consisted of three large continents grouped around the Mediterranean. All that lay to the south was terra incognita. When this new territory (which was often labelled Hic Sunt Leones on old maps) was finally discovered by European adventurers, the latter were surprised to discover that the southern regions had already been settled.

If the light came from the East, the warmth came from the South. In most Indo-European languages, "south" is consequently derived from "sun" and endowed with positive associations. Here lay the land of beauty, sensuality and freedom.

Paul Gauguin was one who sought his salvation in the South, first with Van Gogh in the "Atelier du Sud" in Arles, then alone in the "Maison du jouir" (The house of pleasure) in Tahiti, where the light was even whiter than in the Provence and one could indulge in pure art among free people, far from a decadent Europe.Only here could Gauguin create his legendary painting addressing three central questions of humanity: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (1897)

In the exotic worlds of European artists, one aspect always has to do with fantasizing about their own, imaginary life scripts, about the principle of hoping for salvation from a regulated and alienated life.

For the rest of the world the Tropics were always the "paradise just around the corner," to quote one of Mario Vargas Llosa's latter novels. But they also had to serve as a bleak caricature, as in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

South is not only the swelteringly hot Tropics, but also the icy Antarctic, and there is only one point on the Earth from which all roads lead to the North: the South Pole. Although affected by the environmental sins committed by the rest of the world, the great southern continent is still largely in a state of sublime innocence. It is the land before the Fall, and perhaps the last great promise to humankind since after the Tropics lost some of their paradisiacal charm.

The ice crust of this mythical region is like an enormous archive. Antarctica is frozen time.

For peoples living north of the Alps, the south is their favoured direction. Yet here, it is not simply a question of a real, but also of a spiritual topography. The South is an idea that we carry within ourselves. "Everyone is born with his/her South" sighed the poet Jean Paul, full of wanderlust.

But which point of the compass do the inhabitants of the southern hemisphere prefer?

Indeed, during the course of human history, there have always been vast migratory movements in both directions. More than 100,000 years ago, "Homo sapiens" set off from equatorial East Africa and made for the then unsettled North. Later, however, in the early modern age, the European conquerors and emigrants decided to travel in the opposite direction. Nowadays, millions of migrants from Africa travel to Europe, and those from South America to the northern realms of the continent.

The migratory movements are a visible expression of what has emerged as the North-South conflict since the end of colonialism. It is a system of global inequality in which North and South have entered into a new relationship in terms of world history. [1]

In the case of Africa, Europe made a decisive contribution towards creating the fault linesonthe largest continent in the South by drawing arbitrary borders during the colonial period.

In a remarkableactof metaphorical reinterpretation, the West transformed neutral concepts related to geographical and nautical orientation into categories transporting political and cultural value judgements. Ultimately, the Orient was also a European invention and had, from Antiquity on, always been considered a fairy-tale world full of exotic beings.

Moreover, the Orient has helped define the West as its opposite image and its opposite personality.

"One must grasp Orientalism as a discourse if we are to truly understand the enormously systematic discipline with which European culture after the Enlightenment succeeded in incorporating, indeed creating the Orient - socially, politically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and artistically.

Areas, regions, geographical zones such as "Orient" and "Occident" are mere human creations: they are equally geographical and cultural - if not historic - constructs. The relationship between the Occident and the Orient is a hegemonic relationship of power and dominance." [2]

This applies even more to the South, which in this equation is equated with the periphery, if not the Third World. This marginal zone did not originally begin at the equator, however, but way beyond Sicily and Texas, in the temporate climes of the Northern hemisphere.

The artificial extension of the South to the North resulted, on the one hand, in the greater part of the world being marginalised and, on the other hand, the North - excuse me, the West - withdrawing into a cultural encampment and cutting itself off from a region with which it had been closely associated for centuries. This is particularly true of the Iberian peoples, who have always acted as a bridge between the North and the South, and have always been the most successful in the - admittedly not always peaceful - exchange with the tropical civilisations of Asia, Africa and, above all, the Americas.

If the South was accused politically of having a lack of democratic structures in the past, then this was due to the weak market and the lack of a modern movement in the cultural domain, as had existed in Paris, Moscow and Berlin one hundred years ago, and had continued to develop in the axis New York - Cologne after the Second World War.

Cartographic conventions (in modern atlases Europe always appears at the top) have further - and - condescendingly, narrowed people's view of the South. Even a developed country such as Australia has to live with its "down-under" image. This was not always the case: on 15th-century Spanish maps of the world"Oriens" still appeared at the top; and on medieval Arabian maps the south appeared precisely where the north is today. Ultimately, the compass needle, unerring as it is, always points simultaneously to both magnetic poles.

Strictly speaking then, the West has transformed the Earth’s spherical form - the prototype of an egalitarian form - into a tower, which knows only a top and a bottom.

This hierarchy was also practiced for a long time in the art scene, where distinctions were made between allies and non-allies, as in the political alliance systems. It was certainly no coincidence, for example, that right up to the nineteen-nineties 80 to 90% of the artists at the Documenta in Kassel and the Biennale in Venice always came from the NATO countries. Should Western art also be regarded as a form of tribal art?

Escuela del Sur (The School of the South)

The Uruguayan modernist Joaquin Torres-Garcia was one of the first to recognise this structural imbalance and, as early as 1935, postulated the following in his Escuela del Sur:

"He dicho Escuela del Sur; porque en realidad, nuestro norte es el Sur. No debe haber norte, para nosotros, sino por oposición a nuestro Sur. Por eso ahora ponemos el mapa al revés, y entonces ya tenemos justa idea de nuestra posición, y no como quieren en el resto del mundo. La punta de América, desde ahora, prolongándose, señala insistentemente el Sur, nuestro norte." [3]

Now, in particular, Torres-García's topsy-turvy map of the world - in which the southern tip of South America extends far into the northern hemisphere - would make the obvious choice as a symbol for a new geopolitics of art.

If global power relations have shifted over the past few years, it is because there are a number of reasons for this positive development. On the one hand, the countries of the South have caught up economically, whilst the West has stagnated. This is true not only of the Tiger states in Asia, but also of Latin America. Even Africa has been experiencing higher growth rates than Europe for several years now.

We now speak of the "new South," a geopolitical band extending from Brazil via South Africa to India and Indonesia. In 1995, the developing countries' share of the global economy was 35%. Today it is 50%. The South has also recovered from the crisis better than the North.

The rapid urbanization processes in the countries of the South, where most of the world's megacities can be found, have also helped enable the arts to develop their own varieties of modernity. This applies not only to the visual arts, but also to the theater, music and the cinema. And the majority of English-language Nobel laureates for literature have come from former colonies in recent decades.

Endogenous cultural processes have also appeared in the metropolises of the industrialised countries themselves, helping to broaden people's horizons. One need only recall the migration movements and the multiculturalism they engendered. This, in turn, initially led to isolated curatorial accents, as in the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, where artists from all continents were accorded equal status. The Other Modernities at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (1977) underlined this altered, pluralistic view of the world.

Furthermore, the South has improved its cultural infrastructure. The majority of art biennials founded during the past few decades are located in non-European countries - at those very places where contemporary art took a relatively long time to gain a foothold, such as Gwangju, Busan, Dakar, Cuenca and Santo Domingo.

Brazil, where modernity has a long tradition, is at the forefront of this process, having gained enormously in prestige at the political level and now also initiating a long-overdue South-South dialog - e.g. with Africa and India - in addition to the North-South dialog. Relations between the South and the East, especially with China, have also improved. The Middle Kingdom is preparing to return to the economic and cultural prosperity it used to have in the 18th century, when it produced a third of the world's economic output.

Smokestacks and roots

In the above-cited poem, Benedetti ascribed steel and factory chimneys to the North, while discovering the roots in the South. If you drive through the German Ruhr area - or through Detroit and then to Patagonia or Amazonia - you can confirm these findings, even though the great cities of the South, such as Buenos Aires and São Paulo, have become increasingly "northern" during the 20th century. They have even surpassed New York or Paris, with which they like to compare themselves, in terms of social dramas, the speed of urbanization processes, or ecological damage.

So today it is the great antagonism between the largely untouched hinterland and the exploding cities that is characteristic of the South, a topic that will also play a role at the Biennale.

On the genesis of the biennials

Biennials are set up mainly where countries and cities are experiencing a political, economic and cultural boom. This was the case 60 years ago with the Biennale in São Paulo and applies today to those in Singapore, Sharjah, Shanghai, Istanbul, Porto Alegre and Curitiba. The recently launched Biennial of Montevideo is also an eloquent example of this boom in the South. It puts Uruguay back into the limelight, a country that was a beacon of modernity at the beginning of the 20th century, then got somehow sidelined, and has now regained its footing and developed a new self-confidence.

The global biennial calendar includes no fewer than 100 entries in the meantime.

Everywhere the biennials have crucially enriched the local cultural landscape and created added value for training. They have generated fresh momentum at the artistic level and placed the local art scene, which often operates in isolation, in contact with global art movements.

Furthermore, they have led to a professionalization at the technical and administrative level, which can be observed especially well in the case of the São Paulo Biennale, the oldest in South America and second oldest in the world after Venice. This process begins with the creation of legal mechanisms for sponsorship, such as tax-deduction laws, and can even involve the launch of specialized video companies.

 

A further synergistic effect is that they have advanced the development of an art market by attracting collectors and galleries, an indispensable prerequisite for a flourishing art scene.

Not least, the biennales have challenged the art and cultural critics. But perhaps their most important role lies in identifying themes and taking up relevant social issues and present-day esthetic positions.

The biennials do this not only with the exhibited works, but also by creating new spatial and urban contexts.

Biennials are able to discover places and venues that have hitherto been beyond the reach of art. This gives contemporary art undreamt-of opportunities for political, social and cultural intervention - with all the positive consequences that this can have for interpreting history, democratizing society and drafting models for the future.

Typical biennial venues include harbor warehouses in Porto Alegre, solares built by mate barons in Curitiba, an aircraft hangar in Ushuaia, a disused nuclear bunker in Sarajevo, a factory building in Yokohama, an area of wasteland near the former Berlin Wall, and - the non plus ultra - the Arsenale in Venice, which had been described by Dante Alighieri all those years ago.

Walk-in metaphors

It appears, however, to be something overwhelming and hard to grasp, the topos - that is place, space (Aristotle, Physics, Book IV).

The true secret behind the global success of biennials, which might be described as walk-in metaphors, lies perhaps in this reinterpretation and revitalization of spaces - i.e. showing the people their city from a different angle

In this context the curator increasingly becomes a tracker and surveyor, not only in the physical sense - as someone who knows the difference between a square, cubic and running meter - but also in the figurative sense: as a surveyor of art's symbolic possibilities.

Opening up new, "old" venues and giving people an opportunity to take possession of them turns the visitor into a protagonist searching in every corner of an exhibition for his own "Aleph", Borges' legendary light beam that contains the entire universe.

Even Heidegger wondered in his essay "The Art and Space" whether the physically and technically designed space can be regarded as the only true space. Compared to it, are all differently assembled spaces - the artistic space or the space of day-to-day activity - nothing but subjectively determined preliminary forms and modifications of an objective cosmic space?

According to Goethe, space is one of those phenomena that make people shy and fearful when they become aware of it. Because there is no way of avoiding space.

The German word for space (Raum) comes from Räumen, meaning to clear the forest for a camp or a settlement.

The grandiose building of the Banco de la República Oriental del Uruguay in Montevideo is such a special space. Much of Uruguay's history is stored within it. The bank has seismographically traced all the country's ups and downs since the beginning of the 20th century.

It is precisely this unusual setting that gives the Biennale of Montevideo its uniqueness and attraction. After all, for contemporary art there is no such thing as an impossible location or an impossible material. And if there were a context that was lacking in the round of the Biennales it is the bank.

This allegorical re-charge gives contemporary art a radical dimension. It allows new interpretations of reality, questions outmoded images of history, and enables cross-references to other fields of human activity. In this way it ultimately promotes a complex interpretation of the world.

The fact that biennials often only play such spaces temporarily gives them a fleeting character that creates open, transitory situations that stand out refreshingly from the "fixed" truths assembled in stone and glass allover our cities and landscapes.

What subjects, shapes, colors and textures make the south distinctive; what local color has it developed that distinguishes it from other regions of the world?

Torres-Garcia mentioned an autochthonous Indo-American geometry, the special 'white' light, the Río de la Plata's ocher color, and the moisture that covers everything green. Perhaps Figari is the only artist to have successfully recreated this incomparable color - in his painting 'Arroyo Miguelete' (1911). Jorge Luis Borges, another champion of the South, emphasized the laconic euphony of the word 'Sur' - adding that the other three points of the compass weresimply unpronounceable in the Latin languages, and that the Spanish language had taken on a new coloring and esthetic 'temperature' in the South.

Whereas the European poets and thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries continued to equate the South with Italy, which is, in fact ,merely the "small" South", it is now time to discover, together with the artists, that "great South" where - to freely paraphrase Nietzsche - "the sons of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow" live.

 

Notes:
  1. Dieter Richter, Der Süden, 2009
  2. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1987
  3. Joaquín Torres García, Universalismo Constructivo, Bs. As. : Poseidón, 1941
© Text: Alfons Hug

1st Montevideo Biennial
23 November 2012 - 30 March 2013

Theme: The Great South

Chief curator: Alfons Hug

Co-curators:
Paz Guevara, Patricia Bentancur

List of Artists
The participants of the exhibition,
including biographical data

 

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