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Gustavo Buntinx. "Cohecho Artístico"
Publicado en Cohecho artístico. Ediciones a destiempo. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Marzo 1998
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I enter the virtual account of this project through the second of the ambivalences twice suggested by its title. A play on words that would seem to finish with the provocative tension created between political corruption and artistic cooperation. But according to the dictionary, the use of the word “cohecho” means “the action and effect of bribing a public official” but also “raise the fallow, or the last turning over of ploughed land before sowing”. Earth that has laid uncultivated and that is, in this way, brought back to fertility. It implicitly delivers a universal idea of agitation and turnover, of revolution and return, that is articulated here through complementary themes of nourishment and sacrament. The physical and metaphysical body of a society that has lost its artistic spirit and found it again during the past several years –perhaps its spirit, period – in the labyrinth of a history that is much more profane than profound.
Nourishment and the sacrament. Or the inverse, religion and politics, to put it too simply. I can almost see, in Raúl Flores and Hugo Vidal’s projects, simultaneous signs of an immediacy and a seriousness recently recovered by a certain artistic vein in the Buenos Aires port region. Marks that are inscribed in materials and subject matter that paradoxically suggest a certain levity.

[…]

An aesthetic, an aestheticism: symbolic economy. It deals with an attempt to reestablish the lost link between both categories, the connection between meanings that has been repressed by certain dominant discourses in the port area art scene. Santa Teresa de Jesús said: “Dios se mueve entre los cacharros” (literally, God moves among the pottery shards, implying “God is in the little things”). Also in cheap candies, inexpensive china and plastic tablecloths. And in the unusual formal pleasure to be found in all of this, in its libidinal recovery by a community that has supposedly been dispossessed of its icons and their significance.

Dispossessed of its most significant icons. San Cayetano is certainly one of them, as is illustrated every 7th of August, with amazing demonstrations of faith –the country’s largest expression of religion— where multitudes gather, seeking his divine intervention to find and keep employment. Within this same double symbolic register –earthy and sacred— Hugo Vidal’s postcards can also be positioned, though they should be understood within the progression of a more ample artistic process.

As a process of cultural recovery of references that have been lost due more to overexposure than to being overshadowed. Like the emblematic policy integrated several years ago into fashionable iconographic discourse under brand names as eloquent as “Soviet” or “Apolitic”: whose shiny five-pointed stars triumphantly displayed above the Kremlin, with a certain local sense of elegance appear at the sophisticated intersection of Florida street and Córdoba Avenue. As part of an international tendency that acquires a particularly sinister gleam in Argentina, considering the weight and tragedy of its all too recent history.

But this misalignment between meanings and signifiers is also a potential liberator of forms. “I’m motivated to manipulate the already manipulated”, explains the author at the beginning of a review of his works; works whose connotations go from broken to fragmented, and from both back to repaired again. Vidal begins by revealing the profile of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’s handkerchief-diapers (pañuelos-pañales, words that are similar in Spanish) in the loose shards of broken plates, that traditional symbol of feminine rage, but also of unfinished business and unpaid debts (Who will pay for the broken dishes?). He then accumulates the same elements to construct a Bolshevik star. Parts that articulate a whole, without softening the dramatically tangible signs of its reconstructed nature, but rather exalting the formal character of the breakage that then constitutes the precarious new union. It is literally a utopian union, without a visible place in space but present in a certain vague dimension of earthly symbolism. That which is put on display is not a return to an original and organic whole, by chance primordial, if not a miraculous healing, a reunion of fragments.

According to some etymologies, the word religion comes from religare. Yet without being conscious of this, the artist mobilizes in this way, from outside the faith, with religious-like energy. Painful personal experiences and political questioning bring him to recognize and threaten these outskirts. He goes on to explore the mystical connotations of the emblems employed and winds up considering the massive phenomenon of the pilgrimage to San Cayetano: Argentina’s “star saint” (as Vidal himself describes him), radically identified with the wheat stalks always present in the iconography, along with the social demand for bread and jobs, that is so urgent today. It is the name of the magazine run by the congregation of his followers, summarizing with this slogan the new attributes tellingly acquired by the Italian saint on this side of the Atlantic only. But it also has to do with the motto with which –during the Depression of the thirties— with his painting of a protest (Manifestación), Antonio Berni inverted and gave a response to a work that is fundamental in Argentine art history and to the history of social reflection painted by De La Cárcova at the end of last century.

In a gesture that is still displaced, Vidal attached a reproduction of “Sin pan y sin trabajo” (Out of work and with no bread) to a plate that is exhibited along side another white empty one. White and radiant: a mysterious symbolic allusion is already insinuated behind this material signal of the current lack in policies regarding hunger and art. This dimension is immediately made explicit in another work, by superimposing a typical image of San Cayetano –taken from his mother’s kitchen, where the artist’s childhood meals took place—and a similar plate surrounded by a constellation of stars. Its whiteness and circular presence in an oblique way are converted into a halo.

This identity is finally completely assumed by the artist when he decides to acquire the status of saint and substitutes the bronze halo with a thick earthenware plate, rare today, -“unbreakable”- and very popular during the era of Perón in the forties and fifties. At that time, Argentina was considered “granary to the world”, and along the outside border of these dishes, a circular relief featuring stalks of wheat can be seen. A decorative detail in its manufacture offers another unusual merit here, by inevitably relating it to the principal attribute of San Cayetano. These displacements and condensations fuse signifiers to forge new meanings.

This outstanding plastic synthesis acquires additional density in the contrast between two of Vidal’s postcards. The first of these –“Instrumento del milagro” (Instrument of miracles)— offers the record of a minimal but crucial intervention in the figure of the saint. The second, in contrast, superposes the big empty plate over the top part of the artist’s own face, at exactly the same level where the halo appears behind the head in the sacred image. The author’s identity – “Autor – retrato” (Author – portrait) is the subtitle of the piece— is eclipsed by a game that accentuates a certain vague relationship to the stereotyped depiction of San Cayetano. But at the same time, it radically personalizes the implicit demand, in the foregrounding of this large empty plate. “Por sobre todas las cosas” (Above all else) as the title of this complex image implores, where the imposition of faith is also that of hunger and its demand – as the suggested punctum could be stressed by this light-hearted but dissonant detachment of the porcelain on the edge of the supposedly unbreakable dishware. The fragility of certain halos.

The durability of certain halos. Vidal achieves a symbolic materialism of form and meaning, endowing the abstraction of the halo with tangible visibility, and even tactility. He shows a closeness to popular sensitivities that traditionally demands the immediacy of a sensory access to an experience of the sacred, through an explicit –even ostentatious-- representation of auras, halos, power and sparkle. Just the same, Walter Benjamin reminds us that the halo is not only the image but also the ritual that includes it as a valued part of the worship service. Instinctively positioned along these lines, Vidal works as much with the icon itself as with its circulation. The artists buys an effigy of the saint precisely during the peak dates of the ceremonies honoring San Cayetano, and alters it, to then show it at the Recoleta Cultural Center, from where it is taken for a few hours on August 7th to be transferred to the sanctuary where it will join similar images brought by the close to one million faithful who gather for the occasion. Later returned to the museum’s sphere, the statue bears the traditional seven stalks of wheat distributed in the procession: the charismatic symbol of transit from an artistic space to a religious space that is, however, also political. The displacements upon which Vidal constructs the utopian experience of a new halo, that also shines in its belated social aspect. The instrument of miracles.

The idea of displacement is inscribed precisely in the postcard format of these images. But if Flores’ postcards inevitably refer to those other commercial and slightly ridiculous ones, that summarize all that is Argentinean with an ample view of smoking grills, Vidal’s postcards appear to be more related to the small religious images that innumerable children offer in exchange for spare change in the subways and buses of Buenos Aries.

Like those who connect the prosperous financial and political center of the city with the poor neighborhoods that surround it, in a circuit specifically followed by San Cayetano in the Liniers district: from the back doors of the church you can see the traffic along General Paz Avenue close by.

It is also the artist’s habitual route, who lives a few blocks away, but on the other side of this social, political and psychological frontier between the capital and the province. A daily experience of living with the incredible deterioration of train cars, and the ethnic difference of its passengers, not so much dark as darkened by local racism: the other side of Buenos Aires that imagines itself to be European and cosmopolitan. Also another side of the city itself, revealed in this journey by its uncared for back patios, its ruins and empty lots that were once houses or factories, but now barely subsist as blackboards for a huge amount of contradictory graffiti, framed by the broken windows of the passing train for its passengers.

It is also the artist’s gaze. Vidal’s postcards should be viewed under the fragmented light of this moving shadow: the ambivalence of images and displacements, declared in the very process of making them, when workers at the print shop where they were produced hung one of them along side the official image of San Cayetano that exercises his beneficence on the shop and all who work there.

Finally, this set of postcards is also a group of overlapping ambivalences upon which a larger reflection is slantingly constructed. The criminal metaphor that connects these pieces is authorized by an artistic operation that reverts –minimally but in its own terms—the corruption and falseness that in our era have been converted into cultural requisites. This just might be the first and last implication of this “Cohecho Artístico”: the complicity woven through slightly inappropriate appropriations of patriotic and religious symbols to reconstruct values and meanings in the midst of the generalized symbolic embezzlement of our times.

Buenos Aires, June 1997


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