Vital Art

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The works on view at Arte no es Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960s – 2000 at El Museo del Barrio are fleeting and temporal.  This landmark exhibition  is a long-overdue tribute to the amazing and culturally significant performances that have taken place by artists in Latin America and the U.S. for over the last 40 years.Curated by Deborah Cullen, Arte no es Vida presents four decades of performance art through documentary photos, video, artist notes and manifestos, tape recordings and various other objects – the gathering of which was a daunting and exhilarating task. This endeavor has been recognized by the exhibition’s receipt of the 2006 Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award.

Arte no es Vida is divided into approximately 15 themes that are arranged chronologically from the 1960’s to the year 2000. So as not to take away from El Museo’s hard work; I wish to only draw your attention to a few of the most touching, shocking, appalling, and simultaneously fascinating works on display. One such piece is Cildo Meireles’ “Tiradentes: Totem Monument to the Political Prisoner.” One might almost miss it since it is only represented by a small arrangement of 4 x 6 inch black and white photos. These photos document the act in which Meireles tied ten live hens to a vertical wooden stake topped with a clinical thermometer. Once tied, Meireles poured gasoline onto the hens and proceeded to set them on fire. Before we call PETA to protest outside the doors of El Museo, one must note the context of most of these performative actions.  Burning these hens alive served as a brutal ritualistic reference to the tortures and deaths of political prisoners in Brazil during the 1960’s and 70’s.

Due to the volatile environments in which many of these artists were living, a large amount of the works in Arte no es Vida are emotionally onerous, confrontational, and satiated with political overtones. As a result, artists like Cildo Meireles were compelled at times to perform such extreme acts. On the other hand, other artists preferred to concentrate their energy on works that call out to the ephemeral and the sensorial.  Perhaps with intentions to inspire more unity and understanding, Lygia Clark fabricated objects and clothing that gave way to unique and usually shared multisensorial experiences. In “O eu e o tu” (“The I and the You”) from 1967, the artist would have participants put on full body suits, allowing each person to experiment with the other’s gender through searching, touching, and groping the pockets and compartments of the suit. The artwork lies within the repulsions, curiosities, and challenged preconceptions that the suit provides.

Other works in the exhibition deal with issues on a more public level.  In 1983 Buenos Aires, Marta Minujín constructed “Panteón de libros,” a large-scale monument made entirely of books banned by the government. Minujín later invited the public to dismantle the monument upon its completion. In a subversive act, Minujín essentially distributed blacklisted books to the Argentinean community, drawing attention to the censorship to which they were subjected.

The artists in Arte no es Vida have contributed greatly to the world of performance art; the exhibition itself is a pivotal moment in the study of performance art in the Americas and its placement in art history. On view until May 18, 2008, everyone has a chance to experience Deborah Cullen and El Museo del Barrio’s fruitful endeavor.

“Instant Mural”, 1974 (photo by Harry Gamboa)

Daniel Joseph Martínez
“Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) Or Overture Con Claque – Overture with Hired Members,” 1993

Colectivo Sociedad Civil
“Lava la Bandera (Wash the Flag),” 2000

Marta Minujín
“El Partnenón de Libros/Homenaje a la Democracia,” 1983