You can't curate an exhibition of contemporary South American art without considering Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar's 1987 work A Logo for America. The large video billboard, originally displayed in Times Square, declares in neon that "This is not America", "this" being the United States. It plays with the all-too-common assumption that "America" refers only to the USA, and it seems as relevant now—Trump trucker cap, anyone?—as it did back then. Logo for America was one of the first inspirations for the Dr Zara Stanhope and Beatriz Bustos Oyanedel, co-curators of Auckland Art Gallery's Space to Dream—the first ever major Australasian exhibition of contemporary South American art. They took three years to meticulously research the show, traveling between New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. It features work from seven countries in total. "It was a really great dialogue, a collaborative process all the way through," Stanhope tells The Creators Project. "The show features everything—from photography, to books and record covers, video, performative works, 3D sculptural works, and works artists made specifically for the exhibition including large wall paintings and interactive installations."
Contemporary South American art is, by nature, revolutionary. Not just because its key early figures were actively fighting repressive regimes through their work, but also because the work itself is so deeply expressive, so experimental—forged in a continued context of cultural shifting and mixing, disempowerment and re-empowerment. "It became clear early on that it would be a good idea to introduce those formative artists of the late 60s and 70s, as well as younger contemporary artists of today," Stanhope says. "The idea was to give a background of how art has developed across three or four decades." The result of extensive research and consultation is a considered, detailed picture of what South American art looks like right now. It becomes evident that young South American artists working in a contemporary context are extremely dynamic, not merely following the trajectory laid out for them by their more politically at-risk predecessors but also forging their own paths. Their politics are less overt, and perhaps more nuanced.
"The idea of having to make your own way and not letting your environment restrict you when you're in a politically repressive regime was more of a factor in art of the 1960s and 70s—whereas now artists have got a lot more freedom and can play a lot more," Stanhope says. Emblematic of this is Maximo Corvalan’s Proyecto ADN (DNA Project). A large scale installation constructing bones from resin and dangling electrical connections precariously close to water, it’s a poignant reflection on the death of the artist’s father during Chile's military dictatorship. Corvalan was only recently able to find out what happened to him through DNA testing. “It's quite an abstract reflection on how science can help people understand their histories and pasts, and reflect on their memories,” Stanhope explains.
The takeaway of the show, the curator says, is quite sobering. “I think a lot of art from this part of the world is serious,” she says. “The artists take their work very seriously. They’re making something that deeply reflects their own rapidly-changing culture."
_Space to Dream _continues until September 18 at Auckland Art Gallery. You can find out more about it here.