This past February at CAA, my favorite panel was an art history panel title Temporal Frames and Geographic Terrains with stand out talks by Steven Nelson at UCLA and Irene Small at Princeton. During her talk, Irene Small explained the importance of weak links. As an example, she described a collection in Santiago Chile, now the Museum of Solidarity, that was set up just 1971–73 just before the military coup of 1973. The story is more thoroughly told on the Guggenheim’s blog. The blog begins with one such written trace of the museum’s history, a letter from Harald Szeemann, the curator of Documenta 5, from December 8, 1972. On the blog, Isabel García Pérez de Arce starts the blog entry with this excerpt from the related typed letter from Szeeman to John Baldessari:
“Mario Pedrosa, the Brazilian art critic and museum curator, has gone to Chile in order to found there a museum of solidarity between the artists and the experiment of the country, Chile, itself. Some six hundred works of art have already arrived in Chile, among them Mirós, Calders, Vasarelys, and Stellas. Mario Pedrosa has asked me to send his quest to artists of Documenta 5, and the painters and sculptors known to me, in order to help create an activity for this museum of solidarity by means of works of art and the creation of a collection, which alone would justify the construction of a new building. I would be grateful if you could support this project with your thought and your assistance. With best regards, Harald Szeemann.” In the same letter—written on a continuous strip of paper and postmarked California, U.S.A.—Baldessari incorporated the text: “Dear Mario Pedrosa. Please let me know what I can do to aid in the creation of your museum and how I go about it. Sincerely yours, John Baldessari.”
In the current issue of Artforum magazine, Irene Small describes another artwork born of transnational concerns, Allora & Calzadilla’s 2015 installation titled Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), which places Dan Flavin’s 1965 Puerto Rican light (to Jeanie Blake) 2, 1965 in El Convento Natural Protected Area, Puerto Rico with solar-powered lighting. She asks:
But what is a source, what is a site? Flavin’s title was inspired by a remark by Jeanie Blake, a gallery assistant who noted that the sculpture reminded her of “Puerto Rican lights.” Ostensibly, Blake was referring to New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, but the sculpture’s palette of red, pink, and yellow intimates a more amorphous string of associations, ranging from tropical sunsets to piña coladas (invented the same year colored fluorescents appeared, 1963). The parade was itself something of a novelty, a by-product of the dramatic surge in Puerto Rican immigration to New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, spurred by the manufacturing and export initiative Operation Bootstrap. The electrical current that would normally activate the gaseous contents of a fluorescent tube, meanwhile, represents an even more diffuse network, a single point in a vast infrastructure of governmental and corporate relations. The conceptual audacity of Flavin’s light works lies in no small part in gathering this tentacular web and transforming it into an evanescent envelope of space—a glow, heat, and hum—that, quite unlike the invisible network that looms beyond it, can be experienced at bodily scale.
Then she outlines the relationship between the minimalist artwork to the landscape outside the cave, much in the way the factories of New York City and Beacon provide a telling backdrop to the Minimalist and post-Minimalist work of Dia Beacon.
For Allora & Calzadilla, the correlation between art and industrialization becomes explicit—albeit through a process of defamiliarization and displacement. En route from San Juan to Cueva Vientos, one passes abandoned sugar-processing plants and leaking petrochemical complexes, each evidence of the economic asymmetry that continues to structure Puerto Rico’s relation to the mainland. Obsolescence emerges as a historical rather than aesthetic frame, one that admits the deep entanglement of colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization. Once we enter the El Convento cave system, our temporal frame dilates, and we trace the reverse route of the ancient Taíno, ascending through a forest of primeval trees to caves populated by bats and boa constrictors, seeking shade and sun in turn.
Again I come back to this wild flux between abstraction and representation around and within contemporary artworks and the constant digital stream of imagery. As we work on this game about the port and I struggle to present that topic in a way that has yet to be told, I think about how artworks might most effectively represent the larger invisible networks that Small describes.