Luis Camnitzer 

Doris Bravo
August 8, 2013

In 1969 the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Santiago hosted one of Luis Camnitzer’s first major museum exhibitions, which included the infamous installation Masacre de Puerto Montt (1969). In a poignant reaction to the shooting that year, in which police fired upon and killed dozens of people who were squatting on private land, Camnitzer covered the gallery walls and floor with lines of texts and dots. Like crime-scene outlines, these paths of words and shapes alluded to the position of the soldiers, their weapons, and the trail of their bullets. Though the tragedy in Puerto Montt preceded Chile’s dictatorship (1973-1990), it was a harbinger of the bloody violence many Latin American states would unleash in the decades to come. This early work reflects Camnitzer’s enduring commitment to recover the stories of marginalized people, most significantly those affected by the South American military dictatorships of the 1960s-1980s.

Luis Camnitzer, The Photograph, 1981; ink and black and white photograph, laminated; 28.2 × 35.4 cm; image courtesy of Peter Schälchli, Zurich.

To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the coups d’état in Uruguay (June 27, 1973) and Chile (September 11, 1973) Camnitzer is showing a selection of works at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos in Santiago, among them Fosa Común (1969). The artist reinstalled the nine, black acrylic letters that spell out the work’s title on a viewing platform where visitors can gaze at a wall with photographs of “the disappeared,” citizens who were arrested during the Chilean dictatorship and often never seen again. Countries throughout South America had scores of “the disappeared” and when their families marched in the streets seeking information about the whereabouts of their relatives, they carried portraits of their lost loved ones. The photographs in the Museo are the same type of portrait these families brandished: reproductions from government identification cards in the manner of Latin American bureaucracy, where the sitter stares unsmilingly into the camera. As the countless faces gaze down at Camnitzer’s black letters in the Museo, they silently acknowledge the miserable resolution of their collective fate: their only gravesite is this gallery space. The majority of “the disappeared” have not been found, condemning their physical remains to an indefinite and distant space. Camnitzer’s words mark their resting place, yet the letters’ two-dimensionality highlights the inadequacy of this burial site. In terms of materials, installation and mobility, this is a disarmingly simple piece that responds directly to its surroundings.

Luis Camnitzer, Woman looking (at: an apple, an accident through the window, her dryingfingernails, a pornographic magazine, an embroided pillow, a screaming crowd, a grease spot on checkered tablecloth, a telephone ringing, Eisenstein’s facefor approval), 1974; Laminated black and white photograph, engraved brass plaque, glass, and wood; 37.7 × 25.4 × 5 cm; image courtesy of Peter Schälchli, Zürich.

Camnitzer’s touching exhibition at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos underscores the institution’s mission to safeguard the untold histories from life under Chile’s dictatorship. While the Museo, which just opened in 2010, includes spaces for temporary exhibitions like Camnitzer’s, its primary objective is to address the events leading up to the coup, the crimes committed against the Chilean populace during the dictatorship and the transition to democracy, through a permanent exhibition of unparalleled period documents (audio, video, newspapers, photographs, etc.). The Camnitzer show at the Museo is part of a larger traveling exhibition, which is the artist’s first major solo show in Chile since the 1969 MNBA exhibition. The retrospective, largely culled from Zürich’s Daros Latinamerica Collection, was co-curated by Daros director Hans-Michael Herzog and curator Katrin Steffen. It features seventy works and is currently on view at the Museo del Arte Contemporáneo, Quinta Normal (MAC). In a departure from the programming of previous shows, Camnitzer’s retrospective in Santiago includes the parallel exhibition at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, with works from Alexander Gray Associates Gallery.

Luis Camnitzer, Landscape as an Attitude, 1979; B/w photograph, laminated; 
28.1 × 35.5 cm; Photo @Peter Schälchli, Zürich.

Camnitzer began as a printmaker during the early years of Conceptualism and he remains curious about the parameters of language. Works like Fosa Común illustrate how he transforms words into physical objects, making the word both the message and the medium. Perhaps the punchiest aspect of Camnitzer’s arsenal is the biting humor within these word-oriented gestures. For example, in an effort to bridge his exhibitions at the MAC and the Museo, Camnitzer affixed a yellow path of words to the sidewalk between the institutions. The statements appear like ticker tape, the same phrase repeated in various languages: “All those who can’t read English are stupid,” “Todos los que no saben leer en español son estúpidos,” and so forth. This unsettling work initially divides the audience across language. Yet the essence of the joke is the solidarity within the exclusivity: I know I am being mocked in several foreign languages, but I am in good company since most viewers are not polyglots. This work is characteristic of Camnitzer since it brings together his wit, socio-political critique and play with language.

Luis Camnitzer, Exterior Image; 2013. Image courtesy of MAC.

The retrospective emphasizes the sheer prodigiousness of Camnitzer’s artistic career through a comprehensive showing of installations, mixed media and paper-based works. This exhibition also afforded Camnitzer the chance to hold public talks related to art education during his visit to Santiago in May. An often over-looked aspect of Camnitzer’s career is his role as an educator (in 1979 he co-founded the art program at SUNY-Old Westbury). He has also written extensively about art education and art criticism. Whether he is restoring the accounts of the disenfranchised or inspiring us to question how language works, Camnitzer strives to disseminate knowledge. It is fitting that a simple line of text greets visitors at both institutions in Santiago: “The Museum is a school, the Artist learns to communicate, the Public learns to make connections.” This statement highlights the pact between these three figurees. They are all involved in this exhibition’s dynamism and without their collaboration, Camnitzer’s exhibition would not have been such an unparalleled success.

If you’re interested in checking out Camnitzer’s retrospective and can’t make it to Santiago, the MAC will be hosting a live stream tour called “Diálogos a través de la ventana” every Monday in August 2013. School children from remote parts of Chile will participate in the tour through video-conferencing software at local universities. Tune in at 10:00am, 12:00pm, and 2:30pm on August 5th, 12th, 19th, and 26th:

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