Getting to know the Latin neighbours



Art Monthly March 2007

Discussions during the Santiago gathering of the South Project

Much of Australia's history has been shaped by the contradiction that it depended intimately and comprehensively on a country which was further away than almost any other in the world. Now the dependence had slackened, the distance had diminished. The Antipodes were drifting, though where they were drifting no one knew.

Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History London: McMillan, 1966, p. 339

Forty years have elapsed since Geoffrey Blainey considered Australia's lonely place at the bottom of the world. It's much harder to be isolated these days, thanks to the world-shrinking powers of Google Earth and MySpace. Yet there is still much ground to cover in the quest to reconcile Australia to its location.

There's been a push in one direction. Towards end of the twentieth-century, there was a concerted effort to grab the Asian tiger by the tail. Cultural initiatives like Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial and Asialink found a new home for us in the eastern hemisphere.

The horizontal journey across the southern latitude is a path much less well travelled. There were obvious reasons for this omission in the previous century, with repressive regimes and their avalanching economies. However, much has changed in recent times. The Mandela miracle has produced a southern Africa which, despite its problems, is a model for reconciliation. Popular democracy has brought forward a new generation of leaders in Latin America who have instilled fresh confidence in the region. The doors are open.

Dare we enter? What we hear of our southern cousins is not encouraging. The news is filled with stories of drug cartels, AIDS, carjacking, and corruption. Who'd want to go there?

But what if we are wrong? What if there is something special happening in these countries that we don't know about? What if this something special was essential to our own journey, emerging from the violence and glory of colonisation into the dialogue and humanism of post-colonial state? What if there were new developments in craft and design that could stimulate the Australian scene?

The South Project gets our toe into this emerging region. It began with a gathering in Melbourne July 2004 when artists and writers from 14 different southern countries explored how they might work together. The discovery of common ground between peoples who had never met before charged the event with a powerful chemistry. Given the mission to develop a multilateral network, it was important to continue these gatherings across the south: one in each of the remaining regions-Pacific, Latin America and Africa. Last year's gathering at Te Papa in Wellington combined the warmth of Maori ritual with new collective art practices emerging in that corner of the world.

Chile was selected as the Latin American location because it had the capacity and willingness to be part of this journey. Argentina is still recovering from its economic collapse and Brazil is just too big a country to chew off at this stage.

So what kind of dialogue might emerge with our Latin cousins? How might it be different to our quest for recognition from the northern centres, such as Paris? Before leaping across to Latin America, it is important to consider what we have let ourselves in for.

We have our home-grown Latin culture. 5,000 people take Latin dancing classes in Melbourne each week. Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are towering influences in our literary life. And there's the Latin passion that features regularly in Aussie films such as Strictly Ballroom and Lantana . But this kind of Latin influence suggests an exotic flourish , rather than anything that helps us know ourselves better.

We get a little closer to home with Juan Davila's current retrospective, at Sydney's MCA and Melbourne's NGV. The baroque energy unleashed by his relentless bricolage of sacred and profane seems unique in Australian art. Even local art that is politically aligned to Davila's tends to be a reasonable 'exploration of issues', rather than the visceral explosion of imagery found in his canvases. Though perverse, Davila's Latin perspective reveals a primal quality in our culture that would otherwise be invisible.

If we were to delve further, the Latin strain might eventually awaken the anxieties about Catholicism that underlie a Protestant society. This goes beyond the overt religious differences and encompasses our general attitude towards mediation per se. How do we know the world? Do we rely on specialists or trust our own experience? Do we subscribe to the Latin idea of 'genius' or follow the Anglo faith in 'common sense'?

Catholic 'idolatry' might seem most evident in the celebrity worship of mass culture, but it flavours the other end of the cultural spectrum too. The potency of French theory to the Australian visual arts scene has encouraged priestly mystification, with a tendency to paradox and arabesques of logic-though the boot is on the other foot now, as culture warriors attack elites for being out of touch with ordinary folk.

While the Catholic-Protestant dialectic helps us anticipate our differences, we are likely also to discover important common ground. Either side of the Pacific, Australasian and Latin histories reflect a similar post-colonial sequence, from invasion, settlement, nation-state, and eventually to reconciliation. There is much to learn from each other through a comparison of our modernisms, post-modernisms and post-colonialisms.

The South Project gathering in Santiago (3-8 October) promised to move this dialogue along. How it happened was as significant as what transpired. The Chilean-born manager of the South Project, Magdalena Moreno, built a remarkable network of partnerships across the city, extending from mainstream centre to radical margins. There was even a primary school involved from the isolated island of Chiloé.

The opening at the grand Centro Cultural Estación Mapocho was jointly funded by the Australian, New Zealand and South African embassies. A traditional Mapuche welcome, rogativa , was organised, which seemed a relatively rare inclusion and greatly appreciated by the performers. The Mapuche spent much time in discussion with the Chilean Minister of Culture, Pauline Urrutia, who had flown in from Spain directly for this event. They even stayed on for the gathering and are now keen to pursue the project across the south.

The first day considered old battles and new struggles: 'generations in exile have returned home, for others home has been a form of exile in itself.' The second day explored the alternative forms and contexts of creative practice that enable art to make a difference in the broader society. And the third day explored paradigms for south-south practice, from indigenous exchange to political mapping.

The first challenge was language. Following the program around Santiago was a booth containing two women who tirelessly provided simultaneous translations for participants. At times it was like magic, cutting across cultural differences. Some complained of a kind of schizophrenia, finding the world split into two realities.

Getting people to the gathering itself was a greater challenge. To begin with, the collapse of a Brazilian airline left South African participants stranded and the Manifesta curator Mai Abu El Dahab c ould not attend due to visa troubles. The itinerant nature of the program exposed artists to the vibrant street life of Santiago, which led many to explore their own paths through Latin culture. For instance, the Maori artists found their way to a meeting house of the local Mapuche community, which has set up what promises to be an ongoing exchange.

In the talks, much consideration was given to those who were absent. Strong presentations by Victorian indigenous writer Tony Birch and Argentinean photographer Marcelo Brodsky demonstrated the powerful resonance across the south between stories of the stolen generation and the 'missing'.

Co-curator of South Africa's new art event Cape, Kwesi Gule, provided a folkloric contribution with a story about the annual Thanksgiving pardon, when the US President selects one turkey to be exepted from its grim fate. Reflecting on the fortune of those lucky to attend the present gathering, Gule gave cause to think how the event could be of use to those who remain, such as the township skate park planned for Cape.

This absence was also invoked by Pat Hoffie, whose whirlwind artist's talk concluded with the example of Peruvian knitted finger puppets, proposing that these should have a place in any cultural dialogue. This was reflected powerfully in the concluding talk by Ticio Escobar, director of the Paraguayan Museum of Mud, which combines contemporary art with Guarani craft. Escobar demonstrated the interaction of Guarani culture with the Spanish baroque, countering the primitivist approach to indigenous culture.

Complementing these reflections on absence was the recurrent call through the gathering to explain 'where you are coming from.' New Zealand artist Jon Bywater generously gave most of his talk over to explaining some of the Maori concepts that inform Pakeha identity.

So where were the Chileans coming from? For the South Project gathering, they were returning from all around the world-including France, Sweden and Australia. Neruda's phrase 'burning patience' was invoked to express the long wait endured through exile abroad and repression at home. Naturally, this has led to a sharp political focus in visual art. One of those who had remained, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) director Francisco Brugnoli, spoke about the legacy of mistrust that still remains in Chilean culture. Innocent of this past, the South Project seemed to offer a fresh start.

The two featured exhibitions demonstrated how we might engage a Latin American audience. Transversa was jointly curated by the Australian Zara Stanhope and New Zealander Danae Mosman, and included artists from both countries (Brook Andrew, David Clegg, Lonnie Hutchinson, Fiona Jack, Ash Keating, Maddie Leach, Andrew McQualter, Daniel Malone, Dane Mitchell, Tom Nicholson, Selina Ou, Raquel Ormella and pvi collective). Rather than ship works readymade to Santiago, artists arrived beforehand to produce works in situ. This entailed an active engagement with the local scene, such as the 'tug of war' pvi organised between Santiago residents over local issues. The results, spread across MAC and Galeria Metropolitana, focused largely on the ways of bringing democracy to the street.

The second exhibition, Make the Common Precious , was a more conventional display of works that evoke the Neruda's celebration of the everyday. Nineteen Australian makers were represented (Ari Athans, Roseanne Bartley, Kantjupayi Benson, Kate Campbell-Pope, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Honor Freeman, Stephen Gallagher, Caz Guiney, David Herbert, Nicholas Jones, Nicole Lister, Sally Marsland, Paull McKee, Tiffany Parbs, Anna Phillips, Fleur Schell, Mark Vaarwerk, Damien Wright and Louiseann Zahra). In different ways they explored the possibilities of 'poor craft', a particularly Australian reverence for the realm of the humble.

Given the cultural chemistry involved, it is not surprising that both exhibitions reflected a Protestant dimension to the South Project. Transversa artists revealed democratic energies that lay outside of conventional structures of power. The practitioners of 'poor craft' contested the idolatry of commodification with the world of immediate experience. As with the Reformation challenge to the Vatican, the South Project challenges a deference to the north and seeks to empower local energies.

The final day in Valparaiso showed the promise in this kind of intervention. 'Craft' doesn't translate well into Spanish, partly because of its collective connotations inherited from the German guild tradition. Makers in Latin America were mostly working in isolation, as individual artisans, though increasingly there were collaborations between textile designers and more traditional Mapuche weavers. Local presentations featured many of the new ventures that are developed in partnership with traditional weavers. The day was hard work, battling translation and time constraints, but seeds were planted for future collaboration.

While the Santiago gathering confirmed the positive role that the South Project might play in cohering collective energies in Latin America, we must be wary of the potential missionary nature of such an endeavour. Influence can be reciprocal. As the German sociologist Max Weber commented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , the renunciation of mediation has led to a world filled with 'specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.' Conversion works the other way too. The lure of the street provided visiting artists with a liveliness and interaction missing from Australian public life.

Next year, the South Project travels to Johannesburg, where it seeks accommodation in a scene with particularly rich collective cultures, though one also burdened by a legacy of mistrust. Here there is potential to spread the hopes of African Renaissance and the idealism of ubuntu (humanness). For Australians, it is also an opportunity to acknowledge the growing presence of Africa within its own borders.

It's tempting to think of the South Project as a Juggernaught ploughing across the south. The reality is more like a Mexican wave, rippling across the latitude and uplifting cultural energies that are otherwise dormant. While in Chile, this inspired hope in collective action. In a more Protestant country like Australia, it may feature a more baroque turn.

We'll see what happens when these journeys converge in Melbourne for a festival of the south, planned for February 2009. The southern capital of the southern continent has the potential to gather the swirling currents of the south. It promises to be a challenging and uplifting dialogue-Kentridge and Davila, Emily Kngwarreye and Hélio Oiticica , telephone wire weaving and tapa cloth, Mandela and Gandhi, tango and samba. The Antipodes needn't be the end of the world.

See South Project