iso-mor-phism\n. The conflict of form and content in search of mutual identity.(1)
"Poetics, Politics, and Song: Contemporary Latin America/Latino(a) Artists' Books" documents the work of seventeen Latin American and Latino(a) book artists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The display features over 20 works drawn entirely from collections at Yale University. The earliest works, dating from the early 1970s, illustrate the evolution of Brazilian Concrete poetry; the most recent works date from the late 1990s. Although most of the works were produced by artists living and working in Latin America and the Caribbean, the exhibition also features objects created by artists who currently live in the U.S., or who undertook artists' residencies in the U.S. or Europe.
What are artists' books?
The definition of artists' books employed by the curator for this exhibition is purposefully broad. In addition to works that embody traditional book formats (the codex, scroll, folding book, and others) this exhibition includes unbound portfolios of prints conceived of as books, installations, or illustrated volumes of poetry, a multimedia assemblage, and other items. Such works exemplify the diversity of forms and experimental nature of artists' books. Moreover, when considering these objects in tandem with recent developments in digital technology (the virtual artist book), we are challenged to critically reassess what constitutes the "conceptual, formal, and metaphysical potential" of the book (2), and how artists incorporate these potentialities into objects with unique aesthetic identities. To this end, we cast a broad net in defining artists' books, not wanting to disqualify works that could make up the outer limits of an evolving frontier.
Exhibitions of contemporary Latin American artists' books in the U.S. began in the late 1980s.(3) Because curators have only recently paid singular attention to how artists from Latin America or Latino communities in the U.S. have engaged with this particular genre, the lay of the land remains largely unexplored. One of the goals of this exhibition is to explore the diversity of themes and innovative use of the book form utilized by a group of Latin American/Latino(a) artists to advance aesthetic and conceptual ideas. This exhibition attempts to underscore the thoughtful interplay or dialectic between image and text invoked by the artists. It also strives to reveal how they engage books as documentation of collective and individual histories and as objects with innate structures built for intimate narratives. The participating artists also demonstrate a fascination with the sequence of ideas, the design of two and three-dimensional space (the book as sculptural object or installation), and time and process (the book as documentation of the passing of time or performance).
Many of the artists are also poets or have produced work in collaboration with poets. Poetry and poetic elements form an integral part of the objects on display. The exhibition also documents the work of artists affiliated with specific poetry movements in Latin America. In Poemobiles (1974) Augusto de Campos, one of the founders of Brazilian concrete poetry (defined as the "…tension of thing-words in space-time" ) collaborates with artist Julio Plaza to explore the materiality of the word. The authors transform the printed word, poetic phrase, or permutations thereof (e.g., verbal montages, palindromes, and neologisms) into colorful and quintessentially playful works that project into three-dimensional space. The approach is equally refreshing and effective in the work of São Paulo artist Florivaldo Menezes, whose experimentations with fragments of the printed letter yield a graphically dynamic work with quasi-animated qualities. Approaching his work from a similar perspective, Argentine poet and artist Alonso Barros Peña masterfully explores the graphic and typographical potential of his experimental poetry in Ion. Puerto Rican-born artist Antonio Martorell vivifies the verses of renowned poets Pablo Neruda and Ernesto Cardenal, weaving calligraphic text with imagery in elegant and visceral prints.
All of the works on display are products of particular times and political climates. With Brazil's constitutional government overthrown by a military coup in 1964, visual artists, writers, and musicians worked within an increasingly repressive environment. In the 1970s, Brazil remained solidly entrenched in a military dictatorship. The works by Campos, Plaza, and Menezes serve as subtle and conceptual counterpoints to the political climate in Brazil by upholding principles of vanguardism and innovation espoused by the concretists and other proponents of Brazil's social program of modernization.(5) Cecilia Vicuña's SABORAMI (1973) is a spontaneous and sensitively written diary that documents the artists' responses to life in Chile before and after the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Other works examine more contemporary zones of political contestation in the U.S. Brazilian-born Josely Carvalho's My Body is My Country explores the female body as a site of colonialism and a metaphor for environmental exploitation and imperialist aggression. Enrique Chagoya's work, El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico [The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal] combines images from 19th century European prints, American comic book superheroes, scenes from the Spanish conquest, and a page from a book entitled Border Patrol, to render pithy comments on contemporary U.S./Mexico border control politics and their underlying racist dynamics.
The Concrete poets in Brazil had a profound impact not only on literary developments but also on the visual arts, advertising, and theater. Since the 1960s, strong parallels can also be drawn between Brazilian Concrete poetry and Brazilian Popular Music (MPB). Augusto de Campos wrote the first interpretive essay on bossa nova (6), and commented specifically on how its lyrics corresponded to "…manifestations of the poetic avant-garde, participating with it in a common cultural process."(7) With the rise of Tropicália, an anti-establishment musical movement founded in 1967 by musicians from Bahia, parallels between Concrete poetry and MPB became even more apparent.(8) Campos became one of Tropicália's primary supporters, writing reviews that praised the movement for its spirit of innovation and experimentation, critical reassessment of national culture and music, penchant for nondiscursive lyrics and isomorphisms, and musical montages.(9) Campos identified these elements in specific songs by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, including Alegría, alegría [Joy, joy] and Domingo no parque [Sunday at the park]. The musicians responded by featuring Campos' photographic montages (popcretos) on their album covers, dedicating songs to Concrete poets, and recording spoken or musical versions of Concrete poetry. Campos and Plaza's work, Caixa preta [Black Box], includes a vinyl recording by Caetano Veloso of Campos' poem Dias Dias [Days Days], which one writer claimed "…mixed the voices in the poem according to the polychromatic character of the original text."(10) The impact of Brazil's Concrete poets on the work of the musicians of Tropicália, and many other proponents of MPB, continued throughout the 1970s.
A close examination of Brazilian Concrete poetry reveals that its linkages to MPB developed in a very organic manner. The "tension of thing-words in space-time" alluded not only to the intervention of time in Concrete art, but also to the concept of space in Webern's musique concrète and electronic music.(11) Campos and others recognized the aural qualities of poetry--its rhythms, internal harmonies, and melodious inflections. These realizations paved the way for poetry to assume other vital and performative incarnations.
Yet the relationship between artists' books and music is not limited to Brazilian works. Mexican artist Ehrenberg views his work, Codex Aeroscriptus Ehrenbergensis: A Visual Score of Iconotropisms (1990) as a musical score. Cuban artist Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) sets his lithographic illustrations in Estuve casi todo el invierno en Rheinlandia;escribiendo estos boleros: a fully illustrated winter book (1999) to original boleros (danceable, popular love songs) while also saluting Cuban jazz and Havana vernacular. SABORAMI by Vicuña takes it title from a bolero from the 1940s, and when performing her poetry, the artist frequently does so in the form of song.
The codex form--an ordered sequence of pages bound along a single edge--was used by the ancient Maya to inscribe information about astronomy, calendars, events in their ritual lives, genealogies, tribute, and trade exchanges.(12) Few codices have survived due to not only adverse environmental conditions but also to their purposeful destruction by Spanish colonizers. The codex, because of its history as emblem of ancient Latin American culture and civilizations, is a historically and politically charged format. Several artists in this exhibition utilize, or reference the codex format. In his work Codex Aeroscriptus Ehrenbergensis: A Visual Score of Iconotropisms, Felipe Ehrenberg compares the qualities of colored stencils to those of glyphs in pre-Columbian codices by delineating their abilities to be broken down into separate visual components, or aggregated into simple or complex word combinations; such manipulations frequently yield subtle shades of meaning. In Libro quemado [Burnt Book], Leandro Katz evokes the codex format while drawing attention to the burning of countless Maya codices at the hands of Friar Diego de Landa in the 16th century. Landa felt that the texts contained nothing but "…superstition and the Devil's falsehoods…"(13) Enrique Chagoya's El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico [The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal], complete with glyphic characters, folding format, orientation from right to left, and execution on amatl--the same bark paper utilized in pre-Columbian codices--signals a material reconstitution of the codex. That several artists in this exhibition revisit this format affirms the codex's significance as a tool to preserve and memorialize histories and to celebrate their survival through modern-day reincarnations.
The diary or journal is another book format of particular significance in this exhibition. Josely Carvalho considers her work, My Body is My Country, to be a "'Diary of images,' shaped by events, issues, memories, fantasies from the past, present and future."(14) Two other works, published by Beau Geste Press in England (an enterprise co-founded by artist Felipe Ehrenberg) in 1973, illustrate the immediacy and effectiveness of personal narratives when applied to artists' books. In her diary SABORAMI, which documents life before and after the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile, Cecilia Vicuña represents each passing day with an object-a printed poem or piece of prose, a reproduction of a painting or sculpture, a worn envelope with cancelled postage stamps, a pressed autumn leaf. As history plays out, the reader becomes aware of the narrator's shifting sensibilities, from celebration of the benefits of socialism brought on by the Allende regime, to outrage and sorrow at the demise of the old regime, and the installment of a new, reactionary government. Approaching the documentary savor of the journal from yet another standpoint, Ehrenberg's Pussywillow: A Journal of Conditions, focuses on determining the identity of the collector. More specifically, if what one collects during the course of a day or lifetime is an index to one's identity, motivations, and ultimately, his/her impact on society, then the exercise of analyzing this data is an exercise in perception and more.
It has been a pleasure to showcase Yale's holdings in the area of Latin American/Latino(a) artists' books. As the medium continues to gain legitimacy in art circles, and is increasingly collected by libraries and other research institutes, it is the hope of this curator that audiences will become more and more familiar with the dynamic contributions that artists from Latin America and Latino(a) communities in the U.S. are making to this exciting and evolving genre.
The curator would like to thank the following for their generous support and enthusiasm, without which this exhibition would not have been possible: the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and Yale University's Arts Library, Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, Saybrook College, School of Art, Sterling Memorial Library, Mudd Library, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Chicano Cultural Center, and the Yale University Art Gallery.
1. Charles A. Perrone, "From Noigandres to 'Milagre da Alegria': The Concrete Poets and Contemporary Brazilian Popular Music," Latin American Music Review 6 (Spring/Summer 1985): 58.
2. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995), 2.
3. Examples include Libros: Recent Latin American Artists' Books, at the Hostos Community College Satellite Gallery, Bronx, New York, 1988, and Latin American Book Art at the Center for Book Arts, New York, New York, 1995.
4. Augusto de Campos, "poesia concreta," in Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari,and Haroldo de Campos, Teoria da Poesia Concreta: Textos Críticos e Manifestos, 1950-1960 (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987), p. 51.
5. K. David Jackson, conversation with the author, New Haven, August 23, 2000.
6. Bossa nova is a style of popular Brazilian music in the 1950s and 60s that blended the rhythms of samba with improvisational jazz interludes.
7. Perrone, "From Noigandres to 'Milagre da Alegria': The Concrete Poets and Contemporary Brazilian Popular Music," 58-59.
8. Perrone, "From Noigandres to 'Milagre da Alegria': The Concrete Poets and Contemporary Brazilian Popular Music," 61.
10. Charles A. Perrone quoting Claus Clüver in "Klangfarbenmelodie in Polychromatic Poems: A. von Webern and A. de Campos," Comparative Literature Studies 18 (September 1981): 393.
11. Claus Clüver, "Concrete Poetry: Critical Perspectives from the 90s," in K. David Jackson, Eric Vos and Johanna Drucker, eds., Experimental-Visual-Concrete: Avant-Garde Poetry Since the 1960s (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), 270.
12. Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1986), 16.
13. Leandro Katz, Libro quemado (Atlanta: Nexus Press, 1995), n.p.
14. Statement by the artist in My Body is My Country (Hartford: Real Art Ways, 1991), n.p.