During the Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today exhibition in New York, the Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman interviewed Luis Camnitzer about the installation of and reactions to his work Art History Lesson #6, the impact on his practice of his move from Uruguay to New York, and the ideas that he used in the exhibition’s Teacher’s Guide.
To what degree were you involved in the installation of Art History Lesson #6?
There was one awkward moment with the staff of the museum, who wanted precise instructions on how to build the platforms, and what books, and what pieces of cardboard did I use. They wanted to make an inventory of all those pieces so that it would be set up exactly the same way. I tried to explain that what the museum bought was basically a set of instructions on a piece of paper, and that was it. And that then the rest was totally open to interpretation, or to decision by the museum people. And I explained that, if the curator would have a room assigned, in any place, and get a set of Picassos to hang, Picasso’s not there to tell what to do. And the curator would therefore decide how to place the paintings, how many, and at what distances so that they made some sense. And that this was about the same, in my case; the projectors would be placed so that the projection of the empty frame would have a relation with the one next to it. And that the only thing I required was that they handle the projection with care, as if it were a Picasso painting. And I think she got it.
Have you heard about any particularly memorable reactions to previous installations of Art History Lesson?
The first time I showed it, it was in Madrid, in Casa de América. And I heard that one of the guards said an old lady came up to a guard and said, “Well, are there images or not?” And the guy, who must have been a sadist, said, “One picture. You just have to wait.” And the poor woman, I don’t know long she spent there, until she gave up.
How did your move from Uruguay to New York affect your sense of artistic identity in relation to culture?
I think by moving, two things happen. One, you become very aware of your own education, which I cherish—I had an excellent education, better than most people I encounter here. And it was free. I didn’t pay a penny. And I never graduated—I didn’t need to graduate. So that gives you somehow an identity, I think. The other one, I never had any interest in assimilating into this culture, which means, I always maintained a critical distance. And that critical distance was informed by my education. And by that, I mean also politically, my outlooks, and my persona, which I tried not to change, in the shift. (So, on the other hand, identity is not something you plan. It’s something that you can see after something happens. And it’s there whether you can find commonality or not with other artists in this group. I do not believe in “global art.” I don’t believe that art is universal. I think art is local. And it’s a mistake, trying to put it into a global framework. What you should do is try to find out what commonalities are in the identities you seek after, and how you define locality. Locality is not geographic anymore, as it used to be. It may be regional, or it may be purely informational. Your locality may be a mix of people in Indonesia and Africa and Latin America that are united by some common interests. And for instance, the Conference of Bandung in the ’50s, of the Non-Aligned countries, was one precedent for this; based on economics and relations with economic and cultural centers, there was a decision: “Okay, we have things in common, and we can develop things from that.” And on a micro level, I think you have that happening in art. So to try to uniform this into a global language is a market ploy, but not a cultural ploy.
Can you describe some of the art education concepts that you emphasized in the Teacher’s Guide for Under the Same Sun?
I think there is a tradition in art appreciation that is totally focused on the artwork, and doesn’t see the rest of the world. And even the more “enlightened” programs present you with a work of art, and ask you, “What do you think? What does it make you think? What do you see?” But everything is contained in the art package. And that is like guiding you through a tunnel, and you see a light at the end, and you see that the light at the end has a certain shape. And then you believe that that’s the shape of the light, and don’t realize that that’s the shape of the tunnel. So, educationally speaking, I think that’s madness. What you should do is go around the work, and not through the work, and identify the conditions that generated the work of art. What are the problems the work of art is trying to solve? Deal with the problem, and the conditions. And then evaluate, what would your attitude be? What would your suggestion be? What would your solution be? Forgetting about art, and anything you can think of. And then once you reach a conclusion, then you compare your conclusion with the work, and decide if the work stinks, or if the work is good, if you’re getting something out of the work that you wouldn’t have gotten any other way. So the manual [Teacher’s Guide] brings up problems that are not art problems, and then at the end, you go to the works of art and you connect.