A Visual Voice: Uruguayan artist uses words as images

Czech Position

A fellowship led artist Luis Camnitzer to New York in the mid 1960s, the political situation in Uruguay urged him to stay there

Conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer’s artistic career could have been very different. Starting out as an impressionist painter, he suddenly made a “big break” as he called it in 1965.

“I stopped being an impressionist because it was a waste; it was starting to be accepted, and that scared me,” Camnitzer told Czech Position. “I didn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life: It’s boring. I guess I had an early mid-life crisis.”

A mix of Camnitzer’s work dating back to the mid-60s is on display on at Tranzitdisplay in Prague’s New Town district. For this Prague show, organizers didn’t want a retrospective of his work, but instead sought to highlight certain aspects of his thinking. Camnitzer had specific reasons for selecting works.

“I like [the pieces], and they aren’t objects so no transport was involved,” he said. “They have a nonmaterial presence, it’s a visually light exhibition, more surreal; I’m very happy with it.”

Markéta Strnadová, program coordinator at Tranzitdisplay, was also pleased with the results. “For us this is really a very big event; an important one,” she told Czech Position. “We are happy for this opportunity; we are the first ones to bring and invite Mr. Camnitzer to Prague, to the Czech Republic.”

A Blank Page

According to Strnadová, Tranzitdisplay is an international project that follows current trends in art, culture and everyday life. It aims to foster communication and reflection on contemporary art in a local environment.

“We are interested in art as a contemporary practice which stimulates the social arena,” she said. “The relationships that hold therein and produce their own sensitivity towards things and a political dimension.”

The exhibition came about as a cooperation with the oddly named galeria parasito/… This “gallery-less” gallery strives to make a cultural connection between Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.

“We invited Silvina Arismendi and her galeria parasito/… to do an artist project or exhibition in Tranzitdisplay,” Strnadová said. “She then came up with the idea to invite Mr. Camnitzer. For us it was also a good choice since our program and ideas are very close to the Camnitzer’s work.

Tranzitdisplay’s minimalist basement space features white walls, fluorescent lighting and scuffed floors. It makes a perfect “blank page” for Camnitzer’s musings, which are reflected in often whimsical ways. “Insults” (2009) is the first work that a gallery visitor would encounter and is a curious exhibit to showcase. In numerous languages is the phrase “those who don’t know how to read English are stupid” is written over and over again. Further inside the gallery space there is a long wall that is the perfect home for Camnitzer’s “Two Parallel Lines” (1976–2011).

“It just keeps growing; I started it in 1976, and it was seven meters long, now it is 50 meters long, we couldn’t install it all for lack of space and each time I install it, I add something,” Camnitzer said. “It was recently in MoMa and the first idea was to install it fully but then they cut it down.” Aside from MoMa — the Museum of Modern Art in New York — Camnitzer ’s work has also been shown at the Tate Modern and El Museo del Barrio.

“Two Parallel Lines” consists of a string of items, many which look like they were found such as packing tape, a tea bag, styrofoam, and ribbon. Scribbled underneath is another “string,” this one with phrases such as “the materialization of abstraction,” “border between itself and its surroundings” and “the question delayed.” All this was painstakingly written in Czech by Camnitzer. Many of his works have a heavy reliance on language, and everything has been translated into Czech.

More than words

“Self-service” (1996–2011) features piles of paper on blocks of wood. Each paper holds a different phrase, for example, “the soul of art lives in the signature” or “naked walls lack eroticism.” The final stand holds a stamp with Camnitzer’s autograph. People are invited to take the paper and his “autograph” and pay Kc 10.

Camnitzer’s first conceptual piece from 1966 is also on display. A bulletin board displays the words: “Toto je zrcadlo, ty jsi napsaná vrta” or “This is a mirror, you are a written sentence.”

“I like all the works, but especially the oldest one, ‘This Is A Mirror. You Are A Written Sentence,’” Strnadová said. “This really got me, although one could say it is old stuff. For me is still actual and strong.”

The exploration of language makes Camnitzer’s work stand out. “Introducing language enriched my repertoire, but only using language would be limiting myself,” he said. “I’m mostly interested in what’s happening in the viewer’s mind, and it’s better to evoke feelings by using words rather than images.”

One of his wordless pieces on display is “Portrait of the Artist” (1991), featuring a pencil tied to a string and taped to the wall. A rotating fan blows the pencil back and forth, making a slightly curved line on the wall. Another nonverbal piece is “History Lesson” (2011), which he thought up on the way to Prague. A tall column of white taper candles is stuck on the wall. They had been lit at both end, and a pool of wax has hardened on the floor. Smoke tracks and dripped wax on the walls are splattered as if a gust of wind blew by.

Change in Scene

Camnitzer received a Guggenheim fellowship and moved to New York in 1964. He says he didn’t intend to stay, but got married and remained there.

“By the time we went back to Uruguay, the political situation and economy were bad; it wasn’t a good future so I decided to stay in New York,” he said. “The dictatorship there lasted throughout the ’80s. I divorced and remarried an American, had children, it didn’t make sense [to return].”

He does wonder how his artistic career would have played out if he had stayed in Uruguay.

“It’s a question I ask myself. I really don’t know,” he said. “My break into conceptualism wasn’t because of what I was seeing in art, it was too early for that; just that describing a visual could be more interesting than the visuals themselves. I don’t know if I would have done that in Uruguay.”