One of the tasks of art is to rewrite its own history. This is probably true of most other disciplines too, and of the adventure of life more generally, but art has a particular responsibility to liberate itself from tradition. Only by reforging its own traditions can it keep in touch with the present moment and reshape itself to be ready for the future. Art’s task, as much today as in the past is a contradictory one; to maintain a continuity of human cultural expression while giving itself the permission and capacity to dislocate the place and expectation of art in its contemporary world. By wrestling with the art’s past, it is possible to imagine its present and speculate about its future. The ambition to seize traditions out of their tired conformity allows the present and future to become something more than a simple unfolding of consequences of what has already happened, without the meaningful intervention of any human agency. Art’s capacity to foreground the significance of the individual or small ‘avantgarde’ group that deviate from the obvious future aid out before society is what gives it a social and even political function. Without this struggle to assert difference at the level of the single human being, art would become merely a form of future archaeology, in which artifacts represent particular stages of human development and then become outdated. Ultimately, only contemporary art’s antagonistic relationship with the conventions of its past makes it a living practice that can offer something to the next generations and allow us to connect to others across time and space.
Art’s intimate but difficult link to a long and noble past is, I suspect, one of the motivations for Otto Berchem’s artistic practice. His works regularly use forms and subjects that make most sense when understood as part of a long visual genealogy of marks and signs. In particular, the art that he is striving to reforge for the present is the art of a Western, more or less North American, tradition from the middle of the last century. This tradition is what we often call modernism and is close enough to our own time to sometimes be mistaken for the contemporary. In general though the influence of modernism and its social form modernity are waning rapidly, retreating into a conventional narrative from which they ask to be seized and recontextualised. Much of the image making of modernism was spare, minimal in its mark-marking but highly ambitious in terms of its scale. It preferred repetition but managed to build that techinique into mammoth installations that overwhelmed the human figure. At the same time, the classic works of modernism sought to avoid representational tricks of likeness and metaphor. ‘What you saw was what you saw” to put a Frank Stella quote into the past tense. At the same time, there was a focus on the body of the artist or performer as a fundamental aspect of mark-marking. In Brazil, and other locations that at the time were thought of as peripheral to the New York City centre, artists incorporated performance and the body, there was also a spare approach to material and image while whole communities of even a city’s carnival were implied as being part of the work. The title of this exhibition makes reference to precisely this tradition in twisting Oiticica’s penetrables into impenetrables today.
To look at Otto’s recent work shown here at the Pilar Gallery in São Paulo is to be aware of these traditions and also of the way they are seized hold of to be twisted to new ends. Visually, the use of colour and form has much in common with those older generations of artists. They are clearly part of Berchem’s toolkit when it comes to making a work. The important dislocation that he makes is to give a direct narrative capability to what could be seen (and indeed were seen in the modern past) as mute colour and shape. This meaning transforms what was a modern resort to something to anchor the in the incidental. Rather than any resort ideal or universal form into something incidental, grounded in the activity of everyday life. Berchem thus combines the inherent beauty of a minimal object into specific histories, both personal and social. He does this through signmaking; allocating meaning to an intrinsically mute gesture of colour. At the same time, he leaves the decoding to the viewer. In this way, he modestly suggests that the original objects and images of minimal modernism were not as neutral or universal as they claimed. We are brought instead into a world of ciphers and hidden symbology, one that is intriguing and well as frustrating of easy attempts to ‘read’ his works. He suggests to cipher is known only to a few, or to a community that shares certain needs or interests and, again by implication, refers to forms of individualized or small collective knowledge – the avant-garde minorities we might call them – whose forms of communication are impenetrable to the outsider.
This is precisely what the spare, efficient codes used by migrant workers, known as Hobos, come to stand for. These codes have a real history from the late 19th and early 20th century in the US but they are now only known to a few. Displaced from the street onto raw canvas they take on the appearance of geometric abstractions but we are no longer simply seeing what we are seeing – to revise Frank Stella again. It is no so much that we need to know the precise meaning of each symbol but rather the fact that they stand for things at all; that they have another useful life that makes them different and contemporary in the sense that they have abandoned the search for ‘purity’, as Clement Greenberg sometimes described modernism’s task. In its place we get a pure-seeming image contaminated with a history of poverty, exclusion and a community learning how to subvert the conditions imposed on it by mainstream society.
This aspect of challenging modernist shibboleths such as ‘purity’ or ‘autonomy’ while continuing the form of the work is more directly worked out in the series of protest photographs in which the campaign text of the banners is replaced by a colour bands that silently shout out an unreadable message. The image here is obviously not minimal yet they seem mostly to date from the time of high modernism and equally the immediate emotions of the protests, even if we could read the banners, are likely to be distant from us today. Eliminating the text in this way allows the specificity of one particular protest to come to stand for others – not in a universalizing way because the individual protestors and their environment are still very present – but as a way to project this protest into the past and future and to seize it out of the conformity or even nostalgia with which it might otherwise be threatened.
Finally to the new flags installation that make up to largest work in the exhibition. As a migrant to South America, Berchem inevitably has to confront his own sense of belonging and flags are one of the classical examples of how abstract geometries printed or woven in certain ways produce sometimes extreme human emotions. To invest ourselves in a flag is an almost Catholic Christian process in which the material and the design in transubstantiated into another form. By playing with this connection between form and the human heart, Berchem reconfigures flags from revolutionary movements across Latin America to create new, as yet unidentified causes for which to ‘fight and die’, causes that are impenetrable to those who do not yet know the code that will release their power.