Curators’ Series #6
Friends of London - Artists from Latin America in London from 196X - 197X
David Roberts Art Foundation, London
7 June - 3 August 2013
Review by Catherine Spencer
While ‘internationalism’ and the concept of the ‘network’ risk becoming over-used art world buzzwords, ‘Friends of London: Artists From Latin America in London From 196X - 197X’ at the David Roberts Art Foundation powerfully demonstrates there is still plenty of mileage in these ideas yet, and much important work to be done on their ramifications for artistic practice in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In 1974, the Argentinian artist David Lamelas arranged for a fashion photographer to take a series of black and white photographic portraits entitled ‘London Friends’, capturing the community that he joined in the city. A head-shot of gallery-owner Nigel Greenwood sits near one of Kamala Di Tella, the daughter of the Argentinian industrialist who established the eponymous Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. The Di Tella was a key centre for avant-garde art throughout the 1960s, until the increasingly repressive military government curtailed much of its activity towards the decade’s end. The photographs, from which curators Pablo León de la Barra and Carmen Juliá take their title, encapsulate the importance of connections and collaborations for the Latin American artists who moved to London during the 1960s and 1970s, together with the often-overlapping personal, artistic and political factors that impelled their re-location. The sense of community that still emanates from ‘London Friends’ also testifies to these artists’ joyful embrace of experimentation, even as they negotiated experiences of dislocation, alienation and loss.
Although the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s 1969 ‘Whitechapel Experiment’ is widely recognised as a key moment in art histories of the capital, ‘Friends of London’ unearths an impressively multifaceted picture of the interactions between artists such as Lamelas, Oiticica, Vicuña, Diego Barboza, Ulises Carrión, Felipe Ehrenberg and Leopoldo Maler, their London hosts and collaborators such as the Exploding Galaxy and Artists for Democracy, and exhibition spaces including the Camden Arts Centre, ICA and Roundhouse. A huge amount of information has been packed into a relatively small space (compared with, for example, the 2012 Tate ‘Migrations’ exhibition, which de la Barra and Juliá criticise in their accompanying essay for neglecting the significant presence of Latin American artists in the UK), combining fascinating archival material, photographs, films, scripts and artist books with re-creations of works by Oiticica and Vicuña, and an installation of Lamelas’ ‘28 Plaques Placed in Two Unconventional Forms’, the silvery metal squares of which spill over a bench and across the floor.
The first room establishes the context with an entire run of the ‘Signals Newsbulletin’, produced by David Medalla and Paul Keeler to accompany the latter’s ‘Signals’ gallery initiative. Between 1964-66, ‘Signals’ not only organised the first UK exhibitions of Lygia Clark, Sergio de Camargo and Jesús Rafael Soto, but cultivated a ‘laboratory’ atmosphere that continues to infuse the later works displayed in the ‘Documentation Room’. A vitrine containing Oiticica’s script for ‘Nitro Benzol & Black Linoleum’ (1969), executed in multi-coloured felt-tip pens, vividly instances the sensual and erotic side of his practice, consisting of multiple hallucinogenic theatrical vignettes based around ritual consumption of food and drugs, and featuring cameos from the critic and curator Guy Brett and the poet Edward Pope. Nearby photographs show scenes from Barboza’s public ‘experiences’, performed at events such as the 1971 ‘Festival of Life’ at Alexandra Palace, including ‘30 Girls with Nets’ (1970) and ‘The Centipede’ (1970), in which groups of people are partially obscured but simultaneously united by diaphanous segments of material. Barboza intended his nets to facilitate movement and interaction by linking individuals together in a carnival spirit, paralleling Oiticica’s concept of ‘Parangolé’.
Ehrenberg, who came to Britain after the bloody 1968 student massacre in Mexico, exemplified the principle of ‘London Friends’, collaborating with David Mayor on the ‘Beau Geste Press’ (which published books by Vicuña and the American artist Carolee Schneemann, among others) and with UK artists including Stuart Brisley. For ‘A Date With Fate at the Tate’ (1970) Ehrenberg presented himself at the institution wearing what he described as a ‘mask / hat / viewing device [which] excited the staff of this public gallery to the point of no return’. A sound recording, script, and photographs document the Tate staff’s anxious refusal to let Ehrenberg and Brisley in, constituting an irreverent but moving statement on ‘outsider’ status. ‘Tube-o-Nauts’ and ‘A Stroll in July’ (1970) also see Ehrenberg navigating the geographies of his new home: the latter, in which walking become a site for sculptural production, combines artistic invention with a sense of deep loneliness, manifested in the post-cards that the artist mailed to himself from points along his route.
The exhibition culminates with a re-creation of Vicuña’s ‘Ruca Abstracta’ (Abstract Hut), first displayed at the 1974 Arts Festival for Democracy in Chile. ‘Friends of London’ coincides with an exhibition of Vicuña’s paintings and sculptures at England & Co that provides valuable further context to this part of the exhibit, while opening up onto important issues relating to gender and sexuality. The re-staging of Oiticica’s ‘appropriated’ pool table from the Whitechapel Experiment is more successful, but the film of Maler’s Crane Ballet at the 1971 Camden Arts Festival easily steals this part of the show, and provides a neat coda for the dilemmas faced by its artists. Acrobats hanging from cranes wheel through the air above the London skyline, simultaneously luxuriating in their freedom but compelled to obey Maler’s dictates, constricted by their attachment to the machines.