The Double Take

Livia Corona Benjamin (b. 1975), left: Mazatlpilli (2016), pigment inkjet print with turquoise, jade, coral, onyx, obsidian, tiger’s eye, and animal bone, 40 × 30 inches; right: Infinite Rewrite LII (2018), photogram on chromogenic paper with aluminum mount on stacked acrylic base, 10 7/16 × 8 3/8 × 1 7/16 inches. Image credit: The artist and    Whitney Museum of American Art.

Livia Corona Benjamin (b. 1975), left: Mazatlpilli (2016), pigment inkjet print with turquoise, jade, coral, onyx, obsidian, tiger’s eye, and animal bone, 40 × 30 inches; right: Infinite Rewrite LII (2018), photogram on chromogenic paper with aluminum mount on stacked acrylic base, 10 7/16 × 8 3/8 × 1 7/16 inches. Image credit: The artist and Whitney Museum of American Art.

As part of Nadie sabe, nadie supo, a project begun in 2011, artist Livia Corona Benjamin documented several of the nearly 4,000 grain silos built in 21 localities in Mexico under the government’s Graneros del Pueblo (“people's granaries”) initiative in the 1960s. Organized in response to the shortage of storage facilities faced by small-scale farmers, the controversial campaign commissioned Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez to design a blueprint for a silo that local farmers could build using easily found materials, but the silos were constructed quickly and haphazardly, and poorly maintained. As most derelict buildings, the defunct structures took on unintended uses or were simply abandoned. Benjamin takes her photographs of silos through multiple exposures in the darkroom, a process that results in the appearance of variegated pixels and a transformation to pure abstraction; in others, she scatters gemstones on top of the print, evoking both the digital pixels and the building blocks of the silos.

Although the Mexican architect’s 1960s design was inspired by the 19th century silos of Santa Mónica in the state of Zacatecas, the conical structures’ echo with pre-Hispanic pyramids is resounding. When we look at these images—and at many of the other works included in “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art,” the group exhibition that opened this summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art where Benjamin’s photograms are displayed—we do a double take, a second look at what seemed to be so plainly right in front of us. And I think in this double take lies the inspiring possibility of challenging the predominant way of perceiving art.

The Whitney show gives visibility to seven artists born in Latin America and Puerto Rico: william cordova, Jorge González, Guadalupe Maravilla, Claudia Peña Salinas, Ronny Quevedo, Clarissa Tossin, and Benjamin. I want desperately to avoid conflating their very distinct practices and do justice to the trenchant curatorial work behind this show, but for the sake of contextualizing, I will say that they are all artists working in the present whose work touches upon Indigenous ideas of architecture, belonging, and community-building. And through a range of mediums, they invite profound reflections into how these concepts have either made their way into the history of modernity; clashed with this history; become buried by it.

If you can’t see the show, the most effective way of understanding it is perhaps to look at its title. Each of the three words in Quechua, the most spoken pre-Columbian language in the Americas, contains multiple concepts: the universe, time, space, and the world (pacha); town, community, or country (llaqta); and constructing or building a home (wasichay). That these words cannot be translated using the nifty one-to-one model often available when jumping between, say, two romance languages, hints to the ambitions of curator Marcela Guerrero and the work of the exhibition’s seven artists. As languages often hold the key to a community’s most deeply held beliefs, Quechua reveals the interconnectedness of concepts as profound and complex as space and time in Indigenous thinking, and hence in Indigenous ways of life. In the introduction to her essay for the exhibition, Guerrero poses a question that must be, to my reading, one of her motives for curating such a show. “How does one make a decolonial installation in a museum of modern and contemporary art? How can an exhibition be designed decolonially?”

The term decolonial that Marcela Guerrero employs in her essay appeared nearly simultaneously in a piece published in the most recent issue of the quintessential arts journal October and authored by MTL Collective, a group of artists, writers, and organizers led by Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain. Titled From Institutional Critique to Institutional Liberation?, the text essentially traces the art historical strategy of institutional critique through the present and points to its convergence with decolonization—a different strategy, which MTL defines poignantly as “our efforts to become free through struggle.” Rather than pin the two methods against each other, MTL brings to light their existing intersections and potential areas of collaboration, and elucidates the ways in which the decolonizing project may help overcome some of the pitfalls that the other has stumbled into in the last few decades (most catastrophically, institutional critique often feeds off the very system it claims to condemn; think a Jenny Holzer sculpture in the home of a wealthy private collector.)

How can an exhibition be designed decolonially? I found the synchronic use of decolonial by MTL and Guerrero instructive and poetic. Like many of us, I have been cynical about art’s potential to enact change, and I often view so-called “political art” as a performance of sympathy without any real accountability. When MTL uses the term decolonial, they are referring to a resurgence of activism that is outward, fearless, and rooted in direct action that compromises an institution’s ability to continue operating as such. In 2016, for example, the Decolonial Cultural Front staged its own tour of a Brooklyn Museum exhibition featuring photographs of Israel and the occupied West Bank. The tour culminated with the group creating new wall labels that titled the places depicted in Stephen Shore’s photographs in their original Arabic names, rather than Hebrew. This was a true act of revolt: it messed with the exhibition’s conceptual framework, but went even further by staging a physical disruption of its installation.

In the context of such ardent and productive protests, how can we make sense of Guerrero’s concept of “an exhibition that is designed decolonially”? This goes back to my uncertainty, confessed above, that much art is simply claiming allegiance to progressive goals, much less executing a decolonial project. And yet I think Guerrero’s employment of the term feels valid.  Tempting as it may be to point out the ocean that lies between the actions MTL describes and the work of artists such as Livia Corona Benjamin, the latter operates “decolonially” more covertly by forcing a new way of looking, a double take that rewires a system of apprehending the world that has long been just one way. Guerrero has curated an exhibition of manifold layers, reminding us that words do not always have a single meaning. We must read MTL’s brilliantly constructed essay and see Guerrero’s show and create a spectrum in which the strength of a decolonizing action is not tempered but multiplied.