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"Their owner, the rain, is still around." III/III
Review: Contemporary Latin American Art at the Museum of Modern Art
“Chosen Memories.” Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond. Museum of Modern Art. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5528
Closes September 9, 2023.
Watershed? Did you say “watershed?” Bernardo Arévalo, by far the most progressive candidate allowed into the presidential race in Guatemala, has won by an overwhelming margin. Bernardo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, the first democratically elected president of Guatemala, whose attempts at radical reform were buried by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954.
The word “watershed” is in the text of the New York Times’ coverage of Sunday’s election. As usual, the headline attempts to order back the tide: Bernardo’s victory, we are told in the sub-header, “signals an uncertain chapter” for Guatemala. If you think about it rationally the opening of an uncertain chapter is incompatible with the concept of a watershed moment in history, unless you’ve willed yourself to believe whatever happened in Guatemala recently (the “Establishment,” according to the Times) constitutes a certainty. The only certainty is, that the losing right-wing candidate has refused to concede, and it’s possible the winning party, Semilla, will be eventually disbanded. In Guatemalan law a political party or its elected officials may not be crushed until after the vote that elected them has been certified, just to be sure we maintain a pretense of democracy.
Dante the poet repeatedly alludes to depth (the depth of water, usually) to suggest an unfathomable reality, at once material to the core, opaque, and yet suffused with intrinsic meaning.:
"e vidi cose che ridire nè sa nè puo chi di là si discende; perchè appressando sè al suo disire nostro intelletto si profonda tanto che dietro la memoria non può ire."
["And I saw things that those who descend no longer know or are capable of since, coming close to our desires our understanding dives so deep that memory itself cannot go there."]
The Times, the timeless poet and Chosen Memories at MoMA all manipulate the concept of water. Yet they each have their own way of instrumentalizing the concept. Dante’s intelletto is closer to innate consciousness than to knowledge. It’s tempting to think of it as a form of social memory, a Volkserinnerung, a memory not found through experience but inherited except that, as in the MoMA show, its embedded in the image of the material, in water. Glauber Rocha, the influential Brazilian director, recommended a similar instrumentalization of what he called “Mysticism:”
«Este misticismo é a única linguagem que transcende ao esquema racional de opressão. A revolução é uma mágica porque é o imprevisto dentro da razão dominadora.»1
“This mysticism is the only language that transcends the rational structure of oppression. Revolution is a form of magic because it is the unforeseeable within oppressive reason.”
Go for that which is eternally transitional. Waves and tides. It’s your best bet.
Call it Another Nature. The Biblioteca Ludwig von Mises lies beyond the choked gray streets of Guatemala City, in a verdant park. There’s a lovely stream wraps around its base and a bridge to lead to the Library itself. As one US think-tank put it,
That same ravine was once used by local residents to dump garbage and raw sewage. […] One marvels at how private-sector incentives contribute to the environmental and cultural sectors of a society in a way top-down command and control simply cannot. A beautiful and thriving section of the city was created out of a dump.2
Inside the Library, the walls and stairs are crammed with citations and references honoring Mises, who visited in the ‘fifties, as did Hayek. Perhaps somewhere that quote’s inscribed, in which Mises suggests that replacing democratically elected presidents by force is not a bad idea, necessarily. You see, the State must in no way interfere with the workings of the market, except when those workings are threatened by unions, or political parties of the wrong sort, or maybe recently elected presidents:
If [the State] were to take those actions usually directed against perpetrators of violence, against those who attack people eager to work and destroy machinery and equipment […] then things would be different.
Würde er gegen die Gewalttater, die die Arbeitswilligen miβhandeln und [die] Maschinen und Betriebseinrichtungen zerstören, so vorgehen, wie er sonst gegen Gewalttater einschreitet, dann ware die Sachlage eine andere.3
At some point in the 1950s the Central Bank of Guatemala bought this curious contraption:
Michael Stevenson, The Fountain of Prosperity (Answers to some questions about bananas) 2005. Plexiglass, steel, brass, aluminium, rubber, cork, string, concrete, dyed water, pumps and fluorescent lamps.
That was a time when it seemed it might be possible to rationally work a way out of the country’s dependency on United States interests. To quote the lengthy description that appeared in a US business magazine at the time (now on display at MoMA):
“The Moniac traces the circular [sic] flow of dollars [sic] through the economy. These flows are controlled [sic] by nine adjustable sluices or ‘functions,’” etc.4
MONIAC supposedly stands for Monetary National Income Analogue Computer; the contraption was most likely developed at the London School of Economics in 1949. Michael Stevenson is the contemporary artist who reproduced it as a forensic tool or, more accurately, a tool to teach the limits of a certain type of reason:
“The machine uses water to model money—the water’s the money—which is then circulated and redistributed via sluices and tapped off into various holding tanks. Inasmuch as it was innovative in its ability to display data, it could not perform anything really useful beyond the classroom.”5
Water’s money. Now you understand. Funny when you think about it, though: your country’s being bled dry by foreign exploitation and you’re looking at a functionalist model, in which all things circulate within a closed system, in which all things can be predicted in advance. Where loss is not an option. Yet, in the not-exactly immortal words of Henry Adamson,6
“... time hath overturn'd them, and their names Are past, As Letters written on the streames To tell us, here we have no constant biding.”
August 22, 2023
Part III of III
Glauber Rocha, A estética do sonho. Lecture, Columbia University, January 1971.
G. Patrick Lynch, “Guatemala’s Enclave of Liberty,” American Institute for Economic Research, October 18, 2022; https://www.aier.org/article/guatemalas-enclave-of-liberty/ accessed August 8, 2023.
Ludwig von Mises, Die Ursachen der Wirtschaftskrise [The Causes of the Economic Crisis] (Tübingen: Mohr, 1931), pp. 17-18.
“The Moniac. Economics in Thirty Fascinating Minutes,” Fortune (March, 1952), p. 101.
Barbara Casavecchia, “A Postponed, Radically Different Future.” Interview with Michael Stevenson, Mousse Magazine (2018), p. 84; https://darrenknightgallery.com/assets/File-Items/2018.Mousse.Magazine-MICHAEL-STEVENSON-BARBARA-CASAVECCHIA-S.pdf
Muses Threnodie: of Mirthful Mournings on the death of Mr Gall (Edinburgh: George Anderson, 1638), p. 84.