March 14, 2016

Open Letters with Chilean Art Critic Ignacio Szmulewicz, 13

Ignacio Szmulewicz and I met a few weeks ago in person at the central station in Berlin. He had a few hours time before travelling further to Prague. It's special when meeting your pen pal, isn't it! Ignacio is travelling with the train through Europe and he showed me his route crisscross Europe on the map. What comes about when you take time off? 

This is the 13th letter in our series of open letters on art criticism. 

Exterior and interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb

Dear An,

I will try to put into words some of the enormous amount of images that I have in my head right now. You asked me in the last letter about the relationship between images and words. It might be one of the most difficult questions for anyone who enjoys writing. How can writing express, content or divulge the senses or experiences that images produce? I found a sincere peace of mind regarding the idea that images open up an endless field or movement to be continued in any kind of media: the interruption of that continuity to express or communicate makes us humans (I think it was Georges Bataille who said the same thing about eroticism). 

I don’t know if it was because of the old churches or convents that I visited last month but I discovered that we need some transcendent moments of enlightenment to recognize our complete sense as a species. Maybe my next book will be about the endless and mystic power of any form of art –I don’t know and I don’t care– but actually, it felt very rewarding that the cynical and overly rational side of my personality was overcome and conquered by this zen-kind of experiences. With that on my mind, I truly believe in the paradoxical and imperative necessity of writing –not just for practical or economical reasons. 

 The road to Sarajevo and the monument for the murdered children

I write because even though I’m a dot in the infinite way that images encounter in their endless lives, we’re nothing but the sum of dots or islands that are at a few occasions visited by others. In that way, submerging yourself in a book, or in an author’s view or thought is a form of camping or intellectual tourism or unreported visiting. We inhabit those lost places like we’re the only and first visitors of those weird and unknown islands. With regard to Chilean artists there’re none like Eugenio Dittborn how used a cartoon of a small person on a small island looking at the distance as a metaphor for the paradox of the need for travel and isolation. I was at drift in the last thirty days. I was captured by places that I didn’t know and didn’t expect. Into my eyes and memory entered a colossal amount of colors, shapes, textures, and smells that I didn’t recognize. Most of those will be completely forgotten in the darkness of “unrecorded events.”

The ruins of the II World War Monument in the hills of Sarajevo and the flag of Yugoslavia decorating the flowers in Tito's House in Beograd.

I once told you that sometimes art criticism feels to me like an experience of getting lost. This was never more so than  last month. Being in Spain this January the leap from Latin America still didn’t feel as big. Maybe it was the language, the people, and most likely it was the familiar territory. Everything was going to change in the course of just one day.
I arrived in Zagreb at a cold morning after surpassing France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia by train. With a complete sense of loss, I used an old tourist guide for “Europa del Este”, a gift of a friend in Chile. The guide was printed in the last days of 1994, and as you can imagine the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia (back then), and other countries were so different. After realizing that any kind of guide would be useless in this part of Europe I embraced the politics of a non-touristy approach. 

Museum of Yugoslavian History and the love of all nations to Tito in propaganda video

I’m not going to tell you the whole trip but with a few adjectives you can get a digital image of the places I visited –of some of those you were a part. After five days in the capital of Croatia, a mix of silent people and huge architectural complexes, a very old and slow train took me to Sarajevo in one of the most beautiful and dramatics trips of my life. The cracks of Zagreb façades revealed actual bullet marks as cemeteries in the streets of the once peaceful capital of the western part of the Otoman Empire. On the other side of the hills the snipers of the Serbian army had been firing at the citizens of Sarajevo. As many others in Europe, I feel like a running horse or a working factory, were everything is moved forward by the power of money and politics. As weird as it may sound, the feeling that remained during the rest of the journey was an extended comment of what happened in those fifteen days in the former country of Tito.

I wanted to share with you two feelings that were very new and special during and after those days and that I’m still trying to understand. I hope that you can help a little bit. The first, and here I return to my former cynical-humorous-like self, I call simply the “why are you here moments.” I was asked this by different persons, all related to the art scene, and always with a weird look on their faces. As if I came from mars or maybe the moon, having an art critic from Latin America walking on theirs street and entering their museums was experienced as a close encounter of the third kind. I laugh because on the one hand it made me realize that this was a galaxy very far away, a place were the casual visit of transatlantic critics was very unlikely and on the other hand it was the first moment when I fully incorporated the knowledge that I was on the eastern corner of the western world. Plans, projects, ideas were demanded of me, having to invent an explanation whereas in reality I was just trying to learn and incorporate as much as I can from that part of Europe. 
The second was the most mystic of all, and the reason why my letter began with such a transcendental approach. I guess that you can call it the “seeing-through-others-eyes”. It sounds like a Phil Collins song, but it was actually a very enriching experience. I wanted to live the cities in a more profound sense than just the touristy lines that worried outsiders make in maps. And luck was on my side. In every city I quickly transformed myself in Dante having several Virgilio’s types of company. In that regard, the images that are now deposited in my memory have an oral aspect attached to them. Every text that I write about this experience will be forever entwined with those live records of talks, laughs, and smiles with a select group of strangers who kept me company and made my journey feel like a group therapy session. I learnt personal stories that produced a personal image of the city, and writing, as you can imagine, is the only way for me to produce collective knowledge or cloud-kind-of-messages for people who I’ll probably never see again. 

A mural of KURS collective on the streets of Beograd and a nightly art performance in Belgrad's underground scene

It’s clear for me that art criticism, as any kind of creative writing, is constantly pushed by the most unlikely of experiences. Even in the most subjective of forms it depends on and demands a certain connection with a greater world. Can you describe those experiences for you? Have the words been able to transmit or fulfill the capacity of language to communicate those experiences?

You can say that this letter was a compelling way to surpass the song “Tourist in your town” of The Pink Mountaintops. I still need more time to figure it out. I hope you can help.

Ignacio

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